Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

19 Sep 2018

Knowing God’s Will: An Alternative View


I’ve been reading, recently and with great interest, a blog series defending what is sometimes called the “traditional view” of Christian decision-making—the view that (1) God has an “individual will” for believers and (2) that it can be “discovered.” My intent in this post is not to offer a point-by-point analysis of that series, but rather to offer a succinct statement of an alternative view, together with some hesitations I have with the “traditional” view.

  • The idea of the will of God is plainly taught in Scripture in at least two senses. There is, firstly, God’s decretal will, that comprehensive conglomerate of all things that shall occur. Included here are all events (Eph 1:11), even the evil ones (Amos 3:6; Prov 16:4; Lam 3:37–38; Acts 2:23; 4:27–28; etc.). Most of the time (making exception for a few details divulged via predictive prophecy) this will is secret: while the secret will of God is a precise “dot” with absolute specificity, this “dot” cannot be discovered before the fact. We know this will only as it actually happens.
  • Secondly, we have God’s directive will—his will of ethical expectation—that details, via special revelation, what should occur (e.g., Acts 20:27; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 8:5; Eph 6:6; 1 Thess 4:3; 5:18; Heb 10:36; 1 Pet 4:2; 1 John 2:17). This will is comprehensively supplied in the Bible, which thoroughly equips the believer for every good work and gives him everything necessary for life and godliness (so 2 Tim 3:17; 2 Pet 1:3). But while the Bible speaks sufficiently to all questions involving moral ought, it does not always speak with infinite specificity. As such, the discovery of certain specifics of this will can be difficult. Sometimes the Bible speaks directly to our decisions (i.e., in such a way that we can appeal directly to chapter and verse), other times indirectly (i.e., in ways that discernable only by careful harmonization, principle, and appropriate analogies of biblical situations to our own), and sometimes only remotely (i.e., giving us the abstract preconditions of the intelligibility necessary to making our decision, but not the data specific to the question).

The last is perhaps the hardest to follow, so let me give an example: If I need to decide whether to fix a car or discard it, the Bible gives me general (ethical) principles of financial stewardship and personal responsibility to inform my decision, and also supplies the preconditions of intelligibility that make the study of auto mechanics and fiscal theory possible. It does not tell me, however, what is wrong with my car, how much the repairs will cost, how much my car is worth, what additional problems will go wrong with my car in the next year, what replacement options are available, and so forth. This does not alter the fact that the Bible speaks sufficiently to every ethical decision I need to make.

  • What I cannot find in Scripture is any suggestion that in response to obedience, yielding, or even prayer, God will take from his store of “secret things” and make some of those things discoverable. There are two mutually exclusive and fixed categories of truth (secret and revealed—Deut 29:29); there is no category of revelation that is “becoming”—at least not in the present age. Such a proposal, I would suggest, involves not only (1) a blurring of biblical/theological categories, but also (2) a nod to mystic or even Gnostic principles that have long troubled the Christian Church, and, de facto, (3) serious injury to cessationist principles.
  • As a VanTilian, I am convinced also that nodecision in life is truly a morally neutral one—even mundane decisions like “Crest vs. Colgate” that the author of the series to which I am responding excepts from his decision-making strategy. Were I omniscient (as God is), then I would know that one of these two products represents an ever-so-slightly better stewardship of my God-given teeth. Since I am not omniscient, I concluded long ago that the investment of time necessary to the discovery of this superior stewardship would be a poor stewardship of my time, and so I use the Colgate that keeps appearing in my medicine cabinet month after month. Still, I do so with the knowledge that every decision in life has ethical implications, and choosing rightly or wrongly makes a difference. Cumulatively, these decisions make a big difference. After all, ours is a closed universe, so every decision I make affects every other decision I make. Decision-making of all sorts is important.
  • As a VanTilian, I am also aware of the problem of the “one and the many” in decision-making. When I make decisions, there are sometimes many options that may be right for me. For instance, if I am choosing hymns for Sunday worship, I need not discover the qualitatively best hymn ever written and sing it four times over. There are a great many good options available to me. True, not allof the options available to me are good and beautiful and true and appropriate and timely, but at the end of the day there can be more than one option that is—and in such cases I may select from among several excellent possibilities.
  • I would never say, however, that this (or any) decision is superfluous, or, worse, that “if there ain’t a Bible verse, I can do whatever I want.” While some have made these accusations against Friessen, Petty, DeYoung, and others who reject the “individual” will of God, this is surely a miscarriage of their positions. While there is almost always a “better” choice in any decision, the significance of my decisions is not always great. Choosing my toothpaste has ethical implications, but these are relatively few and insignificant when compared with the implications of choosing my career or my wife or my God. So I devote more time and effort to such decisions, and, yes, much prayer. Specifically, I pray for wisdom.

