Discovering God's Will

by Sinclair B. Ferguson

Walking in the will of God produces a distinctive life-style. There will be certain characteristics which will be true of all Christians in all places and in every age. There are abiding qualities about true Christians which would make them recognizable by their fellow believers in very different epochs of church history.

But for every Christian the question arises, not, What is true of all Christians always? but, What is the will of God in this particular, unique situation in which I find myself? We have to face the issue of the nature of the principles which govern Christian conduct. How do we discover the will of God when we are faced with a possibly bewildering array of choices?

The exposition of the Christian walk is a major theme in one of Paul's letters and this further question is also a theme with which Paul dealt at some length. We find him discussing it in his First Letter to the Corinthians. . .

Paul's principles remain valid. Not only so; they are of great practical usefulness to us in discerning what the will of the Lord is in our lives. A careful study of them gives rise to a series of questions which will help to unfold what God's guidance might be in any given situation.

1. Is it Lawful?

The Corinthians emphasized the (biblical) principle that Christ has set them free. Paul retorted that freedom is not the only principle in the Christian life. Freedom is for something. God has set us free for holiness. He has blessed us with freedom from the guilt and bondage of sin - but not in order that we might become enslaved to the very sins for which Christ died to redeem us!

This is powerfully reinforced by the apostle [in 1 Cor 6:9-11]. Paul provides a long list of the kinds of sinful conduct which are contrary to membership of the kingdom of God. He does not mean that these heinous sins are the unforgivable sin. Some of the Corinthians had indulged in these very sins before they were converted. Yet they had been washed, sanctified and justified through Christ! But they had to be radically converted in order to be fitted for the kingdom of God. No anarchy is present there - it is a kingdom, a monarchy, and is governed by the great and holy commandments of God.

What is Paul's point? It is that no action which is contrary to the plain word of God can ever be legitimate for the Christian. No appeal to spiritual freedom or to providential circumstances can ever make what is ethically wrong anything else but sinful. For the Christian is free only to love and obey the law of God. Therein lies his true freedom.

We can often reduce the possible choices that face us at different times in our lives by this very simple question: Is it lawful? How readily Satan seems to be able to blind us just here - and we lose sight of the fact that we have been saved in order to be made holy.

2. Is it Beneficial to Me?

If our first question is concerned with the nature of the action itself, our second one must be concerned with its consequences. It may be true (in a sense) says Paul, that "all things are permissible" [cf. 1 Tim 4:4; Rom 14:14, etc.]. "But not everything is beneficial" [1 Cor 6:12].

Do you every find yourself challenged on a course of action by a fellow-Christian, and automatically respond: "What's wrong with it?" It is the most natural form of self-defense. But it may well hide a guilty conscience. For, in our hearts of hearts we know, as Paul so incisively teaches, that this is not the really important question. There may be "nothing wrong with it"; but there may be nothing right with it; it may not prove to be beneficial to me.

The question I must learn to ask is: Will it bring benefits, as far as I am able to judge, so that my relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is strengthened? Will it draw me nearer to Him?

There are so many areas in which this applies. When I am faced with a choice of occupation, or a sphere of work, or a move to another part of the country, with all that it involves in terms of fellowship, ministry and spiritual influence, I am surely obliged to ask this question. Of course it is not the all-determining factor in each instance. But it is an important factor in many cases.

I may find myself with the opportunity to spend a sum of money on something on which I have set my heart. But is it God's will? Well, let the question be introduced into my thinking: Will it benefit? Or, will it have the tendency to consume my time, energy and interests in such a way that I will be spiritually the poorer? Will it complicate, rather than simplify my life?

Of course, no two people will give exactly the same answer in every situation. We are no longer speaking about whether a course of action is lawful for the Christian. we are considering only actions which are. But something which has a neutral influence on one person may be detrimental to another. We are not called to judge other men's consciences [1 Cor 2:15; 4:3-5]. But "the spiritual man makes judgments about all things", and this is what we are enabled to do when we ask: "Is it beneficial to me?" It may or may not be in others' experience. That is not my concern. I am responsible to Christ for my own stewardship. Is this beneficial to me?

