Bondage to Individual Leaders
The question about the cessation or continuation of special revelation has very practical ramifications for the Christian life, for God’s special revelation carries great authority. When people ascribe that authority to mystical experiences, the results are damaging to their spiritual lives, sometimes tragically so. Here the saints must embrace the balance of biblical wisdom. We must not deny the reality of Christian experience as the Holy Spirit works in our lives. Christianity is not merely a set of prescribed beliefs and behaviors. It is not less than that, but it is more, for it engages the affections of the heart. The saints walk with the living God. Christ is real to the believer, and his Spirit is our indwelling divine companion. However, we also must not fall into experientialism, ascribing divine authority over our faith and obedience to spiritual experiences. The belief that God continues to grant special revelation through personal experience fosters unhealthy experientialism.
First, continuationism tends to put people in bondage to individual leaders. Despite cautions and safeguards in responsible Pentecostal and charismatic churches, if people are convinced that someone has a regular ministry of receiving direct revelations from God, they will ascribe unusual authority to that person. They will seek his counsel more fervently, listen to him more attentively, follow his instructions more submissively, and support his ministry more generously. Granting such a person the title of apostle or prophet aggravates the problem. Though evangelical theologians such as Storms and Grudem labor to redefine prophecy, the moment we call someone a prophet, we invoke thoughts of Moses and Elijah in those whose minds are marinated with Scripture.
Christianity is not merely a set of prescribed beliefs and behaviors. It is not less than that, but it is more, for it engages the affections of the heart.
Someone might object that this criticism would also apply to prophets in the first century, thereby indicting God’s wisdom in giving the gift of prophecy then. However, at that time the living apostles could confront and reprove abuses of prophetic ministry, supporting the ruling authority of the church’s elders while directing the churches in how to use prophecy (cf. 1 Thess. 5:12–13, 19–22). Today, an acclaimed prophet can denounce faithful elders as unspiritual or unconverted, leading many astray. Therefore, we protect God’s people from ecclesiastical tyranny when we teach them that the gifts of apostles and prophets have ceased. There is grave danger in allowing for prophets who receive revelations immediately from God today. While some who claim such gifts may be sincere Christians who walk humbly with their God, others may open themselves to demonic influence. Jonathan Edwards, himself a great advocate of mighty works of God’s Spirit in revival, gave this warning:
And one erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that ’tis God’s manner now in these days to guide his saints, at least some that are more eminent, by inspiration, or immediate revelation; and to make known to ’em what shall come to pass hereafter, or what it is his will that they should do, by impressions that he by his Spirit makes upon their minds, either with or without texts of Scripture; whereby something is made known to them, that is not taught in the Scripture as the words lie in the Bible.
By such a notion the Devil has a great door opened for him; and if once this opinion should come to be fully yielded to and established in the church of God, Satan would have opportunity thereby to set up himself as the guide and oracle of God’s people, and to have his word regarded as their infallible rule, and so to lead ’em where he would, and to introduce what he pleased, and soon to bring the Bible into neglect and contempt. Late experience in some instances has shown that the tendency of this notion is to cause persons to esteem the Bible as a book that is in a great measure useless.
This error will defend and support all errors. As long as a person has a notion that he is guided by immediate direction from heaven, it makes him incorrigible and impregnable in all his misconduct: for what signifies it for poor blind worms of the dust to go to argue with a man, and endeavor to convince him and correct him, that is guided by the immediate counsels and commands of the great Jehovah?1
Edwards said that he had witnessed many such “prophecies,” sometimes by very godly Christians walking in communion with God, and with the revelations accompanied by texts of Scripture—and yet the prophecies came to nothing. He exclaimed, “Why can’t we be contented with the divine oracles, that holy, pure Word of God, that we have in such abundance and such clearness, now since the canon of Scripture is completed?”2 Such contentment would do much to protect the church from arrogant leaders who claim to be inspired by God.
Bondage to Presumptuous Beliefs
Second, continuationism tends to put people in bondage to presumptuous beliefs. Someone communicates to them a supposed revelation about their future health, career, marriage, children, or ministry. This encourages them to pray and act with faith that God will do this. However, their faith has no basis in God’s Word, and therefore, it is presumption. They may fall into great discouragement and doubt about God’s faithfulness when things do not go as they hope. Sincere people have had their hopes for healing of medical problems shattered when they remained sick or disabled despite the assurances of modern “prophets.”
