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KNOWING GOD’S WILL THROUGH SCRIPTURE
The following article is extracted from chapter 2 of Sinclair Ferguson’s practical Banner of Truth Trust title, Discovering God’s Will. It underscores a sorely needed emphasis for coming to know the will of God in our personal lives: the centrality of Scripture. Dr. Ferguson is assistant professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His services as preacher and lecturer are in great demand throughout the English-speaking conservative, evangelical world. Among other titles, he has also allthored: Taking the Christian Life Seriously; Grow in Grace; Man Overboard.
The ultimate purpose behind all God’s guidance is the promotion of His glory. According to the Shorter Catechism (of the Westminster Confessions), this is our chief end. But a question arises in this context: How do we know what tends to the glory of God? That is precisely the subject of the Catechism’s second question.
What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.
Have you ever recognized what a radical, all-embracing principle that is? There can be little doubt that it is here that the many differences Christians have about guidance begin to emerge. In fact, it is possible for Christians to subscribe together to the allthority, infallibility and reliability of God’s Word — yet, at the same time, differ strongly here, and to accept radically different views of how God guides us. If there is one critical issue we must face about divine guidance it is this one. Is Scripture our guide? Is Scripture ultimately “the only rule to direct us how we may glorify” God?
What does this mean in practical terms? Obviously it indicates that many of the modes of guidance which are held up to us today are to be examined with much more care than they sometimes are. Whenever the suggestion is made that “the Lord has led me to do this,” the question has to be asked: Am I doing this in obedience to, and consistently with, the one rule for guidance given to me in Scripture?
It may be objected that to say Scripture is our only rule is itself an unscriptural statement. After all, in Scripture we have direct voices from God, visions, prophecies, and other means by which God communicated his will to men. That is quite true. It seems that at one time God’s people decided difficult issues on the basis of lots. They probably used the two precious stones in the High Priest’s breastplate for this (see Ex. 28:30, Numb. 27:21). If he drew Urim out, the answer might be “Yes,” if Thummim, then the answer might be “No, God does not want you to pursue this course of action.” So Proverbs 16:33 tells us, “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” In the New Testament we find that the replacement for Judas Iscariot was chosen by lots cast by the rest of the apostles (Acts 1:15-26). But Christian churches today do not resort to lots in order to know God’s will. Why not? Becallse we recognise that these things belonged to the infancy of the church of God, and not to the new age of the gospel and the full enjoyment of the Spirit of sonship (Gal. 4:1-7). We recognize that God has spoken in various ways. Now he has spoken finally in his Son Jesus (Heb. 1:1-2). The implication, which the book of Hebrews works out at considerable length, is that we no longer live in the age in which God reveals His will to us in these diverse ways. Now He has perfectly revealed His will to us in Jesus, and we will find His guidance enshrined in the pages of our only witness to Christ — the Holy Scriptures.
In a sense the same point had been made centuries before, at least in principle. For Psalm 19 tells us of the way in which God can be known through the alltograph he has left on the created order. But this is contrasted with the clear revelation God has given in His Word. The heavens declare His glory; but if we wish to know His will, we must turn to His Word. It was this truth which Isaac Watts so bealltifully captured when he wrote:
The heavens declare Thy glory, Lord,
In every star Thy wisdom shines;
But when our eyes behold Thy Word,
We read Thy Name in fairer lines.
There is progress in revelation. As one epoch passes away, God introduces a new way of communicating with men. Now that we live in what the New Testament calls the “last days,” His final way of communicating with men has been deposited with us. Indeed, the New Testament speaks about this “deposit” (paradosis 5 “tradition” in A.V.). We are to hold to it (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). There is now no other rule than the one we find enshrined in the Word of God which Christ has given to His people through the allthority of apostolic ministry.
How then does God make His will known to us? Primarily by teaching us about Himself and our relationship to Him. John Calvin expressed it perfectly when he wrote at the beginning of his greatest book:
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to way, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (Institutes, 1:1:1.)
