“I think the Lord is leading me to….” “I feel the Lord is leading me to….” “I really prayed about it and I felt that….” You’ve probably heard these types of statements before. And if it is God leading, who is anyone to question? In many instances, it really is like questioning scripture at this point. Except for one big thing—it isn’t scripture. It is “I think,” “I feel,” and “I felt.” And if not that, then sometimes it is, “The Lord told me.” And that isn’t scripture either, even though, again, it is treated like it’s Bible.
One might hear these above type of statements from men in the office of the pastor. How did he know what the church was to do? How did he know what sermon he was to preach? “The Lord told him” or “he felt the Spirit leading.” One pastor I have known demanded the support of his congregation for every one of His sermons because it was Holy Spirit-preaching. When he preached, that was the Holy Spirit, so it should be unquestioned. Do you see a problem here? This kind of language from a pastor places a type of authority on his decision making that is authoritative on the level of God. Should we expect this kind of authority from the leaders of our churches? In one sense, a pastor represents the voice of God, but it is only insofar he preaches the Word. The people listen to God in those instances by means of the messenger. But every opinion out of the man’s mouth or even just the ones when he is behind the ‘sacred desk’ are not synonymous with scripture.
How do we know what we ought to do in the areas that the Bible is silent upon, like who I’m going to marry, where I’m supposed to work, or whether the reuben on rye or the 10 oz. NY strip steak? It seems that, “the Lord led,” is all we’ve got in those types of decisions? Or is it? How does the Holy Spirit actually work in these situations?
To detect true spirituality, first (part one) we proposed that all believers are spiritual. Every Christian is spiritual. There was a question of whether there were degrees of spirituality. No. Each genuine believer is indwelt by the one and only Holy Spirit, a Person. You can’t get more or less of Him once you have Him. However, He can have more of you. It’s not quantitatively more spirituality. No one is more spiritual in that sense. However, someone can, rather than yield to the Spirit, submit to his flesh. At that time, he is carnal, not spiritual, in a practical, not positional, way. When someone is controlled by the Holy Spirit, then there are manifestations of that yieldedness. We showed six of them. These are how we detect genuine spirituality. And now for the last aspect we will consider in the detection of true spirituality.
How Does the Holy Spirit Lead?
The Holy Spirit leads (Rom 8:14, Gal 5:18). We know this. But how does He lead?
First, He leads in accordance with Scripture. “The sword of the Spirit . . . is the Word of God” (Eph 6:17). Parallel to the filling of the Spirit (Eph 5:18) is the Word of Christ dwelling in us richly (Col 3:16). Being controlled by the Spirit is being controlled by the Word of God. All of this fits within the sufficiency of Scripture (Mt 4:4, 2 Tim 3:16-17). God’s Word equips a person for every good work. If a decision attributed to the Holy Spirit contradicts the Word of God, disobeys scripture, it wasn’t or isn’t the Holy Spirit leading. The Bible is how we test to see if something is of God (1 John 4:1). Sanctification of the Spirit is also the sanctification of the Word of God (John 17:17-19). We are set apart by the truth, not by our feelings or opinions, which might be attributed to the Holy Spirit.
A corollary perhaps to the Spirit’s leading in accordance with Scripture could be “no private interpretation” (2 Pet 1:19-21). The Bible has one meaning and many applications; however, we ought to also look to history to see how the Spirit worked in believer’s lives to apply Scripture. The Holy Spirit isn’t going to suddenly accept a practice that has been forbidden by God’s people in the past.
Second, He leads in accordance with the church. I’ve asked many if they needed the church to know the will of God and most will say that they can know the will of God independently of a church. Often today I’ve noticed people think that they have the right to question a pastor in his preaching, but few think they should be questioned when they say ‘the Lord is leading.’ A church is to be of one mind, one spirit, one mouth, and one speech (1 Cor 1:10, Philip 1:27). People should not operate outside of the unity or unanimity of the church. Believers walk in the Spirit, but they do not walk alone.
In the Old Testament, Israel had the Urim and the Thummim for God to guide her in her decisions (Ex 28:30, Lev 8:8, Num 7:21, Deut 33:8, Ezra 2:63). Do we have anything like that today? I believe we do. The Urim and Thummim today is the church. The Holy Spirit indwells a church as the temple of God (1 Cor 3:16). The church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). God leads through the church, not through single individuals. There is one Holy Spirit who indwells church members, the same Spirit, so the agreement of the church is the leading of the Spirit (Eph 4:1-4, 1 Cor 12). Dividing off of the opinion of the church is heresy (Tit 3:10-11, 1 Cor 1:11-17). Church members judge matters of believers (1 Cor 6:1-8). Matthew 18:18-19 suggests a supernatural leading through the agreement of the church.
