Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Grudem about how to know God’s will.
Topics of conversation include:
- The fact that God wants to be known and has revealed himself to us
- 9 factors to consider when seeking God’s will for our lives
- The role of prayer and wisdom in this process
Dr. Wayne Grudem serves as distinguished professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. He received his doctorate from the University of Cambridge and served as General Editor of the ESV Study Bible (Crossway, 2008). Dr. Grudem is the author of several books, including Systematic Theology (Zondervan Academic, 2020), and What the Bible Says About How to Know God’s Will (Crossway, 2020).
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
Every Christian has struggled at some point to discern God’s will. Usually this is circumstantial. I can remember being in college and fretting endlessly with questions like—who should I marry? What should I major in? What job offers should I take? And later on it was questions of—where I should go to seminary? And what path should I take afterwards? And when should we start having children? These questions can seem endless. And as faithful Christians, we want to know God’s will. To be honest, we wish he’d paint what he wants in the sky or give us smoke signals. Or that we would hear an audible voice telling us what to do next. Wanting to know God’s will can oftentimes paralyze us in decision making. We think that if we do not discern God’s will right, our lives will spiral out of control, and we’ll suffer the consequences forever.
Brian Arnold (00:59):
But this isn’t quite how Scripture defines God’s will. Oftentimes knowing God’s will is following his prescribed will. That is, following his commandments in the next step of obedience. But this still leaves open the questions of how we are to know that we’re walking consistently in the will of God. Well, it helps us understand God’s will we have with us today Dr. Wayne Grudem, who serves as distinguished professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary. Dr. Grudem received his doctorate at the University of Cambridge, and he has served as the General Editor of the ESV Study Bible and is the author of more than 20 books, including his well-known second edition Systematic Theology and—what is relevant for our topic today—What the Bible Says About How to Know God’s Will. Dr. Grudem, welcome back to the podcast.
Wayne Grudem (01:43):
Thank you, Brian. Good to be here.
Brian Arnold (01:45):
So we ask our guests one big question. Today, the question is this—how do I know God’s will? And I kind of want to start by maybe thinking more broadly about knowing God, and then his will. And then talking a bit more specifically of walking in obedience with him according to his will. And then let’s get really practical with—what are some steps we can take as Christians to discern God’s will in our life? So let’s just begin kind of at a high level. Some people say God is infinite, we’re finite. So to even ask the question of God’s will necessitates that we can even know God. How do we know that we can know God?
Wayne Grudem (02:22):
Well, that’s the heart of the Christian faith. Christianity is knowing God and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in a personal relationship. And in that relationship, we want to please God. We want to do what is pleasing to him. Paul says in Colossians 1:10 that he wants his readers to live a life “fully pleasing to God.” And there are other passages in the New Testament that talk about living a life that’s pleasing to God. So that’s what I want to do. And that’s what I think Christians, in their hearts, want to do every morning when we get up—Lord, help me to know your will and be obedient to you, be fruitful in the work of the kingdom, and guide me into the right decisions each day.
Brian Arnold (03:06):
That’s right. I mean, I love how you begin with the essence of the Christian faith. Jesus says this in John 17—that eternal life is to know him. So we have a God who wants to be known, and that is a great, incredible gift that so many people take for granted, is that God didn’t have to be known. Especially when we fell into sin. He could have just not revealed himself to us, so that we would be blind and just groping around for who God is and what he wants from us. But instead he’s revealed himself and given us some of those things like Scripture in order to know his will. So let’s kind of move down into that next kind of level, if we can. A lot of theologians talk about God’s will in two different ways, like a prescribed will and a description kind of will. How do you think through kind of the will of God? And that God is sovereign, and in many ways we can say everything that’s happening is happening according to his will. But then there’s also a will of God that is more descriptive, of—here’s what God wants from us. So how do you help Christians think through that?
Wayne Grudem (04:08):
That’s a good question, Brian. Just think for a minute about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. That was contrary to God’s moral standards. The 10 commandments, we have the commandment “You shall not murder.” And certainly, the Roman authorities, with the complicity of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, did something horribly wrong in crucifying Jesus, who was innocent. Who had done nothing sinful or illegal or worthy of punishment, to say nothing of being put to death. So it was disobeying God’s will of commandment, or his will of what is called sometimes “the will of precept.” What he wants…what he tells human beings he wants us to do. But on the other hand, in the book of Acts, Peter says Jesus was delivered up according to the determinant will and foreknowledge of God, so that the enemies of Jesus would do whatever God’s will and plan had predestined to take place.
