|From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase
Scripture makes it clear that God guides through prayer, His Word, and circumstances. But pragmatism has no place in God's guidance.
We live in a time when many Christians are confused about the matter of knowing God's will. Far too often the Evangelical church has been part of the problem and not the solution. The church, by teaching and example, is confusing many Christians on this matter by substituting pragmatism for Biblical principles of God's guidance. The flock is being led astray.
What are sound principles of God's guidance? Let me draw your attention to the Spirit-inspired words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians chapter one, beginning at verse nine:
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy; giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light.
The Greek text of this particular passage is a rich spiritual feast. Let me give you an expanded translation of the original:
"On account of the hope that is laid up for you - the inheritance that is ours because we are in Christ - on account of that, Timothy and I, from the day we heard about the fact that you have trusted in Christ, we do not permit ourselves to cease praying for you, desiring that you may be liberally supplied with the precise, correct, and thorough knowledge of God's will - His intent and purpose - in all spiritual wisdom in the broad sense, and in all spiritual understanding in the more specific sense, joining together in your minds the things that you have learned, are learning, and will learn about God."
This very weighty statement is built upon propositional truth concerning the nature of God's will and how human beings can know it. Let us consider each point.
Believing the Gospel of Christ Makes Knowledge of God's Will Possible
Knowledge of God's will is impossible for the unsaved man. Spiritually speaking, the unsaved man doesn't have a clue about the will of God. We find this also stated for us in 1 Corinthians chapter two:
As it is written: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him." But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God.
For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. These things we also speak, not in words which man's wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual [literally, "things from the Spirit with things from the Spirit" - i.e., comparing Scripture with Scripture].
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For "who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?" But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:9-16)
The lights come on, spiritually speaking, only as God the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the heart of a person who has believed on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation from sin. Only then can the individual truly understand the will of God. Believing the Gospel of Christ is what makes knowledge of God's will possible.
Precise and Correct Knowledge Of God's Will Is Possible
This is not some nebulous knowledge, but precise and correct knowledge. That is the meaning of the word that is translated "knowledge" in our English Bibles in verse nine. The common Greek word for knowledge was gnosis. It's the root word from which we get English words like diagnosis (analytical knowledge) and prognosis (foreknowledge). Normally, in Greek, if someone wanted to talk about knowledge, he would simply used the word gnosis. But the Holy Spirit chose the very words of Scripture, and Paul did not use gnosis in Colossians 1:9. He said, my prayer is not that you will simply have knowledge, gnosis. My desire is that you will have epignosis - which means full knowledge, complete knowledge, accurate knowledge.
The Spirit through Paul uses the same word in a number of other places. In Romans 3:20 he says that by the law is the knowledge, the epignosis, of sin - the law gives us the full understanding of the sinfulness of sin. In Romans 10:2 he says that the unsaved Jews have a zeal for God, but it is not a zeal according to knowledge, epignosis, a full and accurate knowledge of God. And Peter, in 2 Peter 2:20, says that Christians escape the pollutions of the world through the knowledge - the epignosis, the full and complete and accurate knowledge - of the Lord Jesus Christ. Precise and correct knowledge of God and His will is possible.
Precise and Correct Knowledge of God's Will Involves Proper Prayer
Let me explain what I mean by proper prayer. Paul was praying for the Colossians that they would have this kind of accurate, complete, and abundant knowledge of the will of God. By saying this to the Colossians, Paul was establishing a model for their own praying. Paul says, I am praying for this for you. And by example, Paul is saying, This is something that you yourselves should be praying for, and seeking after.
This is also the focus of the model prayer that the Lord Jesus Christ gave to us in Matthew chapter six. Most people refer to it as "the Lord's prayer" but that is not really a proper name for it. If any prayer deserves the title of "the Lord's prayer" it is Jesus' high priestly prayer in John chapter 17. The prayer of Matthew six is the model prayer given by Christ to believers. This is not a prayer we are to pray as such. It is Jesus' demonstration of how we are to pray. Jesus said, "Pray after this pattern." It is a how-to lesson on proper prayer.
We could spend considerable time just on that prayer. But I want to focus our attention on one thing in particular about it. If we were to put just one word over that prayer, one word that describes it the most accurately, that word would be submission: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name." May Your name be exalted, Father. "Thy kingdom come" - Father, may Your kingdom be the thing that has the priority in my life. "Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven" - not my will, Father, but Your will, be done. Jesus himself prayed to the Father in just those words.
What is the purpose of those words in Jesus' model prayer? Their purpose is to get us properly oriented before we ask anything of God in prayer. Their purpose, if you will, is to get our spiritual compass pointing to true north, pointing in the direction of desiring and seeking after accurate and complete and abundant knowledge of the will of God.
That is the attitude you need to have before you ask anything of Him. Knowledge of God's will - epignosis knowledge - comes through proper prayer, which is submissive prayer.
Precise and Correct Knowledge of God's Will Comes Through God's Word
Coupled closely with this, we find that abundant and accurate and complete knowledge of God's will comes through the reading and study of His Word with this same attitude of submission. What does Paul say further on in Colossians? "Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom" (3:16). Again, the original Greek is intensely meaningful. Literally, Paul is saying, let the Word of Christ be at home within you, in such a way that it exerts all of its influence upon you.
"Thy Word," the psalmist says, "is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path." "Wherewith shall a young man cleanse his way?" the psalmist asks in Psalm 119 verse 9. And he gives the answer: "By taking heed according to Thy Word." "The entrance of Thy Word giveth light" - Psalm 119:130 - "It giveth understanding unto the simple." "Order my steps in Thy Word" - verse 133 - "and let not any iniquity have dominion over me."
