Strange Fire – Providence is Remarkable – Phil Johnson
For those who are unable to view the free live stream of the Strange Fire Conference here at Grace Community Church, I thought I would do my best to provide a written summary of the various sessions as they unfold (Session One; Session Two; Session Three; Session Four,Session Five, Session Six, Breakout Session 1, Q&A 1, Session Eight, Session 9). I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, or if I’ll be able to do other sessions (check out Tim Challies’ blog for his coverage) But I thought a little would be better than nothing. It provides us with a helpful opportunity to interact with what is actually being said at the conference. Having said that, the following was transcribed in haste, and so please forgive any typos. I pray it’s a benefit to you.
One of the underlying presuppositions of the Charismatic worldview is that if God is not actively intervening in creation through miracles, signs, and wonders, then you’ve got an absentee God.
Charismatics frequently lob this charge at non-Charismatics. If you believe the miraculous charismatic gifts have ceased, they say, your view is a cousin of Deism—virtually a denial that God is present and at work in this world’s affairs. If you doubt whether today’s Charismatics are truly speaking in tongues and getting direct revelation from God, they will tell you that your skepticism is tantamount to materialistic rationalism—essentially a form of rank unbelief.
That’s because, the only way the typical charismatic can envision God as active and personal is if He is constantly displaying His presence in creation by miraculous means; through constant, direct, extra-biblical revelation; or with supernatural signs and wonders in the heavens.
That way of thinking actually comes dangerously close to the Gnostic notion that God stands outside creation and therefore if he acts at all, it must be from outside the cosmos, by overturning the natural order of things.
If you think I exaggerate, let me quote some fairly typical charismatic sources.
Here’s one from a blog post written by Dave Miller, senior pastor of a Southern Baptist Church in Sioux City, Iowa. He edits a heavily trafficked blog known as SBC Voices, and he’s a former cessationist who was persuaded by Reformed Charismatics to embrace charismatic doctrine. His article is titled, “God Told Me that the Bible Does NOT Teach Cessationism.” He cites several of the standard charismatic arguments, and then in a summary at the end of his article, he writes this:
I think that some in the cessationist movement have adopted what I call biblical deism. Deism believed in an impersonal God, one who created the world then stood back and let it operate according to certain principles. Biblical deism creates a somewhat impersonal God today. He does not walk with me and talk with me.
He sort of gratuitously tacks on a throwaway line in his closing paragraph saying his criticism of cessationists “was intended playfully, not in a belittling way,” but it’s clear that he is seriously equating cessationism with the underlying principles of deism, and he clearly doesbelieve that if we’re not seeing constant miraculous intervention in the form of signs and wonders and miraculous gifts, then we don’t have a “God [who] is personal. . . . [who] speaks and listens and enters into relationship with us.”
Here’s another item from someone who describes himself as “open but cautious.” Darren Sumner, an adjunct professor in systematic theology at Fuller Seminary and Seattle Pacific. He has an earned PhD from the University of Aberdeen. He writes, “I don’t believe that I have the gift of tongues, or prophecy, or healing.” Indeed, he says, “I have little or no direct, personal experience with such giftings and little basis on which to judge them.” But then he says he rejects cessationism because in his opinion, “pure cessationism ultimately denies that God is active in the world. This view has more in common with Deism than historic, orthodox Christianity.” His article on the subject is titled “Can Cessationism Be Christian?”
Adrian Warnock is a British medical doctor whose blog has been one of the most widely read Christian blogs in the UK for a decade. He identifies with Reformed Charismatics on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2006 he responded to an article I had written pointing out some of the famous charismatic prophecies that have clearly proven false. In his published reply to me, he wrote this: “What I want to know about Phil is not whether he speaks in tongues . . . but rather does he have an intimate, experience of the Spirit[?]” He went on to suggest that cessationism portrays God as “a passive and absent figure who has left us only an intellectual relationship with the bible [sic].”
