Despite the fact that the majority of conservative evangelical Christianssince the Reformation have held to a cessationist position with regard to divine revelation, true cessationists are rapidly disappearing. In the articles and books I have written nothing has evoked as much criticism and anger as my position that God is speaking to His people today exclusively through Scripture. Due to the influence of a multitude of popular authors, theologians and conference speakers, cessationism is barely treading water, even within the most biblically solid churches and organizations.
As a matter of fact, among those who claim to be evangelicals there are five identifiable views prevalent today on the matter of revelation:
All miraculous gifts exist today, including the gift of prophecy. God speaks through prophets and to His people both audibly (through dreams, visions, words of knowledge), and inwardly (inaudibly in the mind or heart). Representatives of this position are Jack Deere, John Wimber, the Kansas City Prophets, the Assemblies of God and the Word of Faith movement. Charismatic author Tommy Tenney, in his popular book The God Chasers, writes,
God chasers…are not interested in camping out on some dusty truth known to everyone. They are after the fresh presence of the Almighty… A true God chaser is not happy with just past truth; he must have present truth. God chasers don’t want to just study the moldy pages of what God has done; they are anxious to see what God is doing.1
Classical Mysticism/Spiritual Formation
Through the use of various disciplines and spiritual exercises, God will speak to us both audibly and inaudibly. Dallas Willard and Richard Foster are two such examples. Willard, a leader within the Spiritual Formation Movement, recently updated a previous book renaming it Hearing God, Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. The thrust of his book is that we can live “the kind of life where hearing God is not an uncommon occurrence, [for] hearing God is but one dimension of a richly interactive relationship and obtaining guidance is but one facet of hearing God.”2 In other words, the maturing Christian should expect to hear the voice of God on a regular basis, independent from Scripture, and that voice will reveal God’s individual, specific will for his life. Such personal communication from the Lord, we are told, is absolutely essential because without it there can be no intimate walk with God.3 And it is those who are hearing from God today, in this way, who will redefine “Christian spirituality for our time.”4
God is speaking to Christians regularly, mostly inaudibly through inner voices, hunches, promptings, feelings and circumstances (examples: Henry Blackaby and Beth Moore). Southern Baptists ministers Henry and Richard Blackaby wrote Hearing God’s Voice to “teach God’s people not only to recognize his voice but also immediately to obey his voice when they heard it.”5 They promise that “as you spend time with Jesus, you will gradually come to recognize his voice more readily than you did at first…You won’t be fooled by other voices because you know your Lord’s voice so well.”6 And, once you have figured out when God is speaking to you, “write it down in a journal so you can refer back to it as you follow him.”7
In this category could be placed the New Calvinists or Calvinistic Charismatics such as John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mark Driscoll and C. J. Mahaney. Their followers are sometimes called the young, restless, and Reformed.
Mark Driscoll, who often claims extra-biblical revelation, dreams, and visions from the Lord, documented four such events in his recent book Real Marriage. He writes, “…when God spoke to me, I had never experienced anything like that moment. God told me to devote my life to four things. He told me to marry Grace, preach the Bible, train men, and plant churches. Since that day in 1990, that’s what I have been pursuing by God’s grace.”8
All miraculous gifts, including prophecy, have ceased (examples: the IFCA International, John MacArthur and Charles Ryrie). The Westminster Confession states well the historic cessationist position,
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.9
Cautious, but Open
Those holding this position are skeptical of prophetic claims and the majority of inaudible experiences. But they do not want to “put God in a box” and therefore are cautiously open to the possibility of additional revelation from the Lord today, although they are not certain how this works or how to identify God’s voice. Nevertheless, they are afraid to limit the power of God and fear that they might be missing out on a close personal relationship with the Lord if they do not allow for the possibility of God speaking today apart from Scripture (examples: most Christians).
Continuationists, those who believe that the miraculous sign gifts, including prophecy, are still available to believers today, define their supposed revelations in different ways. There are two broad categories that could be acknowledged, the first of which claims prophetic messages from the Lord. Such messages would be direct, clear words from God or angels, perhaps in dreams or visions or through audible voices. Such claims have long been common in Pentecostal and charismatic circles and are increasing among non-charismatic evangelicals. Extremely popular conference speaker and author Beth Moore is well known for her claims of hearing from God. In a DVD she states, “Boy, this is the heart of our study. This is the heart of our study. Listen carefully. What God began to say to me about five years ago, and I’m telling you it sent me on such a trek with Him, that my head is still whirling over it. He began to say to me, ‘I’m going to tell you something right now, Beth, and boy you write this one down and you say it as often as I give you utterance to say it.’”10 Such statements coming from evangelicals are far too common to need much documentation. Moore is claiming a direct word from the Lord that sets the future agenda for her ministry. The source of authority is her own experience.
