(November 2005 – Volume 11, Issue 11)
In Dave Swavely’s helpful book, Decisions Decisions, he writes:
Many Christians, who would say that they do not believe in new revelation, are essentially seeking new revelation in their decision making. They may have a theology of “cessationism” in their view of revelation, but in their everyday practice they contradict that theology by trying to hear God say something that is not in the Bible. And I would suggest that their theology is right, so they should let it shape their practical living. God is speaking today, but he is speaking through his Word.
But can’t we have it both ways? Can’t we have the completed revelation of God in the Bible and extrabiblical revelations, which do not quite approach inspiration, on the side? O. Palmer Robinson suggests that we can’t:
And why not both? Why not the illumination of Scripture coupled with new revelations of the Spirit? Simply because if you declare a need for both, you have implied the insufficiency of the one. You have placed yourself back in the framework of the old covenant, in a time when the new revelations were required because of the incompleteness of the old. But Christ is the final word.
On the other side of the fence are those who say that such theology is practical Deism, robbing us of a personal God who is at work in us individually. Scripture, they would say, is unquestionably the inspired Word of God – but it is God’s Word for everyone equally. When I read that the “Lord is my Shepherd” or that Christ died for our sins, these are true statements, but they are true for every believer not just for me. How would you like it, they ask, if your wife said she loved you but she loved you equally to everyone she knows? Would that make you feel special or just one of many? So it is with God and us. He claims to love the world and He has spoken in general to all (through the Bible), but we also need personal words – words just to us, to affirm our personal relationship. And part of that personal word includes guidance. If the Lord really loves me and He is all-wise, then I need His intimate instructions. It is not enough, once again, that He has given broad instructions, principles and guidance to everyone. I need something more, something just for me, something private. The Scriptures tell me that God leads me in the paths of righteousness – and that is good. But I need His leading in more specific issues such as job selection, which person to marry, what house to buy and dozens of other concerns. I don’t need His help in choosing what clothes to wear or which route I should take to church (apparently there is a threshold below which I am capable of making my own choices), but for life’s big decisions I need a personal message.
What these folks are saying seems to make sense but are they correct? It would appear that a number of passages of Scripture indicated that they are not. What if, as Garry Friesen says, impressions are not authoritative but are really just impressions? What if they are not communications from God at all, I mean, unbelievers have impressions, don’t they? What is the source of their impressions? Let’s see what the Bible says.
But What About Those Scriptures?
Psalm 19 teaches us there are two sources of revelation, from nature (vv. 1-6) and from Scripture (vv. 7-14). The “general revelation” of nature, while speaking boldly of the glory of God, still has serious limitations. Romans 1:20 confirms that nature is capable of revealing to mankind the eternal power and divine nature of God; therefore even those who know nothing of Jesus Christ are without excuse when they reject God. But general revelation is incapable of exposing a multitude of things including Jesus Christ, the Cross, grace, eternal life and on and on. For such things we need the “specific revelation” of Scripture. These two, general and specific revelations, have been recognized by God’s people throughout the ages as the normal ways in which God communicates to us. Occasionally, the Lord breaks through in other ways, whether by angels, visions, dreams and even donkeys, but these are rare exceptions as we have explored in previous papers. But to these have been added another form of communication, one not found in the Word – that of the inner voice of God in one form or another. While we have already found that this inner voice is absent in Scripture (the “still small voice” that Elijah heard in 1 Kings 19:12-13 is often presented as evidence of the inner voice of God, but even a quick look at the passage shows that this was a literal “outer” voice, not an inner impression), still there are a number of texts that would appear to indicate that God leads in this New Testament era apart from Scripture. That is, to be clear, God seems in these passages to be communicating specific instructions about our individual lives through extrabiblical sources, most often through circumstances, impressions and godly counsel. That in decision making the Christian would be wise to pay careful attention to these matters is not up for debate. The question is whether God is actually communicating His particular authoritative will for a particular individual through these particular means. I believe the answer is a clear “no.”
But what about the Scriptures which seem to imply that God does have a specific will and He will lead us in it if we meet certain conditions? These Scriptures include: Proverbs 3:5, 6; Colossians 1:9-10; 3:15; Philippians 4:6, 7; Romans 8:14, 16; Psalm 32:8; John 16:12-14; Ephesians 5:17. Let’s take a quick look at the predominate of these to see what they are actually teaching in context.
