On Discerning the Will of God.

For the Apostle Paul the life of the believer is both supported and guided by the will of God. Thus, says New Testament scholar V.P. Furnish, “the life yielded to God is the life dedicated to the discovery of God’s will (Rom. 12:1-2) and responsive to the divine “call” (cf. I Thess. 4:3, 7; 2:12),” (Theology and Ethics in Paul, 227-8). Since Paul does not think of God’s will in the sense of a list of duties or a systematic ethical program the important question becomes how is it to be discerned in particular instances.

How is one to discern God’s will in one’s own life? To be sure, for Paul, this is possible (and urgent!) because the Christian is a “new creature” whose life has been taken over by Christ (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:12). Life in Christ is life in the Spirit and thus life in the community of the Spirit, the church. The communal aspect here is key. For Paul, one cannot discern God’s will apart from the community of the Spirit. In the Christian community we speak the truth to one another in love and learn to hear the voice of the Spirit together. To quote Furnish at length,

“Paul never pictures the believer as confronting alone the bewildering complexity of various possible courses of action. The believer’s life and action are always in, with, and for “the brethren” in Christ. For him, moral action is never a matter of an isolated actor choosing from among a variety of abstract ideals on the basis of how inherently “good” or “evil” each may be. Instead, it is always a matter of choosing and doing what is good for the brother and what will upbuild the whole community of brethren,” (233).

In other words, discernment is not a matter that individuals engage in by themselves but rather a matter that requires the community of faith for whom we act in love. So, in Corinth when the matter of meat offered to idols surfaces what is important is not who is “strong” and who is “weak” but how this decision will effect one’s brother (1 Cor. 8:9, 11). “Build one another up!” says Paul in 1 Thess. 5:11. For Paul, mutual upbuilding is central to the life of the church: “Within this context and standing under this claim the Christian is called to discover and do the will of God,” (234).

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3 comments
  1. “One cannot discern God’s will apart from the community of the Spirit.”
    This is so true. As we journey this life together as fellow pilgrims, we affirmed each other’s gifting(s), strengths and weaknesses.
    May our Lord reveal his will to you through your community.

  2. joshuawalters said:

    Nice thoughts and weaving together of Furnish’s thoughts, Jonathan. I appreciate the way he views morality as something you DO, not something you “believe.” I would also agree that moral action is determined by what is good for the well-being of brethren in a particular situation. I find this frustrating, however, because I always want my view on morality to fit universally. But I’m learning that it must also be determined by particular situations.

    Also, the communal piece is so right on. Keep preaching that, dude. I was just recently reading in Bonhoeffer that its easy for Christians to be around one another and still not have true community (in Life Together). I think that this morality pice plays a huge role in this. If we’re not actively seeking to discern meaning (including morality) together, then we’ll never be building community.

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