Casting Lots

by Glenn Conjurske

The casting of lots is regarded with distrust and disfavor by modern Fundamentalism. Under the heading “GOD DOES NOT GUIDE BY CASTING LOTS IN THIS DISPENSATION,” R. A. Torrey says, “In Acts l:24-26 we learn that the Apostles sought guidance in a choice of one to take the place of Judas, by the lot. This method of finding God’s will was common in the Old Testament times, but it belongs entirely to the old dispensation. This is the last case on record. It was never used after Pentecost. We need to-day no such crude way of ascertaining the will of God, as we have the Word and the Spirit at our disposal.” This statement may be regarded as typical.

No doubt the casting of lots may easily be given a place which does not belong to it, and withal it is subject to much abuse, yet I believe it is an abuse of dispensationalism to use it thus to sweep away a doctrine of the Scriptures with one stroke. I certainly agree that the casting of lots is not to be used in general to determine the will of God in this dispensation, but neither was it in the former dispensation. It is true also that there is no instance in the Scriptures of casting lots after Pentecost, but it is also true that there is no instance of it before the giving of the law. We, it is said, have the word and the Spirit. Yes, but Enoch and Noah and Abraham had them not, and yet they cast no lots, so far as it is recorded in Scripture. This argument from the silence of Scripture of itself proves nothing. It is true that while Achan was exposed by the lot in the old dispensation, Ananias and Sapphira were exposed without it in the new, and yet no Fundamentalist alive would lay claim to the powers by which Peter exposed them.

That the practice of casting lots is sanctioned by Scripture can hardly be questioned. God himself prescribed the casting of lots in certain instances. For example, “The land shall be divided by lot: according to the names of the tribes of their fathers they shall inherit. According to the lot shall the possession thereof be divided between many and few.” (Num. 26:55-56). This was the commandment of God, and Joshua divided the land according to this injunction. Joshua also found out Achan by the casting of lots, not once, but four times, and each time the Lord answered unerringly by the lot. Samuel cast lots (I Sam. 10:20-21) to establish Saul as the first King over Israel. And this is a very interesting case, for it is plain that Samuel did not cast lots in order to discover who should be king. He already knew that. The Lord had revealed it to him before, and he had already anointed Saul to be king. Why then did he cast lots? Evidently to make known the Lord’s choice to the people. If Samuel had himself made known to the people that Saul was to be king, the people would have murmured against Samuel for every dissatisfaction which they felt with Saul—-even though they had said to Samuel “make us a king.” By casting lots, Samuel put the matter out of his own hands, and established the fact that it was God, and not he, who had chosen Saul. Likewise, when Joshua divided the land to Israel by lot. No one could complain of their lot to Joshua, for it was the Lord’s doing.

And this is the one use of lots which the Scriptures specifically indicate. “The lot causeth contentions to cease, and parteth between the mighty.” (Prov. 18:18). In the lot, both of the contending parties, or both of the aspirants to some good thing, submit the matter to God, and allow him to settle between them. Neither of them can then blame the other. This assumes, of course, that the disposing of the lot is actually in the hands of God, and that both of the contending parties so regard it. That it is altogether proper to so regard it is plain, for Scripture also says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” (Prov. 16:33). This was obviously so in Jonah’s case, though they were heathens who cast the lots.

This much being established, it remains to raise up some cautions concerning the casting of lots. Though there are cases where the casting of lots is proper, those cases are rare, and the temptation may be to use the lot where it has no business at all. This may be a strong temptation with some, for the casting of lots is an easy way to determine matters, and by it we may totally set aside the exercise of the reason, conscience, love, and humility which ought to govern us in disputes, and guide us in private matters. Were we to determine matters in general by the casting of lots, we might wholly dispense with Solomon’s earnest exhortation, “Therefore get wisdom, and with all thy getting get understanding.” (Prov. 4:7). Were we ordinarily to determine the will of God by the casting of lots, this would largely set aside any need for the Bible, or any need to search and know it. What need were there for any of this, if we have always a direct appeal to God ready at hand?

