Book Review: The Christian’s Guide to Guidance, by Jay Adams
In his book The Christian’s Guide to Guidance, Jay Adams sets out to convince the reader that guidance from God is to be sought only from His infallible Word, the Bible. The book’s subtitle is “How to Make Biblical Decisions in Everyday Life.” It’s a good description of the book’s thesis. Adams’s goal is to take the question of guidance, or of God’s will, and boil it down to a very simple proposition: God’s will is revealed to us solely through the Bible, and the whole meaning of God’s will for us as Christians is to conform our lives to its standard. Adams especially wants to warn Christians away from erroneous ideas of guidance like “impressions, promptings and checks in the spirit, etc.” (41) Even more, he also warns Christians against looking for divine guidance through the advice of others, circumstances, reason, a sense of peace, or even prayer (in the sense that we listen for some sort of personal, even audible, answer from God to our prayers). I am in agreement with the force of Adams’s major argument, that when we want to be sure of God’s will for us, we should look solely to the Scriptures. Nevertheless, I have some points to raise about it. Let me first explain his argument and then make some other comments.
Adams’s argument is built on his understanding of revelation, especially his understanding from I Corinthians 13 that all prophetic and direct, subjective guidance would come to an end with the coming of the New Testament scriptures. What he means is that Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the minds of His people into all knowledge, but “of course, what we are talking about is God directing those whom He specially set apart for the work of founding His church,” (21). The promises of direct guidance, Adams argued, were not for us today to claim as our own. On the contrary, it was only in those days, and only to certain people, that God gave direct, prophetic guidance.
When the apostle and other prophets like Luke, Mark, etc. completed their work of revealing God’s truth to us by writing the Books of the New Testament, the revelatory foundation had been laid. All else would be built on that. It is true that God raised up other prophets in the early church who guided God’s congregation before the time when the complete will of God had been codified in written form. These prophets only prophesied in part (i.e. about particular issues concerning their own congregations) but their partial prophecies were to be set aside as incomplete when the complete revelation of God would come. Plainly, this is the intent of I Corinthians 13:9-10. (21)
With the completion of the New Testament and the closing of the canon of scripture, there is no reason to expect that kind of direct, prophetic guidance today. God’s will for our lives is contained in the Bible, and it is error to look anywhere else. The point is made more sharp in Chapter Six, “Well, then, How CAN I Know?” where Adams turns to show that even everyday life decisions can be made according to the principles laid down in the Scriptures. He cites II Peter 1:3-4 and concludes, “If He has already given you everything necessary for life and godliness (that is, to find eternal life and to live in a way pleasing to Him), why would you seek more data?” (60-61). Later in the book, he writes, “II Peter 1:3 says that God has given us everything necessary for life and godliness. Now, you must believe that or I can go no further with you. . . . Those who want something more make a serious mistake; they deny what Peter says is true,” (72). Therefore, the Bible is sufficient to guide us through every decision we will need to make. Of course, “the Bible doesn’t mention every conceivable decision anyone might make,” (73). But it does lay down very many and very useful principles that we can use to ensure that our whole lives are within the preceptive will of God. Adams understands that the Bible does not, indeed cannot, speak to every situation of our lives directly. It does, though, speak to them all indirectly. That is Adams’s point—“We must discover what is in the Bible and how to apply it to decision-making situations,” (74). He then goes on to enumerate several principles that can be of help in determining God’s will for specific situations.
As I said, I am largely in agreement with Adams’s argument. Because we are sinful, fallen human beings who are adept at deceiving even ourselves, it is exceedingly dangerous for us to claim any certainty that an impression we have is a prompting from God. Many people have been led by such “promptings” to do ridiculous or even horrendous things. The Bible, therefore, is absolutely the only trustworthy source of guidance in our lives. But it is exactly to my use of that word “trustworthy,” I think, that Jay Adams would object. I imagine he would want to delete it and have that last sentence read more like, The Bible is absolutely the only source of guidance in our lives, period. Here is where Adams is his most provocative. Other authors like J.I Packer (Finding God’s Will, also reviewed on this site)would say that God does indeed lead His people directly and subjectively, but that we can never entirely trust those impressions as being from God. Adams, on the other hand, wants to shut the door entirely on that kind of guidance. He would say that such direct and subjective guidance simply does not happen.
