You have undoubtedly heard people say things like, “God is calling me to the mission field,” or “God led me to attend this college,” or “We feel God wants us to get married.” Perhaps you have even said such things yourself.
Christians who use expressions like those often mean they have had an impression or a strong feeling that they interpret as a disclosure of the divine will. Even people who believe prophecy and divine revelation have ceased sometimes fall into the trap of thinking God speaks directly to us through subjective means.
Normally people who make such claims have no intention of equating their mental impressions with divine revelation. They regard the subjective “leading of the Lord” as something far less than prophetic. Yet they believe God somehow communicates His will personally to individuals through inner promptings, signs, feelings of peace or uneasiness, strong impressions on the mind, or other similar means.
For reasons we shall examine, it is not wise to seek divine guidance through subjective impressions like these. Nowhere does Scripture encourage us to attempt to discern God’s will through such means. As we shall see, that sort of decision making can lead to confusion, disappointment, and sometimes spiritual tragedy.
And the truth is that treating subjective impressions as messages from the Holy Spirit is not really much different from claiming to receive divine revelation. Though most Christians who follow subjective impressions would not dream of listening to extrabiblical “prophecies,” in effect they are doing the same thing.
In fact, some advocates of modern prophetic revelation want to erase any distinction between subjective impressions and the gift of prophecy mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12–14. Professor Wayne Grudem, for example, who has produced the most thorough theological defense of the modern prophecy movement, believes God is giving revelation today chiefly through mental impressions. He even defines revelation as “something God brings to mind.”  Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1988), 42, 115. He suggests that when God providentially brings a thought to a believer’s mind, that is the New Testament gift of prophecy in operation. Thus he has elevated mental impressions to the level of prophetic revelation.
Grudem’s work has had widespread influence. And it is in many respects a fine study. He shows biblically why important distinctions must be made between Old Testament prophecy, apostolic prophecy, and the New Testament gift of prophecy. In places (but not everywhere) his exegesis of the pertinent texts is very helpful. He includes a crucial appendix on the sufficiency of Scripture which, if heeded by his friends in the modern prophecy movement, would provide a remedy against the serious abuses that have so plagued the movement. And he offers another important appendix showing that the canon of Scripture is closed.
But it is at this very point that Grudem’s position seems most inconsistent. If the canon of Scripture is really closed; if (as Grudem rightly suggests) “it is in Scripture alone that we are to search for God’s words to us”;  The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 299. and if, in his words, “the Bible is sufficient to equip us for living the Christian life”  The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 300. —then what point is there in seeking additional “revelations” like the prophetic messages Grudem advocates? It is unfortunate that Grudem relegated his thoughts on the canon of Scripture and the sufficiency of Scripture to the book’s final appendixes. If this had been the starting point for his study of prophecy, perhaps he would have reached very different conclusions.
Grudem’s defense of prophetic revelation has opened the door to a host of bizarre and misleading “prophecies” that have plagued evangelical Christianity over the past several years. Scores of churches worldwide have implemented Grudem’s theology and are encouraging people to share mere mental impressions as if they were prophetic messages from God. Ironically, Grudem’s work is frequently summoned to defend even the most outlandish aspects of a movement that has utterly ignored his many clear warnings against abuse of the prophetic gifts.
To his credit, Grudem appeals for a view of prophecy that “would still include a strong affirmation of the closing of the New Testament canon (so that no new words of equal authority are given today), of the sufficiency of Scripture, and of the supremacy and unique authority of the Bible in guidance.” The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 15. He writes, “I am asking that charismatics . . . stop calling [prophecy] ‘a word from the Lord’—simply because that label makes it sound exactly like the Bible in authority.”  The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 14. Elsewhere he writes, “Remember that what is spoken in any prophecy today is not the word of God, but is simply a human being reporting in merely human words something which God has brought to mind.”  The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 262. He also warns that modern prophecy
should not be thought of as “God’s very words,” nor should the speaker preface his or her remarks with words which would give that impression, such as, “Thus says the Lord,” or, “Hear the words of God,” etc.—those statements should be reserved for Scripture alone. Something like, “I think the Lord is showing me that . . .” or, “I think the Lord is indicating that . . .” or, “It seems that the Lord is putting on my heart a concern that . . .” would all be much more appropriate, and far less misleading.  The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 133.
