The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (6)

Part 5.

In 1381 Archbishop William Courtenay held a synod at the Blackfriars in London for the purpose of condemning the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe. After the condemnations had been adopted, as Synod was breaking up, there was an earthquake. Courtenay took the earthquake as a sign of divine approval but Wycliffe took it as a sign of divine displeasure!

Thus we see the inherent difficulty in interpreting providence. Like all forms of natural revelation the meaning of providence is often in the eye of the beholder. Defenders of the Reformation sometime like to say, “God raised up Martin Luther.” So he did. Unless, however, we are Manicheans we must also say that God raised up Ignatius of Loyola. The fact that God “raised up” both neither proves nor disproves the correctness of Loyola or Luther.

Despite the hazards of interpreting providence Christians persist in trying to interpret providence as a way of finding “God’s will for my life.” It’s true that, in the history of redemption, people put out fleeces and cast lots (for good and ill) as a way of determining God’s will. Again I go back to the bright line between canonical, redemptive history and post-canonical history. Those episodes were not given as a sort of church order manual for post-canonical church life. They illustrate the power of God in delivering and guiding his people in the outworking of his saving purposes. We’re not apostles and prophets.

Could we cast lots today? Well, I suppose, if there were two equally qualified candidates for church office and the elders cast prayerfully lots or drew straws to see which one should serve, I would not object but now we’re simply looking at some ordinary mechanism for making a morally good choice. That’s a matter of indifference. No one would reasonably lay claim for direct divine guidance in such a case.

The truth is, as I’ve already shown from Scripture, we don’t always know why God does what he does. We might have a partial explanation after the fact, in some cases, but in some cases (perhaps many) we’ll likely never know. Why do good, godly people become terribly ill and suffer while evil and ungodly people seem to get off scot free? It’s a fallen world and the consequences of sin are equally terrible and distressing. Can we always discern some lesson we were to learn from some episode? Probably not.

The goodness of God’s providence and the wisdom of his actions is not contingent upon our understanding. God’s acts are good despite the fact that we cannot always understand them. Whatever Jerry Falwell or others might have said or thought, the truth is that no one knows why God permitted those evil acts on 9/11 or why he permitted the extraordinary degree of evil that occurred in the 20th century.

We do know God, however. We know him in Christ. We know him in his gospel promises and in his moral law. That’s enough. We don’t have to go behind the revealed things to justify God. He is just in all he does whether we accept and recognize and explain it or not.

Part 7

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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. Dr. Clark,

    I am trying to understand all of this. Your use of terminology is different than what I am used to so I am asking for a bit of help.

    Can you tell me if I am correct and correct me where I am wrong?

    The Spirit mediates the risen Christ. When prophets spoke in the New Testament were they experiencing the risen Christ immediately? If not, were they experiencing the Spirit immediately? If so, do we experience only the Spirit mediately through Word and Sacrament? Or, do we experience the risen Christ mediately through Word and Sacrament? Or, both? Is ours an era of only experiencing God mediately through Word and Sacrament? If so, when you say Jonathon Edwards was seeking an immediate experience of the risen Christ, do you mean like Paul on the road to Damascus? Are Charismatics seeking an immediate experience of the risen Christ or the Spirit?

    I hate to ask such ignorant questions, but I am trying to understand the whole paradigm here. Thanks.

  2. Hi Chad,

    These are good questions.

    As I understand things, the OT prophets were taken into, as Paul puts it, the “third heaven,” or into the glorious presence of the Son. They were commissioned, as it were, in the heavenly throne room. Whilst on earth they had direct revelations from the Son.

    I don’t know whether in every case “prophecy” in the NT refers to immediate inspiration but I suspect that it does in most of them.

    Christ’s presence is mediated to us through the Word and sacraments. The the difference is mediation. Direct, immediate revelation is one thing. Mediated, ministerial revelation is another. When we read Scripture we’re reading a revelation of the Word of God. When we hear a Scriptural sermon, we’re hearing God’s Word preached. These Words are mediated. They are ministerial. We are always listening to God’s canonical, Scriptural Word. Thus the authority of the preacher and the church is always ministerial. He serves the Word. He doesn’t create the Word.

    There is a difference among Reformed theologians on whether we should speak of the Spirit operating “immediately” or “mediately.” Some (e.g. the Old Princeton theologians) tended to speak of the “immediate” work of the Spirit. Others, often the older Reformed writers tended to speak of the Spirit operating through the Word and sacraments. I prefer to speak the way the older writers did.

