The Lord's Day
July 18, 2004
“Wisdom: Sense that Isn't So Common”
Dr. Derek Thomas
On Lord's Day evenings in July and August, we are taking a series of studies in the issue of guidance, Christian guidance. As we have just sung in the words of that hymn “If Thou but Suffer God to Guide Thee,” many Christians find themselves in some disarray when it comes to the issue of guidance–what does the Lord want me to do, and not just in general terms, but in specific terms. And we have been exploring that theme the last couple of Sunday evenings. We’re still in the realm of building foundation blocks. Hopefully we’ll get to some of the more specific issues later on in the month of August, but tonight again I want us to return to a basic issue, and that is that we need wisdom in order to discern what God's guidance is for us. And that wisdom is to be acquired from the Scriptures.
Now these addresses, these sermons, are in the nature of topical sermons. They’re not expositions of any one particular text as such. Probably ninety-five percent of the sermons that are preached in this pulpit are expository, in the sense that they take a text and expound that text, and draw from that text all that can be drawn. And just for this summer series we're actually going to be drawing from many different texts, and there are three or four that I want us to think about, and weigh and meditate over this evening.
I was reminding you this morning of Jim Elliot, wonderful, wonderful missionary martyred, of course, in Ecuador some fifty years ago now–well, just over forty years ago now. And in 1954 Jim Elliot wrote in his diary of the sheer joy of doing God's will. Of the sheer joy of doing God's will–and that surely speaks to us as we think of God's will for Jim Elliot that would involve his death. And from one perspective an untimely death, but from the perspective of the Lord it was right at the right time.
Now, let's turn to Proverbs, chapter four. I want to read from verses five through nine. Proverbs, chapter four, and verses five through nine. Before we read the passage together, let's look to God once again in prayer.
Our Father in heaven, again we turn to You. To whom else can we turn? You have the words of eternal life. Your hold our lives together. You are the One who sustains everything. Our very existence, all that we do, our future tomorrow is in the palms of Your hands. You have decreed it. And yet, O Lord, as we puzzle what it is that You would have us do as we attempt to discern which way to turn, we come to various crossroads in our lives and there is the possibility of going to the left, and there is the possibility of going to the right, and sometimes there is even the possibility of going straight ahead, and even a possibility of going backwards. And we need wisdom, we need discernment, we need Your help. And so now as we turn to the Scriptures, and to this particular Scripture in the book of Proverbs, Holy Spirit, give us light. Give us illumination. Help us to read, mark and learn and inwardly digest that which we have before us now this evening. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Now this is God's holy and inerrant word:
“(5) Acquire wisdom! Acquire understanding! Do not forget, nor turn away from the words of my mouth. (6) Do not forsake her, and she will guard you; love her, and she will watch over you. (7) The beginning of wisdom is: Acquire wisdom; and with all your acquiring, get understanding. (8)Prize her, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. (9) She will place on your head a garland of grace; she will present you with a crown of beauty.
Amen, and may God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
“Acquire wisdom!” the Book of Proverbs says. Get wisdom. And with all your acquiring and getting, make sure you get understanding, too. It's one thing to read about wisdom, it's another thing to understand wisdom. And I think we’ll all of us agree tonight that that's what we need. Lord, I need wisdom! I want to be wise, I want to be wiser than I am. I'm a child of God. I'm in union with Christ; I'm indwelt by His spirit. I want to be out and out for him. I want to be like Jim Elliot. I want to be able to say with him “the sheer joy of doing God's will.” Isn't that your prayer, your longing, your aspiration this evening? But what is God's will for me? What is God's will for me specifically? And to answer that question, I need wisdom. It's what our text says we need the most. Be wise. Wise up, as we sometimes say. And it's good, solid, biblical advice.
What is guidance, divine guidance, the Lord's guidance? We've been laying some foundation stones on which to answer that particular question. We said first of all it's God's covenant care. He cares for us, like a shepherd will care for his sheep, tend his sheep, provide for his sheep, guard and protect his sheep from enemies; lead them beside still waters. God does that. He guards us, he protects us, he provides for us all that we need every day, from morning till night and through the watches of the night. God is caring for us, he's providing for us. God's will is manifested, his guidance is manifested as we behold something of His care of us. So it's covenant care.