In the freelancing spirit of the age, many today do not desire the agreement of a church in matters. They rather operate independent of church authority, appreciating the freedom of “the Lord’s leading.” It’s a free country. We can move about when and where we want. Many treat the will of God as a plaything, affording them freedom, which they label “Christian liberty.” Many pastors also use this freedom to move from church to church, again attributing the activity to the “will of God” in their life, when often it is discontent. Rather than just leave, people should be sent by the church for greater ministry (cf. Acts 13:1-5). Lesser ministry isn’t God’s will. But who determines that is the church, not the individual. Someone may ask, “Well, what if the church is wrong?” If the church is wrong, an attempt should be made to persuade the church from the Word of God. Sometimes men will just use scripture to excuse what they want to do. Jeroboam quoted Aaron to justify building calves at Dan and Bethel. The church should be able to determine whether something is the will of God or not.
When Paul discussed Christian liberty in 1 Cor 8-10, at the end of that section (11:1), he commanded the church at Corinth to imitate him as he imitated Christ. In areas of liberty, people of a church should look to the leaders of their church to know what to do in areas in which scripture is silent (cf. Heb 13:17). Rather than follow self, follow godly leaders in the church.
How did Timothy know he was to be a pastor? 1 Timothy 4:14 is a great verse on this. First, prophecy, that is, the preaching of the Word of God. I’ve had men tell me that they didn’t ask me what would be the right decision because they already knew what I would say. How did they know? The preaching of God’s Word. Preaching worked in the heart and life of Timothy. Second, the laying on of hands of the presbytery. Timothy got the unified guidance of godly men to verify the will of God in this matter. In many cases today, men say they’re “called,” in essence, “God told me,” and that’s their chief indication of God’s working. This isn’t the pattern in scripture.
Do you see how that Scripture and then the church puts objectivity to the will of God? This is how the Holy Spirit guides today. In answer to this type of presentation, often I’ll hear from men examples of Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles. Do you understand that God doesn’t work with us like that any more? We have Scripture and the church now. God doesn’t speak to us that way. If He is going to guide you like an apostle or prophet, than you should also fulfill the qualifications of the prophet and the apostle. You don’t, so don’t see yourself as led by the Spirit the same way they were.
Some Specifics Concerning the Individual Will of God
Does Scripture teach us that God has only that one person for us to marry? Or does the Bible order us to obey God’s Word but give us liberty within scriptural parameters in those individual matters? For instance, Scripture prohibits a Christian from marrying an unbeliever among other instructions (2 Cor 6:14), but God would give freedom within the bounds of what He said in His Word. Paul says this in 1 Corinthian 7:39: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.” “She is at liberty to be married to whom she will.” Of course, he adds, “only in the Lord.” Within biblical guidelines, someone can marry whoever he or she wants to marry, unless, of course, God sovereignly overrules otherwise.
The above exact teaching you’ll see in Proverbs 16:1 and 9:
The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD. . . . A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.
The idea of “preparations” is “plans.” It is God’s will for man to make plans. A man is to devise his way. The Lord may step in to change something, directing his steps, but he should go about making plans and devising his way. God allows people to make their own decisions within the bounds of the guidelines and principles He has set up in the Bible. The best way to ensure you do right is to obey God’s Word, practice it or apply it in every area of your life. If you do that, those unknown, individual things will work themselves out, very much like we see in Proverbs 3:5-6:
Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.
In short, if you will trust God and acknowledge everything He said, those individual, personal decisions will work out fine.
Mormons have their burning in the bosom and Charismatics have their tongues and healings, their signs and wonders. Is it possible that others—evangelicals, fundamentalists, independent Baptists—have their own editions of these?
I started pastoring in 1986 first as an interim pastor in Southeastern Wisconsin and then in 1987 in our new church in the San Francisco Bay Area. After only a few years, I wrote a missions questionnaire for an initial screen for prospective missionaries—they were (and are) all multiple choice questions. One question asked how someone would know the will of God. Very few missionaries in the twenty plus years have circled the letter for the answer I was looking for on that questionnaire.
Many of the others that I referenced in my first paragraph have a very subjective approach or understanding to the will of God, and specifically the individual will of God. For the sake of knowing where I’m coming from here, I believe that there are three aspects to the will of God. There is the sovereign will of God, which is everything that ever happens. God will cause or allow everything that happens. If He didn’t want something to happen, He could or would stop it. And if He wanted something to happen, He would make sure it did just like He wanted it. If something “bad” happens, we can still say that it is the will of God, because God is sovereign. He has some purpose in either causing or allowing it.
