What is the “will of God”? Romans 12:2 says, “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” What is it talking about here? Consider Col 1:9, where Paul says to the church of Colosse, “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” What does Paul mean here? The popular notion of “the will of God” seems to limit it to “big” or “important” decisions, determined by some kind of subjective feeling. Now I am not completely against this understanding of the will of God, but it needs to be tempered a bit, I think. Although there will always be a subjective element in making decisions, we certainly do not want to be driven impulsively, nor do we want to presume that a certain “leading” or “voice” is, in fact, the Spirit of God. Perhaps this “will of God” should encompass all matters pertaining to our lives–“what we eat, what we drink, whatsoever we do.”
Yes, “the will of God” includes the “big decisions”, but, more importantly, it includes our ethics. I believe Paul, in both of these passages, is talking about knowing how to live. God never intended the Bible to be a rule book, a kind of constitution where we cite a chapter and verse that explicitly tells us how to live in every matter in life. For example, he never intended us to look up a verse to tell us exactly what we should wear. He gives us some direct principles, and some not-so direct principles. He never intended to give us a catalog detailing our action for every response to every possible scenario on earth. If he would have, he would have given to us an entire library, not a book. Instead, he wanted us to be, as Rom 12 tells us, not conformed and transformed. The Lord wants your mind to be renewed. What does the Blessed Apostle say is the purpose of this renewing? So that we may prove the will of God. In other words, Paul wants us to use our minds to prove or reason what the Lord’s will is. He wants us to be active in criticizing our choices, and careful in showing what the Lord’s will would be. So what about when we are faced with those tough questions? Paul is saying in Rom 12:1-2 that we should be proving the validity of all things. This includes the entire range of choices, whether big or small. Paul is very concerned the people in the Roman church live lives in conformity to the will of God. So he tells them to prove it with a transformed and renewed mind. He knew that the revelation they had would never engulf every situation, so he told them to use their minds to prove what God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will is.
Paul uses the word “prove” (δοκιμάζειν) a few verses later in Rom 14:22, where he says, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (εν ω δοκιμάζει)” (ESV). Paul continues, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (ESV). In other words, know what is right and wrong. When you can prove that something is good and acceptable and perfect, then do it. If you cannot, then you had better not partake in that activity. The key to partaking in a certain activity is being able to prove that it is the will of God for you to do that. Paul says in Colossians 3:17, “And whatsoever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father by him.” Everything–and note how Paul makes sure we get that thorny “everything” part by repeating himself–every word and deed we do should be in the name of the Lord Jesus.
And this is a theme he takes up in other books. I have already cited Col 1:9. Consider also 1 Thess 5:21, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” He has a very similar remark in Phil 1:9-10: “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.” Even the author of Hebrews, whoever he may be, says in 5:14 that “strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”
Again the Scriptures are key here. They are both sufficient, and, I believe, necessary and key, along with the work of the Holy Spirit, in the process of transforming and renewing our minds. But the Scriptures are not exhaustive to address explicitly every situation–they were never intended to be so. Complex ethical issues like nuclear arms, recycling, and stem cell research were never addressed by Scripture. But for sake of example (and the author), let’s keep it simple: how do you know whether you should exceed the speed limit? The Scriptures never explicitly address this question. It gives us some general principles, like “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers” (Rom 13:1), but how would we get from there to “you should not exceed the speed limit”? Here I would have to insert a minor premise: “the law says I should not exceed the speed limit” (my intent here is illustrate the reasoning process more than condemn the speeders in the audience). Only when I insert this “minor premise”, can I get to “you should not exceed the speed limit.” The art of inserting the right “minor premises” is an important part of proving the will of God.
Take another example: Playboy magazine. How do I know that I should not look at Playboy? Well, I can indeed start by citing Matthew 5:28, “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” But this does not explicitly address Playboy. Before I can say, “You should not look at Playboy”, I must add a minor premise: “Playboy causes me to lust because of the nature of the pictures.” Now I am speaking very loosely here of “minor premises” and such, particularly when I add the observation that these minor premises may get very complex and detailed in nature. But the command Paul repeats in the texts I have cited is clear: we are obligated to prove the rightness or wrongness of things. We are commanded to be discerning. As I have stated, the scope of the activity is to cover all matters: our eating, our drinking, the forms in our worship, our behavior towards one another, our leisure–nothing escapes this blanket. And the nature of the activity demands that these ethics are not inscribed propositional edicts, and that the possibility of our coming to incorrect conclusions, for whatever reason, is real. Our responsibility, as Paul shows in Romans 12, is to reason through the validity of the activity with transformed and renewed minds. And we are blessed, as the Apostle shows in Romans 14, if we can engage in that activity with a clear conscience. For whatsoever is not of faith is sin.