And no less than Mark Driscoll famously linked cessationism with both deism and atheism. “Cessationism is worldliness,” he said. And then in a stunning piece of historical revisionism, he claimed cessationism is a product of the “modernistic enlightenment project, individualism and rationalism.” It is rooted in sheer skepticism, Driscoll said. Here’s a direct quote. After talking about modernism’s rejection of supernaturalism, he says:
There is a vestige of modernism that tries to accommodate the spiritual aspect and it becomes deism, where there is a God—but this “god” is not involved in our world, he doesn’t break in and violate natural law; the supernatural is not possible. This is Thomas Jefferson who sits down in the White House with a set of scissors and cuts all of the miracles out of the bible and publishes something called The Philosophy of Jesus Christ. This includes Unitarians; this includes very liberal mainline so-called Christian denominations who are basically deists. There is a god, he is far away, doesn’t have anything to do with us, and the miracles can all be explained away. They are primitive, superstition, myths, misunderstandings. So it goes to Atheism, Deism and . . .Cessationism.
Now notice: every source I quoted making that charge is a Reformed charismatic or someone who would describe himself as “open but cautious.” These are not the obvious charlatans or people on the far-out fringe whose theological perspective is faulty from the get-go. (There are, you know, millions of Charismatics who are totally unorthodox across the board in their doctrine.) But these men whom I have quoted are generally perceived as sound and reliable teachers; mild Charismatics who would be welcome speakers in most of the mainstream Reformed and evangelical conferences. All of them have positioned themselves as role models for the Young, Restless, and Reformed.
Yet the charge they are making betrays an appalling ignorance of the historic Reformed emphasis on the doctrine of divine providence. Their accusation against non-Charismatics is rooted in their own failure to appreciate what Scripture teaches about the immanence of God—that God personally, constantly, permanently, and exhaustively pervades, sustains, and governs every aspect of His creation. He is personally present and meticulously at work in everything that happens, even when He is not manifesting His presence by miracles.
That’s what I believe. I am not a skeptic who refuses to see God’s hand at work in Christians’ lives. I just want to preserve a biblical sense of sanity in the claims we make about how God works and what it means when He does. This is the doctrine of providence, and I want to explore the subject with you, starting in Matthew 10
Here is some context: The early Galilean ministry of Jesus is drawing to a close. Before Jesus moves on to the next phase of his earthly ministry, he commissions the Twelve and sends them out into Galilee in twos.
It is a perilous mission. Jesus himself says in verse 16: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He knows they will encounter hardship, harassment, and hostility of the worst kind. (Verse 11: “They will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues”; verses 21-22: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.”)
He further tells them they will face direct demonic opposition and relentless persecution from worldly people. The twelve were being sent out during a national epidemic of unbelief, so as Jesus commissioned them, verse 1 says he “gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction.”
These were uniquely apostolic gifts. They were miraculous powers that belonged to Christ by divine right. The twelve were being sent as His special envoys and trusted representatives, so He delegated supernatural abilities to these twelve men to empower them to do precisely what He had done. Their ministry would demonstrate Jesus’ authority over every kind of demon or disease. In effect they were showing the world that their Master is Lord over both the spiritual and the physical realms. The miracles they did also validated these twelve as authoritative heralds of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But the message they proclaimed was not about the miracles. It was the same gospel Jesus himself preached. The parallel passage in Mark 6:12-13 sums up their ministry this way: “They went out and proclaimed that people should repent. [That was the message. And here’s what validated the authority of that call to repentance:] They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” Mark makes the point very clear: They didn’t preach about health, wealth, and prosperity; seed-faith; holy laughter; how to be clairvoyant; positive confession; or any of the typical charismatic themes. Their message was about repentance for the remission of sins. Just like Jesus. They were delivering hismessage with authority specifically delegated from him for that purpose.
What we see here is the very beginning of the process described in Hebrews 2:3-4, which tells us that the gospel “was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” These uniquely miraculous gifts are referred to in 2 Corinthians 12:12 as “The signs of a true apostle . . . signs and wonders and mighty works.”
Paul is saying that the very essence of what made the apostles unique was their ability to speak infallibly with God’s own authority and validate the message with “signs and wonders and mighty works.” Jesus did not bestow this kind of authority on the multitudes who followed Him. He did it here for the twelve. Then later, during the Judean ministry of Christ, Luke 10 describes how he commissioned seventy other disciples for a similar apostolic mission. This time when Jesus commissions them, he doesn’t mention power over demons and disease—but they come back amazed, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” (Luke 10:17).
