A conservative Baptist denomination presents a story in its newsletter concerning one of its members deployed in Iraq. This middle-aged soldier declared 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 because, although the soldier has been involved in combat, his ‘day job’ is to rebuild schools and water-treatment plants.
Just this week 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 (utilising 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 says that God speaks to them directly.1
Many Evangelical leaders also claim to hear from the Lord, some of them quite regularly. When Henry Blackaby (an avid proponent of extra-biblical revelation of this type) was asked how he knew he was hearing from God and not from some other source, he replied, ‘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 recognise his voice more and more clearly’.2
Is God speaking today?
Of course, that leaves dangling the important question, ‘How does someone 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?
It is much in vogue for Christians to be exhorted to listen to God, experience God and feel God. Quoting a friend’s insightful critique of a book called Listening to God, D. A. Carson 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’.3 There seems to have been a powerful shift in thinking among conservative Christians during the last few decades.
The final court of appeal in identifying the voice of God must be the Scriptures — which are themselves the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21). They were inspired, once and for all, by the Holy Spirit — who enabled prophets and apostles expressing their own personalities to nevertheless write God’s words as he intended (Hebrews 1:1-2; 2:3-4; Acts 5:12; 2 Corinthians 12:12). What do they teach?
Revelation is complete
I believe that 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 that when Paul wrote his last epistle to Timothy about leading the church of God, he did not encourage his younger friend 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 2:2-15; 3:15-17; 4:2-4).
I find this to be the emphasis throughout 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’.4
Yet, this type of divine encounter is considered insipid by many believers today. They insist that if God desires to relate to us in deep, personal, intimate ways, he must surely speak to us directly and individually apart from Scripture. If we do not have such experiences (they say) we are nothing more than ‘practical deists’.
What has led to this mindset that teaches the Scriptures are not adequate for our lives — that some additional revelation is needed? Let me list some things that now compete with Scripture as the final authority in our lives.
We must all wrestle with the question, ‘How do we know who or what we have encountered in our subjective experience of the gospel?’ All the information we have about God and our relationship to him is found in the Bible — so 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 you will search in vain for information on what God ‘feels’ like to us; 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 evidence is changed lives (2 Peter 1). Martyn 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 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? [Without the Bible] 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’.5
Of course, the current bent toward a subjective rather than a biblical approach is nothing new. In every age it seems there are pockets of God’s people (sometimes bigger pockets than at other times) who want to go beyond Scripture for their spiritual experiences.
Sinclair Ferguson writes that 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! Ferguson continues:
‘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’.6
‘Our age,’ laments Udo W. Middelmann, ‘has largely replaced real discussions of theological, philosophical, and cultural content with “personal” testimony, anecdotal experience, and private views’.7
To be continued
1. Alistair Begg, What angels wish they knew (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), p.13.
2. 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.
3. D. A. Carson, The gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), p.506.
4. Donald S. Whitney, ‘Unity of doctrine and devotion’, in The compromised church, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), p.246.
5. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Fellowship with God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), p.95.
6. Sinclair B. Ferguson, ‘The Evangelical Ministry: the Puritan contribution’, in The compromised church, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), p.272.
7. Udo W. Middelmann, The market driven church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), p.61.
The author is pastor-teacher of Southern View Chapel, Springfield, Illinois, USA. From 17 March-4 April he will be taking meetings in Northern Ireland for Take Heed Ministries.