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Guidance and the Will of God in Counseling

Truth in Love 463

how do we think biblically about decision-making?

Apr 29, 2024

Dale Johnson: Today I have with me Marshall Atkins. He serves at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary as an assistant professor of biblical counseling, and I’m so grateful that he’s here with us in Kansas City. He’s also the assistant director of the Center for Biblical Counseling here at Midwestern. He’s married to Rachel, and they have 3 children. He’s finishing up our doctoral program and I’m really looking forward to the work that he’s producing there. I’m sure we will hear more on that at a later date. But today, our task is to talk about the issue of guidance. Marshall, welcome to the podcast. I’m looking forward to this. 

Marshall Atkins: Thanks, Dale. It’s great to be here. I appreciate you having me on. 

Dale Johnson: Well, one of the key things, Marshall, as we think about biblical counseling, is the work and role of the Holy Spirit. This has been one of the defining, distinguishing markers of biblical counseling since its inception, at least since its modern inception. We think about Jay bringing back this idea that the Holy Spirit and the Word are necessary for true guidance and counseling, and how do we think about the work of the Holy Spirit? I mean, we even see those who believe in a more integrated position where the work of the Holy Spirit is something that may or may not be necessary in order to make a person whole, and that dictates the way in which we think about counseling. So I want us to talk about this issue today as we think about guidance, how we are guided, and the beauty of the sufficiency of Scripture in relation to guidance. How does that work with the role and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives personally? So let’s get this thing rolling and we’ll start here, what are some of the key issues, at least in your mind, to think through biblically, especially when we think or talk about this issue of guidance and the will of God?

Marshall Atkins: Yeah, I’m really glad we’re talking about this topic. I think it’s really important and also very relevant to our counseling and counseling relationships. So I think that is the place to start; we want to step back and think about what some of the key biblical issues to think through are, and really the biblical presuppositions in doctrinal things that we need to have in place to have a productive conversation about this and to think rightly and biblically about it. So I want us to start with thinking about the truth that the Bible presents the will of God in two ways. The Bible talks about God’s Sovereign will or, we might say, his will of decree or his will of control, using all of those terms interchangeably. And the Bible also speaks of God’s prescriptive will or, we could say, his moral will or his will of command. So again, we could use those terms interchangeably.

So let’s think first about God’s sovereign will. When we’re talking about God’s sovereign will, what we mean by that is that Scripture teaches that nothing comes to pass apart from God’s sovereign decree. Our God is sovereign. He is in absolute control and His sovereign will we could think about in a number of ways —it is exhaustive: that means that God’s Sovereign will it encompasses everything. He is meticulously in control and sovereign over all things. We could also think about the sovereign will of God in terms of its certainty: and this means that it can’t be missed, that you can’t be out of God’s will in this sense. Every single person and every single thing is in the will of God in this sovereign sense because nothing comes to pass apart from God’s sovereign decree. Finally, it’s mostly hidden from us: and by that I mean that other than what God has revealed in the Scripture about the future, God’s sovereign will is largely hidden.

Now, there is a way that we know God’s sovereign will retrospectively. In other words, I can know that something was God’s sovereign will because it happened —as in the aftermath, looking backward. Other than that, apart from God’s revealed Word and looking retrospectively, the sovereign will of God is mostly hidden.

Now, I think this is a part of the way the Bible speaks of God’s sovereign will that we definitely, of course, want to ground in the text itself. So the question is, does the bible teach God’s sovereign will in the sense that I’m describing here? And of course, I believe the answer is yes. Let me give you a sample of texts. This is by no means exhaustive, but for example, in Isaiah 46, where Scripture says in verse 9, “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.'” Jesus, in Matthew 10, says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Here is meticulous sovereignty. We have a couple of texts in Acts of the plan of God related to the death of Christ where, in Acts 2:23, Peter says that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Even here we see that this doctrine of God’s sovereignty doesn’t eliminate human responsibility. It doesn’t eliminate other clear teachings of Scripture such as prayer, human responsibility, and moral culpability. It doesn’t lead to abdication or passivity. Instead, you see these two things held together, that God is absolutely sovereign, and we are meaningfully participating as well. In Acts 4, again related to Jesus in the middle of a prayer, He says in verse 27, “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” And finally, in Ephesians 1:11, we see that we are “predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his [own] will.”

