How to Know the Will of God

Finding Direction with the Renewed Mind

Good Shepherd Community Church | Portland, Oregon


We are going to look at Romans 12:1–2 and talk about the will of God, what it means, how to find it, and what it means to have your mind renewed to find it.

As you know, chapter 12 follows the first eleven chapters. And it begins with a glorious “therefore” (“I appeal to you therefore”). The wonders that he is calling us into in walking with Christ in a renewed way are built on massive theology in chapters 1–11. It doesn’t get any bigger than Romans 1–11. It doesn’t get any deeper than Romans 1–11. And this is what it was all building towards: new minds discerning the will of God and lives of worship.

Pleasing God

Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you, therefore brothers [on the basis of Romans 1–11 and all the glories there and the pillars that suck down into the bottomless foundations] by those mercies [the mercies of God that I have unfolded for 11 chapters] present your bodies [that is, your whole bodily life, what you are everywhere you go including everything you do] as a living sacrifice.” Your bodily existence is not going to die. It goes up on the altar, but it won’t die so that it ceases to live. It dies so that it lives a different way. As a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.

It is possible, Christian, to live pleasing to God. Don’t overstate the doctrine of the justification of the ungodly. Don’t make it cancel other Scriptures. People are doing that today by taking the doctrine of justification of the ungodly, a beautiful, Romans-taught doctrine, and extrapolating from it that you can’t please God, that you can’t be acceptable to God day by day. All you can do is confess that you are ungodly and bank on the righteousness of Jesus. That is false.

You are now called — built on justification by faith alone and accepted on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone — to offer sacrifices to God in your body that please him, sacrifices that he smiles upon. This afternoon you can do something that pleases God. You can make a phone call that pleases God. You can speak a word of sweetness and kindness to your spouse that pleases God.

A Life of Worship

Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing that you may prove [or discern] what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfected and, thus, thus, live a life of worship.

The aim of these two verses is that all of life becomes worship. “Present your bodies, your bodily life as living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to God which is your spiritual worship.” In other words, the aim of all human life is that God in Christ be displayed as infinitely valuable. That is what life is for, to live your life in such a way that by what you say, what you think, what you feel, what you do with your arms and your lips and your eyes and your legs and your hands, all will show he is more valuable than anything.

“The aim of all human life is that God in Christ be displayed as infinitely valuable.”

That is what worship is: showing God’s value, supreme value over all other things. So if you have a job, do your job in a way that shows that Christ is supremely valuable. And if you can’t do that at your job, either change jobs or do verse two better.

When your life becomes worship, God begins to look valuable to other people. God looks infinitely worthy when others look at you. When they look at you, it looks like you value God more than money. It looks like you value God more than power. It looks like you value God more than illicit sex. So what is with you? They want to know the reason for the hope that is in you.

You probably don’t have to change jobs. That would probably be a mistake. That is not going to solve the problem. But verse two will solve it. And that is what we are going to think about for a while here.

You Are New, Now Get New!

Verse two is Paul’s answer to how all of life becomes worship (from verse one). It doesn’t call for mere change your external behavior. It says, “Be renewed in your minds.” Now I have got to step back and get a little Pauline theology in here so that “being renewed” is understood in the context of what has really happened to you, Christians.

“If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). That is a rock solid statement about you. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. So does the already new, need to get renewed? I mean verse two of Romans 12 says, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” So, you are already new — now get new! That is the Christian life.

Those of you who are familiar with the way Paul talks, know that this is the way he talks. For example, 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out old leaven that you may be a new lump of dough, because you are really unleavened.” What a paradoxical way to talk: You are unleavened, so get the leaven out. You might be tempted to think: If I am unleavened, I don’t have leaven to get out. Paul’s response to that is: Yes, you do! You are perfectly unleavened, so get the leaven out!

That is the genius and the mystery of the Christian life. That is how justification and sanctification work. Because I am justified and seen as unleavened in Christ, get the leaven out. If you are not getting the leaven out, that is, the leaven of sin out of your life, you are probably bearing witness that you are not justified by faith, since you are very content with your sin.

So when he says, “be renewed”, he doesn’t mean something like: “Get something good started in your life.” A miracle has happened. You are new. You are a new creation in Christ. And on that glorious, confident basis, rooted in Christ and his saving work for us, now we have some work to do. And we do it with joy and with confidence and with children of God. We are not trying to be children of God or get into God’s favor, we are in his favor rock solid through faith in Christ. But now we have got some renewing to do.