As we come to know the character of God, and His ways with men, we shall increasingly discover this wisdom — that is, the practical knowledge of His will and the ways in which it is to be put into action.
Scripture provides this knowledge for us basically in three ways:
1. God gives direct commandments and prohibitions to us. Alltomatically we will think of the Ten Commandments. Here are principles which govern life in all places at all times. Becallse they are the expression of God’s original purposes for man, they stand throughout all the epochs of the kingdom of God. There are certain applications of them which applied only during the period of the Mosaic Law. But the laws, the principles themselves stand for ever.
There are also other commands. These are apostolic commands in every one of the New Testament letters. When we say we believe in the Apostolic Church, one of the things we mean is that, in a sense, we are still under apostolic allthority. There are still apostles today — they are in the church triumphant — but they continue to exercise their Christ-ordained ministry through the pages of Scripture and the commands they have given to us. Then there are the commands of Jesus; the applications He made of God’s word, for example in the Sermon on the Mount. The whole Bible is full of clear-cut guidance to help us to live to the glory of God!
2. There are principles worked out in Scripture. It would be a mistake, for example, to think that becoming a Christian always meant that we had to sell all that we have and give the proceeds to the poor — as our Lord told one young man. But, none the less, there is a principle enshrined in Jesus’ command. It is the principle that Jesus must be Lord of all, or He is not Lord at all. What he said to the young ruler was simply a special appllcation which revealed that the young man had not really responded to that principle in his heart (cf. Matt. 19:16-30).
3. There are also illustrations; biographical accounts which demonstrate how these general principles of God’s dealings with His people work out in personal experience and practice. They are recorded in the third person, but sometimes (in the Psalms and elsewhere) poignantly described in the first person. They show the ways of God with men, and teach what God requires of us, does for us, and works out through us.
How then does the Lord generally guide us through the rule of Scripture? Often when we are very young Christians, God seems to carry us along (Is. 40:11). We do not yet have the understanding to distinguish right from wrong, good from bad, better from best. We take what is set before us. We are children, and are only beginning to develop a sense of what the Lord’s will is.
But when we begin to grow, God begins to let us stand on our feet. We begin to take our first independent steps (but not, of course, in an independent spirit). We find that there are choices to make; we find that now we have to apply God’s Word to our own situation. The chief need we have, therefore, is that of increased familiarity with and sensitivity to the wisdom of His Word.
The wonderful thing about God is that He is unchanging. His word is secure. He does not altar His mind. When we come to know Him, His ways and His commands in Scripture, we can be sure that these hold good always. As we familiarize ourselves with all that He has revealed about Himself, we learn to know His mind. As we grow in love for Him we learn to be sensitive to how He will be thinking about our situation. As we grow more and more like Him, we shall find that the yoke of Christ is comfortable on our shoulders. An instinct is created within us by which we know the will of the Lord for our lives. I have never found better words to express this notion than those of John Newton:
But how then may the Lord’s guidance be expected?… In general, He guides and directs His people, by affording them, in answer to prayer, the light of His Holy Spirit, which enables them to understand and to love the Scriptures. The Word of God is not to be used as a lottery; nor is it designed to instruct us by shreds and scraps, which, detached from their proper places, have no determinate import; but it is to furnish us with just principles, right apprehensions to regulate our judgements and affections, and thereby influence and direct our conduct. (Letters, pp. 81-82).
It may be said, by way of objection that this tends to lock God up in the pages of a book, and deny us any direct access to Him and His will for our lives. Naturally, unless we maintain a real spirit of dependence upon the ministry of the Spirit leading us into the true meaning and application of Scripture, this may happen. But the abuse of a true principle is not really an argument against it. The principle itself must be allowed to stand. This is not to deny that we need supernatural aid to know the will of God. On the contrary, this is exactly what is being affirmed! But what we need supernatural help to do is to understand and apply our only rule of life, our only source of the knowledge of God and His will — the Holy Scriptures.