But it is not so. In the course of our lives we are all of us faced with many and grave decisions, and yet the Scriptures do not advise us to cast lots, but to do right, to walk in love, to be wise, to be circumspect, to walk in humility, and many such like things. If we are willing to set aside all of this, and resort to the easy way of casting lots to ascertain the will of God, we have no reason to expect or believe that God will answer us by the lot, or endorse our laziness or presumption. It may remain true that “The lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord,” but if we have departed so far from the ways of the Lord as to adopt the casting of lots as an easy substitute for the means which God has ordained, he may so dispose the lot as to teach us our folly. Alas, the lesson may be a long and painful one.

An awfully solemn case of this appears in William Grimshaw, an English clergyman who was a close coadjutor of Wesley in the work of Methodism. As a young man he was bereft (by death) of two wives in succession. Being burning, as was natural, for a wife, and continually tempted by the women with whom he must have contact, he cast lots to determine whether he should marry again. The lot said, “No.” Therefore he must go on year after year fighting, and with little success, against that God-implanted and burning desire, which belonged to his nature, and which could not be rooted out. He went to bed late and rose early, travelled constantly, preached thirty times a week, prayed and vowed, and vowed and prayed, yet he could not root out this burning. Now the plain fact is, it was a very great mistake for Grimshaw to cast lots concerning such a matter. God had already spoken. God had already said, “To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and every woman have her own husband.” God had already said, “It is better to marry than to burn.” What business, then, has a man who is thus burning to ask of God whether he should marry? If God has prescribed that every man should have his own wife, what business has any particular man to ask of God whether he should have one?

An equal or greater folly is to cast lots to determine whom we should marry, as John Wesley once did—-though many might as well cast lots, as to choose a partner the way they do. “Marriage is a lottery,” an old proverb says, and this is true enough when people marry without thoroughly knowing each other. But God never designed it that way. Yet many in our day are led astray by a false teaching to the effect that there is one “right one” whom God has designed (or created) to be their mate, and how to find that one and only “right one” is an enigma indeed. Fortunately, most men seem to have sense enough to figure out that the woman who ravishes his heart is the “right one,” but it would be no wonder if some were driven to cast lots to determine it. For the whole question, be it understood, resolves itself into What is the will of God for me in this matter? But God has already expressed his will, both in nature and in Scripture. What nature speaks on the subject is obvious to all. What Scripture says is, “she is at liberty to be married to whom she will, only in the Lord.” (I Cor. 7:39). It is the will of God, in other words, that you should marry whom you will—-someone, that is, who ravishes your heart and fulfills your dreams, for no one wills to marry any other sort. Beyond that, it is the expressed will of God that you marry someone of the proper character: “only in the Lord.” Now with such plain instructions before us, what occasion could there be to cast lots?

And so it is in general. God has revealed his mind and his will, though in such a manner as that it is not an easy matter for us to learn it. We learn it only by diligent study, by walking with God, by perfecting holiness in the fear of God, by humbling ourselves, by sufferings and afflictions, and by many other deep and difficult spiritual exercises. But man is very prone to substitute some quick and easy way for all of this. Some are guided by inward impressions, which they take to be the voice of God. “God told me” to do this or that, they say—-sometimes professing this of things which are directly contrary to the revealed will of God. The casting of lots, is subject to the same abuse, and may be used in the same way, and while it is sometimes legitimate, it ought to be used with the greatest of caution, only as a last resort, and never in some matters. We certainly ought never to cast lots to determine doctrinal truth. So much of the truth as God has chosen to reveal to us is revealed already, though it may be difficult of apprehension. To attempt to determine it by casting lots is to set aside the divine methods, and to tempt God.