Wayne Grudem (05:16):
That is, there’s another sense in which God did will the crucifixion of Jesus. Though looking at the event in itself it was a cause of great sorrow, looking at the long term results—salvation for all of his people. It was something that God willed. So there are senses of God’s will that’s called “will of decreeing” that is his planning and ordaining what will happen. But when we talk about knowing God’s will today, we’re talking about those kind of decisions that you mentioned at the beginning of our broadcast, Brian. What college to go to, what subject to major in in college, or what career to embark on. Whom to marry. What car to buy. Perhaps what job to take. Those are practical questions in which people really seek to be obedient to God. And I’ve listed in in my book, Christian Ethics, and in this little book called What the Bible Says About How to Know God’s Will, I listed nine factors to think about in considering what God’s will is. Nine factors that will help us learn God’s will.
Brian Arnold (06:28):
Well, I think it would be really helpful to walk people through that. Because let’s just be honest—as Christian theologians, as pastors, as just leaders in the kind of the Christian area, we get this question a lot, don’t we? People coming up to us and really wrestling with a major life decision, that they really think—if I misstep here, the whole rest of my life is off, and it’s just going to fall apart. Which even speaks to our view of the character of God, in many ways, as he is leading us. So yeah, I would love to hear you walk through these steps you take people through. I think it would be a great benefit for folks.
Wayne Grudem (06:59):
Alright. Interrupt me at any time, but I’m going to list nine factors.
Brian Arnold (07:02):
Wayne Grudem (07:04):
Nine places to look or listen. Number one, the Bible. It tells us God’s moral commands, tells us right and wrong. That’s always the only and absolutely authoritative source of information on God’s will.
Brian Arnold (07:18):
Yeah. I’m going to interrupt you as we go through. Because it is amazing to me how often people say—well, it’s God’s will for me to divorce and marry this other person. And we can emphatically say—if the Bible says don’t do it, it is not the will of God. There are times where it’s not mysterious to know God’s will. It is—don’t do that! Would you agree?
Wayne Grudem (07:36):
Right. I agree. And a lot of questions of guidance are solved that way. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t commit adultery. The 10 Commandments provide a good guide. Well, that’s number one—information from the Bible. Number two—information from studying the situation. I have a granddaughter who is a senior in high school, and she’s looking at different colleges. And she’s visited some of them. I don’t think she’s going to know which college she would prefer to go to until she visits the campus of several of them and she learns more about the situation. Say in buying a car—you need to know more about the car before you decide to give some money for it.
Brian Arnold (08:17):
I will say, the last time I drove a Lamborghini, I was really like—this feels like the Lord’s will, as I test drive this <laugh> Obviously, that’s not what you’re saying. But I do think there’s a lot of wisdom in just going…and we can even sense God’s call in different ways when we actually engage in kind of researching through it. I think that’s a wise point.
Wayne Grudem (08:35):
Right. Well, studying the Lamborghini question, you learn about the situation something that is very important, and that is the price.
Brian Arnold (08:41):
<laugh> That’s right. Yes. There there’s a gap there, yes.
Wayne Grudem (08:47):
Okay. Then information about yourself. Sometimes talking to friends, or just reflecting on who we are and what our personality, and characteristics, and desires, and abilities, and training consist of. So information about the Bible, and then the situation, and then yourself. And then we would go outside of that, and say—the fourth thing to think about is advice from others. Paul says in Romans 15:14 that the Roman Christians—he knows that they’re competent to counsel one another. And so advice from Christian friends is very helpful.
Brian Arnold (09:26):
Well, and yeah…I’m going to hop in there too. It’s one of the things we talk about even with call to ministry. So something that you and I get a lot of times are young people coming to us and saying, “I’m not sure if I’m called to ministry.” And we talk about the internal and the external call. Do you feel called to ministry? Do you feel like God’s tugging in this direction? You know, the Bible says if you desire to teach, it’s a noble thing. So that desire can be a great thing that God has given you. But I always weight the external call a little bit more—I’m like a 60/40—in, do people around you in the body of Christ sense this call in your life? And it’s been really helpful for me, Dr. Grudem, when I make big life decisions, I’m on the phone with a lot of different believers who know me, who’ve invested in my life, and ask them these kinds of questions. Of—is this maybe where God’s leading me, or not? And I don’t want people to overlook that one as—well, I can just really internally process this. Get some wise counselors around you who can help you think through what God’s leading you to do.
Wayne Grudem (10:25):
Yeah, yeah. And call to ministry. I mean, one of our sons was on a very successful career path in the business world, and his church as a whole—but many people in his church, when they were living in Florida—said to him, “Elliot, you should go to seminary and become a pastor.” And he did. That was information from advice from others.
Brian Arnold (10:51):
Wayne Grudem (10:52):
Another place to look is changed circumstances. Jesus said, “if they don’t listen to you in one town, stamp the dust off your feet and go to the next one.” And Paul takes into account circumstances, but he evaluates them differently. In one place—in First Corinthians 16—he says there’s been a wide door for effective work that’s open to me. And then, because of that, he stayed in Ephesus for three years. But in another case, he was…in the book of Acts, he came to Troas and there was a wide door for effective work open for him again, but his spirit couldn’t rest, because he didn’t find Titus there, he says. And so he left that. But he evaluated that situation differently, he took into account changed circumstances. Then there’s some internal things to think about. So circumstances was number five. Number six is conscience. God has given us a conscience. That’s an internal sense of right and wrong. And that often will guide us in what the decision is that we should make.
