Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God: Prophecy and the Contemporary Pastor

Desiring God 1991 Conference for Pastors

Spiritual Gifts and the Sovereignty of God

There are two things from comments and questions last night that I wanted to mention.

When the Partial Passes Away

One is that my friend and former student and brother David Lindy came up to me and said, “What about first Corinthians 13:10?” I really should have mentioned that last night. Paul says in first Corinthians 13:10, “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” I won’t go into it in detail now, but yes, I do think that is another strong argument for the continuation of the gift of prophecy through the church age. Because the imperfect is what he refers to there in 1 Corinthians 13:8–9. We prophesy “imperfectly” or “in part.” It’s the same Greek phrase. We know in part, we prophesy part, and he also includes tongues in verse 1 Corinthians 13:8. And then he says that those imperfect things, when the perfect comes, will pass away.

Some have argued that the “perfect” is the closing of the cannon. But it seems to me that as we look at the context, 1 Corinthians 13:12 is the clincher because it says then we will see face to face, then we will know as we are known. That’s when the perfect comes. I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Richard Gaffin at Westminster Seminary who sometimes debates me on this issue. But he and I agree that “when the perfect comes” (1 Corinthians 13:10) means when the Lord returns. Then the imperfect will pass away. If you take the imperfect to refer to those gifts of prophecy and tongues, then 1 Corinthians 13:10 is a strong verse. It says, “When the Lord returns, these gifts will cease, but not before then.” John Calvin in his commentary on that verse says that it is stupid of people to make this verse apply to the intervening time. I didn’t say it, Calvin said it, but he sees it as applying to the Lord’s return as well.

So again, I think that’s a kind of an overarching verse that says, yes, Paul sees these things as characteristic of the New Covenant age. I just wanted to say thank you to David for bringing that up. That is appropriate and I agree with it and have written on it but didn’t mention it last night.

Joy in Our Ministry

Then someone else, during the time we were waiting on the Lord, said there was something that happened that has never happened to him before. He had a flash of a picture come into his mind of children at school being led out to recess and they were really happy. They were going out to play at recess and their teacher was leading them. And at the same time he saw that he had the sense that the children were us and the teacher was Jesus. And he was leading us into a time of joy.

When I thought about that later last night and then this morning it fit in with this other word that someone had about lying on a chair in the sun and enjoying the presence of the Lord. And it seemed to me to be indicating a common theme, perhaps also fitting in with this word about releasing us from fear. There is a kind of joy in ministry that God wants to bring us into. When we can minister in power, there is incredible joy in it. It’s joy in the Lord. It’s joy in seeing him work and heal broken lives. And in a way, I do think that picture fits. It’s something that we ought to be thinking of ourselves if we’ve been laboring under an unproductive ministry that’s leading toward a sense of burnout. You don’t see that there’s any result, any power.

Isn’t that what the Lord wants to be doing? He wants to lead us into a dimension of ministry where when we preach, hearts are changed; when we pray for people, God answers; when we seek the Lord in worship, we know his presence — where there’s a sense of the imminence of God and the presence of God in our ministry. There is tremendous joy in that. So I wanted to mention that as well and it seemed appropriate.

Prophecy and Teaching

Let’s focus now on the difference between prophecy and teaching. I’m going to emphasize things that I think are particularly helpful for those who are pastors and church leaders.

First, teaching is always an explanation or application of Scripture, never based on a revelation, or it’s an explanation and repetition of apostolic instructions. Remember it’s the traditions as the apostles. Those equal scripture in authority. Now I’ve talked about that briefly last night. I won’t pause on those verses.

Therefore, teaching and not prophecy is a characteristic of those in church leadership or in authority. First Timothy 3:2 says that elders are to be able to teach. First Timothy 5:17 mentions, “Especially those elders who labor in preaching and teaching.” Titus 1:9 says that elders are to be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and to compute those who contradict it. And it is interesting that James 3:1 says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, before we know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”

Now, that’s different from what Paul says about prophecy. He says, “I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.” He says he wants everybody to prophesy, but he doesn’t want everybody to become teachers. There is a strictness that is attached to the judgment of those who teach. And it’s a more restrictive distribution of that gift I believe. Now, what’s the point of that?

The point is that prophetically gifted people are not thereby qualified for leadership in the church simply because they have prophetic gifting. I think that mistake has been made in the history of the church where people have had remarkable kinds of prophetic gifting. They’ve been able to have insight into people’s lives and then pray with power. And people say, “Oh, this person should be an elder, this person should be a pastor. Let’s make him a bishop or whatever.”And that isn’t the qualification for leadership. Nowhere does Paul say elders must be able to prophesy. Rather, he must be able to teach. And by contrast, leaders do not need prophetic gifting. I think occasionally God brings things to mind, but I don’t think I have the gift of prophecy.

Prophetic Gifting and Pastoral Leadership

I went to a large charismatic church in the southern suburbs of Chicago in October to speak on this gift. And when I got there, the mother of the pastor said to me, “What are you speaking about?” I said, “The gift of prophecy.” She said, “Do you have that gift?” I said, “Nope.” She gave me this funny look and said, “Why are you talking about it if you don’t have that gift?” I said, “Well, I have the gift of teaching.” She said, “Oh, all right.” So I’m going to teach about it even though I don’t have it. That’s fine. And you can do that. You don’t have to have it to teach about it. There are other gifts that you don’t have but you can teach about. So I don’t want you as pastors to think that you have to have this gift in order to be effective as a pastor.

