(January 2007 – Volume 13, Issue 1)
A few months ago I wrote a series of papers on the will of God dealing with issues such as finding His will and whether or not He speaks to us today apart from the Scriptures. The position I have taken is one that I would call a full sola Scriptura understanding of the Christian life. This means that God speaks today exclusively through the authoritative, inspired Word which needs no supplementation from any other source. This is not to deny “general revelation” from God’s creation which tells us something of the power and glory of the Creator (Psalm 19:1-6; Romans 1:20). But when it comes to “specific revelation” we do not expect our Lord to speak to us apart from the Scriptures. His guidance is not to be sought in visions, dreams, angels or other supernatural manifestations. Nor are we to look inwardly for hunches, promptings, “still small voices,” or the peace of God. Even circumstances, opportunities, “open doors,” and good counsel, while of great help in our decision-making, are not authoritative. We are wise to carefully consider these outward matters but they do not carry the weight of Scripture nor do they constitute a mandate from God.
If we accept this sola Scriptura thesis, how do we go about “finding” the specific will of God for our lives? We do so by examining the teachings of the Scriptures themselves. We can start by noting that there are a number of instances in the New Testament in which the Lord specifically states His will for us:
- It is God’s will that we be filled with the Holy Spirit — “So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:17-18). At the moment of conversion every child of God is immediately indwelt (1 Corinthians 6:19), baptized (1 Corinthians 12:13), regenerated (Titus 3:5-6) and sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). These ministries of the Holy Spirit bring to the believer the unique presence of God, unite us to Christ and His body, create within us a new nature and secure our position in Christ. None of these are optional equipment for the Christian. The filling ministry of the Spirit, on the other hand, is not automatic, it is conditional. To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by Him. When the believer is living in humble obedience to the Lord he is filled, or controlled, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the expressed will of God that we be filled with the Spirit.
- It is God’s will that we be sanctified — “For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). The term “sanctification” means “to be set apart” and, when used in a Christian setting, takes on the connotation of being set apart for a holy purpose. In the immediate context of the First Thessalonians text the Lord is calling for moral purity. It is the expressed will of God that His people live morally pure lives.
- It is God’s will that we be thankful — “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Gratefulness seems to be contrary to our flesh and so is not a natural quality, yet God wants His children to be thankful. It is most instructive that in Ephesians 5:20 Paul lists giving of thanks as resulting from the filling of the Holy Spirit and Colossians 3:16 speaks of “singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God” as springing from being indwelt by the word of Christ. Gratefulness is not to be humanly manufactured; it is a by-product of the control of the Spirit and the Word in our lives. It is the expressed will of God that His people be thankful.
- It is sometimes God’s will that we suffer – “For it is better, if God will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong” (1 Peter 3:17). It is not always in the plan of God that we suffer for His sake but, when it is, we are to suffer because of our godly testimony, not because of sinful behavior. It is sometimes the expressed will of God that we suffer for Him.
These are, of course, general statements that are true for all Christians at all times – and this is not an exhaustive list. To these “will of God” commands we could add all the revealed requirements, demands and mandates found in the Word which are applicable to the New Testament believer. Bottom line – we find the will of God through the careful study of the Word of God. This would include everything from a husband loving his wife as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25) to Christians not suing one another (1 Corinthians 6:1-8) to the restoration of a fallen believer (Galatians 6:1-2).
Finding God’s Will?
What we are discovering is that God has not hidden His will from us necessitating a secret formula to unravel His mysteries. His will for us is found right on the pages of Scripture ready to be plucked to the delight of all Spirit-indwelled children of God willing to read and apply the Divine revelation. The goal, as expressed in the New Testament, is not to find the will of God but to do the will of God. Since God wants you to do His will, be assured that He has not hidden it and then sent us on some kind of cosmic treasure hunt to find it. He is not daring us to discover the clues which will lead to His plan for our lives. Rather, His will is clearly imprinted on the pages of Scripture. It was to this end that Paul told Timothy to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Many are simply unwilling to do the “diligent” work necessary to accurately handle the word of truth and are looking for shortcuts. The Lord does not call for shortcuts; instead “diligence” is prescribed.
What would a sola Scriptura understanding of the will of God and decision-making look like in practice? Maybe the best way to approach this would be to use an actual example. Let’s back up to my decision to speak in Brazil as mentioned in an earlier paper. As you will recall I was asked to go to Brazil for 17 days to minister to Brazilian pastors at a retreat, present a number of seminars on contemporary trends facing the church today and preach at several churches. In addition, I would have the opportunity to observe the ministries of both Brazilians and missionaries and offer counsel.
Obviously, these are all good things – it would certainly seem to be the Lord’s will to go. But offsetting the positive were a number of negatives. It would take hundreds of hours to prepare the materials needed for the trip, partly because my PowerPoint presentations and notes would all have to be translated into Portuguese – a huge task which I personally could not do. I would have to draw on a small army of helpers to accomplish such a huge task. On the other hand I am in a unique position in that a number of people in my church speak and write Portuguese (certainly unusual for a church in the cornfields of Illinois). Volunteers lined up to produce the materials and do the translation work – seemed like God at work, but there were other obstacles.
For one, I would have to be gone from my own church for two and a half weeks and miss three Sundays, something neither I nor the elders of the church find desirable. And what about all the other projects that I am involved in such as writing, counseling, preparing teaching materials and the like? While other staff members and elders could fill the pulpit and minister to the immediate needs of the people while I was gone, none of them could handle these other projects for me. I would come home to an almost insurmountable workload – and I would come home exhausted. There would also be a good chance that I would acquire some kind of exotic “bug” while in Brazil, something I often manage to do when traveling abroad (at this I proved to be successful once again). Then there was the financial situation. This was an expensive trip and, as with most ministries of this nature, the expense would be all mine.
