How (not) to discern God’s will
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
15 Feb, 2024

Where do we find God’s will for us? It could be His will for what doctrine we believe, or it could be His will for our life. Theoretically Christians will consult the Bible for this, but what place does this leave for getting guidance through dreams or impressions, or even God’s providence? William Bridge, a member of the Westminster Assembly, preached a set of three sermons on 2 Peter 1:19 titled “Scripture Light the Most Sure Light.” As the following abridged excerpt shows, he builds a case that Scripture is clearer and safer than all other sources, and all the light they can give us is only borrowed from Scripture.

Revelations or visions

Scripture light is a full light. Though God did sometimes speak by revelations and visions [in Old Testament times], now in these last [New Testament] days, He has spoken His full mind by His Son.

The stronger any Christian is, the more he walks by faith; and the more he lives by faith, the more he chooses to walk by the Scripture, the written Word of God, the object of faith. It’s in Scripture we have Christ pictured to the life before our eyes, not in revelations and visions.

Imagine that right now you had a vision. How would you know that this was the voice of God, and not a delusion of Satan? Obviously, by the truth that is communicated in the vision — but how do you know the truth, except by Scripture? Or maybe because the vision reveals some future thing which then comes to pass? Then read Deuteronomy 13:1–2: God may permit a revelation to come to pass, and yet it may not be from the Lord, but to test you, whether you love Him, and will cling to Him.

There is no danger in following Scripture light. But if people follow revelations and visions, they may easily be drawn to despise the Scripture. Indeed, what is the difference between an atheist, or an infidel, and a Christian, except that the Christian adheres to Scripture, and the other does not? Take away the Scripture from me, and there will be little difference between me and an infidel.

But, you will say, may God not speak by extraordinary visions and revelations? Yes, without all doubt He may. God is not limited. I’m not going to argue about what God may do. But though God may do this, yet it is a bad sign if I hanker for it, because such hankering implies that a person is not content with the Scripture.

Though God may sometimes work by extraordinary means, yet if that person’s heart is drawn off from the ordinary means by what is extraordinary, it is not right. It is possible for there to be visions consistent with the Word, but if you are more impressed by them than by the Word itself, then your faith is suspicious.

Dreams

Dreams often involve vanity, says the Preacher, “but fear thou God” (Eccles. 5:7). That is a check on paying too much attention to dreams. But the apostle says, “Let the word of God dwell in you richly,” and there is no check on that.

Dreams are also uncertain. It is hard to know whether a dream is natural or supernatural. Say it is supernatural. Then it is either from the devil or from God, and it is hard to know which. Say the dream is from God, yet it is hard to know its meaning and interpretation. Pharaoh had a dream, but all his magicians could not interpret it; that was a work for Joseph. The same with Nebuchadnezzar. Anyone may have a dream from God, but it requires no less than a prophet to interpret it. However, are we at such uncertainties in reading the Word? Can no one but a prophet understand the Scripture? No — the Word of the Lord is a lantern to the feet of all of us, plain in all things necessary to our salvation.

But may not God speak to us by a dream now, if He chooses? Without doubt He may; God is free. But Scripture does not indicate that dreams are an ordinance of God now.

Even if God did speak to me by a dream, yet if I made that a sign of my own godliness, or of God’s special love to me, then I am under a delusion. Even wicked men have had their dreams from God (Balaam, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, and others). If I dream a strange dream, and conclude that therefore I am in God’s love, because He speaks to me this way, then I am deceived.

Who in the world dares to venture his soul and salvation on a dream, or the interpretation of it? But we may and must venture our souls and salvation on the Scripture.

Impressions on the soul

Impressions (with or without a word of Scripture), even when they are good, are not our daily food. Our appointed daily food is the written Word of God (whether it comes with or without impression).

Good people are very prone to walk and live by impressions, but it is dangerous. It fosters ignorance, and keeps people unsettled in their spiritual state; for if a word comes, then they have comfort; but when none comes, then their comfort fails. Or, dwelling on the sweetness of the impression, they lose the sweetness of the very word which was impressed on them. But now take the written Word of God, and there is no danger in living and walking by it; indeed that is our duty.

Is there no use then of impressions? Yes, much, for they comfort in time of difficulty. When someone is in the dark, or does not know which of two ways to take to do God most service — or sees the way clear and yet many difficulties in the way — then God sets some word with power on his soul, it is much comfort to him.

