1 HOW TO KNOW THE WILL OF GOD Sermon preached by Pastor C. John Steer Autumn Ridge Church, Rochester, MN NOVEMBER 16-17, 2013 Today we are going to look at HOW TO KNOW THE WILL OF GOD. I have chosen this subject because it is the most common question I am asked. People want to know if God has a will for our life and if so, how do we discover it. Our starting point must be the scriptures for God has chosen to reveal himself in the Bible. When we turn there we are in for a surprise for we discover that there are two wills of God. The first is what we can call God’s will of decree. This is God’s sovereign will. The Christians in Jerusalem refer to this will in their prayer in Acts 4 when they say to God, “Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.” (Acts 4:27-28) The will of God was that Jesus should die. God had planned it and there was no changing it. Jesus acknowledged this in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39) God’s will was paramount. Paul explains God’s will of decree when he writes, “In Christ we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (Ephesians 1:11) God decrees that certain things should happen and they will. Even though humans may try and stop them, God will bring them to pass. God’s will of decree is absolute, immutable and unchangeable. It is unconditional and in complete harmony with his plan and nature. God does not intend for us to know most of his sovereign will ahead of time. Deuteronomy explains, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us.” (Deuteronomy 29:29) That is why God’s will of decree is sometimes called “God’s secret will.” There is also God’s will of desire. There are many places where God indicates his desire for us as his people. 2 An appropriate one with Thanksgiving coming up is, “Give thanks in all circumstances for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18) Giving thanks is what God desires but it doesn’t always happen. We don’t always give thanks in every situation. So God’s will of decree is invincible, but his will of desire can be frustrated. When we speak about knowing the will of God we are referring to his will of desire for our life. If we follow this we will be stronger and more satisfied Christians. The good news is that God clearly reveals his will of desire. It is not hidden. It is not lost. God delights to make it known to us. Now very often when we talk about knowing the will of God we are thinking of questions like whom should I marry, which house should I buy, what college should I attend? But here is another surprise. God is not primarily interested in these areas. He wants us first to see the big picture. Only when we have understood this should we concern ourselves with the smaller details of our existence. So let’s look at THE BIG PICTURE of God’s will for every one of us here. As we do so we take encouragement from Paul’s words, “Do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.” (Ephesians 5:17) First, God’s will is that we are saved. This is the most important desire that God has for us. Peter explains, “The Lord…does not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) God created us to have fellowship with him. Sin broke that fellowship. So Jesus came to restore it. Without Christ we are lost. We are under the judgment of God. We are spiritually dead in our sin. But God sent Jesus to our rescue. Jesus saves us. He gives us a new life. The Bible calls this being “born again.” This is where the will of God starts for us. Second, God’s will is that we are sanctified. One of the clearest expressions of God’s will is found in First Thessalonians where Paul writes, “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3) To be sanctified is to be holy. It is to be set apart for God. It is to live a pure life. 3 It is to be filled daily with the Holy Spirit. Paul uses a daring pictures to illustrate this when he writes, “Do not get drunk on wine…instead be filled with the Spirit.” (Ephesians 5:18) If we drink too much wine we get drunk. The spirit of alcohol influences the way we speak and walk and act. It is not a pretty sight. Instead God wants us to be controlled by the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit of God influences our words and deeds and actions. This is beautiful to behold. When we are controlled by the Holy Spirit our mind is transformed and renewed. This means we are able to make decisions according to the will of God. John Piper writes, “The Bible does not tell you which person to marry or which car to drive or whether to own a home, where to take your vacation, what cell phone plan to buy, which brand of orange juice to drink. Or a thousand other choices you must make. What is necessary is we have a renewed mind, so shaped and so governed by the revealed will of God in the Bible that we will see and assess all relevant factors with the mind of Christ and discern what God is calling us to do.” Third, God’s will is that we are serving. All of us have gifts and abilities that God wants us to present to him. Paul writes, “I urge you…to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:1-2) Did you know that God created you for greatness? Paul explains, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) If we are not doing those good works we are missing out on the very reason God made us. That explains why we often feel frustrated and empty. God’s will for us is that we should be serving others rather than being selfish. Fourth, God’s will is that we should be ready to suffer. Here’s another surprise. We never imagined God’s will would involve suffering, but it does. First Peter is a letter written to suffering Christians. They are wondering what is happening to them? Are they out of the will of God? Is their pain God’s punishment? There is a false version of Christianity that says that God’s will for us is all smiles and sunshine. But Peter is much more realistic. 