There is the moral will of God, which is essentially the Bible. The moral will of God is what God desires for everyone to do, which is Scripture, since God’s Word is sufficient. And then there is the individual will of God, which are those events or decisions or circumstances in our life which are unique to us as individuals, like who we will marry, where we will live, and what kind of vacuum we will purchase. It is this third “will of God” that I’m talking about here.
I want to categorize here the abuses that I’ve witnessed. Some readers may be able to expand or add, which is fine, but here are some of what I have seen and still often do. I think these will be controversial, because I think there are people reading, who have depended upon these “burnings in the bosom,” perhaps Baptist edition.
“God Told Me”
A lot of damage has been done in the name of “God told me.” A corollary to “God told me” is “the Holy Spirit told me.” Do you believe that God tells you things? Now if you’re talking about something you read in the Bible, I’m with you there, but if it is something extra-scriptural, I’m not with you on that one. God isn’t “telling people” anything anymore outside of Scripture. Everything we need is in the Bible. That’s what God is still telling us. How do I know that? Because it is all over the Bible (Revelation 22:18-19; Jude 1:3). And important passage to this is 2 Peter 1:19-21 where Peter exalts Scripture above his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration as a “more sure word of prophecy.” The voice of God speaking to us is Scripture, and that alone. Even if we are hearing from the Holy Spirit, the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (Eph 6:17).
These evangelicals, many of them, use language that the Bible reserves for direct verbal revelation from God to apply to their normal Christian living. They expect God to tell them what to do in their day to day lives like God at times told Abraham, Moses, and the apostles. And when I say “tell them,” I mean very specific instructions on what to choose or do on an everyday basis. They believe and practice this despite God pointing His people back to His Words that He already has given (Ps 19:7-11; 2 Tim 3:15-17). These same people believe that the Bible is the primary way God speaks to His people, but not the only way that He does.
Were the intertestamental periods actually silent years? Or did God keep up a regular chatter with His people? Was God still directly revealing anything between Malachi and Matthew? Or did He continue to expect His people to follow His Word like we read, well, everywhere in the Old Testament (Deut 4:5-8; Joshua 1:8; 1 Kings 2:3; Ps 119:11, 24). God did have His periods of direct, special revelation. This is not one of them. The last one ended in the first century. There hasn’t been one since.
Often in these experiences, these same people struggle to hear God’s voice, sometimes going through some type of sacrifice to get the direction they need from God—praying through, fasting, really wanting it earnestly. If they really are supposed to be hearing God tell them something like we read in the Bible, then there shouldn’t be any kind of struggle at all. When we see God speak in Scripture, it is always clear and understandable, not dependent on any lifting from the recipient.
If God is really talking to us and like what we see in the Bible, because that’s where we got that idea, then how is that any different than what occurred with either a prophet or apostle? Why would the Bible carefully lay out the qualifications of the prophet in Deuteronomy and the apostle in Acts if there wasn’t anything unique to the prophetic or apostolic experience? God did speak to Moses and Samuel and Peter and Paul. He isn’t speaking to us today. He completed all that with the last verse of the book of Revelation.
I think this “God spoke to me” thing is another version of continuationism—much more subtle and perhaps more dangerous than the Charismatic edition, because of that. A whole lot of both false teaching that “God gave” and horrible practice or behavior gets excused by “God told me.” There is a lot more I”d like to say here, but this is only a blog post. So next.
“God Is Really Blessing”
This second one or some version of it often accompanies the first one. Usually it comes after “God told me.” First “God told me,” then “I did it,” and third “God is really blessing.” “God is really blessing” validates “God told me.” Sometimes “God really blesses” false doctrine and practice, like 1-2-3 pray with me “evangelism.” The same kind of proof is offered for shows of Divine power, numbers of folks who ‘walked the aisle,’ how many decisions were made, and the “sweet spirit we felt there.” The sweet spirit was witnessed in the shouting, the hand or hanky waving, and the tears, among other excitements. Sometimes after “God told” someone something, he had explosive numeric growth that validated the following of what “God told” him.
“God is really blessing” our bus because “we had over 100 on our bus.” “God is really blessing” our bus ministry because we ran over 1000 during our special promotion. “God is really blessing” our Sunday School campaign because we’ve had over 100 kids “get saved.” “God is really blessing” the carnival we held for the grand opening of our new building because of all the people who showed up for the sno-cones and jumpers. “God really blessed” those promotions.