Romans 8:14 – “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.” A common interpretation of this verse is that one of the ways we know we are actually sons of God is through the inner leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If we are born again we should expect the Holy Spirit to confirm our spiritual condition by the steady reception of extra-biblical, supernatural direction from the Holy Spirit about personal decisions. But the context of the passage has nothing to do with decision making and everything to do with holy living. The evidence of our conversion, Paul is saying, is the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives – but that leading is toward righteous living not decision making (vv. 9-13).
Romans 8:16— “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” But doesn’t this verse speak of an inner witness of the Holy Spirit? Even if we recognize that the context concerns evidence of spiritual life and not decision making, isn’t Paul saying that a Christian will know he is saved because the Holy Spirit is somehow speaking to his heart? Well first, even if that were true, we are not told how the Holy Spirit “testifies with our spirit.” Many run to the conclusion that this witness is an inner voice or impression by which we feel the presence of God through the Holy Spirit and thus know we are saved. But I do not believe that interpretation can be confirmed from this verse. To start, the verse does not say that the Holy Spirit witnesses to our spirit but “with” our spirit. In other words, when the Holy Spirit and our spirit are in agreement, we know we are saved. When the witness of the believer’s spirit, as to why he believes he is a child of God, agrees with the witness of the Holy Spirit (the Spirit-inspired gospel as recorded in the Bible), then he knows he is a child of God. I agree with Don Matzat on this verse,
Bible teachers generally agree that when the apostle Paul tells us to be led by the Spirit, he is not speaking of some momentary external invasion of the Holy Spirit into our consciousness, telling us what to do and how to do it. Nor is he referring to our effort to conjure up the Spirit in some mystical encounter. Paul is simply telling us to live according to our new life in Christ, which is Christ dwelling in us by His Holy Spirit, or to be “led by the Spirit” as opposed to living according to our old sinful nature, or being “led by the flesh.”
Psalm 37:4 – On the basis of this verse, “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart,” some conclude that believers living in conformity with the Lord are able to trust their desires to lead them. Calvin is reported to have said, “Love God and do as you please.” But this interpretation pushes the verse too far and runs counter to other Scriptures. The normal understanding of this verse is that, when we delight in the Lord, it will result in changing our desires so that they are in harmony with God’s desires for us. But the Psalm does not go on to say our desires are now totally trustworthy. Our flesh is at war with the Spirit for as long as we are in these bodies (Galatians 5:16-18), making it difficult to always know that our heart’s desires are pure. Paul seemed to struggle with conflicting desires on a regular basis (Romans 7:14-25) and he desired to go to Spain, but never did (Romans 15:24, 28). Even Jesus desired to avoid the Cross but chose to submit Himself to the will of the Father (Matthew 26:36-46). The desires of the committed Christian may be a good starting place in our decision making process, but we cannot biblically claim that our desires have been implanted by the Spirit, or that they are infallible guides.
Philippians 4:6-7 coupled with Colossians 3:15 are verses that have been used by multitudes of believers who seek the “peace of God” in their decision making. The argument goes like this: the final arbitrator (ruler) in knowing God’s will is the peace of God. If the Lord wants us to take action He will indicate His approval by giving us His peace. On the other hand, if we are not in the will of God, the Lord will make this obvious through unrest in our hearts.
As a young man trying to apply the “peace of God” theory to my life, I ran into some very practical problems. For example, I could never get God’s peace when it came to major purchases. I “desired” a new car (was this a desire from God or not?) but I was too much of a penny-pincher to have “peace” about spending large chunks of money. I was at a stalemate. I had no peace about buying the car but no peace about not buying it either. Somehow the peace theory (or even the desire theory for that matter) wasn’t working for me. I assumed I was either too sinful or too stupid to discern God’s peace. Then I observed people claiming God’s peace over the dumbest of decisions – decisions that would come back to haunt them. It wasn’t until years later I was relieved to revisit these passages and discover that they were not in the context of decision making at all. Both passages were talking about peace (or lack of conflict) between the believer and other people and/or God, not some inner peace that would indicate when we have made the right choices. Harmony with our fellow man and God by living out His revealed will is the context, not decision making.