Does this not deny the many mysterious elements which so many Christians have discovered in the way God has led them? Not necessarily! There are several things we should notice.
There is much that is mysterious about the way God guides us. What is plain to Him is frequently obscure to us. But we are not called by God to make the mysterious, the unusual, the inexplicable the rule of our lives, but His word. Further, it should be noted that very often these experiences, in which we begin to sense or understand what God’s will for us is, fit in perfectly with the conviction that the Word of God is a living, active guide to us. It penetrates between soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12-13). We should not be surprised to discover that God brings special pressures to bear even on our subconscious thoughts by its deep application to the whole of our lives.
There is an arresting example of this in Acts 16:6-10. Twice, by circumstances or through unknown callses, the Spirit of God prevented the apostle Palll and his companions from fulfilling their own plans. Then, one night, Palll had a vision. A man from Macedonia was begging him to come to that land. What did the little group of evangelists do? They got ready at once to leave (Acts 16:10). Why? Becallse they concluded that God had called them. The verb Luke uses is interesting. It means to put two things together, side by side, in order to reach a conclusion. What these men did was not simply to obey the vision. They knew that no vision could be a rule of conduct. No; they placed the vision alongside all that they knew of God and all that he had been doing in their circumstances. Then they concluded that going to Macedonia would be consistent with all the light God had previously given about His present will for them. So they responded to the vision; not becallse it was a vision, but becallse of what they were able to conclude when they placed it alongside their knowledge of God. That prior knowledge was a combination of Old Testament Scripture and apostolic teaching. We too have that same combination. It is found in the pages of Holy Scripture.
Since this is the fundamental way in which God guides us, there will obviously be a number of other principles which will accompany the study of God’s Word. Three may be mentioned here.
Firstly, God’s guidance will require patience on our part. His leading is not usually a direct assurance, a revelation, but His sovereign controlling of the circumstances of our lives, with the Word of God as our rule. It is therefore inevitable that the unfolding of His purposes will take time — sometimes a very long time.
James makes an illuminating comment on this. He tells us how Job exhibited patience and perseverance under difficult circumstances. James compares Job’s viewpoint with that of his own readers. Job did not know what God’s ultimate purpose was. But the readers, hundreds of years later, do know, since they have seen what the Lord finally brought about (Jas. 5:10-11). This contrast underlines the difficulties in which we often find ourselves. We do not see what the Lord will finally bring about. We sometimes think we have learned what His ultimate purpose is for our lives, only to discover that we are like climbers who thought the next peak was the final summit. Only when we reach it do we discover that there is still some further height to scale in the purposes of God.
I have sometimes thought that there are few more testing experiences than that of walking according to the light which God has given, only to discover that everything seems to be crumbling to dust in one’s hands. Then there may come days of doubt, disillusionment with oneself, perhaps a tinge of bitterness, like that the psalmists sometimes record. Much later on we may be in a position to see how all the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle have fitted perfectly together. We can say “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (I Sam. 7:12). But how we need patience, and how impatient we often are! Those who would submit to the guidance of God will need to pray for patience.
Secondly, it is essential that we come to see the part which our own thinking should play in the discernment of the will of God. Indeed, it is an invaluable exercise to reflect on the last phrase of that previous sentence. It expresses a whole theology of guidance. Do you speak about God’s guidance as “discerning the will of God?” Or, do you usually speak of it in terms such as “I felt led to do it?” Guidance, knowing God’s will for our lives, is much more a matter of thinking than of feeling. We are not to be “foolish” (literally “mindless”) says Palll, but to understand what the will of the Lord is (Eph. 5:17). Of course this is a spiritual matter. But it is not merely a matter of spiritual sensitivity. It is also a matter of understanding.
Psalm 119:66 teaches us to pray: “Teach me good judgment and knowledge: for I have believed Thy commandments.” This is precisely the balance we need to learn. The psalmist uses the word “taam” which means “taste.” He is asking for such an understanding and thoughtful application of God’s word in his life that he will be able, as occasion arises, to put his finger on the direction which God wants him to take. This does not come by experience alone. It comes through a combination of the study of God’s Word (where we learn the great principles of His will), a heart which is submitted to the Lord of the Word, and the help of the Spirit who illuminates the word and leads us into a true application of its principles to our own situation. One of the consequences of this is that we have a growing “taste,” or sense, of the will of God. We no longer leaf through Scripture in a flurry wondering whether there is some Word from God which will leap out of the pages to help and inspire us! On the contrary, we will enjoy what the apostle John called “an anointing from the Holy One” (I Jn. 2:20). We will know God’s will, becallse we can “judge” or “taste” the flavor of His purposes for us.
Knowing God’s will is a matter of judgment. That is why it is not an unspiritual practice, when faced with alternative ways of proceeding, to set down the pros and cons of the situation; the reasons, possibilities, problems of one decision in contrast with another. When we begin to evaluate these against a background of a general knowledge of the Lord’s will in Scripture, we often find our minds drawn in a particular direction. As time passes we begin to feel the weight of one course of action rather than another.
Thirdly, the discovery of God’s will and its accomplishment involves our will. I remember discussing my own future with a friend when I was considerably younger, and expressing doubts about my suitability for a particular sphere of labor. His response was illuminating: “It is not lack of ability that is the issue here” he said, “but the lack of the will to commit yourself to it.” That is the heart of the matter for many of us. “Should I or shouldn’t I?” is often, ultimately, a question of “ Will I, or will I not.” It involves commitment and obedience as well as knowledge and understanding. Very often when young people say they are having problems about guidance, what they are really faced with is a problem about obedience. The issue at stake is whether we will walk along the paths of righteousness in which God will lead us. Are we willing to go through valleys of deep darkness, so long as He is with us?
Such is the point of Palll’s great summons to consecration in Romans 12:1-2, where he begins radically to apply the many mercies of God about which he has been speaking in the previous chapters. Only consecration to Christ as a living, bodily sacrifice, will ever bring us to discover in experience that the will of God is good, pleasing and perfect.
Perhaps this is why our forefathers rarely wrote or spoke about the problem of guidance. They had analysed the facts more biblically. They concentrated on teaching themselves and others the will of God which they discovered in Scripture, and the life of obedience to God in a daily submission to and application of His truth.
For some the way ahead may seem very clear, and straight. For others the position may seem to be the very reverse. For some, the great issues of guidance may be settled, apparently, in a moment of special illumination; for others, it takes a long time before we are able to reach a settled mind. God does not deal with us as a crowd, but as individuals. The very process by which He reveals His will to us is part of the special guidance which He has promised to us. His timing, like His wisdom, is absolutely perfect, and we can trust Him without reserve.
But, will you?
Thy way, not mine, O Lord,
However dark it be!
Lead me by Thine own hand,
Choose out the path for me.
Smooth let it be or rough,
It will be still the best;
Winding, or straight, it leads
Right onward to Thy rest.
I dare not choose my lot;
I would not if I might;
Choose Thou for me, my God,
So shall I walk aright.
The kingdom that I seek
Is Thine, so let the way
That leads to it be Thine,
Else I must surely stray.
Take Thou my cup, and it
With joy or sorrow fill,
As best to Thee may seem;
Choose Thou my good and ill.
Choose Thou for me my friends,
My sickness or my health;
Choose Thou my cares for me,
My poverty or wealth.
Not mine, not mine the choice,
In things both great or small;
Be Thou my Guide, my Strength,
My Wisdom, and my All.
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Bekijk de hele uitgave van woensdag 1 mei 1985
The Banner of Truth | 20 Pagina's
Bekijk de hele uitgave van woensdag 1 mei 1985
The Banner of Truth | 20 Pagina's