It is a trite saying, but also true – we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. That is precisely what a lot of Bible-believing, Christ-loving Christians have done on the topic of the subjective voice of God. There can be little doubt that “God told me” or “God spoke to me” are some of the most abused words in the church. People claim that God has told them things that I am quite sure did not come from God. But, does the fact that God’s subjective voice – speaking to the human mind and heart directly by His Spirit – is abused mean that it is invalid? For many, the abuses of the subjective voice of God are sufficient to condemn the practice entirely. I do not believe this is fair and would like to examine a passage of Scripture today that seems to me to clearly refute that idea.
Three Positions on the Subjective Voice of God
There are three primary points along the continuum on this topic, general categories among a wide variety of views. Of course, both the categorizations and the nomenclature are overly simplistic, and other authors will use other categorizations, but I think that this is a fair summary of the viewpoints along the way. For the sake of this article, I will use the terms as described below.
Cessationists – they claim that since the 66 inspired books of the Bible were given to the church, there is no more voice of God to human hearts. Claiming the “sufficiency of Scripture” as their rallying point, they hold that God only speaks by means of the Bible today. No further word from God is either necessary or possible. We are to simply read the Scriptures and do what we believe is right in obedience to it.
For instance, a cessationist (on this topic) would say that God calls a Christian man to seek and marry a Christian woman, but would not believe that God leads a man to a particular woman. He should observe biblical principles, then do what he thinks is best. God speaks through his word, we study that word, then we do whatever we think is right and best in the light of that word.
Charismatics – they live on the basis of the subjective word of God. Again, there are great variations here, but many charismatics live as much or more on the basis of the subjective “word from the Lord” as they do on the authority of the written Word. They believe in and act on the basis of authoritative revelation made to those with prophetic gifts in addition to the Bible. Many live their lives daily on the basis of “what God said to me.”
Continuationists – take a position between these two extreme points. We (yes, I am on Team Continuationist) believe in the full authority of the Word and its sufficiency in matters of doctrine, Christian life and church practice. However, we also believe that the Spirit leads and guides Christians in life’s specifics and details by the Holy Spirit. We believe that this is taught in 1 Corinthians 12 and other texts.
Acts 16:6-10 is perhaps the best, most comprehensive text that expounds and illustrates this view. Of course, it is always a little tricky to make doctrine from narrative. But the events of this story are in line with a clear pattern revealed in Scriptures and taught in 1 Corinthians 12 and other epistolary texts. We will examine the text, look at the facts of the story, then draw conclusions based on what happened.
Paul’s Macedonian Call – Acts 16:6-10
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
The Undisputed Facts
I do not believe that anyone, cessationist, charismatic or continuationist, will dispute the facts of the story, Our divergence will be over the interpretation of those facts, perhaps. But here is what happened, step by step.
1) Paul determined to go to proclaim Christ in Asia Minor (Ephesus). Evidently, on this missionary journey (his second), his intent was to go to Asia Minor and to proclaim Christ there, after he revisited the churches in Galatia (Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Pisidian Antioch). In obedience to the Great Commission, he decided to head to a place that needed to hear the gospel – likely to the city of Ephesus. It was a good and godly thing he was doing, completely in line with the Great Commission and his personal call to be God’s emissary to the Gentiles.
2) Paul was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” Evidently, the timing was not right. Paul was not convicted of sin or corrected for wrong attitudes. The Spirit simply told him that he was forbidden to go to Asia Minor to proclaim Christ (at this time).
3) Paul traveled to Mysia and determined to go north to Bithynia. He continued his journey, but turned north, away from Asia Minor (he obeyed the Spirit’s direction here) and he again made a determination. He was going to Bithynia to proclaim Christ. Bithynia was a Roman province on the southwestern corner of the Black Sea and which would later become a significant place in church history (Nicea was in Bithynia). Paul had a noble intent here, to proclaim Christ in Bithynia.
4) But again, “the Spirit of Christ did not allow him” to go to Bithynia. Once again, somehow, the Spirit of God communicated to Paul that Bithynia was not (at this time) the place for him to minister.
5) In the night, Paul had a vision calling him to Macedonia. He traveled along the southern edge of Bithynia until he came to Troas. There, he had a nocturnal vision of a man from Macedonia who invited him to come and help them in that pagan city.
6) Paul and his fellow travelers (Silas, Timothy, now Luke and perhaps others) decided together that this was the call of God to preach in Macedonia. Evidently, they discussed it and discerned that this was, indeed, of God.
7) Paul and friends headed out to Macedonia to proclaim Christ. When they were convinced of the leading of God, they immediately obeyed.
The facts of the story are pretty clear, it seems. But what can we glean from them?
Observations on the Macedonian Call
1) Paul was actively engaged in obeying the revealed will of God when the Spirit spoke to him.