4 He writes, “Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19) Suffering is part of our Christian calling. Paul tells us, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29) Some of you are suffering dreadfully today. This doesn’t mean you are out of the will of God. God wants to use your suffering for a greater purpose. It is not always clear what that is. There is an element of mystery in suffering. It might be to refine us or to encourage others. Last Thursday 250 women gathered in The Center. They heard Tara Maier talk about her journey through cancer. It has been an immensely difficult time for Tara and Jay and their family. Yet those of us who have read their blog or heard Tara have grown in our faith. We’ve seen Christ in them. Perhaps today God is asking us to take a step of obedience which could involve an element of suffering. It might involve a cut in pay or the end of a relationship. We are naturally hesitant. But this is the way the Master went so should not the servant tread it, too? No great advances for Christ have been made without suffering. We understand that as a church. That’s why we have a martyrdom policy. We recognize that when we send people into difficult and dangerous parts of the world there is a possibility of loss of life, but like Paul we want to say, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” So that’s the big picture of God’s will for us. He wants us to be saved, sanctified, serving and ready to suffer. But what about all those other choices that come up in life? One answer is that if we are doing these four things we can do as we like because a saved and sanctified person is going to make good choices. But clearly sometimes we want help in making important decisions. So let’s now turn to THE INDIVIDUAL PICTURE. How can we know which career to pursue, or which place to live? Clearly the scriptures are silent on these matters. 5 They don’t tell us whether we shall be a painter or a teacher, or live in Rochester, Minnesota or Rochester, New York. So how can we find help and have peace as we make these important decisions? We can discover God’s will for us in personal situations by checking our decision against the grid of four Biblical principles. Those of you who have come to my study asking about the will of God have heard me run through these. So please forgive me for repeating them. First, we examine the decision in light of the principles in God’s word. The psalmist tells us, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105) A person came to see me who is thinking of becoming a missionary. We looked at what God’s word has to say about missions. We found the Bible is filled with commands for Christians to take the gospel to every part of the earth. So the principles of God’s word affirmed this decision. That does not mean that person should be a missionary but it is a good starting point. There is a great book that has helped me tremendously. It is called “Decision Making and the Will of God.” The author Garry Friesen talks about the importance of wisdom. Making good and godly choices is a matter of being wise. Wisdom comes from the fear of the Lord and the knowledge of his word. The second principle in discovering God’s will for us in personal situations is the prompting of God’s Spirit. Paul prayed for his friends at Colossae, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding the Spirit gives, so you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.” (Colossians 1:9-10) Jude experienced the prompting of the Spirit in his life. He wrote, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude 1:3) As Christians the Holy Spirit lives within us. He makes his presence known by speaking to us. Now what exactly does that mean? Do we hear a voice? 6 Sometimes we do but that is very rare. The voice of God has been described as something between silence and a whisper. It comes to us by convictions, impressions or pictures. One of the skills we must learn as we mature as believers is to distinguish between the prompting of God’s Spirit and our own imagination. For me it often works like this. A person comes to my mind quite unbidden. I can’t shake it. So I call them to ask if all is well. Often I find it’s not. The Holy Spirit has directed me to that individual. I think a call to service often starts with a prompting of the Spirit. A burden is laid on our heart. It is the same with a call to generosity. God gives us a passion for a ministry we want to support with our money. The third principle for discovering God’s will for us in personal situations is the people of God. Proverbs tells us, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.” (Prov. 15:22) God’s people are one of the best resources we have. This is the benefit of being part of a local church. If we are considering a course of action we can ask other Christians for their advice. This is why the Bible tells the church to have a plurality of leadership so that one person is not making all the decisions. Instead there are a variety of people examining the issue trying to discern God’s will for that fellowship. You may remember a couple of years ago that our Elders could not decide whether we should finish building The Center or wait until later. Our country was in the midst of a recession. We didn’t know what to do. So we came to you, the congregation, and we asked you to pray with us and tell us what you sensed God was saying. The result was incredible. The