Friday, August 19, 2005

Book Review: Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians

Here's a brief review I wrote a few years ago of one of the books I recommended for further study about guidance and the will of God.

Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians (P & R, 1999) is written by James C. Petty, a counselor at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation in Glenside, Pennsylvania. It's based on the thesis he wrote for his D.Min. at Westminster Theological Seminary.

The book is divided into four parts: (1) The Promise of Guidance, (2) Understanding Guidance, (3) Experiencing Guidance, and (4) Seeking Guidance: The Seven Elements of Biblical Decision Making. The author's premise is that guidance is rooted in our knowledge of God. "The more one knows of God's character and desires, the better one can live to be conformed to the image of Christ and make the many daily decisions that must be made" (20). Petty rightly points out that there is a myriad of conflicting teachings about the issue of guidance, most of which rely more on anecdotes and illustrations than serious biblical and theological reflection. Petty's stated goal is to approach the issue from a systematically biblical perspective.

In Part One, Petty identifies what he believes to be the three most prevalent views on guidance in evangelical circles. According to the "traditional view," which Petty says only became popular in the twentieth century, God has a detailed plan for each Christian. Guidance entails discovering or discerning that plan by means of interpreting circumstances, inner impressions, and the counsel of others in concert with the Word of God. While Petty agrees that God does have a sovereign plan for each life, he believes that proponents of the traditional view err in insisting that God wants us to know it before it unfolds.

The second position described is the "traditional charismatic view." Like the traditional view, it affirms the existence of a divine, meticulous plan for the individual. However, knowledge of this plan is communicated directly and verbally through prophetic gifts and audible and inaudible voices. "The charismatic view of guidance involves the confidence that God normally and naturally communicates with us in clear human language" (33).

Later in the book, Petty identifies four problems with the traditional view of an individualized will that must be discerned and obeyed. First, making the individual (non-moral) will of God the focus, could lead to the oversight of sinful motives or the application of scriptural principles. Another difficulty is that it emphasizes finding a plan rather than applying Scripture in the wisdom of the Spirit in making decisions. Third, Petty finds no scriptural support for such a practice. Finally, Petty says, it is unworkable. If there is one prescribed plan for us to follow, then most of us have missed it and it is impossible to backtrack and get on the right road once we have strayed.

The third approach to guidance Petty considers (and the one he endorses) is the "wisdom view." It too acknowledges a detailed individual plan but holds that God does not normally reveal it to us except in the unfolding of history. Guidance, from this perspective, does not have to do with deciphering circumstances to discern this plan. Rather, God guides His people by giving us "insight into issues and choices so that we make the decisions with divinely inspired wisdom" (33). God's guidance is, therefore, mediate as opposed to immediate. Petty defines wisdom as "the moral skill to understand and apply the commandments of God to situations and people." "It particularizes and personalizes the will, priorities, and preferences of God" (144).

Part One concludes with a survey of the different ways God guided believers in different periods of redemptive history and in different litergenreseres (the patriarchs, under the Mosaic law, the psalms and prophets, the gospels, and post-Pentecost).

In Part Two, Petty provides a clear, biblically reasoned study of the "will of God," noting that the phrase is used both of God's plan as well as His commandments. Failure to make such a distinction is what results in so much confusion about the nature of guidance. In this section, he also treats the doctrine of providence as it relates to the plan of God. Not surprisingly, he defends a Reformed position, arguing that God sovereignly ordains whatsoever comes to pass including the free acts of humans although he does not "tempt or directly coerce our will" (66). The relationship of providence to salvation and judgment is also discussed in depth. Petty demonstrates that the efficacy of grace requires a "no risk" view of providence though he does not use that terminology. "There is no Plan B, C, or D. There is only what God ordained by his plan and our responsible actions. In his mysterious (to us) sovereignty, both of those become one" (70).

One of the greatest strengths of the book is Petty's reminder that biblical doctrines are to be used in biblical ways. The doctrine of providence, for example, is not simply a philosophical concept, but a doctrine with a pastoral purpose. As such, it is not to be used as a rationalization for irresponsibility in those areas God has commanded our activity. Instead, it should motivate us to action. Furthermore, it serves as a "guardrail to our decision making" (77) freeing us from the anxiety that so frequently accompanies our presentation with choices. The knowledge that God is working all things for our good delivers us from the misconception that our welfare is ultimately up to our ability to make flawless choices.

