God’s Plumb Line (Revised Edition) Chapter 1

Chapter 1
Discerning the Will of God
What does the Bible say about discerning the will of God?
The apostle Paul made a very clear statement about discerning the will of God in his letter to the churches of Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, emphasis added).
Let’s unpack what Paul wrote.
Paul’s primary thought is about transformation, specifically the transformation of our lives. Our interest—discerning the will of God—is the natural outcome of this transformation process.
Paul’s language—“be transformed”—indicates this transformation is not something we do but rather is something that is done to us and in us—“be transformed.” This transformation is the work of the Spirit in our lives, growing us up into the likeness of Christ. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “All of us . . . are being transformed into the same image [i.e., the image of Christ] from one degree of glory to another; for this [transformation] comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). The transformation of our lives is a Spirit-guided, Spirit-orchestrated process.
This transformation process occurs through what Paul called “the renewing of your minds.” This phrase refers to how we think as opposed to what we think. What we think is the content of our thoughts. How we think refers to the process we used to arrive at that content. “The renewing of your minds” suggests that our lives are transformed as we learn a new or different way of thinking. The Spirit teaches us this different way of thinking.
“The renewing of your minds” stands in contrast to the exhortation with which the verse begins: “[d]o not be conformed to this world.” J. B. Phillips, noted Greek scholar of another generation, translated this phrase as “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its mold.” The original Greek verb, an imperative, carries the idea “stop!” Thus, Paul’s meaning was, “Stop letting the world squeeze you into its mold” (personal translation). Paul understood the world had already squeezed his readers into its mold by training them how to think. Since the world had trained them how to think, they naturally followed the ways of the world. (How we think shapes how we live.) Similarly, by training us how to think, the world has shaped us, fashioning us in its image.
The Spirit’s transformation of our lives involves a two-step process that is reflected in Paul’s two exhortations. The first step is learning a new way of thinking under the guidance of the Spirit—“be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” The second step involves moving beyond how the world trained us to think and live—“stop being conformed to this world.” In other words, the transformation of our lives by the Spirit is an ongoing process of learning and unlearning. As we learn the ways of God that Jesus taught, the Spirit leads us beyond the way the world trained us to think. Thinking shaped by the character of God and the ways of God displaces the way the world trained us to think.
Phillips captured the idea of Paul’s words in his translation of the verse: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its mold, but let God re-make you so that your whole attitude of mind is changed.”
Discerning the will of God, according to Paul, is only possible when we learn to think in a way other than the way the world trained us to think. A different way of thinking, one taught to us by the Spirit, is required.
Paul’s thought about these two different ways of thinking is reflected in his other writings. In his letter to the church at Corinth, he contrasted the wisdom of the world with the wisdom of God. He taught the Corinthians that the wisdom of God is taught to us by the Spirit who searches the deep things of God and thus knows the heart of God.
No one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:11b–16, emphasis added)
The contrast between the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of God is underscored by Paul’s assertion that the wisdom of God seems like foolishness to the world because it is “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). A different way of thinking (i.e., thinking taught and guided by the Spirit) is a prerequisite to recognizing the wisdom of God.
Being taught the wisdom of God by the Spirit results in us having “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). The mind of Christ refers to Spirit-guided thinking shaped by the character of God and the ways of God. It is what Paul refers to as “the renewing of the mind.” Thinking shaped by the character of God and the ways of God displaces the way the world trained us to think and positions us to discern the will of God.
The writer of the Colossian letter echoed Paul’s thinking. The author linked knowing the will of God with thinking that is guided by the Spirit, what he called “all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. (Colossians 1:9–10, emphasis added)
Being filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, that is, being trained by the Spirit to think with the mind of Christ, is what enables us to know the will of God. Again, this Spirit-given wisdom stands in contrast to how the world has trained us to think.
Notice that I speak of discerning the will of God rather than knowing the will of God. My language is intentional. Spirit-guided discernment leads to knowing of the will of God. Knowing the will of God—which is what we desire—is the fruit, the outcome, the end result of doing the hard work of discerning.
The word ”discerning” implies a process of exploring and thinking under the guidance of the Spirit—what I call thinking theologically. It assumes conversation with others in which their thinking is considered. It assumes the exploration of what the Bible has to say. It assumes prayer and being attuned to the Spirit.
This process can be seen in Acts 15 as the early church addressed the theological issue of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church. In their effort to resolve the conflict over the issue, the members of the council used debate in which opposing sides stated their positions (verse 7); the testimony of personal experience by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas (verses 7–12); and the consideration of scripture (verses 15–18), looking to the Spirit for guidance in the process. Their reliance on the Spirit is reflected in the statement the council wrote after reaching a conclusion. “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
Discernment is about how we think rather than what we think. Thinking under the guidance of the Spirit will lead us to what to think—what we understand to be the will of God.
Although they are our interest in this exploration, discerning and knowing the will of God are not the ultimate objectives. They are not the final step in the process. The process is not complete until, under the guidance of and in the power of the Spirit, we do the will of God we have discerned. In other words, our understanding of the will of God is to shape how we live, particularly how we relate to others. This ultimate objective is reflected in the Colossians text: “so that you may lead lives worth of the Lord, fully pleasing to him” (Colossians 1:10).
As Christians, we naturally look to the Bible in our desire to know the will of God. The Bible gives us the guidance we need regarding the will of God. While it does not necessarily tell us what the will of God is about every issue, it instructs us in how to discern the will of God in all things. That discernment grows within us as, under the guidance of the Spirit, we learn to think with the mind of Christ. Thinking shaped by the character of God and the ways of God is the key to discerning—and thereby knowing—the will of God.
So what is the character of God?


1 The tense of the verb is passive. When the verb tense is active, the subject does the acting. When it is passive—as in this case—the subject receives an action that is done by someone else.
2 For more about the Spirit’s work, see my book Life in the Spirit: Reflecting on the Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Lives (2022), available on my webpage, pastorstevelangford.com; the publisher Trafford.com; and other online sources.
3 J. B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972).
4 Many modern scholars do not attribute the authorship of Colossians to Paul.