According to Deuteronomy 29:29, believers are to trust in, rely upon, listen to, and obey that which God has revealed rather than seeking that which He has not revealed. In the history of salvation, seeking what God has not revealed was considered idolatry and sin. Perhaps the classic example of this sin is that of Saul turning to the witch (the ESV has “medium”) of En-dor (1 Sam 28:7). They both knew it was wrong and criminal (under the Israelite civil law) and what is most ironic is that it was completely unnecessary. Saul’s first sin, in this instance, was that he did not obey the explicit revelation of God! (1 Sam. 28:18). Like Saul, many of us have turned away from the explicit revelation of God’s moral will in favor of alternative sources of guidance.
One reason why we are tempted to act like Saul is Americans are conditioned to believe that there is a “secret” for everything and they seem to conclude that God’s moral will must also be a secret and that there must be a method for unlocking the secret. Many scholars have observed that American evangelicalism has similarities to gnosticism, i.e. the quest for secret knowledge. One of the fastest ways to entrepreneurial success in American evangelicalism is to peddle heretofore unknown secrets. Consider Mormonism. A guy sticks his head in a hat to read phony magic plates allegedly given by a phony angel and Americans follow him and his followers across the country to Utah. Bob Schuller and Joel Osteen offer the secrets of a happy life. Word-Faith preachers offer the secrets of health and wealth. Radical dispensationalists offer the secret of which biblical books are really canonical for this dispensation. The list seems endless.
Another reason is that we do not know the history of salvation and the pattern of revelation there. One effect of dispensationalism on American evangelicalism has been to divide wrongly the Word of God. For most American evangelicals, anything that happened in redemption prior to the incarnation is hazy at best and usually irrelevant except for an occasional “character study.” Everything that happened prior to Jesus’ birth is relegated to the “Old Testament” (even though Paul and the writer to the Hebrews use that phrase to refer specifically to the period from Sinai to the cross).
In truth there was a consistent pattern in the history of redemption. We see it in Noah. God delivered His church through the flood and then He revealed Himself by way of explanation. We can see this pattern in the exodus (Ex. 14). The Lord delivered His people and then He gave them a canonical revelation explaining that redemption (the Gospel) and laying down His moral will for those whom He had redeemed (the Law).
Indeed, this pattern was reproduced all throughout the history of redemption. With the advent of our Lord himself incarnate came “the Word” “in the flesh.” We beheld his glory. Moses (not Abraham) was the type and shadow but Christ was the reality. As Geerhardus Vos pointed out long ago, when John says “true” or “truth” he means something like, “the in-breaking of the final reality in the person of Christ.” Christ is the revelation of God to us and he brought with him redemption and revelation. Following his ascension, another great act of redemption, God the Spirit came upon the apostolic church in a unique and powerful way to explain authoritatively, definitively, and finally the saving acts of God in Christ. This is the pattern then: sovereign, gracious redemption and definitive, canonical revelation. The revelation is as canonical and inviolable as the acts of redemption are unrepeatable.
A third reason why American evangelicals have been confused about the moral will of God is because they have rarely observed the basic biblical (and Reformational) distinction between those words in Scripture that are in the indicative mood, that narrate the great story of redemption, that announce the Good News of salvation, and those words that are in the imperative mood that demand perfect righteousness, that seek to drive impenitent sinners to Christ, and that norm the Christian life.
The Apostle Paul made this very distinction in Galatians 3:10. When Scripture says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law,” that is in the imperative mood. It is a demand for perfect, personal, and perpetual righteousness. It is not the announcement of Good News. In contrast, however, when Jesus announced, “God so loved the world that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life,” that is in the indicative mood. It is an announcement of the Good News that salvation has been accomplished for us by someone else and that salvation is received by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
Because of the general modern failure to make this distinction, many evangelicals have turned the narratives of salvation into an imperative. Instead of receiving the good news that God graciously, sovereignly, without our aid, redeemed us out of Egypt, through the Red Sea (on dry ground), American evangelicals have turned the gospel narratives into law: “Be like Moses” or “Don’t be like Aaron.” One consequence of the failure to distinguish Law and Gospel is that we have tried to find ourselves in the narratives of redemption but in exactly the wrong way. Instead of being recipients we have tried to become actors in the story. We fail to observe the distinction between the canonical history of redemption and post-canonical history. Hence much of the story of modern evangelicalism is of the attempt to replicate the apostolic church, apostolic phenomena in the post-apostolic era.