Jesus responds in Luke 19:19-20: “I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Jesus gave them supernatural powers for their protection on that mission. But whatever sense of joy and wonder they derived from having that power, it shouldn’t eclipse the gladness and gratitude that stemmed from the assurance of their eternal salvation. In other words, Jesus is pointing them back to the gospel again, telling them not let an obsession with supernatural gifts divert them from what he actually came to do: “to seek and to save the lost.”
Nothing in this context or anywhere else in Scripture suggests that the special prerogatives given to the Twelve or to the seventy on these apostolic missions would be the common possession of all Christians for all time.
The working of signs and wonders was never meant to be part of the ongoing missionary strategy of the church. Scripture never portrays evangelistic work that way. The great Commission doesn’t call for that approach to evangelism—as if a great cosmic display of miracles might convince unbelievers to repent who would otherwise reject the gospel message. In fact, Jesus himself repudiated that whole idea. Luke 16:31: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
The miraculous powers operated in and around the apostles and functioned at the start to establish the apostolic office and validate the authority of these men and their cohorts. But even in the biblical record of the earliest days of the church, the working of signs and wonders quickly recedes into the background. Before the canon is even completed the miraculous aspect of apostolic work disappears.
So in 2 Timothy 4:20, Paul leaves Trophimus at Miletus sick. He doesn’t heal him. He tells Timothy to take a little wine for his frequent digestive infirmities. He doesn’t organize the laying on of hands. In the trajectory of apostolic ministry as recorded in the New Testament, miracles, signs, and wonders play a diminishing role as the embryonic church grows and spreads. That’s certainly not what we would expect to see, if we buy the continuationist argument.
The proper role and reason for miraculous gifts is clear in microcosm right here in Matthew 10, as Jesus gifts the apostles for the first time and sends them out. His commission reveals that he has a deep pastoral concern for them. What he talks about mostly is the abuse and opposition they would suffer; not the miracles they would do. I’m intrigued by his instructions on how to deal with hostility (v. 14): “If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.”
Why not put on a convincing display of miracle power? Why not, “Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent”? Why not call down fire from heaven? Why not take off your coat and wave it at them to slay them in the Spirit? Or the Todd Bentley approach? Drop-kick them in the stomach and command the devil to come out of them.
Yes, Jesus gave the twelve power to heal and cast out demons. But for what purpose? Why wasn’t that the centerpiece of his strategy for overcoming unbelief? Why wasn’t that put to use to silence opposition? It certainly would have been a more powerful and persuasive response to persecution than shaking the dust off your feet and moving on to the next town. Jesus is clearly not thinking like a charismatic here.
But what I want to notice with you in this hour is where Jesus does direct the apostles’ attention. He points them to the doctrine of divine providence and reminds them (v. 30): “Even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” He tells them there is nothing so insignificant that God is unaware of it or uninvolved with it—and that includes even the precise number of hairs on your balding pate.
Verses 29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
I can’t stress this enough: When the Lord wants to reassure the apostles that Almighty God is directly and personally and lovingly involved in all their experience (not only in their triumphs and successes, but also in their trials and sufferings), Jesus does not point them to the miracles. He doesn’t talk about dreams and visions or other mystical phenomena. He doesn’t tell them to listen for a still, small voice inside their own heads. He certainly doesn’t tell them their words have creative power—so when they encounter opposition they just need to make a positive confession.
Instead, he teaches them a truth that we know as the doctrine of providence. He stresses the fact that God is intimately involved in all the details of our lives, even when we can’t consciously sense his presence or understand what he is doing or why he is doing it. As believers, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love [Him].” How could we be certain God is working all things for good unless he is indeed working in all things? That one promise is sufficient to prove the truth of God’s sovereign Providence. He will accomplish good and put His own glory on display, and he will employ everything in creation to that end. That is the ultimate purpose for everything, and God will accomplish it.
Miracles vs. Providence
And ordinarily, he accomplishes his purposes not through miraculous means, but by the mystery of ordinary providence. At key times in redemptive history, God has intervened with miracles, as it is always his prerogative to do. But nothing in Scripture teaches us to expect or believe that miracles should be the normal experience of all Christians. That’s not the case, even in the biblical record. Miracles are extremely rare—extraordinary. Miracles are not common, everyday experiences. And that is true by definition.
