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Make Good Choices and Avoid Stupid Ones—Together!

Andrew H. Selle

Part 2: A Biblical View Of Choices [1]

In Part 1 we presented the case for considering decision-making from a corporate[2] rather than individual perspective, and then illustrated three defective views of guidance.[3] 1. the Discovery View (“Figure it out!”): God has one perfect plan and he wants the church to discover it. You can find it if you read all the clues correctly from the right Bible verses, advice from others, circumstances, “open and closed doors,” and inner promptings. 2. the Immediate Direction View (“Follow the Voice!”), which in its pure form expects God to communicate immediately, directly, and verbally to church leaders, and the church to obediently follow. And 3. the Self-Sufficient View (“Good luck!”), a purely pragmatic approach in which decisions are based on the opinions of various experts, secular research, and sound management principles. There is little need for divine guidance because successful results can be expected simply by utilizing the right training, skills, and resources. Now we will turn our attention to a biblical approach, The Wisdom View.

As was done in Part 1 with the defective views, we will continue the extended metaphor of a cross-country bus trip. Let us begin our journey—with the entire church together on a bus for the long ride. How do you get to your destination?

4. The Wisdom View (“Just drive! But Listen!”)

The Story: Everyone on the bus has studied the maps and internalized them, to a greater or lesser degree. The drivers have pored over them. Even more, they’ve studied geography with experts so that they understand the lay of the land. There are multiple ways to get to your destination, and you’re free to choose any of them. When you hit traffic problems, or car trouble, or missed exits, you don’t fret at all, and for one major reason: on board the bus sits the Director of the US Federal Highway Administration. The Director knows everything about all the roads and possesses immediate knowledge of what is happening on them. He mingles with everyone on the bus, teaching them during their travels, and spends much time with the driving crew. They get to know him, and they trust him. The drivers especially listen intently to whatever the Director says—and they also listen to other passengers who have learned from the Director. They often ask him for help on their journey, but oddly, he rarely tells the drivers exactly what roads to take. He does, however, point them to particular maps they’ve studied, reminds them of the general rules of driving, and helps them get oriented about their position. Often he encourages them, “You decide where to turn. You can do it.” Sometimes you find yourself on roads that you never dreamed possible, and sometimes you experience mechanical problems, and sometimes it seems like you’re lost; were it not for the Director sitting silently up front, you might think you were lost. You make many stops that you’d never planned, but in the end, you see that the route you took was the best one. Those who stayed on the bus realize that they actually ended up where they truly wanted to go, even though it looks rather different from their original plan. When you arrive at the destination, the Director proclaims, “Here we are! This is exactly where I wanted you to be.”

This is the Wisdom View, the correct and biblical one. Others have ably written about individual guidance,[4] so we will consider the topic primarily from the standpoint of its church-wide implications. We already have touched on the “wisdom” alternative in Part 1 in the critiques of the sub-Christian views. We will now consider a model that can help us discern wisdom by looking for it in the right places. We also must confront the demonic counterpart to divine wisdom so that we prepare ourselves for spiritual warfare.

Three Perspectives[5]: Asking the Right Questions

Paul’s written prayers are instructive because they explicitly communicate to us the revealed will of God, his absolute standards that never pass away. We can think of this as the normative perspective that begins with the timeless truths, principles, commands, and promises of God’s Word.[6] Whatever Paul prays for, we also ought to pray for. Consider, for example, his prayer for the Philippian church.[7]

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9–11)

“And it is my prayer …” Do not miss the obvious here: Paul prays. He asks God to give love and wisdom to the church, because unless he gives it, we will not receive it; we remain desperately needy and foolish without him. Praying for “abounding love” takes us right to the fountainhead of every good gift, the Lord’s sovereign choice to set his love upon his covenant people. Wisdom is gospel-oriented to its core. Paul continues and asks that their abounding love would come “with knowledge and all discernment.” This is literally “super-knowledge”[8] about God and the unseen and eternal matters of ultimate reality, along with all “discernment”[9] to grasp moral absolutes and judge between right and wrong. Biblical love is never mindless or contentless, but is informed by the entire breadth of the Word that “stands forever” and reveals the Eternal God.