If you were to criticize “God is really blessing,” you might be a “tool of Satan.” You might be Sanballat and Tobiah (the guys who opposed Nehemiah in that book). You might be touching God’s anointed like David understood not to do with Saul. You might say that you don’t think that “God told” is a legitimate means of determining the will of God, but the answer could be, “how do you explain what happened with me then?” Almost always some experience is the validation of “God told me.” When we built, then they came. They came and they came like the rain on Noah’s ark. I was talking to a man who went to a Benny Hinn meeting, and now he can’t or won’t listen to Scripture because Benny Hinn cured him of his stuttering.
Sometimes the question might be asked, “Why aren’t we seeing anything happen?” By “anything happen” is meant lots of decisions, many new converts, or explosive growth. Why not? The assumption is often that you are missing out on some spiritual resource as a Christian or that you aren’t trying hard enough, praying enough, or reading your Bible enough, which results in not having the things that you need. God withholds them from those who won’t pay the price. Instead of one week meetings, go to two week meetings and by the time you get to the second week, then “God starts to break things open.” If you don’t get it in two weeks, why not go to three? If you won’t go to four, maybe you don’t want to pay the price.
Christians won’t experience the blessing of God when they live in disobedience to the Word of God. However, they actually have every blessing in Christ (Eph 1:3) and the moment they were saved by grace, they no longer lacked in any gift from God (1 Cor 1:7). Everyone who obeys Scripture is pinning the needle on God’s blessing even if their brook runs dry. The Bible tells us why church growth sometimes doesn’t occur. It can be because of disobedience, but the most common explanation from Jesus is the condition of the hearts of the hearers. You have nothing to do with that. And ultimately, you are irrelevant to more happening, because it’s God Who gives the increase (1 Cor 3:6).
The people who “God is really blessing” are often manipulating the results. It’s an election equivalent of stuffing the ballot box. And why not? It isn’t those who are careful with the Word who get attention in this system. In evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and young Calvinism, people want to hear from those whom “God is really blessing.” Even if you get to where you are through some combination of compromise, talent, or technique, you will most often be rewarded in some tangible way because God must be really blessing you. There is no better cologne than victory. And if you don’t agree, it’s probably because God isn’t really blessing you.
God is sovereign. No doubt. God will always accomplish His will. He is God after all. I know that the term “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, but that there is a Trinity—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These Three are One. You don’t find the word “sovereign” in the King James Version. You have the terminology “only Potentate” in 1 Timothy 6:15 and perhaps that would be the closest to sovereign in the King James. Bauer-Danker Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament (BDAG) says the Greek word there (dunastes) means: “one who is in a position to command others. . . . ruler, sovereign.” So monos dunastes says that God alone commands others. He is in the highest position.
Since God is sovereign, He is also sovereign over what it is to be sovereign. No one else defines sovereignty but God. God has sovereignty over sovereignty. As men, we don’t figure out what sovereignty is and then apply that to God. We don’t go to passages about God in the Bible and fit them into our own ideas about sovereignty. We go to the Bible to find out what sovereignty is so that to us God is still sovereign over what His own sovereignty is. If we change God’s sovereignty into what we want it to be, God isn’t more sovereign. He is less so. We then become sovereign over His sovereignty. Now that can’t take place in reality, but in discussions about sovereignty men often become sovereign over sovereignty. We should allow God to have the say about what it is for Him to be sovereign.
If I say that a man’s salvation depends on his will, some would say that I’ve made man sovereign in salvation. For God to stay sovereign, they say that a man’s salvation must have absolutely nothing to do with his own will. According to this view of sovereignty, God alone wills to and for salvation irregardless of man’s. And if someone were to believe that man willed to be saved, he couldn’t believe in the sovereignty of God. But is this what Scripture says? God wrote it, so Scripture is sovereign over sovereignty. Someone isn’t more dedicated to God’s sovereignty who departs from Scripture to define it.
Someone once told me that he could do Donald Duck better than Donald Duck. I laughed. That’s not possible. No one can do Donald Duck better than Donald Duck. Donald Duck is Donald Duck. And God alone is God. We can’t do God better than God. God is sovereign, but we can’t do His sovereignty better than what He has done it in His Word. We should conform our view of God’s sovereignty to what God said. In whatever way our view of God’s sovereignty doesn’t match up with what God said, we should alter it to fit what God said. We can’t have any higher view of God’s sovereignty than what God says His sovereignty is. One possesses only in his own mind a higher view of God’s sovereignty than the view that God Himself communicates in His Word.