Brian Arnold (12:10):
Let me ask you a question there. Because in dealing with conscience, it seems a lot of times like issues of right or wrong. Is this like a morally right decision? Sometimes we’re up against those where it’s just a hard ethical call to know if what we’re about to do actually is moving us towards sin. Sometimes it’s very clear. Sometimes it’s less clear. Are you meaning in situations like that to know God’s will? Or even in just which car do I buy? How does the conscience relate to that?
Wayne Grudem (12:40):
Yes, Brian, that’s a good point. I don’t think there’s a moral right and wrong, whether you buy a green car or blue car. But there’s a lot of right and wrong between a restaurant employee stealing from the cash register and then not stealing from the cash register. And so our consciences can be trained to get better. You get more skilled at discerning right and wrong. But I just want to list that as one factor—take into account an internal sense of right and wrong. That’s one of nine factors. Seventh factor is—what is in your heart? Conscience is an inner sense of right and wrong. The heart is an inward center of a person’s deepest moral and spiritual inclinations and convictions. A lot of times if a student comes to me and says, “I’m not sure if I should take a job that’s possible at church A, or if I should stay where I am at church B.” And one of the first things I’ll ask this student is—what is in your heart? What are the desires that God really has impressed on you, that are at the heart of who you are and what would you like to do? Now Jeremiah says the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, but I think that’s the heart of unbelievers.
Brian Arnold (14:12):
Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, one of the questions I would ask people in that same situation would be—are you delighting yourself in the Lord? Because if you’re delighting yourself in the Lord, He’ll give you the desires of your heart. So the desires of the heart can be a good thing, so long as your focus is on Christ. And if your affections are there, and you’re walking after God, according to his commands, and, you know, you’re not grieving the Holy Spirit, then what are the desires of your heart? And I think that can be a great guide.
Wayne Grudem (14:41):
Brian, that is so important. I could back up into this list and say—if you’re seeking guidance from the Bible, are you doing that in the presence of God and talking to him about it? Are you studying the situation in the presence of God? Are you thinking about yourself and your own abilities in the presence of God? Number four, are you listening to advice from others while praying about whether that advice is to be heeded or not? Number five, are you looking at changed circumstances with a prayer that God will give you discernment and be with you as you make that decision, in a personal relationship? Are you, number six, paying attention to your conscience in the presence of God? That often is very important. And number seven—are you sensing what is in your heart in the presence of God, and seeking to be pleasing to him?
Wayne Grudem (15:41):
Now I’m going to go to number eight and number nine. The eighth factor to take into account with guidance and knowing God’s will is a person’s human spirit. That’s different from the Holy Spirit, who is within us. Our human spirit is the nonphysical part of us. And Paul came to Athens, and his spirit was provoked within him because of the idols that were filling the city. Elizabeth, when Mary came to visit, she said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” Our human spirit gives us a sense of the invisible spiritual dynamics in a situation. And then the ninth and last item that plays into knowing God’s will is guidance from the Holy Spirit. We see Romans 8:14 and Galatians 5:16 talking about “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” And when I studied the Greek word for being led, it’s ago, A-G-O. It’s something like 60 times in the New Testament. Every time it talks about personal activity of leading, it describes specific direction to a specific goal. And I think that we do have guidance from the Holy Spirit as a factor in what we decide. So there are the nine factors.
Brian Arnold (17:25):
I think those are really helpful. They are balanced. I think it gives people a good rubric to begin to work through as they ask themselves maybe a big decision coming up. Some of the things that I want to say that you mentioned along the way, but weren’t specifically one of them, is prayer. Is seeking the Lord in prayer through this. But you had mentioned on all these, like you’re prayerfully considering this, walking in step with the Spirit, in terms of just how you’re living your Christian life, that will help you come to some of these things. And then I think, you know, one of the things that wasn’t particularly mentioned, but I think you had put it over the whole of this, is wisdom. That all of these steps collectively give you the best approach—the wisest approach—to how to make these decisions. Would you say that?
Wayne Grudem (18:16):
Yeah, I would say that, Brian. And I would add that wisdom is a skill of applying the Bible’s teachings rightly to each situation. And so, yes, I think we need to do that prayerfully and with a knowledge that we’re doing this in the presence of God and asking him for wisdom. That it comes from studying Scripture. It comes from living the Christian life over a period of years. And we can grow and increase in wisdom throughout our lives.
