So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, (Acts 5:38-39)
But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up and gave orders to put the men outside for a little while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him. He too perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:34-42)
Acts 5:38-39 is often used as a prooftext for Neo-Evangelicals and others like them to "counsel" people against refuting error. Following the advice of Gamaliel, they call on such "hotheads" to cool down and let things run its course. After all, shouldn't we trust in the sovereignty of God? As Gamaliel states so clearly, if the movement, plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail, but if it is of God it will thrive. Worse still, we would have been found to be going against God Himself! However, does this verse actually give us this advice?
In context, it can be seen that the Apostles were arrested for preaching the Gospel in public by the High Priest and the Sadducees, and brought to trial before the religious council, the Sanhedrin. When commanded not to preach the Gospel (v. 28), Peter and the apostles openly defied them and say that they will in fact do so, thus making the Sanhedrin furious and murderous.
It is in this light that the counsel from Gamaliel was given, which defuses for a time the anger of the Jewish leaders against the apostles' manifest defiance of their commands. Through an appeal to the sovereignty of God, Gamaliel persuaded the Counsel not to go ahead with their intentions to murder the apostles there but to release them, letting God do the judging instead.
Now, it is a sure fact that in God's providence, Gamaliel's advice did in fact save the apostles at that time. It is also true that God is sovereign and that He is in control, thus nothing can happen without His permission. In all this, Gamaliel was in fact quite right. However, do all these facts therefore make Gamaliel's advice right?
An understanding of God's revealed will (His precepts) and God's sovereign will would be of great help here. God commands various things in line with what would be pleasing in His sight, yet we all know that not all and in fact most of them do not come to pass. God is against sins of any kind, yet we all know that men sin everyday. Thus, it can be seen that God's will of command is often frustrated, and thus not come to pass.
If God is indeed sovereign however, then all that He desires to come to pass will be indeed accomplished (cf Dan. 4:35 etc). In this we speak of God's sovereign will or His will of desire. Nothing can ever thwart God's desires, for such is the very essence of what it means to be totally sovereign.
Knowing this, we can see that Gamaliel's advice alludes merely to the sovereignty of God or God's sovereign will. However, are we to follow the commands of God or the sovereign decrees of God? God summons us to obey His commands (for that is the very definition of the concept of 'command'), while His sovereign will is not our domain to discern and attempt to accomplish (cf Deut. 29:29). God calls us to obey His Word and we are to do them. In the case of exposing errors, that is the command of Scripture especially in Jude 1:3. Therefore, we are to follow God's commands in this respect instead of attempting to discern God's will based upon the successes or failures of any person/ ministry.
One other error in misquoting such a verse to teach fatalism is that it assumes that God will in fact do such and such. In the biblical context, is it always the case that a plan of God will succeed while a plan of men will fail? If such is the case, then isn't Islam the true religion, after all having conquered the heartlands of ancient Christianity (by the sword) and now being well on its way to overrun Europe in the near future? Who or what determines failure and success? Biblically, without the full revelation of Scripture, did the plan of God fail when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonian Empire? Was the Davidic Covenant made void when the last king of Judah was executed with his sons? It would certainly seem that way for the people living at that time.
God sovereignly allows things to pass that may not be what seems good to us, for example the captivity of Judah. Therefore, Gamaliel's advice, while it may be generally correct, is flawed. Further proof can be obtained if we were to think what is actually involved if such a fatalistic attitude were to be implemented in all of life and not just ministry: Vaccines are not necessary because if you are destined to fall sick, you will regardless of whether you have the vaccine or not and vice versa; Medicine do not need to be taken too to cure an illness, since the disease may be from God and vice versa; etc. Gamaliel's advice is therefore absurd when applied to "practical" life issues, so what more spiritual issues that are more real than the present world?
In our actions, we are to obey God's commands in everything (not just in the area of discernment), and not to attempt to "follow God" through deciphering God's intention through providence or any other ways. Even if God had actually decreed a certain evil end, it is right and proper for us to follow God's commands in Scripture to work against that evil end. For how do we know God's intentions — that He may use us as an instrument to halt that evil? Our actions are to be guided by the precepts of Scripture, not garnered through sinful enquiry into what God is actually going to do or not to do!
In conclusion, these two verses are merely descriptive of Gamaliel's advice which was useful providentially, but they are not prescriptive for God's people. Gamaliel's advice is therefore not biblical, and we should therefore treat it as the narrative it actually is rather than grounding our conduct on it.