STUDIES IN BIBLICAL ETHICS No. 8 April 28, 1996
Last week we began to consider the Bible’s doctrine of guidance as a part of the foundation of Christian ethics — one of the bases upon which we determine what is right and what is wrong, what is to be done and what is not.
We began by saying that the widespread notion of guidance by direct communications from God to the soul, so prevalent in Christian circles, whether by means of “fleeces” or “omens” or by impressions that believers claim to receive from the Lord, as when he “lays something upon one’s heart,” does not receive support in Holy Scripture. To the extent that one relies on such information imparted from heaven as the basis for one’s decisions this is the practice of divination, of uncovering the secrets of the divine will ahead of time, which is actually forbidden in the strongest terms in the Bible. What is more, we said it rests on a view of God’s will that is never taught in the Bible and, were it taught would require that we be able to tell how to discern God’s voice from, say, the Devil’s or our own, which the Bible likewise never tells us how to do.
When Mrs. Schaeffer was signing books at the CPC’s Spring Life Celebration a woman took a good bit of her time telling her that the Lord had told her to tell Mrs. Schaeffer that she was to call the nine churches together and alert them to a coming movement of the Spirit drawing the churches together. What was she to do with this? Which nine churches? Did God really say this? Was Mrs. Schaeffer really under orders from the Lord himself? How would she have discovered exactly what those orders meant? Yet, this kind of thing happens all the time in the evangelical church today.
Dr. Packer uses the example of the large signal box that stands between platforms 7 and 8 in the great train station in York, England. On the longest wall of that large room there is a diagram of the entire track layout for five miles in either direction from the station, with lights moving or stationary on every track showing the position and the movement of every engine and every train.
And he uses that illustration to show how many Christians think about guidance. They imagine that God has a plan like that, tracks moving in every direction, and that somehow, in someway, we must learn which track to take, in which direction, so that we make our journey in peace and safety and do not, instead, run head-on into a train coming fast in the other direction.
But the Bible never speaks of guidance in this way; never tells us that we have to know ahead of time what God’s plan for us is; never tells us how to discover that information if we needed it; and, in fact, gives us a completely different way of seeking guidance.
It is this different way that I want to describe this evening.
The basic ingredients of the Bible’s doctrine of guidance are these:
1. First, the sufficiency of Scripture.
Paul in 2 Tim. 3:16-17 says that the Scriptures “thoroughly furnish the man of God for every good work.” When the Bible is properly understood and when one cheerfully and readily submits to its authority, a Christian man or woman has what is needed, has all the divine instruction, all the principles of conduct, all the laws and commandments, all the illustrations of saints making choices, that are necessary for him or her to make a wise and godly decision and choose the right path. And such is the sufficiency of the Bible that it rules over whatever impressions we may otherwise gather from our circumstances.
David for example, chose to obey the Scriptures, to keep God’s law, in not killing Saul, even when he might have concluded from the circumstances — Saul being placed at David’s mercy on two separate occasions — that the Lord had given Saul into his hand (1 Sam. 24; 26).
Paul, when he condemned the high priest who had ordered him struck on the mouth, immediately apologized upon learning that he was the high priest, because the Scripture forbids “speaking evil about the ruler of your people” (Exod. 22:28).
Now, of course, there is a comprehensive ethic taught in the Scriptures: it covers behavior, motives, attitudes, customs, habits, and every other aspect of human activity. Every decision we ever take is addressed in a variety of ways in the Scripture. With what choice may I best love the Lord with all my heart or my neighbor as myself? With what choice do I best hunger and thirst for righteousness? With what choice do I most place the interests of others above my own? With what choice to I most deny the world, take up my cross and follow the Lord? With what choice do I most watch and pray that I may not enter into temptation? With what choice do I most seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness? With what choice do I most give up my houses, fields, and family for the Lord’s sake? With what choice to I most walk in the steps of the Lord who left me an example to follow? And so on.
Does a particular job offer appeal to sinful motives, expose me to greater temptation, threaten the sanctity of the Lord’s day, involve me in work with unethical dimensions, etc. What choice of schooling for my children best fulfills the responsibilities for their spiritual formation that the Lord has laid upon parents in his word, but, at the same time, is faithful to the obligations laid upon me in Scripture to pay my debts and to owe no man anything but love?
And on and on. This is the way we are to think about our lives every day, through the day. In all our thinking we are to be biblical, attempting in every way to be faithful to what God has told us in his Word, to the direction he has given us there, and in the confidence that he has told us in that book what we must know in order to live a holy life.
The great statement regarding the Bible and guidance is that of Deut. 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children that we might keep the words of this law.” That is, you cannot know and do not need to know what God intends to bring to pass tomorrow. You don’t need secret knowledge, communications of God’s will for your life directly to your soul regarding this matter or that. You honor his Word by treating it as a sufficient guide for your life. You fear God and do what he has told you to do in his Word. It is a wonderfully clarifying and simplifying view of life.
