It is quite common today to hear Christians say that God spoke to them or that they are seeking to hear God’s voice for some type of guidance. No longer under the purview of Charismatic circles, this concept has seeped into the fabric of mainstream evangelicalism. Therefore, to address how God speaks today must expanded beyond a continuationist vs cessationist paradigm, although ultimately the premise that God does not speak beyond scripture is clearly a cessationist position.
One of the issues related to God speaking is identifying how he speaks. The evangelical position would state that God speaks in scripture; scripture is the divine voice in which God reveals himself. But once it moves beyond scripture, how do we take his voice? No reasonable regenerated person is without the subjective experience of impressions and hearing that voice in our head. Well, I suppose that makes sense since we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit who permeates all our faculties. So the reason to be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be influenced by the Holy Spirit. But I’m going to suggest, that is different that God speaking
I believe that the more appropriate way to consider the voice of God is related to general vs special revelation. General revelation is where God makes his presence known through creation. In this way, his presence is his voice. Consider Romans 1:18-20 and Psalm 19:1-6. I came across this neat article here that talked about lessons from a lady bug on and how God used a lady bug to remind her of what he has already spoken through scripture. It is why we can watch a movie that has themes of the fall and redemption and be reminded of God’s loving acts through the sacrifice of his Son. And I would say even that voice we hear in our head is a product of general revelation. Special revelation is related to how God speaks with respect to knowledge and obedience of him. This necessarily entails faith in Christ and his Word.
Here’s the question I’ve been asking lately: how hearing the voice of God relates to obedience to him. In other words, if you are looking for God to speak to you for guidance and you believe that he speaks outside of scripture, then you are obligated to obey what you believe he is commanding. The cessationist says that God’s speech ceased in the revelation of Christ and whatever commands he has given are provided in scripture. So special revelation is restricted to scripture. That does not negate the subjective nature of general revelation, that may even include hearing “that small still voice” in our heads.
But if you say that God still speaks as special revelation, then you are obligated to obey him. And here is where I think the Christian liberty that we are meant to experience in obedience to the gospel is necessarily hindered. Because if you claim that the subjective nature of what you hear, whether it be the voice in your head or through the lips of another person claiming a prophecy in which God is speaking, then you have no other choice.The more the ‘voice of God’ as special revelation is sought, the more you are bound to hearing that voice and is more restricted in terms of your actions.
This presents some challenges:
1. The more you seek after the voice to tell you what to do outside of scripture, the less likely you are to rely on godly wisdom. And why would you if all actions come under the rubric of ‘God told me’? Consider what Hebrews 5:14 says that the mature exercise godly wisdom based on discernment in practice. Such practice does not come by listening to a voice that guides. And why provide us with Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes or the epistle of James, if following the voice should be our prescription?
2. The sufficiency of scripture is undermined. Consider 2 Timothy 3:17, that scripture provides what is necessary for the person of God to be thoroughly equipped. Well, if you still need God’s voice beyond scripture, then that necessarily implies that scripture is insufficient.
3. Seeking for God to speak and tell us what to do can turn into a form of legalism, where every activity is bound to the voice of God as special revelation. In cases of church leadership operating under this rubric, it can have chaotic and damaging consequences.
An example of an extreme case is something I experienced in my college days. I was part of a bible study that was an outreach ministry of an independent church (later deemed very cult-like). The pastor of the church subjected the congregation to whatever he believed God was speaking and insisted the congregation obey. Sometimes there would be all night prayer vigils because God told him, which hindered people from functioning in their responsibilities such as school and work (there were a number of my classmates involved). But then God told him these responsibilities didn’t matter. God told him that Christians shouldn’t date or listen to secular music so these activities were frowned upon. The kicker came when he claimed that God told him that a large piece of real estate put on the market by a local college belonged to this church and they should pray and claim that property ‘in the name of Jesus’. Do you know that even after another church purchased the property (ironically the one I was a member of), he still held the church hostage to prayer and claiming the property. Why? Because God told him.
Ok, that is an extreme example but milder forms are quite common. And it goes against the freedom that I believe Christians are meant to have in obedience to God. The cessationist does not dismiss the presence of general revelation and the vibrant on-going ministry of the Holy Spirit, but does not subject their Christian commitment to subjective experience. If God is sovereign and his plans stand firm, he will see to it that the right doors open, that affirmation from church leadership or from others happen, and that desires are implanted within us. This is why I see praying Romans 8:26-27 as a necessity for a fruitful Christian walk in terms of directions for our lives. But there is something needlessly restrictive on seeking the voice that says ‘do this.’ Then that subjective voice binds us to whatever we think we must do. When it becomes the voice that binds it certainly does bind.
Rey Reynoso over at The Bible Archive has a wonderful article, What is God’s Will for My Life on knowing the will of God as it relates to what God has already spoken.
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