So here, I provide those sample texts just to assert that the Bible speaks of God’s sovereign will. And, maybe more briefly, the other way that the Bible talks about God’s will is His prescriptive will, or his moral will. Now to contrast, just for clarity, the moral will of God, or the prescriptive will of God, is comprehensive but not exhaustive. It is breakable through disobedience. It is not certain and immutable the way the sovereign will of God is. Further, rather than being mostly hidden, the moral will of God is revealed sufficiently and necessarily in the Scriptures and in the Scriptures alone, and so in the Bible is where we find God’s moral prescriptive will. So, just to give you an example, in 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul says this is the will of God, your sanctification, and then goes on to say that you abstain from sexual immorality. So, maybe we can pause there, but the thing I want to bring out for us just for clarity is that the Bible speaks of the will of God in these ways: God’s sovereign will on the one hand and His prescriptive will on the other. 

Dale Johnson: Even when you talk about the sovereign will of God, to add a couple of narrative passages that would be helpful, you think of the book of Job. Even the evil one can’t do anything without the permission or oversight of our sovereign God. You think of the story of Joseph. You talked about not being able to understand the story and think about being Joseph in the middle of that story and wondering what in the world God was doing. You can see as you look back, and he makes that great declaration in Genesis 50:20, where, now, “Oh man, it’s very clear, Lord, what you were doing all along.” We often dehumanize people in Scripture. I mean, think about the nights and the days and the years that Joseph spent wondering what in the world was going on and here the Lord in His grace reveals what He was accomplishing all along and it was His goodness, through that process.

You know, some might think, “Oh, we’re introducing these things. How is this connected to counseling?” It’s very important that we understand how theology is connected to counseling on the ground. Theology is always intended to be practical, and I don’t mean that theology needs to be dumbed down to the practical, but what I mean is that when God reveals Himself, it’s intended to invoke within us proper response because of who He is and so we are to respond accordingly as human beings. That really matters for us on the ground when we think about counseling and how we in the counseling room talk about these types of issues. Of course, I’m not going to go into some sort of diatribe, trying to maybe use these categories or making sure that they understand these categories and they can never overcome life if they don’t understand these categories, but there’s a way in which I’m trying to inform and comfort them, appealing to how God is sovereignly working in their life even when they can’t see it, right? Then calling them to things that we know God has revealed as specific desires for them. As you mentioned from 1 Thessalonians 4, it’s God’s will for our sanctification that we pursue those things.

So, let’s bring that down to where these categories are critical, they’re important, they’re really meaningful for us, especially as counselors to talk about the will of God and how God guides His people. So, bring this down into the counseling room. How can we help counselees really think biblically about decision-making? Because honestly, that’s what’s going on, right? Where people are wondering, “I just want to know what I’m supposed to do. I want to know how I’m supposed to respond. I want to know what God thinks about this, and so I want to know how I’m supposed to deal with this.” And they often find themselves paralyzed because they don’t know what to do. They see that they’re not really sure what to do. So talk about this, how you help a counselee think through this biblical decision-making. 

Marshall Atkins: Yeah, that’s good. So, a couple of things… First, related to the way we’re talking about how the Bible describes the will of God, we have to realize that we are responsible to know and to live according to God’s prescriptive will, what He’s revealed to us in Scripture. However, nowhere in Scripture are we commanded to discover ahead of time God’s hidden plan for our lives through extra-biblical means and subjective mystical guidance. In Deuteronomy 29:29, Scripture says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us.” So, what I’m suggesting here is that when people talk about finding the will of God, I think what they often mean is that they’re trying to discover, through extra-biblical means, God’s sovereign will for their lives ahead of time. Through a sort of subjective mystical practice that, I would argue, undermines the sufficiency of Scripture. And so the point I want to emphasize here is that the Bible is sufficient for guidance. 2 Peter 1 says that God has indeed provided everything that we need for godly living, that we don’t lack any vital resource, that there’s not something outside of Scripture that we need to know, that we need to apprehend, and then that we are obligated to follow. Rather, God has provided in the Scriptures everything that we need for guidance, and by his hidden providence and His governance of all things, He’s working out everything according to plan.

Now, to be clear, the Holy Spirit is pervasively at work in the life of the Christian. That’s not what we’re talking about here, and we could go and talk about the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer and praise God for it. What I’m suggesting is that the Spirit is not working through extra-biblical guidance like impressions, audible voices, hunches, and things like that to reveal to us a hidden plan outside of Scripture that we are obligated to follow. And I think that causes counselees a lot of angst when they have a faulty understanding of the will of God, and it undermines the rich and abundant resources that God actually has provided through His word and by His Spirit in the Scriptures themselves. And so what I want to say is that we need to put away, and help our counselees put away, the subjective and mystical practices of guidance and lead them through biblical instruction to joyfully embrace the true work of the Spirit and the sufficiency of Scripture for decision-making.