3. Is it Enslaving?

"Everything is permissible to me": - but I will not be mastered by anything [1 Cor 6;12]. There is a play on words in what Paul says: These things are all within my power - but will I end up in their power? Again, assuming that what is being considered falls into the category of things legitimate, this question can only ultimately be answered in personal terms.]

What is the principle? It is that the Christian must always, through the grace of the Spirit, be master of himself. Paul illustrates this later in 1 Corinthians. In the race all who compete have already gone into strict training. They have sought to master and subdue all their natural appetites so that, instead of being mastered by them, they will master their bodies and make them their slaves [1 Cor 9:27].

What happens to the athlete who nibbles at cream cakes and tucks away too many calories? A moment comes in the race when he ceases to be the master, and the appetites to which he has yielded strangle every last ounce of energy out of him. They have him at their mercy and all hope of winning a prize must be abandoned. Is there not a clear parallel in the Christian life? It is possible to make choices which, eventually, will tend to squeeze out our spiritual energies; to commit ourselves to things which, however legitimate in general terms, will eventually become the dominating and driving force in our lives.

Of course we have our spiritual liberties. But when we find ourselves unable to enjoy the Christian life without our liberties, then we have become enslaved to the,. There is, for example, presumably no built-in evil about owning a new car, or living in pleasant house, or enjoying various foods, spending time in various pursuits, or with certain kinds of people. But when we cannot be content without them; when we simply must have them - they are no longer our liberties, but our chains. The Christian should develop in Christ a sensitivity to those things to which he will most readily allow himself to be brought into bondage. "Will this enslave me?" will be a question never far from his thinking. "I will not be mastered by anything" is a good motto text for the man who has received a spirit of self-discipline [2 Tim 1:7].

4. Is it Consistent with Christ's Lordship?

Sin of tragic proportions had erupted in the congregation at Corinth. Consequently Paul asks whether they rightly understood their relationship to the Lord. The only chapter in which he does not use this title for Jesus is chapter 13! It deeply troubled him that the Corinthians failed to realize that they were not their own; they had been bought at the great price of their Master's life blood [1 Cor 6:19,20; 7:23].

What is Paul's concern? It is that whenever a Christian engages in a course of action he does so in union with Christ. Nothing severs that relationship. Not even sin can annul it. That is the horrific truth. Whenever the Corinthians gave themselves to gross and indecent sin, they were dragging Christ into it.

Sometimes we say that the principle by which any action may be judged is: Can I take Christ there? There is truth in that. But it is not the whole truth. For, Paul emphasizes, we have no choice in the matter. We do take Christ there. As those who are united to him we cannot leave him behind. So the real question is: Can I take Christ there and look him in the face without shame? Is this course of action, this decision I am taking, totally consistent with my personal confession that "Jesus Christ is my Lord"?

Again it should be emphasized that on its own this question is of limited help. It may answer my questions about the Lord's will immediately (particularly if the answer is 'No'). but it is not in itself an all-sufficient test. It is not the final litmus paper by which we can judge the Lord's will. We need to take all these questions into consideration. We may find, having sought to answer them all, that there is still a momentous decision which God expects us to make. But it can hardly be doubted that much confused thinking began to be cleared away from the church at Corinth as these penetrating questions were set before them. We too will find the same.

5. Is it Helpful to Others?

When we move further on in the First Letter to Corinth, we find Paul asks similar questions of a different situation - an indication that we are on the right track when we assume that these questions have a wide and valuable application to many areas of our thinking. But he added others.

I must not rest content with asking whether a course of action will be personally helpful. Will it have a like beneficial effect on others? Indeed, do I engage in it with a view to serving and helping them? Or, am I in danger of "destroying the work of God"? [Rom 14:20] When speaking of the Christian's personal freedom, and the way it must be balanced over against the weakness and strengths of others, Paul confesses: "I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example . . ." [1 Cor 10:33].

