The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (1)

The single most pressing question I hear is: “How can I know God’s will?” Prospective seminary students want to know whether they should attend seminary. Couples want to know whether they should get married. Ministers want to know whether to take a call. The problem of knowing God’s will plagued my Christian life for years. Who knows how many books have been written (and that will be written) to try to answer this question? The good news is that the secret of knowing God’s will is right in front of us.

In this context, by “God’s will” I mean, “What God wants me to do in this particular situation.” There are essentially three ways by which people have tried to discern God’s will for their lives. Let’s call the first and most widely used approach the “pietist-mystical view” (PMV). The PMV appeals to 1 Kings 19:12 and the “still, small voice” (AV) or, as the ESV translates them, “a low whisper.” The PMV expects to replicate the prophetic revelation and seeks to know God’s “will” in any circumstance through everything from impressions to intuitions to claims of direct revelation. This approach to the will of God is virtually universal among evangelicals today. It was among the first things I learned as an evangelical in the mid-1970s in volumes such as Rosalind Rinker’s Conversational Prayer.

A second approach is the “mechanical view” (MV). The crassest version of this approach is simply letting the Bible fall open and taking the words before one as the indication of God’s moral will for a particular circumstance.  Another version of the MV is the post-canonical appropriation of the “fleece.” (Judges 6:37). The Christian determines that if the Lord, in his providence, does p that will mean q.

The third way is the confessional Reformation approach to understanding God’s moral will. However inconsistent particular Protestants have been in practice (and they have been), our theologies and confessions have distinguished clearly between the mind of God and the human mind and between two aspects of the divine will. We have also taught clearly how post-canonical Christians, i.e. those who do not live in the canonical history of redemption, may know God’s moral will.

The most basic distinction regarding God’s moral will is that taught in Deut. 29:29, between the “revealed things” and the “secret things.” The latter are those things that belong to the divine decree (i.e. the decretive will) and to providence. We don’t know whom God has elected. We don’t know what God’s providence holds. We can’t presume to interpret God’s providence (Job 38). We don’t know why the Tower in Siloam fell (Luke 13:4). We don’t know who will come to faith. Apart from the ordinary providence of God, we don’t know what will happen tomorrow (Matt. 6:34). God has not promised to reveal those things. They are and shall remain secret. These things are necessarily hidden because God’s ways are higher than our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). He is the infinite, incomprehensible, immutable (Nu. 23:19; Heb. 6:17), eternal Creator and we are finite, mutable (changeable) creatures.

The first part of the secret of knowing God’s will is knowing the difference between that which has been revealed and that which remains secret.  According to Deut. 29:29, God has revealed some things, chiefly his moral or preceptive will. These have been given to us and “belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The last clause is the clue that explains the distinction. If we want to know what God wants us to do, it is summarized, in Mosaic terms, in the phrase, “all the words of this law (Torah).” In other words, God has revealed his moral will. It is no secret.

Part 2

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. What about casting lots? As the apostles did when choosing between Mathias and the other cat to replace Judas. Is that an acceptable aproach nowadays?.

    • John Wesley divined the will of God by casting lots as well, which is kind of weird for a man who despised foreknowledge. Why would you ask God “which way?” when you believe he does not know the future?

  2. I’m glad you’re doing this series Scott. I too grew up with the evangelical approach which, in effect, says you need the gift of prophecy to know God’s will.

    The best thing I’ve ever read on the Reformed view is “Guidance and the Voice of God” by Phillip Jensen and Tony Payne.

  3. What about figuring out whether one should trade their Warfield for a Clark?:) I knew about Calvin (regarding the Warfield reference) but I did not know much about confessional subscription, history, etc. I want to be an edifying member of the body of Christ (plus all of Clark’s shameless plugging of his book), thus I traded “Calvin and Augustine” by Warfield For Clark’s “Recovering the Reformed Confession”.

    I cannot hesitate to say that the logical outcome of admitting any extra-canonical revelation/hint/small voice is only to seek it more and more. That view is regulative and is tyranical, pressing one into more and more mystery and dependence on it. Ultimately this is rejection of God’s revealed word leading us to hear “crunching noises” of God coming in judgement. QIRC and QIRE are two sides of the same coin, like legalism and antinomianism.

  4. Clark: We don’t know what God’s providence holds. We can’t presume to interpret God’s providence (Job 38). We don’t know why the Tower in Siloam fell (Luke 13:4).

    Richard: A scientist can predict future natural events, and the historian can interpret past events, so that providence can be read. Jesus said that the Pharisees can tell what the weather would be like just by looking at the sky, and the psalms reflect on the past events of redemptive history.

  5. Richard,

    One can predict ordinary providence with a certain probability. So what?

    You and I don’t know whether we’re going to live or die today.

    That belongs to God. We believe that the sun will likely come up because of God’s promise to sustain the creation so long as he wills and we have a reasonable certain from experience.

    These are two different kinds of knowing aren’t they? You’re just quibbling aren’t you?

  6. Clark: These are two different kinds of knowing aren’t they? You’re just quibbling aren’t you?

    Richard: No, it good you have clearly put the difference knowing ordinary providence and knowing specific future events such as your death on Friday the 13th.

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