overwhelming majority of you said “finish the building now.” We did so. Your counsel meant that the Elder Board were united in believing that was the right thing to do. If you are making a big decision like getting married ask your parents what they think and Christian friends who know you both. If they have reservations take heed. If they are enthusiastic you can be encouraged. The fourth principle of discovering God’s will for us in personal situations is the providence of God. 7 This refers to the circumstances that God places us in. What we call circumstances are really the sovereign hand of God in our lives. Often these are a good indication of his will. Sometimes a new job just opens up. We weren’t expecting it but it lines up with the principles of God’s word, the promptings of God’s Spirit, and the people of God say that the job is a great fit for us. Similarly God sometimes closes doors as he did with Paul and his companions when they were traveling through Turkey doing missionary work. Luke tells us, “When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to.” (Acts 16:7) God closed a door and followed it up with a vision of a man from Macedonia in Greece who was begging the missionary party, “Come over and help.” The gospel had never been into Europe before but now it went and later in the chapter we read of a church being established in Philippi. So God guides us first through his word, then through our heartfelt desires, then the wise counsel of others, and then our circumstances. At that point we must rely on our own sound judgment. God gave each of us a brain and he expects us to put it to good use. I now want to look at some of the common mistakes people make about God’s will. I have fallen into these traps and perhaps you have, too. Sometimes we have the mistaken idea that we must choose between doing what we want to do and being happy and doing what God wants us to do and being miserable. Nothing could be further from the truth. God says, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11) We must not think that because we want to do something it can’t possibly be God’s will. That attitude displays a distorted concept of the character of God. In my last year in seminary I was invited to become the pastor of a church in London. At the same time I was asked to join the team of a church in Los Angeles. It was a big decision so I went to see the president of my seminary who is one of the wisest people I know. I described the two opportunities to him. I was obviously suited for the church in London as I had been born and raised there and I understood the culture. But I had itching feet and wanted to travel. The church in LA was exotic and there was a very pretty girl there that I hoped to persuade to be my wife. Dr. Brown asked me, “John, which church do you want to serve?” 8 I replied, “Well Los Angeles obviously would be a lot more fun so I suppose that means I should stay in London.” He said, “What a daft idea. God can use you far more in a place you really want to be.” And that’s why I went to Los Angeles. It was a great lesson in learning about the goodness of God’s will. Twenty-four years ago I was invited to come to Autumn Ridge. I didn’t hear the voice of God saying, “John, go to Rochester,” but I did hear the voice of my wife. When Max Broadwater, the chair of the pulpit committee, called to invite me I turned to Gretchen and said, “What do you think?” Very spiritually she said, “Let’s give it a whirl.” So we did and it’s been great. We’re still whirling. God gave us the desire of our hearts. Second, we should avoid the mistake of thinking that if we have ever knowingly and deliberately disobeyed the Lord we are forever thrown onto the garbage dump and can never do the Lord’s will and are doomed to second best. Our God has the most wonderful way of reweaving the strands of our lives. John Mark is a good example of this. He seemed to have blown it when he started out on a missionary trip with Paul. At the first stop he left and headed back for Jerusalem. You may remember that Paul and Barnabas had such an argument about whether John Mark should go with them on the next trip that they separated. But Mark was redeemed by God and had a great ministry which Paul later commended. One act of disobedience does not disqualify us for service. Third, let’s understand there is a mystery to God’s will that we will never fully grasp. We come to see that God’s will is not so much about the destination as it is about the journey. It is not so much about choosing jobs and deciding where to live, although these are significant decisions. More often it is about building faith as we grapple with God’s mysterious ways. Fourth, discerning and acting on God’s will does not mean we will never have difficult days. But choosing to live in alignment with God makes us more joyful and peaceful even on the bad days. The glorious truth is that God has a will for your life and mine and if we want an exciting adventure then we need to be in the center of his will. Our model as always is Jesus who said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” (John 4:34) 9 If you are seeking the will of God a good place to start is to ask God to help you to be guidable, for guidable people receive guidance from God. So let’s be like Samuel who prayed, “Speak for your servant is listening.” Let’s be like David who cried, “Teach me your way, O Lord.” Let’s be like Solomon who wrote, “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” In The Divine Comedy Dante wrote, “In his will, is our peace.” Thank God that he reveals his will to us so we can enjoy the peace of Christ.
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