I don’t think that you should say that others in your church should have this gift in order to be qualified for church leadership, elder or deacon, or whatever your church government would be — or for a house group leader or whatever. I think it’s appropriate for people to understand how to manage and govern the use of gifts, but not certainly to have them all.

This explains why Paul allowed women to prophesy but not teach or judge prophecies aloud. I mentioned that last night. I won’t go into it now. I’ll skip over the fourth point, which is just a technical argument with E. Earle Ellis and a summary.

Teaching is reflecting on and applying the words of Scripture to the congregation, but prophecy is reporting something that God spontaneously brings to mind. So there’s a difference in the source of the information.

The Content of Prophecies

Let’s focus on the content of prophecies. What can prophecies do? And I hear this question all the time: “Is prophecy foretelling or forthtelling?” There must have been some famous book that had that quotation in it because I keep getting it over and over again. The question really doesn’t exhaust the categories at all. Really it could be foretelling, it could be forthtelling, or it could be neither. It could be encouragement, exhortation, or anything for edification. So that question doesn’t seem to be helpful to me because it puts a false dichotomy and makes me choose one or the other. It could be both, or it could be something else as well. So the New Testament passages are broader than that.

In 1 Corinthians 14:3, the content I think is indicated. Paul says:

The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

Now that includes a lot of things — anything that would encourage, edify or build up. I was praying with a student in my office just last week. He came in and he asked me to pray for him. Just said he’d been feeling some fear of speaking in public. He didn’t know why because he’d had a speaking ministry before coming to seminary and he couldn’t quite understand it. And as I began to pray this verse about the joy of salvation came to mind. Psalm 51:12 says, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” So as it came to mind, I began to pray and I said, “Lord, will you restore to him the joy of your salvation?”

When I got done praying briefly, I said to him, “Now did anything I prayed hit home and seem right?” He said, “Oh, when you prayed about the joy of salvation, that was it. That was what I really needed. I felt this tingling go all through in my head and just felt God’s presence.” Well that was encouraging, that was upbuilding. It was releasing him from some discouragement that he had and he had a smile on his face again. I guess though I said I don’t have the gift of prophecy, I think that was something like it. Maybe it was a prophecy. God brought it to mind. It was something that I had a sense that I should pray and I went ahead and prayed it and there it was upbuilding.

Now was it forthtelling, foretelling? Oh, I don’t know. It was just a verse of scripture that brought help and edification.

A Distinction Between Prophecy and Teaching

Some people have used In 1 Corinthians 14:31 to say that prophecy is equal to teaching because it says “you can all prophesy one by one so that all may learn and all may be encouraged.” Well, people learn from it, but does that mean it’s equal to teaching? I don’t think so because people can learn from a lot of things. People can learn from the selfless care that one person gives to another, but that isn’t the gift of teaching. People can learn from the compassion that someone feels, the empathy of weeping with those who weep, but that isn’t the gift of teaching. We can learn from all sorts of things by observing other people. We can learn from their friendly attitude. We can learn from a quiet word of encouragement. So we can learn from prophecy without making it equal to teaching.

In Acts 11 and Acts 21, it did include predicting the future and those things can happen. I’ll have some cautions about that in a few minutes, but it can be things like that. In 1 Timothy 1:18 and 1 Timothy 4:14, Paul talks about the gift which was given to Timothy through prophecy when the elders laid their hands upon him. Apparently what had happened in these cases was that people began to pray for Timothy for empowerment for certain ministry, and in the course of that someone had said, “Timothy, I think the Lord is giving you a gift of . . .” what? We don’t know. It doesn’t say. Paul just mentions the gift which is given to him. Perhaps its skill in Bible teaching and refuting heretical doctrine. Perhaps its evangelistic skill. Perhaps it’s a gift of discernment or prophecy, I don’t know. But Paul says to stir it up, and that it was given to you through prophecy. The prophecy indicated or pointed out what God was doing.

Prayer, Praise, and Prophetic Sayings

It could include prayer and praise certainly, even though in 1 Corinthians 14:3, Paul says, “He who prophesy speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” I think he is in that context saying that the person who prophesies speaks in a way that men understand, that people understand. So it would not exclude prayer and praise.

Also, for those of you who have heard this idea from Rudolf Bultmann originally, he said that prophets added sayings of Jesus to the gospel tradition. Rudolf Bultmann is an outstanding German scholar in Greek, but didn’t believe there was anything in the “upper story” as Schaffer would say, that you couldn’t know that God himself was there. It was just an emphasis on our own experience. Bultmann said, “How did the number of these sayings of Jesus get put into the Gospels?” I’ve randomly opened to one and I don’t know if he’d say it about this, but Luke 11:20 says, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.”

A Bultmannian would say, “Jesus didn’t really say this in this context, but later in the history of the church after Jesus had died, some prophet said, ‘If it is by the finger of God that I’ve cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’ And people thought that was a great saying, a great prophecy. They repeated it, they began to report it to one another, and then they wrote it down. And when they wrote it down, they decided it would be best to say that Jesus said it because wasn’t Jesus inspiring it from heaven anyway? And so since Jesus said it, then they wanted people to be sure that Jesus said it. So they made up a narrative context of something in Jesus’s life where he had said it. And that’s how it got in the gospels. And that explains many of the sayings of the Gospels.”

I have argued against that and others have, and I don’t think it is proven at all. And it’s contrary to my idea of the truthfulness of the gospels but it’s there.