    I think ours is a post-canonical era. The canon is closed because the last great act of redemption, Pentecost is complete and the canon will not be opened again, as it were, until the next and final great act of redemption occurs, namely the parousia (return) of Christ.

    Yes, I think that, in some instances, Edwards was attempting to respond to the skepticism of the age by turning to immediate experiences, effectively circumventing Word and sacrament. Yes, I see charismatics and neo-Pentecostals seeking to replicate the immediate experience of Christ that occurred in the apostolic period. The historical argument here is complicated. See RRC for more details and leads.

  3. Thanks for this. I remember growing up trying to understand “why” God took my mother when I was 13. What a relief to realise I don’t have to work it out.

    On “finding the will of God”, it’s amazing the amount of Reformed/YMCA ministers who speak like this. I remember wanting to go to seminary when I was a young man, but was put off because I didn’t have sense of “a call”. My elders told me I had a preaching gift, as did members of the church. I loved theology, Scripture and reading. In fact, pastoral ministry was the only job I was interested in. Nevertheless, reading good men like Lloyd Jones, Spurgeon, Piper etc instilled in me the search for this subjective “call”. It’s all very well for the apostle Paul; the risen Christ actually appeared to him. I’d to discern “a call” from all the other subjective impulses guiding me. “If you can do something else, do something else” said MLJ. So I did!

  4. I have a question for you, Dr. Clark,
    Would it be correct to say that in the beginning God made man to be so long lived for population purposes? Or would that be interpreting providence and not the text?
    We see in the text that God did keep Adam et al. around and men did increase in number. Also these things happened for the end of Christ’s coming which should be the main understanding for the preservation of mankind. If something happened, it would not be so apart from God’s will.
    BTW do you need any snow? We’ve sure been getting lots of it this year in MI.!

  5. Dr. Clark –

    I appreciate Nick mentioning this, and no doubt you’ve discussed elsewhere the whole issue of the call to ministry (and if you have and want to direct me to that link to save yourself time, that would be great). I’m interested in your perspective – as a theologian and a pastor – in light of this series on knowing God’s will, how someone knows he should enter the ministry. How much of a call to ministry is subjective and how much is objective? What values should he assign to intellectual ability, or his speaking ability, or his “people person” skills, or his ability to lead? Is this something a congregation or pastor should be involved in – keeping their eyes open for men who appear suitable for ministry? Like Nick (and probably like most readers of your blog), I love theology, Scripture and reading, and have the ability to stand up in front of people and communicate. In fact, I’d love to pack up this minute and join the ranks at WSC! But, I don’t think seminary can be an escape simply to indulge one’s intellectual curiosities. And I’ve also been pastored by men who, to be polite, didn’t have the warmest of personalities, and whose sermons sounded more like lectures. How’s a guy to know?!?


  6. Mike,

    A follow up.

    A seminary is a school, not a church. We primarily (about 70%) train pastors (i.e. M. Div) but we do train others for other vocations (about 30% of our students). I would not say that those 30% who are here for training other than the MDiv are idle or merely satisfying curiosity. I wouldn’t say that of those who are at sem but are not sure if they will become pastors, even though they are in the MDiv. I wasn’t certain until my last year of seminary. It wasn’t a magic moment but a series of experiences in my internship that confirmed for me that I wanted to preach the Word.

    There’s no mechanical formula See the essay linked above. It’s a combination of internal and external factors. After you’ve read those let me know if questions remain.

  7. Dr. Clark –

    As I suspected, a well-worn topic of discussion. I’ll check out those links. Thank you.


  8. Dr. Clark, thanks for the articles. While I haven’t read all the way back to installment number one in the series and so risk pointing out what has already been covered….I would like to recommend Thomas Manton Vol. 8, p.214-217. In this treatise/exposition Dr. Manton deals with observing God’s judgments which is certainly a subspecie to observing His providence. I found it especially helpful in the legitimate observation of God’s providence which keeps us from practical atheism, a help to reverential fear of God, and a support of faith. I found his approach very different from the common neo-pentecostal or shallow evangelicalism which commonly denies God’s providential judgments in the earth as either not from God, or that we could never actually know or prosper from observing them.

    In Christ,
    Scott Reiber

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