Knowing God's Will: An Alternative View

Reposted, with permission, from DBTS Blog.

I’ve been reading, recently and with great interest, a blog series defending what is sometimes called the “traditional view” of Christian decision-making—the view that (1) God has an “individual will” for believers and (2) that it can be “discovered.” My intent in this post is not to offer a point-by-point analysis of that series, but rather to offer a succinct statement of an alternative view, together with some hesitations I have with the “traditional” view.

  • The idea of the will of God is plainly taught in Scripture in at least two senses. There is, firstly, God’s decretal will, that comprehensive conglomerate of all things that shall occur. Included here are all events (Eph 1:11), even the evil ones (Amos 3:6; Prov 16:4; Lam 3:37–38; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28; etc.). Most of the time (making exception for a few details divulged via predictive prophecy) this will is secret: while the secret will of God is a precise “dot” with absolute specificity, this “dot” cannot be discovered before the fact. We know this will only as it actually happens.
  • Secondly, we have God’s directive will—his will of ethical expectation—that details, via special revelation, what should occur (e.g., Acts 20:27; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 8:5; Eph 6:6; 1 Thess 4:3; 5:18; Heb 10:36; 1 Pet 4:2; 1 John 2:17). This will is comprehensively supplied in the Bible, which thoroughly equips the believer for every good work and gives him everything necessary for life and godliness (so 2 Tim 3:17; 2 Pet 1:3). But while the Bible speaks sufficiently to all questions involving moral ought, it does not always speak with infinite specificity. As such, the discovery of certain specifics of this will can be difficult. Sometimes the Bible speaks directly to our decisions (i.e., in such a way that we can appeal directly to chapter and verse), other times indirectly (i.e., in ways that discernable only by careful harmonization, principle, and appropriate analogies of biblical situations to our own), and sometimes only remotely (i.e., giving us the abstract preconditions of the intelligibility necessary to making our decision, but not the data specific to the question).

The last is perhaps the hardest to follow, so let me give an example: If I need to decide whether to fix a car or discard it, the Bible gives me general (ethical) principles of financial stewardship and personal responsibility to inform my decision, and also supplies the preconditions of intelligibility that make the study of auto mechanics and fiscal theory possible. It does not tell me, however, what is wrong with my car, how much the repairs will cost, how much my car is worth, what additional problems will go wrong with my car in the next year, what replacement options are available, and so forth. This does not alter the fact that the Bible speaks sufficiently to every ethical decision I need to make.

  • What I cannot find in Scripture is any suggestion that in response to obedience, yielding, or even prayer, God will take from his store of “secret things” and make some of those things discoverable. There are two mutually exclusive and fixed categories of truth (secret and revealed—Deut 29:29); there is no category of revelation that is “becoming”—at least not in the present age. Such a proposal, I would suggest, involves not only (1) a blurring of biblical/theological categories, but also (2) a nod to mystic or even Gnostic principles that have long troubled the Christian Church, and, de facto, (3) serious injury to cessationist principles.
  • As a VanTilian, I am convinced also that no decision in life is truly a morally neutral one—even mundane decisions like “Crest vs. Colgate” that the author of the series to which I am responding excepts from his decision-making strategy. Were I omniscient (as God is), then I would know that one of these two products represents an ever-so-slightly better stewardship of my God-given teeth. Since I am not omniscient, I concluded long ago that the investment of time necessary to the discovery of this superior stewardship would be a poor stewardship of my time, and so I use the Colgate that keeps appearing in my medicine cabinet month after month. Still, I do so with the knowledge that every decision in life has ethical implications, and choosing rightly or wrongly makes a difference. Cumulatively, these decisions make a big difference. After all, ours is a closed universe, so every decision I make affects every other decision I make. Decision-making of all sorts is important.
  • As a VanTilian, I am also aware of the problem of the “one and the many” in decision-making. When I make decisions, there are sometimes many options that may be right for me. For instance, if I am choosing hymns for Sunday worship, I need not discover the qualitatively best hymn ever written and sing it four times over. There are a great many good options available to me. True, not all of the options available to me are good and beautiful and true and appropriate and timely, but at the end of the day there can be more than one option that is—and in such cases I may select from among several excellent possibilities.
  • I would never say, however, that this (or any) decision is superfluous, or, worse, that “if there ain’t a Bible verse, I can do whatever I want.” While some have made these accusations against Friessen, Petty, DeYoung, and others who reject the “individual” will of God, this is surely a miscarriage of their positions. While there is almost always a “better” choice in any decision, the significance of my decisions is not always great. Choosing my toothpaste has ethical implications, but these are relatively few and insignificant when compared with the implications of choosing my career or my wife or my God. So I devote more time and effort to such decisions, and, yes, much prayer. Specifically, I pray for wisdom.