But it's also covenant counsel. Covenant counsel: He teaches us about the paths of life. He instructs us as to what path to follow, what decisions we should make, what's best for us. What to avoid, what to step away from. It's not a matter of emptying our minds and letting sort of notions pop in from nowhere. No, God teaches us. He instructs us. Guidance is not only the umbrella of God's covenantal care, it's also the awareness of God's covenant instruction, God's covenant counsel. So guidance will involve thoughtful reflection that looks at the situation, the options that are there; the gifts that God may or may not have given to us; the inclinations that we may have toward one choice rather than another; to seek the advice and counsel of others, enabling us to resolve tension, problems, difficulties, so that we might discern the guidance of God.
You know, last week we look in general terms at the role that Scripture plays in the instruction, the covenantal counsel, of God. I want us to continue in that line of thought this evening, taking it just a little bit further than we did last week. I want to say three things, but there are a slew of sub points, so the numbering is relatively unimportant. So let me begin by saying first of all,
of “hotline” notions of guidance.
You know, the “red telephone” notion of guidance: that God rings you on the red telephone and you answer, and there's a direct word from God. Now, I know this sounds contrary to what evangelicals have been saying for —oh–a century or so now. But we need to understand that that's a recent phenomenon. Bible-believing Christians have only recently adopted that view of guidance. This is what happens. We tend to narrow guidance to major decisions of life, instead of seeing guidance as God's counsel for all of life, for every moment of our lives. From the moment we get up until the moment we go to sleep, and through the watches of the night. We tend to narrow guidance and focus guidance on the big things — those that involve a sizeable risk with regard to our future. Choosing a life partner, choosing a vocation, choosing what house we are going to live in, or whatever. And in these big things we want God to speak to us directly and purposefully, and with assurance; and we say to ourselves we won't be certain until we have that direct word from God. We live our lives one way when it comes to everyday issues. We don't do that when we're putting on our socks. We don't do that sort of thing when we say, “well, now, which pair of shoes shall I wear today? Which tie shall I put on?” I went through three or four before I decided on this one, and I don't know why I chose this one rather than the other three or four. I've worn all of them at some point or another, but you know, you hold them up and you say ‘no, not that one’–and we don't approach everyday issues expecting the Lord to give us a direct word, a red-phone telephone call for everyday issues.
But when it comes to the big issues, we want a special intervention. We want a word from heaven. We want the heavens to open. We want God to speak to us. We talked about putting out the fleece–at least, evangelicals do. They talk about ‘putting out the fleece,’ you know, from Gideon's story in the book of Judges, and how Gideon —when God had actually told him what he was supposed to do, but it was an act of relative unbelief and smallness of faith on Gideon's part that he wanted some kind of reassurance–and therefore, he put out the fleece. And if it was wet, he would do one thing, and if it was dry he would do another thing. And there are Christians who will tell you that putting out the fleece is a sign of Christian maturity. Actually, in context of the Old Testament putting out the fleece is actually a sign of immaturity rather than a sign of maturity.
And there are some Christians who will say ‘The Lord told me to do this or that,’ or worse still, ‘The Lord told me to say this to you.’ Now, what are you going to say to somebody who says that? Somebody comes to you, and they say —and they’re very solemn, and with poker faces they’ll say, “God has been speaking to me.” And you know, you’re on edge. And they say, “God has been speaking to me, and He's been saying to me that I must speak to you about this matter.” What are you going to say to that? There's nothing you can say if God has spoken to that person, if God has given that person a word, there's nothing you can say. You've got to obey that word. There's nothing the church can say, there's nothing the elders can say, there's nothing the General Assembly of the PCA can say. God has spoken, and that's the end of it, no matter how bizarre or cranky or weird it is, if God has spoken there's nothing that you can do to contravene that. Now, three quick things here.
This is a new view of guidance.
Understand–and we should understand, because it's a matter of fact–understand that that view of guidance that I've just elaborated for you in the last few minutes, that view of guidance is relatively recent. In the history of the church, in the circles of Bible-believing Christians it's a view that's only been held in the last century or so. Christians in the eighteenth century during the time of the Great Awakening largely didn't think of guidance in that way. Actually you can go to the Puritan period and look at their sermons–thousands and thousands of sermons that we can read, many of them in print and many of them published in books–and you won't find any recourse to guidance along that line of thought. It's a relatively recent thing, and that in itself should give us cause for alarm.