Or, a similar passage in Isa. 8:19-20: “When men tell you to consult mediums and spiritists, who whisper and mutter [or to lay out fleeces or seek words of knowledge], should not a people inquire of their God? Why consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.” In other words, if you want to inquire of God, consult Holy Scripture; he speaks to you there!
[I want all of you to realize how dismissive of the Bible much of what passes for guidance in the evangelical church actually is. A husband and wife making the choice for the schooling of their child by waiting for the leading of the Lord as if God has not spoken in such clear ways in his Word as to give parents all the information they need to do what is right and please Him. A young man or woman choosing a partner for marriage because of feelings they are sure come from the Lord, when the decision must be made in defiance of various teachings of the Bible, the will of his or her parents, the counsel of the elders, and so on.
2. Second, the exercise of prudence and sound judgment.
We may define sound judgment as a biblical mind evaluating circumstances. You see it often in the Bible.
Paul decided to remain in Corinth because the Lord spoke to him in a vision telling him that he had much people in that city to be called to faith in Christ. But, Paul remained in Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8-9) because, he says, “a great door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many who oppose me.”
In other cases he moved on because there was no such door for effective work. There is no hint in these cases that he received a vision. Indeed, ordinarily, it appears that the visions and special revelations were given to him when God intended him to do what sound judgment would not have led him to do. (E.g. Philip leaving Samaria with the gospel in full flood to head out into the desert where, of course, he met the Ethiopian eunuch.)
Jesus spoke of the prudence that calculates cost before undertaking a great project.
In Proverbs we read of this sound judgment often:
12:16 “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult.”
14:15 “A simple man believes anything, but a prudent man gives thought to his steps.”
22:3 “A prudent man sees danger and takes refuge, but the simple keep going and suffer for it.”
3. Third, the seeking of godly counsel.
“Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” [Prov. 15:22] “For waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.” [24:6] We are finite creatures. We see so narrowly, we are so effected by our own biases and prejudices and habits of thought. But a circle of wise men and women consulted will give us much more insight than we could ever gain by ourselves. Rehoboam (1 Kgs. 12) failed precisely because he followed only the counsel that agreed with his own tendencies, in other words, he did not really seek counsel at all, but only the confirmation of his own opinions.
How many times do we find this to be true, you and I? Others think more clearly, see the implications of the Scripture’s teaching, better than we do.
Even the apostles practiced this rule: the Jerusalem council involved the collective decision of many minds, thinking together, arguing back and forth and coming at last to a considered judgment.
4. Fourth, prayer.
As with everything else in the Christian life, we are as well to depend for right choices and decisions upon the help of the Lord.
Ps. 25:5 “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior and my hope is in you all day long.” But if you read the entire psalm it is clear that he is not interested simply in discrete bits of information needed for the making of decisions, but rather that the Lord would write his Word upon his heart, that he would purify his heart, and grant him a holy fear of God, a confidence in his law, and a sense of constant dependence upon the Lord.
Ps. 119:133 “Direct my footsteps according to your word.”
Paul prays for the Thessalonians, “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.” [2 Thess. 3:5]
And perhaps especially when the decision is a difficult one or we find ourselves in a difficult spot: Ps. 25:15 “My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare.”
Right thinking, wise choosing, godly living are the very blessings prayer is appointed to convey. And we ought to be praying for these blessings every day, all day long.
And, of course, there is a great deal of practical direction to be found through prayer. If a course of action is agreeable to God’s Word, has the support of godly counsel, and seems in all respects prudent, but is not possible for want of resources or opportunity and we pray and God gives us what we need to proceed, if we cannot say that we are obliged to proceed, surely we can say that we are encouraged to proceed. If, on the other hand, a godly course of action is planned but in answer to our prayers, that course of action is denied us in some way, are we not dealing with the Lord in that as well.
What is more, the life of prayer, if prayer is constant and earnest, keeps us in a godly mind, a mind that “blends with outward life while keeping at the Lord’s side,” the very kind of mind that is best suited to a consecrated life.
5. Fifth, the responsible exercise of the liberty God has given us.
It is most interesting and highly important that, taking the Bible as a whole, it is so perfectly obvious that God has left to us vast liberty of choice and decision. He does not tell us how to earn a living, how much education to obtain, whom to marry, where to live, what church to attend, etc. even though these choices are so important! His word directs us to a point in regard to all of these choices, but only to a point.
Now, it is true that once we confess God’s absolute sovereignty over every detail of our lives, we immediately recognize that the Lord does in fact direct our steps in many more ways and more profoundly than we often realize.
Acts 17:26 He has “determined the times set for us and the exact places where we should live.”
Matt. 19 “whom God has joined together.”
Ezra 1:5 “everyone whose heart God had moved”
Phil. 2:12-13 “God who is in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.”