Forms of Prophetic Sayings

Are there any special forms or patterns of words that will be found in prophetic speech? No, I don’t think so. If it is our own report of what God brings to mind, then we would expect that it would be given in our own words, in our own language, not necessarily in King James English for example, but 20th century, Minnesotan English would be just fine. Bruce Yoakum has a little book on prophecy and he’s a Catholic charismatic, but he has some helpful things to say. He mentions a conference that was a bilingual conference with Hispanic and English speaking people. And at the beginning he just asked that all the prophecies be given in English so everybody could understand. Well, I think that’s entirely appropriate. If God gives something to mind, just speak it in your own language, in your own explanation with no special form. So in summary, prophecy is anything that would encourage or edify or build up.

A Sign of God’s Blessing

Prophecy is a sign of God’s blessing in the church. We talked about 1 Corinthians 14 last night. It will give evidence that God is really there working in the congregation. And let me say, we had this dramatic example from Spurgeon last night where he could pick out someone from a crowd of maybe thousands of people and tell what the person had earned at his shoe keeper shop last Sunday. Now that’s dramatic and I think that’s very unusual. It is almost counterproductive for me to give you that kind of example because you will think, “I could never do that,” and probably you couldn’t because that’s an unusual level of accuracy.

I pointed it out because I wanted to say that this kind of thing is common in the history of most of Protestant evangelical orthodoxy. I can give Spurgeon as an example. That’s the reason I use it. But it seems to me that the way this gift will most frequently be helpful is in very quiet ways. Often it will not even be in the public assemblies of your churches. It will often just be in prayer situations where there’s one-on-one or two-on-one people praying for each other. And that is where I have seen this most useful and most helpful in our own church. At the end of the service we have a time where people, if they want prayer, can come forward and we have a rotation where a certain team of people will be there who have had experience in praying for people. One-on-one or two-on-one, people will just quietly sit in little groups and pray.

Open to Prayer and Power in Ministry

In those times we have seen that this gift is really helpful. Margaret is here. I don’t want to embarrass her, but I’ll just mention one other example that comes to mind. Now, this wasn’t after church, it was in our home, but a student and his wife came by our house because she had recurrent back pain that had been apparent in class. I’d said, “Would you like some prayer for that?” And she said, “Sure.” So I said, “Well, if you’d like you can come by.” It’s always helpful for me when I can have Margaret praying with me for someone. I said, “Come by our house some evening. We’d be happy to pray for the Lord to heal your back if he would.” And so they came by and we talked a little bit about it when it started and things. And then we began to pray that God would heal her back and take away that recurrent back pain.

After we’d prayed for a minute or two, Margaret said something like this: “Is there some real sadness in your life that is troubling you?” Now that wasn’t what she came for prayer for, but the Lord gave Margaret a sense or an awareness that there was sadness in her life. Well, in a few minutes it all came out that several years earlier she had lost a baby, a baby who had lived a few days and had died and there was a lot of sorrow and a lot of hurt that really had never been dealt with. So she explained a little bit and we prayed about the sorrow. We prayed that the Lord would take it away and heal that emotional hurt. There was real healing there. There was real emotional healing. There wasn’t any physical healing that night, no significant improvement in her back.

But she and her husband saw me a few days later on campus. They were first year students and they said, “If the only thing that happened to us from coming there was just that healing from the hurt of the loss of that baby, then it was worth coming.”

Now it’s known now to you because I mentioned it, but had I not mentioned it and you don’t know who the people are, no one would ever know. It seems to me that if we can have churches where dozens of people are willing to say, “I’d be happy to pray for you now about that if you’d like,” and one-on-one or two-on-one people are praying and ministering in that way, and then they are open to the way God might prompt to lead in another way — to bring a Scripture verse to mind, to bring just a question, like, “Is there some sorrow that’s troubling you right now? — it would be incredibly effective in terms of ministry. It brings power in ministry because the Lord tells us what he is wanting us to pray for. He indicates the direction in which we should pursue a prayer and people’s lives are changed.

The Thrill of Being Used by God

Margaret and I and some friends have been in a little church planting situation for the last year and a half now, and oh, we have a little over 100 or 120 people on Sunday mornings. Of the people who have been with us a year and a half, there’s no one whose life has been untouched by God. In some cases, there has been physical healing. In some cases, there has been emotional healing from long-standing fears or sorrow or whatever. It is so exciting to be in a church like that.

There are lots of cases. There’s repentance from sin. It comes about and there’s growth in holiness. And it’s been as God has brought things to mind. And you know whose lives have been changed most? Mine and Margaret’s to some degree. That’s a joy, as God has ministered to us and cleaned out old things in our heart that shouldn’t have been there, but were there.

Prophecy is a sign of God’s blessing in the church. It is. It is a way that we see effective ministry in praying and counseling people and certainly as well if it begins to function this way it happens in preaching, as occasionally God brings things to mind. And yes, we do have public opportunities for prophecies. I’ll say how that is done in a few minutes.

The Role of Prophets and Pastors

Some scholars have proposed that prophets were charismatic leaders in the early church, but I think the evidence is unconvincing. There are a range of verses whereby elders, not prophets, were governing the early church. That’s widespread. Especially significant, I think, is James 5:14–15. He’s writing to the whole of the church at that time, the 12 tribes of the dispersion, and he assumes there are elders in every church that they can call to pray for the sick. And 1 Peter 5:1 says, “I exhort the elders among you . . .” And he’s writing to hundreds of churches I think in those four provinces of Asia Minor.

