The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (7)

Part 6

Much of contemporary evangelical piety (and too much contemporary Reformed piety) is taken up with the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC) and the Quest for illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE—see Recovering the Reformed Confession for more on these two phenomena). In their own ways each is an attempt to know God and His will apart from his ordained means. The result is a two-sided tyranny.

The first aspect of this tyranny is the fear that “I haven’t heard the still, small voice of God.” This leads to paralysis. It also leads to doubt. The logic is ruthless:

1. God still speaks outside of Scripture and gives direct guidance and revelation to Christians.

2. Christian X hasn’t received such guidance and revelation.

3. Christian X is either a) not really a Christian or b) doesn’t have sufficient faith or lacks the power of the Spirit, etc.

Whatever the cause, the outcome of the logic is unhappy, but what if the problem is not the second premise but the first? What if the first premise is flawed? Well, of course, that is what this whole series has been arguing. In fact we do not live in the canonical period, in redemptive history. The Red Sea has been parted. The tomb is empty. The canon is closed. We’ve seen how the Spirit operates through the Word and the sacraments, how he illumines the Word and how he gives wisdom to those who ask but perhaps you’re still in bondage because you’re waiting for the still, small voice? Quoth Bob Newhart: “Stop it!”

What if God’s will for your life was already revealed? Wouldn’t that be grand? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you weren’t trapped in a circle waiting for God to speak but never really knowing if He has “spoken”? After all, how do you know if God has spoken directly to you? Is it an intuition? A hunch? Why does He seem to “speak” to others but not to me? Are there two classes of Christians? (those who receive special, extra-biblical revelations and those who do not?)

There are other questions the answers to which help relieve the crisis. Why is it that what God says so often sounds like what my revelation-receiving friend already thought? It’s remarkable how often God seems to agree with my revelation-receiving, still-small-voice hearing friend. As we read the whole of 1 Corinthians we see that Paul was quite opposed to the idea of two-classes of Christians. This is the problem with all forms of the “second blessing” theology. It necessarily creates two classes of Christians and yet it’s exactly contrary to Paul’s whole argument. All of us are members of the one body. Further, we’re all members of the one body, part of the one loaf of bread, as it were, in the post-canonical period.

The good news is that God has revealed himself in His Word. His will for your life is revealed. I can tell you what it is right now: trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor (Matt 5).

“But wait!” you cry. “Should I take this job or that job? What’s God’s perfect will for me?”

I’ll tell you God’s perfect will: Trust Christ, love God, and love your neighbor. Take any job you want, within the will of God revealed in Scripture, as dictated by wisdom and circumstances. Certain jobs are out on the basis of moral considerations. Any job that requires theft, murder, idolatry, covetousness, sexual immorality, gluttony etc. In other words the will of God forbids you from becoming, among other things, a bank robber. I don’t need an extra-biblical revelation to know this. It’s in God’s Word.

Then there’s wisdom. If you’re not good with your hands, perhaps you shouldn’t be a tradesman. If you’re not good with numbers you probably shouldn’t go into business or banking. You don’t need a special revelation from God to know those things. You really don’t.

This gets to the second aspect of the dark side of the QIRC/QIRE: the tyranny of the prophet. This aspect of things has been described in the wake/fallout of the Kansas City prophets debacle (late ’80s–early ’90s) but it’s worth repeating. There’s little moral difference between someone telling us “God’s will” on the basis of the “small, still voice” or because he’s a “prophet.” In both cases, post-apostolic, ordinary Christians, who don’t have the apostolic power, are claiming to know directly, apart from Scripture, by divine revelation what God thinks about this or that thing not mentioned in Scripture.

Such claims are the stuff of tyranny. Who knows if it’s true?

“What if it is true? Well, since I’m not getting any revelations, I guess I better do what the prophet says!”

Or not.

Of course these self-anointed lower or upper case prophets aren’t any such thing. The truth is that they are simply re-describing ordinary human experience in extraordinary, apostolic, canonical terms. They may do so out of the best of motives. They may really believe that God is speaking to them directly or they may have an earpiece with a helper feeding them information. Either way it really doesn’t matter.