So it is generally in matters of conduct. Though it may be legitimate in rare cases to cast lots to determine a specific step, it is certainly never legitimate to determine the principles of our conduct by casting lots. The early Methodists were much too free in the use of lots, evidently having learned the practice from the Moravians. Two famous instances of its use by John Wesley are thus related at length by George Whitefield, in his answer to Wesley’s sermon on free grace:

“When you was at Bristol, I think you received a letter from a private hand, charging you with not preaching the gospel, because you did not preach up election. Upon this you drew a lot: the answer was `preach and print.’ I have often questioned, as I do now, whether in so doing, you did not tempt the LORD. A due exercise of religious prudence, without a lot, would have directed you in that matter. Besides, I never heard that you enquired of GOD, whether or not election was a gospel doctrine? But I fear, taking it for granted, it was not, you only enquired, whether you should be silent, or preach and print against it? However this be, the lot came out `preach and print;’ accordingly you preached and printed against election. At my desire, you suppressed the publishing the sermon whilst I was in England; but soon sent it into the world after my departure. O that you had kept it in! However, if that sermon was printed in answer to a lot, I am apt to think, one reason, why GOD should so suffer you to be deceived, was, that hereby a special obligation might be laid upon me, faithfully to declare the scripture doctrine of election, that thus the LORD might give me a fresh opportunity of seeing what was in my heart, and whether I would be true to his cause or not; as you could not but grant, he did once before, by giving you such another lot at Deal. The morning I sailed from Deal for Gibralter, you arrived from Georgia. Instead of giving me an opportunity to converse with you, though the ship was not far off the shore; you drew a lot, and immediately set forwards to London. You left a letter behind you, in which were words to this effect. `When I saw GOD, by the wind which was carrying you out, brought me in, I asked counsel of GOD. His answer you have enclosed.’ This was a piece of paper, in which were written these words. `Let him return to London.’

“When I received this, I was somewhat surprized. Here was a good man telling me, he had cast a lot, and that GOD would have me return to London. On the other hand, I knew my call was to Georgia, and that I had taken leave of London, and could not justly go from the soldiers, who were committed to my charge. I betook myself with a friend to prayer. That passage in the first book of Kings, chap. 13. was powerfully impressed upon my soul, where we are told, `That the Prophet was slain by a lion, that was tempted to go back, (contrary to GOD’s express order) upon another Prophet’s telling him GOD would have him do so.’ I wrote you word, that I could not return to London. We sailed immediately. Some months after, I received a letter from you at Georgia, wherein you wrote words to this effect. `Though GOD never before gave me a wrong lot, yet, perhaps, he suffered me to have such a lot at that time, to try what was in your heart.’ I should never have published this private transaction to the world, did not the glory of GOD call me to it. It is plain you had a wrong lot given you here, and justly, because you tempted GOD in drawing one. And thus I believe it is in the present case. And if so, let not the children of GOD, who are mine and your intimate friends, and also advocates for universal redemption, think that doctrine true, because you preached it up in compliance with a lot given out from GOD.”

I believe Whitefield’s remarks upon the matter of his sailing to Georgia to be just. It may be regarded as presumptuous in Wesley to cast a lot concerning the conduct of another man, and at any rate, there was no call for it. He could have conversed with Whitefield, and the matter could have been decided on the basis of wisdom. As for the lot to preach and print against Calvinism, for Whitefield to say, “I never heard that you enquired of GOD, whether or not election was a gospel doctrine,” was little better than libelous, and as unbecoming as it was uncalled for, for, right or wrong, Wesley’s Arminian doctrines were certainly based upon his understanding of Scripture. But Whitefield was puffed up, and did not treat Wesley in this letter with the respect which he owed to him.

As to whether Wesley should preach and print his doctrine at that time, Whitefield’s observation, “A due exercise of religious prudence, without a lot, would have directed you in that matter,” appears to be sober and sound—-excepting only that there are other things besides prudence to be brought into the account. To suppose as some have done that Wesley determined his doctrine by the lot is foolishness, or bigotry. Nevertheless, the lot might be used by some in defense of the doctrine, and when Whitefield said, “let not the children of God, who are…advocates for universal redemption, think that doctrine true, because you preached it up in compliance with a lot given out from GOD,” this was sound and seasonable, and well spoken.