I might say that I have a higher view of the San Francisco Giants baseball team than you do. And I have that higher view because I believe they are not only the San Francisco Giants, but they are also the Sante Fe Giants. Even though they aren’t the Sante Fe Giants, I say my belief that they are elevates my view of the San Francisco Giants to a higher level than others at least according to me. However, a view of the San Francisco Giants can’t be heightened by something not true about them. The same can be said in judgment of a view of sovereignty. Someone’s view of God’s sovereignty isn’t increased by something not true about it. God’s sovereignty isn’t threatened in a way that it needs some exaggeration or misrepresentation to remain sovereign. That’s how sovereigns are about their own sovereignty—they’re sovereign about it.
We don’t grasp the concept of sovereignty without a sovereign. The Sovereign who created the concept of sovereignty wouldn’t let someone else rule over the concept. He would henceforth not be sovereign and, therefore, look to those who defined it to be the true sovereigns. The Sovereign will have His understanding of sovereignty be sovereign over all other views of sovereignty.
Does God become any less sovereign by any statement of His Word? Of course not. God’s Word manifests God to be as sovereign as He actually is. Since He is sovereign, He can’t be diminished in His sovereignty. And His own Word especially wouldn’t try to weaken it. All of God’s statements in His Word that relate to sovereignty could only serve to enhance the right view of His sovereignty.
Let’s say that I wanted to enhance people’s understanding of God’s mercy, so I said that God wouldn’t punish anyone for any wrong he had done. When you said that God did punish men for wrong they had done, I answer that you don’t really believe in God’s mercy. However, the truth of God’s mercy isn’t diminished by the truth of God’s punishment of sin. God’s mercy is mercy. All other mercy is judged by what the Bible says is His. God still punishes sin and His mercy remains all of what mercy is. An unscriptural innovation of mercy departs from mercy. We’re not talking about mercy anymore when we’re talking about something different than biblical mercy.
I haven’t dimished an iota of God’s sovereignty when I report that “whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).
Jesus wasn’t shrinking His own sovereignty when He said, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:34, 35).
We don’t improve upon a biblical view of God’s sovereignty. We don’t help God’s sovereignty along by professing that a man’s will has nothing to do with his salvation, when a sovereign God said that it does. When God says, “whosoever will,” we don’t exalt God’s sovereignty by saying that “whosoever really doesn’t mean whosoever like we think it means.” We don’t enlighten God’s sovereignty by saying “whosoever will but only those whom He predetermined will can will.” No, whosoever does mean whosoever.
I recently read, “God determines who shall believe and who shall not believe.” Some might think that statement exalts the sovereignty of God. It could do that only if God said it. He didn’t. Someone thinking he could embellish God’s sovereignty with his own thoughts took the rule over that sovereignty.
God’s sovereignty and “whosoever will” coexist. “Whosoever will” doesn’t make God’s sovereignty less sovereign or less amazing. “Whosoever will” pins the needle on God’s sovereignty. God is equal to the most sovereign He can be while “whosoever will” exists. We don’t need to clear away “whosoever will” to make room for God’s sovereignty. The people who can’t cope with “whosoever will” according to their view of sovereignty need to trust God. God is big enough to work out the details they can’t possibly comprehend.
God is sovereign. God gets what He wants. He wants “whosoever will,” therefore, He gets it. No one can topple God from His throne. He created all the possible enemies of “whosoever will.” He didn’t create any of them with potential to overturn something He wants. So the best they can undo “whosoever will” is in their mind and with their statements, which actually don’t do or undo anything that He already said was true. Their thoughts and words about “whosoever will” dissipate into the ether of human invention. They don’t change anything that God wants. They don’t stop “whosoever will.”
A growing number of people come to the Bible with their definition of sovereignty in hand, ready to conform Scripture to their definition. By limiting the recipients of salvation, they think they do service to God’s sovereignty. They don’t. They only take sovereignty over sovereignty. And God doesn’t need their help.
“You don’t believe in sovereignty” or “you’ve made man sovereign in salvation” are often scare tactics. They are effective, because they target a yearning of the conscientious Christian, like Sanballat and Tobiah zeroed in on Nehemiah’s legitimate concerns. We don’t want to be guilty of ratcheting down God and magnifying man. With such an attribute as sovereignty that defies comprehension, we could settle for a harsh extreme that hovers outside of biblical perimeters, just to protect us from proud criticism. “Whosoever will” is there. Be safe in the bounds of Scripture.