One glorious consequence of the biblical and Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura is that we don’t have to pay attention either to the upper or lower case prophets. We are free in Christ. This argument goes back to the Reformed rejection of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptists replied by calling us “dead orthodox.” Fine. Whatever. Bluntly, if being “led by the Spirit” means running around Europe claiming revelations and starting revolutions (see Münster) then we can live without that, thank you very much.

Of course “keeping in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22) has nothing to do with that sort of fanaticism. It means producing the fruit of the Spirit and we know what that is because God revealed it to everyone in Galatians 5! You don’t need a special gift to read God’s Word, trust it, and obey it. We’re free in Christ to obey God’s publicly revealed will and we’re free to ignore the spurious claims of all sorts of prophets. We’re not missing out. They don’t have anything we need. What we need is the moral will of God which is plainly revealed in the Word. What we need is the work of the Spirit to illumine that Word to us and to give us wisdom, and the self-appointed prophets don’t have anything to do with that. You and I are free from the tyranny of human opinion because we are bound to the Word of God.

    Post authored by:

  • 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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11 comments

  1. I laughed–no wait, chuckled–at the tenor of your speech. I totally agree with you of the laughable, and ridiculous state of where evangelicals are going. What used to mark a truly doctrinal–and confessional–and orthodox evangelicalism was marked by a clear use of Scripture and it’s proper application to all areas of life: the sciences, philosophy, and even politics (even though you demur on the subject, considering your published work RRC). But what you said about the tyranny and the closed cannon was remarkable. Thank you for a great post. One of the most noted evangelical denominations for this tyranny is the Calvary Chapel movement, though there are more “notable” churches with this problem (the whole prophets thing, both lower and upper). The scary thing about CC is that they are clothed in the whole “conservative” robe of pure doctrine yet deny its historical origins and its results that came from it. The main problem that I see is that they don’t even know they are under this tyranny–and ignorance is by no mean an excuse.

  2. D’you know, all the times I’ve had this kind of conversation (my uncle is in my home Bible study group, and he’s much more continuationist than I could ever be), I never looked at it from the perspective of proposing a two-level Christianity. Thanks! I’ll bear it in mind next time I’m trying to get folk to see (as at least some of us would sing 😉 ), “What more can he say than to [us] he hath said?”

  3. I’ve not been immersed. Neither have I spoken in tongues. I don’t want to lift my hands in worship. For many that means I’m clearly not a Christian. As a result of coming across these people I reacted against “evangelicalism” and thought liberalism was the antidote – I never really fitted there though, as I always took the Bible as being authoritative .
    Thankfully, I started reading Reformation theology and realised that I wasn’t crazy or an inferior Christian just because I didn’t have these experiences.
    One of the joys of my early days of ministry was talking with a woman who expressed concern that she didn’t seem to have the relationship with God that I and a couple of others in the church had. We talked of the Gospel and how it’s Christ’s work that counts not ours. “Do you believe that?” Yes, she said. “Then take comfort.”
    It’s interesting how, on a practical level, liberalism is charismatic. The “open and inclusive” agenda is said to be a new working of the Spirit. How dare I quench the Spirit by affirming there is truth and limits?

  4. There is something sinister about the whole prophetic movement, particularly in its Kansas manifestation.

    Paul Cain and Bob Jones, the two anointed ones, had serious question marks over their moral caliber. Any web search of either name will reveal shocking moral failure on the part of both.

    The tyranny of even “feelings of peace” is another manifestation of this. We are told that “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” means that we should ask ourselves about every amoral choice, “do I have peace about this?” I once thought this way and it tied me in knots.

    I read Jensen and Payne placing our choices into three categories: matters of righteousness, matters of wisdom and matters of indifference. I found it very helpful.

    • To start, great article and very good explanation of discerning the will of God. I’ve been going back and forth on how this works for a while now, even though I’m only 21 years old. The last three parts are what I found most helpful.

