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New Horizons

Hearing Voices

John MacArthur

Have you noticed that no matter how many times charismatic televangelists make outlandish false "prophecies," they keep right on claiming the Lord has spoken directly to them, and people keep right on following them?

Failed Prophecies

Benny Hinn, for example, made a series of celebrated prophetic utterances in December 1989, none of which came true. He confidently told his congregation at the Orlando Christian Center that God had revealed to him that Fidel Castro would die sometime in the 1990s; the homosexual community in America would be destroyed by fire before 1995; and a major earthquake would cause havoc on the East Coast before the year 2000. He was wrong on all counts, of course.

That did not deter Hinn. He is still making bold prophecies. Early last year he announced that a prophetess had informed him Jesus would soon appear physically in some of his healing meetings. Hinn said he was convinced the prophecy was authentic, and on his April 2, 2000, broadcast he amplified it with a prophecy of his own: "Now hear this, I am prophesying this! Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is about to appear physically in some churches, and some meetings, and to many of his people, for one reason: to tell you he is about to show up! So wake up! Jesus is coming, saints!"

Hinn's failed prophecies are reminiscent of a string of notorious claims Oral Roberts made a couple of decades ago. Roberts said in 1977 that he had seen a vision of a 900-foot-tall Jesus, who instructed him to build the City of Faith, a sixty-story hospital. Roberts said God had told him he would use the center to unite medical technology with faith healing, which would revolutionize health care and enable doctors to find a cure for cancer.

The building, completed in the early 1980s, was a colossal white elephant from the very start. When the City of Faith opened, all but two stories of the massive structure were completely vacant.

By January 1987, the project was saddled with unmanageable debt, and Roberts announced that the Lord had told him that he would die unless he raised $8 million to pay the debt by March 1. Apparently not willing to test the death-threat prophecy, donors dutifully gave Roberts the needed funds in time (with the help of $1.3 million donated at the last hour by a Florida dog-track owner). Nevertheless, Roberts was forced to close the medical center and sell the building within two years in order to eliminate still-mounting debt. More than 80 percent of the building had never even been occupied. The promised cure for cancer never materialized either.

A list of similar failed prophesies over the past few decades could fill several volumes. And yet, amazingly, the "prophets" who make such fantastic claims now appear to have more influence than ever—even among mainstream evangelicals.

Seeking the Spirit apart from the Word

The charismatic movement began barely a hundred years ago, but its influence on evangelicalism can hardly be overstated. Its chief legacy has been an unprecedented interest in extrabiblical revelation. Millions influenced by charismatic doctrine are convinced that God speaks to them directly. "The Lord told me ..." has become the favorite cliché among these Christians.

Not all who believe that God speaks to them make prophetic pronouncements as outlandish as those broadcast by charismatic televangelists, of course. But they still believe God gives them extrabiblical messages—either through an audible voice, a vision, a voice in their heads, or simply an internal impression. In most cases, their "prophecies" are comparatively trivial. But the difference between them and Hinn's predictions is merely one of scale, not of substance.

The notion that God is giving messages to Christians today has received support from some surprising sources. Wayne Grudem, professor of biblical and systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, believes God gives Christians prophetic messages by bringing specific thoughts to mind. Such impressions should be reported as postapostolic, nonbinding prophecy, he says.

Similar ideas have found sweeping acceptance even among noncharismatic Christians. Evangelicals have eagerly devoured Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby and Claude King, which suggests that the main way the Holy Spirit leads believers is by speaking to them directly. According to Blackaby, when God gives an individual a message that pertains to the church, it should be shared with the whole body. As a result, extrabiblical "words from the Lord" are now commonplace even among noncharismatic evangelicals.

Why do so many modern Christians seek revelation from God through means other than Scripture? Certainly not because it is a reliable way to discover truth. All sides admit that modern prophecies are often completely erroneous. In my book Charismatic Chaos, I quote one leading "prophet" who was thrilled because he believed that two-thirds of his prophecies were accurate. "Well that's better than it's ever been up to now, you know. That's the highest level it's ever been."

In other words, modern prophecy is not a much more reliable way to discern truth than a Magic Eight-Ball or Tarot cards. And, I would add, it is equally superstitious. There is not warrant anywhere in Scripture for Christians to listen for fresh revelation from God beyond what he has already given us in his written Word. In fact, Scripture unsparingly condemns all who speak even one word falsely or presumptuously in the Lord's name (Deut. 18:20-22). But such warnings are simply ignored these days by those who claim to have heard afresh from God.

Not surprisingly, wherever there is a preoccupation with "fresh" prophecy, there is inevitably a neglect of the Scriptures. After all, why be concerned with an ancient book if the living God communicates directly with us on a daily basis, however subtly? These fresh words of "revelation" naturally seem more relevant and more urgent than the familiar words of the Bible. Is it any wonder that they draw people away from Scripture?

The Sufficiency of Scripture

That is precisely why modern evangelicalism's infatuation with extrabiblical revelation is so dangerous. It is a return to medieval superstition and a departure from our fundamental conviction that the Bible is our sole, supreme, and sufficient authority for all of life. In other words, it represents a wholesale abandonment of the principle of sola Scriptura. Historic Protestantism is grounded in the conviction that the canon is closed. No "new" revelation is necessary because Scripture is complete and absolutely sufficient.

Scripture itself is clear that the day of God's speaking directly to his people through various prophetic words and visions is past. The truth God has revealed in Christ—including the complete New Testament canon—is his final word (Heb. 1:1-2; cf. Jude 3; Rev. 22:18-19).

Scripture—the written Word of God—is perfectly sufficient, containing all the revelation we need. Paul tells Timothy: "From infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

That passage makes two very important statements. First, "all Scripture is God-breathed." Scripture speaks with the authority of God himself! It is certain, reliable, and true. Jesus himself prayed in John 17:17, "Your word is truth." Psalm 119:160 says, "All your words are true." These statements set Scripture above every human opinion, every speculation, and every emotional sensation. Scripture alone stands as definitive truth. It speaks with an authority that transcends every other voice.

Second, the passage teaches that Scripture is utterly sufficient, "able to make you wise for salvation" and able to make you "thoroughly equipped for every good work." What clearer affirmation of the absolute sufficiency of Scripture could anyone ask for? Those who seek fresh messages from God have, in effect, scorned the absolute certainty and absolute sufficiency of the written Word of God. And they have set in its place their own fallen and fallible imaginations.

Does this mean God has stopped speaking? Certainly not, but he speaks today through his Word. Does the Spirit of God move our hearts and impress us with specific duties or callings? Certainly, but he works through the Word of God to do that. Such experiences are in no sense prophetic or authoritative. They are not revelation, but the effect of illumination, when the Holy Spirit applies the Word of God to our hearts and opens our spiritual eyes to its truth.

We must guard carefully against allowing our experience and our own subjective thoughts and imaginations to eclipse the authority and the certainty of the more sure Word.

The author is the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Calif., and is president of the Master's College and Seminary. Reprinted with permission from Tabletalk. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2002.

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