I am convinced that contemporary Evangelicalism has been Pentecostalized in significant ways that even many non-charismatics don’t recognize. One significant way this reveals itself even among those who would claim to be cessationists is in common evangelical expectations regarding how God speaks to us and how he reveals his will to us. It is very common in modern evangelicalism, for example, to hear Christians talk about how God “spoke” to them, revealing his will in mystical ways outside his Word.
This teaching characterizes charismatics to be sure, many of which believe that the Holy Spirit still gives revelation with the same level of authority that he did to prophets like Elijah and Isaiah and apostles like John and Paul.
However, more moderate charismatics like Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms argue that while the authoritative canon of Scripture is closed, we ought to still expect “spontaneous revelation from the Holy Spirit” today. In this more moderate view, prophecy today does not have same sort of inerrancy or authority as biblical prophecy or inspired Scripture, but it is still direct revelation from the Spirit. I am thankful that these men defend the closed canon and the unique authority of Scripture, starkly differentiating their teaching from that of other more dangerous charismatics. Nevertheless, we must still measure their teaching against what the Bible actually teaches.
On the other hand, even many prominent evangelical teachers who claim to believe that prophecy has ceased nevertheless teach that we ought to expect the Holy Spirit to speak directly to us, not with words, and they don’t even call it prophecy, but they teach that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through impressions, through promptings, a still small voice, or an inner peace.
Perhaps no single book has done more to spread this kind of expectation among evangelical Christians than Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. Blackaby says, “God has not changed. He still speaks to his people. If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience.1Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2004), 137. This is someone who claims to be a cessationist. Other teachers like Charles Stanley and Priscilla Shirer have taught that we need to learn to listen for God’s voice outside of Scripture, we ought to expect to receive “personal divine direction,” “detailed guidance,” and “intimate leading.”2Priscilla Shirer, Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 18, 20.
Another way this expectation appears is in common beliefs regarding the doctrine of illumination. Often we hear prayers like, “Lord, please illumine your Word so that we can understand what it says,” or other similar language. Intentional or not, many believers seem to expect that the Spirit is going to help us understand what Scripture means or that he is going to “speak” to us specific ways that the Word applies to our personal situations. However, neither of these are what the biblical doctrine of illumination means.
The fact is that many Christians today think that supernatural experiences were just the normal, expected way God spoke to everyone in biblical times. Here’s Henry Blackaby again:
The testimony of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is that God speaks to his people, . . . and you can anticipate that he will be speaking to you also.3Blackaby and King, Experiencing God, 57.
Charles Stanley argues,
[God] loves us just as much as he loved the people of Old and New Testament days. . . . We need his definite and deliberate direction for our lives, as did Joshua, Moses, Jacob, or Noah. As his children, we need his counsel for effective decision making. Since he wants us to make the right choices, he is still responsible for providing accurate data, and that comes through his speaking to us.4Charles F. Stanley, How to Listen to God (Grand Rapids: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 3.
These are not charismatics or continuationists. These are teachers who claim to be cessationists, and yet they insist that we ought to expect to hear from God outside his Word. And yet, this really is no different from how moderate continuationists define prophecy today.
In fact, Tom Schreiner admits as much in his book, Spiritual Gifts. Schreiner says this:
What most call prophecy in churches today, in my judgment, isn’t the New Testament gift of prophecy. . . . It is better to characterize what is happening today as the sharing of impressions rather than prophecy. God may impress something on a person’s heart and mind, and he may use such impressions to help others in their spiritual walk. It is a matter of definition; what some people call prophecies are actually impressions, where someone senses that God is leading them to speak to someone or to make some kind of statement about a situation.5Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2018), 118.
And Schreiner even admits that this is not much different from the moderate continuationist theology of prophecy:
The difference between cessationists and continuationists is in some ways insignificant at the practical level when it comes to prophecy,for what continuationists call prophecy, cessationists call impressions. As a cessationist, I affirm that God may speak to his people through impressions. And there are occasions where impressions are startlingly accurate.6Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, 119. Emphasis added.
I respect Tom Schreiner greatly, but the problem is that teachings about Holy Spirit impressions such as these are not based on any Scripture at all. Rather, they use phrases like, “We have all experienced this kind of thing,” “these impressions are startingly accurate, so they must be from God,” or they quote a few vague statements by Spurgeon, Edwards, or Lloyd Jones that sound like they believed in such impressions.
I would estimate that a vast majority of evangelical Christians today believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through promptings and impressions, especially with regard to his will for our lives. If you want to truly know God’s will, then the Bible is not enough. The Bible does not tell you specifics about God’s “secret will” for your life, so if you want to know it, you need to learn to listen to God’s voice. Not audible words of course, not prophecy—we’re cessationists after all, but we ought to expect to receive nudges or impressions from the Spirit, an inner peace that will give us guidance.
But what does the Bible actually say about how we should expect God to speak to us?
The More Sure Word
In understanding the nature of the Spirit’s work of giving revelation, it is important that we understand the relationship between the revelation that he gave through prophets and the revelation that he inspired in the sixty-six canonical books of Scripture.
Peter addresses this very issue in 2 Peter 1, where he states in verse 21, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Peter is discussing the nature of Spirit-inspired biblical revelation because of the false teachers who had emerged, some of whom claimed to speak for God.
Peter begins his argument, however, by appealing to his eyewitness status as an apostle of Jesus Christ—“we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” When he made known to the people truth about Jesus Christ, Peter argues, he did not follow cleverly devised myths; rather, his teaching is based on what he personally witnessed as an apostle of Christ.
To what is he referring in these verses? He is referring to the supernatural experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ in the presence of Peter, James, and John on the mountain. However, notice what Peter says next in verse 19: “And we have the prophetic Word more fully confirmed.” Despite all of Peter’s own experiences of receiving divine revelation from God himself, Peter identifies the foundational source of God’s truth: the prophetic Word. Peter is saying that God revealed his truth, not only through direct divine revelation, but fundamentally through his Spirit-inspired Word.
Peter and the other apostles did experience direct, first hand revelation from God’s Spirit. Those supernatural experiences were truly ways in which God confirmed his truth to his apostles. And yet, as Peter is trying to defend God’s truth, someone could very easily say, “Why should we take your word for it? People experience things they can’t explain all the time; who’s to say that such experiences are direct revelation from God?” Peter answers that natural objection by saying, “Don’t take my word for it. Trust the sufficient Word of God.”
In fact, he goes even beyond that. The verse literally reads, “And we have more sure the prophetic Word.” Do you see what Peter is saying here? Here is an apostle of Jesus Christ, one who walked with Jesus and saw his miracles and heard his teaching, one who performed signs of a true apostle, one of only three who saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain and literally heard the voice of God from heaven, and despite all of those amazing supernatural experiences, Peter says, “We have a prophet Word even more certain, more confirmed, more sure than those supernatural experiences. We have the written Word of God, and that Word is sufficient.”
Often Christians today assume that if the Spirit of God spoke directly to them like he did to prophets and apostles in Scripture, they would far more easily align their lives with God’s will for them. But Peter is saying that the Spirit-inspired Word is more certain than if the Spirit spoke directly to us.
Consider what he says in the next phrase in verse 19: “to which you would do well to pay attention.” Pay attention to the sufficient Word. We ought not to expect the Spirit to speak directly to us, because even if he did, the Word would still be more sure than that direct revelation from the Spirit. Why would we want something less sure than the Word of God?
There are those today who insist that nowhere does Scripture say that the Spirit has stopped giving direct revelation now that Scripture is complete, but that is exactly what Peter is saying here. The written Word of God is more sure than direct revelation; direct revelation was only necessary for a time because the more sure written Word was not yet complete. Now that the written Word is complete, we no longer need those less sure revelation. The only reason to believe that God’s Spirit still speaks through divine revelation is if you believe the canon of Scripture is incomplete; if you believe that the canon of Scripture is closed, then you ought not expect any additional divine revelation. Even Grudem acknowledges, ““If everyone with the gift of prophecy in the New Testament church did have . . . absolute divine authority, then we would expect this gift to die out as soon as the writings of the New Testament were completed and given to the churches.”7Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 45–46.
As I have noted, any people today think that supernatural experiences were just the normal, expected way God spoke to everyone in biblical times. But this reveals two misconceptions about the examples of direct revelation that is recorded for us in Scripture.