      Knowing the will of God is knowing scripture and applying it to life. And to that I would agree 100%. I however am still not sure I agree that the Lord does not sometimes, through His Holy Spirit, bring parts of scripture to mind, or bring a reminder that He is still in control, no matter what the situation. This is what I consider “direct revelation”. There are some instances where I have felt that he has made a very clear “calling” through the speaking of a pastor and the Spirit “softening” or “directing” my heart to what was being spoken. I also believe that He still has the resurrection power to heal and perform earth-shattering miracles even today. If God is never changing, that would mean that the same Holy Spirit that fell on the Apostles could still fall on us today if there were ever an instance where we could begin to walk in one accord. (Mark 16:15-20)

      And as for the previous comment about lifting your hands to worship, lifting your hands has nothing to do with you being a Christian. But there is something to be said about being open enough to lift your hands and truly say, “Lord, I surrender myself to you”, even if that means doing that in front of fellow believers when you are singing a song of true praise and worship to your King. “I’ll become even more undignified than this, some may say its foolishness…”

      • Cory,

        To be clear, nothing I said means that the Spirit does not bring to mind passages of Scripture. This is not, however, what most people mean by “direct revelation.” When people use this expression they mean an immediate, i.e., unmediated word or revelation from God beside Scripture. Bringing to mind a passage of Scripture is, by definition, mediated. Scripture is God’s media, i.e. it is the means by which he reveals himself to us. So long as we define “direct revelation” the same way, then we do not disagree.

        There’s no doubt and nothing in this series suggests that the Spirit is not as sovereign and powerful today as he was a creation or at the resurrection. What is at question is whether we live in the apostolic or canonical epoch (period). We do not. We’re not apostles or actors in the canonical history of redemption. That bright line must be maintained.

        There is no question whether God the Spirit is still ABLE to perform wonders. The question is whether there are believers who are endued with the Spirit as the apostles and prophets were, who have the ability to perform the same wonders in the same way.

        • R. Scott Clark,

          I would agree with you completely on the previous statements. The thing that I question is the “bright line”. I do understand what you are saying, being of two different periods. We are not in the period of the apostles, obviously. But are you saying that there is a difference between what the apostles were able to do and what we SHOULD be able to do, would we have the same level of understanding and relationship with God through the Holy Spirit? Or are you simply stating that we as Christians are just not to the level of the apostles who walked the earth the same time that Christ did? If that is what you are getting at, then I would say that I am in agreement. I, by no means, believe that my level of understanding of scripture or relationship with God meets that of one of the biblical apostles. However, I do strive towards a relationship with Christ so full as to be able to say in confidence that my waking moments are nothing but a prayer to Him, and Him only. There is nothing greater than a personal relationship with the Father through the reading of the word, the receiving of the Holy sacraments, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Our God is an Awesome God. Amen? One other quick question while on the subject. If what you said above is true, does that mean that you are saying there are certain believers that are endued with the Spirit more than others, or are you just stating again that we need to seek the Lord in order to have the same Spirit power as the apostles? Scriptures state that faith the size of a mustard seed is more than enough. So can we be a believer and not carry the Spirit as much as another Christian, or do you believe that the Spirit comes more heavily as we are more heavily reliant on Christ?

          I enjoy being able to share ideas with a fellow Christian who can take the time to answer back and get involved with other believers. Iron definitely sharpens iron, and any further comments you have on the subject of His will would be greatly appreciated. I am at a crossroads of life so to speak with just being engaged to be married to a wonderful Christian woman and the decision ahead of me as to which region of the great state of Pennsylvania to be in. Thank you again for the wonderful article! I can’t wait to hear back from you.

          Cory

          • Cory,

            Both are true. We don’t know all that the Apostles knew and we cannot replicate the acts of power and office that they performed. We’re mere Christians between the first and second advents. We are, as it were, in a valley of redemptive history between two great peaks.

            In facing decisions, I urge Christians to know the Word, to know the general principles of the Word, the moral law, and to to seek to obey it prayerfully, with the help and grace of the Spirit, and in wisdom.

      • Cory,

        I really appreciate that you seem avidly interested in the truth of God’s Word, passionate about your faith, and displaying a wonderful humility and honesty. It is especially great to hear you say how so much of this Reformed teaching makes sense and seems to describe what you already believe! Reformed Theology has always been that for me – the more I learn it, the more I say over and over again, “Yes! That is what I have believed all along! That’s what I thought the Bible was saying!”

        From what I could tell, I think there were sort of two hesitations in your response. The first, which I think Dr. Clark addressed, had to do with the Holy Spirit using the Word in our lives today.

        QUOTE: ‘I am still not sure I agree that the Lord does not sometimes, through His Holy Spirit, bring parts of scripture to mind, or bring a reminder that He is still in control, no matter what the situation. This is what I consider “direct revelation.”’

