August 22, 2004

God's "perfect will" and Romans 12

(OK, this is way late, thanks to bitten-off-more-than-I-can-chew syndrome with this particular topic. Which means a twofer this week.)

There are two ways in which the phrase "God's perfect will" is generally used. One is synonymous with what theologians often call God's "decretive" will, as opposed to his "preceptive" will. God willing (pun intended), I will unpack both those terms in the future, but they do not concern us for the moment. The second way could also be termed God's "individual" will: what God wants you to choose to do in any given circumstance.

Biblically speaking, the phrase "God's perfect will," or at least words to that effect, occurs only once:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)

Some teachers take this verse to mean that there is a "perfect will of God" which it is our responsibility to discover and do. By contrast, God also has his "permissive will" - that is, God permits us to follow our own choices (or "self-will") although he may not approve of them. Although being in the permissive will may not actually be sinful, and God may bless the results of the choice, it is nonetheless a serious mistake to allow oneself to fall out of his perfect will into his permissive will. (Some teachers, such as Tim LaHaye in his book Finding the Will of God in a Crazy, Mixed-Up World, take this distinction even farther, claiming that the "good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God" are in fact three progressive levels of God's will.)

For example: Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that God has ordained a specific, ideal spouse for everyone. That is, it is God's perfect will for my life that I should marry, say, Alice. If I do, then Alice and I are in God's perfect will along with all its attendant blessings. But what if I don't? Let's suppose that in a moment of "running ahead of the Lord" I embarked a missions trip to Africa for a year. Meanwhile, Alice moved to Ottawa and visited my church one week. Had I not been so self-willed, I would have met her there and we would have hit it off. As it was, our paths never crossed, and now that I have failed to join with my God-appointed spouse, I am out of God's perfect will. If I marry Betty, Christine, or Debbie, or no one at all, I am permanently and irrevocably relegated to God's permissive will. Sure, God will bless my marriage, but not as much as he would if I had married Alice. Sorry, Betty, you're "God's second best."

It gets worse. According to this paradigm, it is entirely possible for someone to be kicked out of God's perfect will though they did nothing themselves to cause it. LaHaye admits as much in his book (somewhat reluctantly, it seems to me). Because Alice never met me, her appointed husband, and I am now married to Betty, now Alice too is permanently and irrevocably bumped into God's permissive will, because she never met me and I was her appointed husband. It doesn't matter whether Alice marries Ed, Fred, or no one. Through no fault of hers, she too must settle for "God's second best."

It still gets worse. Since I married the wrong person, both Betty and I are out of God's perfect will. So is Alice for not marrying me, and so is Fred, whom she eventually married. But Betty and Fred also had that one person whom God had appointed for them, and now those people are out of God's will too! And on and on and on, and eventually the entire human race is inflicted with a bad case of "God's second best." Anyone for a game of dominoes?

It's no wonder that for so many people, finding God's will is so frustrating. One wrong move, and you destroy humanity. Either that, or - and frankly, I think this is actually the case - there is a serious failure on the part of the "permissive will" people to think through their position and all its ramifications.

Fortunately, Romans 12 does not teach that God has an ideal "perfect will" for every individual's life.

Romans 12 marks the end of Paul's "theology" portion of the letter, and the beginning of the "application" portion. In light of all that he writes in chapters 1-11 about what God has done for his people, he is about to explain to them how they ought to conduct themselves in return as citizens of heaven. He begins by instructing them to "present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service." In the old covenant, God demanded the death of sacrificial animals in return for forgiveness of sins. However, in the new covenant, Christ's sacrifice of himself has accomplished all that the animal sacrifices never could. There is no longer any need for another to die. Hence, we are "living sacrifices" - we dedicate our lives to God's service as an act of worship.

He adds: "be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (v. 2). In other words, don't copy the world's way of thinking, but allow your thoughts to be conformed to God's revealed will. This is so that "ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." Paul doesn't mean that we "prove" the will of God to others, like we would prove a point in a debate; rather, we prove it to ourselves through experience, as the psalmist writes, "taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him" (Psa. 34:8).

Paul also lists three characteristics of the will of God:

  • It is good. It asks only what is right.
  • It is acceptable. That is, it is acceptable to God. He is pleased when we obey his precepts.
  • It is perfect. That is, it is complete, lacking nothing.

For the remainder of chapter 12, as well as chapters 13 through 15, Paul outlines a number of ways in which this is lived out practically.

First, it is the will of God that we build up the Church (12:3-8). Paul uses one of his favourite analogies for the Church: one body with many parts. God has made us all different, giving us different abilities and gifts with which to serve one another. Many people agonize unnecessarily about "finding their spiritual gift," just as they do with "finding God's will for my life." Why? Do you see a need in the body? Can you meet it? It is God who has given you that ability. Take advantage of it! No one will file a grievance.

It is the will of God that we love one another (12:9-16; 13:8-15:13). Our love for the brethren is to be sincere, sympathetic, and sacrificial. In loving our neighbour as ourselves, Paul writes, we sum up all of God's commandments (13:10). this love involves preserving the faith of others, which means that sometimes we ought to limit our liberty to do what is otherwise harmless, so as not to cause those whose faith is weaker to sin.

It is the will of God that we live at peace with our neighbours (12:17-21). I am not a pacifist, nor do I believe that Christians are called to be pacifists. Nonetheless, I believe we are called to be peaceful. It is not for us to instigate conflict; rather, "as much as lieth in you, [to] live peaceably with all men" (12:18). Last year, a Baptist church in Kansas erected a huge flag on their campus, illuminated with six spotlights. When some of the locals complained about the glare, it touched off a legal conflict in which the church stood up for its right to display the flag. Eventually the matter was resolved in the church's favour. Notwithstanding the issues surrounding ostentatious displays of patriotism, was defying the neighbours consistent with pursuing peace with them? Or could the church have kept the peace and respected flag protocol: for example, by flying a smaller version and lowering it nightly?

It is the will of God that we respect the civil authorities (13:1-7). Ultimately all authority comes from God; Jesus told even Pontius Pilate that he had no authority outside what had been granted to him from above (John 19:11). When we obey the government, therefore, we obey God. There are times when what the state demands comes in conflict with what God commands, and at those time we are to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), but where there is no conflict, we are to obey the authorities. Good Christians make good citizens.

It is the will of God that we live righteously (13:11-14). We are living in the last days, Paul writes, and since our salvation is at hand, we should always conduct ourselves as though we were in broad daylight and all eyes are upon us (13:12), rather than how people behave in the dark where no one can see them.

To sum up, then: When faced with a decision, go through a mental checklist. Will my choice stengthen the church, or weaken it? Will it demonstrate love for the brethren, or self-interest? Will it promote peace with others, or create strife? Does it respect the civil authorities, or defy the law? And is the choice morally right, or sinful?

Next time: Peace, fleece, and the "still small voice."

References

Bruce, F. F. The Letter of Paul to the Romans. 2nd ed. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Leicester: Inter-Varsity; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985.

LaHaye, Tim. Finding the Will of God in a Crazy, Mixed-Up World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

See also

First in the series: Finding and doing the will of God: Prolegomena

Previous entry: God's guidance: A voice from the past

Next entry: Fleece, peace, and the "still small voice"