Someone has said, “The will of God is just what I would choose if I had all the facts as God has them.”1 But, since we don’t have such facts, we often don’t choose what God would choose even though we may pray and ask God’s guidance. Why? The answer sometimes rests in understanding the three types of God’s will. All agree that God has a sovereign will. Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world (Ac 15:18). In the end, everything will have turned out according to His plan and we will praise Him forever for it! When things don’t happen the way we would like, we know that God has a purpose for allowing it to go another way.
Most agree that God has a moral will. That’s why there are moral absolutes in this world. Whatever God has revealed to mankind becomes His moral will to us. Therefore we are unashamed workmen when we rightly divide the Word of truth, truth that was once for all delivered to the saints! If we transgress or ignore God’s revealed moral will, we will find life difficult. Good understanding giveth favor: but the way of the transgressors is hard (Prov 13:15).
The third kind of divine will is the individual will. Believers often disagree as to its validity from Scripture. Garry Friesen has become known for his denial of an individual will for each person.2 But I would say that such a denial is unnecessary as long as we don’t constantly search for miraculous interventions from God and we don’t think all apostolic or prophetic examples can be directly applied to our lives. We will become frustrated trying to receive visions and revelations from the Lord as the apostles received (thinking God is too immanent in this age). But to think that God is not concerned with what we do or doesn’t desire the best way for us to go, is to leave Him too far outside of our lives (thinking God is too transcendent in this age). Paul was content to tell the Ephesians, I will return again unto you, if God will. And he sailed from Ephesus (Acts 18:21).
There are other obvious truths from Scripture regarding God’s will. First, God’s Word is always God’s will. Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed thereto according to thy word (Psa 119:9). James M. Boice wrote, “Nothing can be the will of God that is contrary to the Word of God. The God who is leading you now is the God who inspired the Bible then, and he is not contradictory in his commandments.”3 Secondly, the Holy Spirit never contradicts His Word. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the spirit (Eph 5:17-18). The more we are filled with the Spirit, the greater capacity we will have for understanding God’s will. It is futile to claim the leading of the Spirit if it contradicts Scripture.
Thirdly, God is in control of the circumstances. The believer should look for God to direct his life by natural means, not supernatural intervention. God designed these by His will also. Job said, For he performeth the thing that is appointed for me: and many such things are with him (Job 23:14). Fourthly, the end never justifies the means. This would be the same as suggesting that God allows contradiction to His own Word. Moses surely got water from the rock by striking it rather than speaking to it as God had commanded, but he suffered dearly for his pragmatism. Uzza kept the ark from falling by putting his hand to it, but he paid with his very life. Vance Havner wrote, “The course of things does not work against the believer. It may seem to. It may work against his earthly fortune. It may even appear to defeat him. But in the eyes of God and in the light of eternity all things work together for good.”4 Fifthly, godliness is always God’s will. Paul gave this simple instruction to the Thessalonian church, For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication (1 Thes 4:3). It would be impossible for “ungodliness” to be “godly” and it would be impossible for true “godliness” not to be God’s will.
God’s will in the “perfect tense.”
One of the most descriptive passages on God’s will is Acts 16:6-10. There, Paul and Silas set out on the second missionary journey but (I believe desiring to go directly to Ephesus) were told twice by the Holy Spirit (an obvious apostolic prerogative) that they could not go south toward Ephesus nor north toward Bithynia and ended up in Troas at the end of the Asia Minor road (which probably seemed like the end of the world). At this point Paul may have thought his fight with Barnabas over John Mark had grieved the Holy Spirit, or perhaps that Silas was the wrong choice to replace him, or a number of other things. But Paul kept moving until he could go no further. That night he received a vision (again, an apostolic prerogative), the “Macedonian call” for the gospel to go into Europe for the first time. Luke (later) records, And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavored to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them (Acts 16:10).
When Luke wrote “that the Lord had called us” he used the perfect tense, that is, “that the Lord had been calling us.” If he was only referring to the vision, he could have used the aorist tense as referring to the one action. By using the perfect tense, he was looking back to a time long ago when God began leading them, and includes all the steps along the way as God continued to lead them up to that point. Paul especially realized that God had been directing them to Macedonia, not Ephesus or Bithynia, and He had done that in many ways.
This same word in the perfect tense is also used in Acts 13:2 when the Holy Spirit commanded the church at Antioch to release Paul and Barnabas “for the work whereunto I have called them.” Again, “the work whereunto I have been calling them” over a long period of time and many circumstances. I believe this is a New Testament pattern that is often how God leads us today. When the Jerusalem church decided on a method to encourage Gentile believers, they concluded by saying, It seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord (Acts 15:25) and again later, For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us (28). If hind-sight is better than fore-sight, this “perfect tense” sight is the best. Luke described it as “assuredly gathering” that they now knew God’s will.
