In Part I, I argue that God does not indicate his will to us by means of subjective feelings, and survey the Old Testament record of God’s interactions with his people. In Part II, I look at the New Testament and how to interpret Scripture’s teaching on the subject. In Part III, I ask (and answer!) how to discern the will of God if “sense” or “peace” aren’t it.
The Will of God in the New Testament
The same patterns established in the Old Testament appear again in the New Testament, though much more broadly applied as of the coming of the Spirit in Acts. Zachariah, Mary, and Joseph all experience angelic visitations with clear messages from God in plain language. John the Baptizer1 preached a God-given message of the coming Messiah in a way that seems to be analogous to the prophecy of the Old Testament prophets. Paul experienced a vision of the risen Lord, who spoke to him directly, and other visions which were explained to him or otherwise had clear meanings. John experienced a revelation which was also explained to him. Many believers in the New Testament were given words from the Lord, and these, too, seem to have been unambiguous and followed the pattern of the prophets of old. The one New Testament prophecy we have directly recorded, in Acts 21, marks someone giving a clear and unambiguous warning to Paul. Above all, Jesus himself came and declared to his followers all the wisdom of God, fulfilling the role of prophet perfectly.
Again, what about the ambiguous or mysterious aspects of New Testament prophetic revelation? In terms of mystery, the Bible does not explain to us the mechanics of the New Testament prophetic gift any more than it does that in the Old Testament. Dreams and visions, when they appear, are explained or understood automatically. Perhaps most ambiguous are two passages in Acts. In Acts 16, Paul and his company were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” What this means is unclear, for this is all the text says.
The other passage worth further consideration occurs in Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council wrote to the Gentile churches about the relationship between Gentiles and Jewish law. In verse 28, their letter includes the phrase, “It has seemed good to the Spirit and to us…” As we read this in the larger context, its meaning becomes clear. The letter has already stated simply “it seemed good to us” (15:25). Luke’s records that “it seemed good to the apostles and elders, with the whole church…” to send out messengers with this letter. He records that James’ position carried the day, a position James explained by saying, “Therefore, my judgment is…” This passage is arguably the strongest justification for the evangelical view today, but I actually think it argues the other way. There is no reference to any “sense” or “feeling” in sight. Rather, they simply listened to what was going on, considered the scriptures, and made a decision that seemed best to them as a group. In other words, the church simply trusted that the Holy Spirit was leading them together into wisdom.
At no time, then, does the New Testament suggest that these interactions between God and man manifested in the form of subjective “senses,” especially a sense of “peace” or strong inner urgings. At best one could argue that this might have been the case in some of the ambiguous instances outlined above. Without any other proof, though, that is a very shaky position, especially given the clear evidence of how God did speak in the New Testament.
Through all of this, one common thread should have become apparent. When God speaks, it is always—without exception!—clear that he has spoken. His leading is always unmistakable and unambiguous (save for the dreams, but someone always has a clear interpretation). Given that we do not endorse several means that were practiced in the Scriptures, I am at a loss as to why we make decisions by means that are never mentioned in the Bible. If we are going to allow Scripture to set the norms by which we relate to God, we must admit that we have no reason to believe that our internal “sense” about things is in any way a message from God. (That does not, by the way, make emotions useless or meaningless; they are in actuality a very useful part of decision-making. They simply are not the voice of God!)
Aside: “I just have a peace about it”
I find it fascinating that two of the most misused Scriptures in the New Testament come almost side by side, both from the book of Philippians. Along with the much-abused “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (4:13) we have Paul’s note that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). This is not, however it has been applied, a promise that he will give you a “peace” about the right decision, but a promise that supernatural peace will comfort the believer who prays instead of embracing anxieties and fears. Moreover, this peace is the right of all believers who are walking with Christ—not just those who are making the correct decisions at any given moment. Paul prays this peace for all his churches!
- That’s right. Baptizer. ↩