Petty uses three concentric circles to illustrate three aspects of God's moral will. The innermost circle represents those things explicitly prohibited by Scripture or what Petty calls "the put offs." These are moral absolutes that are to be refrained from all the time. Guidance in this domain is acquired through God's law. The middle circle consists of all of the positive commands of Scripture summarized in the greatest and second greatest commandments. This is where most questions of guidance arise. Issues such as the use of our time, money, and giftedness fall in this category. Citing John Frame, Petty points out that we must make priorities between the positive commands of Scripture:

Frame rightly recognizes that for the positive commands of Scripture, God calls us to "prioritize among absolutes." We cannot do them all at once. We must choose when a particular positive act is a priority and when it is not. Each of us must therefore develop a sense of priorities reflecting our gifts, our situation, and our callings, and our goals to glorify God. These are the issues that constitute the real background of guidance. This is where we seek to know and do the will of God (92).
Since such prioritization is necessary, wisdom and discernment are required to know how to apply love for God and neighbor in specific situations. Thus, we are in need of illumination of our minds and hearts by the Spirit and the Word.
The similarity between Petty's position and Garry Friesen's is obvious. Petty says that while Friesen has made a significant contribution in exposing the unbiblical concept of the "individual will of God" as traditionally understood, his appeal to the criterion of "spiritual expediency" in decision making is insufficient. "There is more than spiritual expediency at stake here: the very heart of moral integrity is involved" (105). This is a valuable observation.

The outermost circle in Petty's illustration represents areas of Christian liberty where there is a choice between equally good alternatives. "If a decision falls into this third circle of Christian liberty, God has no preference (will) in the situation. He holds us responsible to make our own decisions. This is the area where God has given us great freedom to order our lives according to our own preferences" (122). Guidance in this area ("guidance with a small g") is given in the form of providence. "God in his providence can put thoughts into our heads, but that is not true guidance" (126). Petty is reluctant to use the word guidance with respect to God's providence because there is a danger "in trying to deduce God's moral (preceptive) will (what we should do) from his sovereign will (what actually happens)" (170). Thus,
.....premonitions, predictions, and hunches are under this category of God's providence. They do not constitute guidance in the true sense of the word. They should be treated in the same way as any information that God may bring across your path such as a news report, a friend, or a book. You cannot tell whether it is correct, valid, or helpful apart from testing it, just as you would any other information (128).
We know that a decision falls into this area if it does not fit in either of the other two. It is uncertain, however, whether too clear a distinction can be made between this and the second circle since Petty correctly notes that even in our exercise of liberty, our decision making is to be governed by love for neighbor and the motive to glorify God.
The section on experiencing guidance contains very good material on the nature of biblical wisdom and a chapter on how to become wise. From the book of Proverbs, Petty identifies necessary ingredients. First, we must repent of our foolishness and trust Christ, the wisdom of God, for salvation. Second, we must commit ourselves to progressive consecration to God:
The path of wisdom is a lifestyle of repentance from serving functional gods like security, safety, control of situation, pleasure, power, ease, avoidance of pain, and approval. God will systematically expose any such rivals in our hearts that divert us from loving and worshiping him (179).
The third requirement for becoming wise is to pursue it through prayer and meditation on the Word. Fourth, we must associate with those who are wise and seek their counsel. One of the things that I greatly appreciated about Petty's work is his corporate, as opposed to individualistic, emphasis: "God's guidance is individual, but not individualistic. His guidance takes full account of the relationship we sustain with the whole body of Christ, the church" (47).
The fourth section of the book covers seven essential elements of biblical decision making: consecration, information, supplication, consultation, meditation, decision, and expectation. Each of these is illustrated in the life of Don, a fictitious Christian man dissatisfied with his current job and considering a major change.

This is, in my opinion, a very good work that should prove helpful to those willing to think along with the author. The focus on wisdom as the means by which God guides his people is well supported with biblical data. Readers should come away with a heightened appreciation of wisdom as a supernatural gift of immeasurable value, made possible by the person and work of Christ. The connection between sanctification and decision making that is often sorely lacking in popular treatments of guidance is prominent, taking our focus off of finding God's plan and on becoming the kind of people he desires us to become.

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