Paul was not sitting in Lystra waiting for God to give him a detailed plan for his life. God had given the Great Commission to the church and had revealed the gospel’s glory to Paul. God had called him in Acts 13:1 to be his emissary to the nations. Paul was living in accordance with the revelation God had already given him. We are not promoting some kind of quietistic, navel-gazing form of Christianity. Paul was actively obedient when the Spirit spoke to him.
2) God’s Spirit guided Paul in the details and specific directions that are not part of the revelation of Scripture.
That Paul should proclaim Christ was authoritatively revealed. But here, God’s Spirit had specific directions as to WHERE Paul should do that proclamation. Not Asia. Not Bithynia. Go to Macedonia. You could memorize the entire Old Testament and all of the NT that was extant at that moment and there would be no way Paul could know that the time was not right in Asia or Bithynia, but that Philippi was the place to go! So, God’s Spirit gave him directions.
It was revealed by Jesus in Acts 1:8 that the gospel would go to the ends of the earth. But in Acts 13:1, God told the worshiping church of Antioch exactly who was supposed to spearhead that movement. It was Barnabas and Saul that God had specifically chosen – details beyond the scope of the authoritative revelation.
3) God spoke clearly and directly, but we do not know HOW he spoke.
We know that the call to Macedonia came in the form of a vision at night, perhaps some sort of dream. But we are not told how God’s Spirit forbade Paul from going to Asia or how he communicated that Paul was not allowed to go to Bithynia. Audible voice? Strong spiritual impression “in Paul’s heart?” A prophetic word from someone else. We simply do not know. We know that God’s Spirit spoke and that his negative direction was absolutely clear to Paul. But beyond that, we really know little.
There is a genuine danger here; that people would hear their own emotions or preferences as the voice of God, or even that people would be deceived in some way by demonic spirits. No question about it – the danger is real. But it also seems to be a pattern in Scripture that God speaks in such a way that it is clear to the hearers THAT God spoke and WHAT God said.
4) Paul and his friends conferred and concluded that this was of God.
This was different than the authoritative revelation of Scripture. Here, Paul shared his vision with his compatriots and they somehow came to the conclusion that this was, in fact, the will of God for them. The word there carries the idea of conferring together to reach a conclusion. They discussed it, perhaps prayed over it, and reached the determination that God had indeed spoken and revealed his specific plan for their lives.
5) Having been convinced, they obeyed.
This personal leading compelled them to obey. They did not make a universal principle out of it, but it was a personal and specific guidance. Go here, not here or there. God spoke and they listened.
1) God reveals his authoritative truth concerning doctrine, life and practice in his sufficient, perfect and complete Word.
2) God, by his Spirit, guides believers in the details of life, at times.
3) Believers live by Word of God, walking in obedience to it. At times, God will break in and call them to a particular task, lead them in a specific direction or guide them in a task.
I was a student at Dallas Theological Seminary back in 1980, preparing for the ministry. At the time, it was not easy to graduate from Dallas and find work in a Southern Baptist church. So, to finish at Dallas might have likely meant I was going to serve elsewhere than among Southern Baptists. One Friday night (well, Saturday morning) at about 3 AM, I finished whatever I was working on and went to bed. I lay there in the bed trying to go to sleep, when suddenly I absolutely knew (can’t tell you exactly how, it was just a clear word to my mind and heart) that God wanted me to be a Southern Baptist and to transfer to Southwestern. The next Monday I drove over to Ft. Worth and made my application to SWBTS.
I was doing what God had called and gifted me to do – prepare to preach God’s Word. But the Spirit spoke to me that night and redirected my life. I was to be Southern Baptist. That was God’s personal direction for my life.
4) It is those who immerse themselves in the authoritative written Word who will hear God the most accurately. The Spirit of God works to illumine the Word to us and to guide us in all truth. He uses it to conform us to Christ. Those who are deep in the Word and living in obedience to it will be the ones who most accurately receive God’s directions on details of his will.
5) Conversely, it is spiritual suicide to “listen to the Spirit” when you are not in the Word. You will be deceived either by your own emotions which you will attribute to God, to the manipulations of others which you will mistake for the teachings of God, or even to the deception of the enemy.
A Challenge to Our Cessationist Friends
Those of you who advocate the “read the Word, study the Word, then do what you think is best” method of living, I have a question for you. Where in the Bible is that method ever employed. God gave Noah specific directions. He gave Abraham specific leading to THE Promised Land. He gave detailed instructions to Moses, to Samuel, to David and Solomon about the Temple.
I can’t find a single place where God ever said anything anywhere close to “read the Bible and do what you think is best.”
So, of course, it is your turn. I am sure that my post will be the final word on the topic; that everyone will see the wisdom of my exegesis and all those charismatics will bring their thinking in line with the Word and those cessationists will abandon their Strange Fire.