The next part of Paul’s prayer adds compelling new features. He asks that they would, literally, “test the things that differ,”[10] which begs the question, “Differ in what way?” Is he commanding them to recognize the chasm between absolute good and evil, according to the unchanging standard of God’s Word? I think not, because he has just said that and need not repeat it. The ESV captures the sense well with “approve what is excellent.” We might say, “to choose that which is most important.”

And how will the Philippian church discern those “most important matters”? First, they must understand who they are—that church’s unique identity. This existential perspective recognizes that God spoke to that particular church in Philippi. Second, they must understand where they are—their unique time and place. This is the situational perspective; it views the reality that they must follow Christ in their particular context. Every church in every age must do the same, because we cannot obey God’s commands in a vacuum but only in the place in which he has providentially placed us.[11] The three perspectives help us sort out important questions to ask ourselves as we consider guidance and decision-making.

Consider the sample questions to be asked from each perspective in the following graphic and its explanation, along with a handful of biblical references presented as a sampling of the biblical data. Note again our corporate focus on the church.

Divine Perspectives for Choices

The normative perspective highlights God’s authority and reveals his character and will. This perspective asks, “What does God say in Scripture that applies to this situation?” “What biblical principles are most germane to our decision?” “Which principles have the greatest importance, according to Scripture itself?” “What is the proper biblical weight to place on various principles?” “How can we keep a right sense of proportion between them?” (Ps. 119:105; Matt. 23:23; 2 Tim. 3:16–17)

The situational perspective highlights God’s providential control of the entire context in which we live—our circumstances. He orders every detail of history, including our personal place and time and culture. He empowers the church to build itself up in love and to fulfill its mission in our world. This perspective asks,

What are our opportunities and limitations right now?” “What are the best means of accomplishing God’s purposes for us in this situation?” “How can we demonstrate love for God and others, with wisdom and clear thinking, in this situation? (Acts 17:26; James 3:17)

The existential perspective highlights God’s presence in the church. He causes needs to come together with the corporate gifting to meet them. This perspective asks, “How can we personally obey God’s commands and believe his promises, right here and right now?” “How do the resources God has given us match the opportunities around us?” “What convictions especially move us?” “What do we have faith to accomplish?” “What should we believe right now and how can we love right now?” “What is our decision-making process? Who should make this decision, and how?” (Gal. 5:6; Eph. 2:10; 4:7–12).

All the questions above, and the many more that we could ask, rarely have simple answers, but at least we are looking in the right places to find them. By asking appropriate questions from the three perspectives, we can receive useful answers to help us make wise choices.

Two Roads: Choices and Spiritual Warfare

We have seen that choices are triperspectival. They are also binary—good or evil. Guidance and decision-making demand that we grapple with the reality of spiritual warfare. This is very old news. In that pristine Garden of Eden, the devil impugns God’s goodness and twists his Word: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” He supplants God’s Word with lies: “You will not surely die.” He pushes a type of God-likeness built on rebellion and pride, rather than creaturely submission: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Our first parents listened to the arch-traitor and submitted to him, dragging the entire human race into bondage and death. It is no exaggeration to describe the entire Bible as an unfolding storyline of warfare—and God’s ultimate victory through the Lord Jesus Christ over sin, death, and the devil. We can rejoice that the story ends where it began—but infinitely better—in a new Eden forever purged of all evil and suffering, with God’s people united and resplendent in beauty, worshiping their Savior. “No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” Heaven and earth become one. The entire cosmos, with all who dwell in it, unite in worship, never again to face temptation and failure (Gen. 3; Rev. 21, 22).

We are not there yet. Throughout Scripture, and pervading the entire Christian life, every divine narrative has its demonic counterfeit—or more accurately a dizzying plethora of counterfeits exquisitely crafted to lure the church in every age from its “pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). When church leaders help members of the flock, we must pay attention to the issue, “Which ‘voice’ is this person listening to? The voice of the Good Shepherd or the voice of the thief who ‘comes only to steal and kill and destroy?’” (John 10:10). And, of course, we all know that we can sin just fine without the devil’s help; our sinful nature resonates with hell. Then, when many sinners get together and make “rules and regs” we are confronted with the “world” [12] of corrupted value structures that make it easy to submit to demonic lies and to scorn the truth. We battle the “world, the flesh, and the devil,” and we experience this warfare on every level.

