God’s Will, Lost or Found – Part 4

(January 2006 – Volume 12, Issue 1) 

Earlier papers explained that the subjective, mystical understanding of the Lord’s leading through inner revelations, rather than through Scripture, is not biblically founded. This paper addresses some of the questions that often arise on the subject.

Q. Many in the charismatic movement believe that God is speaking today through prophecies and words of knowledge. They insist that such revelation is not in contradiction to the written Word and that it should not be given equal status or added to Scripture. How does this charismatic view of revelation differ from the noncharismatic view of God speaking and leading through hunches and inner voices?

A. Not much if any. In essence, a charismatic theology of revelation has been adopted almost completely by the larger evangelical community. What is missed by both groups is that revelation from God, no matter what format or venue, is still revelation from God. It is not possible for God to give revelation that is not authoritative and demanding of obedience. All revelation from God carries the authority of Scripture. Now, it is true that God has not chosen to insert all His revelation onto the pages of the Bible. It is possible, for example, during biblical times that the Lord spoke to His servants but did not choose to include that conversation in the Scriptures. Nevertheless, whatever He said at those moments carried the full weight and authority of the written Word. Today many are claiming to hear from God, but what they are hearing does not have the status and significance of Scripture. This is logically impossible. Either God has spoken or He has not. If He has spoken, that message is as authoritative as Scripture. I agree with John MacArthur who wrote, “God reserved divine revelation for special times, which were encompassed in the written Word, and since that time revelation has ceased.”[1]

Q. I believe that God is giving extrabiblical revelation today. My only problem is how to discern God’s voice from my own or another source. How can I do so?

A. Henry and Richard Blackaby’s book Hearing God’s Voice, was written largely to address this question, but even these foremost experts in the field failed miserably at a solution. They suggest that, to hear God’s voice, faith is required,[2] as is the conviction that God speaks apart from Scripture.[3] We can expect new Christians,[4] they write, and those not in the habit of hearing from God, to be a bit disoriented for a while,[5] but hopefully that will all change and we will gradually come to recognize when God is speaking.[6] And “the closer you get to God, the more easily you’ll recognize His voice.”[7]

None of this is helpful. The problem is that this whole conversation is out of alignment with what we find in Scripture. First, virtually every time God spoke in biblical history the recipient had no doubt that he was hearing the voice of God – no matter what his spiritual condition or level of faith. With the exception of the child Samuel, virtually everyone, including unbelievers (e.g. Pharaoh, Balaam and Saul), immediately knew that God was speaking. Additionally, no formula or instruction is found in the Word to teach us how to discern God’s voice. Learning to hear God’s voice is simply not taught as a skill we must develop. The modern noncharistimatic, noncessationist (those who believe that revelation is still being given today, mainly through inaudible ways) have created a category of revelation not found in Scripture. They must now attempt to defend their view through experience because no biblical defense is possible.

It must be recognized that almost everyone is a cessationist of some sort. No one says, “Anything goes.” But if we do not draw the line at Scripture there exist no criteria by which to determine where to draw the line. Had God intended revelation beyond the pages of the New Testament He would have provided us a means by which to discern His voice. Had God determined to change His mode of revelation from verbal communication to inner feelings and voices, we would have expected some notification of this change. We would have also expected some instructions by which we could decipher His message. He did none of these. We must therefore conclude that God did not choose to launch a unique form of communication after the closure of Scripture. The problems we are encountering today concerning God’s leading go back to this fundamental issue.

Q. We are being told that God is speaking today, either through inner voices or words of prophecy, but that these messages may be partially from God and partially from our own thoughts. Of what value are these types of communications when we can’t be certain what portion of them are actually the words of God?

A. Such supposed messages from God are of no value at all and may be of real danger. If we don’t know what portion or part of a thought, dream or prophecy is from God or from some other source, how are we to discern what God is trying to say? If we believe that God is telling us to marry Suzy, move to Virginia, buy a commercial building and start a new business, but we also know that at least half of that message could be our own wishful thinking, how do we know which half to obey (remember: when God commands we must obey)? Again, a real problem at this point is that nothing in Scripture answers this question. When God spoke in the biblical record it was a complete and understandable message. No one wondered how much of what they just heard was their own imagination and how much was of God. Nor is any formula given for discerning the difference. Noncessationists have entered a shadowland for which there is no help biblically. They are left to their own devices.

Q. First Corinthians 14:29 mentions New Testament prophets who speak and then have others in the church body interpret what they had to say. What does this mean?