Secondly, that view of guidance has led to some fairly
You know, you just open the Bible at random and let the first text be the guidance for the day. You know, the sort of “Promise Box” view of guidance. You pick out the verse and that's your guidance for today. And it can lead to some fairly bizarre things. Jim Packer, in Knowing God, I think it is, talks about a friend of his, actually it was Alan Stibbs, a wonderful, wonderful man, who in his youthful days, I read, was called to a church in the north of England, and then after he’d been called to this church in the north of England was invited to a much more attractive church in South Wales. And he read Isaiah 43 and verse six: “I will say to the north, give up!” And it was the best text he could ever find! And it was confirmation, he thought, that the church in the north would give him up and allow him to go to this much better paid church in South Wales. And as it happened, that did not occur. And he was perplexed, and he went back to the text again and read further on in the text that it went on to say, “And to the south, do not withhold.” And there you have it. It's a bizarre situation that can often develop when you have that kind of view of guidance.
I'm not saying–now, now, hear me–I'm not saying that God never guides that way. I'm not saying that. Actually I believe that sometimes He does. He may guide in whatever way He pleases. I'm not about to put barriers and perimeters on what God can and cannot do in the lives of His children. God will sometimes overrule our plain silliness. God will sometimes overrule our stupidity. You know, if we come before God as little children, well, don't be surprised if God treats you like a little child. You know, if that's the only guidance we're open to, then God in His mercy and sovereignty will treat us just like children. And I've no doubt but that sometimes God will do that. But it's not a sign of maturity. It's not the sign of maturity.
And the third thing I want to say is that it can and
often does lead to serious problems.
And this is how it happens. Because you’ll have one Christian, and they’re always saying, you know, “God has said this to me,” and “God has said to me that,” and they say it as though they’re apostles. And you can't contravene anything that they say, because God has a hotline to them. They have a red telephone in their prayer closet, and they speak directly with God, and God speaks directly with them. And then there are other Christians, and they don't know that. And it can often lead to terrible, terrible loss of assurance and to spiritual depression, and to thoughts that perhaps they’re not Christians at all, because God doesn't speak to them in that way. So beware of “hotline” views of guidance.
II. God guides through the Holy
Spirit and Scripture.
Now the second thing I want us to think about is that, to affirm that God guides through the Holy Spirit-enabled understanding of Scripture. God guides through Holy Spirit-enabled understanding of Scripture. There's a Reformation text, it's Isaiah 59:21, and it goes like this: “’And as for Me, this is My covenant with them’, says the Lord.....” God is speaking now of the promise of the new covenant.... “’My Spirit that is upon you and My words that I have put in your mouth shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children's offspring,’ says the Lord, ‘from this time forth and forevermore.’”
I say it's a Reformation text. Calvin made a great deal of it in his Institutes of The Christian Religion. What it's saying to us is this: that God's covenantal commitment to us is to declare to us the truth, and to promise to us the Holy Spirit in order to discern and understand that truth. That's basically what it's saying. It's a promise about what we're doing right now; that God will give us His truth, and that He’ll give us His Holy Spirit so we can understand that truth. I will maintain My covenant, God says, by giving to you My word, and by giving to you My Spirit, and My word and My Spirit go together. The one serves the other. The Spirit's task is not to speak to you directly as though by a hotline; the Spirit's task and ministry is to unfold and illuminate the words that God has caused to be written in the Bible. And that's the promise. That's the promise of the kind of wisdom that God gives to us.
When Proverbs, chapter four, says ‘Get wisdom and in all of your getting or acquiring, get understanding’, the book of Proverbs is saying read the word and pray to the Holy Spirit that He would make you and enable you to understand the word. And it's a promise that's given to us in James. It's one that's dear to many of us: “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth liberally and who upbraideth not.” If we lack wisdom, let's go to God! Let's ask God the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom.
It's what you see in the life of Jesus. It's the promise in Isaiah again. You remember that prophecy, Isaiah 11. It's a text we sometimes sing from the Messiah and it's a text about the coming and birth and life and ministry of the servant of the Lord in Isaiah 11. ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit, and the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him.’ Remember, God's promise to Christians is that His covenantal care and His covenantal counsel will come in the form of word and Spirit. And now he's prophesying here of the coming of Jesus, and what is he saying about Jesus? That the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding; the Spirit of counsel and of might; the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. When Jesus comes, He will be filled with the Spirit. The Spirit will speak forth God's word through Jesus Christ.