Dear Christian friend, I am sure that you have problems today. I am sure that you have concerns today. I am sure that you have questions that you are wrestling with, desiring to know and understand the will of God. If you say that you are not in that position, then I think you should stop and take your pulse, because I am not sure you're actually alive. Every Christian has problems. Every Christian has concerns. Every Christian has questions. Some of them are much more weighty and difficult than others. But we all have matters in which we are seeking to understand and pursue the will of God, if we are truly following Christ today.
But dear Christian friend, in the midst of those questionings and wrestlings, never lose sight of what you have as a believer on the Lord Jesus Christ. You have access to the very throne of God, and you have in your hands the very truth of God. Christianity is an exclusive faith. Christianity says that it, and it alone, has the truth of God, and that the truth of God is to be found only in the Word of God. God's Word makes that claim everywhere from beginning to end.
Furthermore, the fact that Christianity is an exclusive religion, and the fact that the Bible is the exclusive Word of God, means that you do not need to add anything to it. You do not need to add a little bit of psychology, or a little bit of human philosophy, or a little bit of some other religion, because the Bible itself and the Bible alone is complete, entire, self-contained, and all-sufficient.
That is why it is so important not only to search and understand the Scriptures, but to apply the Scriptures to our lives. The Bible is an exceedingly practical Book. "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God," Paul says in Second Timothy chapter three, verse sixteen, "and is profitable." It is valuable. It is useful. It is to be treasured above anything we can measure. The profitable Word of God.
And, Paul says, it is profitable for four things. It is profitable for doctrine, that is, for teaching you the path in which you are to go. And secondly it is profitable for reproof, that is, for showing you when you have gotten off the right path. Thirdly it is profitable for correction. Once God's Word shows you the right path, and shows you when you have gotten off the right path, it also corrects you, it shows you how to get back on the right path. And finally, God's Word is profitable for instruction in righteousness, that is, for keeping you on the right path, the path of God's righteousness.
That is why you need to have the same attitude of submission that is called for in prayer, as you open your Bible to read and study and absorb the truth of His Word: Father, I want You to be exalted. I want Christ to be truly preeminent in my life. I want Your will to be done, I want Your kingdom to have the priority, because I know that there is absolutely nothing better in heaven or on earth for me than for Your perfect plan to be accomplished in this world, and for Your will to be accomplished in me and through me as your beloved child.
God Also Guides Through Circumstances
At this point you may have this question in your mind: God guides Christians through His Word, yes. But doesn't God also guide Christians' lives through circumstances? Yes, God certainly does do that. We call that God's providence. God is sovereign. He is in control of all things. But we as human beings also have a will, and the fact that we have a will is not in conflict with the fact that God is sovereign over all things. He is sovereign, but He has not reduced His creatures to being nothing more than robots.
We live in a real world where God's providence is continually in operation. We have countless examples of God's providence in the Scriptures. God sent Joseph as a slave into Egypt ahead of his brothers so that the nation of Israel might be saved from dying out through famine. Joseph's brothers meant it for evil, but in the end it became clear that God meant it for good. As we study the panorama of the Old Testament, it becomes clear that God orchestrated a vast and complex set of circumstances to bring about the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ in just the right place, at just the right time in human history, and in just the right way, so that all the prophecies concerning His miraculous birth would be fulfilled. In exactly the same way, God is orchestrating events and circumstances in your own life today.
But there is another very vital principle that we must never forget.
God's Guidance Through Circumstances Never Contradicts Holy Scripture
I have heard people say, "Well, Scripture is one thing. But I live in the real world. I have to be practical." What they're really saying is, "I know what the Bible says, but because of this particular situation that I'm in, I need to ignore Scripture, or I need to bend it a little bit, or twist it a little bit. I have to live with my circumstances."
Dear friend, contrary to what much of the church teaches today, God is no pragmatist. God is no situation ethicist. Pragmatism says that visible results are the yardstick by which we must judge whether or not something is true or useful. In the Evangelical church today, pragmatism translates into a way of thinking that says, "If we see visible results (e.g., growth in attendance, people who have a better self-image, larger offerings, a bigger building, a wider range of church activities, a better reputation in the eyes of the world) then God must be blessing us."
Driven by pragmatism, today's Evangelical church often bases its methods and message on the study of human management philosophy and market studies of the unsaved, rather than study of God's Word. It back-pedals on or eliminates Biblical teaching about sin, repentance, holiness, and sanctification because these things are unpopular. The results, in the lives of individuals and in the congregation as a body, are disastrous.
Dear friend, if you see your circumstances as dictating that you need to do something that is contrary to Scripture, then you are looking at the circumstances in the wrong way. You are letting your circumstances become your authority, rather than God's Word. Scripture governs circumstances, not the other way around. Hebrews 4:12 tells us that it is Scripture that is the discerner, or the critic, of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Scripture must govern our comprehension of the circumstances that God sets before us. Circumstances are never an excuse to ignore Scripture. Circumstances are never an excuse to compromise the Scriptural way of conducting our lives.
Dear friend, if you are not truly a Christian, I encourage you to realize that the first step in understanding God's will is to understand that you need to repent of your sins and place your faith in the shed blood of Christ alone for salvation from God's eternal wrath. Only the Christian has the Holy Spirit, the author of all Scripture and the Christian's faithful Guide and Comforter, living within him.
But for those who truly are in Christ and have the Spirit living in them, epignosis - full, precise, correct knowledge of God and His Will - is possible. It comes through submission to God in prayer, and in the reading of His Word. By these means we can properly evaluate the circumstances God brings into our lives, and live within our circumstances in a way that recognizes the workings of God's providence, and does not fall prey to the sin of pragmatism.
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