A common question of modern Christians concerns how we should seek God’s guidance in our decisions. A popular view holds that God has an “individual will” for all or most of our decisions that we must discover lest we “miss God’s best” for us. This individual will is thought to be discerned through circumstances, advice, biblical pointers, and/or impressions.
Is this a correct paradigm for understanding Christian decision making? Decision making is a major theme in the book of Acts, and it is the purpose of this paper to explore that theme. An analysis of how the apostles and early church made decisions obviously has major bearings on how Christians should understand decision making today. Hence, after evaluating our findings in the book of Acts, we will briefly compare them to the wider New Testament teaching on the issue and then close by drawing some initial implications for the Christian life.
4 Key Passages in Acts on Significant Decisions
We will undertake our study of decision making in Acts by first discussing four key passages relating to decisions and then making some general observations on the sweep of the book as a whole, after which we will draw some conclusions. The four passages we will discuss are Acts 1:23-36; 6:1-6; 15:1-35; 16:6-11.
In this text we see the apostles selecting a replacement for Judas. Their means of selecting the replacement is to put forward two men, pray for God’s will to be done, and cast lots. In the spirit of Proverbs 16:33, the decision of the lot was rightly viewed not as an act of chance, but as an act of providence.
Some have argued the apostles were wrong to choose a replacement for Judas. They point to the fact that Paul was later appointed as an apostle, and hence is presumably Judas’ replacement instead. However, there is nothing in the text that indicates that Luke disapproved of the apostles’ action. The apostles cited Scriptural support for replacing Judas (see v. 20: ‘His office let another man take’), bathed their decision and prayer, and overall proceeded in an atmosphere of godly submission to the Lord.
Provided that the disciples were acting correctly here, we then have the question of what this tells us about the apostles’ decision making. At maximum, this passage seems to tell us that in especially significant times of decision (not many decisions are more important than the replacement of an apostle), they specifically sought direct divine guidance. The special redemptive-historical significance of this event cannot tell us anything about how the apostles made ordinary, every day decisions.
In this text we see the apostles responding to a disruption in the community. The Hellenistic Jews complained that “their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food” (6:1). This situation seems to fall into the category of ordinary decision making. Nothing redemptive historical or unique is going on. An everyday problem has arisen.
How do the apostles deal with it? They delegate the task: “It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. But select from among you, brethren, seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” It is noteworthy that there was no seeking of direct divine guidance, or even a vague comment that they would “pray about it” and see how they felt the Lord was “leading.” They simply state that the congregation is to choose for themselves men to see to it that the Hellenistic Jewish widows receive their serving of food.
Although this is an ordinary decision, it is significant that the apostle’s stated that those chosen for the task be “full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” One might have been tempted to think that this task was so insignificant as to require no spiritual qualifications at all. But the counsel of the apostles underscores the importance that all things be done in an attitude of faith, dependence upon God, and wisdom.
The situation recounted in this text provided the apostles with a unique challenge. Certain men were teaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation (15:1). The local church that was exposed first to these teachers decided to send Paul and Barnabas to the apostles concerning the issue (v. 2).
Significantly, the response of the apostles was to “come together to look into this matter” (v. 6) and debate it—“after there had been much debate, Peter stood up…” (v. 7). They did not seek a direct word or vision from the Lord in answer to this very important question. Instead, they discussed it among themselves—most certainly seeking to discern the teaching of the Scriptures and implications of the gospel as the basis of their authority.
As the discussion continued to progress, they eventually came to one mind. They wrote a letter, sending it with men they chose, explaining to the Gentles that they do not need to follow the Jewish ceremonial law in order to be saved. Verse 25 underscores that their conclusion was not directly revealed, but reached through the very normal activities of discussion and reflection: “It seemed good to us, having become of one mind, to select men to send to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (v. 25). Verse 28 also states: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials…”
Does the reference to the decision seeming “good” not only to the apostles but “to the Holy Spirit” indicate that it was actually directly revealed to them? It would not seem so, for Luke has laid out for us the specific process by which they came to their decision. There is no indication that it was directly revealed. Rather, the indication is that they came to their conclusion based upon Scripture. It is likely that it is through Scripture, then, that they know their conclusion seemed good to the Holy Spirit. In addition, this statement may be intended to indicate a providential oversight that caused them to make the correct decision. But a providential oversight is much different from arriving at a conclusion by discerning the mind of God through direct channels of communication, such as impressions or, as earlier, the casting of lots.
This passage gives an account of certain of Paul’s missionary travels. In verse 6 we learn that Paul and his companions were passing through Phrygia and Galatia because they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” After arriving in Mysia, they tried “to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them” (v. 7). They then came into Troas, where they received a vision of a man from Macedonia. Upon seeing this vision, they sought to go to Macedonia, “concluding that God had called [them] to preach the gospel to them” (v. 10).
At first glance, this passage gives the impression of extensive direct guidance in the life of Paul. However, upon a closer look it becomes apparent that almost all of the initiative here is Paul’s. He does not seek specific divine guidance for his decisions; he just makes them. Having been forbidden to speak in Asia, he didn’t ask where he should go instead; he just passed through Phrygia and Galatia and then tried to go into Bithynia. When Jesus did not permit them to go there either, Paul and his companions did not stop to directly ask Jesus where they should go instead, but rather went into Traos. It is in Traos that they did indeed receive direct and explicit guidance to go to Macedonia. But it is noteworthy that Paul’s “acting on his own” by taking initiative as to where he went is not looked down upon. There is never any indication that Paul should have been seeking explicit guidance; it just came—first in the form of prohibitions to go certain places, and finally in the form of a call to a particular place.
We see in this text, then, an example of God giving direct guidance; but the pattern here is one of making one’s own decisions, in which God may then spontaneously intrude to override. Paul combined “strategic planning and keen sensitiveness to the guidance of the Spirit of God.” God’s specific directions here are intrusions, not sought after by Paul. Further, it is crucial to note that Paul’s situation here was of tremendous significance to the spreading of the gospel. It was a historic decision that would shape the way the gospel would spread and unfold in the ancient world. The divine intrusion was not concerning small, ordinary matters here, or simply concerning a “mere” trip, but rather concerned issues integral to the evangelistic outworking of Paul’s ministry. Further, it is also important to note that Paul and Silas were both prophets, and hence played a unique role in the establishing of the church and had a unique gift that is not common to all Christians.
Since we do affirm that God did act directly in this passage, it is not necessary to draw definitive conclusions as to the means through which God communicated his will. In verses 9-10 the means is clear: a vision. (Of course, even then God did not explicitly state where they should go; rather, he implied it and Paul and his companions “concluded” from it that God was calling them to Macedonia.) But the previous two instances do not indicate the means. We simply read that they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia” (v. 6) and that “the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them” to go into Bithynia (v. 7). As Polhill points out, “the medium of the Spirit’s revelation is not given,” but that is not of great concern because “the important point is that [Paul] was stopped. God had other plans for him at the time.”
In the absence of a clear indication of how God communicated these things to Paul, we need to be careful not to unthinkingly impose our presuppositions into the text—such as that Paul was guided by an internal impression. That is possible, but it is just as reasonable that the means of divine communication were more objective. No inference can be made either way (although the emphasis upon prophecy in Acts would possibly indicate that prophetic revelation was the mean).
Having looked at four key texts in Acts, we can now supplement our study by making some wider, more general observations on the whole complex of passages in Acts relating to decision making. In this regard, Gregory Koukl has done excellent research classifying the passages in Acts in which God gave personal direction.
Koukl finds 16 total instances. Two were before Pentecost: Jesus told his disciples to wait for the Spirit (Acts 1:4) and the apostles cast lots to replace Judas (1:24-26). The remaining fourteen were after Pentecost: two were jailbreaks (5:19-20; 12:7-8), two were at Saul’s conversion (9:4-6; 10-16), two concerned Cornelius’ conversion (10:3-6; 19-20), two concerned the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion (8:26, 29), two concerned Paul’s persistence to Jerusalem (21:4; 22:18-21), and four concerned Paul’s missionary journeys (13:2; 16:6-7, 9-10; 18:9-10).
The means of revelation in these cases consisted of: visions (5), angelic appearances (3), “the Spirit” (2 or 3), prophecy (1 or 2), the audible voice of Christ (1), and no indication (1). The recipients of these visions were: Paul (7), Peter (2), Philip (2), “the apostles” (1), Cornelius (1), and Ananias (1).
Aside from the 16 instances of direct divine guidance, Koukl finds more than 70 instances in Acts of decisions “that were not supernaturally directed.” Some examples are the followers selling of their property (2:44-45), Peter’s healing of the lame man (3:1-10), sending Barnabas to Antioch (11:22), Paul’s fleeing to Lycaonia to preach (14:6-7), Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica (17:1), Paul’s decision to devote himself “full time” to preaching and ministry (18:5), Paul’s third missionary journey (18:23), Paul’s visiting the disciples in Tyre (21:4), and Paul’s setting up of his ministry in Rome (28:30-31).
The comparison between the instances of special divine guidance and decisions made apart from direct guidance suggests the following things:
- God did not ordinarily give direct guidance to the apostles and believers in Acts.
- When God did give direct guidance, it was intrusive and spontaneous. The believers did not seek direct guidance for their decisions, but rather as a rule acted in accord with what they deemed wise or, when Scripture directly applied, what the Scriptures required.
- When direct guidance did come, it was through supernatural means and not an ambiguous “still small voice” or impression. It is possible that in the two cases where the means is unspecified that it was an impression, but there is no reason or basis for concluding that it was—especially since nothing akin to an “impression” is ever mentioned in Acts, but means of divine communication such as prophecy are.
- When direct guidance did come, it was in situations of key significance for the establishing of the early church and the shape of its mission.
- When direct guidance did come, it was to those playing a unique, key role in the establishment of the early church. Most often it was to an apostle; on 2 occasions it was to Philip—both in regard to his highly strategic encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch which established the presence of the gospel in new territory; in 1 case it was to Ananias in regard to Paul’s conversion; and in 1 case it was to Cornelius, another significant step in the outworking of the fulfillment of God’s plan to reach Jews, Gentiles, and the ends of the earth with the gospel.
The Wider NT Teaching
The thrust of these findings in Acts is echoed in the rest of the NT. For example, Paul sent Epaphroditus to the Philippians not because the Lord led him to, but because he “thought it necessary” (Philippians 2:25). Likewise, he sent Timothy to the Thessalonians because they “thought it best” (1 Thessalonians 3:1).
In the all-important decision of whom (or whether) to marry, Paul indicates that the Christian should have no expectation of direct guidance. It is not necessary, for he explicitly tells us that God has granted us the freedom to marry anybody we want, in the Lord: “A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39); “If any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she should be of full age, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry” (1 Corinthians 7:36).
None of this is to say that we do not need to be concerned with making godly decisions. It is, rather, that the popular individual will model has gone wrong in its definition of what a godly decision is. A godly decision is one that is biblical, not one to which we feel God has directly led us. God has given us freedom to choose what we want (in accord with what is wise and expedient) whenever we have more than one option which is moral and not in violation of any Scriptural teaching. This is tremendously liberating, but even more so forces us to become responsible and wise.
Applications for Today
We mentioned above that on the surface, the book of Acts may appear to give support to the popular doctrine of an “individual will” in God that every believer must consult before making any, or most, decisions. But upon deeper examination, we have seen that the book of Acts, in accord with the wider NT as well, seems to strongly reject this viewpoint. Hence, there are four specific applications that can be drawn concerning how we should make decisions today.
First, there is no indication in the life of the early church, as recorded in Acts, that God regularly gave direct guidance. To be sure, He did do so at various times. But the regular pattern was to make decisions on one’s own—informed, certainly, by biblical principles.
Second, there is no indication in the life of the early church, as recorded in Acts, that when God did give direct guidance it would be to what we will call “ordinary” Christians. Rather, we see God giving his direct guidance to the key players in the establishment of the early church and its mission—Peter, Paul, Phillip, and so forth.
Third, we see no indication in the life of the early church, as recorded in Acts, that when God gives direct guidance, he does so through impressions, a “still small voice,” or some other hard-to-discern form of communication. It is ironic that it is precisely these forms that are regarded as the standard means of communication of the individual will today. One must wonder if that is because such things seem “spiritual enough” to be passed off as originating from God but are still common enough to exist in the absence of real direct communication from God. According to our study, when God gave direct communication in the early church it was through manifestly supernatural means: visions, prophecies, real voices (not “still, small voices”), and angels. There is no reason for thinking that direct communication would come in ordinary, non-supernatural ways.
Fourth, we see no indication in the life of the early church, as recorded in Acts, that God gives direct guidance concerning “minor” decisions. Every situation bringing forth direct revelation was related to a uniquely significant event in the establishment of the church and establishment of the trajectory upon which the gospel would spread.
The conclusion to which the book of Acts and the life of the early church leads us is that the popular notion that we must seek direct guidance from God for our decisions is incorrect. It is possible that God might communicate directly with someone today. However, direct guidance should not be specifically sought. If it comes, it will come unexpectedly and on God’s sole initiative. Further, there is no reason to think it will ever be given in regard to the normal course of everyday human decisions. The biblical pattern seems to be that we first of all make decisions that accord with biblical commands and that, when two or more options accord with biblical teaching on God’s moral will, we are free to choose whichever one we want.
- Polhill notes: “The meaning seems to be that they assigned lots for them. The method was likely the one depicted in the Old Testament. Marked stones were placed in a jar and shaken out. The one whose stone fell out first was chosen (cf. 1 Chr 26:13f)” (John Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2001], 95).
- F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 306.
- See Bruce, 307.
- Polhill, Acts, 344. Bruce, however, speculates that the means of revelation in verse 6 was possibly a prophetic utterance at Lystra (Bruce, 306).
- Gregory Koukl, “Divine Direction and Decision Making in the Book of Acts,” STR Online, www.str.org/free/studies/direction.htm; accessed 15 April 2003.
- Koukl points out that there were also five instances of “supernatural predictions which were not directive”: Acts 11:27-30; 20:23; 21:11; 23:11; 27:22-26.
- The one exception is the choosing of the twelfth disciple. However, we know that one of the qualifications of apostleship is to have been chosen directly by the Lord himself. That would explain why the apostles specifically sought the Lord’s explicit direction in replacing Judas.