Jesus lived by this principle. When he summarized his commitment in his great prayer to the Father, he said: "I am sanctifying myself for their sakes" [John 17:19]. We should be concerned to help and please others. Paul affirms, "For even Christ did not please himself" [Rom 15:3]. Does this not drive home to us the fact that the will of God (and therefore his guidance) is the most demanding thing in the world? does it not pierce to the dividing place in our lives between soul and spirit? [Heb 4:12] For we are often concerned with guidance in order that our lives may be freed from anxiety and uncertainty - so that we may have a measure of personal comfort and security. God, on the other hand, is concerned that we should be cast upon Him to do His will, whatever the enduring cost. The will of God is shaped in the image of His Son's Cross. The will of God means death to our own will, and resurrection only when we have died to all our own plans.

Did we really appreciate that this was what we were letting ourselves in for when we said that we wanted guidance?

6. Is it Consistent with Biblical Example?

Do not be surprised that Paul's discussion reaches its conclusion with these words: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" [1Cor 11:1]. "What would Paul have done?" "What would Christ Himself have done?" these are the questions we can now ask. Are there incidents, or is there teaching in Scripture, which can be applied to the situation in which I find myself? Will it give me a clue to the will of God for my life now? [Cf. Phil 3:17; 2 Thess 3:7; 2 Tim 3:10; Heb 6:12; 13:7].

We are not left to our own imagination in dealing with this question. The only Christ we know - for that matter the only Paul we know - is to be found in the pages of Scripture. Here again we are driven back to our great principle: we discover the will of God by a sensitive application of Scripture to our own lives.

The apostle Peter speaks in similar vein. Christ suffered for us, and in doing so He left us an example that we should follow in His footsteps [1 Peter 2:21]. He uses a very picturesque word, which means a model of pattern to be copied. It is the kind of expression we would use of a teacher's light pencil outline which a child would fill in with a heavier hand, and fill out in his own unique way. What a picture of the Christian life! Christ teaches us to live by faith by walking His life before us, and then saying: "Now, put your feet into these footprints of mine, and you will soon learn".

This is exactly what we are to do. We are to go over the lines which Christ has drawn in, lines which we find in the Scriptures We are to take His hand, and find His footprints in Scripture, and then to follow them. Because of his apostolic ministry Paul was able to encourage his contemporaries to follow him because he followed Christ. There is still an application of that which will benefit us in our thinking.

Yet, even here, Paul cannot escape from the ultimate challenge, "whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" [1 Cor 10:31]. We cannot escape this challenge either. It is the non-negotiable norm of Christian living. If my heart goes out for His glory, then I will find the yoke of these questions easy, and the burden of gospel holiness to which they urge me is light indeed:

Is it lawful? Is it beneficial? Is it enslaving? Is it consistent with the Lordship of Christ? Is it beneficial to others? Is it consistent with the example of Christ and the apostles? Is it for the glory of God? For that matter, am I living for the glory of God?

The task Thy wisdom hath assigned
O let me cheerfully fulfil,
In all my works Thy presence find,
And prove Thy good and perfect will.

Thee may I set at my right hand,
Whose eyes my inmost substance see,
And labour on at Thy command,
And offer all my works to Thee.

Give me to bear Thy easy yoke,
And every moment watch and pray,
And still to things eternal look,
And hasten to Thy glorious day

Charles Wesley




Used by permission from The Banner of Truth Trust. Taken from the Banner of Truth Magazine, Issue 219, December 1981. The Banner of Truth is a Christian Publisher of classic and contemporary writers of the Puritan tradition who uphold the doctrines of the Reformation and the Grace of God.

Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson was previously Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, U.S.A., and is now Senior Minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina. he is the author of a number of books, including "Discovering God's Will" from which this article was taken.

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