Now, let me expand on that just a little. Because evangelicals, in wanting to affirm the deity of Jesus, will often say that Jesus in His earthly ministry, in His human nature, knew certain things because He was God. I remember challenging that notion once in a sermon and saying what I'm about to say to you now, that when Jesus, for example, quotes Deuteronomy 6 and Deuteronomy 8 in the wilderness temptations–‘thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God,’ and ‘man shall not live by bread alone’ and so on–when Jesus quotes those verses, He quotes those verses because He knew them, and He knew those verses because He had studied them and learned them, as these little children here tonight have been learning The Child's Catechism and at least one was able to shout forth the answer. And Jesus’ assimilation of knowledge took place in precisely the same way. He poured his mind and His heart into Old Testament Scriptures, and by the help of the Spirit— the Spirit that filled Him, the Spirit that we see coming down in the form of a dove on the day of His baptism, the Spirit through which He accomplished all of His ministry–it was the Spirit who enabled Jesus to read the Scriptures and understand the Scriptures and memorize the Scriptures and cite the Scriptures in the most appropriate manner when He found Himself in need of divine guidance. You get wisdom, you get understanding by going to the Scriptures and calling upon the Holy Spirit to give you understanding.
Now, there are certain books of the Bible that we actually call “wisdom books.” Oswald Chambers very helpfully defines these wisdom books in these ways: the Psalms teach us how to praise; Proverbs teaches us how to live; Job teaches us how to suffer; the Song of Solomon teaches us how to love; and the book of Ecclesiastes teaches us how to enjoy–yes, enjoy–that is what the book of Ecclesiastes is all about–saving us from the pitfalls of life that keep us from enjoying the Lord. And these books especially, but all of the Bible, because all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for reproof and instruction and correction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. That's Jesus’ way.
III. God's wisdom comes to those
who are transformed by God's grace.
The third thing I want us to think about is this: that God's wisdom comes to those who are transformed by God's grace. God's wisdom comes to those who are transformed by God's grace. Think of that third well-known passage in Romans 12:1,2: “I appeal to you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God; what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
There's Paul's teaching on guidance. You want to know the will of God for you? You want to know the good will, the perfect will for you? Then do what Paul says: present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Engage in daily mortification of sin. Consecrate yourselves to the Lord. Give yourselves away in the service of Jesus, and then, as you are transformed by the grace of God, you’ll begin to discern what is God's will for you.
Now let me flesh out what I've just been saying. And let me flesh it out in nine points! Let me see if I can do this in five minutes. The nine-point method of guidance: what are they?
1. Maintain a thorough acquaintance of the Bible. Start there. Know your Bible. Know it inside out. Let's be a church where we have well-worn Bibles. Where you have to put a bit of tape or a bit of glue, because the pages are beginning to fall out, you use it and turn those pages so much. Let's know the Bible better than we know our morning newspaper. Let's —oh, and this is going to hurt!–let's know our Bible better than we know Tolkein–and that hurts! Let's know our Bibles more than anything else that God has given to us. That's number one.
2. Number two: always pray for the Spirit's help as you read, and ask questions as you read. Ask sensible questions, the questions about grammar. God has given to us His word in sentences, in grammar, with periods and commas and colons and semi-colons (at least in our English translations), and ask yourself what does this mean. Before you ask, “What does this mean for me?” ask yourself, first of all, “What does this mean?” Use commentaries.
3. Number three: everybody, everybody, everybody should have a copy of Matthew Henry's Commentary. You never know when you’ll come across a passage and you don't know what it means. So go to Matthew Henry's commentary–it's on the internet, if you haven't got a copy–but have a book, a physical book, before you.
4. Number four: realize that the Holy Spirit guides by your consulting other wise Christians. Yes, ask other Christians before you make a major decision, a decision that involves a lot of risk. And ask the advice of others, ask the advice of godly people, but beware of the selective syndrome. You know what I mean? You only ask those who are going to give you the answer that you want. Beware of that. Actually, it would be good to sometimes deliberately ask someone that you might suspect that would give you the answer you don't want to hear, so that you can weigh it properly in the balances.
