Romans 12:1–8 says,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
What does the gift of prophecy refer to? How does it relate to Scripture? Is this gift to be exercised today? And how do we use it “in proportion to our faith”? Those are the questions I would like to try to answer today. We are focusing on Romans 12:6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith.”
To answer most of these questions we will have to go outside Romans. Paul does not discuss the meaning of the gift of prophecy here. That is probably significant. It probably means that he assumed that teaching about spiritual gifts is part of what Christians received early in their walk with Christ. So if you have not received it, these next messages may be especially relevant.
Godly Scholars Disagree on This Issue
Good, solid, Bible-believing Christians disagree on the meaning of the New Testament gift of prophecy. Even those who hold firmly to a very high view of Scripture as inspired and inerrant (as we do), and a fully Reformed vision of God (as we do) disagree. For example, Wayne Grudem wrote a book called The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today which defends one view. Richard Gaffin wrote a book called Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit which defends a different view. So let me try to describe these views and the arguments for them and then give you my view and how we may be able to live biblically in spite of this disagreement.
One preliminary observation: Be sure you don’t think of prophecy only as predictions. That is one thing a biblical prophet did, but not the only one. Prophecy is forthtelling as well as foretelling. An Old Testament prophet spoke for God, whether describing the moral condition of the people calling for repentance, or the warning of judgments to come.
Now consider the competing interpretations of New Testament prophecy. Richard Gaffin argues that New Testament prophecy has complete divine authority and should be thought of on a par with what the apostles wrote (p. 72) as inspired and inerrant. And therefore he believes prophecy has ceased. This gift here in Romans 12:6 is not valid for today. If it were, then prophetic words today should be written down and the New Testament would be getting larger and larger with every fresh revelation.
On the other hand, Wayne Grudem argues that New Testament prophecy is not inspired in the same way Scripture is, and is not inerrant. Rather, it is a human report of something that God has brought spontaneously to mind. It is different from teaching in that teaching is based on a written text of Scripture, while prophecy is based on the immediate impression that God is directing our thoughts to information that we would not otherwise have known or spoken.
So, for example, it would be an exercise of the gift of prophecy if someone in a small group or prayer meeting was led by God to say, “I feel that our sister church in Shanghai is spiritually struggling and undergoing attack,” and the next day an email comes confirming that was the case and that the prayers of the people were answered. Or it was probably the gift of prophecy when Charles Spurgeon, while preaching in London, pointed to a young man and said, “Young man, the gloves in your pocket are not paid for.” Or when he said on another occasion, “There is a man sitting there who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays; it was open last Sabbath morning. He took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit on it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!” (See Vern Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cesssationist Theology,” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39/1 (March, 1996): 85.) Both of these words proved true and brought repentance.
Or under this definition of the gift of prophecy it was probably the gift of prophecy last Sunday when I pointed to downtown Minneapolis and said (apart from what was in my notes), “A Bible study on the 36th floor of the IDS Tower with well-to-do business men is not mercy ministry, but it is crucial and valuable and necessary.” A woman came up to me after that service with joy in her face saying that she was visiting this morning and just that week had had a meeting with well-to-do businessmen on the 36th floor of the IDS tower about a ministry possibility and she came hoping for encouragement in the venture. She took it as an encouragement from the Lord.
Now I have already tipped my hand that I think Grudem is right about the meaning of New Testament prophecy. But I want to say here at the outset that even if he is wrong that this kind of thing is what New Testament prophecy was, the experience may still be valid, and we just should not call it the gift of prophecy. That is what Vern Poythress argues in the very helpful article I referenced earlier.
The New Testament Evidence
So let’s look at the New Testament evidence. I am only going to point. If you want to see the full arguments then get the books by Grudem and Gaffin, or my sermon series, “Are Signs and Wonders for Today?” Another very helpful book is Graham Houston’s Prophecy: A Gift for Today? (This is a simpler and more accessible defense of Grudem’s basic position.)
First, here are some arguments for treating the gift of prophecy as valid for today — based on something that God brings to mind, but not necessarily understood or reported infallibly.