The Prophetic Gift for All Believers

Can all believers prophesy? We have a choice here. Is prophet an office or a regular function? We can have nouns applying to both. You see, the noun “teacher” applies to people who had an office in the early church. But what about healer? We’re not sure. What about helper? God has put in the church, apostles, prophets, teachers, healers, helpers, administrators, etc. Well we wouldn’t say helper is an office. Do you have to be ordained to the office of helper? What does Paul mean by helper? He just means someone who helps regularly. You’ve got some helpers in this church. They’re not listed on the staff of the church, and they’re not in the governing structure of the church. They’re helpers. The noun helper just applies to someone who helps regularly.

Now what about prophet? We can’t decide just from the fact that it’s a noun. Is it like “apostle” or “elder” or “teacher”? Is it an office? Or is it like “helper” and maybe some of those other descriptions of function. It seems to me that it is not an office that you had to be recognized publicly by the church in a formal way so that people knew who you were. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s that. It seems rather that it’s a regular function and I think that is so because of a few verses. First Corinthians 14:31 says:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

Then, in 1 Corinthians 14:5, he says:

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.

That’s just generally to people in the church. And 1 Corinthians 14:39 says:

So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.

He’s speaking to the church generally. He’s not speaking only to those who have the office of prophet. He’s telling people generally to earnestly desire this. And then 1 Corinthians 14:29 says:

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

He just calls anyone who speaks in prophecy a prophet. And 1 Corinthians 14:32 says:

The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.

That certainly doesn’t mean just those who have the office of prophet. That means anybody who prophesies. The Holy Spirit in his various manifestations is subject to that person. And so it seems to me that people who prophesy more regularly perhaps and with more effectiveness are those we could refer to as “prophets.” And I know the language sounds a little unfamiliar and I’m having a little trouble getting used to it myself, but there are two or three people in our church whom I would call prophets.

The wife of our worship leader is one of them. I think she has a prophetic gift that functions quite frequently and effectively. I’d be happy to call her a prophet. There are one or two other people in the church, certainly at least.

Check Your Motives

Regarding seeking the gift, Don Williams talked about this earlier. I want to endorse what he said about praying and waiting on the Lord. It’s right to pray and ask the Lord for gifts. At least we have the example of 1 Corinthians 14:13, which says, “He who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.” If someone has a gift of tongues, Paul says, “Pray that God will give you another gift, the gift of interpretation.” So it’s right to ask God for this, and yet be content and don’t be jealous of others.

And have the right motives. I think here we need some heart searching. Is our desire to gain more prominence, to exalt ourselves, to show off in a way, or is our desire really to help the church? So Paul says we should earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy, but that in the structure of this epistle that comes off of 1 Corinthians 12:31 where he had just said, “All these gifts are good, but I’ll show you a more excellent way than just using gifts.”

Then he talks about love and the more excellent way is using the gifts you have in love, not just having the gifts but using them in love, which includes a concern for the welfare of the church and a desire to build up the church. And that’s his foundational argument why tongues in the church are not nearly as valuable as prophecy. Tongues that are uninterpreted don’t help people, prophecy does. It edifies because it’s understandable. And don’t you want to help people? Don’t you want to speak understandably? Isn’t that the way of love? Paul says.

So we ought to say, is our desire to minister to the hurting broken lives that come through our doors day after day? And Paul puts it in perspective when he says in 1 Corinthians 14:12, “Since you are eager for manifestations of the spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” Is it really going to build up the church? Are people’s lives going to be changed and is that your desire then? If that is your motive, that people’s lives will be ministered to and thereby God will be glorified, then I think it’s much more likely that God will answer your prayer.

Should you try to prophesy? I don’t think so. I don’t think someone should just say, “Now I’m going to do it.” I think you should wait until you think that God is bringing something to mind. And then yes, explain what you think is happening.

Encouraging and Regulating Prophecy in the Local Church

What about encouraging and regulating the gift of prophecy in the local church? How can this be done? First, pray for wisdom. And that should be a present imperative, not an aorist imperative — that is, pray and keep on praying for wisdom so that the Lord keeps you on the right track. And then teach. I think it’s appropriate to teach about this so that people understand what is happening. And then go slowly and be patient. Peter says that elders are not to be domineering over those in their charge, but to be examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:3). And Jesus himself in Matthew 5:5 said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” God usually has much more time than we do in terms of his agenda for improving situations in the church.

Also, use the gift of prophecy in ways that it has already been functioning in the church. My guess is that it’s already been happening but you haven’t recognized it in some cases. It could be anytime in a prayer meeting where someone says, “I wasn’t thinking about this. I know we weren’t planning to pray for it, but I really feel burdened to pray for such and such.” I think God is putting that in a person’s heart and bringing it to mind. If that happened, and if it rang true to me, and if it seemed to be consistent with Scripture, and if it seemed to ring true with what I was sensing was going on in the meeting, then I would encourage it. I would say, “I think the Lord is giving you that. And I think that’s a gift.” And if you sense that happening some more, I want to encourage you to say, “You have permission to say this. You have permission to bring it up and encourage it in that way.”

So sometimes in prayer meetings it can happen, can’t it? In a spontaneous small group time or prayer meeting, two or three people all wanted to read the same verse at the same time. And we say, “Who brought that to mind?” There are times when two or three people were praying in our house at one time — actually faculty members and wives — and three people independently wanted to sing the same hymn at the same time. Someone asked for it and two other people said, “I was just thinking of that.” I think the Lord brings those things to mind. When you see that happening, I would encourage it and say, “I think that’s a gift.”

