As an Evangelical Christian, you may hold to a wide array of Evangelical perspectives. Among my fellowship runs the whole gamut from dispensationalists to preterist – Calvinist to Arminian – young-earthers to old-earthers to the few (very few), the proud, the sailhamer-ites – cessationists, and even charismatics. It is because these differing opinions can be found among genuine Evangelical Christians that I believe this topic is of such great importance – especially as it relates to the last two categories: cessationists and charismatics.
Historically, Reformed Christians have been cessationists beginning with Martin Luther and John Calvin. This means that they often believe that the more outstanding miraculous gifts have ceased. The list could include: healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues, among others. This has caused a great tension oft-times between reformed Christians and the more recent religious movements referred to as Charismatic and Pentecostalism, who believe not only in their continuance, but, on a sliding scale from church to church and denomination to denomination, believe strongly in their prominence in the normal Christian life and worship. Both have been caricatured by the other: in one corner we have the frozen chosen, versus the holy rollers in the other, and n’er the twain shall meet.
Recently, however, there has been a refreshing shift in both movements – a movement towards self-criticism and reflection. John Piper and Wayne Grudem both represent the most solid of Biblical and Evangelical theology, and both write from the perspective of Reformed Charismatic Baptists. And the road is going both ways. I know of a number of former Pentecostals and Charismatics who are moving away from their Arminian tendencies and towards a more Reformed perspective on God (a good example of this would be the great number of friends I have from the Wesley Foundation who are now in Reformed Seminaries across the country). In fact, the leading Charismatic systematic theology, entitled Renewal Theology, is written by a former Presbyterian theologian, J. Rodman Williams. Also, there exists now an entire denomination known as Sovereign Grace Ministries that is essentially a Charismatic Calvinist Baptist grouping of churches. Interestingly enough, one of their leaders is the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Joshua Harris. Personally, I am encouraged by this move, in spite of its many dangers and pitfalls, because I think many of our differences come from a collective misunderstanding of the gift of prophecy.
When we think of prophecy one of the first things that come to mind are the Old Testament prophets, mainly because they make up the bulk (or, as I would posit, ALL) of the Old Testament, which makes up the bulk of, and background to, the whole of the Bible. In the Old Testament, prophets are the authoritative messengers of God, usually beginning and/or ending their prophecies with phrases such as “declares the Lord“ and “thus says the Lord“. They often shift back and forth between first and third person, sometime speaking as one relaying a message, and other times as the mouthpiece of God himself. Look closely at Jeremiah 1:9 for just one clear example: “I have put my words in your mouth.” If you need more to think about regarding this, look up Exodus 4:12, Numbers 22:38, Deuteronomy 18:18, and Ezekiel 2:7, among many others. No matter how it is phrased though, it is clear that the Old Testament prophets spoke the very words of God, and as the words of God they were absolutely authoritative.
There is a practical outworking of this truth – to disobey or disbelieve an Old Testament prophet’s words was to disbelieve God himself! Deuteronomy 18:19 says, “If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him into account.” This truth is echoed and expanded on in 1 Samuel 8:7, 1 Kings 20:36, 2 Chronicles 25:16, Isaiah 30:12-14, and Jeremiah 6:10-11. To deny a prophet was direct disobedience to the Lord.
Because of this authority, there were incredibly harsh punishments imposed on those who presumed to speak for God and were discovered to have not. Deuteronomy 18:20 says, “But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other Gods, that same prophet shall die.” Because of the authority divested in the office of Old Testament prophet, to speak the very words of God, harsh penalties HAD to be instated lest false prophets abound in Israel.
This, as I’ve encountered it, is the popular and common view of prophecy both in Charismatic and Reformed circles – the only significant difference is that one group believes it is still common today (in worst case scenarios elevating it almost to the same level as scripture), and the other does not (often dogmatically asserting that anything posing as prophecy is nothing short of demonic). Unfortunately (or fortunately), this is not necessarily what is being spoken of when the gift of prophecy is mentioned in the New Testament.
