Divine Guidance: Shortcomings of the Closed Category

In the previous entry, I examined three common categories of thought regarding divine guidance, and posited the need for a fourth which is predominately “missing”. Before moving on to the propositions of this missing category, I would like to interact with some of the main arguments of the “closed” category, and give some clarity to why I believe it falls short. I will not examine the other categories in the same light, as I do believe that those defending the “closed” position establish sufficient arguments against the other views.

Three Main Arguments of the Closed Category

In reading the articles cited in the previous entry and other materials from those holding to the “wisdom” position (or what I have labeled “closed”), I believe that there are three main points which define and motivate its use:

  1. Means of determining God’s will must not violate Sola Scriptura
  2. God does not reveal an individual will, because that will is “secret”
  3. The means for seeking God’s individual will are subjective, and therefore unwarranted and unreliable

Our examination of these propositions is primarily concerned with whether these arguments and the means that proceed from them form a strong Biblical system of decision-making and whether they are sufficient to reject the idea of divine guidance altogether, as its proponents claim.

Sola Scriptura and Tota Scriptura

The rule of Sola Scriptura, which states that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice for the Christian in this age, is both very important and often ignored. Guarding it closely in all areas is a noble pursuit. To its credit, the closed position makes defending this rule a primary priority. The charismatic and cloudy positions both easily stray in their reliance on subjective things like dreams, visions, impressions, feelings and circumstances as divine indicators on par with, or in addition to the Scriptures.

I’m afraid that in their zeal to protect this important principle, those advocating from this position have constructed the paddock too small. The closed position argues that there is no room for any individual guidance because the means would necessarily violate Sola Scriptura. However, we should not forget its twin brother, Tota Scriptura, which is the principle that we must look to all of Scripture for our faith and practice, and not merely select portions of it. The case will be made in following entries that there is both a broad Biblical pattern and a compelling theological warrant for personal divine guidance. I will endeavor to demonstrate through this evidence that there are means of divine guidance compatible with Sola Scriptura, and that rejection of these means is not consistent with Tota Scriptura.

Secrets, Faith and God’s Decree

Those in the closed category argue that the entire idea of God revealing and guiding the individual in personal decisions is invalid because it violates the doctrine of God’s decretive will (also called the “secret” or “sovereign” will of God). This is in distinction from His prescriptive will, which contains God’s commands or His moral law. Simply stated, God’s decree is what actually comes to pass. We cannot fully understand it, and God has not fully revealed it. Although we witness it after the fact, and God has revealed limited portions of it to us in Scripture, it is largely unknown.

The objection is that seeking diving guidance in individual circumstances is tantamount to demanding to know God’s decree, which He has explicitly said is hidden from us (Deut. 29:29). It is sometimes claimed that looking for personal direction from God is seeking to know the future. We do not know the future, we are not meant to know it, and we should not seek to know it.

I consider this a fairly weak argument, and will raise three objections to it. First, if God’s will for our individual lives is part of His secret decree, why does He keep revealing it? As I will demonstrate in subsequent articles, Scripture gives examples of this constantly! This is typically acknowledged, but sometimes rejoined with verses like I Sam. 3:1, where God’s word was “rare” to argue that Scriptural examples of divine guidance are the exception rather than the rule. However, it’s easy to explain the rarity of God’s revelation in a culture like Samuel’s. God’s word was rare, because faithfulness to God was rare! At best, this is an assumption based upon lack of direct positive assertion. At worst, it casually dismisses the scores upon scores of examples throughout Biblical narrative. This would certainly be a rule with a lot of exceptions! With so many exceptions, it would seem that God might not be so averse to revealing His “secret” will as we’re led to believe.

This leads in to my second objection, which is that divine guidance, properly understood and applied, does not belong in the category of the decretive will of God. The claim is that seeking guidance is equal to seeking knowledge of the future. This is not the goal, nor even necessarily the result of properly seeking guidance from God. The objective of receiving direction from the Lord is not to know the future, but to know God’s desire. Consider a couple practical examples from Scripture:

But the people thirsted there for water, and the people grumbled against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”

So Moses cried to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

And the LORD said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.

Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, and the people will drink.

– Exodus 17:3-6

After this David inquired of the Lord, Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah? And the Lord said to him, Go up. David said, To which shall I go up? And he said, To Hebron.