A. It must first be understood that the word prophecy has a dual meaning. It can mean foretelling, as when prophecies revealed some future event, or forthtelling, as when a message from God concerning living for Him is conveyed. This passage seems to be concerned with forthtelling, which itself comes in two varieties. On the one hand, there is the preaching or proclamation of the Scriptures, just as is done today. There was also divinely inspired forthtelling in which God gave a message of truth through certain individuals. This passage most likely is referencing both types of forthtelling. It should be remembered that the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20), for it was these two types of gifted people who gave us the inspired Word of God. Hebrews 1:1 reads, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son…” Then later in chapter two, verses three and four, the author of Hebrews continues this thought by writing, “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.” What is interesting is that this passage speaks of those who communicated the Word of God in the New Testament as a select group of people who heard these words from the Lord and were authenticated by miraculous signs. In 2 Peter 3:2 we are told to “remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles.” Peter points to Old Testament prophets who gave us the inspired Old Testament corpus and to the apostles who gave us the inspired New Testament text. Every indication is that the New Testament revelation was delivered through the apostles and a few others closely associated with them (Mark, Luke, James, Jude and possibly the writer of Hebrews). John warns at the very closure of the New Testament that we are not to add to the prophecies of the book of Revelation (22:18, 19). Since the Revelation is the last book in the canon it is difficult to imagine how any additional prophecy today would not violate this warning.

When Paul gives the exhortation found in 1 Corinthians 14:29 he could be referring to both those who where preaching the already-revealed Scriptures and to those who were claiming an inspired word from the Lord. It should be remembered at that point the New Testament canon had not yet closed and God was still giving His inspired, authoritative Word. One of the problems the first century believers had to face was the issue of false apostles and prophets claiming divine authority. For this reason Paul spoke of false apostles (2 Corinthians 11:13) and signs of a true apostle (2 Corinthians 12:12). At Corinth there were those posing as divine spokesmen for God, even apostles. How were the Christians to test these claims? Paul said they were to “pass judgment” on what these men claimed to have received from God. How were they to do that? First, by determining if these individuals had the signs of a true apostle. Next, they were to discern their message to see if it was sound. How were they to go about doing this? Were they to search for some subjective feeling of affirmation from the Holy Spirit? Nothing indicates that to be the case. Rather, as always, they were to “examine the Scriptures… to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). In other words, even at a time when revelation was still being given, what people claimed to have heard from God had to pass the scrutiny of Scripture. Now that “the faith [has been] once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3) and inspired prophecy has been declared ended (Revelation 22:18-19), there is no longer a need for further revelation to God’s people.

Q. I often am impressed to witness or give a specific amount of money to someone. If God is not telling me to do these things then from where do these impressions come?

A. Impressions are impressions. Surely we realize that unbelievers have impressions too; where do they come from? Trying to determine the source of impressions is futile, but most impressions simply come from our own thoughts. We see a person who needs Christ; we know the power and glory of the gospel; we long to tell others about the truth. What would be so strange about feeling an urge to tell folks about the Lord? Because we are impressed to share the gospel or anything else does not mean we have received extrabiblical communication from God.

Q. What is the point of praying if the Lord is not going to speak to us during our time of prayer? Why even bother?

A. Until recently most Christians recognized prayer as our communication to God and the Scriptures as God’s communication to us. But due to the influence of Henry Blackaby and many others, more and more believers expect God to speak to them during their time of prayer. Blackaby writes, “In the Scriptures, prayer is often presented as a two-way conversation wherein people hear God respond to their prayers…. The key to God transforming us is not found in what we say when we pray but what we hear. As God speaks to us, we cannot remain unchanged.”[8] The biblical support for this type of understanding of prayer is scant. The most widely used New Testament text in its defense is Romans 8:26-27 about which Blackaby says, “[The Holy Spirit will] reveal the Father’s thoughts and help believers know how to pray.”[9] But a careful reading of these verses in context does not render the Blackaby’s interpretation. We are not being promised that the Holy Spirit will reveal to us the mind of God as we go to prayer. Rather, the promise is that the Holy Spirit will intercede with the Father on our behalf so that our prayers are presented to the Father in such a way that they are in accordance with the will of God. This is necessary because we often “do not know how to pray as we should” and the Spirit must conform our prayers to the will of God.

It would be most helpful on this issue to study the prayers of the New Testament (e.g. Ephesians 1:15-23, 3:14-21; Colossians 1:9-14; Philippians 1:9-11) . In these prayers there is no mention of praying a few words and then sitting back listening for the voice of God. New Testament prayers are the communication of the heart and mind of the believer to the Lord. They are not two-way communication. This concept is totally foreign to the New Testament. I am not denying that in the Bible God, on occasion, spoke to individuals as they were praying. But this is not the normal pattern given and, to make it the norm is to distort the expressed purpose of prayer, which is for us to speak to God.

Q. I often hear of someone entering into or being in the presence of the Lord. What does that mean and how can I know when I am in God’s presence?

A. The New Testament teaches that Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and therefore are constantly in the presence of the Lord. There is nothing that we can do to be more in the presence of God than we are right now. When a worship leader invites the audience to enter the presence of the Lord or someone asks the Lord to come into His presence, he misspeaks. In Hebrews 4:16, on the basis of the finished work of Christ, the child of God is invited to draw near to the throne of grace. That is, we now have direct access to God and we are encouraged to take advantage of that access in prayer. This does not mean we are nearer to the presence of God during prayer; it means because Christ is our High Priest we have the privilege of God’s presence at all times and we can confidently approach Him in prayer.

Those who speak of having experienced God’s presence are usually referring to a subjective feeling that they have in which they believe they have encountered God in some unique way. Some very important questions should be directed to such experiences. First, what does the presence of God feel like? While someone might say that they felt peace or holiness or overwhelmed, nothing in the New Testament tells us what God feels like. Those who encountered God in a special way in the Scriptures were not describing feelings of God but direct tangible meetings with Him. Such experiences with God were rare even in biblical times, even involving the most important characters in Scripture. The people of God did not live for these encounters nor did they expect them. Did this mean they lived hollow, empty, emotionally deprived lives? Not at all. I am reminded of the men on the Emmaus road who did not recognize that they had been talking to Jesus until after Jesus disappeared. They immediately turned to one another and said, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us” (Luke 24:32). Such experiences, in which our heart “burns within us” as we are exposed to God’s truth, should be common in the life of the believer. This does not mean we have entered the presence of God (we are already in the presence of God) but that our hearts have been touched by His truth. These moments should generate true passion for God, not because God’s presence is nearer to us, but because our hearts have been drawn closer to Him in love.

Q. If the evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit is not a particular emotional experience then what is the evidence of the Holy Spirit in my life?

A. Biblically, the evidence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not feelings but spiritual transformation. Two important passages, both often used out of context, help us here. Romans 8:14-16 speaks of the Holy Spirit leading in our lives, but the leading here is toward sanctification. It is through the Spirit’s power that we are gaining victory over the deeds of the body (vv. 12-13). In Galatians 5:16-25 we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit by the spiritual fruit that He produces in our lives. Christlikeness is the mark of the Holy Spirit, not a particular type of emotional encounter.

Q. Are you saying that God has no will or plan for my life? Wouldn’t such a view be practical deism in which God created us, set certain things in motion, handed down some moral precepts then walked away and left us on our own?

A. Again, we must distinguish between God’s sovereign will, His revealed (moral will) and His individual will. God sovereignly rules over all things. In His providence and omniscience the Lord has all things planned out according to His purpose and for His glory – and that includes His will for our lives. God’s sovereign will is the secret things that belong to Him, according to Deuteronomy 29:29a, and cannot be known to us until revealed in time. God’s revealed or moral will is His general will for all people as recorded in Scripture. It is God’s revealed will that belongs to us and is to be observed (Deuteronomy 29:29b). When speaking of God’s individual will the proper question is not whether God has a sovereign plan known only to Him for our lives. The answer to that question is yes. The real question people are asking when it comes to the individual will is, “How can I know God’s sovereign will for my life?” They want to know if God has given them a means whereby they can storm the gates of heaven and unlock the secret counsels of God. If so, what are those means? What I have tried to show is that Scripture gives no such formula; rather the Lord lays out for us principles and guidelines whereby we are able to make wise decisions which are in accordance with God’s (revealed) will. As someone has said, “The insistence of Jesus and Scripture was not on the importance of discovering the will of God, but always upon the necessity of doing it.”

The biblical picture is that God is vitally involved in our lives in ways that we cannot imagine, and in many cases will never know in this lifetime (Romans 8:28). At this time we are walking “by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

In our final paper on this subject, we will examine the misguided notion that the characters of Scripture lived in constant direct communication from God.

 


[1] John MacArthur, www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/NEWREV.HTM

[2] Blackaby, pp. 52-53.

[3] Ibid., p. 213.

[4] Ibid., p. 257.

[5] Ibid., p. 214.

[6] Ibid., p. 235.

[7] Ibid., p. 210.

[8] Ibid., pp. 34, 122.

[9] Ibid., p. 37 (see also pp. 116, 124, 137).