But this lies beneath and behind our own thinking and choosing. We cannot know until after that God brought us to a particular spouse or job or city or church. We made the choices and, what is important to see, God left us free to make those choices and wove the free exercise of our wills into his eternal plan. Insofar as the choices we make are not contrary to his Word, we are at liberty to choose many different things according to our lights, our preferences, our pleasures. God made us such free creatures and has left us free to exercise that genuine freedom. He commands only that we choose what we choose in obedience to his Word, so far as that Word speaks to the question and so far as sound judgment may apply the Word of God to the question. In all other respects we are free to do what we please. I love that. Think about how much you Master has left your free to choose and do!
Now, the conclusion is this balance of thoughts, a dialectic in which the biblical idea of guidance is expressed: God orders all our steps and guides our feet in the way he has long before determined that we should go. But his will in our lives is worked out and brought to pass through our thinking and choosing. We are to choose wisely and well, according to his Word, though we are reminded, from time to time, that even when we do not, we do not escape the divine will or frustrate his plan.
Our responsibility is to choose as he has taught us and as sound judgment, informed by the Scriptures, will lead us to choose. Feelings and impressions are never in the Bible a source of guidance at all. And when we walk with the Lord that way, seeking always to do his pleasure, he promises to bless us. That is all we need to know. The blessing may come in the form of trial or in the form of prosperity. That is God’s business, not ours. As Samuel Rutherford put it: “Duties are ours, events are the Lord’s.” Ours is to fear God and keep his commandments, staying near the Lord and praying always for grace to live as pleases him.
This is the view of guidance we are given, for example, in Prov. 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” You see, it doesn’t say, find out what the paths are supposed to be and walk in those; it says, follow the Lord, remain near to him, trust his Word to guide you aright, and you can count on the Lord blessing your life no matter what course he may have decided it will take.
Let me conclude with an illustration, comparing the two approaches to guidance.
A man quite close to me, whose situation was well known to me discovered, when he was still a young man, that he had cancer, a type of cancer that is, so far, always fatal. But he felt that the Lord revealed to him — by means of a strong impression — that he would be healed. He communicated this confidently to others and continued to act and speak as if he would survive this disease. He continued to do this while his body began withering away and in spite of the fact that as the months passed there was no indication whatever of healing. Indeed, a matter of but days before his death, when it was perfectly obvious to everyone that he was at death’s door, he and his wife were still speaking of how they were going to have to replace his entire wardrobe when he got better and began to put on weight and stand up straight again.
That so-called guidance was, as his death proved, nothing but his own wishful thinking which he had projected onto God himself. It was a terrible mistake and I resented it greatly because it prevented him from the one great work he had left to do in this world, namely to die well as a Christian, to give glory to God who gives and takes away, and to leave this world confessing before all who know him that “the Judge of all the earth does right” and that, in Christ, “to die is gain!”
But a more biblical way, in my view, would be this. One finds that he is gravely ill, even as a young man. He, of course, acknowledges, as any Christian must, that this is from the Lord. He does not yet know what the Lord intends. He realizes, as he must acknowledging the sovereignty of God, that it is certainly possible that his heavenly Father has appointed for him an early death. He prays that he might be healed. He calls the elders of the church to pray, fully aware that God often heals his people of illness when they pray. He prays earnestly but submissively, telling the Lord and meaning it, that he is ready for the Lord’s will to be done whatever God’s will might be.
He seeks the best medical advice and treatment available, consistent with what he judges to be Christian prudence. He is not, for example, obliged to subject himself or his loved ones to any and every experimental treatment — as if no pain or no amount of money is worthy consideration in the desperate pursuit of healing. On the other hand, if his motives are pure and he may do so otherwise in conformity with the Word of God, he is certainly free to offer himself for medical experimentation in hopes of healing for himself and the advancement of medical knowledge. In all of this he is in constant conversation with the Lord — seeking faith and courage for himself, wisdom and sound judgment, and courage, as well as healing. But, a time comes when it becomes an act of submission on his part to accept that his prayers for healing have not been answered and that God intends for him to die. His prayers then shift their focus and seeks from his heavenly Father’s hand the grace to die well and, more than anything else, the Lord’s drawing near, because if the Lord’s love is shed abroad in a Christian’s heart, anything can be faced with grace, faith, hope, and love.
Do you see, brothers and sisters. I am not speaking of any diminishment whatsoever of the mystical dimension of our faith. Rutherford speaks of a time in his life when he could detect the Lord coming and going seven times a day. Absolutely. The nearness of God is our good, as the Psalmist puts it. His prayers open opportunities before us in some cases and close them in others. Each day is a matter of walking with God, dealing with him in respect to everything in our daily life because everything is from him. Constantly we are asking him for grace, for help, for wisdom, for righteousness, for understanding, for courage, etc. We ask him for this provision or for that and change our plans as our prayers are heard or our requests denied.
But, in the matter of knowing what we are to do, what choice we are to make, what fork in the road we are to take, the Lord does reveal his secrets, nor is that necessary for us. He has told us how he wants us to live and he has made us that we might live responsibly in obedience to his Word. We depend upon him, look to him, and walk with him even while we live the life of responsible, thoughtful, and faithful obedience to which he has called us, for which he has equipped us by his Spirit and his Word, and which he has granted us the liberty and the dignity to live.