Another example is Colossians 3:10: “You have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” You have already put on the new person. You are a new person. Now you are being renewed. So when you see verse two of Romans 12, view it in the context of your identity in Christ based on these other things that Paul has said. With that basis, let us return to verse two.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that by testing you might discern [that you might prove or approve not just to know what something is, but to approve it] what is the will of God.” Both ideas of prove and approve are there. Not only do I discern the will of God but I like it. Both of those are happening in this word here. To prove what is the will of God means that I detect it. I discern it. This is the way to go. And I am going there. I like it. He is not saying, “I want you to know the will of God and snub your nose at it.” So it is not just, “know the will of God.” It is know it and approve it.

So the first question I have is: What does the will of God mean? Because that is the goal here in verse two: “So that you can discern what is the will of God.” So what does “the will of God” mean?

The Two Wills of God

In the Bible there are these two big meanings of the will of God and we need to know which one is used here. Which one does this verse mean when it comes to the will of God?

We need to know whether it is (1) The will of God that is his sovereign will that always comes to pass without fail, or whether it is, (2) The will of God which is his command to do what is right, which is often disobeyed and doesn't come to pass. The Bible uses the term “will of God” in both ways.

First, I want to show you that these two wills are in the Bible. Then I will try to show you which will I believe is meant in verse two. Finally, we will try to answer how we get our minds renewed so that we can live in God's will.

The Will of Decree

I call this first will the will of decree. This sovereign will is that will that always comes to pass no matter what. What God decrees happens, including all the bad things in the world. God is going to work it all for good.

A few texts that show what I mean by will of decree. Let’s take Matthew 26:39 where we are in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is crying out to his Father, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” What does that mean? As you will? Your will be done? That means God’s sovereign plan, which is going to happen. Jesus is going to die. And Jesus in his human nature is simply saying, “In my human nature, I don’t relish the thought of nails going through my hands tomorrow.

So if the plan could be adjusted, that would please my flesh, because I am just an ordinary person who doesn’t like nails in my hands.” That is not sin to talk like that. But then he says, “Your will be done,” meaning, you have got a plan. Do your plan. So this will of God is God’s sovereign plan that he always executes.

Another example of this is Acts 4:27–28. This text ought to be marked in your Bible, because it unlocks more light on the dark places of theological problems than many texts. In Acts 4:27–28, the church is praying in wonder to the sovereign God that has just ordained the death of his Son, they pray like this:

Truly in this city, Jerusalem, there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus whom you anointed both Herod, Pontius Pilate, all the Gentiles, the peoples of Israel to do what your hand and plan had predestined to take place.

So Herod did what God predestined to take place. Pilate did what God predestined to take place. The shouting crowds — crucify him, crucify him — did what God predestined to take place and the soldiers, the Gentile soldiers who drove the nails did what God had predestined to take place and the sovereign will of God was accomplished at nine o'clock on Friday morning. And it was all sin. Pilate’s expediency, Herod’s mockery, the soldiers gambling for his clothes. The hatred of the mobs stirred up by the Pharisees: “Crucify him.” That is all sin. And planned by God.

“God ordains all that comes to pass, this includes everything.”

So that is why I said this text, Acts 4:27–28, is a light on a theological jumble of problems. You are saying that God’s sovereign will that always comes to pass includes sin? Yes. If God could not plan the murder of his Son we could not be saved. It is not like Jesus just jumped up on the cross and died and God said, “Well, I didn’t know that was going to happen. But I will use it to save people.” That is heresy. God planned it for you. And it couldn’t have happened without sin. You don’t kill the Son of God without sin. So when I say that the sovereign will of God means that God ordains all that comes to pass, this includes everything.

A couple of other examples. 1 Peter 3:17 says, “It is better to suffer for doing good if that should be God’s will than for doing evil.” It is better for you to suffer for doing good. So you are at work and something is being discussed about a policy. The policy in your mind is an evil policy. It is a sinful policy. It would involve you and other employees in sinning. You know if you say something you are in big trouble. You could lose your job. You are going to expose this manager as a bad guy. He is making a bad choice. And if you say something he is going to be exposed. He will put you down one way or the other. You choose to do good. You do what is good. You speak truth and you get fired.

Now apply this text to that situation. “It is better to suffer for doing good if that should be God’s will.” Now what does that mean? That means when you spoke the manager, who now is in trouble, because you just exposed the evil of what was about to happen, he could be hindered by God from firing you or he could look at this and say, “I permit you to fire him.” And he fires you. God could just stop it. He could just stop it and you don’t lose your job. And this says it is better to suffer for doing good if that should be God’s will.

