by Gary Gilley
– In a newsletter published by a conservative Baptist denomination, a story is presented concerning one of its members. Deployed in Iraq, this middle aged soldier revealed that often, as he wrestles with problems of various types, “God just reveals the answer to me.” A leader from his church back home also claims to have heard from the Lord. “The Lord told me,” he says, “that this young man is going to be known as a builder, not a destroyer in Iraq.” So far his prophecy seems to have come true for, although the soldier has been involved in combat, his “day job” is to rebuild schools and water treatment plants.
Recently I received an e-mail from a gentleman who wrote, “Jesus has commanded me through the Holy Spirit to teach people how to pray, teach them the truth about their dreams, and guide them into the presence of God (utilizing the Scripture in an almost step-by-step methodology to do so).”
It seems the Lord has been quite busy lately speaking to His children. A few years ago Alistair Begg quoted a survey stating that one in three American adults say that God speaks to him directly.[i] And hearing the voice of God is not isolated to the common person either. A slew of evangelical leaders claim to hear from the Lord, some of them quite regularly. Henry Blackaby, an avid proponent of extrabiblical revelation of this type, when asked how he knew he was hearing from God and not from some other source, gives this answer, “You come to know His voice as you experience Him in a love relationship. As God speaks and you respond, you will come to the point that you recognize His voice more and more clearly.”[ii]
Is God Speaking Today?
Of course, that leaves dangling the important question, “How does one know he is hearing the voice of the Lord in the first place?” Is it not possible that the voice many believe they are “hearing” is the voice of their own thoughts, imaginations, desires, or something more insidious?
In vogue in much of evangelicalism is the constant imploring of Christians to listen to God, experience God and feel God. D. A. Carson quoting a friend’s insightful critique of a book entitled Listening to God, wrote, “If anyone had written a book thirty years ago with that title, you would have expected it to be about Bible study, not about prayer…. Many [Christians] now rely far more on inward promptings than on their Bible knowledge to decide what they are going to do in a situation.”[iii] There seems to have been a powerful shift in thinking among conservative Christians during the last few decades.
What does the New Testament Teach?
The final court of appeals determining the identity of the voice of God, if it is such, must be the direct instructions or at least the examples found in Scripture. The Scriptures claim to be the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 17; 2 Peter 1:20, 21). They are inspired, once for all, by the Holy Spirit, enabling prophets and apostles, using their own personalities, to write God’s words as He intended (Hebrews 1:1,2; 2:3,4; Acts 5:12; 2 Corinthians 12:12). I believe with the closure of Scripture, direct, infallible, authoritative revelation from God has ceased for this age (Revelation 22:18, 19; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; Jude 3, 4; 2 Peter 3:2). It is instructive to note when Paul wrote his last epistle to pastor/friend Timothy about leading the church of God, he did not encourage Timothy to focus on new revelations, impressions, feelings or hunches. Rather, he continually turned him to the Word of God and the doctrines contained therein (2 Timothy 2:2-14, 15; 3:15-17; 4:2-4).
I find this to be the emphasis of the New Testament. As Donald S. Whitney reminds us,
The evangelistic method of Jesus and the apostles was not to urge people to seek direct experiences with God; instead they went about preaching and teaching the Scriptures (see, for instance, Mark 1:14-15). And Jesus did not say that once we have spiritual life we live by direct mystical experience with God; rather, we “live … on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). That includes the “good work” of growing in the knowledge of God and likeness to Christ. So in Scripture the normative method of meeting God is through Scripture.[iv]
Other Issues to Consider
Yet, this type of Divine encounter is considered insipid by many believers today. Many insist if God desires to relate to us in deep, personal, intimate ways, surely He must speak to us directly, individually, apart from Scripture. If we do not have such experiences, then we are nothing more than “practical deists.” What has led to this mindset that teaches the Scriptures are inadequate for our lives – that some additional revelation is needed? Let me list three competitors now challenging the Scriptures as final authority in our lives.
In relation to our subject we must thoroughly wrestle with the question of how we know who or what we have encountered in our subjective experiences. All the information we have about God and our relationship to Him is found in the Bible. Any “encounter” apart from Scripture must be verified by Scripture. If that is so, what does the Word tell us to expect in an encounter with God? I think we will search in vain for information on what God “feels” like; instead the biblical record speaks of transformation. When we encounter God at the moment of salvation we are born again (John 3). As Christians encounter God, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the mark is changed lives (2 Peter 1).
