Prophecy and the Fear of God

A few weeks ago, I was on a radio broadcast in the UK with Adrian Warnock, which I believe I told you about at the time. At that time, I told a story about a “word of knowledge” experience I once had, which caused Adrian to call me a continuationist in denial. I said that was fine, so long as he agreed — since no new Scriptures are being produced by the “extant” gifts — that he was a cessationist in denial.

I recently received an email from a woman asking about that experience of mine, prompting me to want to say just a little bit more about it. She asked this:

“You were talking about the lady that was joining a cult, and you were trying to speak with her and you were getting no where. You read a passage of scripture and then became aware of what was really going on with her. You stated on the radio that you knew it was from God but you would never tell her that and you would never say that to anyone. I am very curious about two things.

What is your reason for doing this?  Is it to avoid the whole charismatic tone?

And what if the woman asked you how you figured it out?  Would you then disclose it to her or not even then?  What would you say to her?”

This whole issue is actually a question of epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we know that we know? Now, as a Calvinist, I know that absolutely everything is “from God” in one sense, but I also know that we have to take care to distinguish the multiple senses that this can take on.

I know that Romans 1:20 is from God. I know that my understanding of it is from God. I know that my knowledge of what a grape tastes like is from God. I know that when I press the Windows key on my laptop, the screen changes, and this knowledge is from God. I know how to catch a ball, and this knowledge too is from God. But these types of knowledge are all different.

What I don’t know is that my knowledge of some event in this world, however uncanny it is, is the same kind of knowledge that moved the apostle Paul when he wrote Romans 1:20. Indeed, not only do I not know that, I know for a fact that I don’t know that. Since I know that this is not an option, I don’t want to speak in the company of Christians using the same language that was used when God was still revealing His Word to His people. I have had some remarkable experiences where my uncanny knowledge was borne out by events. But — and this is the absolute kicker — I have had times where I have known things this way and been wrong.

In other words, I believe I live in a personal world, a personal cosmos, in which God blesses and guides according to His good pleasure. He answers prayer. He directs our steps. He gives knowledge in spooky ways — just not inerrant and self-authenticating knowledge, the way He gave it to Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Agabus.

This is because, when you come right down to it, all knowledge is spooky. When I see someone a city block away, and I recognize them, how do I do that? Beats me. This murmuration of starlings is also a question of epistemology. How do they now how to do that? I don’t know — but I know it is God in every aspect of it, and I am also pretty sure the starlings are not exercising their spiritual gifts — although it is a gift and it is spiritual.

If I say to a group of biblically literate people that “God told me,” or “thus saith the Lord,” they are going to assume that I am intending this as the formal equivalent of what that same phrase would have meant centuries ago before the canon was closed. Responsible charismatics vigorously deny that this is what they mean, but to speak in this unguarded way means that you constantly have to offer such denials. Why not simply speak about it with a different vocabulary, one that does not have the aura of prophetic authority?

I believe that spiritual knowledge can be gained/given in much the same way that ordinary knowledge can be gained/given. In short, there are plenty of opportunities to make mistakes. I might recognize my wife a block away and be mistaken. A murmuration might fly straight into a giant windmill. I can be confident enough with the vibe to act on it (pray for someone, or visit them), but what I want to avoid is making grandiose claims for it.

Why? I know my Bible well enough to deck my declarations out in verbiage that sounds all newtestamenty, but think it through. To speak in the name of the Lord and to have it not come to pass is no trifle. It was a capital offense in Moses’ Israel (Deut. 18:20-22), and in the time of the new covenant, we are to fear God more, not less (Heb. 10:28-29).

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20 comments on “Prophecy and the Fear of God

  1. This makes a lot of sense.  With a closed canon, people of the Christian faith need to be careful about how we express what we know and what we think we know when it’s not being directly traced back to the Bible.  It’s important that we understand this, because cults–and churches often become cults when they’re not very clear–lead people down dangerous paths that are confusing and destructive. 
    Having said all of that, I do think that because we participate in an ongoing Story, the dynamics are such that it is difficult to box everything into a cessasionist category.  In other words, we don’t want to become artificial Pharisees and miss the boat, so to speak.  There’s more to this life than we think, and no one should put limits upon God (unless of course those limits are already really imposed by Him).

  2. Pastor Wilson, I agree with everything you’ve said. I’m still waiting for you to explain:

    1. The incident with Agabus in Acts and how some of the details of the prophecy were wrong; and 2. Why the prophecy mentioned in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 14 was not written down and added to the Bible.

  3. Brad, I don’t think Agabus’ prophecy was wrong in any detail. His prophecy, like others in the OT, was conditional. Think of Jonah and his prediction of what would happen to Nineveh. On your second question, I have no problem with God giving us words of His that He determines to leave out of Scripture. The problem comes with us making that decision. If I came into possession of copies of prophecies that came from Philip’s daughters, and believed them to be such, I would have option to treat them as something other than what I believed them to be.