I’d like us to look for a moment at Acts 21:10-11: “While we were staying for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us he took Paul’s girdle and bound his own feet and hands, and said, ‘Thus say the Holy Spirit, “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this girdle and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.”‘” Now I’m going to read to you from this prophecy’s fulfillment later on in that same book: “When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him, shouting, “Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place.” (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple area.) The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains. Then he asked who he was and what he had done. Some in the crowd shouted one thing and some another, and since the commander could not get at the truth because of the uproar, he ordered that Paul be taken into the barracks. When Paul reached the steps, the violence of the mob was so great he had to be carried by the soldiers. The crowd that followed kept shouting, “Away with him!“” (Acts 21:27-36) Did you notice the discrepancies? The “prophet” Agabus prophesied that Jews would bind Paul, however, it was the Romans who actually bound him. Agabus later prophesied that the Jews would deliver him into the hands of the Romans, but in fact they attempted to kill him themselves and the Romans RESCUED him forcibly from the violent mob. Agabus had not spoken in necessarily a misleading way, yet, as D.A. Carson states, “I can think of no reported Old Testament prophet whose prophecies are so wrong on the details.” (Showing the Spirit, pg. 98) Should someone have sought out Agabus to stone him to death? Or why, in Acts 21:4 is Paul told, apparently by a prophet, “not to go to Jerusalem“, yet Paul openly disobeyed it. Would Paul have chosen to do so if this prophecy were the very words of God? No – Agabus should NOT have been stoned to death, nor was Paul disobeying the Lord by going to Jerusalem because New Testament prophecy is NOT the very authoritative words of God.
Although the Hebrew Old Testament word for “prophet” meant “authoritative messenger of God”, by the time of the writing of the New Testament the Greek word didn’t necessarily carry that same connotation. We have a number of extra-Biblical writings ranging from the time 60 B.C. – 199 A.D. wherein the word “prophet” is used to mean anything from a philosopher to a medical quack – a botanist to historian, and any range of things in-between. The primary definition for the Greek word “prophet” was essentially “one who declares, proclaims, or makes known” and that appears to have only sometimes been a proclamation of secret knowledge revealed from the spirit-realm. That is why the soldiers who blindfold and beat Jesus in Luke 22:64 command him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They are not commanding Jesus to speak revealed words of divine authority, but simply to tell them something hidden that has been revealed to him. Actually, this appears to be a good working definition of the New Testament gift of prophecy as well.
First, New Testament prophecy was not necessarily authoritative – rather than to accept it as a message from God, Paul said that it must be “weighed” (read 1 Corinthians 14:29-38) and to “test everything, and hold fast to what is good” (read 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). Notice that it is not the prophet’s gift that is in question. It is the content of the prophecy that is in question – and in that it is acknowledged that some will be good, insinuating that some may also, in fact, be bad.
Secondly, Paul explicitly states to those using prophetic gifts in Corinth that they are NOT speaking the words of God. He asks them, “What! Did the word of God come forth from you, or are you the only ones it has reached?” Clearly the implied answer to this question is, “No, as New Testament prophets, the word of God did not come forth from us.“
So what IS the gift of prophecy in the New Testament? Apparently, it is anything that God may suddenly bring to mind or impress on someone’s heart – and in that, it is even an imperfect, partial revelation. 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 says, “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully…” Wayne Grudem states in The Gift of Prophecy, “The mirror image suggests both indirectness and incompleteness in the knowledge that comes through this revelation…If we apply this to prophecy, it means that the prophet does not see God face to face or speak with him directly, but only receives revelation from God in some kind of (here undefined) indirect manner. It also means that what the prophet sees or learns is only a glimpse of some reality, but not the whole picture…(it) indicates that what the prophet sees or learns, or the implications of what is ‘revealed,’ are often difficult to understand.” Also note the phrase, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.” Again, quoting Grudem, “Prophecy only gives partial knowledge of the subjects it treats.” This means, for example, that Agabus, the prophet in Acts who got so much wrong yet generally spoke truth, might have come to truly know something about the future, but could not see the whole picture, making it difficult even for HE, as the prophet, to understand and interpret. Because of the nature of New Testament prophecy, Agabus spoke prophetically, but his prophecy must be sifted, for the truth that God revealed was indirect and only a glimpse of the whole truth. Thus the prophetic utterance of Agabus was his best interpretation of what he felt God was communicating to him. It was NOT, however, the authoritative words of God.