Viewing sin from the three perspectives gives us insight into its destructive web. Consider, for instance, biblical teaching about idolatry: 1. Normative perspective: Idols are “nothing” in the sense that they are false pretenders, and there is only one God. Yet idols have demonic motivation behind them and press their corrupted norms (sinful values) into our reality.[13] 2. Existential perspective: Within the biblical counseling movement, much has been written about idols of the heart, understanding idolatry from the standpoint of personal motivation and experience. Our inward desires “encamp” on the heart and take control over it. We “want something and do not get it,” leading to all manner of outward sins.[14] God’s blessings in this life are wonderful as gifts, but terrible as gods. 3. Situational perspective: Here we view idolatry in its organized and institutionalized forms. The “world” demands conformity to its godless values, rewarding those who conform and punishing those who do not. Therefore, we expect that the church will face persecution this side of our Lord’s return.[15]

The graphic below turns the spotlight on the decision-making process and the impact that sin has upon it. Note especially how sin turns the plural of love into the singular of self-orientation.

Demonic Counterfeits for Choices

The normative perspective highlights the devil’s usurped authority and exposes his deceitful schemes. He is the source and driver of all evil, who demands worship as a counterfeit god. He organizes the demonic host to achieve that end.

This perspective asks, “What biblical principles is the devil attacking in this setting?” “How is the devil presenting partial ‘truth’ and twisting it for his own ends?” “How does this demonic message counterfeit biblical truth?” “Where is the devil creating blind spots so that we ignore important biblical teachings?” “What strongly held opinions are we elevating so high that we lose a biblical sense of proportion, and stop listening to others’ concerns?” “Which crucial principles must we fight for urgently, and which lesser ones may we release to God and wait patiently?” “How are we allowing our frustrated desires, even for good things, to lead to sinful communication?” (John 8:44; Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 10:20; Eph. 5:17; Eph. 6:10; James 3:15; 4:1–2; 1 John 3:8).

The situational perspective highlights the world under sin’s control. Nothing in Scripture ever suggests that the Lord relinquishes his absolute sovereignty over creation, yet he exercises his rule without becoming the “author of sin.”[16] The world unites against God with Babel-like efficiency, organizing demonic lies into comprehensive worldviews, and building power structures that oppose Christian faith and life. Idolatry gains institutional support.

This perspective asks, “How does our world tempt us, and suffering discourage us?” “How do the corrupted values of our world undermine God’s purposes for us in this situation?” “How do we squander opportunities and pretend false limitations?” “Where is the opposition to our calling and how can we move against it?” “How does a me-first attitude shatter church unity and torpedo good decision-making?” (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 5:15–16; James 3:16; 1 John 5:19)

The existential perspective highlights the inward presence of sin that rejects God and follows the enemy. This perspective asks, “In what ways do our hearts resist faith and obedience in this situation?” “What false promises are we listening to, and why are they so enticing to us?” “What truths do we need to believe about our new identity in Christ? How can we think and live consistently with that identity?” “How do we allow our desires and fears to become idols?” “What inconvenient truths do we suppress?” “Are we actually listening to—and valuing—the biblical concerns of those who disagree with us? or do we pridefully believe we do not need them?” “In what areas do we exhibit unbelief in God’s promises?” (Rom. 6:6–14; Rom. 12:2; 1 Cor. 3:3; Phil. 2:3–4).

In conclusion, we readily admit to the difficulty of the decision-making task on a corporate level. The church daily faces overwhelming complexities in a chaotic and ever-changing environment. It also faces enormous pressure from sin, within and without. Yet that very pressure tells us that we may not succumb to the luxury of unbelief, which often leads to the functionally atheistic “Self-Sufficient View” of choices. Rather, we pray to our Lord who promises generous wisdom to the church that asks for it, in faith. Throughout the entire question-answer process suggested in this article, we pray expectantly for that heavenly wisdom which is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

James’s character-oriented description of wisdom makes clear that in church decision-making, often the process is more important than the product. Perhaps this is overstated, for there are indeed wise or foolish decisions that carry positive or negative results. In many decisions, perhaps most of them, more than one “right” choice is available. (Think church budget matters, or even calling a pastor when more than one is available, etc.) But this is our point: the means of our choices matter to God, and they carry implications that transcend tangible results. If we care about life in the church family, we will pay as much attention to the ride on the bus as we do to our destination. Our task is not to discover the one perfect route, but to ride together by faith, in communion with Christ and one another. We believe that the Lord of the church will lead her by these means. On our journey together, the bus will take its twists and turns, and the roads ahead are known to God alone. Yet occasionally, we look out the rear window and see a straight line, a path that makes perfect sense and that no one could have imagined except a sovereign and loving Father.