Now, to that end, the question is then, “How do I make a decision?” Okay, if you’re tracking along, then I’m coming to a point of decision where the Bible is not explicit. It doesn’t tell me at a granular level what to do in this particular situation, whether it’s what job to take, or what city to live in, or things like that. It does seem like this conversation comes up around those bigger issues. You may have a counselee that is wrestling and struggling in some way with daily life decisions. They may be overwhelmed and responding with fear and anxiety regarding which way to take to work in the morning, and God’s Word is sufficient to counsel that person, but I think a lot of times when we’re in this conversation, we’re talking about the bigger issues of life, such as, “I have to decide which job to take… help me sort this out.”

So, if we want to think through some biblical principles here, first of all, we have to know that what God has provided in His Word is sufficient, and so we must apply every relevant biblical truth and principle to the situation. We need to ask, “What are all the relevant applicable biblical truths that I need to be considering here to make sure that I’m in full obedience and joyful submission to Jesus and His Word?” And then secondly, I need to make sure that I am considering matters of conscience. Romans 14:23 says that if I can’t do it from faith, it’s sin. So I need to make sure if there are matters of conscience here. Also, matters of expedience and expediency. Is this action-loving? Does it promote godliness? How will this affect others? 1 Corinthians 6 – “All things are lawful to me,” Paul says, “but all things aren’t helpful.” So is this something that will dominate me or lead to an unloving response or action toward another? And then also praying for wisdom, James 1:5 tells us that if we lack wisdom, we are to ask God who gives it generously and so we’re asking for wisdom, not for God to reveal His secret future will but instead asking, “God, would you help me apply all of the relevant biblical principles here with wisdom and expediency in ways that please you?” I do think we can carefully and wisely seek counsel, but not probe the mystery of God’s sovereign will but instead say, “Hey, is there anything that I’m missing here? Applicable biblical principles, issues of expedience that I would want to consider here as I’m making this decision?” When you come to that level, then you’re making the decision based on preference, and you’re praying, “God, would you give me a heart to please you and cultivate godly affections?” Then you’re making that decision based on preference. And once you’ve made the decision, you’re resting in God’s providence, His good and wise governance over all things, thinking of passages like Romans 8:28, and deciding, “I’m going to make this decision. I’ve considered all these things. I’ve applied all the biblical principles and I’m trusting that the Lord is in His providence working out all of these things for His glory and for my spiritual good.

Dale Johnson: I think this is in part what Jesus is talking about here in Matthew 6:33-34 where He tells us to seek first the kingdom of God, and then He goes on in verse 34 to say not to worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will worry about itself. He’s describing that each day has enough trouble of its own. I think the fact of the matter is, “What knowledge do I have today? What are the things that I know the Lord is clearly telling me? Am I humbly seeking to obey today? Then, do I trust Him that if I’m taking this step today, that He’s enlightened my path, so I’m going to take this step? What would this look like in a year? And then we’re going to trust His sovereignty that through circumstances, through events, through whatever, that if I’m faithful today, no matter what my life looks like in a year, it’ll look exactly the way that pleases Him and honors Him. I think about so much pressure that that takes off of us as individuals as we think about taking care of the things that we know that He’s revealed in his kindness toward us. It really takes a lot of the pressure off. I wish we had time, which we don’t today, but I would love for us to get back and talk about, at some point in the future, some of the reasons that people may struggle with this idea. Where there are misconceptions about the work and role of the Holy Spirit and even ways that this teaching can be helpful because how many people are paralyzed with the pressures they put on themselves? They really have a heart to want to please God, but they’re not really sure how to do that and that abundance of caution has led them now to to being paralyzed by fear to where they typically will do nothing, and that’s not helpful either.

So I do want us to do that at some point. I think this helps to give us good categories to even start thinking about and explore some other areas like issues of conscience, but suffice it to say for today, I think this helps to build good categories and gives us some things to think about specifically. It also really points us back to the beauty of God’s revelation, not seeking some additional revelation elsewhere but really seeing the beauty and depth of God’s sufficient Word that He’s revealed in His kindness for us in the ways that we are to pursue Him and what He’s revealed about himself. Marshall, it’s been helpful. Thank you, brother. 

Marshall Atkins: Yeah. It’s my joy. Thanks for having me on. 

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