Brian Arnold (18:52):
And I think this is how we do it, right? By doing these…taking these kinds of steps, trusting the Lord, watching him work. We grow in wisdom over time watching the Lord do that. Let me ask you this question, because I can imagine somebody asking this—is it possible to make a neutral decision—so like career or school—and miss God’s will? And if that happens, what’s next?
Wayne Grudem (19:16):
What’s next is—obey the next day. Tomorrow morning start on a path of obedience from where you are. The Bible is full of people who made mistakes and then turned around and got on the right path. Peter denying Jesus, for instance. And he was forgiven, and took leadership in the early church.
Brian Arnold (19:42):
One of the examples I like to use is with marriage. And some people wonder—did I marry the right person or not? And quite frankly, some people, the answer is—in many ways—no. Like, let’s even just take a believer and a nonbeliever. It’s pretty clear not to be yolked with a nonbeliever, but once you get married, is that your right spouse? Yes! Right? So there can be something about decisions that are made, that it can’t necessarily be unwound. But now you’re in a situation that doesn’t catch God by surprise. He knew where that was going to be. Right? But they are now in a situation in which to follow God’s will is to keep the marriage intact, for instance.
Wayne Grudem (20:24):
I agree a hundred percent there, Brian. And when I talk to groups about the Bible’s teaching on marriage, or marriage and divorce, I start off by saying at the beginning—if you’re married, you are married now to the right person.
Brian Arnold (20:39):
Wayne Grudem (20:40):
That’s what God wants you to do, is make this marriage a good one. No matter what the past is. Brian, I wanted to mention one other thing before we come to the end of this time. I’ve mentioned nine factors to consider knowing God’s will. And it’s possible for people to be overwhelmed by that, saying “it’s too complex.” And I want to say, this is something like learning to play golf. It looks so easy. A golf pro stands up at the tee and hits the ball, and it goes along straight down the fairway. And you think, “oh, I could do that.” But when you try, you realize it’s a complicated situation with the position of your feet, the position of your knees, how much you’re bent forward, the position of your hands on the club, the motion of the club, the motion of your elbows, the motion of your wrists, where your head turns, and where you’re looking. If you break down the golf swing into various parts, it’s very complicated. But as we go through the Christian life, we get better and better at discerning God’s will. Just as a golfer will get better and better at hitting a golf ball, and it’ll look easy.
Brian Arnold (21:55):
Well, I think that’s where the wisdom piece comes in, right? Is—wisdom is not accomplished in a moment. It takes a lifetime of faithfully walking after God, applying principles like this. Like you said, I mean, this is the practice, right? Every decision we have, to walk through these things, to be able to discern the will of the Lord better, and to be able to speak into those things. And then, hopefully, use that wisdom—as somebody who is walking closely with Christ—to disciple the next generation. To say, “Here’s what wisdom looks like over 40 years of decision making. Here’s how I’ve been able to trust the Lord in those decisions.” And as they’re fretting as 20 year olds, trying to really see what the rest of their life is going to be like, to help them begin to build that structure into their life.
Wayne Grudem (22:36):
You know, that’s very true. A long time ago when I was a seminary student, there was a bulletin board on which students could put opinion pieces that they appreciated. And I put up one that was quite a controversial topic at my seminary. And another student took it down. And so we went to the Dean of Students and asked—who’s in the right? And the Dean of Students said, “Well, the rule is students can post whatever they want. Wayne, you can go put it back up.” So I marched in victory over to the bulletin board and put it back up. And just as I was pinning it to the board, the President of the Seminary came by, and he said, “What’s this?” And I said, “Well, it’s just something I thought people should read.” And he said, “Take it down.” It took him about one second to look at it.
Wayne Grudem (23:22):
And his instinctive sense—looking back now—he was right. It would’ve been too controversial. But as a mature Christian, out of wisdom that had been developed over many years—Hebrews 5:14, solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil—he instantly made the right decision. Just as Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife said, “Come lie with me.” He fled out of the house instantly, leaving his garment behind that she had grabbed onto. So that’s what we want. We want to get to the point of Christian maturity where we instinctively take all these factors into account and make the right decision.
Brian Arnold (24:05):
But like you said, it comes through constant practice. So I think that’s a great encouragement to people. This isn’t just something that some people excel a little bit more at than others. It is something that has to be honed, trained, practiced over the course of time. And that’s the only way to get to Christian maturity. And a lot of that will come in discerning the Lord’s will for our lives. Well, Dr. Grudem, this has been really helpful. Let me commend again your book to people who are wrestling through these things, that they can read and begin to develop those skills of hearing, you know, from the Lord and really following his wisdom and path for our life. And the recognition that if you are out there and you feel like—I’ve missed it, I’ve messed up. Today’s the day to start again, to discern the will of the Lord for your life. Thank you, Dr. Grudem.
Wayne Grudem (24:48):
Thank you, Brian.
Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.