        As Dr. Clark said, this isn’t normally what we would call “direct” revelation, but is instead the sort of ordinary, everyday work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s people THROUGH God’s revealed Word (the Bible). In that sense it is mediated rather than “direct.” That being said, we would all agree, that the Holy Spirit is VERY active today through the Word and in the church where his Word is ministered to his saints. We believe that when we sit under preaching on Sunday morning, it is not just the opinions of a preacher we hear, but it is Jesus Christ himself speaking (Romans 10:14) to his people by the Holy Spirit, insofar as the preaching is in accordance with God’s Word.

        So you see, everything is always from Scripture, through Scripture, and evaluated by Scripture. This is what the Reformers meant when they affirmed, “Sola scriptura (Scripture alone).” Not that there is no place for creeds and confessions, or theological study and learning from tradition; not that every Christian should just take their Bible and go off alone to read it; but that at every step, God’s Word in the Bible is the message we proclaim and the final/correcting authority along the way.

        Being reminded of a certain helpful Scripture verse at a given time is definitely a wonderful example of the Holy Spirit at work, but if we start waiting for and/or expecting a verse to come to mind before we’ll trust that we can be following God’s will, we are requiring more of God than he promises. We need to know God’s Word well, and make decisions according to it, but in the areas where it is silent or less clear, God gave us brains for thinking things through and for making wise decisions. He loves it when his people use their brains, and glorify him by using them well, thus bearing his image well. Even Jesus didn’t go around just waiting for little signs or things to come to mind, etc., but he applied himself to learning and studying God’s Word and growing in wisdom (Luke 2:46, 52).

        The second issue you seems to be wrestling with, is the question of cessation, that is, whether or not we ought to expect in our day the sort of miracles and healings that we see recounted in the Gospels and Acts.

        QUOTE: ‘I also believe that He still has the resurrection power to heal and perform earth-shattering miracles even today. If God is never changing, that would mean that the same Holy Spirit that fell on the Apostles could still fall on us today if there were ever an instance where we could begin to walk in one accord. (Mark 16:15-20).’

        There are a few clarifications I would want to make in response to this. First, as Dr. Clark said, we all would agree that the Holy Spirit, who is the Third Person of the Godhead, since he is God, COULD do any number of things. But we need to be careful not to see the Holy Spirit at work ONLY in the extraordinary and supernatural. One of the earliest references to the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, is in Exodus 31:3, where the Spirit of God takes credit for Bezalel’s skill and craftsmanship, which were given him by God to do the great work of constructing and decorating God’s temple as directed. If we had been there, we would most likely not have seen a flame come down upon his head, nor any other signs of the supernatural, because God by the Holy Spirit oversees all of creation all the time. So it is no less a work of the Holy Spirit that the planets consistently continue to move in their very predictable orbits, than that Christ was raised from the dead. That is not to say that the latter event is not to some degree more important in redemptive history since it is central to our faith, but only that we should not rob the Holy Spirit of the glory he is due for sustaining and upholding all of creation through his ordinary work of providence.

        Second, with regard to God never changing, we need to be careful here, because the immutability of God refers to his purposes/promises, character (perfections), and being, NOT to his actions/relations to men. His actions can and do change. For instance, right now his action toward unbelievers is to extend grace to them (common grace) and allow them to continue in their rebellion for a time without full punishment for sin. One day his actions toward them will change, when Christ comes again in glory, and all who have remained resolute in their sin will endure his full wrath for sin poured out upon them.

        Thus, just because we see the Holy Spirit doing all sorts of things in the apostolic church, does not mean we can or should expect them now, simply because God is in himself not subject to change. The Bible makes clear that the Holy Spirit has been poured out in a special way since Christ’s ascension, but that is not because something has happened to God, but because something happened in history (Christ was born, lived, died, rose, ascended, and sent the Holy Spirit to complete his work through God’s Word), and God’s actions with and toward men have adjusted accordingly (we no longer celebrate Christ in the shadows of Old Testament ceremonies, but in the fulfillment of the Word and Sacraments which point us back to Jesus Christ).