But although God speaks by impressions sometimes, giving much light and comfort, yet if I make an impression the judge of doctrines, then I am greatly deceived. We are to judge doctrines by the written Word of God.

Although much comfort may be had from impressions, yet if the Word is not impressed on the heart according to its true sense, the impression is likely not of God, but an illusion of Satan. God only ever sets a word on the soul in its true sense. So, do I have an impression with a word? The impression may be God’s, yet the application may be my own. The Lord gave Abraham a word, that his seed should be as the stars; but Abraham made a false application of it when he went to Hagar for the fulfilment.

The safest, surest way is to keep close to the written Word of God, which is both the judge of all our doctrines, and the only rule of all our practices.

The light of grace in the saints

The light and law within us here is imperfect. “We see only in part, and know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). But the written Word of God, the Scripture and its light, is perfect.

The light of grace within us is not able to convince others. But the Scripture, by the breathing of the Spirit of God with it, is able. How are “gainsayers” to be convinced (Titus 1:9)? By the light within? No, but by sound doctrine fetched from the faithful Word.

Is there, then, no use of the light within us? Does God not direct people this way? Yes indeed. This inward light not only exposes evil in us, and inclines us to good, but also enables us to good.

But it is a principle of good, yet it is not the rule of our goodness, or our lives. If it was, why would we need the Scripture? But Scripture is settled in heaven, and endures for ever (Psalm 119:89). Timothy had the light, and law, and Spirit of God within him, yet he was to be ruled by the written Word of God (1 Tim. 6:14).

Someone might say, “The Spirit in me is the same Spirit who wrote the Scripture, so why do I need to be ruled by the external Word instead of the inward Spirit?” The reason is that the Spirit is sent to open the Scripture to you, not to take away the Scripture from you. He is not sent to be your rule, but to be your help to understand the rule.

Even assuming you have the same Spirit who wrote the Scriptures, yet you do not have the same inspiration of the Spirit. Because people do not understand this, they think that if they have the same Spirit, they may set aside the Scripture as to their rule. But if something in me is my rule, then I am effectively my own rule, and so I am God, and what is this but horrid blasphemy?

Though the law, and light, and Spirit within, may be a great help to us in our way to life, yet they must be tested by the written Word.

Christian experience

The written Word of God is more excellent than Christian experience. Whatever light there is in experience, it is borrowed from the Scripture, the Word of God written. Though experience is a great help to our faith, yet take it alone, abstracted from the Word, and it cannot heal our unbelief. The walking stick in someone’s hand is a good help, but it cannot heal their lameness. Experience likewise will be a good help in my way, yet it cannot heal the lameness of my unbelieving heart. But the written Word can, and does.

Is there then no use of our experiences? Is there no light in them? Yes indeed, for experience brings forth hope. “Experience worketh hope” (Rom. 5:4–5). But though experience is the parent of hope, yet it is not the ground of our faith. It is a help to faith, but not the first ground of our faith. The Scripture is, and the promise under Christ (Rom. 15:4).

Though we have much experience, yet if we do not trust in the Word, over and beyond all our experience, we do evil.

Divine providence

God sometimes tests us by His providence. He lays a providential dispensation before us, to test and see what we will do (Deut. 8:2). But the Scripture is the rule of our doing.

The providence of God extends to everything, including all our sins. When Jonah fled from God, there was a ship right there that heading for Tarshish: here was a providence! And when Joseph’s brothers wanted to get rid of him, who came by but some merchants who traded in Egypt: here was a providence! So we cannot make our decisions from a bare providence. You may, however, make your decisions from Scripture, the Word of God written.

Does God never speak by providence, or sometimes guide and direct by providence? Indeed He does. But though the Lord does sometimes guide us with His providence, yet if I make the providence of God the rule of lawfulness or unlawfulness, then I am in a great error, and I expose myself to all kinds of sin. When two lawful things are before me, then when providence opens a door to one, and shuts the door on the other, it is directing to that one, not the other. But the providence of God does not make lawful something which is in itself unlawful. Providence is not the rule of lawfulness or unlawfulness. But the Scripture is. The written Word of God is the only rule by which I may and must make up my judgment of lawfulness and unlawfulness.

READ MORE

LIKE THIS

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and receive an updated article every week.