  4. Doug, let say that I have been at predominantly charismatic churches for decades. I can’t remember the last time anyone said’ “Thus says the Lord.” And many comments about God’s prompting are guarded. People are aware they may hear God incorrectly. Others feel free to challenge such claims (as they should).     //    Even Paul was guarded in his comment about I say this, not the Lord. Paul is convinced of his authority but is still careful to say this is his words (from God) not Jesus’ words when on earth.    //    It seems you need to spend more time with the vast multitude of charismatics who are guarded in their language and have little time for the prosperity mongers.

  5. bethyada – while I have never specifically heard a “thus says the Lord” at such a church, I have heard, over and over again, “My people…” To me this indicates that the speaker (or, more often, interpreter of tongues) is speaking God’s words to us. Same thing, I think.

  6. And Bethyada, I don’t think that Paul was hedging his bets in Corinthians. I think he was quoting the teaching of the Lord Jesus on divorce, and then legislating as an apostle in an area the Lord had not addressed.

  7. If I am understanding you correctly you happily admit that God gave you some inside knowledge in this case.  So, it seems to me that you would agree that there is at least some extent to which the Holy Spirit has not ceased giving people inside knowledge, right?  So the “miraculous gifts” have not entirely ceased, providing we define the gift of knowledge to be precisely what you experienced (which the few charismatics I know anyway, would define it as precisely what you experienced). 

  8. Doug, completely agreed, my point was not concerning the content, it was how Paul presented it. And he finishes the topic saying he thinks he too has the Spirit of God.    //    Mark, there are issues of the theology of the continuation of gifts; but there are also issues of how this is played out in practice. It seems to me a lot of the complaints against the charismatics are about the practice (and abuse). Much of this is legitimate. But it does not reflect all Christians who have a charismatic theology. I often say that I am a Pentecostal when it comes to theology but not when it comes to style. The “Thus says the Lord” is an example of men sounding like their words should bake up the Third Testament. This affects what cessations think of what charismatics must think their theology is. Yet we (charismatics) are happy to question whether something really was from God, both our own experiences and experiences of others.    //    Consider my approach to Philip’s daughters raised by Doug above. I would be most interested to read a collection of their prophecies, would happily see them published, I would also be prepared to judge the prophecies as per 1 Corinthians 14, and would not be advocating for its inclusion in the canon.

  9. I’m sure you said a lot of good stuff up there, but my soul has been feeding on the murmuration of starlings – all dancing to the glory of God. Here’s another one to enjoy:   …………………………………………..
    Glory to God in the Highest.

  10. Ellen, I guess I am a little surprised at your post. I anticipated something about Australian birds and what it is to have Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere.

  11. Sometimes it’s difficult to know whetehr something is from God or not.  It’s through our faith that we try to discern that, as we think on Scripture and consult God.  I embrace the fact thatt there are more things to this world than we know, as Doug as pointed out before.  What I feel uncomfortable with is people sharing these things like its always sure and even authoritative.  I think that element exists in some ccharismatic/pentecostal circles.  I find it worrisome and potentially de-stabilizing.  But I also don’t want to ‘put God in a box’.  Nor do I wiish to rain on anyone’s parade or call God’s work into question. 

  12. Sigh…….still trying to figure out if I am charismatically reformed or a reformed charismatic….. this isn’t helping…

  13. Decisions, decisions….I’ve stopped trying to stuff the Bible into a box.  It always leaks out. 

  14. Hi there, excellent post. Your stuff is always a joy to read and so well thought out.
    So Pastor Wilson does this mean that you have now found a category in your head for quasi-revelatory? i.e. Words of knowledge or prophecy that are fallible…?

  15. I have no problem with God giving us words of His that He determines to leave out of Scripture. The problem comes with us making that decision.

    This is just such an artificial construct – where is the biblical warrant for it? The reverse could equally be said:

    I have no problem with God giving us words of His that He determines to be part of Scripture. The problem comes with us making that decision.

    This is why I don’t think your tack will ever convince a continuationist. Would you advise the church at the time when the 2 prophets in the book of Revelation arise to add their words to the canon? To me the opposite conclusion seems most God-fearing – how dare we do such a thing with God’s words unless he commands it?

  16. @henrybish,

    “Would you advise the church at the time when the 2 prophets in the book of Revelation arise to add their words to the canon?”

    If I’m correctly understand the question, the presupposition here is that two witnesses (Rev 11) are yet future?