        COULD the Holy Spirit work outside of his ordinary providence and heal or raise someone today? Yes of course he COULD, in the sense that he is omnipotent, but that is not really the question we need to ask. We need to ask of God how we are to EXPECT him to work in our day. The Biblical evidence is that the Holy Spirit is very active today, through the ordinary means of grace (his Word and Sacraments) and ordinary providence (doctors, chemical reactions, plants, etc.). The message of Acts seems to be clear: these events were not written down for us to expect them to continue happening, but were written down precisely because they were extraordinary even at the time! The apostles and early church knew that these were gifts given for the ESTABLISHING of the church, and thought it was important to record them so that they would continue to be signs throughout the church age—signs attesting to the person and work of Jesus Christ even for us who live 2000 years later.

        Finally, I have a couple thoughts on the reference to Mark 16:15-20. First, the best and oldest manuscripts we have do not include Mark 16:9-20, so the verses seem to have been added at some point to smooth out what seems like an abrupt end at Mark 16:8. Nonetheless, those verses do not teach anything that is not taught elsewhere in the Bible, specifically in the Gospels, Acts, and other epistles. The promise that people—even the more ordinary believers and preachers—would perform all sorts of signs and wonders in Jesus’ name DID come true! We read about it in Acts, etc., and even here in Mark 16:20, which specifically tells us that the prophecy had already been fulfilled at the time of its writing – the Lord worked with those who preached and confirmed their message by accompanying signs. But again, we would say that he did this to ESTABLISH his church in the apostolic age, but that he continues to BUILD it through his ordinary means of grace. Even by the time Paul wrote his later epistles, it seems evident that these sorts of signs were no longer happening as they had at the outset. Rather than waiting for the Holy Spirit to reenact onetime events (Acts 2), we believe that every believer has been given the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-17), that it is only by the work of the Holy Spirit through the word that anyone can believe (1 Corinthians 12:3).

        So why would or wouldn’t we expect these extraordinary actions of the Holy Spirit today? To answer this question we need first to understand what God has revealed about the purpose of these activities of the Spirit. As noted above, Mark 16:20 stated the purpose – to confirm the message by accompanying the preaching. The focus here is not on the signs, but the preaching of the message, to which the signs served as confirmation. Hebrews 2:1-4 makes the same point. The emphasis there is clearly on HEARING the message of salvation (2:1-2), the signs, wonders, miracles, and extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit serving the purpose of bearing witness to the message of the gospel.

        The reality is that since those signs and wonders were recorded for us in God’s Word, they continue to bear witness to the message just as they did at the time they occurred. They have served their purpose and continue to serve that purpose, so now we are called eagerly to await the next great event in redemptive history—not just extraordinary works of the Holy Spirit, but the final, cataclysmic, cosmic, history-redefining event of the clouds being opened, and the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, returning in glory (Mark 13:26-27). Until then, we continue to preach the same message as the apostles—the message of our crucified and risen Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. This is the greatest sign/wonder, and the Holy Spirit attested to it with signs and wonders for the establishing of the church. Now we continue to fulfill Christ’s call on his church—to administer the sacraments and teach his Word (Matthew 28:16-20), and eagerly awaiting the next great event in redemptive history—the coming of the Son.

        Hopefully this helps clarify some things! Keep reading and thinking! 🙂

        Fix

  5. “What if God’s will for your life was already revealed? Wouldn’t that be grand? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you weren’t trapped in a circle waiting for God to speak but never really knowing if he has “spoken”? After all, how do you know if God has spoken directly to you? Is it an intuition? A hunch? Why does he seem to “speak” to others but not to me? Are there two classes of Christians? (those who receive special, extra-biblical revelations and those who do not?)”

    WOW! To think of all those years that I drove myself crazy trying to find the will of God for my life. Yet it was right in front of me the whole time. I wasted years under this kind of preaching. The preaching that tells you that God has more for you, come to the altar and cry out! Ask God to reveal his will for your life! He has more for you”. Yet while reaching and striving for the more, it never seemed to come. Funny, but all the time we were seeking for the “more” we never took the time to learn what God has already done for us through Jesus Christ. I am 47 now. I have wasted 23 years of my life because I was taught to seek the more of God’s hidden will and never was taught to walk in God’s revealed will.

    But I thank God that he pulled me out and if God should see fit and gives me 23 more years ahead of me I want to spend them seeking to understand the revealed will of God for my life. Thanks Dr. Clark for this article. I am going to read it a few more times and share it as well.

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