5. Number five: in every decision make sure it is for the glory of God. Make that your maxim. Make that your motto. Whatever decision is the appropriate one here, “Lord, may it give You glory. May it give You maximum glory, that our lives would be lived to the full to bring glory to God in every part, in everything that we do.”
6. Sixth: realize, too, that along with right guidance God will give you a delight in doing it. Yes. Now, this is tricky, because it doesn't always come quickly. Do you remember what Jim Elliot wrote in his diary? “The sheer joy of doing God's will.” Yes, it needs to be fleshed out–haven't time to flesh it out, but it needs to be fleshed out, because sometimes God's guidance will be painful. Sometimes God's guidance will be severing a right hand or plucking out a right eye. Sometimes God's guidance will involve some act of mortification on your part, and it will be painful. But knowing that it is God's will, knowing that it is God's will, will bring you delight and bring you joy, and enable you to see that this is what God has made you for, and that this is the only way to live, and this is the Jesus way to live.
7. Seven: And here we step out a little. God will sometimes–and bear with me–God will sometimes push you and nudge you. Yes. I'm not saying now, I'm not taking back what I said at the beginning of the sermon about divine words from God, the red-telephone kind of guidance. I'm not saying that. If somebody thinks that God has spoken to them directly, that's something that you can't argue with. I don't think God speaks to anyone in that sort of way today. That's not what I'm saying. But I'm saying God will sometimes push you and nudge you. He puts thoughts in our minds, does He not? Where do these thoughts come from? There are probably psychologists and maybe psychiatrists in this congregation, and maybe you have an answer; but where do these thoughts actually come from? They don't come from nowhere. God plants these thoughts in our minds and in our heads. He might push us, in the sense of working on our affections.
You know, when I was a teenager, I did not like black coffee. I liked coffee, but with milk and lots of sugar. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. And I like strong black coffee, because I told myself that's what men like. When I was a teenager I didn't like black olives. But for some crazy reason, I've begun to think, you know, if you’re really mature, you should eat black olives. So, I've begun to eat black olives, and you know, after a while you begin to have a taste for black olives.
God will nudge you by changing your likes and dislikes and your affection for something or another. So be aware of that now. If you sense God nudging you, pushing you, you need to ask a slew of questions, because it may be indigestion! It just may be wind, and all you need is Mylanta! So you need to ask all the sensible questions: is this wise? Is this course of action a wise course; is it the best course; is it going to hurt other people if I do this? Ask your friends, ask your parents, ask your children.
8. Eight: In many situations the general principle of Scripture is all that we need and all that we get. In many situations the general principles of Scripture is all we need, and actually, it's all we get. God is like the general who may say to His field commander, these are your orders. Take that hill. But he doesn't tell him how to take that hill. You have to work that out for yourself. And there are many things in life that God gives us the general principle, and He says, now, as grown-ups and as adults, you work this out for yourself. And here's My Bible, and here's My Holy Spirit, and here's My people, and here's the church. And all of those in combination together make wise choices.
9. And ninthly and finally: Life choices as to what hobbies we should pursue are also governed by God's moral law. You ask yourself questions like ‘is this activity displacing the best activity? Is this activity hurting others? Am I diverting my attention to this world instead of to the God who made this world?
Now, those are some of the principles that we need to apply in the whole issue of guidance. Now–and I'm at the end. The truth is we often want to do what's convenient for us. Isn't that so? Truth is, we sometimes convince ourselves that God couldn't possibly be guiding us to do that, because it's so costly and so painful. Truth is, that we can do what we see Jonah doing so catastrophically: God saying to him so clearly ‘this is the way I want you to go’, and we see Jonah marching in the very opposite direction. And it's to Jonah that we will return. I'm away now on vacation, so it will be three weeks before we’ll be back in ‘guidance’ again, but it's to the book of Jonah that we’ll return. Let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your covenant care, and we thank You too for Your covenant counsel. Fill us with Your Spirit: fill us to the very brim, and overflowing, and make us wise; and help us to acquire wisdom, and with all of our acquiring, to get understanding. And deal with us, we pray, in a way that would conform us to the very image of Christ, so that we might discern what is Your will for us–that good and perfect and acceptable will in every contingency, in every situation, in every circumstance. And help us to be obedient for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the
Lord's benediction. Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord
Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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