From a more doctrinal base we turn to theologian Wayne Grudem, who has had a massive impact on the evangelical world concerning modern prophecies. Grudem has written the definitive book on the subject, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, in which he claims that church age prophecy is different than Old Testament prophecy. While the Old Testament prophet was held to the standard of infallibility when speaking a word from the Lord (Deut 18:20-24), prophecies beginning with Pentecost are fallible and imperfect. He writes, “Prophecy in ordinary New Testament churches was not equal to Scripture in authority, but simply a very human—and sometimes partially mistaken—report of something the Holy Spirit brought to someone’s mind.”11 Modern prophecy then is impure and imperfect. By way of example and documentation Grudem quotes the Anglican charismatic leaders Dennis and Rita Bennet who claim,
We are not expected to accept every word spoken through the gifts of utterance…but we are only to accept what is quickened to us by the Holy Spirit and is in agreement with the Bible…one manifestation may be 75% God, but 25% the person’s own thoughts. We must discern between the two.”12
One of the most disconcerting aspects of Grudem’s position is his uncertainty as to how we can distinguish between our own thoughts and those supposedly from God. This is such an important and disturbing feature of the conservative continuationist’s system that I will quote Grudem at length.
But how would a person know if what came to mind was a “revelation” from the Holy Spirit? Paul did not write specific instructions; nonetheless, we may suppose that in practice such a decision would include both an objective and subjective element. Objectively, did the revelation conform with what the prophet knew of the Old Testament Scriptures and with apostolic teaching?13
With this quote cessationists partially agree. The Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself and anything allegedly spoken by the Holy Spirit which is in disagreement with Scripture is naturally spurious. The continuationists, however, are rarely claiming new doctrines that supplement Scripture; they are claiming specific, personal words that guide them in decision making or knowledge of the future. It should be mentioned in passing that contrary to what is often stated by continuationists, many espousing modern prophecies do in fact add numerous doctrines not found or taught in the Bible such as specific demonic warfare techniques, insights on heaven or hell, “word of faith” authority that releases the power of God, dominion theology, novel views on the atonement, inspiration and ecclesiology. While more conservative continuationists such as Grudem, Piper, and Mahaney would not be guilty of such theological additions, many others are.
Turning back to Grudem we read of his subjective element of prophecy,
But there was no doubt also a subjective element of personal judgement: did the revelation ‘seem like’ something from the Holy Spirit; did it seem to be similar to other experiences of the Holy Spirit which he had known previously in worship…Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations of prophecies, and individual prophets would also benefit from those evaluations and become more adept at recognizing a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts.14
When we contrast Grudem’s view of prophecy with Scripture we find nothing remotely resembling what Grudem teaches. Nowhere in the Bible is one receiving a message from God left to wonder if God is speaking to him (with the temporary exception of the young boy Samuel). No one had to ask if what they were hearing “seemed like” the Holy Spirit or matched previous subjective experiences that also “seemed like” the Holy Spirit. They knew without question when God was speaking to them. This is essentially the same teaching that Dallas Willard exerts in Hearing God: “How can you be sure God is speaking to you? The answer is that we learn by experience.”15 Therefore subjective experience becomes the test of authority concerning revelation from God. This is a far cry from what we find in Scripture.
The second half of Grudem’s quote moves into the realm of the incredible. After two thousand years of church history, the best this world-class theologian can offer is that “over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations of prophecies…” This is a statement of speculation and hope that at some point the church will begin to figure out when a word of revelation is actually coming from the Holy Spirit and when it is the imagination of the speaker.
