The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (Part 2)

Prior to the modern period the predominant question in the West was, “What has God said?” There were different answers to this question. Rome pointed to the church as the source of revelation and the Protestants pointed to Scripture as read by the church. Both pointed to an extrinsic authority. In the modern period, the place of authority moved to within us. We became the measure of all things. Perhaps the greatest question of the modern period (since c. 1650) has been, “Has God said?”

One reaction to the religious doubt and outright skepticism of the modern period has been to do an “end run” around the crisis via direct, unmediated access to the divine mind (rationalism), to direct, unmediated divine revelation (mysticism), or to immediate experience of the transcendent. The pietist knows that the Christian faith is true because “He walks with me and he talks with me.”1 In principle, and too often in practice, the pietist simply gives up the historicity of the faith in favor of a subjective encounter with the risen Christ or with the transcendent.

The reaction to the subjective turn is to deny subjectivity in the faith altogether. This denial is a sort of intellectualism. The historic Christian faith is propositional and it is historical, and anyone, as they say on public radio, “who says otherwise is itching for a fight.” Nevertheless, is that all there is? Is there any confirmation of the faith beyond what I read on the page in holy Scripture or hear in the sermon or eat at the table or see at the baptismal font?

“Beyond” is not the best word. This gets us back to the end-run approach. It would be better that we say “through.” Reformed folk believe that the Spirit operates through the Word and sacraments. Through the gospel the Spirit works to make dead sinners alive (Eph 2). Through faith the Spirit creates existential union with the risen Christ. By virtue of that union, the Spirit creates and fosters communion between the risen Christ and his people.

The psalms are replete with reflection upon the communion between Christ and his people. Consider just one example of Psalm 51:6: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.” This is a high point in one of the most touching, personal, heartfelt, and intimate prayers in all of Scripture. This is a sinner crying out for the grace of forgiveness and a restored sense of God’s presence.

In Scripture and Christian experience, we see seasons where one’s sense of the presence of God waxes and wanes (WCF 18.4). Psalm 21 is evidently the witness of a believer (David, according to the superscription) who is enjoying a rich experience of God’s presence. “For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.” This presence, which results in joy and peace, is in stark contrast to the presence he describes a few verses later, the presence of judgment and condemnation.

Reformed theology understands that the Spirit operates through the Word by illuminating that Word, by casting light on it, by making clearer what was obscure. Of course, Westminster Confession 1.7 reminds us that “all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves.” The Spirit does help us to understand what is necessary to know for faith and life. Paul speaks of this illumination when he speaks of “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18).

The Reformed tradition has written about this aspect of the faith at great length. William Perkins, Richard Sibbes, William Ames, and John Owen are just a few of the well-known English writers who have written about these aspects of Christian faith and life. A number of Dutch Reformed writers (e.g., Gisbertus Voetius and Wilhelmus a Brakel) addressed these same sorts of questions.

What we do not want to do is to give in either to religious subjectivism or intellectualism. Calvin says in his commentary on Acts 16:14–15,

But we must note the expression that the heart of Lydia was opened so that she paid attention to the external voice of a teacher. For as preaching on its own is nothing else but a dead letter, so, on the other hand, we must beware lest a false imagination, or the semblance of secret illumination, leads us away from the Word upon which faith depends, and on which it rests. For in order to increase the grace of the Spirit, many invent for themselves vague inspirations so that no use is left for the external Word. But the Scripture does not allow such a separation to be made, for it unites the ministry of men with the secret inspiration of the Spirit. If the mind of Lydia had not been opened, the preaching of Paul would have been mere words; yet God inspires her not only with the mere revelations but with reverence for his Word, so that the voice of a man, which otherwise would have vanished into thin air, penetrates a mind that has received the gift of heavenly light.

Therefore let us hear no more of the fanatics who make the excuse of the Spirit to reject external teaching. For we must preserve the balance which Luke established here, that we obtain nothing from the hearing of the Word alone, without the grace of the Spirit, and that the Spirit is conferred on us not that He may produce contempt of the Word, but rather to instill confidence in it in our minds and write it on our hearts.2

We like the idea of special, individualized messages from God about our particular circumstance or question. We do not much like the idea of struggling in prayer and thought over what is the wisest course. But as important as the Reformed doctrine of illumination is, when it comes to making decisions, Scripture probably says more about wisdom than it does about illumination.

Remember, there is an entire section of holy Scripture that we describe as the “wisdom literature.” The most frequent OT term for wisdom (chokmah) occurs (I think) 113 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. To return to the verse we looked at above, it is linked closely to the illuminating work of the Spirit: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom (חָכְמָה) in the secret heart” (Ps 51:6; 51:8 MT).

Frequently, wisdom denotes a particular (usually God-given) skill such as building or some other craft (Exod 31:6; 1 Kgs 7:14). When it comes to making decisions, we might think of wisdom as the God-given skill of applying the moral law of God to particular issues. Solomon had this sort of wisdom (1 Kgs 10:23). He had a unique, God-given insight into the nature of things. He was clear minded. He had a firm grasp on reality. He paid attention. He learned. All of these things are aspects of wisdom.

In Luke 2:40 we read that Jesus was endowed with wisdom (sophia). There is a worldly (unbelieving) wisdom which we might call either rationalism or empiricism. Those forms of “wisdom” make the human intellect or human sense-experience the arbiter of all truth. Paul rejected this sort of pseudo wisdom (1 Cor 1:19–22; 3:19, etc.). God’s salvation of his people in Christ seems foolish to the wise of “this age,” but Christ is God’s wisdom, the perfect, appropriate, and even surprising saving act at just the right moment (1 Cor 1:24; Eph 3:10).

Paul prayed that the Colossians might have wisdom:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col 1:9–10)

When Paul says “spiritual,” he does not mean “ethereal” or “immaterial.” Rather, he means, “that which comes from the Spirit.” It is not necessarily immediate, however. There is an objective standard of wisdom: the revealed will of God. The fruit of it is not that we know what God has not revealed publicly in his Word, but that we live congruently to and in obedience to the revealed moral will of God. This bears fruit (Jas 3:17). This brings knowledge.

We often think that we have to know secrets before we can obey. Scripture teaches the exact opposite. John Frame very wisely said once in class that genuine wisdom begins with obedience. Only when we have obeyed the Lord (or at least tried to make a beginning of obedience) do we see and realize the wisdom of God’s Word as distinct from what we think is good or proper. It is counter-intuitive, but it is true nonetheless. That is the difference between theory and practice. There are some skills that have to be learned through practice. The skill of swinging a golf club just so takes a great deal of repetition, discipline, and training. One can study videos and books, and a grasp of the theory of a golf swing is essential—but so is practice. The satisfying ping of club meeting ball perfectly is the result of skill, which in turn is the result of submission to the nature of the game. That is a sort of wisdom.

If we want to know the moral will of God, we need a public revelation—which we have. We need illumination of that will, which the Spirit gives. We need wisdom—skill in understanding that will, in knowing ourselves, and in reckoning with the circumstance to which it is to be applied.

Wisdom is essential to knowing God’s will. Getting wisdom is not easy. It takes practice. You will fail. You will struggle. If it were easy, everyone would have it, and it seems obvious that not everyone has it! That is why God gave us an entire collection of axioms, a book of Proverbs, to see what wisdom looks like in daily life. Wisdom may not be sexy, and one might not be able to market it as the latest and greatest thing, but it is God’s thing, and it is just the thing for those who would be godly.


  1. C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden,” 1913
  2. John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles, vo. 1, trans., John W. Fraser, ed., David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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