Apparently because of the nature of prophecy some Christians were tempted to throw the gift out altogether, which is why Paul wrote the church in Thessalonica to “…not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Today Reformed Christians appear to be fearful of the prophetic for the same reason – we argue that the Canon of Scripture is closed, and, operating on a false idea of prophecy, therefore conclude that the prophetic gifts must have ended with the closing of the Canon. Yet, the New Testament was not written by prophets, with the exception of the Revelation of John (who was also an Apostle)! You see, there WERE a group of men in the New Testament who spoke the words of God with God’s authority – they were called “the Apostles.”
First, the message the Apostles proclaimed was the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God’s message of salvation to the world. As Grudem points out, “Such an insistence on the divine origin of (this) message is clearly in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets.”
Secondly, Jesus promised a special empowering to the 12, who were called the Apostles after Christ’s resurrection. John 14:26 says, “But the Counselor, 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 have said to you.” Later, in John 16:13, Jesus says to the Apostles, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth…” Jesus promised the Apostles that the Holy Spirit would help them remember and understand the message that he gave them to proclaim to the world.
Lastly, the Apostles recognized the authority of their own teachings and writings as the very words of God. Paul commands the church in Thessalonica to receive his words “…not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:13), and points out, as was the case with denying the words of the Old Testament prophets, that anyone who disregards his words “disregards not man but God” (1 Thessalonians 4:8). Others are punished for disregarding the message of the Apostles; “If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” (2 Thessalonians 3:14) Also, in 2 Peter 3:15-16, Peter equates Paul’s letters with “the other Scriptures.” Further, Acts 5:3-4 & 21, implies that lying to an Apostle is equivalent to lying to the Holy Spirit, and thus God himself!
The New Testament is made up of the writings of the Apostles (or of those under their authority) because it is THEY, not the New Testament prophets, who are the authoritative messengers of God during that time. And since to be in the office of New Testament Apostles you had to have personally experienced the living or physically resurrected Jesus, that office (in the New Testament sense of being an authoritative messenger of Jesus) is now closed, thus no one can any longer speak the very words of God to his people, except in that they are rightfully dividing His written word (the teachings of the Prophets and Apostles) in the Scriptures.
If this is true, what is the case Reformed Christians have for cessationism? If the New Testament gift of prophecy is not that of speaking the authoritative words of God, what argument is there that the gift has ceased? Has God never given you a word, or opened your eyes to a deeper truth, that you could then look at in light of the Scripture and test and see if it was indeed from God? I was surprised to find that even the Westminster confession of faith gives allowances for the modern-day usage of prophecy when it says in paragraph 10 that the Holy Scriptures are “the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees or counsels, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits are to be examined…” “Private Spirits” is an older English term for “personal revelations” – what we are here referring to as “prophecy.”
I’ll be the first to admit it: these sorts of gifts can be scary and quite dangerous if not used properly. But, I must close, again quoting Grudem:
“At this point someone may object that waiting for such ‘promptings’ from God is ‘just too subjective’ a process. My reply is that the people who make this objection are exactly the ones who need this subjective process most in their own Christian lives! This gift requires waiting on the Lord, listening for him, hearing his prompting in our hearts. For Christians who are completely evangelical, doctrinally sound, intellectual, ‘objective’ Christians, probably what is needed most is the strong balancing influence of a more vital ‘subjective’ relationship with the Lord in everyday life. And these people are also those who have the least likelihood of being led into error, for they already place great emphasis on solid grounding in the Word of God.”
As Paul taught in 1 Thessalonians 5:19, I also echo: “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything…“, even the content of this blog.