The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (Part 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 us 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 it, “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” (Judg 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 Deuteronomy 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 do not know whom God has elected. We do not know what God’s providence holds. We cannot presume to interpret God’s providence (Job 38). We do not know why the Tower in Siloam fell (Luke 13:4). We do not know who will come to faith. Apart from the ordinary providence of God, we do not 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 (Num 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 Deuteronomy 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” (Deut 29:29). 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.

According to Deuteronomy 29:29, believers are to trust in, rely upon, listen to, and obey what God has revealed, rather than to seek what 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 when Saul turned 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 we are tempted to act like Saul is that Americans are conditioned to believe 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 (Exod 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.”1 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” (John 3:16), 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 imperatives. 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 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 and apostolic phenomena in the post-apostolic era.

Modern evangelicals often assume that the line between post-canonical and canonical life is blurry or non-existent. It is widely assumed that we are in the exact same place in history as the prophets and apostles, and that we can, if we have enough faith, replicate the same phenomena that occurred in redemptive history. In other words, for many evangelicals, we live in “redemptive history.” Anyone who challenges this biblicist paradigm is said to be “spiritually dead” or “unregenerate” or “dead orthodox.”

Confessional Reformed piety has not been able to satisfy the pietists or the Anabaptists before them. Thomas Müntzer accused the confessional Protestants of dead orthodoxy in the sixteenth century. The dividing line was the question of whether there is a bright line between canonical history and post-canonical history.

Reformed folk have tended to respect that bright line. None of us has been taken up into the Third Heaven (2 Cor 12:2). We have not seen the risen Christ (Acts 26:13). We do not receive direct revelations from Christ (1 Cor 14:30). We generally do not have healing services (Acts 5:15–16; 8:7) or raise the dead (Acts 9:40–41; 20:11) literally; nor do we put people to death (see Acts 5) or teleport about (Acts 8:39).

Respect for the bright line between canonical and post-canonical history does not mean that we believe the Spirit is no longer active. He most certainly is. Whether what he has promised to do and does interests anyone is another question (see the next part of this series), but we certainly understand him to be active. We understand him to operate through the preaching of the Word (Rom 10) and we understand him to operate through the holy sacraments (Matt 28:20; 1 Cor 11; Luke 22; Eph 5:26; Titus 3:5).

One great difference between Reformed and modern evangelical piety is the word mediated. We understand God’s presence and operation in the church to be mediated through the Word and sacraments. Like the sixteenth-century Anabaptists, the modern evangelicals reject or are suspicious of the idea of mediated presence or mediated revelation.

Since the early part of the eighteenth century, Americans have been deeply suspicious of all forms of authority. It was not long ago that US Senators were elected by state representatives. Gradually what was once a representative republic is turning into a giant town meeting. That is because we are a revolutionary, egalitarian people. Whatever social benefits there may be to this way of thinking, it is not the way of the kingdom of God. This is another very good reason to distinguish between the civil and spiritual spheres. The culture outside the church is one thing, and the culture of the church is another. The confusion of the two, particularly to baptize the prevailing anti-authority, autonomous spirit of modernity, threatens to do great damage to the church of Christ.

The prevailing American cultural resistance to mediation means that we want to know for ourselves, directly. We do not want anyone to tell us. This is one reason why Pentecostalism and charismatic and other forms of pietist mysticism have flourished in the modern period in the USA. Who needs a preacher when the Spirit is giving everyone apostolic power and revelation? It feeds our cultural prejudices and it leaves unchallenged many cultural assumptions. Those traditions (revivalism, pietism, fundamentalism, Pentecostalism) that stress the immediate encounter with the risen Christ flourish here because they are most like the prevailing culture.

Note

  1. Gerhardus Vos, “‘True’ and ‘Truth’ in the Johannine Writings,” The Biblical Review 12 (1927), 507–20.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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Posted by R. Scott Clark | Friday, February 23, 2024 | Categorized in Practica. R. Scott Clark. Bookmark the permalink.

About R. Scott Clark

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. Read more» He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.