Let’s put Grudem’s hypothesis to a test. Sister Sally stands up in church and says the Holy Spirit has just revealed to her that an earthquake will flatten much of the city sometime within the next eight weeks. The congregation needs to add earthquake insurance to their properties, pack all their belongings, leave their jobs behind and head to the countryside. What is to be done? Given Grudem’s theory, the congregation knows that at best this prophecy is impure and most likely contains elements that are not from God. The people are then left to evaluate the validity of the revelation just received based on their own experience or other purely subjective means. In the Bible, if a true prophet of God warned of an impending earthquake there would be no doubt as to what to do, but Grudem’s New Testament prophet is unreliable. I have to ask, of what value is such a prophecy? It has no authority or certainty, and may actually lead to bad and even disastrous decisions. These modern prophecies do not have the ring of “thus says the Lord.”
When the different views on modern revelation and prophecies collide, continuationists attempt to pacify cessationists by assuring them that their messages from the Lord are not on par with Scripture. Grudem quotes George Mallone saying:
Prophecy today, although it may be helpful and on occasion overwhelmingly specific, is not in the category of the revelation given to us in the Holy Scripture…. A person may hear the voice of the Lord and be compelled to speak, but there is no assurance that it is pollutant-free. There will be a mixture of flesh and spirit.16
Since almost no one within Christianity (save the cults) is claiming revelation that is equivalent to the Bible, we are left with a dilemma. Is it possible for God to speak in a non-authoritative way? Is it possible for Him to speak something less than His inspired word? The continuationists seem to have invented a novel type of divine revelation, one that contradicts Scripture and defies reason. In the Bible, and logically, either God is speaking or He is not. There is no such thing as partially inspired revelation or the true words from the Lord polluted by the misunderstanding or imagination of the prophet. This is not to say that all of God’s divine words are found in Scripture. John is careful to inform us that Jesus did many things, and certainly said many things, that are not recorded in his Gospel (John 20:30), or the other New Testament books for that matter. Yet all that Jesus said were the words of God. He never expressed an impure or untruthful thought. He spoke with authority. Undoubtedly the Spirit also spoke through various men and women in biblical times whose words were not recorded in the Bible. The point, however, is that, while the Holy Spirit has not included every prophecy that He spoke through humans in Scripture, everything that He inspired people to say carries with it the infallible authority of the Word of God. Nothing that He said through people is less than God’s word. A polluted or partial revelation from the Holy Spirit has never been uttered.
This means that modern prophecies, words of knowledge, and other claims to hearing the voice of the Lord, if they are truly from the Holy Spirit, must be equal to the Scriptures in both inspiration and authority. God cannot speak with other than purity and inerrancy. Modern claims of the Lord speaking but with a “mixture of flesh and spirit” simply are not possible and are never attested to in Scripture. Those who are claiming divine revelation today must wrestle with the fact that what they are supposedly hearing must carry the same authority of the divinely inspired authors of Scripture.
With all of this as a backdrop the question is reduced to this: Is God giving authoritative revelation on par with that which He has given in the past, much of which has been inscripturated, or is He not? If He is, then the church of Christ needs to take note and come into compliance with the modern prophecy movement, following its revelations as it would Scripture. But if the Lord is not revealing His inspired word today, then we need to reject the claims of the modern prophets and expose these supposed revelations for what they are. This means the position taken by most on prophecy—cautious but open—is untenable. The cautious but open crowd is skeptical of the claims coming from the prophetic movement and they are suspicious of the many “words from God” that so many evangelicals are claiming. Still they hesitate to embrace cessationism. They are concerned about limiting God or, as it was mentioned above, “putting God in a box.” To this let me make two replies:
It is okay to put God in a box if God, in fact, is the One who put Himself in that box. In other words, God can do anything He wants to do, but we expect God to do what He says He will do. If God has put Himself in the cessationist box we can embrace and proclaim it.
Taking the open but cautious view really does not hold up. Either God is speaking today apart from His Word or He is not. If He is speaking, how do we determine which of the multitude of messages people claim are from Him and which are bogus? If, with Grudem, we have eliminated the tests of Deuteronomy 13 and 18, how are we to evaluate all these revelations? How do we know to whom we should listen and whom we should ignore?
On such an important area as divine revelation it is indefensible to believe that God’s people cannot know with certainty whether such is taking place. Surely we should expect that the Scriptures themselves would lay out the guidelines for us to determine if divine, authoritative, inspired revelation is being given today. I believe it does and that we can be confident, from the witness of Scripture itself, that God has ceased speaking to mankind during this age apart from the Bible. Let’s take a quick look at what the Word has to say.