– II Sam. 2:1

In both these examples, great men of God sought specific guidance from God in a particular and immediate life situation. Notice that they did not ask “What will happen?”, but rather “What should I do”? Are we really to deduce that Jesus was revealing His secret decree to His disciples when He commanded them to “go across to the other side of the lake” in Luke 8:22? Was He revealing the “secret things which belong to God” when He told them how to prepare for the passover in Luke 22:8-12? Did God violate Deuteronomy 29:29 when He instructed Elijah to go to the brook and be fed by ravens in I Kings 17:3-4? It should be obvious that to apply the Scripture in this way is ridiculous. If this type of divine guidance constitutes God revealing His secret decree, then every example of God’s children asking for it was improper, and every example of God giving it was in violation of His own rule. We find then, that while we are not intended to know most of God’s overarching reasons or outcomes of life’s circumstances, He is often pleased to reveal His will for our immediate decisions.

My third objection to this argument is that it fails to recognize the implication of the outcome of divine guidance, which is an increased faith of the one following it. One may consider various examples of personal guidance found in the Scriptures and properly deduce that obedience to it resulted in a greater trust and reliance upon God. Consider the aforementioned case of Elijah in I KIngs 17. Which path required more faith – scrounging the countryside for food and water, or going where God commanded and waiting for ravens? Is it not reasonable to assume that Elijah gained much more confidence in the love and provision of God than if he had just applied general wisdom principles to the situation?

If an increased faith is the natural result, we can be assured that true divine guidance is not so much about revealing to us things previously unseen, but establishing a firm conviction regarding those things yet unseen. That is, after all, the very definition of faith (Heb. 11:1)!

Objections to Objectivity

The last main objection given by those in the closed category is that all the means by which one could expect to receive divine guidance are entirely subjective and detached from Scripture (or at least from proper use of Scripture), and can therefore lead the Christian down the path of grave error in judgment. The Scriptures themselves are the only absolute standard which keeps the Christian in the path of truth.

I will again affirm that this is a valid concern. One can certainly point to many examples of people putting their trust in entirely subjective feelings, promptings, or impressions. In some cases it may be clear to the outside observer that people are making explicitly unbiblical decisions because of their infatuation with these subjective criteria. So, while I agree that this type of subjectivity must be avoided, does the “closed” model really eschew all subjectivity with its “wisdom” approach? Furthermore, do the arguments presented by this model eliminate the possibility of a more objective alternative? I will argue that in fact this system fails to achieve complete objectivity, and suffers from great subjectivity by unnecessarily inserting it into the decision-making process. I will also assert that, try as it might, the methods proposed by this system end up divorcing the actual decision from the Word of God.

Let’s evaluate the process that the closed system gives us. By distilling it down, there are two main prerequisites essential for doing God’s individual will, which are:

  1. Actively bearing fruit by living in obedience to God’s commands
  2. Correctly applying Scriptural wisdom principles to your decisions

If these prerequisites are met, then the method for doing God’s personal will (not knowing it, because that’s not possible) is simply to do whatever you desire. The idea is when you’re living a life of obedience and applying His Word correctly, God transplants the desires of your heart with His own desires (per an interesting application of Psalm 37:4 from John MacArthur). Therefore, by doing whatever you want, you’re essentially acting as God’s proxy in your decision-making.

While I believe that these prerequisites form a good foundation for practical Christian decision-making, they are inadequate to replace the need for divine guidance altogether. The first pre-requisite is more or less a summary of John MacArthur’s five “objective guidelines” for doing God’s will as set forth in the Grace to You blog post. The guidelines are:

  • It is God’s will that we be saved.
  • It is God’s will that we be Spirit-filled
  • It is God’s will that we be sanctified
  • It is God’s will that we be submissive
  • It is God’s will that we suffer

MacArthur concludes that these elements of Christian faithfulness give a sufficient objective basis to then make your own decisions:

If all those objective aspects of God’s will are realities in your life, you needn’t fret over the other decisions you must make. As long as the options you face do not involve issues directly forbidden or commanded in Scripture, you are free to do whatever you choose.

