Posted by: reformedmusings | November 14, 2010

Discerning God’s Will

Exhortation for the Lord’s Day, 14 Nov 2010.

OT Reading: Dt 29:16-30:10
NT Reading: Jn 9:1-7
Sermon Text: 1 Thes 4:1-12

I always “write” exhortations in my head before putting fingers to keyboard. This exhortation followed that pattern. The problem came in when I realized that the exhortation in my head would probably run about two hours or more. I believe the great Reformed Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon once lamented that the day was coming when Christians wouldn’t even sit through a three hour sermon. Not coincidentally, that was the average length of his sermons. Providentially, God created me too lazy to type a two-hour exhortation, so don’t panic. You should be able to make the beginning of the first game this afternoon. Besides, the Eagles don’t crush the Redskins until tomorrow night.

Let me start by laying some ground work. Theologically, we generally refer to two aspects of God’s will. First, there’s God’s revealed or preceptive will which He lays out clearly in Scripture. Then there’s God’s secret or decretive will. That’s God’s eternal plan for all things and is known only to him. It doesn’t become apparent to us until it actually comes to pass. We saw in Deuteronomy 29 and 30 that God laid out blessings and curses for Israel based on their obedience or disobedience to His clear commands – His preceptive will. But in the middle of the passage that Steve read, God warns Israel and us that although His precepts belong us and our children forever, the secret things belong to Him alone. Dr. R. C. Sproul, Sr., states that if we seek to know God’s decretive will, our quest is a fool’s errand. Yet, these two aspects of God’s will marvelously intertwine as we will see this morning.

In his 9th chapter, John records a great example of Dr. Sproul’s assertion concerning God’s decretive will. As Steve read, the disciples quizzed Jesus about a man who had been born blind. In the theology of that day, suffering could be traced back to sin. They were certain that’s how God’s secret will worked. Apparently they didn’t learn much from Job. Our Lord set the record straight – the man wasn’t blind because of his or his parents’ sin, but so that the works of God might be displayed. We should learn this lesson well. The secret things belong to God and He has not been pleased to share them with us. Dr. Sproul believes that this is partly why God hates fortune-telling, séances, and similar practices. They represent detestable and futile attempts to invade God’s privacy.

So, here we sit as believers. We’ve heard the gospel preached either over days or years, maybe decades. At some point in our lives, God in His infinite grace regenerated our hearts and enabled us to trust in Jesus alone for our eternal salvation with a faith that God himself gave us. The Father has forgiven our sins, credited Jesus’ righteousness to our account, and prepared a place in heaven for us to spend eternity. How awesome is that? And yet…

And yet here we are. Jesus prayed in John 17, not that God would take us out of the world, but to keep us from the evil one. What now? How do we live in this world? Should I marry or stay single? Should I become a missionary or pastor, build houses, fix cars or fly jets? Should I buy the red car or the black one? For whom should I vote? What should I do in the circumstances of my life for the four-score or more years that I walk this earth, Lord willing that it should be that long? How do I discern God’s will for me in the complex circumstances of my life?

Augustine, who lived in the 4th and 5th Century A.D., provided the most concise answer to these questions in the history of Christianity. He said simply: “Love God and do whatever you please.” What did he mean by that? The Westminster Shorter Catechism says it a bit differently when it asks “What is the chief end of man?” and answers “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Let’s turn to our text for this morning for insight. Please turn to 1 Thes 4:1-12 in your  Bibles:

Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

Note carefully verse 3: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” Here God explicitly tells us his will for us. We are to become more and more conformed to the image of Jesus throughout our walk on this earth. And Paul doesn’t just provide a theoretical statement here; he puts it in the context of living an obedient life of righteousness; a life pleasing to God. How do we do that? The WSC provides the answer in question two which asks “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?” It answers:

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.

So, if we want to know God’s will for us in the circumstances of our lives, we need to be in His Word. We’re not talking about opening the Bible when a particular issue besets us, flipping to a random page, and dropping our finger blindly to find God’s magic verse of the moment. Don’t laugh, I’ve seen people do just that. No, we are to be in His Word daily, regularly reading through it in its entirety – from the “In the beginning…” of Genesis to the “Amen” at the end of Revelation. We need to know God, not just know about God.