There were a number of things that God had done in Paul’s life that would lead him to know he was in God’s will.
1. His training and preparation. Early in his life God was forming the mind and mouth of the great apostle with the specific academic tools he would need. When Barnabas traveled to Tarsus to seek Saul (as his name then was), it was because he was now ready to beginning his speaking ministry.
2. Difficult situations. The first missionary journey had been extremely difficult, ending with Paul being stoned. But rather than discouraging Paul, it was preparing him for a Philippian jail and many more trials. John Broadus said, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.”5 It will be if we will let Him form His will in us over periods of time, making us perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight (Heb 13:21).
3. Taking one step at a time. Paul knew when to suggest, Let us go and visit again our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord (Acts 15:36). We should ponder the path of thy feet, and let all thy ways be established (Prov 4:26). Spurgeon wrote, “We are urged to further action; but it would be far easier to take a foolish step than to retrace it. We will move when we are moved, and not before.”6
4. Closed doors and open doors. It was certainly obvious to Paul that the Holy Spirit had closed two doors on his way to Troas. Now it was even more obvious that a door was opened to go to Macedonia. Paul spoke of effectual doors (1 Cor 16:9); open doors (2 Cor 2:12); doors of utterance (Col 4:3); and the Lord rewarded the Philadelphian church with open doors that only He could close (Rev 3:7).
5. Personal burden and conviction. We cannot discount Paul’s great burden to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Even the forbidding of the Holy Spirit was “to preach the word in Asia” (Acts 16:6). Missionaries have specific burdens for their fields of endeavor which God has fostered and grown in them. John Cotton once said, “There is poor comfort in sitting down in any place, that you cannot say, ‘This place is appointed me of God.’”7
6. Dead ends and disappointments. Troas was the end of the road on the Asian continent. Paul had run out of options for taking even the less traveled road. Sometimes this is where the Lord brings us before He calls us. David Jeremiah, in his battle with cancer wrote, “When we navigate troubled waters, God is the Master of not only the waves, but also the ship. He never abandons His plans or His people. He will see the voyage through to its final destination.”8 The end of the road to us always turns into a “commencement” to God.
7. Revelation. Here, as I have noted, is an apostolic prerogative. Paul’s vision was a real and tangible communication from God. These revelatory gifts ceased with the apostles, but God’s Revelation which was put in permanent, written form continues with us today. Our appeal to revelation is an appeal to chapter and verse! We say with Isaiah, To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them (Isa 8:20). When our circumstances are reinforced by Scriptural truth, we have great confidence in God’s will.
8. Logical conclusions. Paul and his companions “assuredly gathered” that they had found God’s will. There will always be the human factor in drawing the conclusion about God’s individual will for us. We can’t see all the possibilities the future may bring but we pray and the Holy Spirit interprets our prayers so that God works in our lives “for the good” (Rom 8:26-28). William Orr said, “If there is failure to ascertain God’s will, or a failure to follow that will, the failure will always be a human failure.”9 We won’t find the perfect will of God every time, but we must draw conclusions from the circumstances God has designed. We can be sure He desires that we be successful.
And So . . . .
A.T. Robertson once wrote, “The highest test of any life is doing the will of God. To do that one must be yielded to that will, and follow God’s guidance, as seen in the Scriptures and in the leading of the Holy Spirit. Then, if one follows the way that God shows him, he will have the richest and most fruitful life and one full of pure joy.”10
Notes: 1. Quoted by W. Wilbert Welch in The Baptist Bulletin, February 1999. 2. Garry Friesen, Decision Making & the Will of God, (Portland, Multnomah, 1980) see p. 82-83. 3. James M. Boice, Philippians (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000) 205. 4. Vance Havner, By The Still Waters (Old Tappan: Fleming Revell, 1934) 31. 5. In A.T. Robertson’s, Life and Letters of John A. Broadus (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1910) 211. 6. C.H. Spurgeon, The Down Grade Controversy (Pasadena: Pilgrim Pub., nd) 39. 7. John Cotton, “On God’s Promise,” Orations, vol 4 (New York: Collier, 1902) 1427. 8. David Jeremiah, A Bend in the Road , p. 120. 9. In G. Christian Weiss, The Perfect Will of God (Chicago: Moody Press, 1950) 29. 10. A.T. Robertson, Jesus as a Soul Winner (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, nd) 72.