And this suggests another evil which may very naturally associate itself with the casting of lots. How did Whitefield know that Wesley had cast this lot? Evidently Wesley had told him so, or told others. And why would Wesley divulge such information? Evidently to defend his conduct in preaching and printing at that time against Calvinism. But here there lurks a very grave danger. How easy a thing, when we have cast a lot, to throw off upon God all the responsibility for our conduct, or the consequences of it, instead of taking that responsibility upon ourselves. Such matters ought to be determined by our wisdom, our zeal, our humility, our love of God and man—-in short, by all of the combined facets of our Christian character—-and the responsibility assumed by ourselves for our own decisions and our own conduct.

Some of the Mennonites have cast lots in order to choose their preachers, and I believe some of them still do. But how can this be justified, when God has so clearly marked out in the Scriptures the qualifications requisite for such men? If they were only choosing for a single post between two or more men equally qualified for it, as Peter did in choosing Matthias to the apostolate, the practice might appear to be harmless, but as a matter of fact, the lot has been used to thrust many unspiritual and even ungodly men into the ministry. Such a one was Martin Boehm, who grew up among the Mennonites in Pennsylvania. When a vacancy occurred in the pulpit, about the year 1757, the following took place: “The method of choosing a minister among the Mennonites was by lot. … Accordingly, when, after due nominations had been made, and much earnest prayer, the lot was cast for a successor in the pulpit of this early congregation, we can easily understand that the hearts of the people were filled with gladness when they saw that the choice fell upon the promising beloved young Martin Boehm.”

But promising as the young man was, he was ungodly. Yet herein we may see a signal example of the grace of God, bringing good out of men’s errors. “Under these circumstances he found himself presently under the greatest embarrassment and mortification. Again and again, according to the custom of this church, he arose to add an exhortation, after an older minister had preached, and found himself able only to stammer out a few incoherent sentences. He read diligently the Scriptures, that he might have something to say, but when the trial came his memory would not call up a single passage, and he was obliged to sit down in confusion. Some months passed in this way, with only failure to reward his efforts, and he began to be in despair. To be a preacher and have nothing to say he felt to be a deep reproach. Yet he did not doubt that he was genuinely called to the work of the ministry, because the church had laid its hands upon him after the divine order as understood by his people. He believed also fully in the efficacy of prayer, and he availed himself earnestly of this refuge of troubled souls. While he was thus engaged, he tells us, the thought presented itself to him as though one had audibly spoken, `You pray for grace to teach others the way of salvation, and you have not prayed for your own salvation.’ This thought clung to him day by day until he felt himself to be a poor, lost sinner. His agony, he says, now became very great. One day, he continues, when he was plowing in the field, he knelt down at each end of the furrow to pray. The word lost, lost (verlohren), went with him every round. At length, midway in the field he could go no farther; he sank down by his plow, and cried, `Lord, save; I am lost!”’ He received the divine answer of peace, and immediately began to preach the gospel in good earnest. The Mennonites, unwilling to have their dead religion thus stirred, eventually excommunicated him, and he, in association with Philip Otterbein, founded the Church of the United Brethren in Christ.

Yet it should be observed that the happy issue of this affair is no justification for making preachers by casting lots. Will any contend that we ought to make men ministers in order to convert them? The casting of lots has no place here.