  17. Thanks, Pastor Wilson, for taking the time to answer my email.  What I hear you saying is that knowledge comes from God.  Therefore, it should be obvious to the lady who wanted to join the cult that you would have gotten that info from God.  I agree but I am torn in a theological spot, because my experience has taken me into the “spooky” as you put it more than in the “not spooky” if you will.  I have been called upon to label and define it, because as a counselor your “spooky” experience happens to me on a daily basis and as a professional “spooky” does not cut it.  What bothers me even more, though, is that the average Christian is not sure where they are getting their epistemology from.  In my counseling ministry I have found that many of my clients are either sick or bored to death with the church.  Disillusioned, if you will.  It is like we have fallen in love with God, and then start dating Him by going to church, and then soon it all fizzles out.  Both sides get  it wrong in my opinion.  Evangelicals are often afraid to even mention the Holy Spirit, and some Charismatics make Deity a line-in partner.
    I believe, however, that you are right it is how you know what you know.  And I believe that the average Christian has never known God’s (Agape) love.  The kind of love that heals your wounds, forgives your sins, those who have sinned against you, and makes you whole, so then what you know and how you know it (epistemology) is truly from God which is the Holy Spirit’s job.  So we have fallen in love with God, but we do not want to do any of the hard work that makes us into His Holy Bride.    When it all does bad (and it will) we lose our feelings for G0d (which is not love), and suddenly we want a divorce, so to speak, and we start going somewhere else.  Unfortunately, there is nowhere to go with God, so we start grieving the Holy Spirit by no longer doing what He says.  And then we pick a fight with our brothers and sisters (in Christ) about what did God really say about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Meanwhile, the black sheep of the family falls off the cliff.  
    I am not saying that labels are not good,  in fact, they are very good for setting boundaries and keeping us in line with the Word of God, but I am that black sheep that fell off of the cliff.  And I fell off the cliff because I could not find in the theological world a definition for what I was experiencing with God.  Unfortunately, I believe that I am not the only one, so now we have a bunch of black sheep going every which way.  I do not like being the black sheep always pushing the envelope, but if I had not fallen off the cliff then I could not have been redeemed, snatched up, and made new and whole by God.  Then I would  have not known God’s (Agape) love and how I came to know it.  So thank you, Pastor Wilson, for helping some of us off the cliff, but sadly there are very few of you.  Unlike Dr. MacArthur who would, I feel, just rather push us off, so here is my whole point.  What are your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions for us black sheep?  Now I know that some are just posing as believers and there is nothing we can do about them, but what about those that are truly being deceived.  What is your advice for them?

  18. I am puzzled by your calling the Agabus prophecy conditional like Jonah’s Nineveh prophecy. I fail to see the connection. Unlike Jonah’s, Agabus’s prophecy was actually fulfilled, just not quite in the way that he said it would be. The prophet said that Paul would be handed over to the Gentiles by the Jews, in fact he was rescued from the Jews by the Gentiles.  Same result. Different means. If I ran a school of prophets I wouldn’t give him better than 8 out of 10 for accuracy on that one. That is why I would never put Isaiah, Jeremiah  & Agabus in the same list.  

  19. Wayne Grudem wrote a book, “The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today”, I unfortunately left in a hotel room on a business trip so I can’t quote directly that really helped me avoid the problem of a continuation of prophecy today without the danger of thinking it arises to the same authority of scripture.  His observation was that the equivalent of the OT Prophet was not the NT Prophet but the NT Apostle.  In the O.T. to speak a false prophecy was deny and discredit yourself as a prophet (Dt 18) but in the NT we are called to weigh prophecy (1 Cor 14:29) so there is not the same sort inerrancy on NT prophecy as there was on OT prophecy.  There are no new Apostles therefore no new scripture.  I know some in Charismatic stream claim to be modern day Apostles and I treat these with the same caution you have in claiming modern prophecy has ceased.  If we have modern Apostles then the cannon is not closed and that is an untenable position for me.  NT prophecy is very different from OT prophecy.  One is words of humans based on God sparking something in their mind and can be true in part and imperfect in delivery (need to weigh and judge) while OT Prophecy is to speak the Word of God  (now weighing and judging but obedience required).

  20. As someone who has been involved in charismatic churches for 15-20 years, I have heard many times people saying “Thus sayeth the Lord”, or “God is saying”, or the aforementioned “My people”. However, for every person I’ve heard say that, I’ve heard 2 or 3 times as many charismatic leaders instruct people to never use that phrasing, and to be very careful of the words they use when they frame their prophetic words. Usually they recommend something along the lines of “I believe that God is saying….” or something like that. They are (usually) equally clear that all prophesy should be tested by the rest of the church, in accordance with Scripture. 
    In other words – yes, we’ve made (make!) mistakes; yes, we’re trying to fix them. 

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