2 Corinthians 2:12-13 – And what about those open doors? This passage reads, “Now when I came to Troas for the gospel of Christ and when a door was opened for me in the Lord, I had no rest for my spirit, not finding Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I went on to Macedonia.” Verses that speak of open doors (see also, Acts 14:27; 1 Corinthians 16:8, 9; Colossians 4:3) “open the door” for us to examine the role circumstances play in the specific will of God. Are circumstances God’s way of communicating His will to us? Scripture does not indicate that they are. One of the problems with circumstances is their subjective nature; that is, we can read into them just about anything we want. If we can’t find a good job in our home town, is this God’s way of telling us to move or His way of wringing materialism out of our souls? If we interpret that it is God’s will for us to move, just where is He leading? Certainly the Lord was direct with Paul’s call to Macedonia, but that was a unique move on the Lord’s part involving a vision, not just a change in circumstances. Of course, if the Lord opens a door, or closes one (something never mentioned in the Bible), we need to take a good look. But even these open doors are not authoritative. Paul prayed for open doors for the gospel, asking for opportunity to spread the good news, yet in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 God had given him an open door which he chose to ignore because he had other things on his mind. At best, circumstances represent opportunities (or lack thereof) which may help us in our decisions but are not mandates from God. If I believe I have been “called” to preach but no one seems to be called (or are willing) to listen, the examination of that circumstance may prove most helpful. But it neither confirms nor negates whether I ought to be a pastor, although it could supply helpful data in my vocational choices.
Proverbs 3:5-6– “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding, in all of your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”
This is surely one of the most beloved passages in the Word and rightly so. During great moments of stress and doubt what believer has not read or quoted these words with great comfort? But just what is being promised to those who trust and acknowledge the Lord? The understanding of the passage is skewed by the KJV rendering of the final phrase, which reads, “And He shall direct thy paths.” The implication, at least to many, is that the Lord will direct us in His perfect and specific will for our lives if we will but trust in Him. The problem with this understanding of the passage is that the word “path” does not reference a specific will in the Old Testament usage, but speaks of the general path of life. In Proverbs 4:18 we hear of the “path of righteousness.” And in Proverbs 15:19 we are told that “the path of the upright is a highway.” Proverbs 11:5 gives a similar promise as 3:6 when it says, “The righteousness of the blameless will smooth his way.” What we have then is not a promise of an individual direction found through trusting God, but a description of the type of life that the trusting lead. It is a life in compliance with the moral or revealed will of God. Those who lean on Him are going the right direction in the path of life. They are living as God would have the righteous live. Friesen says it well, “The point of Proverbs 3:5-6, then, is that those who trust God, and trust in His wisdom rather than their own worldly understanding, and acknowledge God in each part of their life, will reap a life that is successful by God’s standards.”
John 14:26 – “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
John 16:12-14 – “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you.”
Many take these verses to have universal application. But are we to read these passages as a promise for all believers at all times, or are these promises peculiar to the apostles and indicators of the New Testament revelation that would soon be given them through the Holy Spirit? John 14:26 especially has been used by many to support either continuing revelation or unique illumination, but such an interpretation is hobbled by the closing phrase which promises to “bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.” Jesus was clearly speaking of instructions given to the apostles while He was walking among them. Much of what He taught them was beyond their comprehension. This discourse found in John 14-16 contained some of the deepest theology ever given by our Lord and was easily beyond the grasp of the apostles. He therefore promises them that in the future a Helper will come, the Holy Spirit, who will bring these things back to their remembrance and even guide them into new revelation (16:13-14). I do not believe Jesus is referencing individual decision making concerning the routine areas of life. Rather He is speaking of the method by which the Lord would transmit New Testament truth to the church (see I Corinthians 2:9-10).
A Personal Application
As I write this paper I am sitting on a veranda in Brazil. Some months ago I was invited by some Brazilian pastors to come to their country and minister at a pastors’conference, preach in several churches and present lectures on contemporary theological issues at a seminary. When invited, I had a decision to make. The opportunities to present the Word, teach and encourage Brazilian church leadership and other believers were enormous. But on the other hand the trip would be expensive and I would have to be gone from my own church and family for 17 days. How was I to decide the “Lord’s will” in this matter? A door of opportunity was open, but I would be forfeiting other opportunities. I could seek the Lord’s peace but I was on the horns of my usual dilemma – peace either way was elusive. I sought the counsel of my church elders and they said, “Do whatever you want” – big help they were. If only the Lord would tell me what to do, or a least give me some strong impressions, then I might know what to do, but no promptings were forthcoming. In the end I made a decision to come to Brazil, a decision that I believe was one that honored the Lord. But if the Lord wasn’t “leading” me to come to Brazil, how do I know whether I am in His will? Without impressions, promptings, the Lord’s peace, or definitive circumstances, how do I know that I made the right decision? Or could I have stayed home and still been in His will? Next time.
 Dave Swavely, Decisions, Decisions, (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2003), p. 65.
 As quoted in Swavely, pp. 30-31.
 Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God (Portland, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 1983), p. 131.
 Don Matzat, The Lord Told Me, I Think, (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1996), p. 64.
 Garry Friesen, p. 98.