Our family is in the middle of making several important choices. These include, among other things, our daughter’s marriage, moving our son to College hostel in the middle of the Pandemic, and relocating with a possibility to build our own house. What is God’s will in each of these cases? We know that each will have life-time ramifications.
All responsible Christians are keen on knowing and doing God’s will. We might say that most people are keen on seeking divine favor so that they are blessed in their undertakings. To that end, folks like to know what that choice their deity approves. Christians of all sorts also seek the will of God as if it works like a magic wand or a secret mantra for divine favors and success. Evangelical Christians too are intent on knowing that exact will of God when they are making important choices pertaining to life and ministry.
Thinking of the will of God and ministry, the first choice I had to make was whether or not God wanted me to enter full time vocational ministry. I was brought to faith in the Lord Jesus by God’s grace while joining the Bible College! As a child my mother had dedicated me to be a servant of God––in her understanding, a priest in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
At age 18, having been born again by personal faith in the Lord Jesus, I realized that I could not follow my mother’s dreams. I needed to be fully assured of what God wanted me to do with my life.
After several months of praying and searching the Bible, God used a particular scripture portion (Psalm 116:12-19) to affirm my heart’s seeking and desire. That was very helpful for me in the formative years as I continued to study in the Bible College.
Today, if you were to ask me, I would still devote my life to serving God with my life fully and unreservedly, but not because that particular portion of Scripture spoke to me directly, but because I know what the will of God according to all of Scripture for all people is: To glorify Him by being transformed to the image of His Son. Christian ministry maximizes that goal for me personally, and gives me the opportunity to help others through the ministries I am involved in.
The will of God for all people is revealed in His Word. God’s will is not sought and found; it is discerned by understanding what is God’s overall purpose for mankind as revealed in the Scriptures. God’s will is not sought by principles and rules; but it is discerned and lived out by mature Christians who desire to glorify Him in all things (1 Cor 10:31-33).
Will of God Revealed
Let’s first consider what is the Scriptural pattern about the will of God. The OT refers to the will of God in a number of places (Lev. 24:12; 1 Sam. 2:25; Ezra 7:18; Is. 53:10). The Leviticus passage recounts how a man “cursed the Name” and “they put him in custody, till the will of the LORD should be clear to them” (24;12). The will of the LORD came when God spoke the following verses, not only for the man in custody but anyone who curses Him: “Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death” (v16), including the foreigner and the native Israelite. In the Messianic passage of Isaiah 53, on the one hand it was wicked men who oppressed the faithful Servant of the LORD (vv.7-8), “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him” (v.10a).
The Gospels show how Jesus constantly and conscientiously lived in reality of, and spoke about the importance of his disciples living out the revealed will of God (Matt. 7:21; 12:50; 18:14; 21:31; Mark 3:35; John 1:13; 4:34; 5:30; 6:38–40). In several of his letters Paul acknowledges that he is an apostle of Jesus Christ “by the will of God” (1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Col 1:1; and 2 Tim 1:1). We are not surprised that he refers to the will of God in relation to the believer’s life more than a dozen times. It is very instructive to consider four of these here.
Sexual Purity as God’s Will
In his early writings itself, Paul began to teach his churches what the will of God is. Paul was very encouraged by the infant church’s spiritual vitality. Yet, he felt the need to plead with them to conduct (lit. walk) their life in a way that pleases God. The specific will of God is stated: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor…” (1 Thess 4:3-4, ESV).
Paraphrase this a bit and we get the point: The will of God is not whether you marry the right person; it is not whether you should marry at all or remain single. The will of God is to remain sexually pure, period. Some have taken this verse to mean that believing men should take a wife to be able to stay sexually pure . The term ‘body’ literally is “vessel” (KJV et al) and they cross-reference it to Peter’s use of the word in relation to “wife” (1 Pet 3:7).
This is a hermeneutical jump because it ignores how Paul uses “vessel” three times to refer to one’s body/self (2 Cor. 4:7; 1 Th. 4:4; 2 Tim. 2:20–21). To take “vessel” as wife also limits the need for sexual purity to men, when the text does not. Paul pleads for sexual purity as the specific will of God for all believers. We might marry, and we might marry the right person, but if we don’t have a lifelong commitment to stay pure, we are outside the will of God, and disregard (reject/despise) God himself, with the implication of incurring judgement (v.8).
A Fourfold Will of God
The pastoral burden of Paul for the people he is writing to can be frequently found in his prayers on their behalf. Paul’s prayer for the Colossian church that was being infiltrated by false teachers (see “let no one…”, 2:4, 8, 16, 18) was that they be “filled with the knowledge of his will” (v.9). The resultant life will be “fully pleasing to [God]” (v.10).
But what does that will of God look like? Four participial clauses define what the will of God is for the daily living (italics added for emphasis): “bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father…” (vv.10b-12).