It is here that I would raise some questions about Adams’s thesis. My questions come from what might be considered an obscure area of theology—the role of prophecy in the New Testament. It’s not a simple question, but it is one that is very relevant to this discussion. If New Testament prophecy is a category for modern Christians, then it cannot be said, as Adams does, that God does not subjectively and directly reveal Himself to His children. At any rate, it opens the door a little more widely on that discussion.
Of course, the entire conversation pivots on Adams’s interpretation of I Corinthians 13. If that passage refers to the closing of the New Testament canon, then there is no prophecy anymore, and we have no need to worry about the nature of it. I can understand the energy with which Adams presents this view. It has to do with the absolute finality of the Scriptures. If prophecy happens today, then why don’t these latter day prophets simply write down their prophecies and include them in the canon? That’s a valid concern if New Testament prophecy is exercised with the same authority as it was in the Old (or if you’ve ever had a conversation with a Mormon). I will argue in a moment, though, that it should not be viewed with that kind of authority at all. On I Corinthians 13, though, I cannot so firmly say that that chapter is talking about the closing of the New Testament canon, however many godly men have come to that very conclusion. The main reason for my hesitation is that the “perfection” that Paul talks about seems to look forward to a day when our knowledge will be comparable to God’s knowledge of us—v.12b, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” The whole rhetorical force of the passage is such that it demands a greater leap in the maturity of the church (from infancy to manhood [v.11], from looking in a mirror to seeing face-to-face [v.12]) than we witness at the point when the New Testament was completed. As a result, my position is that the “perfection” in I Corinthians 13 is most likely the second coming of Christ. Adams argues in a footnote that “There is nothing about the second coming in these verses,” (22). In answer, I will only quote Don Carson: “Then, when perfection comes, “we shall see face to face”—almost a formula in the Septuagint for a theophany, and therefore almost certainly a reference to the new state brought about by the parousia [second coming],” (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 71).
In the same footnote, Adams makes the interesting point that I Corinthians 13 cannot be referring to the second coming because “If it did refer to Christ’s return, hope would not remain.” On that line of reasoning, of course, neither would faith. But again I quote Carson: “It is true that there is a sense in which hope is no longer needed once eternity dawns. But that is not the only sense of hope: in I Corinthians 15:19, for instance, Paul writes, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.” Presumably in one sense Paul expects hope to continue beyond this life in the continued enjoyment of that for which we hoped; for there is a sense in which hope is not merely the anticipation of the blessings to come, an anticipation no longer needed once those blessings have arrived, but a firm anchor in Christ himself.” The same argument can be made for faith also. As Carson says, “Will there be any time in the next fifty billion years (if I may speak of eternity in the categories of time) during which the very basis of my presence in the celestial courts will be something other than faith in the grace of God?” (both quotes from Carson, 74-75).
(Since I have already quoted him perhaps more than is seemly, I should say here that if you are reading this review with interest, you should immediately buy Don Carson’s Showing the Spirit. The book is a masterful exegesis of I Corinthians 12-14, and perhaps the most immediately clarifying book on any issue that I have ever read (though that probably tells you more about me than it does about the book!). Another very useful book, and in my mind a kind of companion to Carson’s, is Wayne Grudem’s Prophecy in the New Testament and Today. Grudem’s book is a broader look at prophecy as it appears throughout the New Testament, and the implications of it for today.)
