“Whereas the doctrine [of the divine decree] itself can be deduced from the Word of God, the manner in which God decreed it is hidden from us. In this respect we have hindsight rather than foresight” ~ Wilhelmus á Brakel (1635–1711)
Walking by Faith
I for one appreciated his honesty: “I want God to lay out a divine five-year plan guaranteeing that things will work out in my favor.”
Here’s the backstory: Zach felt God calling him into ministry during his senior year at the University of Nebraska while studying mechanical engineering. His original plan was to graduate, find a job, and settle into a normal routine of life. After much prayer and reflection, however, he decided to attend seminary. Upon making this decision, a flood of questions overwhelmed him: “What if I’m not actually called to ministry? How will I pay for another degree? What if I spend all this time and money pursuing this degree only to arrive at a church and then fail?”
While individual circumstances vary, we can relate to Zach. We’ve all agonized over what to do, where to attend school, whom to marry, what major to choose, what house to buy, etc.
Although I make no claim to having the final word on this difficult matter, I’d like to share with you some of what I have learned on how to discern God’s will.
Here’s the most important lesson: Don’t try to find God’s secret will. Language of God’s secret will comes from Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” From this verse theologians draw the distinction between God’s secret will and God’s revealed will.
God’s Secret Will
Properly grounded in his sovereignty and immutability, God’s secret will or will of decree refers to “His purpose or determination with respect to future things.” This definition is deduced from numerous passages in the Bible. For example, after declaring that he knows the end from the beginning, God says, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isa. 46:10, emphasis mine). Psalm 33:11 declares, “The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations” (emphasis mine). Then we have Psalm 115:3: “Our God is in the heavens, he does all that he pleases,” which sounds a lot like Psalm 135:6: “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” With exquisite concision Proverbs 19:21 chimes in: “the purpose of the LORD will stand.” In addition, during his Pentecost sermon, Peter highlights God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23) while in Ephesians 1:11 Paul indicates that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
The salient feature of God’s will of decree is that it cannot be thwarted: “for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34–35, emphasis mine). Indeed, no amount of human resistance or hostility to God can overturn his plan for the universe: “Surely the wrath of man shall praise you; the remnant of wrath you will put on like a belt” (Psalm 76:10). To quote Thomas Watson (1620–1686) in this vein, “If men do not act as we would have them, they shall act as God would have them.”
God’s Revealed Will
But remember, Deuteronomy 29:29 also speaks of “the things that are revealed.” From this language theologians draw the concept of God’s revealed will or God’s will of precept. This refers to the moral commands of Scripture—think the Ten Commandments or the moral admonitions one finds in the New Testament. In contrast to the will of decree—which cannot be thwarted—image-bearers repeatedly violate God’s will of precept.
Here’s the point of the foregoing: You don’t determine God’s will for your life by prying into God’s will of decree, but by pondering his will of precept. Thus, if a particular choice involves disobeying God’s revealed will, then you must opt for another course of action—namely, the choice that honors God.
But there’s the rub. What choice most honors God?
Let me give you four P-words that I work through when I’m seeking God’s will.
Peace – God will bring a sense of peace to your heart if he wants you to move forward with a specific course of action—whether that’s taking a new job, attending a certain college, changing churches, starting a business, etc. Please note, however: Sensing peace doesn’t mean walking by sight. Since entrusting yourself, your future, and your fears to God is a 24/7 job for Christ’s followers, you’ll never outgrow your need to walk by faith (2 Cor. 5:7). Nevertheless, you should be willing to step out in faith because of the next P.
Passion – An illustration from my life may help clarify the importance of passion: When I was close to finishing seminary, the elders of my church asked if I’d consider planting a church in a neighboring city. After praying and discussing the matter with my wife and trusted friends, I concluded that God wasn’t calling me to the task. But here’s the thing: While I agreed that someone should plant a church in that town, I knew God wasn’t calling me to do it. How did I know that? Because I wasn’t passionate about it. To be sure, we ought to step up and meet the needs in front of us. But if we’re making a life-altering decision that requires uprooting our families and moving to a new location, or stepping out in faith to start a new church, we should be passionate about the project and sense God’s peace before we venture out into the unknown. But even here there are no guarantees that things will always go according to our plan, which brings us to the next P.
Providence – As it applies to individual Christians, providence refers to the outworking of God’s plan for your life—its shape, texture, and contours. Before making a big move, ask yourself questions like: Does this seem to be in line with what God is doing in my life? Has God prepared me for this vocation? Is taking this job, starting this new church, or accepting that ministry position consistent with how God has wired me? Since answering these questions should not be a solitary enterprise, let’s move to the last P.
Partners – On multiple occasions the Book of Proverbs reminds readers that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14; cf. 15:22; 24:6). Wisdom dictates, then, that we consult with godly leaders, trusted friends, and respected advisers. Develop a leadership counsel for yourself—a select group of friends, a gospel posse, with whom you deliberate before you make a big move in your life. Speaking personally, my gospel posse has been one of the biggest blessings in my life.
Christian, you serve the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev. 19:16). You are a fellow heir with Christ (Rom. 8:17). You are seated with him in the heavenly realms (Eph. 2:6) and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). He who controls the winds and the waves (Ps. 89:9; Matt. 8:23–27), and knows every hair on your head (Lk. 12:7), who encloses each of your tears in his bottle (Ps. 56:8), who promises to complete the work he started in your life (Phil. 1:6), and that all things work together for your good (Rom. 8:28), will surely see to it that you are cared for in this life. In light of these precious promises, uncertainty regarding the future will not corner us into a state of anxiety, but rather provides an opportunity for God to showcase his glorious faithfulness once again. Let us unite our voices with the temple singers: “He is so good! His faithful love endures forever!” (2 Chron. 5:13, NLT).
 The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol. 1, God, Man, and Christ, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2017), 194.
 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975), 13.
 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 125. Yet this happens in such a way that “the sinfulness of [humanity’s] acts proceedeth only from the creatures, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin” (1689 London Baptist Confession, 5. 4). To be sure, this teaching is a “high mystery” (Ibid., 3. 7).