In fact, here’s a proper definition: A miracle is an extraordinary work of God that transcends or contravenes the ordinary laws of nature. It is a particular kind of sign—an unmistakable display of supernatural power calculated to confront unbelief and provoke awe—with the purpose of authenticating an agent of divine revelation. True miracles are not merely arbitrary displays of God’s power; they are manifestly supernatural, and they are themselves a form of revelation—God unveiling himself in a way that cannot be denied.
When someone born blind receives sight, that’s a bona fide miracle. When the sea parts for Moses or the sun stands still for Joshua, or Jonah is eaten by a big fish, those are actual miracles—true signs and wonders.
When Sarah conceived a child in her old age, decades after menopause, that was a miracle. When a couple in their 30s with no verifiable physical obstacle struggle and pray through years of frustrating efforts to conceive finally bear a child, that’s not a miracle. Was it God who answered those prayers and granted the blessing of conception? Absolutely. That’s true any time anyone gets pregnant. Psalm 127:3: “children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.” But even though we often use language broadly and say conception is a miracle, it’s not a true sign-and-wonder miracle. It is a work of divine providence in perfect harmony with the ordinary operation of nature, as God himself designed and decreed. Does it exclude God to say the conception of a child is not actually a miracle? Not at all, if you understand what providence means.
Likewise, it is not technically a miracle when you pray for some need and get an unexpected check in the mail in exactly the right amount. It’s not a miracle when the supermarket checkout lines are long but the manager opens a one just when you get to the front of the store. It wasn’t a miracle in January 2009 when an airliner crash-landed in the Hudson river and everyone aboard survived.
Was it God who preserved the lives of those people? Absolutely. Is He the unseen provider behind an unexpected check—as well as every other penny that comes our way? He certainly is. I personally thank God and give him the glory—and I hope you do too—for every mundane convenience, and the everyday blessings of life, including something as mundane as when the only empty seat on the airplane is the one next to me. But those aren’t “miracles,” and it cheapens the biblical idea of signs and wonders to pretend that’s what those things are.
The Rarity of Miracles
Miracles are rare, even in Scripture. Most of the miracles in the Bible are grouped in three distinct time periods. The first concentrated wave of miracles occurred in connection with Moses and Joshua. A second outpouring of miracles came with Elijah and Elisha. Before and after and in between there were no more than 15 or 20 individual miracles.
Those scattered individual miracles would include things like the confusion of languages at Babel; Jonah in the belly of a fish; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego in the burning fiery furnace. I believe Gideon’s fleece was a bona fide miracle. And Samson’s strength was a singular miracle that was manifested repeatedly. In the days of Hezekiah, the shadow of the sun moved ten degrees backward, and 2 Kings 19:35 says an angel of the Lord smote the army of Sennacherib so that 185,000 men died in a single night. “When people arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies.” I’d classify that as a miracle, although some might say the means by which the angel smote the army might have been some deadly virus. (Let’s grant that it was a miracle, though.)
Then from the time of Hezekiah, seven centuries before Christ, until the virgin birth, Scripture does not record a single miracle.
The third wave of biblical miracles came, of course, with Christ and the disciples. It was the greatest single outpouring of true miracles the world has ever seen. But even so, the frequency of recorded miracles declines dramatically after the resurrection. You have a cluster of miracles soon after Pentecost, all associated with Peter and the twelve. Then in Acts 19, Paul is in Corinth, and Luke records, “God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”
But miracles almost totally disappear from the biblical record after Acts 20, when Paul restores Eutychus to life. The final eight chapters of Acts record no miracles, except for two incidents in Malta, where Paul casually shakes off a poisonous viper, and then he heals the father of Publius. For the rest of the New Testament (excluding the book of Revelation) no specific miracles are described.
That’s not to suggest there were no apostolic miracles other than the ones expressly recorded, because in 2 Corinthians 12:12 Paul says his own apostleship was confirmed “with signs and wonders and mighty works.” (He mentions, in that context, his vision of heaven, which had occurred some 14 years previously.) And in Galatians 3:5, he says some miracles had previously been done in Galatia. But other than those two places, where he is defending the authority of the gospel, Paul never even mentions the miracles he did.
He deals with the miraculous gifts in 1 Corinthians, because miraculous gifts were being abused by the charismatics in that fellowship. His point there is summed up in 2 Corinthians 12:31, that there is “a still more excellent way” of ministry.