Endnotes

[1] The word “choices” combines the epistemological issue (“How do we know?”) with the ethical (“What shall we do?). This is intentional because both of them interact in decision-making.

[2] “Corporate,” broadly defined as people (especially believers) functioning together—the church on any level, Christian organizations, families, and marriages.

[3] All of these positions are stated baldly, without any nuancing. It is important to humbly recognize that some who lean toward these views are devout Christian brothers and sisters from whom we have much to learn.

[4] Suggested readings are cited in Part 1.

[5] We will use the structure and vocabulary of John Frame, whose brilliantly simple triperspectivalism is easier to understand than to pronounce. Simply put, it means that God speaks to people in situations. Each of these elements is a perspective on the whole, interpreting the same data from three different angles—the normative, existential, and situational perspectives, which (respectively) capture God’s lordship attributes of authority, control, and presence. Each perspective always includes the other two. This triadic structure is replete in all his works, e.g., John M. Frame, Theology in Three Dimensions: A Guide to Triperspectivalism and Its Significance (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 24.

[6] I still like the term “principles” even though some are uncomfortable with it, such as Harvie M. Conn: “One problematic reference is the term principles, usually linked with adjectives like eternal, abiding, timeless, or normative …” (“Normativity, Relevance, and Relativity,” in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 195). Certainly we must not imagine “principles” as platonic abstractions independent of God, and we must avoid simplistic (and legalistic) applications of Scripture. Yet we must insist that the special revelation of Scripture is “objective” truth outside us, which God’s people will understand “subjectively” and personally as the Holy Spirit illumines us inwardly (Eph. 1:18).

[7] Philippians 1:9–11; cf. Romans 12:1–3; also, Ephesians 5:15–18 speaks of obeying the “the will of God” (revealed norms) by “making the most of every opportunity” (situation), requiring the church (people) not to be “foolish” but wise.

[8] ἐπίγνωσις (epignōsis) has an intensified, experiential, and relational force. “Conversion to the Christian faith can be described almost technically as coming to a knowledge (epignōsis) of the truth.” Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 404.

[9] αἴσθησις (aisthēsis) is about moral judgment; cf. the cognate in Hebrews 5:14 “senses” trained to “distinguish good from evil.”

[10] εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τὰ διαφέροντα (eis to dokimazein humas ta diapheronta) “in order to test the things that differ.” The same word for “testing” is used in Romans 12:2, “by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” The meaning in both texts is similar.

[11] Time and place certainly include the church’s geographic location, culture, and decade, but foundationally the redemptive-historical epoch in which it exists. We live between Pentecost and Christ’s return, and in that regard are in the same place as New Testament church. The gap between the Old Testament theocracy and the worldwide New Testament church must inform our grasp and application of the entire Old Testament—the “Law,” “Prophets,” and “Writings.” An excellent popular work on this subject is the final book by Edmund P. Clowney, How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007).

[12] Of this usage of κόσμος (kosmos) by Paul, “The world is … in its unity and totality the domain of demonic powers,” and yet, “even in their activity of enmity against God and tyrannization of men, (they are) subject to God (2 Cor. 12:7).” Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 91–92. The world, the flesh, and the devil come together in Ephesians 2:1–2. We can view this evil triumvirate perspectivally.

[13] “We know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Cor. 8:4). And yet, “What pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (10:20). Taken together these two texts present an accurate understanding of both the emptiness and dominating power of idols.

[14] “What causes wars and quarrels among you? Do they not come from your desires that encamp within you? You lust for something and do not get it. You murder and covet because you cannot have what you want.” James 4:1,2 (author’s translation). And note the theme of demonic origin in 3:15, where such “wisdom” is “earthly, unspiritual, and demonic.”

[15] “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Tim. 3:12).

[16] “For God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (James 1:13). See also WCF 3.1.

Andrew H. Selle is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as a Teacher at Covenant OPC, Barre, Vermont. He is a biblical counselor and conciliator. Ordained Servant Online, May 2019.

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