Here in 1 Thes., the Holy Spirit through Paul provides some explicit examples of how we “ought to walk and to please God.” We should “abstain from immorality,” exercise self-control, “love one another,” “live quietly,” “mind our own affairs,” “work with our hands,” and “be dependent on no one.” Very practical words. We’re to be productive members of society, loving each other, minding our own business, and earning our own keep. Sound simple enough? Ah, but obstacles stand in the way. Martin Luther listed them concisely as the world, the flesh, and the devil.

When we love the world more than we love Jesus, we stray from the path of sanctification. And the world is so tempting. It holds an attractiveness that sometimes blinds us to the truth. The world tells us that we deserve a life of leisure sporting the hair color of the month, driving the car of the year, wearing the fashion of tomorrow, and texting on the devil’s own devices. [Apple] (You can ask Luís later what that last one means.) And why not? As one hair color commercial tells us, you deserve it. We see the device, but in our hearts that’s exactly what we think, isn’t it? Can we really be conformed to the image of Christ when our hearts long for the things of this world? Remember that Jesus said in John 17:14 that we are not of this world. We are pilgrims passing through on our way to a glorious eternity. This is not all that there is. It’s not even a tiny fraction of all that God has for us. Mark exhorted on some of God’s rewards just last week. Keeping a pilgrim’s mentality can go a long way in helping us to hold onto this world loosely.

Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t shampoo, or can’t drive a nice car, live in a nice house, or shoot really nice rifles with monolithic rails and free-floating barrels. It goes to the motives of the heart. Are our worldly possessions, habits, routines, projects, or jobs our idols? Put simply, do we own our stuff or does our stuff own us?

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with stuff. The problem is with our sinful hearts. What about habits, routines, projects, and jobs? Well, they may not be carved from wood but they can still be idols. Do we have control of our habits and vices? Could we change them today if God required it through a change in circumstances? Does our job or lack of one define who we are or how we think of ourselves? Do we see our value as a person being found in any of these things rather than as the adopted children of the Almighty and coheirs with Christ? Do we love these things more than God? I don’t mean theoretically, as probably no one would answer that question with a “yes”. But I mean…by demonstration. If so, we probably have an idol issue. God hates idols. Do we?

Our heavenly Father hasn’t left us alone to sort all this out. The Lord promised his Holy Spirit to guide us in our lives. He primarily does that through the illumination of the Scriptures for our understanding. Indeed, assurance of the Spirit’s guidance in our lives provides one of the core marks of a Christian. Thereby we know that God has a purpose for our lives (i.e., our sanctification – 1 Thes 4:3), a path to walk (i.e., in holiness – Lev 11:44), and a destiny for us (to be in heaven with him – John 17:24). We should be living obedient lives of expectation in light of these great truths.

But what about those pesky decisions that must be made throughout life that aren’t explicitly called out in Scripture? How does the Bible guide us through those? The Scriptures provide us guidance in three ways:

First, God provides us with commandments and prohibitions. God packed the Bible with clear guidance on how to live to His glory. Anything that suggests or causes us to violate a commandment or prohibition cannot be of the Spirit. Counselors, especially in marriage counseling, often hear folks claiming that God is leading them to break one command or another. That’s the world, the flesh, or the devil speaking, not the Holy Spirit. We never have license to violate God’s commands. Ever.

Next God provides principles for guidance. The Scriptures provide us with many principles. For example, the Bible says that one should not be unequally yoked in marriage. So, while it doesn’t explicitly tell me who I should marry, it provides this and many other principles that help me make that decision to God’s glory. The Bible says a great deal about finances. While it won’t tell me whether to buy a Honda or Chevy, it does tell me to count the cost and spend wisely within my means. The Scripture’s core principle, though, is that if Jesus isn’t lord of all, he’s not lord at all. He must be at the center of our lives and all of our decisions.