Other than that, and throughout all the other Pauline epistles, Paul gives no prominence to supernatural phenomena or miraculous gifts in the life of the church. In fact, after the gospels and the book of Acts, no other New Testament writer gives miraculous phenomena any significant mention whatsoever.
Miracles in Scripture are always associated with new revelation—and they generally go hand in hand with major acts of judgment or other significant shifts in the course of redemptive history.
So if you drew a timeline covering the entire biblical record and marked every miracle recorded in Scripture, you’ll have those three major clusters of miracles associated with Moses and Joshua; Elijah and Elisha; and Jesus and the apostles—with a sparse handful of individual miracles scattered here and there in between. And aside from the ministry of Christ, never in all of history have miracles become routine or commonplace. That (of course) would nullify the whole point of miracles.
Notice this, too: the vast majority of biblical miracles are the kind of events that anyone who actually saw them—even the most determined unbeliever—could never write them off as bogus, or feigned, or merely coincidental, or parlor tricks, or anything other than true miracles.
Sarah gives birth to a child at age 90-plus. The Red Sea parts for Israel and drowns the Egyptians. Elisha makes an axe-head float. A man born blind receives his sight after Jesus puts mud in his eyes. Jesus rises from the dead after a brutal crucifixion and is seen and talked to and handled by more than 500 eyewitnesses. This is not sleight of hand. These are not the kinds of questionable curiosities and invisible healings that are typically featured on religious television. Modern charismatic lore is full of unverified claims and urban myths about people raised from the dead or people walking on water. (Kevin Demon, who directs the Firestorm Ministry at Bethel Church in Redding, claims the kids in his son’s youth group were able to walk on water and walk through walls.) If people were genuinely being healed of congenital blindness; if someone was truly raised from the dead; or if teenagers really could walk on water or pass through walls—those claims would be easy to prove in this era of cell phones and ubiquitous video. And that’s what you would be seeing on TV, instead of people finding relief from migraines or sore knees and adoring people being slain in the Spirit by a wave of Benny Hinn’s jacket.
Providence: Ordinary and Extraordinary
Now: Does God answer prayers for relief from our migraines? When we pray for a dear saint suffering from severe cancer and that person goes into remission, can we confidently praise God for answering that prayer? Of course. Even when you take an aspirin to get rid of a headache, you should thank God for the relief. He is at work as truly and as personally in the cure we get from an aspirin as he was in the raising of Lazarus. One is a miracle; the other is an ordinary providence.
And there are unusual providences as well. The Puritans used to refer to them as “remarkable providences”—startling coincidences; amazing and timely events that rescue people from destruction (or sometimes sweep them into disaster); natural phenomena that seem to have cosmic significance. These aren’t miracles, and we need to be cautious about what kind of significance we read into them. (Jesus said the fact that a tower in Siloam fell and killed 18 people didn’t mean they were more wicked than everyone else.) But we can certainly affirm with Scripture that the hand of God is behind every blessing, every disaster, and every ordinary event—and none of it is without meaning.
In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America held their national convention in the Minneapolis Convention Center. On Wednesday of that week, in a plenary session at the convention, key leaders in the denomination put forth a resolution arguing that practicing homosexuals should be permitted to serve in pastoral ministry. While that discussion was taking place (during that very hour), a freak tornado blew through Minneapolis, severely damaging the convention center where the denominational meeting was taking place. More ominously, that storm tore the steeple off Central Lutheran Church (the most prominent ELCA church in Minneapolis). And then, without causing any more harm, the storm lifted and the clouds moved on.
That, my friends, is a remarkable providence. Look it up. There are pictures of the broken steeple on the Web. John Piper got in a bit of trouble with the gay lobby for using the opportunity to point out that Scripture condemns homosexuality as sin, and he said the tornado was a general call for repentance. He even carefully used the proper terminology, referring to it as a “Providence,” not a miracle or a cosmic act of judgment.
Providence is the right term, and in my view, the workings of divine providence are alwaysremarkable. But sometimes providence is more remarkable than others. And this is our answer to the charismatic charge that cessationists picture God as remote and uninvolved in a personal way. God always governs by providence everything that happens, and all His care for us is personal, loving, with intimate attention to every minuscule detail of our lives.Furthermore, the faith that sees the hand of God in the daily outworking of divine providence is not a lesser faith than the kind of belief that can only see God at work when He intervenes in spectacular, supernatural, miraculous ways.
