Ask ten different Christians how God guides them and you're almost guaranteed to get ten different answers, assuming that they believe God guides them at all. In this article I have set out to discuss how the sufficiency of Scripture affects the way we answer these questions. This is the teaching that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage in redemptive history, and that now it contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.
How do we decide what matters? There are probably three loose categories on which we can base a decision. The first is a matter of righteousness. Second, there are matters of a trivial nature – deciding which variety of biscuits to buy when they are of similar price. The third aspect involves matters of judgment. With the first two categories, the answer is (nearly always) quite obvious. It seems relatively straightforward to know that I shouldn't bow down to a golden cow or other idols. In the second case, it matters little whether I buy McVitie's or Cadbury's snacks. Most of us struggle with the third aspect, which involves things such as what career to do, who to marry or even what I should be doing in my free time.
Scripture talks about guidance in the form of dreams, visions, prophecy, and promptings of the Holy Spirit, the advice of others and of circumstances. If we want to obey God, which if any should we use today to make our decisions and what are our responsibilities when making these decisions?
Two passages in Scripture on guidance are most helpful, found in Paul's second letter to Timothy and in Psalm 119. In his letter Paul wrote:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
This teaches us that God has made provision in Scripture so that we may be fully trained for every good work. The crucial word in this passage is every. Had the word been missing we may not conclude that Scripture is sufficient, and would mean that we would also need to look elsewhere. Paul is quite clear though; Scripture alone is adequate in its provision to equip us for the work God wants us to do.
The second verse reads:
Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Here the law is referring to the commands given by Moses to the Israelites. While this does not immediately apply to us today, the sentiment of keeping God's word is clearly seen as something excellent that we should hold on to. The contrast is seen throughout the psalm, as those who fail to hold on to God's word are depicted as arrogant, wicked and cursed.
These are clear teachings that give positive evidence for the sufficiency of Scripture. This means that if there is an issue we need guidance on we can be confident that we may come to Scripture to learn if God requires us to act in a particular way so as not to sin. We need not look outside Scripture to be confident that we are obeying God.
Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology, a book summarising basic doctrines of the Bible, helpfully puts it like this: if Scripture does not speak directly to our question we may conclude that God does not require us to think or act in a certain way with regard to that question. This means that if we need to choose between different options, as long as none of them are regarded by Scripture as causing us or others to sin, we are free to choose. Before passing these decisions off as a matter of judgment rather than righteousness, we must use Scripture to examine our motives and attitudes as well as our actions so we do not make choices for selfish or immoral reasons.
How God guides
What about guidance from sources other than Scripture? Christians disagree over whether God communicates to us any more by other methods (extra-revelation). If God does reveal information to us by these methods it will not contain teaching that is not already found in the Bible. It will only reaffirm the moral teachings already given and not add to them, and we should be content with the guidance God has given. While it certainly is possible that guidance comes to us in the form of extra-revelation, the Bible does not teach us to expect it or seek such a course. The danger with this thinking is that we make choices based on subjective feelings or attempt to establish our own ways of 'talking' to God where he has not promised to reveal himself in such a manner. No matter how much we would like God to communicate with us more directly, or how useful it would be, we must not go against his clear teaching. God's wisdom is much greater than ours and we should rest in the knowledge that his ways are best.
Some Bible characters have had striking revelation, but Hebrews 1:1,2 tells us what we should expect:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
We see here that God has uniquely revealed himself in his Son, and that through him, he reveals salvation – his main message to us. God speaks today by the Holy Spirit, through the whole Bible, convicting us and moulding us into the people he wants us to be. It may sound rather 'ordinary', but indeed it is extraordinary that the living God speaks to us at all.
I have not sought to give a comprehensive overview on how God guides, only to set out the limits that Scripture gives when we are seeking God's will. From this teaching we can conclude a number of practical points on seeking guidance from God. First, we should study Scripture to discover how God wants us to live a holy life. If Scripture does not speak directly to our question we may conclude that God does not require us to think or act in a certain way with regard to that question. Second, we should pray about our decisions, that God will give us wisdom and that his will would be done. Third, we must thank God for his provision for all that we do. Fourth, we must remember that God is forgiving and that when we do get things wrong we should repent and keep trying to do what is right.
- Is my choice compatible with the commands and principles of Scripture?
- Is it a moral decision, a trivial decision, or a matter of judgment?
- What are my motives or desires in seeking guidance and making such a decision? Be honest!
An example might be helpful here. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the great preachers of the 20th century – a minister and formerly a physician. There are some practical tips in decision making we can take away for ourselves from the example of his choice to quit medicine. First, he prayed about the decision and had a clear understanding of Scripture's teaching on guidance. Second, he did not rush; he took time to mull over the decision and didn't act until he was happy that he made the right choice. Finally, he took the advice of those around him (many could see his gift in the pulpit and encouraged him to take up the opportunity when good preaching was in decline). Although the advice of others is not final, we should always be open to hearing and weighing up what our more experienced Christian brothers and sisters suggest. Notably, Lloyd-Jones' dilemma is an example of many decisions where the Bible is apparently silent. Neither being a physician or preacher would have been right or wrong, but he made his choice in a way that was true to Scripture.
We may be tempted to think that God has no particular plan for individuals if he is dispensing generic advice for everyone. Consider Psalm 139:16: 'All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.' So God's sovereignty and ruling hand fulfils this plan. It can be said that while God's moral will is abundantly clear through Scripture, God's sovereign will (ie his exact plan for me) is indiscoverable. In the case of the majority of our lives, living out God's moral will, found in the Bible, will be his sovereign will.
We can be confident though, that God's will for our lives will be done, ultimately to bring us back to him at the last day. We would do well to follow this advice from Luther:
...we can find counsel and comfort nowhere else and this alone is the golden art: to cling to God's Word and promise, to make judgments on the basis of this Word and not on the basis of the feeling of the heart. Then help and comfort will surely follow.