Book Review: Step by Step by James C. Petty (Part Two)

Part Two: Understanding Guidance

“Guidance and the Plan of God” is the title of the fourth chapter, which zooms in on the biblical doctrine of God’s providence. The author draws on the distinctions in classical Reformed theology between two aspects of God’s will: the plan of God – or his “decretive will – and the commandments of God – or his “preceptive will” (56, referencing Charles Hodge). The Bible frequently uses the phrase “will of God” to refer to his sovereign plan. Texts covered include Ephesians 1;5, 11; James 4:15; Romans 15:32; and 1 Peter 3:17. The truth of God’s sovereignty is encouraging for believers because it assures us that “(1) God does have one specific plan for your life and (2) the events and choices of your life irresistibly and sovereignly work that plan in every detail” (59), which means that you cannot miss it! “For those who are in Christ, there is only one plan, Plan A” (59). There is no Plan B. Petty surveys the biblical teaching on God’s sovereignty, demonstrating God’s rule over circumstances (Matt. 10:29-31, Gen. 50:20), good men, evil men, and politicians (Prov. 21:1; Rom. 9:17; Acts 2:23), and salvation and judgment (Eph. 1:5; Jn. 15:16; Jn. 6:37, 39; Rom. 8:28-30). Throughout this survey, he is careful to remind us of how the truth of God’s sovereignty should function in a believer’s life to produce humility and worship, but never to give us an excuse for irresponsibility. But he also contends that while God’s knowledge is exhaustive, “such future knowledge is not given to us for our own good . . . The information would damage us. It is too toxic for us to handle” (71). We are not able to discern the inscrutable sovereign plan of God in advance of making decisions, nor should we try. Rather we must do the “hard work of finding biblical principles and values that apply to [our] situation” (75-76). We must gather the information necessary to make a wise decision and then make the decision, strengthened by the knowledge that God’s providence is like a “guardrail to our decision making. We are hurtling down the mountain of life with turns and switchbacks constantly confronting us. Yet we can have confidence that God has established the boundaries of our lives. He holds us carefully in his hand despite the dangers we face and the foolish decisions we make. Only in heaven will we know the number of times we bumped into the guardrail of God’s plan and were protected for his gracious purpose” (77).

But the Scriptures also use “will of God” to refer to God’s commandments. Hence, chapter five discusses “Guidance and the Word of God.” The moral will of God is revealed in Scripture and we are expected to obey it. Many texts are cited, including 1 Thess. 4:3; 1 Pet. 2:15; Matt. 6:10; and Jn. 4:34). The author highlights the sufficiency of Scripture, saying: “his Word (the Bible) is complete, sufficient, and thoroughly powerful for the completion of the faith and life of every child of God” (88). In answer to those who contend that “in addition to Scripture (but not in contradiction to it), God reveals the specifics of his will through such things as vivid impressions, dreams, amazing circumstances, and a subjective sense of peace” (90), Petty argues that these things “are works of God’s providence not revelations of his will.” “They provide the context for God’s guidance, though they do not make up that guidance themselves” (90). The Scriptures alone reveal the parameters of God’s will. What we need is not new revelation, but wisdom for the application of God’s revealed will in Scripture to the specific situations of our own lives.

Chapter six examines “Guidance and the ‘Individual Will of God’”, the concept identified in popular Christian teaching as “‘God’s perfect will’ or the ‘center of God’s will’ or God’s ‘specific will’” (96). If God’s moral will is viewed as a circular target, “the individual will of God is seen as the bull’s eye on the target. That is the ‘will’ we seek to discover (hit) for guidance. If we miss the bull’s eye but hit within the target area, we are not in sin – but we are missing God’s best for us” (97). The author contends that this concept is unbiblical and points out numerous problems with it, not least of which is that it drives believers away from Scripture in search of the elusive perfect center. Some resort to laying out a “‘fleece’ (Judges 6:36-40) as a means of divining the will of God” (101) or “reliance on hunches, impressions, circumstances, intuitive senses, open doors, and other shaky methods for discerning the will of God” (102). All of these false trails lead us away from the wise application of Scripture to our lives. We should focus rather on God’s revealed will, which includes “areas of things prohibited” – all sin which must be “put off” in all situations – and “area of the application of God’s positive commands” – the prioritizing of which requires need wisdom and discernment (103). The chapter continues by considering five areas of life where God’s revealed will must be applied – money, giftedness, time, marriage, and food, drink, and honoraria, drawing heavily on biblical passages such as 2 Corinthians 8-9, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Peter 4:10-12, Ephesians 5;15-18, 1 Corinthians 7, Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8-9. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the simplicity of Jesus’ most basic command, “love one another,” and how “all of life is the outworking of that command” (116). While some believers may be initially disappointed at the generality of this approach, preferring instead direct guidance on who to marry, what job to pursue, et cetera, Petty assures us that “God desires to guide us on these issues . . . by helping us make the connection to Christ, his purpose, and kingdom.” And he reminds us that “if we do not understand the relevance of that connection to our situation, we have not really understood our situation [and] we are probably not ready for any other kind of ‘guidance’” (116).

Chapter seven (“Guidance and Christian Liberty”) extends the discussion by considering yet one more area in which we must apply the revealed will of God – the area of Christian liberty. We know that a situation falls within this category by following “a process of elimination.” If a decision is not prohibited by Scripture and is not controlled by the applied wisdom of Scripture (in relationship to God’s positive commands), “then we know that it belongs to the larger range of decisions where all the alternatives are good, just, and right in God’s sight.” “This is the area where God has given us great freedom to order our lives according to our own preferences” (122). This should free believers from the “fear-driven need to make sure that every choice they make is ‘according to God’s will.’ That attitude in itself is out of God’s will!” (124). In this realm of Christian liberty we can be assured that God helps us by his providence – “We might call it guidance with a small ‘g’” (126). But apart from biblical guidance in the area of motivation (i.e. 1 Cor. 10:31), decisions on these issues are left up to the personal choice of the believer.

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