D. Martin Lloyd-Jones was on to something when he wrote,
Let us imagine I follow the mystic way. I begin to have experiences; I think God is speaking to me; how do I know it is God who is speaking to me? How can I know I am not speaking to man; how can I be sure that I am not the victim of hallucinations, since this has happened to many of the mystics? If I believe in mysticism as such without the Bible, how do I know I am not being deluded by Satan as an angel of light in order to keep me from the true and living God? I have no standard…. The evangelical doctrine tells me not to look into myself but to look into the Word of God; not to examine myself, but to look at the revelation that has been given to me. It tells me that God can only be known in His own way, the way which has been revealed in the Scriptures themselves.[v]
Of course, the current bent toward the subjective rather than the biblical is nothing new. In each age it seems there are pockets of God’s people (sometimes bigger pockets than others) who want to go beyond Scripture for their spiritual experiences. Sinclair Ferguson writes,
In Calvin’s day, “The Spiritual Ones” were a major thorn in the flesh to biblical reformation. Calvin despaired of helping people who felt the need to mention the Spirit in every second sentence they spoke! For the Puritans, the “Inner Light” movement constituted a similar danger. In both cases “what the Spirit said” and “what the [human] spirit heard” were divorced from and then exalted over the Word. Put more brutally, subjective feeling and emotion reigned supreme over the objective revelation of Scripture. Similarly, today the subjective, experiential, self-oriented, “touchy-feely” secular mind of the 1960s has come home to roost in the evangelical world.[vi]
“Our age,” Udo W. Middelmann laments, “Has largely replaced real discussions of theological, philosophical, and cultural content with ‘personal’ testimony, anecdotal experience, and private views.”[vii]
A New Kind of Revelation—New Testament Prophecy
In Colossians 2:18,19 Paul addresses a people confused by mystical experiences. The forerunners to the Gnostics taught that a few elite had received the gift of direct inspiration through the Holy Spirit. These moments of inspiration took place through visions, dreams and encounters with angels.[viii] This divided the church into two classes, the haves and the have-nots (those who imagined themselves as truly spiritual and those who had not had these experiences).
This kind of problem has not faded into the past and is almost identical to the teachings found within various elements of the charismatic movement today. For example, compare what Jack Deere, a leading Vineyard theologian writes:
God can and does give personal words of direction to believers today that cannot be found in the Bible. I do not believe that he gives direction that contradicts the Bible, but direction that cannot be found in the Bible.[ix]
But how does a person know if he is really hearing from God? Wayne Grudem, a highly regarded theologian who nevertheless is a wholesale believer in extrabiblical revelations of many kinds, answers:
Did the revelation seem like something from the Holy Spirit; did it seem to be similar to other experiences of the Holy Spirit which he had known previously in worship. Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations…and become more adept at recognizing a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts (emphasis mine).[x]
Grudem is arguably one of the most careful and well-respected charismatic theologians in the world. He taught Biblical and Systematic Theology at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, for twenty years (which is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Churches of America). Yet, the best that he can devise in answer to our concern is, “Did it seem like the Holy Spirit” and, “A congregation would probably” be able to get better at discernment over time. While we are fumbling around trying to decide if something felt like the Holy Spirit (nothing in the Bible helps us here) and hoping that we will get better at discerning the voice of God, others, such as Henry Blackaby tell us that we dare not even make a move until we are certain that we have heard from God. Pity the poor Christian caught up in this confusion — he is hopelessly tossed about on a sea of subjectivity and mysticism.
At this point, Blackaby, Deere and Grudem would cry foul. They would claim that while they believe that God speaks to His people apart from the Bible today, these revelations are not on par with Scripture. That is, God speaks today but not with the same authority as He did in His Word. So do not accuse us of adding to Scripture, they would say. Interestingly enough, this brings up another issue. Does God ever speak in a nonauthoritative manner? In the biblical record we find that God did speak, either orally (including through His prophets) or through the written Word. But always, His Word was authoritative. It was nothing less than a word from God — one that could be understood and must be obeyed and heeded! But we are being told today that God is speaking in a different, less authoritative way.
This is how Wayne Grudem explains it:
There is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain some elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted. The Anglican charismatic leaders Dennis and Rita Bennett write, “We are not expected to accept every word spoken through the gifts of utterance…but we are only to accept what is quickened to us by the Holy Spirit and is in agreement with the Bible…one manifestation may be 75% God, but 25% the person’s own thought. We must discern between the two.[xi]
But how? Where is Grudem taking us? Grudem’s contention is that New Testament prophecy is different from Old Testament prophecy. True Old Testament prophecy was a direct revelation from God and thus infallible, with the prophet forfeiting his life if he was in error (Deuteronomy 13:5; 18:20-22). But New Testament prophecy, including modern day efforts, so says Grudem, can be fallible. A New Testament prophecy could be partially from God and partially from ourselves. Thus, the Christian must attempt to discern where God leaves off and where man begins. And we are to make this determination without any insight from the New Testament which is totally silent on the subject. I believe Grudem to be in serious error, leaving the believer with no “sure word of prophecy.” Nevertheless, his view is gaining popularity even among conservative theologians and leaders.