The will of God is not a set of fixed, and often elusive plans God that dangles from the sky in front of His people. It is about God’s desire for us to grow with resolute purpose in order for us to be spiritually productive. It is that we experience an increasing intimacy with Him as we serve Him. The will of God is to endure trials and struggle against heresies by divine empowerment. It is God’s will that we consistently and joyfully return thanks to God for all things (cf.1 Thess 5:18).
Spirit Filling as the Will of God
It’s not typical that we relate the imperative: “Be Filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 to a revealed will of God: “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (v.17). The idea of being filled with the Spirit is so contrived by the ideologies and experiences of Christians. Few points of clarification need to be said. The Holy Spirit is always an agent of God’s work in the world. Thus we should read, “be filled by [not with]” the Holy Spirit (See Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 375). The content of filling is already stated in Ephesians ( “fullness of God/Christ”; see Eph. 1:23; 3:19; 4:10, 13). The will of God is that believers allow the Holy Spirit as the divine agent to fill them with the fullness of God/Christ (cf. Rom 8:5, 9). That is the will of God.
Now, what does that look like? Here too, the will of God is fleshed out in vv.19-21 with four participial clauses (note the emphasis): addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Noticeably, we can sense Paul is being filled with the fullness of God in the way he repeats his rootedness in God/Christ. Of these, he directly applied the last one (submission) to the Christian home where the will of God can be lived out in everyday life (cf. 5:22-4:8). What a difference it makes when fellow members of Christ’s body live out the will of God in the home, 24×7!
Missions as the Will of God
Finally, let us consider the strategic importance of Romans 12:1-2 to the thematic structure of Romans. What did Paul have in mind when he encouraged the church in Rome to “discern what is the will of God”, that “good, acceptable and perfect” will of God? The church assumedly began to think like the world: “Do not be conformed to the world” (v.2a). In view of (“therefore” v.1a) the rich theological explanation of the Gospel (chs. 1-8) and in light of God’s outworking of His elective choices between Jews and Gentiles (chs.9-11), Paul asked the Roman believers to “be transformed by the renewal of their mind.”
Paul’s usage of the “will of God” in the rest of Romans controls, at least to some extent, what Paul is thinking of in this context too. He had earlier spoken to them about his plan to visit them in a short while, by “the will of God”, so that he may have a fruitful ministry among them (Rom 1:10f.). In chapter 15 he states that he has an associated plan to go to Spain as well being helped by them after his visit (vv.24, 28). He desires this anticipated trip to them, and further to the farthest mission frontier through them, “by the will of God” (15:32).
There is one more outer layer that provides the framework for the Roman church in thinking about the will of God in their participation in Paul’s mission-plans. In 2:17-23, Paul speaks of the failure of the Jews with regard to their missional calling as the people of God in His world. He concludes, quoting Isaiah 52:5 that “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:32). Paul reminds the Roman church that the Jews “knew [God’s] will” and “approve” what is excellent” but have failed in fulfilling it (Rom 2:18).
So, Paul wasn’t merely thinking about general principles for Romans to discern and live the will of God. He was preparing them to be ready to participate in God’s mission-plan through his ministry to them and in Spain. They should not fail like the Jews.
That he was convinced of the will of God about this is seen in Acts 21:10-14 when the Holy Spirit prompted Agabus to predict the arrest and persecution that Paul would face in Jerusalem. Everyone tried to persuade Paul to not go there (on his way to Rome and Spain). Paul’s response to them is astonishing: “What are you doing, weeping and breaking my heart? For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (v13). Note that this unyielding determination is in spite of what the Holy Spirit had indicated. Luke adds that “since he would not be persuaded, we ceased and said, “Let the will of the Lord be done” (v.14). The church came around to yield to God’s will in Paul’s mission-plans.
Based on these few passages related to the will of God, we can conclude that we ought to be more concerned with obeying the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures than our preoccupation with details concerning our earthly affairs. We need to be more sensitive to the heart of God and to the pastoral concerns of biblical authors to direct our lives for the pleasure and glory of God than things that are transient in nature. Such obsession reveals immaturity; perhaps even carnality.
The will of God is not so much as to be searched and found so that God may give us success in our undertaking as much as it is to be discerned in the Scriptures and followed. The will of God for our lives is clear in the Scripture, to live sexually pure lives, to pursue spiritual growth, to live out a Spirit-filled church-edifying life, and to be engaged in missions either by going, or by effectively sending those who would go.
I had to pray for guidance about the will of God with regard to ministry in the formative years of my spiritual life. Presently, I praise God for the opportunities to live out God’s revealed will as I serve my family, fellow members at Bethel Baptist Church, and the men and women who are preparing for ministry at Evangelical Theological Seminary. I also hope that in each of those areas that our family faces, we will be first and foremost mindful to obey the will of God as revealed in the Bible.