This problem is inherent in the continuationist view. Storms writes, “People often confuse praying expectantly with praying presumptuously. Prayer is presumptuous when the person claims healing without revelatory warrant,” by which he means “an explicit biblical assertion . . . or revelatory insight via a word of knowledge (cf. Acts 14:8–10), prophecy, or through a dream or vision.”3 In other words, if a person receives a promise of healing through a prophecy or dream, then he may go beyond a general expectation that God is good to actually claim healing by faith. This demonstrates a confidence in modern prophecies as God’s trustworthy word.4 Contrary to Storms, prayer is presumptuous if offered with faith in anything other than God’s promises in the Holy Scriptures.
Bondage to Human Thoughts, Impressions, and Feelings
Third, continuationism tends to put people in bondage to human thoughts, impressions, and feelings. The Christian life is certainly a life of feeling. The Holy Spirit produces holy desires (Gal. 5:17) and holy delight in God’s law (Rom. 7:22; Rom. contrast 8:7–9). The Spirit stirs God’s children to cry out to their Father in faith and assures them of his love and acceptance (Rom. 8:15–16). However, when they view their inner experiences as potential revelations or words from God, then they enslave themselves to subjective impressions and impulses. This results in false guilt, legalism, and superstition, for our thoughts and emotions are merely human, even when sanctified by God’s Spirit. We should not lean on our own understanding, but seek our wisdom from the Word of God (Prov. 2:1–9; 3:5).
What is the biblical basis for this idea of inward revelation? Evangelical Christians commonly justify their subjectivism with Paul’s teaching that God’s children are “led by the Spirit” (Rom. 8:14; cf. Gal. 5:18). However, when those texts are read in context, we do not find Paul speaking about inner divine promptings or impulses that reveal God’s will. Instead, the Spirit’s leading is his effectual influence to draw God’s children along the pathway of putting sin to death, embracing love and holiness, and persevering through suffering in the hope of glory (Rom. 8:12–17; Gal. 5:19–24).5 Edwards said that prophecy is a gift that even wicked sinners like Balaam may receive, but the leading of the Spirit is a saving grace of God’s children: “There is a more excellent way that the Spirit of God leads the sons of God, that natural men cannot have, and that is by inclining them to do the will of God, and go in the shining path of truth and Christian holiness, from an holy heavenly disposition, which the Spirit of God gives them.”6 When we experience desires to obey God’s Word, then we should certainly ascribe them to the sanctifying influence of the Spirit. However, we should not regard such desires as a revelation from God regarding his will. Sanctification is not revelation, but the grace to obey revelation.
The first volume in the Reformed Systematic Theology series draws on the historical theology of the Reformed tradition, exploring the first 2 of 8 central points of systematic theology with an accessible, comprehensive, and experiential approach.
The Scriptures indicate that special revelation comes with divinely authoritative words, not vague impressions on the imagination or emotions.7 However, Grudem, quoting Timothy Pain, recommends that a prophet preface his prophecy with “I think the Lord is suggesting something like . . .”8 Storms relates a story in which a man speaking to a couple saw in his imagination “a picture of a young boy dressed up like General MacArthur,” and hence deduced (prophetically) that they had a son named Douglas.9 Prophets do not need to guess about the meaning of their visions, for they come with divine words of truth (Jer. 1:11–14). The Spirit did not give Philip a feeling that he should approach the Ethiopian’s chariot, but “said unto Philip, Go near” (Acts 8:29). The Spirit likewise said to the prophets and teachers in Antioch, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:1–3)
If we adopt with Storms and Grudem a view of prophecy as a mixture of divine and human ideas, then we find ourselves in a very unstable position. The life of the believer is ruled by the revealed will of God; what shall the Christian do if that revelation is clouded, unclear, and fallible? Robertson writes, “On the one hand, prophecy is said to be based on a revelation that comes directly from God, uncovering the truth about persons or situations that otherwise could not be known. But on the other hand, these revelations are delivered by the prophet in such a garbled manner that the person addressed may choose to ignore them altogether if he wishes.”10 Are we to view such prophecies as counsel from sanctified but fallible men or as revelations from God? Robertson concludes, “This concept of prophecy has the potential for creating great uncertainty in the lives of God’s people.”11
