Question: "What is the whole counsel of God?"
Answer: The phrase the whole counsel of God is found in Acts 20:27. In his farewell speech to the elders of the Ephesian church, Paul says, “Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27, ESV). Declaring the whole counsel of God is what made Paul “innocent” of anyone’s choice to turn away from the truth. Paul had fulfilled his ministry among the Ephesians.
Paul spent several years in Ephesus prior to this speech. When he first arrived in Ephesus, Paul had found some disciples who had only heard of John the Baptist and did not yet know of the completed ministry of Jesus or the coming of the Holy Spirit. After bringing them up to speed by presenting Jesus to them, Paul baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:4–5). Paul then spent time teaching in the synagogue and, when he was opposed there, taught at the lecture hall, and “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10). Verse 20 says, “The word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.” Later, a group of merchants in Ephesus started a riot over the positive impact of the gospel in their city. After the riot ended, Paul said goodbye to the disciples in Ephesus before going to Macedonia. Several months later, on his way to Jerusalem, Paul called the Ephesian elders to Miletus to meet with him. It is here that Paul reminds the Ephesians that he had “not hesitated to proclaim . . . the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27).
Paul shared “the whole counsel of God” (ESV) or “the whole will of God” (NIV) or “the whole purpose of God” (NASB) in that he spoke the complete gospel. He had given them the whole truth about God’s salvation. He also revealed to them the “mystery” of God (Ephesians 3:9), which in the context of Ephesians 3 is God’s extending His plan of salvation to Gentiles as well as Jews.
Despite the opposition Paul faced in Ephesus, he continued to share the good news in its entirety. He did not shrink back from his duty but proclaimed the whole counsel of God. He tells the Ephesian elders, “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:19–21). Paul shared everything that God had revealed with everyone who would listen—and even some who wouldn’t.
Paul tells the Ephesian elders that, having given them the whole counsel of God, he is innocent if any of the Ephesians choose to turn away from Christ. Like the prophet Ezekiel, Paul had been a faithful watchman: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself” (Ezekiel 3:17–19; cf. 33:1–9).
Paul emphasizes “the whole counsel of God” as a way to affirm the completion of his duties toward the Ephesians and to remind them of the truth. Paul warns, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!” (Acts 20:29–31).
The whole counsel of God includes some things that are difficult to hear—the fact that we are dead in sin and deserving of God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:1–3) and the fact that we cannot save ourselves through works (Ephesians 2:8–9). The gospel is a call to repentance and faith. Believers will face persecution (John 16:33) and likely be considered foolish. But none of these things can dissuade us.
We should follow Paul’s example and also preach the whole counsel of God. All Scripture is inspired, and all of it is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). We must preach it in its entirety and allow the Holy Spirit to use His sword as He sees fit (Ephesians 6:17). Paul did not share half-truths or only parts of the gospel; rather, he shared all of what God has revealed. We must do the same.