Now if he fires you did he do good? No, he sinned. And that was God’s will that he sin. Now you have got to have a category here from the Bible that says: God can ordain that sin come to pass without himself sinning. God is not a sinner. God is not evil. God is holy, just, true, and good. And in the way he governs and runs the world this text says: it may be God’s will that you suffer for doing good, which always involves somebody sinning against you.

Ephesians 1:11 is the most sweeping statement of all in this regard to the sovereign will of God. It says, “In him [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things [I take that literally] according to the council of his will.”

So “will of God” means “all things God does.” All things. He works all things according to the counsel of his will. This extends to the details of all existence. Matthew 10:29: “Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from our Father in heaven.” Proverbs 16:33: “The lot, the dice, are cast in the lap and every decision is from the Lord.” In Reno, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, every dice rolled God decides what turns up. I believe that with all my heart.

I play Scrabble with my wife. We don’t gamble. But we reach our hand into the bag to pull out letters. Now do you pray at that point? I need a “Z.” She is way ahead. I totally believe God decides what letters come out in my hand, so I do pray. And I thought through how I should pray. This is a marriage issue. I don’t pray: Let me win. Oh, no, no, no. God knows who needs to win. So I pray: For the kingdom and for the family. Whoever needs to win, for humility or encouragement, you know. So I don’t try to pull rank on her and pray for victory. No way.

Yet that is how sovereign God is. No silly little sparrow falls, nor does a letter come out of the bag apart from God’s will. So my answer to the question of: What does the will of God mean in verse two? This is one possibility. Throughout the Bible “will of God” often means what he does and it always happens. God is sovereign. He decides what happens.

The Will of Command

Now there is another meaning for the term “will of God” that we probably use more often. I call this will the will of command. For example, Jesus said in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father.”

What does that mean? “Only those who do the will of my Father enter my presence” — which means some don’t and some do. Therefore, the will of God is done by some and is not done by others, which means this will of God doesn’t have the same meaning as the first one, because the first one is always done without fail and this one is disobeyed and not done. So clearly “the will of God” here isn’t the same.

Another example of this will is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 which says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality.” Have you? No. Some of you have not, which means you broke the will of God. You disobeyed, contradicted, did not fulfill the will of God for your life. The will of God for your life is sanctification. Abstain from all sexual immorality. “Don’t look at pornography” — that is the will of God. So last week dozens of you probably broke that will. You contradicted it, cancelled it. The will of God did not happen in your life, because you looked.

1 John 2:17 says, “The world is passing away and all of its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” Some do, some don’t. Therefore, we have two meanings of the will of God in the Bible. One is his sovereign will and one is his moral will, will of command and will of decree. One is always done — for he is sovereign. The other one is often not done and contradicted. Now which one is meant in verse two of Romans 12?

Why These Truths Matter

And before I show you the answer that I think is there, let me comment on how precious it is to have these two truths. They are more than just interesting, they are precious. Let me try to explain why.

Those two realities, which are in the Bible: (1) God has a will of command — “Thou shalt not kill.” And (2) God has a sovereign will — I ordain that my Son be killed; I ordain what I forbid. That those two things are in the Bible corresponds to profound longings and needs that you have in moments of crisis and loss. You may not have thought this through, but you experience it. Suppose you were abused as a child and it has borne sad fruit for many years. Some uncle sexually abused you, or a dad. And somebody is trying to help you, counsel you and work through the implications of that. And somebody asks you, Do you think that was the will of God?

I don’t know how you would have answered before, but I have tried to give you a structure of biblical thought to know how to answer that question in a way that not only corresponds with the reality of biblical truth, but with deep needs of your soul. One need is to believe God hates what happened there. And when he was looking at the abuser he was saying, “Don’t do that! That is contrary to my will. I command you not to do that!” He hates what he sees and will approve of judgment. You need to believe that God is right there disapproving.

Secondly, you need to believe that God is sovereign, so sovereign in that moment that he can turn everything for your glorious and everlasting good. And if you try to solve the problem of God’s sovereignty at the moment of crisis and push him so far out of that moment of causality, so far to the edges, you know what is going to happen?

You will now be left with no God to help you deal with this and turn it good. He will be useless. You have just shoved him off into a realm where he can’t have anything to do with what happened. His will couldn’t be involved in it. His governance of the universe cannot oversee it. You cannot have a God who in anyway would ordain that it come to pass. And in your pain you shoved him so far to the edge of the universe that for the rest of your life you are crying out to a God to do miracles yet you have pushed him away.

“You need a God who disapproves of the ugliness and you need a God who ordains that all things come to pass”

If he can’t govern that moment, he can’t govern the rest of your life and do the miracles you need for him to do. So you need two things. You need a God who disapproves of the ugliness and you need a God who ordains that all things come to pass and is so sovereign he can take everything — including that — and work it for good.