A New Kind of Revelation—the “Inner” Voice
Noncharismatic evangelical Christianity has definitely taken on a mystical bent in recent days as well. While never denying the authority of Scripture as such, many, from people in the pew to key leaders, regularly point to mystical experiences as the basis for much of what they do and believe. We must be concerned that this weak view of the Scriptures will ultimately cause great harm in the body of Christ. We agree with David Wells’ assessment, “Granting the status of revelation to anything other than the Word of God inevitably has the effect of removing that status from the Word of God. What may start out as an additional authority alongside the Word of God will eventually supplant its authority altogether.”[xii] John Armstrong concurs, “Direct communication from God, by definition, constitutes some form of new revelation. Such revelation would, at least in principle, indicate that the Scriptures were not sufficient or final.”[xiii]
At issue is the subject of revelation. More to the point, is God speaking today, directly, infallibly, and independently of the Scriptures? Does He reveal Himself, His will, His truth, apart from the Bible? Critics of the position presented in this paper will tell us to look at the examples found in Scripture. God seemed to be speaking all the time to all sorts of people, apart from the written Word. This is a clear overstatement, although there is surely some truth to be found. Let’s make some observations. First, God did speak apart from the written Word occasionally. When we read the Bible we sometimes forget that what we are reading in a matter of minutes may have covered vast periods of time originally. Abraham, for example, definitely heard the voice of God at times. God speaks to him in Genesis 15 and again in Genesis 17. But there was at least a 14 year gap between the two utterances from God and possibly 20 years or more (compare 16:16 with 17:1). It seems to us that God was talking to Abraham almost daily but the fact is that many years would go by with no communication from God at all – even to Abraham the friend of God and father of the Jewish race. This leads to the next observation: when God did speak it was almost always to prophets and key players in the biblical story, not to the common man or woman. There may have been a few exceptions to this, but if so, it was rare. Yet, many today act as if God speaks to everyone all the time, and they attempt to prop up this view through biblical accounts. But the Scriptures simply do not support this idea.
There is a third observation that I believe is often missed and is of great importance to this discussion. When God did speak in Scripture, whether directly or through His prophets, He did so with audible words. You will search in vain for some inner voice from God speaking to the heart of His people. Nor will you find God communicating through prompting or hunches. No one said, “I feel the Lord leading me to do such and such.” No one said, “I have the peace of God in this decision.” In other words, God’s people today have created a means of divine communication not found in the Bible. God never spoke in this fashion in Scripture, but we now are to believe that this is the norm today. In an otherwise excellent chapter on this same subject, R. Fowler White, who takes a cessationist view (with the closure of the Scriptures, God is no longer giving revelation for this age) opens the door to this form of communication by writing, “God guides and directs His people by His Spirit in the application of His written word through promptings, impressions, insights, and the like.”[xiv] Vineyard theologian Jack Deere, in one of his few on-target remarks, sees clearly the weakness in White’s statement,
First, he doesn’t offer a single text of Scripture to support his assertion that God’s practical leading is carefully distinguished from the Spirit’s work of revelation…. White is simply asserting a distinction that not only can not be supported by Scripture, but, in fact, contradicts the Bible…. [Secondly] how does White know God guides through promptings, impressions, insights, and the like? He can’t use the Bible to prove this assertion…. White is asking us to believe in a form of guidance that can’t even be found in the Bible![xv]
Deere is right. Many are telling us that God is speaking in a third way today, a way never found, described or hinted at in the Bible: God is speaking today but His Word is not authoritative, and what we think we are hearing can be weighed, examined and even dismissed. We are not even certain when and if He is speaking. And those who feel certain they are hearing from God still believe that the revelation may be impure and partly in error.
It remains a mystery to me why people are attracted to this view of revelation. Surely it is not an improvement over, “Thus says the Lord.” Surely the uncertainty of this system pales in comparison to the certainty of the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:19-21).
[i] Alistair Begg, What Angels Wish They Knew (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), p. 13.
[ii] Henry Blackaby, Experiencing God: How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and doing the Will of God (Tennessee: Broadman and Holman Publisher, 1994), p. 88.
[iii] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p. 506.
[iv] Donald S. Whitney, “Unity of Doctrine and Devotion,” in The Compromised Church, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 1998), p. 246.
[v] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Fellowship with God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p. 95.
[vi] Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Evangelical Ministry: the Puritan Contribution,” in The Compromised Church, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 1998), p. 272.
[vii] Udo W. Middelmann, The Market Driven Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p. 61.
[viii] Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), pp. 49, 139-142, 163-166).
[ix] Jack Deere, “Vineyard Position Paper #2,” p. 15.
[x] Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 1988), pp. 120-121.
[xi] Ibid., p. 110.
[xii] David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 109.
[xiii] John H. Armstrong, ed., The Compromised Church, “The Evangelical Ministry: a Tragic Loss,” (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 1998), p. 272.
[xiv] R. Fowler White, “Does God Speak Today Apart from the Bible?” in The Coming Evangelical Crisis, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 1996), p. 79.
[xv] Jack Deere, Surprised by the Voice of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), pp. 283-384.