A female student came up to me after class one day and said, “I’ve been seeing pictures for a long time and I think especially in terms of ministry and how to minister people, but I’ve never known what it was.” And I just said, “Well, look, I think that’s a gift that the Lord is developing in you and I want to encourage you to talk about it to others and go ahead and pray on the basis of those things and ask the Lord for understanding in it.” Other people will say, “I’ll often know what’s bothering people before they tell me.” Maybe God has given you a gift in that area. Maybe you’ll just know what to pray for. So I’d encourage it.

The Pastor’s Oversight

Then, make provision for the use of prophecy and less formal worship gatherings of the church. I talked about this in one-on-one and two-on-one ministry times. If I were a pastor, I think I would give people permission to tell you when they think God is showing them something. Now, the larger the group, the more controls there have to be on the use of this gift. In a house group situation with 15 to 18 people sitting around, there’s pretty much freedom for people to say, “Oh, I think the Lord is bringing this to mind,” or something like that. Anybody can do that. But in our church service on Sunday morning, a hundred people or so are there. The policy is that no one can do that without checking with the pastor first.

Someone might see a picture that they think it’s a picture of what the Lord is indicating to us or they have a verse come to mind and they think it’s from the Lord. They have to walk up to the front and whisper it in the pastor’s ear or give it to him on a note and then he says, “Go ahead, I’ll give you permission to say that.” Or he’ll say, “Wait, I’ll ask you to say that later on.” Or he’ll say, “No, I don’t think that’s right for today.” So there’s a control, but at least there’s permission to be used in that way.

A Continual Emphasis on Scripture

Put more emphasis on Scripture as the source of guidance and focus of expectation to hear from God. I want to emphasize this. If we move into a realm where this gift of prophecy where God brings things to mind, where we recognize it as from the Lord, where we recognize it as valid from today, where we’re thankful for it, then I’m very happy. I think that’s good. I think it will increase our ministry effectiveness and the edification of the church. But the temptation is that we’ll think, “Now this is how we’re mostly to hear from God.” It’s not. It’s uncertain. We’re never sure that it’s from God. Sometimes it hits home, but sometimes it fails. But the word is certain. It’s always from God. And if we want to hear from God every day, you and I and our whole congregation have to continually be spending time in the written word of God.

That is where we go if we’re hungry to hear from God, and the other can be a supplement, it can be very effective in speaking to the needs of the moment. But the Bible is our focus of expectation to hear from God, and it’s the focus of our expectation for guidance when we seek the Lord’s will. I pray, “Lord, don’t just give me some miraculous guidance, but help me to understand what I’m to do.” And oftentimes Scripture will come to mind. Oftentimes there will be clarity of insight into the situation, but through Scripture as it’s applied to that situation.

If we keep this emphasis, I think we will keep both the rule of Scripture in our churches and prophecy. But if we lose this emphasis, we’ll probably lose both. I’ve had several people tell me they’ve come from spiritually dead Pentecostal churches. And I say, really? The form is there, but the spirit isn’t working in the church anymore at all. I think the way we keep assurance of the Spirit working is by keeping our adherence to Scripture.

The Importance of Prophecy Today

Why is the gift of prophecy important today then? Well, I think it’s important first because it’s a question of obedience to Scripture. Paul says:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:1).

As I’ve looked at them, it just does not seem to me convincing to say that only applied to the first century church. The epistles are written for us in the entire church age. Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. What does he say in 1 Corinthians 14:39–40?

So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order.

And 1 Corinthians 14:4 says:

He who prophesies edifies the church . . .

So first, we do this in obedience to Scripture.

Second, it’s an opportunity for wider participation in worship. If you’re worried about your church having too much of an emphasis on spectator Christianity, an openness to prophecy and other gifts that are distributed through the body of Christ will help a lot because it’s no longer so spectator oriented or so clergy dominated. It’ll be clergy governed, but it won’t be, I think, clergy dominated in the ministry. I think this gift gives opportunity for full participation by many, many people who don’t have the gift of teaching but do have this gift, women as well as men. It’s really healthy in our churches.

There is a woman in our church where the pastor has encouraged two or three times and she has sung a word of prophecy. She has a beautiful soprano voice and it’s been so moving and great encouragement. She would never in her life dream of standing at the pulpit and teaching, but she’ll do this and God ministers through it.

An element of closeness to God will come as we wait on him. I think that’s unmistakable. There will also be an element of vitality in worship and in personal ministry. And then there will be edification of the church. Sins will be revealed, hearts will be cleansed, many hurts will be brought to the light and healed, and the Lord will be glorified.

Cautions and Observations

If you start to allow this thing to happen or encourage it to happen in your church, let me give you just five or six points here. First, regarding predictions of the future, treat them like invitations and warnings, not like guarantees. Last April, we had a four-year-old girl in our church who was born with an almost unformed left ventricle in her heart. She wasn’t supposed to live until age two. She’s actually about five now. And we’ve prayed for her healing off and on and God has brought some measure of improved health, but by no means complete healing.

Last April during one week, at least four people in the church either had a dream that they were at her funeral where they could see the people, see the setting, and see the church in which it was, or a vision that she had died, or they had a strong sense coming to mind that she was going to die within the next week. That included four people who ordinarily have quite accurate prophetic insight, including our pastor. Well, what happened was people came individually not knowing what to say about that or what to do about it, but one and then the other came up to the pastor Sunday night and said, “With a lot of sorrow, I had a vision or I had a dream that that Gretel had died and I sensed it was going to happen soon.” Well, it happened to him too, and by the time the fourth person came, he thought it was real.

