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the Lord told me

I hear this often from professing Christians.  "The Lord told me..." or "I received a word from the Lord" or "the Lord said to me _____ [followed by a statement, supposedly from God as speaker in the first person]"  

People saying such things don't realize how confusing this actually can be for others.  In a sense it places the person above others ("the Lord spoke to me") and beyond accountability ("how can you question what God said?").  This also causes people to want to have this experience for themselves and thus to minimize what God (by his Spirit) has already and eternally said in Scripture.  It makes the present more important than the past.      

Can God speak to us apart from the Bible, or independently of it?  He certainly can.  The question is, however, is this what the Lord has promised to be a normal and expected experience for those who follow him?  

Indeed there may be unusual and remarkable things from the Lord that happen in a believer's life.   We may have strong impressions or insights or vivid images that come to us which may relate to our life or the lives of others.  These may be occasions of "illumination", whereby the Holy Spirit is applying a particular biblical truth to our minds and hearts in a particular situation. (1 Cor 2:12; Eph 1:17-18; 1 John 2:27; 4:6; and see Ten Evidences of the Holy Spirit here)  Some remarkable occasions may just remain inexplicable.    

But to try to put this into the Lord's mouth as "words from God" -- which is language equating it with Scripture -- is problematic, to say the least.  And to try to hear God's voice, whether audibly or inaudibly, may lead a person to delusional thinking.  The African pastor Conrad Mbewe -- who sees a lot of this in his country -- says, "There is the view that God still speaks to us independent of the Bible.  Drink this milk, and you will soon be attributing to God the inner voices coming from your fallen self."  

Consider what the following Scripture passages teach.   

"Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of 
their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.'"  (Jeremiah 23:16 ESV)  This chapter deserve careful reading.  In Jeremiah's day there were people relating dreams and prophesying words "from the Lord" to bring comfort and to minimize the word of judgment that Jeremiah was bringing to the people.  The Lord says, "Therefore, behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who steal my words from one another. Behold, I am against the prophets, declares the LORD, who use their tongues and declare, 'declares the LORD.'  Behold, I am against those who prophesy lying dreams, declares the LORD, and who tell them and lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or charge them. So they do not profit this people at all, declares the LORD." (23:30-32)

In the Great Commission we are told to be "...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20)  This statement by Jesus comes at the end of his earthly ministry, as he commissioned his disciples to world evangelization.  It is interesting to note the tenses.  The promise of his presence is present and ongoing, "I am with you to the end of the age."  But the content of our teaching is to be what he commanded, specifically to the apostles, in the past.  A Christian's concern today is not to be trying to hear what he or she thinks God is saying today, but to believe and obey all that the Lord Jesus in his word has revealed through his apostles.  See also John 17:14, "I have given them your word..."

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."  (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)  The written Scripture exists as the God-breathed word, profitable in every way, and sufficient for every good work.  To say that God needs to speaks independently of his word is to say that the Bible is not sufficient for our every need, as it says here.  

"Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, 'Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness...'"   (Hebrews 3:7-8)  Notice that the Holy Spirit "says" (or "is saying") in the present tense.  The author of Hebrews is telling us that this phrase from Psalm 95, written hundreds of years prior to this letter to the Hebrews, is the present-tense voice of the Holy Spirit to us.  The author goes on to say, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Heb. 4:12)  The Bible is not a dead-letter revelation that needs to be added to, but the living and active word of God.  

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book."  (Revelation 22:18-19 ESV)  This passage, like the passage in Jeremiah, warns us not to add to God's words.  We may humbly share our thoughts, our impressions, our opinions, and our insights with one another, but they must never be lifted up to the level of God's inspired and holy Word.  

During the period of revival in America known as the Great Awakening (the 1740s) people were susceptible to taking their personal impressions as examples of God's revelation.  Jonathan Edwards, as a pastor in support of the revival, nonetheless wrote the following about this situation:

"An erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that it is God's manner in these days to guide His saints by inspiration, or immediate revelation. ... As long as a person has a notion that he is guided by immediate direction from heaven, it makes him incorrigible and impregnable in all his misconduct" (Jonathan Edwards, "Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England," Works, 1:404).

"Many godly persons have undoubtedly in this and other ages, exposed themselves to woeful delusions, by an aptness to lay too much weight on 
impulses and impressions, as if they were immediate revelations from God, to signify something future, or to direct them where to go, and what to do. ...  I would therefore entreat the people of God to be very cautious how they give heed to such things. I have seen them fail in very many instances, and know by experience that impressions being made with great power, and upon the mind...are no sure sign of their being revelations from heaven" (Jonathan Edwards, "The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God," Works, 1:536, 606).

Two books that I have found helpful on this issue are as follows:
-- Hearing the Spirit: Knowing the Father through the Son, by Christopher Ash (Christian Focus, 2015)
-- Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God, by Timothy Ward (IVP Academic, 2009)

Related to this is the remarkable popularity of the book, Jesus Calling, by Sarah Young.  She attributes many things she feels and hears as being words from Jesus.  See Randy Alcorn's recent blog post hereAnd see also Tim Challies review here. 

There are a multitude of sermons and seminars out there on "how to hear God's voice," which often use mechanical imagery, such as "tuning in to the right frequency," and using techniques, such as being quiet, being spontaneous, listening in prayer, etc.  All of this has more in common with Eastern mindfulness than it does with Christian discipleship.  

If we humbly seek the Lord in his inspired Word, the Holy Spirit will give us what we need -- when we need it -- to live for God's glory. 


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