After preaching yesterday I was asked by a man what I meant when I quoted Jonathan Edwards from Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, “There is nothing that keeps wicked Men at any one moment, out of Hell, but the mere pleasure of God. By the mere pleasure of God, I mean his sovereign pleasure, his arbitrary will, restrained by no obligation, hindered by no manner of difficulty, any more than if nothing else but God’s mere will had in the least degree, or in any respect whatsoever, any hand in the preservation of wicked Men one moment.” This is a marvelous quote reminding unconverted souls, and believers too, of the power of God. For the unconverted, this quote should open your eyes to the dreadful state you are in. There is nothing between you and Hell but the air. For the converted, the godly, this is a reminder of our Mediator, Jesus Christ, who clothes us in his righteousness. Thus, those in Christ avoid the fiery destruction of Hell.
So, what is meant by God’s arbitrary will? Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has a helpful definition for us.
Definition of arbitrary
1a : existing or coming about seemingly at random or by chance or as a capricious and unreasonable act of will an arbitrary choice When a task is not seen in a meaningful context it is experienced as being arbitrary. — Nehemiah Jordan b: based on or determined by individual preference or convenience rather than by necessity or the intrinsic nature of something an arbitrary standard take any arbitrary positive number
2a : not restrained or limited in the exercise of power: ruling by absolute authority an arbitrary government b: marked by or resulting from the unrestrained and often tyrannical exercise of power protection from arbitrary arrest and detention
3 law : depending on individual discretion (as of a judge) and not fixed by law The manner of punishment is arbitrary. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/arbitrary
Based on Edwards’ theology and his strict Calvinistic doctrines, I do not believe he meant his use of the word arbitrary to fall under definition number 1a or b. Using arbitrary in this way would result in a terrible theology. If used this way, God’s will then would be random or unreasonable, which would result in an unordered world. This obviously is not true, since all that can be observed points to the God of order. We do not live in a world of chaos. This also can not mean what definition 1 b means either. If taken this way that means that God’s will concerning sinners is not governed by necessity or even by God’s nature. Yet, this also cannot be the case of God’s will seeing as how God is Holy and cannot be in the presence of sin. He has purposed to judge sin and his judgment is unbiased. It is based on his Holy nature.
Definition number 2 a seems to give the best explanation of Edwards’ wording. God’s will is absolute. It is not relative, meaning that his will towards sinners being judged can change. No, this means that God’s sovereign will is absolute or unrestrained. God exercises his omnipotence perfectly. The case of the unrighteous is that they are in the hand of a Holy, all powerful, Just God.
The only hope of escape is the righteousness of Christ and him alone.
So, it is clear that Jonathan Edwards uses this word arbitrary in a proper way. God’s will is not whimsical but is orderly and absolute in power.