Today's Broadcast

Looking for God's Will

A Message by R.C. Sproul

How do you know the will of God for your life? What measures have you taken to find that out? Beginning this series on Knowing God's Will, Dr. Sproul discusses the ordinary ways God communicates His will to His people, as well as some extraordinary ways.

From the series: Knowing God's Will

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. devotional

    The Will of God

  2. article

    The Purposes of God

  3. blog-post

    Can I Know God's Will?

The Will of God

Martin Luther, the driving personality of the Protestant Reformation, made several distinctions that we continue to follow today. One of these is the distinction between God hidden and God revealed. Luther's desire was to convey a specific truth with this distinction, namely, that if we are to know the Lord, the Lord must reveal Himself to us. But in revealing Himself, God does not reveal everything there is to know about Him. He keeps part of Himself hidden, whether because we could not comprehend what He keeps hidden or because He simply chooses to exercise His sovereign freedom and not tell us certain things.

Deuteronomy 29:29 provides the essential biblical teaching that underlies this distinction. In this passage, Moses tells the Israelites that there are some things that are secret and belong only to "the Lord our God." Certain realities are for our Creator—and only our Creator—to know. At the same time, God has condescended to mankind in order to reveal to us certain truths about His character and plan. These truths are for us to know forever.

This passage indicates that the Lord has two wills—one hidden and one revealed. God's hidden will (also known as His decretive will, will of decree, or absolute will) includes all that He has ordained. His will of decree establishes every event in history, every thought and intention of every person, everything that ever happens. This will extends even to the ordination of evil, for the Lord works out everything according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). Importantly, not everything that God ordains in His hidden will is in itself pleasing to Him. Considered in themselves, He hates the evils He ordains, but He ordains them in order to overcome evil and achieve a greater good that does please Him (Rom. 8:28).

God's revealed will is also known as His will of precept or preceptive will. This will tells us what the Lord finds pleasing. Chiefly, the revealed will of God is His moral law. When Scripture calls us to do the will of the Lord, it is this will that is in view. We cannot know His hidden will except in retrospect. We can look back in history and know what was part of the Lord's hidden, or decretive, will up until this point because God's decretive will always comes to pass. Whatever happens in history manifests what He ordained in His sovereign but hidden will. Yet we are not called to seek out this hidden will, which we cannot know in advance anyway because God hides it from us. Instead, we are to live by what the Lord has revealed in His preceptive will. As we obey His commandments, we please our Creator.Š

The Purposes of God

R.C. Sproul

"Why?" This simple question is loaded with assumptions about what philosophers call "teleology." Teleology, which comes from the Greek word for "goal" or "end" (telos), is the study of purpose. The "why" questions are purpose questions. We seek the reasons things happen as they do. Why does the rain fall? Why does the earth turn on its axis? Why did you say that?

When we raise the question of purpose, we are concerned with ends, aims, and goals. All these terms suggest intent. They assume meaning rather than meaninglessness. Despite the best attempts of nihilist philosophers to deny that anything has ultimate meaning and significance, the perennial question "Why?" shows that they haven't been successful. In fact, even the cynic's glib retort of "Why not?" is a thinly veiled commitment to purpose. To explain why we're not doing something is to give a reason or purpose for not doing it. Purpose remains in the background. Human beings are creatures committed to purpose. We do things for a reason—with some kind of goal in mind.

Still, there is complexity in this quest for purpose. We distinguish between proximate and remote purposes, the proximate being what is close at hand and the remote referring to the distant and ultimate purpose. To use a sports analogy, the proximate goal for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line is to make a first down. Making a touchdown is the more remote goal. A goal that is even further off for the team is to win the game. Finally, the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl.

The most famous Old Testament illustration of the relation between remote and proximate purposes is found in the story of Joseph. At the story's end, Joseph's brothers express their fear that he will take revenge on them for all that they had done to him. Joseph's response shows us a remarkable concurrence at work between proximate and remote purposes. He said, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Gen. 50:20). Here, the proximate and the remote seemed to be mutually exclusive. The divine intention was the exact opposite of the human intention. Joseph's brothers had one goal; God had a different one. The astounding reality here is that the proximate purpose served the remote purpose. This did not absolve the brothers of culpability. Their intent and actions were evil. Yet God deemed it good to let the brothers have their way with Joseph—to a limited extent—that He might achieve His ultimate purpose.

We all experience what seem to be tragic accidents. Some years ago, one of the pastors of Saint Andrew's Chapel cut his hand severely while working in a cabinet shop. He did not mean to slice his hand; he intended to cut the wood for the cabinet he was working on. Proximately speaking, he had an accident. He asked, "Why did God permit my hand to get cut up?"