Yet it is written, “The lot causeth contentions to cease,” and I am able to relate a most edifying instance of that very thing. At the first conference of the English Methodists after the death of Wesley, the Connexion was agitated by a very strong difference of opinion with regard to the ordinances of the church. Some were for what they called “the old plan” of adhering to the Church of England, and receiving the ordinances only from its ministers. Others were for receiving the ordinances in their own chapels from their own preachers. Both sides could plead a precedent from Wesley himself, and the feeling was very strong on both sides. “These differences of opinion in the Conference were strengthened by applications from the people; petitions and remonstrances were received from different parts of the kingdom; the debate grew warm; many feared these disputes would lead to a division in the Connexion; and, when no way of reconciliation presented itself, John Pawson proposed that `for the year’ the question should be decided by lot. This was agreed to, and some time was spent in earnest prayer to God for His guidance and blessing. The lot was then drawn by Adam Clarke, who, standing on the table, read it aloud: `You shall not give the sacrament this year.’ John Valton, who wrote an account of the proceeding, says, `His voice in reading it was like a voice from the clouds. A solemn awe rested on the assembly; and we could say, “The Lord is here, of a truth.” All were either satisfied, or submitted; and harmony and love returned.”’

Yet observe, there was no thought of settling the doctrine by this lot, nor of establishing any permanent ecclesiastical policy, but only of submitting their present and temporary conduct to the determination of the Lord. After the expiration of the year which was governed by the lot, they were able to work out their differences without any lot. The effect of the lot when it was cast was a very happy one. It restored peace and union, and perhaps saved the Methodists from being rent in twain.

But observe, all of this cannot be attributed to the lot alone. The spirit in which it was cast was no doubt essential to the happy effect which it produced. Alas, the lot does not always end contentions, for where a contentious spirit reigns, neither lot nor angel from heaven will stop the unhallowed striving. Men may appeal to the lot, expecting it to turn in their favor, but when it goes against them, they will deny its validity. Such a case we see in the records of the Presbyterian Church in America. No record is given us as to what the issue was which was decided by the lot, but only of the fact that the dissenters refused to acknowledge the lot as binding, or to submit to its determination. In the face of this state of things, “the Synod after much discourse and reasoning about that matter, at length came to a judgment in the following propositions.

“1.That the Synod look upon the obligation of a determination of a difference by a lot, to be sacred and binding upon the conscience, if the matter so determined be lawful and practicable, and consequently to act contrary thereunto must be a very great sin. . . . . . .

“4.That however, as in our minutes last Synod, we disapprove of the use of lots, without necessity, yet we are afraid, upon representation, that there hath been much sin committed by many if not all that people, in their profane disregard of said lot in time past, and therefore excite them to reflect upon their past practices in reference thereunto, in order to their repentance.”

The above took place in 1734. A similar incident occurred in 1750, which the Synod resolved as follows: “That whereas the congregation of Tehicken is sadly divided about the fairness and obligation of a lot made use of by them for the determining the place for their meeting-house, the Synod, after a full hearing the case, came unanimously into this judgment, viz. that though they do by all means discountenance the method of ending such matters of controversy by lottery, yet as to the lot under debate, the Synod is of the opinion, that it was fairly cast, and consequently binding upon the parties concerned, as also other former agreements said people have solemnly obliged themselves to; and the Synod doth judge, that they have acted very sinfully who have broken through these repeated solemn obligations, and that a solemn admonition be given unto them by Mr. Pemberton in the name of the Synod.”

To conclude: it is certainly never right to settle any matter of doctrinal tenets, principles of conduct, or church discipline by the lot. If a lot has been cast in such matters, it ought by all means to be disregarded, and the people return to prayer, self-judgement, and searching of the Scriptures to determine the matter—-and if they are unable by those means to determine it, to leave it undetermined. Nevertheless, the lot may be of use in extreme cases, especially to cause contentions to cease. Yet if the contention is over spiritual principles, the lot has no place. It would have been wrong for Paul and Barnabas to cast lots in their dispute over John Mark, though the contention was so sharp between them that they must part asunder. The character of Mark, or his fitness for the work, was not a matter to be determined by casting lots. And though the lot may “cause contentions to cease,” it will hardly root out a contentious spirit, as the examples just given will indicate.

Glenn Conjurske