In the lead-up to the Truth Matters conference in October, we will be focusing our attention on the sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture. One of our previous blog series, Looking for Truth in All the Wrong Places, strongly emphasizes those doctrines. The following entry from that series originally appeared on June 19, 2017. -ed.
If you rely on internal, subjective messages and promptings from the Lord, what prevents you from imagining the input you want from Him? Moreover, what reliable, objective mechanism exists to keep you from misinterpreting your own imagination as divine instruction?
As we saw last time, many good souls and even some heroes of our faith fall into that same error, mistaking imagination for revelation. Many—perhaps most—Christians believe God uses subjective promptings to guide believers in making major decisions. A thorough search of church history would undoubtedly confirm that most believers who lean heavily on immediate “revelations” or subjective impressions ostensibly from God end up embarrassed, confused, disappointed, and frustrated.
Nothing in Scripture even suggests that we should seek either the will of God or the Word of God (personal guidance or fresh prophecy) by listening to subjective impressions. So how are we supposed to determine the divine will?
Virtually every Christian grapples with the question of how to know God’s will in any individual instance. We particularly struggle when faced with the major decisions of adolescence—what occupation or profession we will pursue, whom we will marry, whether and where we will go to college, and so on. Most of us fear that wrong decisions at these points will result in a lifetime of disaster.
Unfortunately, many of the books and pamphlets on discerning God’s will are filled with mystical mumbo-jumbo about seeking a sense of peace, listening for a divine “call,” putting out a “fleece,” and other subjective signposts pointing the way to God’s will.
That kind of “discernment” is not at all what Scripture calls for. If we examine everything the Bible has to say about knowing God’s will, what we discover is that everywhere Scripture expressly mentions the subject, it sets forth objective guidelines. If we put those guidelines together, we get a fairly comprehensive picture of the will of God for every Christian. We can summarize them like this:
- It is God’s will that we be saved. “The Lord is . . . not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). “God our Savior . . . desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3–4).
- It is God’s will that we be Spirit-filled. “Do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. . . . Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:17–18).
- It is God’s will that we be sanctified. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
- It is God’s will that we be submissive. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1 Peter 2:13–15).
- It is God’s will that we suffer. “Therefore, let those also who suffer according to the will of God entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right” (1 Peter 4:19). “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29). “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
If all those objective aspects of God’s will are realities in your life, you needn’t fret over the other decisions you must make. As long as the options you face do not involve issues directly forbidden or commanded in Scripture, you are free to do whatever you choose.
Whatever you choose? Yes, within the limits expressly set forth in God’s Word. If those five objective principles are consistently true in your life—if you are saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submissive, and suffering for righteousness’ sake—you are completely free to choose whatever you desire.
In fact, God providentially governs your choice by molding your desires. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” That doesn’t mean merely that He grants the desires of your heart; it suggests that He puts the desires there. So even when we choose freely, His sovereign providence guides the free choices we make! What confidence that should give us as we live our lives before God!
This is not to suggest that we should attempt to try to decipher God’s will through what we can observe of His providence. That would thrust us right back into the realm of determining truth subjectively. But we can be confident as we make choices that God will providentially work all things together in accord with His perfect will (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11). We needn’t be paralyzed with fear that a wrong decision might ruin our lives forever.
There are some caveats that need to be stressed here: Obviously if your desires are sinful, selfish, or wrongly motivated, then you are not really Spirit-filled, or else you are not pursuing sanctification the way you should. Your first responsibility is to set those areas of your life in order. In other words, if you are pursuing self-will and fleshly desire, you have stepped out of God’s will with regard to one or more of the major objective principles. You need to come into line with the objective, revealed will of God before you can make whatever decision you may be contemplating.
And again, our freedom to choose extends only to issues not specifically addressed in Scripture. Obviously, no one who is truly saved, Spirit-filled, sanctified, submissive, and suffering for Christ would willfully disobey the Word of God. No Christian has the freedom, for example, to violate 2 Corinthians 6:14 by marrying an unbeliever.
