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Demystifying God’s Will, Part 2

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In our last post we laid some groundwork in an effort to demystify the will of God by distinguishing God’s sovereign will from God’s commanded will. Scripture affirms that God has a sovereign plan that cannot be spoiled by any strategy of man, or even by Satan himself. Job acknowledged to God at the end of his horrific journey, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2) This expression came from a man who was never told why he was required to walk through an unspeakably dark valley.  However, Job discovered that God has a sovereign plan even when life seems to be careening out of control and no specific answers are forthcoming. And yet, for the believer, there is every reason to have confidence that God is still on the throne, and that every one of his purposes will be accomplished for his glory and our good.

So, if Paul is not referring to God’s sovereign will, what does he mean when he writes in Romans 12:2 that believers are to test and discern “the will of God?” Well, he is referring to God’s commanded will which speaks to something we can know because it has been revealed in Scripture.  We are to bring God’s revelation to bear on the decisions of our lives. This offers strong encouragement for every follower of Christ.  The will of God is described in beautiful terms as that which is “good and acceptable and perfect?”  This pursuit of God’s will should be something we run to as one of the great assurances in life. 

But unfortunately, for many Christians the concept of knowing the will of God is a point of confusion, doubt, and fear. Instead of the principles and precepts of God’s word illuminating the path of their decision-making, many believers grope in darkness living off the husks of their own instincts and spiritual immaturity.  This command to discern God’s will should be our life’s quest. 

God’s Commanded Will

A common question asked by many is, “How do I know God’s will for my life?” We begin to answer that question with a look at what God commands. I think this is at the heart of what Paul is urging in Romans 12:2. Testing and discerning the will of God is a dynamic process that brings together the light of God’s word with the relationships, opportunities, and circumstances of our lives. In surveying the New Testament, I was amazed at the many references to the will of God as the focal point for Christian living. Let’s look at a few of them and see how these commands should guide us. 

Jesus was not silent on the subject of seeking and obeying the will of God. He said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” This is a disturbing statement for religious people who are trusting in their religiosity. This verse, of course, is found in the Sermon on the Mount which in part dismantles the self-righteous attitudes and practices of the Pharisees. Jesus warned that religious activity will not usher you into the kingdom of heaven, and he points the way by stating that it is “the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  What does that mean? It means the one who humbly surrenders their life to God and walks by faith in him.

Jesus also mentioned in Matthew 12:50- “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” He spoke these words in the context of his mother and brothers coming to where he was ministering.  Astonishingly, Jesus said that being in the family of God had priority over blood lines, and the evidence of being in the family of God was a life marked by doing the will of the Father.

Moving to the apostle Paul, he emphasized in Ephesians 5:17, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” Paul warned believers not to waste time by frittering away opportunities in our service to Christ. Pursuing God’s will brings an intensity to life that requires focus in order to capitalize on opportunities. This command of Paul reminds me of David Brainerd’s resolve in the throes of a difficult life, “Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey.” To loiter means “to stand or wait around idly or without apparent purpose.” Brainerd did not want to loaf in his service to Christ.

Paul’s straightforwardness with the Thessalonians was refreshing, For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” This command clarifies much, doesn’t it? This verse is not ambiguous about how I am to live in this world with regard to sexual purity. It is God’s will for me, and every believer, to be conformed into the image of Christ, and that my life is an ongoing process of sanctification to which I must be committed. 

Paul becomes more specific about God’s will and sanctification when he says, “that you abstain from sexual immorality.”  The Greek word here for sexual immorality is porneía, which is the root word for pornography.  This term describes any sexual behavior outside of marriage.  Sexual expression is a glorious gift of God which is to be enjoyed within the confines of what the writer of Hebrews called “the marriage bed.”[1] God’s will for every believer is to walk in sexual purity. God has not been cryptic concerning his commanded will,[2] and when we read such commands in the New Testament, properly interpreted, we should obey them as God’s directive to us.

How Do We Apply This?

Years ago, John MacArthur wrote a little book entitled Found: God’s Will.  MacArthur walks through several basic questions for one seeking to find God’s direction and purpose for their life.  The questions could be summarized in this way:

-Am I in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ?

-Am I seeking to be filled with the Holy Spirit?

-Am I serious about my sanctification?

-Am I submissive to the counsel of God’s word and the authorities in my life?

-Am I embracing the suffering and trials that come as I follow Christ?

MacArthur’s premise is that if the answer to these questions is in the affirmative:

-Yes, I am in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

-Yes, I am yielded to the promptings and guidance of the indwelling Holy Spirit, not perfectly, but the trajectory of my life is seeking the Lord.

-Yes, I am pursuing holiness and sanctification.

-Yes, I am submissive and obedient to the counsel of God’s word; 

-Yes, I am persevering in faith during times of trial, for where else can I go? Jesus Christ holds the words of eternal life for me.[3]

If these basic areas of the Christian life are being followed and obeyed, then MacArthur’s counsel is, “Do whatever you want!”[4] Far from reckless, this seems to be the freedom that accompanies the many references to the commanded will of God in the New Testament.

We are not always going to find specifics for the decisions we face. Decisions like who to marry? What vocation to pursue? Should I go to the mission field or the pastorate? Where should I attend college? Should I purchase this car or house or computer? Should I move to such-and-such a city?  But the word of God gives guidance that we must bring to bear in our pursuit of God’s will for our lives. As mentioned earlier, discerning the will of God is a dynamic process that brings the light and authority of Scripture to the details of life.

James Montgomery Boice offered helpful counsel, “We may not know what that specific will is and we do not need to be under pressure to ‘discover’ it, fearing that if we miss it, somehow we will be doomed to a life outside the center of God’s will. We are free to make decisions with what light and wisdom we possess.”[5]  Life on the altar, as Paul is describing in Romans 12:1,2, is presenting ourselves to God who is worthy of our greatest devotion. As our minds are renewed, and we decline conformity with this world in exchange for transformation through the power of the gospel, we can expect to labor in determining the details of God’s plan for us.  But there is no better life to live, and Jesus himself has pledged to be with us all the way.


[1] Hebrews 13:4

[2] An example would be the series of commands found in Ephesians 4:25-32 where believers are commanded to: “put away falsehood”; “Be angry and do not sin”; “Let the thief no longer steal”; “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths”; “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God”; “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger….be put away from you”; “Be kind to one another.”  To press on in obedience to these commands, we can say with confidence is the will of God.

[3] John 6:68

[4] MacArthur, John. Found: God’s Will, Find the Direction and Purpose God Wants For Your Life. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, CO., 2012, p. 68.

[5] Boice, James Montgomery. Romans: Volume 4 The New Humanity, Romans 12-16. Baker Books: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995, p. 1557.

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