But the answer that I seek from God is not revelation or affirmations that satiate my elusive quest for certainty. In a great many cases, certainty is something God does not give—it is part of the “secret things” that belong alone to him. I am not omniscient and never will be so long as God is God. And that’s a good thing. I pray instead that I will have skill in applying God’s Word, patience and discipline to do the homework necessary to making a good decision, objectivity of mind, the advice of wise counselors, and above all the willingness to submit to what I know to be right. And armed with these, despite the lingering uncertainty that often remains (because I’m not God), I make my choice. This is, in summary, the “wisdom” approach to decision making.

In short, then, rather than praying for a temporary breach of the creator/creature distinction to discover what God hasn’t revealed (the traditional view), the wisdom approach prays for the diligence necessary to knowing and the humility necessary to submitting to what he has revealed.

  • At the end of the day, the decision-making processes of the respective approaches often look very similar. Still, I remain concerned not only about the susceptibility of the traditional view to mysticism and continuationism (noted above), but also to a variety of related errors—all of which I have seen multiple times in a church setting. Among these:

Some Christians of the unimaginative and objective variety will seek to discover God’s will via prayer and yielding, fail to find it, and then conclude that they are spiritually unworthy of the secret knowledge that others receive. It is these paralyzed folk that DeYoung rightly encourages to “Just Do Something.”

Other Christians, more imaginative and subjective in disposition, inventively “discover” God’s will by mystical means (often without due diligence), then announce, e.g., that “God told me…” or “God gave me peace about…” These often arrogantly assume themselves to be more spiritually worthy of divine attention than lesser Christians, or at least more attuned to God’s secret knowledge. They also prove rather resistant to counsel (after all, who can successfully argue with “God told me…”?)

Finally, having made a decision, believers in both categories above fall into deep despair when their decision goes awry, imagining themselves to be “outside” of God’s will and incapable of getting back in. Why do they think this? Well, because the traditional view is often attended by the proposal that God will never allow a believer to make a right decision that ends poorly: in the words of one song-writer of this persuasion, “Absolute success is guaranteed [when we’re] walking in the goodness of the Lord!”

I conclude that the traditional view, while neither monolithic nor equally practiced, rests on a foundation of mysticism and a breach of the creator/creature distinction, both ideas which lead to additional theological/practical errors detailed here in this post and elsewhere. The “wisdom” approach is to be preferred.

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There are 21 Comments

Andrew K's picture

"Traditional view," i.e. "the view I grew up with."

G. N. Barkman's picture

Thanks for this article.  I believe it hits the bulls eye on the subject of knowing God's will.

G. N. Barkman

Don Johnson's picture

if Mark cited Scripture more than Van Til. 

I have long resisted the mysticism connected with the traditional view, but in this case, he is reacting to Bauder, who is NOT presenting a mystical version of God's will. I think Mark is mis-reading Bauder.

To see what I mean, go over to In The Nick of Time. I think there are nine pieces in the series.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

TylerR's picture

I've always taken the "wisdom" approach:

  • Is it sinful?
  • What are your motives?
  • Is it prudent?
  • Do it.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Bert Perry's picture

....to Tyler's thought process, which might fit into "is it prudent", is the question of "what is my hunch?".  To draw a picture, I remember noting while in a job interview that I respected the guy who was interviewing me, but I didn't know if I could quite trust him.  Turned out, sadly, that my hunch was correct, and that manager left a path of destruction behind himself that persisted for years in that facility.  

Thanks, Don, for linking me to Bauder's comments on the subject, too.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Andrew K's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

....to Tyler's thought process, which might fit into "is it prudent", is the question of "what is my hunch?".  To draw a picture, I remember noting while in a job interview that I respected the guy who was interviewing me, but I didn't know if I could quite trust him.  Turned out, sadly, that my hunch was correct, and that manager left a path of destruction behind himself that persisted for years in that facility.  

Thanks, Don, for linking me to Bauder's comments on the subject, too.

