It’s likely that almost every Christian has sought for answers when it comes to knowing God’s will for their personal life decisions. Practically, we want to know who to marry, what vocation to pursue, what ministry is right for us, where we should live, and so on down the list of life’s important choices. Theologically, the Christian may wonder how, or perhaps if, God reveals His will to us in these matters. In the first of a series of articles I intend to write on this subject, I want to examine the common categories of thought on this subject and suggest another approach which seems to be largely missing from the discussion.
The Importance of Addressing this Issue
Before I dive in to the various schools of thought, I want to briefly address why I believe this is important and why it needs to be carefully considered. First, it’s personally important to me, because I’ve asked the same basic questions myself. I desire to know what God would have me to do when facing important decisions, and how to know. Secondly, I’ve seen many others who’ve desired the same thing, and seem either to have very few answers, or very poor answers. Thirdly, I’ve come to understand that how a Christian handles these issues will significantly affect their relationship with God, their testimony for God, and their path through life. Fourthly, I’ve noticed examples of very influential, faithful and respected men of God dealing with this issue and, in my analysis, coming short of giving a complete Biblical picture.
A few years ago, a question was posted to R.C. Sproul via Ligonier Ministries from a follower wanting some direction on this very issue. The question and subsequent answer by Sproul (which I saved, but can no longer find) was as follows:
“How can we know God’s will for certain; as in who to marry, etc.?”
“We can’t. Focus on the will of God revealed in Scripture which is chiefly your sanctification.”
This was a very direct and honest answer, if a bit off-putting. This terse explanation is clarified and expanded in the more recent 2016 article “What is the Will of God for My Life“, taken from Sproul’s book, “Everyone’s a Theologian”.
Even more recently, I came across another example from John MacArthur, as expounded in a series of articles on the “Grace to You” blog, taken largely from his somewhat older book “Reckless Faith”. The article “Subjectivity and the Will of God” states:
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.
Whatever you choose? Yes, within the limits expressly set forth in God’s Word. If those five objective principles are consistently true in your life—if you are saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submissive, and suffering for righteousness’ sake—you are completely free to choose whatever you desire.
While I disagree with these conclusions, it is not my intent to cast a shadow over these men or their ministries. There are many good principles and truths to draw, even from their teaching on the will of God. However, it does serve to demonstrate a common position of some of the most influential theologians of our day within conservative evangelicalism. Their ultimate conclusions explicitly eliminate the possibility that God might communicate His discrete will to His children. If this is a common position on this issue within conservative Christian theology, let us categorize it and examine it beside some other common views.
Category 1: Charismatic
This is the most “open” category, although there are varying degrees of latitude within the somewhat large spectrum of those who would claim the label of “continuationist”. Most within this category would affirm that God does reveal His will to Christians for personal life decisions. Of course what distinguishes this group from many more conservative views is the means by which this occurs.
Generally speaking, a continuationist might expect, or at least allow for, God to reveal Himself in this age through tongues, prophecies, dreams, and visions, in addition to the written Word of God. The more liberal charismatic would make place for additional inspired revelation via these means, while many moderates would argue that these sign gifts merely buttress or affirm the revelation already laid down in Scripture.
Category 2: Cloudy
The term used for those in this category is descriptive of the nebulous nature of the means of divine guidance to which they hold. Those in this group would affirm that God does reveal His will in a personal way, but they would generally deny the means of sign gifts which characterize those in the charismatic category.
The means employed by those in this category would primarily consist of subjective feelings, emotions or circumstances, in addition to God’s Word. A variation of this is what I’ve most commonly observed in the lives of those in the churches I’ve attended. Some in this camp hold to this position out of knowledge, while for many, it’s simply their default way of describing what they understand to be God’s providential leading in their life. Rather than talking about “receiving a vision” or “hearing the voice of God”, you would hear phrases like “I just had peace about it”, “God opened the door for me to do this”, or “I felt this is what God wanted me to do”.
Category 3: Closed
This is the position articulated above by Sproul and MacArthur. I’ve labeled it as “closed” because it explicitly denies individual divine guidance. In this perspective, the will of God for the individual is determined solely by the express commands of Scripture and implicit principles drawn from them. Any decision which is informed by these commands and principles, but not determined by them is left to the complete discretion of the individual.
An influential work expounding this view (therein called the “Wisdom” view) is “Decision Making and the Will of God” by Gary Friesen and J. Robin Maxon, first published in 1980. In this work, the commonly held “Traditional” view was critiqued (which, as presented, would have some similarities to what I will propose along with a heavy dose of the “cloudy” category).
It is not difficult to understand the desire to refute positions within the realm of the charismatic category, and to offer an alternative which falls undeniably within the scope of Sola Scriptura. John MacArthur, for example, has famously laid down the gauntlet against the dangers of the charismatic position with his “Strange Fire” conference and book. It also follows from this perspective that those in the “cloudy” camp would be seen as little more than “charismatic lite”, because of the subjectivity of their means of determining God’s will. In fact, this is the main argument of the aforementioned article by MacArthur.
So, while understanding and arguing coherently against the dangers and shortcomings of the “charismatic” and “cloudy” positions, the unspoken assumption is that the “closed” position is the only alternative. I will humbly submit that the admonition of “choose whatever you desire” or “act according to whatever pleases you” even when joined with a pattern of informed obedience to Scriptural commands and principles, is insufficient to overcome subjectivity and satisfy the countermanding Biblical evidence. There IS a missing category.