God is free, of course, to work through ordinary means, extraordinary means, or supernatural means. But never is he uninvolved.
Furthermore, as we see in Scripture, miracles have a distinct purpose, and they are extremely rare. It is not necessary to invent a “miraculous” explanation for every extraordinary turn of events in order to give God due credit for accomplishing His will in human affairs. In fact, it is a corruption of the whole point of faith to imagine that someone with a craving for miracles is more spiritual than the believer who is content to trust providence. There’s nothing about the charismatic quest for miracles that is super-sanctified. The whole message Hebrews 11 is that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” They “endured as seeing him who is invisible.” Based on the description of faith in that chapter, it ought to be clear that an obsessive itching after miraculous phenomena is hardly the epitome of true faith.
It furthermore downgrades the biblical concept of miracles to imagine that everything unusual qualifies as a “miracle.”
But worst of all, it fosters superstition. And when we examine the charismatic movement as a whole—looking at the entire worldwide phenomena—it is impossible to resist the conclusion that charismatics often mistake superstition for faith.
Here’s a definition: Superstition is irrational awe or fear of the unknown, resulting in credulity regarding the supernatural. It’s an irrational, unjustifiable, callow naivete regarding claims that are made about mysterious religious teachings or supernatural phenomena.Superstition. In short, it’s a kind of spiritual gullibility; devotion to a religious notion that lacks any sound biblical or rational basis.
A Definition of Providence
And while I’m giving definitions, here is a more or less technical definition of Providence:
Providence is God’s continuous involvement with his creation whereby he preserves and governs all his creatures (from the greatest to the least)—so that in accord with his perfect will and design, he sovereignly orders everything he has made to accomplish everything he intends for his own glory.
Now, think this through: This is no more or less than what we mean when we speak of the sovereignty of God. This is what Ephesians 1:11 means when it says God “works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
Regardless of what it may sound like, the doctrine of Providence is not held only by Calvinists. In fact, one of the most interesting discussions of providence I know is from an Arminian theologian named W. B. Pope, a nineteenth-century Methodist from Manchester, England. He wrote a three-volume work titled Compendium of Christian Theology, and on the last page of his first volume, at the end of a long chapter on the subject of divine providence, he said this:
[Providence is] the most comprehensive term in the language of theology[. It is] the background of all the several departments of religious truth. . . . It penetrates and fills the whole compass of the relations of man with his Maker. It connects the Unseen God with the visible creation, and the visible creation with the work of redemption, and redemption with personal salvation, and personal salvation with the end of all things.
I love how he stresses the personal aspect of God’s providence. He also said this: “As the Creator makes the universe an instrument for the accomplishment of [his] purpose, He watches its operation, and is intimately present to all its processes and developments.” This is an Arminian theologian, acknowledging the biblical truth that God not only sovereignly oversees everything that happens in His creation; He is personally involved at the most intimate level in every development and every process that occurs in the outworking of history.
Furthermore, providence means that God always overrules the evil intentions of every fallen creature. Not one human sinner or demonic power will ever succeed in rebellion against God, and God will triumph completely. Regardless of how circumstances might appear at any given moment, God’s purpose will never be thwarted; his plan cannot be derailed; and everything He has decreed will come to pass to the letter—no more, and no less. His will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. That’s not some high Calvinist notion of divine sovereignty; that is basic Christian doctrine. If you believe less than that, your view of God is sub-Christian.
The word providence is one of those words like Trinity—it is a useful and important theological shorthand expression that describes what Scripture emphatically teaches, but the term itself is not used at all in the King James Bible. You’ll find the word providence once or twice in select modern English translations. The NIV, for example, uses it only once—in Job 10:12, where Job prays to God, “You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.” That’s the proper sense of the word. It speaks of God’s constant care and lovingkindness. In fact, in every other modern english the Hebrew word there is translated “care” (“your care has preserved my spirit”). That’s a good synonym. God’s providence is His intimate care for everything He has created.
The doctrine of divine providence is stressed, for example, in James 4:15, where James tells us, “You ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that’”—the clear implication being that God governs the success or failure of our plans by the free exercise of His own perfect will.