Immediately he went over to Gretel’s father and said, “David, I need to share this with you.” And we sat down there at the front of the church and our pastor said, “This person, this person, and this person have come and told me about this.” And David, who’s a leader in our church, and a godly man, was tremendously saddened by this, but the pastor was very wise. And he said, “I take this as God calling us to pray against it, not that it is certain.” And we began to pray. Four or five of us prayed, sitting there in the front of the church. And then as I began to pray, tremendous sorrow flooded over me and I began to try to keep back tears and then I couldn’t hold it back anymore. And with great sobs, sobbing and weeping, I was crying out to God to spare Gretel’s life. And I was praying with an intensity of desire and sorrow that has seldom happened to me in my life. And that went on for four or five minutes. And then it finished.

Then the same thing happened to our pastor and he began to pray and wept bitterly as he prayed for maybe 10 minutes. And she didn’t die. She’s not completely healed, but she’s healthier today than she has been in a long, long time. So it was a vision of something, a vision of death, but something that we thought God wanted us to pray against. It wasn’t good. It was a vision of evil. And so we treated it as a warning of the future, but not a guarantee. God used that to stir us up to pray. I don’t know the mind of God. I don’t know his decrees. I don’t know what would’ve happened if we hadn’t prayed, but I do know that he called us to pray and he granted mercy in that case. Jonah is similar. He says, “In 40 days, Nineveh will be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).

It was a warning. And on the other hand, I’ve heard people predict revival at Trinity Seminary and these are people who have had quite a bit of accuracy in their prophecies. And I say it may happen and I hope it happens and I pray for it. But the fact that someone has prophesied it doesn’t make me treat it as a guarantee. It’s an invitation from God that I should pray and seek his face in that direction.

Planning for the Future

Planning for the future, do not place too much emphasis on prophecies. Now I see more and more newsletters, transcripts, and tapes coming across my desk, predicting economic collapse, predicting revival, and telling me to store up this and that and whatever. I look at them, I notice when they are repeated themes, but I never change a course of action in my life based on those predictions alone. They may confirm and give further encouragement to what I’ve already been thinking. But too many people I think go on these alone for guidance.

Now, what has happened when people have predicted economic collapse and great natural disasters and things? The result in my life has been to try to get my house in order before the Lord, to try to be sure I’m living in obedience to him and I’m ready for him to return. And all that’s good. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. We should be ready for him to return. We should be ready for persecution and suffering. That’s fine. But I’m not going to sell my house or go live out in the woods or something like that to do what I otherwise would not ordinarily do from the wise and prudent guidance of Scripture, though it could call me to more faithful obedience to Scripture.

These are valuable when they encourage us to live holy and righteous lives. But I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on them. So what they should cause us to do is to say, is my prayer life right? Is my prayer life right before you, Lord? Is my financial life right? Is my family life right? Is my church life right? But you see what would happen if people think economic collapse is certain is that they’ll begin to act in inappropriate ways. They’ll hoard precious metals. They’ll store large quantities of food. They’ll buy farmland on which to raise food, though God hadn’t called them to be farmers. They’ll liquidate many assets. They won’t make long-term plans. They won’t enroll in graduate school because it takes three or four years to finish, etc. You see, we shouldn’t treat those as certainties, all right? Just treat them, perhaps, as warnings.

In those cases, people would not just be growing in holiness, but they would be acting as if they had certain knowledge of the future. And I don’t think anybody today except God has certain knowledge of the future, all right? I have certain knowledge of the book of Revelation that it’s going to happen, but I don’t know when, if you know what I mean.

Guidance According to Prophecy

Prophecies used for guidance can get us in much trouble, and guidance can come from many kinds of input. We should emphasize the teachings of Scripture in guiding our lives. Now look, I sent off an application for a sabbatical leave last month. There were five people I wanted to write references for me. I worked very hard for three days, typing up this proposal, filling out the form, and I sent it off to Indiana where this office was going to give away a lot of money for some evangelicals to take a sabbatical and write a book. But I couldn’t reach the one man I thought would be most helpful to write the recommendation. I called his home, no answer. I called his office secretary, and she didn’t know what he was. It was over Christmas vacation. He wasn’t going to be back for two weeks, and the deadline was December 31st.

So I gave up and I used my other four references and set off the application and quit. Then Saturday I came to a prayer meeting and Saturday morning at our church, I said, “I’d like you to pray for this application for a grant that I’ve sent off.” So we began to pray and the pastor said to me, “As we were praying, I got the sense that some man in Texas is important to this.” Bingo. The guy taught at Baylor in Waco, Texas. What did I do? Well, I said, “You’re right. There’s a man in Texas, I’ve been trying to get to write a recommendation for me, but I can’t reach him.” But since the Lord apparently brought it to mind — he didn’t know I knew somebody in Texas to write a recommendation for me at the business school at Baylor — I said, “All right, I’ll keep on trying.”

So I tried a little more and in the following week he got in touch with me and he did write a recommendation and they accepted it even though it was after the deadline. I don’t know what’ll happen. Now, there, what did it do? It brought to mind something that I thought was appropriate anyway, and it gave me a little encouragement to work in that direction. So I don’t mind that, but with the kind of guidance where someone says you should change your job (or you should quit your job and go into the mission field, etc.) I would be very cautious. It needs to be confirmed in many other ways.