So, while a ministry in Brazil presented a wonderful opportunity, it offered many difficulties – the decision was not cut-and-dry. It certainly would have been nice if the Lord audibly told me what to do. Barring that, I could have used some reliable hunch or prompting. I would have been happy with just a little of the “peace of God” guiding me, but as usual I was both at peace and simultaneously anxious over either decision. Examination of circumstances and “open doors” led both ways and, as mentioned earlier, godly counsel was of little help. So what was I to do?
In the end, I chose to make the trip, but on what basis? God had not spoken to me either audibly or mystically. Peace was elusive as was good counsel. Doors were open in all directions. Obstacles were equally evident at every turn. Even Scripture contained no verses saying, “Thou shalt (or shalt not) go to Brazil .” How could the right decision be made – one which would most honor God?
Biblical Decision Making
Actually that last question is misleading. I asked, “How could the right decision be made – one which would most honor God?” That presupposes there is only one right decision that could have been made to bring God honor. But is that true? Had I chosen to stay home, attend to my local congregation, preached and taught the Word in the States, focused on my extended writing ministry and spent quality time with my family, would I not have made a decision that glorified God? Would I have disobeyed the Lord and thus have been living in rebellion (shades of Jonah) if I had taken this route? Many would say yes, but I believe the Bible says no.
Look for example at how decisions were made in the New Testament:
- Financial giving was to be done on the basis of the choice of the heart (2 Corinthians 9:7).
- Travel to another country or town (except on the few occasions when God audibly stepped in) was left to the individual (1 Corinthians 16:5-7; Acts 20:16).
- Consumption of various foods was determined by the conviction of the eater (Romans 14:2-4; 1 Corinthians 8).
- Observance, or nonobservance, of special holy days was a personal decision – one not always shared by other godly people (Romans 14:5-9).
- Marriage, after proper obedience to biblical commands and principles, was left to the wishes of the individual (1 Corinthians 7:39-40).
- Those in church leadership should aspire to the office (1 Timothy 3:1).
- Those in business, while leaving room for the sovereign will of God to the contrary, were free to pursue their business as they saw fit (James 4:13-17).
In none of these examples, and many more we could list, do we find the believer seeking the specific will of God. No hunches, promptings or experiences of inner peace come into play. These individuals went about their business obeying the revealed will of God, doing what they deemed to be the wisest and best for a given situation, always cognizant and open to the fact that God might change their plans. New Testament Christians did not always operate from a position of absolute certainty, nor did they seem to have the need to do so. It was not uncommon for Paul, for example, to take a course of action because he “thought it was best” (1 Thessalonians 3:1), or because he “thought it necessary” (Philippians 2:25), or “if it is fitting” (1 Corinthians 16:4).
This was the typical decision-making process in the New Testament by godly people. As they lived in obedience to the revealed will of God, they made decisions based on the best information they had as they sought to honor God. In the end they made wise, informed choices according to their own desires, while they lived in conformity with the Word of God and always kept as their goal the glory of their Lord. At that point there is no evidence that they agonized over possibly being out of the will of God. They were in the will of God by virtue of their obedient lives. They, therefore, had the freedom to make wise, godly choices according to the best information that they had at their disposal. In any given situation a number of decisions could have been made, all of which equally honored the Lord.
Let’s plug all of this into my choice regarding the trip to Brazil . To the best of my knowledge I was living in the will of God by virtue of the fact that I was striving to live in obedience to Scripture. My life’s passion is to bring glory to our Lord. Whether I stayed home or headed to Brazil would not change either of these things – I believed myself to be in the will of God as described by the Word. So I did not agonize over my status before God. Either decision, I believed, could and should bring honor to the Savior. But I reasoned that I have spent virtually my entire life in the States. America has been the focus of almost all of my efforts in ministry – despite there being great needs in other places – needs the Lord has equipped me to meet. I had no pretense that my ministry in Brazil would be earth-shaking; still I knew that the Lord uses many different instruments, as weak as we might personally be, to accomplish His purposes. I believed I had something to contribute to the Christians in Brazil . In addition, the church I pastor was healthy with a number of good leaders to superbly handle the ministry on the home front without me for a few weeks (actually much longer than that but I hate to admit it). The finances were in place and my work load could be managed if I would make good use of my time while traveling.
In the end I decided to go to Brazil because I wanted to go and because I believed it would be the best use of my time for the glory of God. Looking back I still believe it was the best choice. However, had I chosen to decline the trip, I could have done that for the glory of God as well. Either choice was a good one. Either choice was pleasing to God (2 Corinthians 5:9). Neither choice would place me out of His will.
As we try to make decisions that honor God we should freely examine circumstances, feelings, logic, etc, but we can never conclude from such things that the Lord is definitely leading us in a particular way. The biblical picture is that of God’s people making wise decisions based upon the clear commands and principles from the Scriptures. At the same time they were ever ready to bow before the will of a sovereign God who might at any time change their direction. Such Christians are not concerned about missing God’s will because they are living in God’s revealed will and they trust the Lord to take the initiative to make certain they are where He wants them to be. In the New Testament we are not told to seek God’s will but to make wise decisions based upon biblical commands and principles. The understanding of these principles gives the child of God wonderful freedom and great confidence in their pursuit of lives that please their Lord.