The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (Part 3)

In 1381, Archbishop William Courtenay (c. 1342–96) held a synod at the Blackfriars in London for the purpose of condemning the Oxford theologian John Wycliffe (c. 1328–84). 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 sometimes like to say, “God raised up Martin Luther.” So he did. Unless we are Manicheans, however, 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 is 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 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 are 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 prayerfully cast lots or drew straws to see which one should serve, I would not object; but now we are simply looking at some ordinary mechanism for making a morally good choice. That is a matter of indifference. No one would reasonably lay claim for direct divine guidance in such a case.

The truth is, as I have already shown from Scripture, we do not 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 will 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 is a fallen world, and the consequences of sin are equally terrible and distressing. Can we always discern some lesson we were meant to learn from some episode? Probably not.

The goodness of God’s providence and the wisdom of his actions are 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 twentieth century.

We do know God, however. We know him in Christ. We know him in his gospel promises and in his moral law. That is enough. We do not 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.

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 have not 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 has not received such guidance and revelation.
  3. Christian X either a) is not really a Christian, or b) does not 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 of redemptive history. The Red Sea has been parted. The tomb is empty. The canon is closed. We have 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 are still in bondage because you are waiting for the still, small voice? Quoth Bob Newhart: “Stop it!”

What if God’s will for your life was already revealed? Would that not be grand? Would it not be wonderful if you were not 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 is 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. Yet that is exactly contrary to Paul’s whole argument. Further, we are 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 is God’s perfect will for me?”

I will 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 do not need an extra-biblical revelation to know this. It is in God’s Word.

Then there is wisdom. If you are not good with your hands, perhaps you should not be a tradesman. If you are not good with numbers, you probably should not go into business or banking. You do not need a special revelation from God to know those things. You really do not.

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 is worth repeating. There is little moral difference between someone telling us “God’s will” on the basis of the “small, still voice” or because he is a “prophet.” In both cases, post-apostolic, ordinary Christians who do not 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 is true?

“What if it is true? Well, since I am 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 are not any such thing. The truth is that they are simply redescribing 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 does not matter.

One glorious consequence of the biblical and Reformed doctrine of sola Scriptura is that we do not 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 do not need a special gift to read God’s Word, trust it, and obey it. We are free in Christ to obey God’s publicly revealed will, and we are free to ignore the spurious claims of all sorts of prophets. We are not missing out. They do not 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 do not 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.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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