Good addition, Bert. Intuition is an extremely valuable, and often surprisingly reliable, gift from God. Sometimes our instincts are smarter than our brains. The problem comes when we want to re-label it as divine revelation for extra authority/100% certainty.

Ron Bean's picture

I've been listening to discussions on the topic of "God's Will" for  years. They are always interesting. I've also seen young people practically paralyzed as they searched for "God's Will"  regarding things like occupations and life mates. Their biggest obstacle was their fear of choosing God's "permissive" will and missing his "perfect" will. It was almost as if God was playing His version of Let's Make a Deal where Christians had their choice of doors and ran the risk of winning or getting zonked.

It's why I chose simple approaches like Tyler's philosophy or DeYoung's "Just Do Something". Personally I'd pray and tell God that I didn't trust myself and for Him to stop me if I was heading in the wrong direction and encourage me if I was going in the right one. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Ed Vasicek's picture

Mark, I agree that this is the norm:

But the answer that I seek from God is not revelation or affirmations that satiate my elusive quest for certainty. In a great many cases, certainty is something God does not give—it is part of the “secret things” that belong alone to him. I am not omniscient and never will be so long as God is God. And that’s a good thing. I pray instead that I will have skill in applying God’s Word, patience and discipline to do the homework necessary to making a good decision, objectivity of mind, the advice of wise counselors, and above all the willingness to submit to what I know to be right. And armed with these, despite the lingering uncertainty that often remains (because I’m not God), I make my choice. This is, in summary, the “wisdom” approach to decision making.

Mark, your article, while providing the norm, restrains God in ways He has not revealed Himself to be restrained.

I too have seen legalism, ego, and emotional subjectivism defended in the name of God's will.  This is sometimes misguided but sincere, at other times a complete misuse of God's name as a way to spiritualize human reasoning or personal opinion.

But to totally shut out the mystical is a big mistake.  Although it is abused, the example of Scripture supports it.  We can somewhat organize theology, but only somewhat. We cannot get things under control or down to a perfect system.

Like others above, I have been frustrated with the misuse of subjectively determining God's will. God does not care what color socks I wear.  God might not have a specific mate for me, but gives me a range of things to look for.  I get that.  But to restrict God from doing what He Himself has not revealed as a restriction is an over-reaction to a problem.

I think there is a difference between the flaky traditional view and a wisdom view that also allows God to lead contrary to wisdom but not contrary to the Word.  When Paul could have evaded going to Rome (wisdom), he chose to the stay the course (contrary to wisdom but in accord with God's plan for him). You have left no room for that in the current age.

We might believe in foreign missions, but is it God's will for everyone who is gifted and capable to go to the mission field?  It might make sense for a lot of people who haven't gone to the mission field to go, logically. And it might not make much sense at all for some who are on the field to have gone.  No room for guidance apart from Scripture and wisdom? Wow.

And the idea that every choice is ethical -- not something I agree with.  The picture I see in Scripture is much more freeing in both directions.  God is free to lead me, and I am free to make a whole lot of choices without batting an eye.  To me, having to JUSTIFY my choices is the heart of legalism (I stole that line from the book,"Accidental Pharisee").

"The Midrash Detective"

JNoël's picture

I really enjoyed both Mark's essay and Bauder's series. Both are great food for thought.

I really liked Mark's summary statement:

Mark Snoeberger wrote:

At the end of the day, the decision-making processes of the respective approaches often look very similar.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Aaron Blumer's picture

Why would God ever lead "contrary to wisdom"? I can readily concede that He often leads (providentially) contrary to what seems to be common sense, but this is always due to a failure of human execution of "sense" /"wisdom" not a failure of wisdom itself.

Dt 4:6 ESV 6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’

Pr 3:13 ESV 13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding,

Pr 1:7 ESV 7 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Pr 7:4 ESV 4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your intimate friend,

Pr 23:23 ESV 23 Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.

Col 2:3 ESV 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Jas 1:5 ESV 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

 

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, it depends on how you define wisdom, and who's reviewing it.  For example, think of Hosea--he goes out, marries a prostitute, and it's all 100% within the wisdom of God, but your casual onlooker is going to ask him whether it's really the will of God, or some really bad hummus, doing the talking, no?  Really, a lot of what the prophets did qualifies in that regard.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

It's simple. By "wisdom," I mean exactly what all those verses mean when they use the word. There is not really any "it depends." There is only correct and incorrect (with, admittedly, varying degrees of "almost but not quite" in the incorrect category.)

