Can I Know God’s Will by RC Sproul

This little book is aimed at that all too evident need for us modern Christians to ‘know’ God’s will.  The title rightly, in my view, italicizes the crucial second term in that statement, even though (at least at the end of the second chapter) he spends more time discussing God’s will than our knowing.  Though this has some detriment in my mind, it does allow him to make clear a few important definitions along the way.  To that end, the first chapter focuses on what we’re talking about when we say God’s will

  • Decretive will of God – “‘God’s sovereign, efficacious will’; by it, God brings to pass whatsoever he wills”
  • “A serious danger faces those who restrict the meaning of the will of God to the sovereign will.  We hear the Muslim cry, “It is the will of Allah.”  We slip at times into a deterministic view of life that says, “Que sera, sera,” or “What will be, will be.”  In so doing, we embrace a sub-Christians form of fatalism, as if God willed everything that happened in such a way as to eliminate human choices.
  • Preceptive will of God – “[It] is God’s rule of righteousness for our lives.”
  • “One of the great tragedies of contemporary Christendom is the preoccupation of so many Christians with the secret decretive will of God to the exclusion and neglect of the preceptive will.  We want to peek behind the veil, to catch a glimpse of our personal future.  We seem more concerned with what the stars in their courses are doing than with what we are doing.

He also goes on to discuss justification by faith, righteousness, God’s will of disposition, and God’s secret and revealed wills.  To be honest, I’m a bit wary of these distinctions between the various wills of God (largely because I think that they can sometimes strait-jacket our reading of Scripture), but they are distinctions best made to keep us from becoming distracted by the fleeting activities in life and to help us focus on our higher purposes.  To that end, I liked one of his concluding paragraphs.

“It is a very practical thing for us to know what God wants for our lives.  A Christian asks: ‘What are my marching orders?  What should my role be in contributing to the establishment of the kingdom of God?  What does God want me to do with my life?’ It is inconceivable that a Christian could live for very long without coming face-to-face with these gripping questions.

Just a thought from someone who comes to these questions often…I think we come back to these questions because we’re not trained how to answer them.  We don’t see people grappling with what their purpose is in Scripture.  We do see them grappling with whether or not they’re willing to do what they were commanded to do, and at times they feel like God himself has abandoned them, but they’re not confused about what they should be doing.  I don’t see that confusion in early Christianity either.  This repeated confusion about ‘God’s will’ is a distinctly modern phenomenon [I think] and [I think] a very unhealthy one.

In chapter 2, the author goes on to evaluate free while by examining Augustine’s understand of Adam’s ability to sin, Edwards’ discussion of our natural vs moral dispositions, of necessity and desire and what all this says about freedom and choice.  I continued to be pleasantly surprised that he continued to point out the dangers of determinism that lie behind some of these explanations (a danger we here all too little of from Reformed preachers).

He also commented a bit on sanctification:

“In a real sense, the process of sanctification involves a radical reprogramming of the inner self.  We are not the victims of blind mechanical forces that control our destiny.  As intelligent beings, we can do something to change the dispositions of our hearts and the inclinations of our minds.

“…What can we do to effect such changes? We can submit ourselves to the discipline of a class or a teacher and devote ourselves to a rigorous study fo the law of God.  Such disciplined study can help renew our minds, equipping us with a new understanding of what pleases and displeases God.  The development of a renewed mind is the biblical definition of spiritual transformation.

In general, I thought his discussion of freedom was a bit weak (I think more could’ve been said about how God’s sovereignty is the ground of freedom), he seemed to oversimplify Augustine, and Edwards came off sounding more like Aquinas.  It was a fine discussion, but in short books such as this one, descriptions will often come across as over simplifications.  On a bigger level, though some others will find this section fascinating, I don’t think chapter 2 is as necessary to this book as Mr Sproul wants it to be.

The last two chapters are relatively short, so I will move through them quickly.  Each takes on the more practical questions of asking about God’s will.

Chapter 3 discusses God’s will in discerning our job path.  He talks about some of the questions that go into this decision (ability, interests, etc).  He sums up his answer to “What should we do” by saying

The most practical advice I can give is for you to do what your motivated ability pattern indicates you can do with a high degree of motivation.  If what you would like to do can be of service to God, then by all means you should be doing it.

He rightly points out that we were created to work (think Adam and Eve), though of course the sweat and pain of working comes after the fall.  Finally, we should consider the long term consequences of our job decisions (family, church, etc).

The last chapter (4) talks about discerning God’s will in marriage.  He begins by focusing on Paul’s discussion of marriage, pointing out the validity of both the unmarried and married life.  He has specific sections speaking to those thinking that marriage is nothing more than a “piece of paper”, those who think they should be single even when they have a deep desire to get married, to those who expect marriage to be self-less and that they have to undergo some sort of Buddhistic annihilation when marrying someone else or on the other hand those who’ve worked up a whole list of required qualifications for a mate (he actually recommended writing out the list and then asking them to focus on the most fundamental characteristics),  the importance of asking for counsel when making the decision, to those who want to know when they should get married, and some final precepts for those who are married (or who will be).

Overall, I found the book ok, though somewhat uneven.  The section on working read more like modern day self-help book with a few spiritual tidbits thrown in.  There seemed to be a sharp divide between the first two chapters and the last two (eg I was really hoping he’d use some of his discussion on God’s will to clarify how we practically make these decisions), and as I said above, I don’t think chapter two was particularly helpful.

My guess is that the overly short format of the text made writing something coherent difficult, particularly for RC, who tends more towards the pithy.  Chapter 1 was strong, chapter 2 was out of place, chapter 3 could’ve been beefed up Biblically, and chapter 4 was good.

Of course, much of it is very much RC Sproul.  He tends to focus on over simplified caricatures of positions (which tends to come out when he’s being funny) and at times can be a bit combative.  That being said, he can be a powerful teacher when he’s being pastoral, which is exactly what’s intended in this book.

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