But the answer that I seek from God is not revelation or affirmations that satiate my elusive quest for certainty. In a great many cases, certainty is something God does not give—it is part of the “secret things” that belong alone to him. I am not omniscient and never will be so long as God is God. And that’s a good thing. I pray instead that I will have skill in applying God’s Word, patience and discipline to do the homework necessary to making a good decision, objectivity of mind, the advice of wise counselors, and above all the willingness to submit to what I know to be right. And armed with these, despite the lingering uncertainty that often remains (because I’m not God), I make my choice. This is, in summary, the “wisdom” approach to decision making.

In short, then, rather than praying for a temporary breach of the creator/creature distinction to discover what God hasn’t revealed (the traditional view), the wisdom approach prays for the diligence necessary to knowing and the humility necessary to submitting to what he has revealed.

  • At the end of the day, the decision-making processes of the respective approaches often look very similar. Still, I remain concerned not only about the susceptibility of the traditional view to mysticism and continuationism (noted above), but also to a variety of related errors—all of which I have seen multiple times in a church setting. Among these:

Some Christians of the unimaginative and objective variety will seek to discover God’s will via prayer and yielding, fail to find it, and then conclude that they are spiritually unworthy of the secret knowledge that others receive. It is these paralyzed folk that DeYoung rightly encourages to “Just Do Something.”

Other Christians, more imaginative and subjective in disposition, inventively “discover” God’s will by mystical means (often without due diligence), then announce, e.g., that “God told me…” or “God gave me peace about…” These often arrogantly assume themselves to be more spiritually worthy of divine attention than lesser Christians, or at least more attuned to God’s secret knowledge. They also prove rather resistant to counsel (after all, who can successfully argue with “God told me…”?)

Finally, having made a decision, believers in both categories above fall into deep despair when their decision goes awry, imagining themselves to be “outside” of God’s will and incapable of getting back in. Why do they think this? Well, because the traditional view is often attended by the proposal that God will never allow a believer to make a right decision that ends poorly: in the words of one song-writer of this persuasion, “Absolute success is guaranteed [when we’re] walking in the goodness of the Lord!”

I conclude that the traditional view, while neither monolithic nor equally practiced, rests on a foundation of mysticism and a breach of the creator/creature distinction, both ideas which lead to additional theological/practical errors detailed here in this post and elsewhere. The “wisdom” approach is to be preferred.

5 Responses

  1. Pingback : Is there a specific will of God we’re supposed to discern? | Religious Affections Ministries: Conservative Christianity, Worship, Culture, Aesthetics, Classical Education, Homeschooling, Family

  2. Cindi

    I grew up thinking that, and the despair was real. I WANTED to know God’s will, but when the outcome was difficult (He was teaching me the most about Himself then), I despaired believing that I had chosen what was NOT God’s will, and at several points was ready to throw in the towel on Christianity. I believed I was not innately good enough to choose God properly. How grateful I am that He did not give “good” (humanly speaking) outcomes! He drew me to Himself, gave me a proper view of myself and Him, and continues to disciple me as His child every day. I am sharing this with my own kids. Thank you for sharing it with us..

  3. David Doran, Jr.

    Helpful read, Dr. Snoeberger! I am so thankful for your teaching. I wonder about this “breach of the creator/creature distinction” though… it as already been drastically breached in the work of the Incarnation and exponentially expanded in the giving of the Spirit. Is the indwelling of the Spirit experiential in any way?

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    The breach of which I wrote is epistemological. There is knowledge that is revealed and belongs to us; there is knowledge that is secret and belongs to God (Deut 29:29). What concerns me is the idea of a semi-secret knowledge that belongs to a kind of spiritual cognoscenti.

    Yes, of a certainty the work of the Spirit is experiential. He changes me so that I search out, welcome, submit to, and love God’s revelation. What I submit that he does NOT do is give me additional revelation beyond what is found in the Scriptures.


  5. paul

    I would recommend reading Dr. Snoeberger’s DBSJ 2018 review of John Piper’s recent book about reading the Bible “supernaturally” for some interesting material which seems – at least to me – closely related to what he sets forth in this post.