JNoël's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

Aaron, it depends on how you define wisdom, and who's reviewing it.  For example, think of Hosea--he goes out, marries a prostitute, and it's all 100% within the wisdom of God, but your casual onlooker is going to ask him whether it's really the will of God, or some really bad hummus, doing the talking, no?  Really, a lot of what the prophets did qualifies in that regard.

Bert, because we all know that God didn't set up normative commands for Christians to marry prostitutes, perhaps a better example would be Luke 6. A "casual onlooker" would consider it unwise to obey these commands.

Quote:

Love Your Enemies

27 “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either.30 Give to everyone who asks you, and from someone who takes your things, don’t ask for them back. 31 Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them. 32 If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do what is good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do what is good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High. For he is gracious to the ungrateful and evil. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Aaron Blumer's picture

Among other things, the fear of the Lord as the beginning of wisdom includes recognizing that God is always immeasurably wiser than we are, and whatever He commands cannot fail to be the wisest course of action in the long run... and since He is judge of all the earth, the long run is what matters.

Ed Vasicek's picture

JNoel said: 

Bert, because we all know that God didn't set up normative commands for Christians to marry prostitutes...

God didn't set up normative commands for godly Jews to marry prostitutes either. That is the point.  Sometimes God leads us in a way that is not contrary to Scripture but NOT NORMATIVE.  The system of thinking that doesn't allow God to do this is restricting God in ways He has not restricted Himself.

"The Midrash Detective"

Aaron Blumer's picture

Agree that God sometimes commands His servants in Scripture to do things that not everyone is supposed to (or even authorized) to do. We don't get to go drive the "Canaanites" out of Palestine, for example, nor should we lie on our sides for parts of 390 days... on the left side for the sins of house of Israel and on the right for the sins of the house of Judah. (Ezek. 4:4-8)   

But the question of how Scriptures apply to everyone when understood in context is a different question from whether God is now leading believers through inward feelings of rightness (as opposed to reasoning from what He has already revealed). I'm not sure there is anything in the unique experiences of biblical prophets that speaks to that question either way.

pvawter's picture

I'm not sure that the prophets are great examples of how we can expect God to communicate with us today. I mean, sure God told Hosea to marry a prostitute, but that was a significant part of the revelation of scripture. Unless we're ready to open the canon, I think we need to see this kind of leading is not happening today.

JNoël's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

Sometimes God leads us in a way that is not contrary to Scripture but NOT NORMATIVE.  The system of thinking that doesn't allow God to do this is restricting God in ways He has not restricted Himself.

Aaron Blumer wrote:

But the question of how Scriptures apply to everyone when understood in context is a different question from whether God is now leading believers through inward feelings of rightness (as opposed to reasoning from what He has already revealed). I'm not sure there is anything in the unique experiences of biblical prophets that speaks to that question either way.

We all agree that God will never lead us in a way contrary to Scripture. That's easy.

We do not all agree with how God leads us in ways that aren't in scripture (Aaron's quote, above).

Bringing up Hosea or other prophets is not really relevant to the conversation. They received specific, direct revelation from God to do something specific and, in most cases, unique. The manner used by God with the prophets does not give us any examples for how God may communicate his will to us - he does not communicate with us as he did with the prophets.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Ed Vasicek's picture

JNoel and Aaron, you are missing the point.

Aaron suggested that God would never lead us in a way that is inconsistent with wisdom.

Bert explained that God may lead us contrary to what we might perceive as wisdom, and he pointed out Hosea as an example.

Point made.

No one above is saying that the example in Hosea is normative for today. 

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

....of God leading many in a way that is "contrary to wisdom" is a pet peeve of a ton of fundamental pastors--is the young person who could "make bank" as a professional throwing his life away by going to Bible College and becoming a missionary?   Or is the young person who decides to pursue a professional trade throwing his life away by not becoming a pastor or missionary? There is, even today, a great degree of subjectivity in how we would approach the "wisdom" issue.  Sure, in God's eyes, there is one right answer, but the difficulty for us is in figuring out what His approach might be!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

TylerR's picture

For a good discussion of your basic question (is a secular vocation a lesser calling than the ministry, a second-tier Christian existence?), see Os Guinness' book The Call.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

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