A cessationist view begins with a careful look at what God actually did in Scripture. We find, when we search carefully, that God was not speaking to everyone all the time. His revelation, even in biblical times, was rare and when He did speak it was always supernaturally with an audible voice, never through inner voices or impressions. The assumption held by many that God spoke to most of his children in biblical times is simply not true. The average believer in either Testament never received a personal word from God and even the majority of key players never heard the voice of God personally. When God did speak in Scripture it almost always dealt with the big picture of what He was doing in the outworking of His redemptive program or the life of His people in general. You will search in vain to find God instructing someone to take a job, purchase a number of donkeys, or buy a house—except as it related to the bigger issue of God’s dealings with His people. Beyond a few individuals, finding a non-prophetic person in Scripture who heard directly from God becomes a difficult task. The contention that God spoke to almost everyone all the time, leading, guiding and directing, simply does not stand the test of careful examination of the Scriptures. Even those to whom God spoke in the Old Testament, to only Noah, Abraham, Moses (considered to be a prophet), Jacob, Aaron, Joshua, David and Solomon, did He speak more than twice in their lifetimes?
But what about the New Testament? We find that most records of God speaking to individuals after Pentecost are found in the book of Acts. But even here we find only thirteen distinct times in which God spoke directly to individuals (two of these through angels): Acts 8:26-29; 9:4, 10; 10:3, 11-16; 12:7-8; 13:2-4; 16:6,9-10; 18:9; 21:4, 11;22:17-21; 23:11. Eight of these occasions were to Paul or Peter, leaving a total of five other individuals or groups to whom God spoke directly in the first 30 years of church history.
The positive evidence
So far, we have examined what might be called negative evidence. That is, if we are looking for a pattern of how God spoke to individuals in scriptural times, that pattern reveals a scarcity of individual revelations. The Lord chose to speak primarily through His prophets and the apostles. Following that pattern we should expect the same today. Let’s now move to more positive evidence that the Lord has ceased speaking today apart from Scripture.
Beginning with Ephesians 2:20, we find that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Since Christ is the cornerstone of the church, this verse has to be speaking of the witness concerning Christ that the apostles and prophets provided to the church. It is only to be expected that this witness would be passed along to the future generations of believers via the instrument of Scriptures that those men were inspired to write. AsEphesians 3:5 tells us, the “mystery of Christ” has been “made known to the sons of men through the revelation given to Christ’s holy apostles and prophets.” In the next chapter, Paul teaches that the Lord has provided gifted men to the church for its perfection or maturity. The apostles’ and prophets’ role in that process was laying the foundation of the church, as we have seen (Eph 2:20; 3:5). How? Through the teaching of New Testament truth, the apostles’ doctrine. The early church gathered together to devote “themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), for it was the apostles who would provide New Testament revelation.
The book of Hebrews enhances our understanding by detailing two periods in human history in which the Lord has spoken to mankind. Hebrews 1:1 proclaims that the first period was “long ago to the fathers and prophets in many portions and in many ways.” This is an obvious reference to the revelations given during the times of the Old Testament. In verse two the author of Hebrews cites the second period of divine revelation by simply saying that “in these last days [God] has spoken through His Son.” But as we know Jesus Himself did not write down anything that He said. That was left to His followers and so, the author of Hebrews adds: “After it was first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard” (Heb 2:3) i.e. the apostles. This however raises a practical problem. How did the people know that the communication they were receiving from the apostles was true? After all, many individuals made claim to being an apostle during the first century. The Lord would authenticate His true apostles by giving them the ability to perform “signs and wonders, and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Heb 2:4). When the Corinthians challenged Paul’s apostleship and authority, he pointed them to the “signs of a true apostle… [which were] signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor 12:12), just as the author of Hebrews confirmed. The book of Acts verifies repeatedly that miraculous gifts were taking place through the apostles for this very reason (Acts 2.43; 5:12, 13;9:38-41; 14:3, 8-9; 15:12; 19:11; 20:10;28:8, 9). The only exceptions were Stephen (6:8), Philip (8:6-7) and possibly Barnabas (15:12), all very closely associated with the apostles. We find no examples of the average Christian in the New Testament either performing miracles or receiving authoritative revelation. Miracles were for the purpose of authenticating the office of the men who would lay the foundation of the church. Once the foundation of the church was in place, the role of the apostles was no longer needed. With the death of John, the last of the apostles, gifts authenticating the apostles were no longer necessary and they ceased.