This sounds reasonable, but just how objective are these guidelines in the first place? Scripture does give us specific instruction on how to know that we are saved (I John 5:13), yet it also is full of warnings to “examine yourselves” (II Cor. 13:5) and “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). While our salvation is an objective reality, our knowledge of that reality involves the subjectivity of self-examination. If the first guideline is somewhat reasonable to ascertain, what about the rest? How are we to know that we are Spirit-filled? Scripture gives indicators like the fruits of the Spirit, but how do we know how full we need to be before we can make the right decision? What about our sanctification? Are we actively, presently on the upward path of sanctification? How do we know how sanctified we are? Should we wait until the future to make a decision, since sanctification is progressive? Are we also good judges of how submissive we are? If we think we’re submissive, are we really, or is that our pride speaking? Lastly, how do we know that we’re suffering enough to make a correct decision? Do we need to be mocked? Beaten? Tortured? Do we need just a little of all these things in our life before we can confidently make our own decisions as God’s proxy, or do we need a lot?

I should be obvious that, as helpful as this list might be, it is by no means a complete antidote to subjectivity in decision-making! Although God’s standards are objective, the required self-analysis of our conformity to those standards is quite subjective. One might argue that this is a justifiable subjectivity, because it is informed by Biblical standards, helped by the Holy Spirit, and reasonably expected from Biblical admonitions for discernment (ex: I Cor. 11:28; Gal. 6:4). To this I could agree. However, it’s clear that claims of complete objectivity cannot be substantiated. Even if the Christian rightly determines these Christian virtues to be present in his or her life, the wisdom approach gives us no objective standard whatsoever to determine what quantity of these virtues is sufficient in order to confidently choose whatever we desire.

Although it is important to recognize that the self-examination process necessarily contains an element of subjectivity, it is the methods justified by this process in the wisdom approach that really lead into a quagmire of subjectivity. Completion of this process leads to the exhortation to make whatever decision you want. Whatever you wish. Whatever pleases you. I ask you, what can be more subjective than that? The process of examination is not intended to inform our decision, but ensure that God will somehow mystically transform our completely ignorant choice into that which is well pleasing to Him (whether to His revealed will or His sovereign will is not clear). Somehow, our heart, which is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9) and in need of constant illumination from God’s Word (Ps. 119:105), is to be trusted to make the correct choice without any Spiritual information at all. You see, at the point of the actual decision, Scripture is entirely absent!

In many cases, we may be in a true quandary, desiring neither path above another. In such a case, this model offers no greater solution than casting lots or flipping a coin. Scripture also testifies that sometimes God’s individual will for us is certainly not in harmony with our personal desires or reasoned analysis. Consider the example of Paul in Acts 16:6-10. In verse 7, it is clear that he desired to preach the gospel in Bithynia. We have no reason to suspect Paul’s inner motive; however, we are clearly told that God desired Paul to go to Macedonia. In other cases, God clearly leads men to do things they would never have done without His particular instruction (for example, Noah building an ark or Gideon battling the Midianites). This system reformulates the familiar command of Proverbs 3:5 into “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and then lean on your own understanding.”

To this point, I’ve largely ignored the second prerequisite listed above. The reason for this is although advocates for this system like the idea of using wisdom principles from God’s Word to guide Christian decision-making, when it comes to the issue at hand (that is, personal divine guidance), it is totally irrelevant. If the choice can be properly made by applying Scriptural principles, then personal divine guidance is not needed! Of course our decisions must always fall within the right application of Scripture, but the question at hand is how to make those decisions which are not informed by such application.

Therefore, this second prerequisite adds no practical benefit at the actual point of the decisions in question. For example, no wisdom principles helped David determine to which Judean city to return in II Samuel 2:1. Wisdom principles did not dictate which tribe should first battle Benjamin in Judges 20:18. Wisdom principles certainly did not lead Moses to encamp in an enclosed area with the children of Israel in Exodus 14:1-3!

Failure of Primary Systems

Although the closed category argues for Sola Scriptura and demands that the Christian apply general principles of Scripture as PRE-requisites to making a decision, the actual process of the decision itself is left totally devoid of any Biblical input. Instead, it replaces it with a mystical subjectivity of “do whatever you choose” or “act according to what pleases you”. Therefore, when we consider the process of divine guidance, the “closed” category ultimately abandons the very foundational principle it purports to defend.

I submit that the dearth of this system demands a better option. An option that doesn’t capitulate to subjectivity at the critical point. An option that uses God’s Word as the primary element in the actual decision-making process. An option that has a strong Biblical witness and a compelling Biblical warrant. We’ll begin to examine this option in the next article.

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