Above all, we must use biblical wisdom in the choices we make. We are to apply wisdom to all our decisions. Look again at the beginning of Ephesians 5:17: “Do not be foolish.” To be Spirit-filled is to be wise—to be discerning (see Exodus 35:31; Deuteronomy 34:9; also see Ephesians 5:18 with Colossians 3:16). The biblical wisdom that is the hallmark of the Spirit-filled person is the platform on which all right decision making must be based. We are to consider our options in this light and pursue the choices that seem most wise—not merely what feels best (Proverbs 2:1–6).
This means that if we contemplate God’s will biblically, we will remain in the realm of objective truth. The Bible never encourages us to try to determine God’s will by subjective impressions, “promptings” from the Holy Spirit, the “still, small voice” of God, or miraculous signs like Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6:36–40). If we seek to be led in subjective ways like those—especially if we neglect objective truth and biblical wisdom—we will surely run into trouble. Making decisions based on subjective criteria is a subtle form of reckless faith.
One of the significant contributions of Garry Friesen’s landmark book, Decision Making and the Will of God, is a chapter that explores the pitfalls of attempting to discern the will of God through subjective impressions. “Impressions Are Impressions” is the title of the chapter.  Gary Friesen with J. Robin Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1980), 127. “If the source of one’s knowledge is subjective,” Friesen writes, “then the knowledge will also be subjective—and hence, uncertain.”  Decision Making and the Will of God, 130.
At one point Friesen raises the question, “how can I tell whether these impressions are from God or from some other source?” He writes,
This is a critical question. For impressions could be produced by any number of sources: God, Satan, an angel, a demon, human emotions (such as fear or ecstasy), hormonal imbalance, insomnia, medication, or an upset stomach. Sinful impressions (temptations) may be exposed for what they are by the Spirit-sensitized conscience and the Word of God. But beyond that, one encounters a subjective quagmire of uncertainty. For in nonmoral areas, Scripture gives no guidelines for distinguishing the voice of the Spirit from the voice of the self—or any other potential “voice.” And experience offers no reliable means of identification either (which is why the question comes up in the first place). . . . Tremendous frustration has been experienced by sincere Christians who have earnestly but fruitlessly sought to decipher the code of the inward witness.  Decision Making and the Will of God, 130-131.
Even more significant than that is the fact that Scripture never commands us to tune into any inner voice. We’re commanded to study and meditate on Scripture (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:1–2). We’re instructed to cultivate wisdom and discernment (Proverbs 4:5–8). We’re told to walk wisely and make the most of our time (Ephesians 5:15–16). We’re ordered to be obedient to God’s commands (Deuteronomy 28:1–2; John 15:14). But we are never encouraged to listen for inner promptings.
On the contrary, we are warned that our hearts are so deceitful and desperately wicked that we cannot understand them (Jeremiah 17:9). Surely this should make us very reluctant to heed promptings and messages that arise from within ourselves.
This, by the way, is one of the critical deficiencies of Wayne Grudem’s position on prophecy. While defining revelation as “something God brings to mind,” Grudem never explores the critical issue of how to determine whether an impression in the mind really comes from God. Yet this would seem to be the most pressing question of all for someone who is about to declare a mental impression a prophecy from the Lord.
By contrast, Friesen writes, “Inner impressions are not a form of revelation. So the Bible does not invest inner impressions with authority to function as indicators of divine guidance. . . . Impressions are not authoritative. Impressions are impressions.”  Decision Making and the Will of God, 131. Surely this is the true path of biblical wisdom.
Haddon Robinson goes one step further: “When we lift our inner impressions to the level of divine revelation, we are flirting with divination.”  Haddon Robinson, Decision Making by the Book (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1991), 18. In other words, those who treat subjective impressions as revelatory prophecy are actually practicing a form of fortune-telling. Those willing to heed inner voices and mental impressions may be listening to the lies of a deceitful heart, the fantasies of an overactive imagination, or even the voice of a demon. Once objective criteria are cast aside, there is no way to know the difference between truth and falsehood. Those who follow subjective impressions are by definition undiscerning. Mysticism and discernment simply do not mix.
(Adapted from Reckless Faith.)