But did that necessarily mean revelation ceased as well? I believe the evidence of Scripture would indicate that it did. We start with 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which clearly tells us that the day comes when prophecy and supernatural knowledge will be done away, and tongues will cease. Specifically Paul writes that “when the perfect comes the partial will be done away.” All Bible believers are ultimately cessationists, for this passage is clear that revelatory knowledge will cease at some point (that point being when the perfect comes). Many believe that the “perfect” refers to the coming of Christ or the eternal kingdom. That is a possible interpretation but the context is contrasting partial knowledge and revelatory gifts with that which is perfect. The best explanation in such a context would be that the perfect (or complete) would be the completion of Scripture.
In other words, when the revelation for this dispensation as recorded in the New Testament is completed the need for partial words of knowledge and prophecies would cease. That is, because the final, full revelation of the Lord for this dispensation has arrived, there is no need for additional messages from God. This seems reasonable, but did it happen?
This understanding of the perfect in 1 Corinthians 13 is reinforced later in the New Testament by Peter, Jude, Paul and John. When the apostle Peter pens the inspired epistle we call Second Peter, he is desirous of reminding them of many things, especially that they “remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles” (3:2). Peter did not point his readers to new or fresh revelation but to the words spoken previously by the prophets and apostles. Jude offers similar understanding when in verse three he urges his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints.” A message had been given, a foundation laid once for all that had to be defended. How did they know what that message was? In verse 17 Jude answers, “But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The faith in verse three that was handed down to them, the faith that was to be defended and proclaimed, had been given to them by none other than the apostles.
As the apostle Paul writes virtually his last inspired words to his friend Timothy he points him to the Scriptures that are able to make the people of God “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). In light of this lofty claim for the God-breathed Scriptures, Paul gives Timothy a final charge “to preach the word…” (4:1-5). There is no hint in Paul’s charge that Timothy is to seek additional revelation, listen to the prophecies or words of knowledge of fellow believers or preach his own dreams or visions. He is to preach the Word handed down to the saints through the apostles. As the New Testament canon nears its close the divinely inspired authors unite in pointing their readers to the apostles as the inspired human source of New Testament truth.
The apostle John joins the chorus as he closes down the New Testament with a solemn warning against adding to or subtracting from this final revelation from God. He writes, “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book” (Rev 22:18-19). Since this is the last chapter in the last book of the last Testament it is only reasonable to deduce that from that point on any addition of any prophecy would be adding to Scripture. With the death of John shortly thereafter, the last of the apostles had faded from the scene and with him the final word of revelation for this age. In addition there is no indication either the twelve apostles or the New Testament prophets were ever replaced (Rev 21:14).
The witness emerging from the Scriptures themselves is that God has chosen to communicate with mankind throughout history in specific and unique ways. He has chosen certain men at certain times to be prophets and apostles to speak and record divine revelation (Heb 1:1-2; 2:3-4). When God’s revelation was complete for this age, the ministry of the prophets and apostles was finished and we would expect no further communication at this time. This expectation is verified through the statements found in the Bible itself. What we are seeing today is not new revelation from God but subjective experiences and, at times, deception.
1 Tommy Tenney, The God Chasers(Shippensburg, Pa: Destiny Image, 2000), unnumbered pages in introduction (emphasis his).
2 Dallas Willard, Hearing God, Developing a Conversational Relationship With God, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), pp. 12,13.
3 Ibid., pp. 26, 31, 67.
4 Ibid., p. 15.
5 Henry and Richard Blackaby, Hearing God’s Voice (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers), 2002, p. 234.
6 Ibid., p. 235.
7 Ibid., p. 236.
8 Mark and Grace Driscoll, Real Marriage, the Truth about Sex, Friendship and Life Together(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), p. 8. For more of Mark Driscoll’s claims of extra-biblical revelations see his book Confessions of a Reformission Rev, Hard Lesson from an Emerging Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), pp. 39, 74-75, 97, 99,128, 130.
9 The Westminster Confession, chapter 1, section 6.
10 Quoted from Beth Moore’s DVD “Believing God.”
11 Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, (Wheaton: Crossway,1988), p.14.
12 Ibid., p.110.
13 Ibid., p.120.
14 Ibid., pp. 120, 121 (emphasis mine).
15 Dallas Willard, p. 9 (emphasis mine).
16 Wayne Grudem., p.111