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Bludgeoning with Providence

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Misusing the will of God.

I dedicate this post to you, the person reading it. Before you were even born, God planned this very moment, the moment you would type the address of this site into your browser or the moment you would click a link from another site to arrive right here, right now. It is no accident that you are here today and you can be certain that God has orchestrated all of this so you could learn what I want to tell you today. So get ready.

Does that make you uncomfortable? It sure would make me uncomfortable if I ran into that statement at another person’s web site. But you know what? The statement isn’t too different from ones I’ve read in a selection of Christian books. Consider the dedication from Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life: “This book is dedicated to you. Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life. It is no accident that you are holding this book. God longs for you to discover the life he created you to live–here on earth, and forever in eternity.” Don Piper’s latest book, Heaven is Real has a similar statement within it, suggesting that God has so orchestrated your life that you are holding the book at that very moment simply so you could learn from it.

I dislike this kind of statement, and they are becoming all too common. It took me some time, though, to figure out why they make me so uncomfortable. And then, a few days ago, it struck me. These authors are bludgeoning me with providence. They are peering into the unknowable providence of God and are interpreting it for me. And, needless to say, they are interpreting it in their favor.

It seems to me that this error arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of the will of God. These men would have you believe that they know and understand God’s will–that God has so ordered providence to show that it is His will that you read the book and learn what the author wishes to teach. Their logic is simple: God is in control; nothing happens without God’s prior knowledge; you are holding this book; God must have orchestrated life in just such a way that you could read the book; He did this because you need to learn what the book teaches (and obey it!). But in interpreting events this way, they are stepping beyond the bounds of what we can know as mere humans.

Let’s back up for just a moment and make sure we properly understand the will of God.

Theologians speak of God’s will in two ways, usually speaking of God’s secret will and His revealed will, or, if you prefer bigger terms, God’s decretive will and God’s preceptive. I generally prefer to speak of God’s will of decree and His will of command. R.C. Sproul says this of the importance of distinguishing between these two wills: “The practical question of how we know the will of God for our lives cannot be solved with any degree of accuracy unless we have some prior understanding of the will of God in general. Without the distinctions we have made, our pursuit of the will of God can plunge us into hopeless confusion and consternation. When we seek the will of God, we must first ask ourselves which will we are seeking to discover.”

God’s will of decree is, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, His “eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass.” God’s secret will is hidden to us. God chooses not to reveal it to us and it does not figure into our decision making or our interpretation of providence because it is, by definition, secret. So when we speak of discerning God’s will, we do not speak of this, His secret will. This will, predestined before time began, is set in stone and will be accomplished. There is nothing we can do to change it or to alter it. God reveals it as He wills and we are unable to know it beyond His ways of revealing it.

God’s will of command is what He wills for us as revealed in Scripture. It is all those things we are expected to do to bring Him glory and honor. The Bible tells us a lot about this will; it is filled with God’s expectations of those who follow Him. Here are just three of the more general principles outlined for us:

Be Filled with the Holy Spirit – It is God’s will that we be filled with the Holy Spirit. “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:17-18).

Be Sanctified – It is God’s will that we be sanctified and continue to grow more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3a).

Be Thankful – We are to be thankful at all times and in all situations. “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

It is this will that we must understand and obey. It is this will that we seek out in Scripture and this will we must be pleased to follow.

So we see that theologians speak rightly of God’s two wills. It is critical that we understand these properly. Far too often people can encourage us to do things that are premised on a supposed knowledge of God’s secret will–His will of decree. And to me, this is exactly what Rick Warren and Don Piper and other authors have done in declaring why we should read their books. They are interpreting providence in a way that is not theirs to do. They are peering into the hidden things and declaring their understanding of them. They are bludgeoning us with a false understanding of God’s providence.

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