The question looks for a final purpose to the accident. It assumes what we know to be true, namely, that God could have prevented the accident. If we deny this, we deny the God who is. If He could not have prevented it, He would not be omnipotent--He would not be God. Moreover, our question "Why?" assumes another truth: that the question has an answer. We know God had a purpose for the accident.

For questions like these, we may not get a full answer in this life. We may never know on this side of glory all of the reasons why a tragedy occurs. Nevertheless, there is an answer to this most important question: "Is God's purpose in allowing this accident to happen a good one?"

If we know anything about God, we already know the answer to the question. The Lord's purposes and intentions are always altogether good. There is no hint of arbitrariness or wicked intent in the will of God. The pleasure of His will is always the good pleasure of His will. His pleasure is always good; His will is always good; His intentions are always good.

Paul's incredible promise that "for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28) is a statement of teleology. Here, Paul addresses the remote rather than the proximate. Note that he doesn't say all things are good but that they work together for good—for a final and ultimate goal. The Apostle insists that the proximate must always be seen in light of the remote.

The difficulty we face is that we do not yet possess the full light of the remote. On this side of heaven, we see through a glass darkly. Yet, we are not utterly devoid of light. We know enough about God to know He has a good purpose for all things even when that good purpose eludes us.

God's good purpose shows us that the appearance of vanity and futility in this world is just that--mere appearance. To trust in God's good purpose is the essence of godly faith. Thus, no Christian can be an ultimate pessimist. The wickedness and tragedy we daily endure can lead to a proximate pessimism, but not an ultimate one. I am pessimistic about human government and the innate good will of men. I am fully optimistic about divine government and the intrinsic good will of God.

We do not live in a world of chance or chaos. It began with a purpose, it is sustained with a purpose, and it has an ultimate purpose. This is my Father's world, and His rule is purposeful, not capricious and arbitrary. Purposelessness is a manifest impossibility.

Can I Know God's Will?

R.C. Sproul

Alice in Wonderland came to a fork in the road. Icy panic stung her as she stood frozen by indecision. She lifted her eyes toward heaven, looking for guidance. Her eyes did not find God, only the Cheshire cat leering at her from his perch in the tree above. "Which way should I go?" blurted Alice.

"That depends . . . ," said the cat, fixing a sardonic smile on the confused girl.

"On what?" Alice managed to reply.

"On your destination. Where are you going?" queried the Cheshire fiend.

"I don't know . . . ," stammered Alice.

"Then," said the cat, with grin spreading wider, "it doesn't matter."

It matters to the Christian. Every Christian has a destiny in the kingdom of God. We are a pilgrim people, a people on the move--our destination matters. The days of wandering in the wilderness are over. The Promised Land has been reached and made secure. Yet we still seek a better country, an eternal city whose builder and maker is God. Though we do not wander aimlessly or grope in darkness for a clue to our future, the specifics of our personal futures are, nevertheless, unknown to us. We must still walk by faith rather than by sight.

We are certain that there is a future for the people of God. The ultimate destination is clear. But what of tomorrow? We feel anxious about the future as other people do. With the child we ask, "Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? What will happen to me?"

Concern for our hidden destiny can fill us with fear. The paralyzing power of worry can obstruct our progress. As long as there have been people, there have been soothsayers and wizards exploiting our anxieties. If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, surely fortune-telling is the second oldest. "Tell me of tomorrow" is the plea of the stock market speculator, the competitive businessman, the sports forecaster, and the young couple in love. The student asks, "Will I graduate?" The manager muses, "Will I be promoted?" The person in the doctor's waiting room clenches his hands and asks, "Is it cancer or indigestion?"

People have examined lizard entrails, snake skins, the bones of owls, the Ouija board, the daily horoscope, and the predictions of Jimmy the Greek--all to gain a small margin of insurance against an unknown future. The Christian asks, "What is the will of God for my life?"

To search for the will of God can be an exercise in piety or impiety, an act of humble submission, or an act of outrageous arrogance--depending on what will of God we are looking for. To try to look behind the veil at what God has not been pleased to reveal is to tamper with holy things that are out of bounds. John Calvin put it this way, "Where God has closed his holy mouth, I will desist from inquiry."

On the other hand, it is a delight to God to hear the prayers of his people when they individually ask, "Lord, what do you want me to do?" The Christian pursues God, looking for his marching orders, seeking to know what course of action is pleasing to him. This search for the will of God is a holy quest--a pursuit that is to be undertaken with vigor by the godly person.

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In the coming days we will be sharing excerpts from R.C. Sproul's book How Can I Know God's Will?. If you would like to study this topic further, here are a couple of resources that may interest you: Knowing God's Will CD Collection or Knowing God's Will MP3 Collection.

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