The opening petitions of the Lord’s Prayer focus upon God. We are taught how to approach him and how to pray to him concerning his kingdom on earth. In this third petition, ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2), we are reminded of the priority of the will of God in this world’s affairs.
We ask an all-powerful God to carry out his will among the peoples of the earth. Believing souls will desire to see God’s will done, because in that way their Heavenly Father will be honoured and his kingdom advanced to its predestined culmination.
The sovereignty of God
At the heart of the petition is a desire to see an outworking of the purposes of God upon earth. Of course, God is sovereign in his purposes from first to last. Though we may not understand it, we acknowledge that nothing in his creation is ‘outside’ or beyond the overarching will of God. He works ‘all things’, says Paul, ‘according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).
His knowledge is complete, for he declares: ‘I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done’ (Isaiah 46:9-10). Nothing takes him by surprise.
The comprehensive knowledge and perfect will of God is emphasised by the Lord Jesus. Not even a sparrow falls to the ground, he said, ‘apart from your Father’s will … the very hairs of your head are all numbered’ (Matthew 10:29-30).
Secret and revealed
There are different ways in which we can understand the will of God. Bible students distinguish the secret or hidden will of God from his revealed will. His secret will involves his decrees or eternal plan for his creation, including final human destiny.
His revealed will involves those precepts and purposes given as man’s duty in Scripture. Scripture reveals so much about God and his creation. It makes clear the reality of man’s fall, the nature of his sin, and the accomplishment of man’s redemption through a Saviour. His law is given, and Christ’s commandments are recorded (John 14:15).
The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it well: ‘The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men’ (I:VI).
Who are the elect?
Paul writes to Timothy; ‘All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for everygood work’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17). This, ofcourse, was written of the Old Testament, but by extension applies also to the New.
God has only one will. But there are things he has purposed which he has not chosen to reveal to man. The distinction between the secret and revealed purposes of God is concisely stated in Deuteronomy: ‘The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things that are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law’ (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Among those things not revealed to man are the exact identity of the elect and the precise date of the Second Coming of the Lord (Matthew 24:36). His knowledge is perfect and complete, and humankind at best, even with the aid of the Spirit, ‘sees in a mirror, dimly’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Speculation on the ‘hidden’ things should be avoided. This petition principally expresses a desire that God would conform events to his revealed will.
But if God is sovereign, what about undeserved suffering in the world? What about the innocent victims of genocide in Rwanda or bombings in Ulster?
How do we answer such questions? We live in a fallen world, cursed on account of man’s sin (Genesis 3). Disasters and atrocities affect both Christians and non-Christians. Indeed, it might even be said that Christians have suffered more than most, on account of specific persecutions down the years.
Of course man ought to take account of eternal realities. But in the Bible we have the example of Job, who endured a whole range of undeserved adversities, and yet could say of God, ‘though he slay me, yet will I trust him’ (Job 13:15).
All things work together
The book of Job reminds us that the Evil One had a hand in the disasters which befell him (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7). So it is in the world. Nevertheless, God remains in total control.
We simply have to stand back and confess that we do not have all the answers. Ultimately we fall back on the great truth: ‘shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ (Genesis 18:25).
As Job says to his wife in the face of his adversities: ‘Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?’ (Job 2:10). Believers will learn that ‘all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose’ (Romans 8:28).
The Lord tests them, Satan buffets them, and circumstances oppress them, but believing souls will pray: ‘Your will be done’, ‘knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope’ (Romans 5:5).
Keeping God’s Word
God’s will for mankind is expressed in his Word. Since, therefore, this petition asks God to bring about conformity to his revealed will, we should search the Scriptures to discover what it is that God wills. We should pray over them and apply them day by day.
The psalmist speaks of the judgements of the Lord as ‘gold’ and ‘honey’, and adds:
Moreover, they thy servant warn how he his life should frame:
A great reward provided is for them that keep the same
(Psalm 19:11, metrical).
The challenge of the Word of God is that people should order their lives by his revealed will. They are not saved by law-keeping but by grace. Nevertheless, to keep God’s Word is an important element in honouring God and living a holy life.
Later in the same sermon in which the Lord’s prayer is found, Jesus warns: ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven’ (Matthew 7:21).
Part of his expressed will is, of course, the call to repentance and faith. Those who have no place for Christ’s gospel in their lives have no place either in the glory of heaven beyond.
In earth as in heaven
The petition expresses that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The will of God is, of course, done perfectly in heaven, among the angels and redeemed souls.
The question arises from a human standpoint: How can we possibly do the will of the Lord here as it is done above? After all, our works are all tainted with sin.
The answer is that God’s grace is all-sufficient to bring about conformity to his will in the earth, albeit not perfectly. The believing soul is here praying that, by the grace of God, people here below may have the same desire to do his will as there is in heaven among the glorified saints. This is an implicit call to submit to God (James 4:7).
Delighting in his will
It is also a challenge to half-heartedness in the faith. James warns us not to be just hearers of the Word, but doers also (James 1:22). Do you delight in doing the Master’s will? The glorified in heaven certainly do.
Should the believer not sing with the psalmist (and the Lord Jesus):
To do thy will I take delight,
O thou my God that art;
Yea that most holy law of thine
I have within my heart
(Psalm 40:8, metrical).
What is man’s calling and God’s demand? To do the revealed will of God. The praying soul desires to see God exercising his gracious power on earth and men happily submitting to that revealed will. It is the confluence of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
The will of God is paramount. Whether it is revealed or secret to us, the believer’s desire should always be: ‘Your will be done’.
As with all these petitions, there are practical consequences for the praying soul. Firstly, there will be a commitment to knowing the revealed will of God. Whoever prays such a petition must be prepared to search out the will of God as it is revealed in Scripture and submit to it.
Secondly, there will be a commitment to make known God’s will to others and encourage them to submit humbly to it. The soul who prays for God’s will to be done will be committed to carrying it out in the world. Thereby, the kingdom will come and God’s name will be honoured.