First, direct revelation from the Spirit was rare in biblical history. People assume they happened all the time, but really, they occurred mostly in only three general periods: the patriarchs and Moses, Elijah and the prophets, Jesus and the founding of the church by his apostles. There are large spans of history between those three primary periods where hearing from God’s Spirit outside of his Word was not the normal experience.
Even in Acts, the normal expectation was not to expect direct revelation from God, but to trust his sufficient Word. Direct revelations occur only nine separate times over the course of thirty years in the Book of Acts. On the other hand, there are at least 70 instances in Acts where Christians, including the apostles, made decisions without direct revelation.
When the apostles were choosing a replacement for Judas, they did not ask for direct revelation—they consulted the Word, and then made an informed decision. When they chose the first deacons, appointed elders, decided where to preach the gospel, and even at the Jerusalem Counsel, God’s people made important decisions, not on the basis of direct revelation or impressions from the Holy Spirit, but on the basis of careful application of the sufficient Word. Direct revelation was not a regular occurrence even for the apostles in the first century.
Second, people misunderstand the purpose of those instances of direct revelation. Those experiences did not exist for their own sake as the normal way God revealed his will to his people. Rather, those times when the Spirit spoke directly through prophets were for the purpose of confirming the written Word of God as it was being given as the more sure Word, and once the written Word was confirmed, direct revelation was no longer necessary.
Think about those three periods of history: God spoke directly to the people through Moses, but then God wrote his revelation in the tablets of stone and in his written Word. The direct revelation confirmed that the law and the testimony was from God, but once it was written, God didn’t speak directly to the people. He expected the people to trust and obey something more sure—his written Word. God’s Word was sufficient.
The Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets like Elijah and Isaiah, but then those prophets wrote what God said. The direct revelation confirmed that the prophecy was from God, but once it was written, God didn’t speak directly to the people. He expected the people to trust and obey something more sure—his written Word. God’s Word was sufficient.
And likewise, God’s Spirit spoke directly through Jesus and his apostles. But then, as Peter said in chapter 3, the apostles wrote what God said. The direct revelation confirmed that the revelation was from God, but now that it has been written, we should not expect God to speak directly to us. God expects us to trust and obey something more sure—his written Word. God’s Word is sufficient.
It is foolish for us to look at what God was doing in those three unique periods when he was progressively delivering his revelation and assume them to be normative for us today. Those three periods when Spirit did speak directly produced the more sure written Word of God: (1) Moses, (2) Elijah and the prophets, (2) Jesus and the apostles—the Law, the Prophets, and the New Testament. And, remarkably, this is exactly who gathered together on the Mount of Transfiguration: Moses, Elijah, Jesus and his apostles—representatives of the 66 inspired, authoritative, inscripturated, more sure, sufficient Word of God, and this Word will be sufficient until Jesus comes again.
The reason that the written Word is more sure than direct revelation from the Spirit is because of the nature of inspiration. Peter addresses this in verse 20:
Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of men.
In other words, the inscripturated Word of God does not come from a human source. If it did, Scripture would not be inerrant, infallible, authoritative, or sufficient. This is the problem with even supernatural subjective revelations—they are fallible because humans are fallible. Visions can be caused by lack of sleep, inner promptings can be indigestion, and dreams can be caused by too much spicy food. If you heard a voice from heaven, you couldn’t be certain it was actually God.
But what has been written down in the Scriptures is not like this. It does not come from a human source. This is what makes Scripture even more trustworthy and preferred to direct revelation from God. No prophecy of Scripture comes from a human source. Rather, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (v. 21). Peter is saying that we ought to trust the sufficient Word because it is revelation from God’s Spirit that is even more sure than if he spoke to us directly.
Trust the sufficient Word. It’s all we need. We do not need supernatural subjective experiences, we do not need the voice of God from Heaven, we do not need a still small voice in our hearts, we do not need visions or dreams or impressions or “nudges from the Holy Spirit”—we have something better than all of that. We have more sure the written Word of God. Scripture is sufficient.
|Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King, Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2004), 137.
|Priscilla Shirer, Discerning the Voice of God: How to Recognize When He Speaks (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 18, 20.
|Blackaby and King, Experiencing God, 57.
|Charles F. Stanley, How to Listen to God (Grand Rapids: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 3.
|Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2018), 118.
|Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, 119. Emphasis added.
|Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 45–46.