And here in Matthew 10 we have the doctrine of divine providence from the lips of Jesus (verses 29-30): “Not one [sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from your Father. [And] even the hairs of your head are all numbered.”
Now, in the time we have left, I want to focus specifically on the topic of prophecy, because I think among mild charismatics, Reformed charismatics, and open-but-cautious continuationists this topic is a breeding-ground for more confusion than any other.
I am convinced by all the clear commands and best examples of Scripture that God would have us seek understanding and guidance by looking into the more sure Word of Scripture, rather than listening to the declarations of uncredentialed modern “prophets” who frankly admit that they often mistake their own imaginations for revelation from God.
What does this have to do with providence? Glad you asked. I’m willing to acknowledge that God has sometimes employed my intuitive hunches, spontaneous notions, subliminal logic, unconscious thoughts, or whatever, to order my steps providentially.
I emphatically deny that this is a form of prophecy or revelation, because it is notoriously fallible. And following your sense of intuition will get you in trouble at least as often as it works out well. To regard one’s intuition as a gift of prophecy or claim it as a kind of special revelation is really no better than what pagan fortune-tellers and occult clairvoyants do.
And yet precisely that kind of false prophecy has become a staple in the charismatic movement. It used to be that speaking in tongues was the quintessential charismatic gift. If you didn’t speak in tongues, you certainly weren’t Spirit-filled, and quite possibly you weren’t saved at all. Modern prophecy has superseded tongues in that role—especially among so-called Reformed charismatics. But it’s as far from the Reformation principle of sola Scripturaas it is possible to get, and virtually all of the best-known modern charismatic prophets have left catastrophe in their wake.
Wayne Grudem is the main one responsible for giving the modern prophets credibility. He wrote his doctoral dissertation and an influential book on the subject. He baptized human intuition and labeled it divine prophecy.
Grudem is not unaware of the abuses this has unleashed. In fact, he has pleaded with charismatics to stop referring to their Sibylline hunches as “a word from the Lord,” but it’s hard to see that as anything other than a semantic dodge. How is it any less confusing to call a clairvoyant claim “prophecy” than say it’s “a word from God?” It’s actually worse, because you could paraphrase in your own words something “God told you.” If you say it’s aprophecy, according to biblical usage, you’re essentially claiming God put the very words in your mouth. To claim that an intuition (or some sense of extra-sensory perception) is “prophecy” is to claim that God has revealed something he has not revealed.
And make no mistake: this happens all the time. There’s probably no more outspoken advocate of modern prophecy today than Mike Bickle. He was pastor to the Kansas City Prophets when they were at the peak of their fame in the 1990s—before it came to light that some of the Kansas-City Prophets were guilty of gross sexual sins and other secret indiscretions.
Today Mike Bickle leads the International House of Prayer. That is a highly influential but notoriously reckless sect or denomination or band of teachers whose fame is tied to their supposed prophetic gifts. There’s a branch of this group in Pasadena, and you can go there and get a prophetic reading that frankly is no more valuable and no more accurate than the reading you might get from Miss Cleo and the psychic hotline.
How do I know they are so inaccurate? Mike Bickle admits it. There’s a video of him online in which he acknowledges (based on 40+ years of his own experience) that at least 80 percent of all charismatic signs and wonders are simply fake. The two-part video is titled “Manifestations of the Spirit: Real or Fake? (parts 1 and 2).” Look it up. Bickle says he has been in thousands of charismatic meetings, and he is convinced that by a very large margin, most of the phenomena that is touted as the Holy Spirit working is simply fake. Those are his exact words. Six minutes and 10 seconds into part 1, he says, and I quote: “Most of it’s fake. . . . The majority of the manifestations are not caused by the Holy Spirit.” He says he is nevertheless willing to allow what’s fake for the sake of what’s real.
How much does he think is fake? Just six seconds into part 2, he says, [quote] “In the last 20 years I have concluded, in manifestation meetings all over the world (again, I’ve been to several thousand of them—a couple thousand at least) that 80 percent of them are not real.” [unquote]
What a cynical view of the Holy Spirit’s gifts!
Bickle goes on to say that even the supposedly accurate prophecies are frequently misinterpreted. He doesn’t give a percentage on that, but even a generous figure of 50 percent precision means their prophecies are wrong at least nine times out of ten. (That is actually a higher degree of accuracy than they typically claim for themselves.) And frankly, it’s a worse batting average than my own intuition—no better (and no more helpful) than the newspaper horoscope. There’s no way this practice should be canonized and attributed to the Holy Spirit.