Grudem seems to suggest that continuing special revelation is necessary for God to have “a personal relationship with his people, a relationship in which he communicated directly and personally with them.”12 However, as Reformed experiential Christians, we strongly affirm the personal relationship God has with his people apart from new revelations. God speaks to them by his Spirit through his Word. Christ knows his sheep, they know Christ, they hear their Shepherd’s voice, and they follow him (John 10:4, 14, 16, 27). The Bible is not just a textbook for theology and ethics, but the book of God’s covenant with his people, through which he guides them as they walk with him. They do not need private revelations. They find the written Word eminently personal and practical to guide them: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:105).13
God directs his people in his general providence over creation (1 Thess. 3:11) to the good works that he prepared for them to do (Eph. 2:10). He sovereignly rules over all things in heaven and earth, including the hearts of men.14 Like Nehemiah, we should pray for God’s help in all our labors, thank God for his good hand upon us to give us success, and give him glory for good ideas that he places in our minds.15 All our abilities and opportunities come from God (James 1:17). Every instance of good timing is arranged by his wisdom and power.16 However, we should not think of our inward or outward experiences as “words” from God, for God’s purpose in them is partially shrouded in the mystery of his decree. Providence is not special revelation and it should not be treated as if it creates new obligations or offers new promises apart from God’s Word. Christians today are not apostles or prophets, and they should not be treated as if they have direct access to the voice of God apart from Scripture.
While wise decisions require a consideration of factual information and an awareness of our feelings and intuitions, these factors do not constitute the authoritative norms to direct our beliefs and behaviors. Our moral and spiritual wisdom comes from daily meditation upon God’s Word. Gaffin says, “Scripture reveals all that we need to have not only concerning the gospel and sound doctrinal and ethical principles, but also for the practical and pressing life issues about which we have to make decisions.”17 Finding God’s wisdom requires the hard work of listening to the preached Word, praying, reading, studying, thinking, obeying, suffering, and talking with other believers while depending on the illumination of the Spirit. There is no shortcut to wisdom through direct revelation. Wisdom must come by constant engagement with God’s Word.
1. Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in WJE, 4:432–33.
2. Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in WJE, 4:433–34.
3. Storms, “A Third Wave View,” in AMGFT, 214.
4. Gaffin, “A Cessationist Response to C. Samuel Storms and Douglas A. Oss,” in AMGFT, 294
5. See Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 498–99.
6. Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival, in WJE, 4:436
7. Acts 16:6–7 states that Paul’s missionary team was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go to Asia and that the Spirit would not allow them to go to Bithynia, but it does not tell us how the Spirit communicated this, so nothing can be concluded from these texts about inward impressions. Similarly, Isa. 30:21 is not a promise of personal guidance through direct revelation, but of faithful teachers (Isa. 20) who will tell God’s people to be faithful to the covenant; cf. Deut. 5:32. It can also be an abuse of Scripture to say that God speaks in the believer’s heart with “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). The text cited describes an audible sound when God approached the prophet Elijah to communicate verbally with him. It does not pertain to the inward impressions of believers.
8. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy, 93.
9. Sam Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 2002), 94.
10. Robertson, The Final Word, 90.
11. Robertson, The Final Word, 92.
12. Wayne Grudem and Ian Hamilton, “Prophecy in the Church Today,” moderated by Adrian Reynolds, Proclamation Trust: EMA 2010, https://vimeo.com/37169587, video position 6:57. See also http://www.proctrust.org.uk/resources/talk/1625.
13. Cf. Gaffin, “A Cessationist View,” in AMGFT, 54
14. Ps. 135:6; Prov. 16:1, 9, 33; 21:1.
15. Neh. 2:4, 8, 12, 18, 20.
16. Est. 4:14; 6:1–11; Ps. 31:15; Eccl. 3:1–8, 11.
17. Gaffin, “A Cessationism Conclusion,” in AMGFT, 338.
This article is adapted from Reformed Systematic Theology: Volume 1: Revelation and God by Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley.
- The Importance of Preaching the Theology of Suffering (Joel R. Beeke)
- Why We Need Systematic Theology (Joel R. Beeke, Paul M. Smalley)
- 3 Crucial Qualities of All Good Sermons (Joel R. Beeke)