Prophecies Given in Public

Here’s a caution about prophecies given in public. The larger the assembly of Christians, the more controls there need to be. The larger the assemblies of Christians, the more controls there need to be when prophecies are given in public. I talked about our church where you have to clear it with a pastor. I think that’s very helpful. And pastors, I could say to you, if you do not control the use of this gift, you will kill it. And the reason is that you will have one after another, people who want to be in the limelight, and they’ll stand up and they’ll prophesy what we would say in the flesh. They’ll prophesy. The Lord hasn’t given them anything, but they want everybody to listen to them and they’ll have a dramatic voice and say, “Thus says the Lord.” And everybody will know. It won’t ring true, and you’ll kill it. So if you control it and you have a check on it puts some responsibility on you.

You might make some mistakes from time to time saying some should say something when they shouldn’t, or saying that somebody shouldn’t when they should. But by and large, just pray that God will give you right judgment and control it, and then I think you’ll allow it to function rightly.

Honest, Open Feedback

Also, keep asking for honest, open feedback from people in private or in public. Ask, “Does that speak to you? Does that help the situation? Does that make sense in your life?” And if it is from God, you’ll be amazed at how many times people say, “Yes. That hit home. That was exactly what I needed.”

At a student group, just last week, God brought something to mind. I prayed for a female student, a campus crusade staff member, and she said, “Oh, that was just what I needed to have prayed for me. And I wasn’t thinking about that.” You’ll be amazed how often that’ll happen if you say, “Now, did anything that I prayed hit home to you?” And if that happens, then go ahead and pray some more about it. Maybe you want to follow that line a little more. And if it’s not from God, you get feedback, and it just falls dead. You need to know that too. And go back to the Lord and say, “Now what? Lord, what should we do?” So there are cautions, but if we take those cautions, what is left?

A Most Amazing Gift

What is left, I think, is the gift of prophecy that is a most amazing gift from God, our Father. This isn’t on your outline any place, it’s just a concluding exhortation. It’s a most amazing gift from God, our Father. Paul says, “We are to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy.” We are to seek this. And I guess he means we are to seek it above all other gifts. We are to encourage it, to nurture it, to cultivate it, and to use it as God gives it in our churches. And he will.

Just think about what is happening in prophecy. We are receiving individualized, personal communication from God himself. The omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal God is communicating to you and to me, mere men and women, mere creatures. And he’s telling us that he cares for us and that he knows us intimately and that he is wise regarding our situation. Often he’ll communicate to us something for someone else, and thereby he will tell them that he knows them, he cares for them, and he loves them. I prayed for someone just in the last month and this woman’s response after just a few minutes was, “I didn’t know that God loved me that much to meet this particular need right now in my life.” And she was just amazed.

So what is the glory of this gift? When this gift is coupled with prayer, worship, and reading of Scripture, it brings us into regular daily communion with the living God. God speaks and we listen, and we demonstrate one of the great privileges of redeemed creatures: communication with the living God. Our hearts are filled, and our soul’s delight in him, and we give him glory with our lips, with our hearts. We give him glory that will echo through eternity and bring delight to the heart of God. I think it is right for us to long for this gift, to cry out to God for it, and thereby cry out for a deeper and closer fellowship and communion with him. Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. Well, we have a few minutes for questions.

Questions and Answers

Is there a difference between prophecy and godly advice, or prophecy and ungodly advice, like advice from an unbeliever? Don’t we have to test all of them?

Yes, certainly. Maybe I didn’t say that enough. There’s always a testing, and what is that testing? It’s the testing that you would do to anything you hear in terms of what the Lord is saying. You’re testing what you hear by what you know of all of Scripture and all of life, and what you know to be true of God and his ways with us. So in this gift we test it, as we would with advice. Sometimes we know it’s from the Lord and sometimes it isn’t. Can God use unbelievers even in some cases? Well, I suppose, I mean he used Cyrus for instance, to bring the Israelites back to their land. But ordinarily he doesn’t, and I would be very suspect of something coming through an unbeliever. I wouldn’t call it the gift of prophecy anyway. It would be some kind of unusual providential intervention.

How can we know when a word of prophecy is really from God and not just advice based on sound reasoning?

In some cases it’s very clear. My pastor saying, “I think a man in Texas is important to this” is an example of that. He didn’t know. Some cases are very clear on the other side. It’s a God-given wisdom, a sanctified wisdom. And in between that there are all sorts of mixtures aren’t there? As we grow in godliness and knowledge of Scripture and maturity in the Christian life and sound judgment, we grow in discernment. Pastors, I think as a whole, have that kind of discernment more than anyone else, more than seminary professors certainly.

I’ll tell you a little secret as a parenthesis. Whenever I have a situation that I can’t figure out, either in my life or at Trinity, I go to David Larson who used to be the pastor at First Covenant and his office is down the hall from mine. He’s been a pastor for so many years. There’s so much wisdom in him. I usually get answers to my question, but that’s the parenthesis. Some of you know David Larson. He’s a great man of God. It’s sometimes impossible to know. Did God spontaneously bring that to mind? If we ask the apostle Paul, would he call it a prophecy because it was based on a revelation, or was that just the ordinary process of wisdom and understanding of Scripture that God has given us? Or is it a mixture of the two?

Well, I don’t really care. If God uses it, it doesn’t matter. We don’t have to find out. I just want to say that we can be open to this spontaneous leading by the Spirit, and if we accept it adds this other dimension to the input which we give in which we minister. Do you see what I’m saying? So we’re not always on the very logical, reasonable, way of thinking where we know. But we’re open to the Lord using that whole range of our whole persons in speaking to us.

What’s this in between thing? I mean is God just saying, “Here’s my idea, but it may not be a good one.” How can it be God’s idea, either to be believed or done and yet be an option?

