For every Christian the question arises, "What is the will of God
in this particular, unique situation in which I find myself?" How do
we discover the will of God when we are faced with a possibly
bewildering array of choices?
In his first Letter to the Corinthians, we find Paul discussing the
governing principles which lead us into the will of God for our lives.
The Corinthians were in danger of doing what should never be done.
They had begun to divorce the spiritual from the ethical. They were
largely taken up with spiritual gifts and experiences, and they had
ignored the fact that the gospel has a cutting ethical edge to it.
So Paul gave the Corinthians certain principles by which to
regulate their conduct. He explained how they could discover what was
really consistent with the will of God for their lives in every
situation. He wanted to show them how to relate the freedom of the
children of God with their responsibilities to live lives fully
pleasing to God and obedient to his will.
Paul's principles remain valid, and are of great practical
usefulness to us in discerning what the will of the Lord is in our
lives. A careful study of them gives rise to a series of questions
which will help to unfold what God's guidance might be in any given
Is It Lawful?
The Corinthians emphasized the truth that Christ had set
them free. Paul retorted that freedom is not the only principle in the
Christian life. Freedom is for something. God set us free for
holiness. We are free from the guilt and bondage of sin — but not
that we might become enslaved to the very sins for which Christ died
to redeem us.
This is powerfully reinforced by the apostle in 1 Corinthians
6:9-11, where Paul provides a long list of the kinds of sinful conduct
which are contrary to membership in the kingdom of God. No action
contrary to the plain word of God can ever be legitimate for the
Christian. How readily Satan seems to be able to blind us just
here, and we lose sight of the fact that we have been saved in order
to be made holy.
Is It Beneficial to Me?
Our second question is concerned with consequences. It may
be true (in a sense) says Paul, that "all things are permissible" (cf.
1Ti 4:4; Ro 14:14, etc.). "But not everything is beneficial" (1Co
Do you ever find yourself challenged on a course of action by a
fellow-Christian, and automatically respond: "What's wrong with it?"
It is the most natural form of self-defense. But it may well hide a
guilty conscience. For in our heart of hearts we know, as Paul so
incisively teaches, that this is not the really important question.
There may be "nothing wrong with it"; but there may be nothing right
with it; it may not prove to be beneficial to me.
Will it bring benefits, as far as I am able to judge, so that my
relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is strengthened? Will it
draw me nearer to him?
No two people will give exactly the same answer in every situation.
The question here is not whether a course of action is lawful for the
Christian — we are considering only actions which are lawful. But
something having a neutral influence on one person may be detrimental
to another. We are not called to judge other men's consciences (1Co
2:15; 4:3-5). But "the spiritual man makes judgments about all
things," and this is what we can do when we ask, "Is it beneficial to
me?" It may or may not be in others' experience. That is not my
concern. I am responsible to Christ for my own stewardship. Is this
beneficial to me?
Is It Enslaving?
"'Everything is permissible to me' — but I will not be
mastered by anything" (1Co 6:12). There is a play on words in what
Paul says: These things are all within my power — but will I end up in
their power? Again, assuming that what is being considered is lawful,
this question can only ultimately be answered in personal terms.
The principle here is that the Christian must always, through
the grace of the Spirit, be master of himself. It is possible to
make choices which, eventually, will tend to squeeze out spiritual
energies; to commit ourselves to things which, however legitimate in
general terms, will eventually become the dominating and driving force
in our lives.
Of course we have spiritual liberties. But the Christian should
develop in Christ a sensitivity to those things to which he will most
readily allow himself to be brought into bondage. When we find
ourselves unable to enjoy the Christian life without our liberties,
then we have become enslaved to them. There is, for example,
presumably no built-in evil about owning a new car, or living in a
pleasant house, or enjoying various foods, spending time in various
pursuits, or with certain kinds of people. But when we cannot be
content without them; when we simply must have them, they are no
longer our liberties, but our chains.
Is It Consistent With Christ's Lordship?
Sin of tragic proportions had erupted in the congregation
at Corinth. It deeply troubled Paul that the Corinthians failed to
realize that they were not their own; they had been bought at the
great price of their Master's life blood (1Co 6:19-20; 7:23).
A Christian's every action is done in union with Christ. Nothing
severs that relationship. Not even sin can annul it. That is the
horrific truth. Whenever the Corinthians gave themselves to gross and
indecent sin, they were dragging Christ into it.
So the real question is: "Can I take Christ into a particular
activity and look him in the face without shame? Is this course of
action, this decision I am taking, totally consistent with my personal
confession that 'Jesus Christ is my Lord'?"
Again, on its own this question is of limited help. It may answer
my questions about the Lord's will immediately (particularly if the
answer is "No"). But it is not an all-sufficient test. We need to take
all these questions into consideration. We may find, having sought to
answer them all, that there is still a momentous decision which God
expects us to make. But surely, much confused thinking can begin to be
cleared away as we consider the same penetrating questions that Paul
set before the Corinthians.
Is It Helpful to Others?
I must not rest content with asking whether a course of
action will be personally helpful. Will it have a beneficial effect
on others? Do I engage in it with a view to serving and helping
others? Or, am I in danger of "destroying the work of God" (Ro 14:20)?
When speaking of the Christian's personal freedom, and the way it must
be balanced over against the weaknesses and strengths of others, Paul
confesses: "I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not
seeking my own good, but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Follow my example..." (1Co 10:33).
Jesus lived by this principle. When he summarized his commitment in
his great prayer to the Father, he said: "I am sanctifying myself for
their sakes" (Jn 17:19). We should be concerned to help and please
others, Paul affirms, "For even Christ did not please himself" (Ro
Does this not drive home to us the fact that the will of God is the
most demanding thing in the world? Does it not pierce to the dividing
place in our lives between soul and spirit (Heb 4:12)? For we are
often concerned with guidance in order that our lives may be
freed from anxiety and uncertainty. God, on the other hand, is
concerned that we should be cast upon him to do his will, whatever the
enduring cost. The will of God is shaped in the image of his Son's
cross. The will of God means death to our own will, and resurrection
only when we have died to all our own plans.
Did we really appreciate that this was what we were letting
ourselves in for when we said that we wanted guidance?
Is It Consistent With Biblical Example?
Paul's discussion reaches its conclusion with these words:
"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1Co 11:1).
What would Paul have done? What would Christ himself have done? Are
there incidents or teaching in Scripture which can be applied to the
situation in which I find myself? Will it give me a clue to the
will of God for my life now? (Cf. Php 3:17; 2Th 3:7; 2Ti 3:10; Heb
The apostle Peter speaks in a similar vein. Christ suffered for us,
and in doing so he left us an example that we should follow in his
footsteps (1Pe 2:21). Peter uses a very picturesque word, which means
a model or pattern to be copied. It is the kind of expression we would
use of a teacher's light, pencil outline which a child would fill in
with a heavier hand, and fill out in his own unique way.
This is exactly what we are to do. We are to go over the lines
which Christ has drawn in, lines which we find in the Scriptures. We
are to take his hand, and find his footprints in Scripture, and follow
them. Paul was able to encourage his contemporaries to follow him
because he followed Christ.
Yet, even here, Paul cannot escape from the ultimate challenge,
"whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1Co 10:31). This is
the non-negotiable norm of Christian living. If my heart goes out for
God's glory, then I will find the yoke of these questions is easy, and
the burden of gospel holiness to which they urge me is light indeed.
<This material is from
Ferguson, Discovering God's Will (Carlisle, PA: Banner of
Truth, 1982), pp. 65-73.