The Will of God: General Parameters or Personal Direction?

Robert Yarbrough
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Jan/Feb 2004

Few would dispute that “the will of God” is a big issue for any Christian. After all, it is referred to explicitly some four dozen times in the New Testament. God’s will should regulate our prayers (Matt. 6:10). Doing his will is requisite for fellowship with Christ (Mark 3:35). It is required for entrance into his kingdom (Matt. 7:21). Living out his will is perhaps the very highest of Christian priorities (Rom. 12:2).

But is knowing God’s will a matter of getting the big picture from Scripture’s general teaching? Or should we expect personal and specific divine counsel for most, if not all, personal decisions?

In favor of the personal view, John 14:26 is often cited: “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (niv). There is plenty of evidence that God can steer his people in quite personal and specific ways:

Jesus wrestled with the Father’s personal will for him in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:42).
Paul was called to be an apostle by God’s will (1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 2 Tim. 1:1).
The Corinthians responded favorably to Paul “in keeping with the Lord’s will” (2 Cor. 8:5).
A matter as personal and private as sexual purity is “God’s will” (1 Thess. 4:3).
Christians should have knowledge of God’s will and stand firm in it (Col. 1:9, 4:12).

In that light, why not view John 14:26 as sanction for a maximal understanding of God’s will as knowable for every decision in every aspect of life?

Several factors counsel caution here:

John 14:26 records Jesus’ words to the eleven apostles, the foundation of God’s household (cf. Eph. 2:20), on the night he was betrayed, not to believers at large at all times afterward.
John 14:26 promises assistance in recalling things Jesus said. Only those who followed him during his earthly days fit that description.
John 14:26 with its promise to “teach you all things” is more likely to underscore apostolic didactic authority than to imply a carte blanche for the decisions that we make because we deem them to be God’s will.

Not even Jesus regarded his self-consciousness as immediately and fully congruent with the Father’s at all times. Otherwise, why would he have agonized in prayer like he did when he chose the Twelve (Luke 6:12)? Even after praying all night, one of those he chose was “a devil” (John 6:70). It was no easy thing, even for Jesus, to determine God’s will, or to accept it when it emerged. Think of Gethsemane.

How much more should we be prepared to “live by faith, not sight” (2 Cor. 5:7)? Must we not concede that at times God’s will is to withhold fuller knowledge of his will?

Since Scripture speaks frequently of individuals (and not just of Jesus or apostles) knowing and doing God’s personal will, we should be hesitant to rule out God’s prerogative to break into the loop of our decision-making process when he sees fit. We should not despair of particular personal guidance at junctures where God acts unmistakably to provide it.

Yet humility requires that we recognize the inherent gap between human and divine wills. We must be willing to claw laboriously in search of the latter in prayer. And how about when God wills to insert a Judas into our lives? Too much glib use of John 14:26 overlooks Peter’s insight into how much “the will of God” may be to thrust his people forth into dire straits (1 Pet. 3:17, 4:19). I have heard many christen their decisions as God’s will with “I feel a peace about that.” Few correlate God’s will with loss, pain, grief, or death. But God’s will in Christ is frequently a cross.

John 14:26 hardly supports a doctrine of cognitive soothsaying by Christians who want automatic assurance that a decision newly emerged in their thinking was actually first hatched by the mind of God. At best, taken in conjunction with broader New Testament teaching, it confirms God’s desire and ability to deal with his people in highly personal and bountiful ways. It reminds us of why we go to Scripture again and again for divine guidance, not to some inner self: Christ and the Scriptures he sanctioned have the words of eternal life, not our sin-sullied psyches.

And it braces us to reaffirm that discovering God’s will may play havoc with the self-realization that our culture conditions us to crave. It is rather self-abnegation that seekers of God have the best warrant to expect as God’s will, if what Jesus predicted his disciples would pass on in John 14:26 is any clue.

Tuesday, May 15th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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