The question is, how can God reveal something and then not require us to obey, or to believe it? I think that the absence of a requirement comes from the fact of our uncertainty that it is from God. And that’s the difference with Scripture. In Scripture I’m certain it’s from God. And this other, I’m not certain it’s from God.

Now as I grow, some things just don’t ring true at all. I can easily say, “It’s not from the Lord.” Maybe it’s doctrinally false and it contradicts Scripture, something like that. There are other things that just seem neutral. I’m not sure if we should do it or not. And there are other things that ring true to me. It feels like it’s the key that unlocks what I’ve been puzzling about in everything. That’s from the Lord. And then the degree of obligation I have increases as the degree of certainty that I have that it’s from the Lord.

I guess what I want to protect here too, John, is this idea that we can’t mind the conscience of others with revelation that comes to us, as if to say, “Now the Lord wants all of you to stop watching TV for a month,” or something like that. God may give me a conviction that I should fast, that I should stop watching TV, or something like that, but as soon as I go over the bounds of that and start imposing it on my church, then I’m starting to bind the conscience in ways that the Reformers resisted and said, “We can’t do that.” The Roman Catholic Church was doing that, but Luther and Calvin didn’t want to do that. And I think I want to aim there with the sufficiency of Scripture too.

Can I try to restate it again and see if this connects? The key difference is that we must distinguish between the revelation, assuming it’s there, and then three stages of possible error. First, my perception of it may be wrong. Second, my thinking about it may be wrong. Third, my delivery of it may be wrong. Those three possible errors that are all in me constitute the difference between that and Scripture. Because all those three things were made infallible by inspiration.

Now, this is what needs to be clarified by people who are criticizing, because it sounds like when you’re talking that you’re saying the revelation is optional, and sometimes not to be believed. And really we must find a way of communicating that says it’s what comes out of this human’s mouth having passed through three fallible sieves which does not need necessarily to be followed, and you’re not morally wrong to call it into question. Whereas in Scripture, the meaning of the doctrine of inspiration is that those sieves were cleaned up.

People who criticize say, “How can there be a fallible revelation?” Norman Geisler criticized me at the Evangelical Theological Society and I said to him after, “Norman, I don’t believe in fallible revelation. I believe in the fallible report of Revelation.” He said, “Oh. All right, well that changes it.” And similarly, this month’s issue of Christianity Today includes an article where Robert Thomas from Master Seminary is criticizing my view of prophecy, saying, “Gruden believes in fallible inspired speech, which is a contradiction.” But I don’t believe in fallible inspired speech. I believe in a fallible report of something that God brings to mind. It’s different from Scripture. So that’s really helpful.

The Spirit gives the gifts as he wills, but does he give them all at once or is it progressive? And the command to desire this gift, is it to me as an individual? Or is it to me as part of a body that says, “Lord, give to this congregation, someone with this gift?” Or is it something where I should ask, “Lord, give me this gift?”

First, I do put a lot of emphasis on the present tense participle and some other present tense verbs about the one God who works these gifts in everyone and the Spirit. It’s a present participle, where he is distributing to each one as he wills. I think it is a present, continuous action over time, so that through the history of our lives God can give us different gifts at different times for different needs. Now, often there will be a continuing, as when God gives a gift to teaching or evangelism or prophecy, and it’ll continue over time, but it can vary.

Second, I think it’s to each individual, though he’s writing to the Corinthians generally. He expects them to obey when he says, “Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” Now it may be that God doesn’t grant that gift to us and then sure, we should pray for it in our church too.

If we can’t know that a prophecy is infallible, if we can’t have absolute certainty about it, how can it have usefulness for us? How can it have value?

Well, lots of things in life that aren’t infallible have value for us. Our conversation now isn’t inerrant, but I think we are learning and there’s some value even in our interaction. And again, it could be advice from a friend or a sermon. A sermon doesn’t have to be infallible to be helpful.

John is saying it’s helpful to the degree that it points to the Scripture. Yes, but it’s also helpful to the degree that it points out true facts about the situation. See, I keep sensing the word anger with the woman that we’re praying for, and it hits home to her. She knows it’s anger. Or the pastor, when he hears, “I think you need to take more leadership in your church,” it hits home. That’s a true thing about the situation. Now there’s scriptural principles that would apply to that situation that the person already knew were true. She knew she shouldn’t be angry. There’s that kind of thing in that situation. And it’s the combination of that that hits home and gives the repentance or whatever.

Could you expound a little bit on how to judge prophecies? We haven’t talked much about how to do that, other than is anybody feeling okay about this?

There’s also a doctrinal filter. Everything I know about Scripture comes into play here. If someone starts giving a prophecy that gives a doctrine that is contrary to something in Scripture, I say, “Nope, that’s not from the Lord.” I don’t have any quick rules. I ask, “Is it in accordance with Scripture and what you know to be true about the situation? And is there a subjective sense that goes into that? Does it seem like it’s from the Holy Spirit?” And it’s hard to evaluate that. That’s the truth.

I was just wondering if you could give us a quick illustration of an instance when in public assembly you or another had to seriously correct or reject a prophecy. How is that handled?

The places that I’ve been in now you’ve got to clear it with the pastor first. That’s been mostly my experience. I did hear John Wimber out in California once say to someone, “Sit down.” That was quite effective. He had the microphone and he said, “Sit down. It’s not from the Lord.” And that seems hard. It won’t be hard when it comes to it. You’ll know it and everybody else in the congregation will know it, and they’ll be waiting for you to say something.

is research professor of theology and biblical studies at Phoenix Seminary and author of Systematic Theology. He co-founded the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and served as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible.