“God spoke to me.” “God gave me a dream.” “The Holy Spirit led me.” All these represent claims that I hear just about every time I am around other Christians. Rare is the modern Christian that does not make these claims. Rarer still are those that dare to question such claims. And most rare of all are those that dare to reject such claims in preference for, not just a theological, but a practice view of the sufficiency of Scripture. Why is that?
The proposition that “God spoke to me” is not the same as the proposition, “God spoke to Moses.” It is not even the same as the proposition, “God spoke to men and women in Scripture.” There are a few things we can point out about the experiences revealed in Scripture and the modern claim that God is still speaking to people. First, the nature of the experience in Scripture is remarkable. When God spoke in Scripture, it was a miraculous event. God spoke directly to men, audibly in Scripture. There was no possibility of confusing God’s voice with a voice in my head, my own psychological self-conscious dialectic. Second, God spoke to men through the Torah. The Torah was given by God through Moses during a miraculous, supernatural event. God spoke to men in visions and dreams within the Scriptures, but these experiences were divine visions and dreams that also suggest supernatural properties for lack of a better expression. In other words, they were real. It was not possible for the recipient to “get it wrong.” God speaks efficaciously to His children. He does not stutter or stammer. He does not leave you hanging. You know it was God speaking to you because of the supernatural imposition of the event itself. In other words, it is not possible for you to adopt the belief that God had not spoken to you when, in fact, He had spoken to you.
What are we to make of the claims: 1) God spoke to me; 2) God gave me a dream; 3) The Holy Spirit is leading or speaking to me to do x. If you are the one making such a claim, you must be prepared to defend your claim. If you are going to tell others that God is speaking to you, you must give us a reason to believe it. No one should expect to make the incredible claim that God is speaking to them without being willing and open to showing us why they believe such an event occurred. Yet, when the people making such claims are questioned, even in the politest way, they become incredibly defensive. It is as if they think that they are one of the apostles of our Lord, speaking with unquestioned authority. But even the apostles did not do operate in such a fashion.
We read Luke’s record in Acts of how the Bereans responded to Paul’s claims. “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” They turned to God’s speaking in the Scripture to see if Paul’s claims about the Messiah were true. Luke describes these individuals as more noble-minded than others. Why? Because they readily received the Word of God and tested all claims by the Word of God. The claims of the apostles were testable.
This problem has arisen within the Church because of a flawed understanding of the nature of Scripture. What is Scripture? A.B. Bruce represents revelation as consisting in the “self-manifestation of God in human history as the God of a gracious purpose – the manifestation being made not merely of chiefly by words, but very specially by deeds.” [Warfield, Revelation & Inspiration] And that revelation comes to us by way of a text, words put down on paper. The Scripture is not just the record of God’s revelation, but it is included in that revelation itself. The two cannot be separated.
Many modern Christians do not appreciate the uniqueness of Scripture. They do not understand that God’s divine acts in Scripture had a unique and specific purpose. They seem to think that, like Paul, Christ should appear and speak to them. But such a view cannot help but devalue the nature of God’s self-revelation in the history of human redemption. I was watching the popular TV show, “Blue Bloods” not long ago and one of the actors in this particular episode claimed God had spoken to her. When Danny, the cop, took the information to his sister, the assistant district attorney, her response was profound. Danny argued that God had spoken to people in the Bible, so why not this girl? Erin’s rebuttal was short and swift, and on point: “this isn’t the Bible.” Her answer was actually spot on. What I am saying is that any claim that God has acted especially in your life is a claim that must be, by its nature, on par with Scripture. God’s acts cannot be categorized into “really amazing” and therefore, authoritative, like the acts in Scripture and “not really amazing” and therefore, not binding, because they are personal to me. We have no record of God acting supernaturally in the life of anyone that was just personal to them. Every act of God in Scripture was a unique act designed to reveal something about God to His elect. Think about it.
I blame this particular error of continuous revelation on two movements primarily: the influence of Anabaptist theology from the radical reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the encroachment of Pentecostal theology into mainstream Christian churches in the 20th century. Pentecostal theology, while denying it theoretically, affirms a standard for revelation apart from Scripture. Pentecostal epistemology is experiential at its core, subject to the whim of the individual. According to Pentecostal hermeneutics, we live within Scripture the same as the apostles. In fact, many Pentecostals claim that the apostolic office continues to this day. This is a serious error. And it opens the door for all sorts of subjective claims that God is revealing himself to us in ways that are distinct from Scripture. And if this is true, Scripture is not any more unique than its final outward form of being 66 books that happen to be collected together in one book called the Bible. God’s revelation cannot take on different characteristics because, well, it is God’s revelation.
The claim is made that the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth and will teach us and show us all things. The references that supposedly support this way of thinking are John 14:26 and 16:13. But do these texts actually teach us that every Christian will have a relationship with the Holy Spirit, of such a personal nature, that He will actually lead us in ways that do not concern the revelation of truth in Scripture? What does John 14:26 and 16:13 actually say? What does it mean? And how are we to appropriate it to our lives today?
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. [John 14:26] First of all, this statement is made within the context of what is called “The Upper Room Discourse.” This is Jesus’ final interaction with his disciples prior to His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. He has gathered His disciples together one final time. Hence, He is speaking to His disciples. In this setting, Jesus makes a statement of fact: when the Helper comes, who is the Holy Spirit, He will teach you all things. So the Helper is going to teach the disciples all things. What things? All things that Christ has taught them up to this point. The Holy Spirit is going to bring all things that Christ said to them to their remembrance. Jesus makes it plain that the role of the Holy Spirit is to enable the appropriation of the truth revealed by Christ to His disciples. Jesus is not speaking broadly to you and me here. D.A. Carson explains it well:
“One of the Spirit’s principal tasks, after Jesus is glorified, is to remind the disciples of Jesus’ teaching and thus, in the new situation after the resurrection, to help them grasp its significance and thus to teach them what it meant. Indeed, the Evangelist himself draws attention to some things that were remembered and understood only after the resurrection (2:19–22; 12:16; cf. 20:9). Granted the prominence of this theme, the promise of v. 26 has in view the Spirit’s role to the first generation of disciples, not to all subsequent Christians. John’s purpose in including this theme and this verse is not to explain how readers at the end of the first century may be taught by the Spirit, but to explain to readers at the end of the first century how the first witnesses, the first disciples, came to an accurate and full understanding of the truth of Jesus Christ. The Spirit’s ministry in this respect was not to bring qualitatively new revelation, but to complete, to fill out, the revelation brought by Jesus himself.”
Since this passage is not a blanket promise to all Christians everywhere, it is improper to interpret it to mean that Jesus is here suggesting that the Holy Spirit is going to teach all of us everything that He said to His disciples. It is important to remember the basic steps for interpreting a passage. We must understand what the text is saying, then what it means, and then determine how that applies to us. We have already explained what the text is saying and with D.A. Carson’s help, both what it means and how it applies to us. Because the apostles were taught directly by the Holy Spirit how to understand and interpret Jesus’ revelation of divine truth, we can trust what they wrote to the church.
The other text cited by many Christians that hold this “divine impression” position is John 16:13: “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” It must first be understood that Jesus makes this statement in the very same Upper Room Discourse as he did John 14:26. There is a variant in this text that has a bearing on its interpretation. If eis is preferred, the reading should say “into all truth” while if one prefers en, the reading should be rendered “in all truth.” Metzger prefers en. Carson comments, “If there is a distinction between ‘in all truth’ and ‘into all truth’, it is that the latter hints at truth the disciples have not yet in any sense penetrated, while ‘in all truth’ suggests an exploration of truth already principally disclosed. Jesus himself is the truth (14:6); now the Spirit of truth leads the disciples into all the implications of the truth, the revelation, intrinsically bound up with Jesus Christ. There is no other locus of truth; this is all truth.” Again, this text is speaking specifically about the relationship and role the Holy Spirit has with the disciples. Neither John 14:26 nor John 16:13 suggests that Christians can expect to be taught all things
Finally, the notion that we need divine impressions, voices, visions, and dreams today has serious implications for the attribute we call the sufficiency of Scripture. Either the Scripture is enough for a right relationship with God, for walking in divine truth, for walking in God’s will or it is not. Francis Turretin puts it like this: The question then amounts to this – whether Scripture perfectly contains all things (not absolutely), but necessary to salvation; not expressly and in so many words, but equivalently and by legitimate inference, as to leave no place for any unwritten (agraphon) word containing doctrinal or moral traditions. [Turretin, Institutes] Can a Christian violate the will of God without violating Scripture? Can a Christian violate the will of God without also sinning? This is the question. According to Paul, the word of God enables the Christian to meet all the demands of godly ministry and righteous living. [MacArthur]
In summary then, to claim that God is speaking to you through some small voice in your conscience, through divine impressions, through dreams, or visions is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary justification if it is to be accepted. To argue that God is still speaking to us today because he spoke to others in the Bible is a logically specious argument. We are not living in the unique revelation of God as it unfolds across the history of redemption. Third, such claims are simply untestable. Whether or not you married “the one” based on some impression is a claim that can in no way, shape, or form be tested. Fourth, if these claims are true, a person could sin without violating a command of Scripture. If I refused to relocate when God was telling me this was His will for me, that would necessarily be a sin because I am going against God. But that sin is not found in Scripture. How many of these could there be? It seems there could be an infinite number of them. Moreover, this thinking impugns the sufficiency of Scripting by implying that Scripture alone is not enough. After all, if I can sin while being obedient to Scripture, then obviously Scripture is not sufficient to keep me from sinning or failing to walk in the will of God. There are numerous problems with this way of thinking. I hope this post has, at a minimum, helped you recognize some issues with this behavior that you may have not considered previously.