But what about those rare occasions when our intuition proves correct? Something we dreamed about seems to correspond to something in real life? A sense of foreboding motivates us to change plans, and it turns out to be a good thing?
Most of us have had experiences like that. Everyone has unexplained thoughts that seem to leap from nowhere into the mind. Most people likewise have hunches and instincts. Sometimes you just feel like you know a thing is true, but you can’t give an account for how you arrived at that knowledge rationally.
It may even seem like you have ESP, or ESPN2, or whatever. It’s deja vu backwards. I happen to think that sense of intuition is probably more rational than we can explain. In any case, I’m quite sure it’s not really a supernatural spiritual gift from God, because it has such a poor track record.
Besides, I had the same intuitive abilities before I was converted as I have now.
When my sense of intuition is right, it’s impressive. I’ve had some moments of intuition that I could have parlayed into a fortune, if I were the type of charlatan who is willing to claim he has a prophetic gift even when he knows he really doesn’t. I certainly have no such gift. For the most part, my intuition is grossly fallible and ordinarily wrong. I don’t trust it at all, even though my experience is probably a lot like yours: there are times when I feel compelled to follow my intuition.
That happens, by the way, only when I don’t have a rational or sensible or biblical idea of what to do. Maturity has taught me to hold off on trusting intuition and try to understand facts and reasons and the potential results of my actions before I act. In fact, I’d say that’s what maturity is all about, to a very large degree.
But how do we understand that inner sense, especially when God seems to use it to prompt us to pray, or witness, or duck and run at precisely the right moment? Because let’s be honest: that kind of thing does happen to most of us from time to time.
Here’s the point: I do believe that God might providentially use a spontaneous thought in my head to accomplish something wonderful. But that’s what it is, and no more. It’s a remarkable providence, not a prophecy. As I have been saying, God ultimately controls and uses everything providentially.
Here’s the problem: that’s as true of my sins as it is of the thoughts in my head. God can and does use them all for His own purposes. The fact that He uses an idea in my mind to achieve some good purpose doesn’t make the idea itself inspired. It also doesn’t make a bad idea good, just because God uses it for good.
Now, think this through with me:
Since intuition is fallible—and almost everyone agrees that it is actually far more often wrong than right—we shouldn’t make much of it.
Furthermore, since intuition is fallible, it cannot be considered “revelation,” even when it happens to be uncannily right in an instance or two. And if one or two of your guesses happen to prove accurate alongside a gaggle of dozens of failed prognostications, ou should still be wary of granting your premonitions the status of a supernatural “spiritual gift.”
People who think moments of intuition are God speaking with a private message invariably become extremely superstitious. They foolishly order their lives by their feelings. They commit the sin of trusting too much in their own hearts. And they diminish the more sure Word of prophecy. No one who knows church history, and no one who truly understands the concept of spiritual maturity can deny that Christians who follow the voice in their heads fall into error, embarrassment, and disappointment all the time, and it can be (and often is) spiritually disastrous. Proverbs 28:26 says, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.”
Back to Matthew 10 and I’ll wrap up quickly. If we really believe not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from God’s watchful eye and all-wise plan, and every hair on each head is known by Him, then we don’t need to invent miracles, manufacture phony supernatural phenomena, or imagine that God is speaking fallible words of revelation into our minds in order to justify believing that He is personally involved with each one of us.
If phony miracles, false prophecies, or fabricated signs and wonders somehow make you feel confident that God is immanent and personally involved in your life, then you are hanging your confidence on a false premise, and you need to delve into a study of the doctrine of providence.
This is simple, basic, elementary Christian truth. Paul taught it to the pagan philosophers on Mars Hill: “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’” Start your study with Psalm 139, where David celebrates God’s intimate personal knowledge of him and unbroken involvement in his life—without reference to any miracle or charismatic phenomena whatsoever.
Jeremiah 23:23: “‘Am I a God who is near,’ declares the LORD, ‘And not a God far off?’” Indeed, He is always nearer than most charismatics dream, and He is certainly more intimately and faithfully involved in every detail of our lives than standard charismatic teaching encourages its followers to believe.