And so you try to say there is no sense in which the sovereign God willed that, you will lose God for the rest of your life. So I think those two truths correspond to pretty profound needs that we all have. You may not be abused. It just may be the loss of a loved one. It may be disease entering into your life. It may be some painful relational conflict right now in marriage or with kids or with friends. You are all in something.

And you need two things: a God who can empathize with you as a high priest and hates sin. The definition of sin is God hates it and says, “Don’t do it! I forbid it.” And you need a God in that moment who is totally sovereign and governing all things so that even the sin being done against you is folded into his purposes for you and you can shine like the sun someday even in spite of that loss, that pain. Both of those are needs that I think God meets by being this kind of God.

The “Will of God” in Romans 12:2

So now we are at verse two and we are asking: Which is it? Let’s read Romans 12:2 again, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.” He wants you to know what is the will of God. Which is it? And my answer is: it is the will of command, not the sovereign will of God. He is not saying: “Get your mind renewed so that you can discern what is going to happen tomorrow.” He is saying: “Get your mind renewed so that you can discern what ought to happen tomorrow through your life.” See the difference?

He is telling us to look for his will of command. I have got a couple of reasons for why I think that. Number one, in the Bible God is not bent on bringing you into an increasing awareness of his secret will for tomorrow. He does not want you to know what is going to happen tomorrow.

What you need in order to discern what will happen tomorrow is not a renewed mind, but a crystal ball. There is no virtue in seeing tomorrow’s events in a crystal ball. Witches do that. Satan does that. He is not eager for you to become an effective Satan who can predict the future. That is not the point of verse two.

I hope we are on the same page here in agreeing that the goal of verse two is not, “get a really effective gift of séances, or get a really effective gift of soothsaying so that you can predict that tomorrow there is going to be a car accident or tomorrow you are going to lose your job” — he doesn’t give a rip whether you know that stuff. That has nothing to do with how good you are, how beautiful you are, how new your mind is. All you need is a crystal ball and some tie in with the devil to do that. He wants your mind to be renewed, not to know the sovereign will of God tomorrow, but the moral will of God. What does God want me to do? What does he command me to do? That is what he is after.

Three Stages for Discerning the Will of Command

There are three stages now to the unfolding of the moral or the will of command, the moral will of God, the will of command that when you discern it, it comes in three stages. Let me just lay these out real quickly for you so you can see how your obedience to verse two might look.

Stage number one: Immersing yourself in God’s word.

The will of command is revealed in the Bible decisively, authoritatively, infallibly. If you want to do discern what is the will of God, you start here. It is a very thick book. This version has 1100 pages. And page after page after page is helping us discern the moral will of God. What does he approve of? What does he delight in? What is good, acceptable and perfect in his view for you to do this afternoon? So start here.

In fact, it says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for correction, for reproof, for training in righteousness that the man of God may be fully equipped for every good work.” Wow. Every good work? Yes, every one. In other words, there is no good work that you have to have another book besides the Bible to cause you to know. The Bible is sufficient to help you discern every good work, which is why I say this is it. This is the place.

So start there and ask the Lord for a renewed mind that is a mind that when it reads the Bible can see what it means. That is step one. Number two. You must choose many things that are not specifically covered in the Bible. In other words, you must choose to do many things where the Bible does not give you explicit instruction. The Bible will not tell you what person to marry. The Bible does not tell you which car to drive. The Bible does not tell you whether to own a home or rent a home. The Bible doesn’t tell you where to take a vacation. It doesn't tell you what phone plan to buy. It doesn't tell you which brand of orange juice to drink and a thousand other choices that you must make.

Stage number two: Seeking to apply the Scriptures and praying for a renewed mind.

Take the Bible and you pray for renewed mind that knows how to discern how all of the things that are revealed here will produce a godly decision. House ownership, car ownership, person to marry, job to have, school to attend, leisure activities to avoid or go to. Most of those decisions are not spelled out here, which is why Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to the world in the way it goes about those decisions, but have your mind so renewed by this word that you discern which of those things would accord best with what is here.”

So step number two in penetrating through to the will of God’s command as it applies to the things where he didn’t make it explicit is you have got to have a new mind shaped by the rest of Scripture so that when you come to those decisions there is a readiness to see and do the will.

Stage number three: Having your unconscious life transformed.

And this one is the one we don’t think about as much even though I am going to argue 95 percent of your behavior is here, namely, you do not premeditate and decide to do 95 percent of what you do. You just do it. Most of your thoughts, they are just there. Most of your feelings, they are just there. And most of your actions, they are just there.

Only a tiny handful you think about before you do them. Otherwise you would go crazy, right? I mean at every moment, like I am going to open the door. Should I open the door with my left hand or my right? Pray about this. Discern the will of God. Something about right and left in the Bible. Sin is the right hand. That is probably the best one to use. You would go crazy. You couldn’t live your life that way. And that is, I am suggesting, 95 percent of your life.

So this afternoon you are probably going to make decisions about what? Half a dozen things that you are going to do. Might watch a ball game, might take a nap, and you think them through. Think of pros and cons and you do them. The rest of your life and you are going to make hundreds and hundreds of actions between now and the time you go to bed tonight that are just going to flow out of you, like Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks and you will give an account for every idle word.” And you didn’t plan 95 percent of them.

Now what is the implication of that? Most of my gestures, most of my facial expressions, most of my attitudes towards another person, most of the words coming out of my mouth, most of the things that I am doing in the day, I am not even thinking about it. I am just doing it. What is the implication of that for proving what is the will of God in those?

If you think that God doesn't have any will for things that we do spontaneously, that he only has a will for things that we do decisively, I say that that is ridiculous. God says: don’t be proud. God says: don’t be angry. God says: rejoice. God says: don’t be anxious.

So are you going to go out this afternoon and say: now here is an occasion where I could be anxious or not. Here is a couple of reasons why I shouldn’t be. Here is a couple of reasons why I should be. I think I won’t be anxious. Or I think I will be anxious here. You just are anxious and you shouldn’t be. Do you see the implication of that?

The implication is: we are told to do things all over the Bible that we would just do or not do spontaneously. So what is the implication? The implication is verse two, “Don’t be conformed . . . be renewed in your mind.” You have got to be a new person. You can’t just make new decisions, because 95 percent of what you are doing you are doing spontaneously and if you are not a new person, then out of the mouth the heart speaks wrong stuff. And you are sad about that. And we need to be changed.

So let’s end by asking the question: If those three steps: reading the Bible, application of the Bible consciously, and then a transformed mind that does 95 percent of its life unconsciously (that is, spontaneously), how in the world do you become new? Now that is a process for the rest of your life, but here is a few pointers and we will be done.

Three Pointers for Becoming New

“Not only do we need a new spirit in our minds, but also the Holy Spirit.”

Pointer one: Ephesians 4:23 says, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.” Not just in your mind and the spirit of your mind. And that is a work of the Holy Spirit. And he is acting upon us. It is a passive verb, right? Be renewed in the Spirit of your mind. The mind doesn’t just have thoughts. There is a spirit of your mind, a spirit that loves or hates what the will of God appears to be in the knowledge of mind. And so we must be renewed not just that we have new thoughts, but we feel differently about our thoughts.

Pointer two: Titus 3:5 says, “He saved us by washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” So the second thing to say is not only do we need a new spirit in our minds, but the Holy Spirit is the one who works that.

Pointer three: therefore we should cry out to God in the Holy Spirit. David did this in Psalm 51:10, “Create in me a clean heart, oh God. Renew a right spirit within me.” God, I need to be new. So make me new.

Prayer and Spirit

So prayer is the pervasive activity of the Christian life.

Which father of you has a son who asks him for bread would give him a snake or if he asked him for an egg would give him a scorpion? If you then being evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit?” (Luke 11:13)

He will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. And he doesn’t mean the first time. He just means over and over again. We all need the Holy Spirit.

What do we need the Spirit for? Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Think of those nine fruits. All those nine fruits are the kind of thing that make me act spontaneously better. For example, if I am deeply patient person because the Holy Spirit is at work in me and you say something that irritates me, I will spontaneously respond more kindly than if I am an impatient person.

So what are you praying for? For newness. I need the Holy Spirit. I need to be more loving, more joyful, more patient, more kind, more good, more self-controlled. Work on me, Holy Spirit. Take over and make me new. New so that I don’t just think right thoughts about the will of God, I love the will of God so deeply that I spontaneously respond to people in a godly way when I am not even thinking about it. That this how deeply we need to be renewed.

In closing: How does the Holy Spirit do that? It is not magic. 2 Corinthians 3:18: “We all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed.” You could translate that or paraphrase it: “Being renewed, we all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord.” That happens here in the gospel especially. “We all with unveiled face beholding the glory, the beauty, the radiance of the Lord are being renewed from one degree of glory to another.”

That is how the Holy Spirit does it. The Holy Spirit was sent into the world to magnify Jesus Christ off the pages of this book so that looking at Christ, at his glory and his beauty we would be changed into his likeness so that when I turn now to live my afternoon, there is a more natural, free inner spontaneous doing of the will of God.