Lastly, God provides illustrations. Illustrations usually involve specific people’s lives and actions. He draws our attention to patriarchs like Abraham who step out in faith. Joseph who maintained his integrity and faith against the odds, then showed grace and forgave the brothers who sold him into slavery. David fought mightily for God, and waited patiently for the throne while Saul tried to kill him. Perhaps most poignant is David’s hearfelt repentance after sinning so grievously, followed by God’s restoring him by grace. Peter follows a similar pattern in denying Jesus three time, yet our Lord graciously restores him as well.

Malachi 3:6 tells us that God never changes. He doesn’t change his mind, his plans, his purposes, or most of all, his character. He loves us with an eternal love. So when God provides us with commandments, principles, and illustrations, we can rest assured that these stand as timeless aids for our sanctification. The world can’t accept this, because the world favors the new – new fashions, new ideas, new freedoms, new theologies. God takes a different view. We read in Ecclesiastes that there’s nothing new under the sun. From Adam to us, mankind remains the same. We put men on the moon and iPod buds in our ears, but our nature remains the same as Cain and Abel’s.

That’s not to say that employing these tools, graciously given us by our Creator, is always straight-forward in a given circumstance. Some mystery always surrounds God’s supernatural guidance. We cannot understand Scripture properly nor glorify God without the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. He illumines the Scriptures and opens our hearts to the things of God. We cannot hope to discern God’s will on our own, but must be dependent upon the Holy Spirit. Remember that sanctification involves a cooperative effort between ourselves and the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we can do nothing to please our heavenly Father.

What about suffering? How does that fit into God’s will for us? Remember that Jesus achieved our salvation through a path of unimaginable suffering on the cross. He calls us to take up His cross daily. The way of the cross is the way of suffering. We live in a fallen world of sin, disease, and death. Therefore, being conformed to our Savior’s image necessarily involves growing through suffering, yet always keeping our eyes on Christ and His love. Our hope rests, not in self-help books, but on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, thereby conquering sin and death for us.

Throughout almost 20 years of experience with my wife’s trials, I have found great strength through the Scriptures, especially in two particular verses. First is Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” What a great statement of God’s sovereignty and loving providence. The other is the 1599 Geneva Bible’s translation of Job 13:15 – “Lo, though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” For me, that’s the ultimate expression of faith and trust in God’s goodness and purpose. Trust and obey, for there’s no other way. My family has experienced God’s goodness and grace in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. John 9:3 that Steve read clearly shows that God sometimes uses suffering for exactly this reason.

The rich promise in Romans 8:28 that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose points again to the certainty of God’s love and our eternal destination. Revelation 21 tells us that at the end, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” We will bask in our Father’s glory for eternity, joyously worshiping Him forever. We’re not there yet, but we stand in the power of the Holy Spirit by faith in the certainty of His promises – even in suffering.

How then do we put all this into action. Let me pass on a few suggestions based on Dr. Sinclair Ferguson’s book, Discovering God’s Will.

First, discovering God’s will for us requires patience. He sovereignly leads us to and through circumstances in which we must apply His Word. But be warned, God is not in a hurry. Consider again the story of Joseph. His brothers sold him into slavery as a teenager. Through many trials and tribulations that would break a man of lesser faith, Joseph by God’s grace finally rose to become the prime minister of Egypt. But that wasn’t the end objective. More years passed before God’s purpose became apparent – to save Israel from famine many decades after Joseph’s brothers sold him.

The theme of waiting on the Lord permeates all of Scripture. From Abram’s departure from Ur until his settling in the promised land as an old man, to Joseph’s drawn-out ordeal, to David’s long wait to ascend to the throne after God anointed him king, and to God’s promises to Habakkuk of Israel’s judgment and then Babylon’s fall to follow. Consider most of all, the time between the first promise of a Savior in Genesis 3:15 and Jesus’ virgin birth thousands of years later. Isaiah 40:30-31 encourages us that those who wait on the Lord will mount up on wings like eagles, their strength renewed. Again Psalm 46:10 admonishes us to be still and know that He is God. Lamentations 3:25-33 reinforces that it is good to wait quietly for the Lord’s salvation. Psalm 37:7 tells us to wait patiently for Him and not to fret.

While we’re waiting, though, we must be about the Lord’s business. Although He saves us by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, Ephesians 2:10 tells us that He has created us in Christ Jesus for good works which He prepared for us beforehand. Get busy doing God’s revealed will while waiting for Him to guide you in His secret will. Evangelize. Care for the poor and the widows. Serve each other. Pray for each other. Obey…and trust. It inevitably comes down to trust. If we trust that God is good and gracious, that He loves us, then we can wait more patiently. And remember, just because we cannot see what God is doing, doesn’t mean that He’s not doing anything.

Second, discerning God’s will requires that we use our minds and thinking processes. God’s guidance is more about thinking than feeling. Psalm 119:66 asks God to teach us knowledge and good judgment. Our Creator made us rational creatures with intelligence for a reason. God could say to us in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now and let us reason together.” As we study God’s Word, our path will be illumined by the Holy Spirit working in our circumstances, as we apply the Spirit-taught Word in living an obedient and prayerful life pleasing to the Lord.

With this context, discerning God’s will is a matter of judgment. Romans 12:3 tells us:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Put on your Spirit-renewed thinking caps and use the mental faculties God granted you. When faced with alternatives, list the pros and cons. Examine each course and think it through to its logical conclusion. Reason it out. Evaluate all this against Scripture’s commands, principles, and illustrations. In time, you will feel the weight of one alternative over the others.

Lastly, discerning God’s will involves our own will. We must be willing to commit ourselves to action. Nothing will work out if we don’t truly desire it and work at it. Discovering God’s will requires commitment and obedience in addition to knowledge and understanding. Sometimes, we think that we’re having a problem with guidance when we’re really having a problem with obedience.

Before wrapping up, I want to go back to Dr. Sproul, Sr.’s assertion that seeking God’s hidden will is a fool’s errand. Didn’t I just spend the last 20 minutes or so explaining from Scripture how we can discover God’s will for us. Yes, but with a critical caveat. Many years ago, I had the privilege of a conversation with the late Dr. D. James Kennedy. I asked how we could be sure that our chosen course was God’s will, because even with the Spirit’s guidance we still have sinful, deceitful hearts. I will never forget his answer, which has guided me ever since. Dr. Kennedy answered that the only infallible source of revelation is the Bible. Looking back, of course, that’s exactly what the Westminster Standards distilled from Scripture.

I am making the point that the helps I’ve laid before you today come from Scripture and should be of great help in discovering God’s will. God expects us to apply Biblical principles to guide our lives in all areas. Yet only Scripture itself carries the weight of infallibility. We must take care not to ever believe that our discernment ever approaches that level. Not even close.

Let’s finish by returning to Augustine. I used his quote at the beginning of this exhortation the way folks typically use it. But that wasn’t his entire statement. Here’s the whole quotation: “Love God and do whatever you please; for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” Augustine basically said that if you love God, know and walk obediently in His statutes, always seeking to glorify him in thought, word, and deed, then you will walk in His will. In that sense and all things being equal, it doesn’t matter if you buy the red or the blue car, what shampoo you use, or whether you fix cars or fly jets for a living. As long as your choice glorifies God by being consistent with the Scriptures, then you have liberty in Christ, but no license.

Study the Scriptures diligently. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love you neighbor as yourself. This is the sum of the law and the prophets. Live a prayerful life of obedience steeped in the Word of God, confident that He will restore you by His grace whenever you fall. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Be conformed to the image of His Beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. This is the will of God for you.

Closing prayer:

Gracious heavenly Father, give us hearts for your Word and the diligence to study it carefully. Work your Holy Spirit in us to build our love and trust for You. Guide us through your Word by your Spirit as we walk in this fallen world full of temptations and distractions. Grant wisdom and peace to those seeking your will for them this very day, in this very flock. Comfort the suffering with a peace that transcends all understanding. Help us to wait on you, and glorify you daily through the course of our lives in thought, word, and deed. We ask this in the powerful name of your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Link to the audio.

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