If I Corinthians 13, then, does not slam the door on modern prophecy, how are we to understand it and the way it functions? Are these New Testament prophecies to be treated with the same reverence, as having the same authority, as the prophecies did which came from Isaiah or Jeremiah? Is the prophecy in I Corinthians 14 to be considered in the same category as the prophecy of the Old Testament? Adams argues that it must be, or else the whole enterprise is absurd:
Does God give us direct revelation that we cannot know as such? If so, of what value is it? When the partial revelation given to the early congregations came, everyone knew it was from God because it was spoken by a prophet. When Peter and Paul received revelations from an angel, from a vision or from the Lord Jesus Himself, there was no doubt about it. Are we to think, then, that the discerning of what is God’s will today will be less definite? We affirm the opposite: God’s will is unequivocally known to be such. . . . For [God’s] children not to know how to determine what is God’s revelatory will, or how to access it, is preposterous. When God sets forth His revelatory guidance, He intends us to know and to follow it. He does not hide it from His children. He does not confuse it with something else; He presents it to them complete and clear.” (27)
I would like to raise some questions about this. Is it really true that if it is revelation, it will be “unequivocally known to be such?” I’m not sure that is the case, especially when we are talking about the New Testament version of prophecy. Let me explain myself. In the Old Testament, Adams is right, a prophet was known undoubtedly to be speaking the words of God. If a prophet spoke, Israel listened. And if a man claimed to be a prophet and gave one single prophecy that was wrong, he was to be killed! It was that serious. In the New Testament, though, the bar does not seem to be quite so high. Prophets do not seem to have been afforded the kind of unquestioned obedience that they were in the Old Testament. In fact, the prophecies that New Testament prophets gave were subject to the judgment of the church—something that would never have happened in the Old Testament. In I Corinthians 14:29, Paul instructs the church, “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.” Unless I am mistaken, the “weighing” that Paul commands is a determination as to whether or not a given prophecy is really from the Lord. The congregation is to consider whether or not a certain prophecy lines up with what they have been taught, even if that prophecy comes from the mouth of one who is known as a “prophet.” At the very least, it would seem that Adams pushes too far in saying that in the early congregation, everyone knew these prophecies were from God. There seems to have been more doubt than Adams suggests. In addition, the next verse continues, “And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.” Here, Paul calls these prophecies “revelation,” and yet at the same time he says that some of these “revelations” may never be heard by the church at all! The words a New Testament prophet has to say may be “revelation,” but they are not so important that they absolutely must be heard. In other words, they are not anywhere near the level of authority that we see in the Old Testament. If all this is true, then Adams should not say that God’s will is “unequivocally known to be such”—Paul seems to teach here that New Testament prophecy is somewhat uncertain and needs to be “weighed.”
Let’s back away now from the theological wrangling. Even given these differences between my theological conclusions and Jay Adams’s theological conclusions, I am not sure that our positions will practically work out at all differently. First, both of us believe in the absolute finality of the Scriptures in making decisions. There is our authority, and it is on the precepts of the Bible that we must operate. Second, both of us agree that there are some situations where the principles of the Bible will not lock-in our decisions. There will be times when two or more mutually exclusive options are permissible under the biblical guidelines. Third, we would agree that our desires and personal judgment are decisive in such cases. If a man would rather wear a red tie than a blue one, fine. “God expect[s] him to use his own judgment about the matter,” Adams says (77). Finally, I think we would both agree that in situations like these, God is ultimately sovereign even over our desires. Whether or not one chooses to call it “guidance,” it is God who gives us an inclination to red over blue. This point is made very clear in Adams’s example of a young man deciding whether or not to go into full-time ministry, “He will look within,” Adams says, “as he is investigating these matters, to see if there is a growing desire to take up this task (Does he aspire to the work? Cf. I Timothy 3:1),” (78). If that aspiration is there, and he is recognized by the church to have the requisite gifts and finally ends up in the ministry, then surely we will agree in saying that it was God who gave that young man the desire to minister.
As a book that underscores strongly the absolute authority and finality of the Bible, Jay Adams is good. It is clear that he is zealous for encouraging Christians to base their lives and their decisions squarely on its precepts. I am in whole-hearted agreement. The Bible is the only infallible and undoubtedly trustworthy guide that is available to us. Our feelings, sensings, promptings, and even New Testament prophecy itself (if it remains today) are subject to question. The Bible is not. Nevertheless, the several theological and exegetical points discussed above constrain me to keep the door at least cracked open (though warily) on the modern existence of subjective guidance from God.
This is worth a bit more explanation. Why shouldn’t Christians treat prayer as a way of seeking guidance from God? Adams’s contention is that many people have the mistaken notion that prayer is conversational, that “when you pray, you must be still and listen for some sort of answer from God,” (32). Adams answers this idea by asking, “Where does the Bible speak of prayer as conversational? Conversations, of course, are reciprocal. But prayer in Scripture is always represented as man addressing God; never are we told to listen for an answer in prayer,” (33). I think he’s right; what we are told to listen for is the voice of God, the law of God that gives to us, and that is in the Bible. So what is the use of prayer? Adams says, “To discover the Lord’s will you should pray for help to understand and use the Bible in a proper way. It should be prayer for ability and strength to do whatever you discover God wants of you as you study the Scriptures,” (34).
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