God Told Me: The Pentecostalization of Evangelical Theology of Revelation

God Told Me: The Pentecostalization of Evangelical Theology of Revelation

No prophecy of Scripture comes from a human source. Rather, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (v. 21). Peter is saying that we ought to trust the sufficient Word because it is revelation from God’s Spirit that is even more sure than if he spoke to us directly. Trust the sufficient Word. It’s all we need. We do not need supernatural subjective experiences, we do not need the voice of God from Heaven, we do not need a still small voice in our hearts, we do not need visions or dreams or impressions or “nudges from the Holy Spirit”—we have something better than all of that. We have more sure the written Word of God. Scripture is sufficient.

I am convinced that contemporary Evangelicalism has been Pentecostalized in significant ways that even many non-charismatics don’t recognize. One significant way this reveals itself even among those who would claim to be cessationists is in common evangelical expectations regarding how God speaks to us and how he reveals his will to us. It is very common in modern evangelicalism, for example, to hear Christians talk about how God “spoke” to them, revealing his will in mystical ways outside his Word.

This teaching characterizes charismatics to be sure, many of which believe that the Holy Spirit still gives revelation with the same level of authority that he did to prophets like Elijah and Isaiah and apostles like John and Paul.

However, more moderate charismatics like Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms argue that while the authoritative canon of Scripture is closed, we ought to still expect “spontaneous revelation from the Holy Spirit” today. In this more moderate view, prophecy today does not have same sort of inerrancy or authority as biblical prophecy or inspired Scripture, but it is still direct revelation from the Spirit. I am thankful that these men defend the closed canon and the unique authority of Scripture, starkly differentiating their teaching from that of other more dangerous charismatics. Nevertheless, we must still measure their teaching against what the Bible actually teaches.

On the other hand, even many prominent evangelical teachers who claim to believe that prophecy has ceased nevertheless teach that we ought to expect the Holy Spirit to speak directly to us, not with words, and they don’t even call it prophecy, but they teach that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through impressions, through promptings, a still small voice, or an inner peace.

Perhaps no single book has done more to spread this kind of expectation among evangelical Christians than Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. Blackaby says, “God has not changed. He still speaks to his people. If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience.1 This is someone who claims to be a cessationist. Other teachers like Charles Stanley and Priscilla Shirer have taught that we need to learn to listen for God’s voice outside of Scripture, we ought to expect to receive “personal divine direction,” “detailed guidance,” and “intimate leading.”2

Another way this expectation appears is in common beliefs regarding the doctrine of illumination. Often we hear prayers like, “Lord, please illumine your Word so that we can understand what it says,” or other similar language. Intentional or not, many believers seem to expect that the Spirit is going to help us understand what Scripture means or that he is going to “speak” to us specific ways that the Word applies to our personal situations. However, neither of these are what the biblical doctrine of illumination means.

The fact is that many Christians today think that supernatural experiences were just the normal, expected way God spoke to everyone in biblical times. Here’s Henry Blackaby again:

The testimony of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is that God speaks to his people, . . . and you can anticipate that he will be speaking to you also.3

Charles Stanley argues,

[God] loves us just as much as he loved the people of Old and New Testament days. . . . We need his definite and deliberate direction for our lives, as did Joshua, Moses, Jacob, or Noah. As his children, we need his counsel for effective decision making. Since he wants us to make the right choices, he is still responsible for providing accurate data, and that comes through his speaking to us.4

These are not charismatics or continuationists. These are teachers who claim to be cessationists, and yet they insist that we ought to expect to hear from God outside his Word. And yet, this really is no different from how moderate continuationists define prophecy today.

In fact, Tom Schreiner admits as much in his book, Spiritual Gifts. Schreiner says this:

What most call prophecy in churches today, in my judgment, isn’t the New Testament gift of prophecy. . . . It is better to characterize what is happening today as the sharing of impressions rather than prophecy. God may impress something on a person’s heart and mind, and he may use such impressions to help others in their spiritual walk. It is a matter of definition; what some people call prophecies are actually impressions, where someone senses that God is leading them to speak to someone or to make some kind of statement about a situation.5

And Schreiner even admits that this is not much different from the moderate continuationist theology of prophecy:

The difference between cessationists and continuationists is in some ways insignificant at the practical level when it comes to prophecy,for what continuationists call prophecy, cessationists call impressions. As a cessationist, I affirm that God may speak to his people through impressions. And there are occasions where impressions are startlingly accurate.6

I respect Tom Schreiner greatly, but the problem is that teachings about Holy Spirit impressions such as these are not based on any Scripture at all. Rather, they use phrases like, “We have all experienced this kind of thing,” “these impressions are startingly accurate, so they must be from God,” or they quote a few vague statements by Spurgeon, Edwards, or Lloyd Jones that sound like they believed in such impressions.

I would estimate that a vast majority of evangelical Christians today believe that the Holy Spirit speaks through promptings and impressions, especially with regard to his will for our lives. If you want to truly know God’s will, then the Bible is not enough. The Bible does not tell you specifics about God’s “secret will” for your life, so if you want to know it, you need to learn to listen to God’s voice. Not audible words of course, not prophecy—we’re cessationists after all, but we ought to expect to receive nudges or impressions from the Spirit, an inner peace that will give us guidance.

But what does the Bible actually say about how we should expect God to speak to us?

The More Sure Word

In understanding the nature of the Spirit’s work of giving revelation, it is important that we understand the relationship between the revelation that he gave through prophets and the revelation that he inspired in the sixty-six canonical books of Scripture.

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