If those warnings were consistently heeded, charismatic “prophets” could save their churches much grief and confusion.
But even in the denomination Grudem himself once identified with—the Association of Vineyard Churches—his words of caution are frequently ignored in the prophets’ actual practice.
James Ryle is himself a Vineyard pastor [Ryle passed away in 2015, Ed.]. He does give lip service to Grudem’s caution. He writes,
How often have you heard someone say casually, “The Lord spoke to me,” or “The Lord told me” to do this or that?
. . . Many within the church use these terms to justify their own desires and opinions. Possibly they feel that this puts what they are saying beyond challenge. After all, how does one argue with a “word from the Lord”?
In light of this problem I have found it a good policy to avoid such expressions and simply say, “It occurred to me” when I am sharing some insight which I’ve received in prayer or devotions. This removes unnecessary stumbling blocks and allows more people to hear the message without being distracted with the way the word is being presented.  James Ryle, Hippo in the Garden (Lake Mary, FL: Creation House, 1993), 30-31.
But note the significant difference between Grudem’s position and Ryle’s. Grudem believes prophecy is merely “something God brought to mind”—not “God’s very words.” He seems eager to avoid confusion on this point. Ryle’s perspective is markedly different. He says he employs terminology like “It occurred to me” to avoid “unnecessary stumbling blocks.” But he clearly does think of prophecy as God’s very words. After analyzing the dangers of saying things like “God spoke to me,” he states, “Nonetheless, the Lord does speak to us today.” In practice he cannot avoid placing modern words of prophecy on the same level with the written Word of God.
Ryle does this perhaps without even realizing it. He repeatedly cites Matthew 4:4 in defense of modern prophecy: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”  Hippo in the Garden, 32, 39, 62 (emphasis added).—taking a verse that clearly speaks of Scripture and applying it to modern words of prophecy.
Furthermore, despite his stated preference for expressions like, “It occurred to me,” Ryle never once uses that expression or any like it in his book. Instead, the book is filled with statements like, “I heard the voice of the Lord,” “The voice of the Lord spoke to me,” “God was speaking to me again,” “The Lord Himself was standing before me . . . speaking directly to me,” “Again I heard the voice of the Lord. . . . The Lord continued [speaking]. . . . The Lord seemed to pause. . . . Then He delivered the knockout blow,” “The Lord was saying to me,” “The Lord spoke to him, telling him to call [me],” “He speaks to me,” “I received a word from the Lord,” “I sensed the Holy Spirit say to me,” “I treasure these words from the Lord, holding them in my heart with the deepest regard,” “These were the exact words I was given,” “The prophetic word from the heart of the Lord was spoken,” “This is what the Holy Spirit showed me,” and similar expressions.  Hippo in the Garden, 13-14, 15, 18, 20, 25-29, 83, 91, 113, 115-116, 142. All Ryle’s interpretations of his own dreams and visions are stated with dogmatic conviction.
Ryle continually uses terminology that suggests he has canonized modern prophecy—at least in his own mind. “The Holy Spirit inspires us to speak through any number of means,” he says, referring to his prophecies as “inspired utterance.”  Hippo in the Garden, 99.] At the end of the book, Ryle suggests that when the hippo of modern prophecy comes into the garden of mainstream evangelicalism, “the church will be found in the midst of the world, speaking forth the words of God to a crooked and perverse generation, among whom we will shine as light, holding forth the word of life.”  Hippo in the Garden, 292 (emphasis added).
So in practice, Ryle finds it impossible not to equate his own prophecies with the words of Scripture, even though he appears to be trying to avoid this error. (In one place, Ryle says, “We must stop putting our own words in the Lord’s mouth. . . . Scripture alone is our sure foundation.”  Hippo in the Garden, 54-55. To that I add a hearty amen.)
He is not alone in this failing. Anyone who is truly convinced that God is speaking fresh words of revelation will inevitably view the later prophecies as somehow more relevant and more personal than the message of Scripture, which is more than two thousand years old. Inevitably, wherever personal prophecy has been stressed, Scripture has been deemphasized. Two thousand years of church history confirms that this is true.
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