In Acts 2:17 Peter explains the event of Pentecost by quoting the prophet Joel:
And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
So here is a statement of what the last days (our days!) will be like. It appears that prophecy will not be so much an office, but a widespread experience of men and women.
In 1 Corinthians 14:1–4 Paul says to the whole church:
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation [that is what the gift of prophecy is supposed to do]. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.
This text certainly sounds like prophecy is not the prerogative of a fixed group of authoritative founders of the church, but of the body in general. And the ministry of prophecy is simply described like this: It upbuilds, encourages, and consoles.
First Corinthians 14:29–32 says,
Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets.
Notice two crucial points: One is that a prophecy is based on a “revelation.” Verse 30: “If a revelation is made to another . . . let the first be silent.” That is why I say that the gift of prophecy is based on something God brings to mind. It is not exactly the same as teaching, which is based on the exposition of a text. It is based on God bringing something more immediately to mind.
But then verse 29 says, “Let the others weigh (diakrinetosan) what is said.” That point is very interesting! It does not focus attention on whether the person speaking is a “true prophet” or not. It is not saying what Jesus said, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15–16). It focuses on “what is said.” And the idea is: View it with some mild skepticism. I say that because the word (“weigh,” diakrinetosan) regularly has that connotation.
In other words, check it out, assess it. Which means that the gift of prophecy the way Paul encouraged its wide use did not have final, decisive authority. The Scriptures did. Paul’s own inspired words were decisive, not any claim to divine revelation through the gift of prophecy. “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (1 Corinthians 14:37).
We find the same thing in 1 Thessalonians 5:20–21, “Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.” In other words, it sounds as if some of what comes by way of prophecies is good — hold fast to that — and some is not — let that go. In other words, the gift of prophecy is not in the same category with Scripture. It is under Scripture and tested by Scripture, and it is spiritual wisdom informed by Scripture.
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul warns against misusing spiritual gifts in a loveless way. In verses 8–10 he says, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” In the context, the coming of “the perfect” is almost certainly the second coming of Christ because verse 12 says, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” That will happen at the second coming of Christ. The implication then is that the partial and imperfect gifts of prophecy and tongues and knowledge will last until Christ returns.
One more observation on this view: 1 Corinthians 14:1 says to the church, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” So all of us are told to earnestly desire especially to prophesy. This exhortation would not make sense, it seems to me, if the gift only applied to a limited group of men who spoke with Scripture-level authority. But it would make really good sense if prophecy were a gift that any believer could use to offer Spirit-timed insights that God brings to mind for each other’s good.
So for these reasons I am persuaded that the gift of prophecy is valid for today and is not equal with Scripture in authority but is valuable as a Spirit-guided expression of something we otherwise would not know or say, which is powerful for that particular moment and brings conviction or exhortation or consolation for the awakening or upbuilding of faith. It should not spook us as something uncontrollable, but should be treated as any claim to insight. It is fallible. It may prove true and it may not because the human channel is sinful and fallible and finite. (See Poythress, pp. 85–88 for further reflections.)
Two Significant Objections
Now those who oppose this view point to at least two significant problems. And they are significant. I don’t make light of them. One comes from 1 Corinthians 12:28. There Paul lists some spiritual gifts and puts prophecy in front of teaching, after apostleship. “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” Why does prophecy come after apostle and before teaching, if it does not have greater authority than teaching? Good question. Answer: I don’t know. I think I could suggest some plausible guesses, but this is not the place for that. I just don’t think the mere order of these words can overthrow all the other observations we have made.
The second objection comes from Ephesians 2:20. There Paul says that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” This verse doesn’t refer to Old Testament prophets, because Paul uses the same phrase a few verses later like this: “[The mystery of Christ] was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (3:5). So he seems to be saying that the authoritative foundation of the church is the apostles and prophets. That would seem to put the New Testament gift of prophecy into the category of authoritative, foundational speech, not the category of helpful, valuable, but fallible speech.
My answer would be to suggest, with Graham Houston and Wayne Grudem, that the term “apostles and prophets” may refer to one group not two; namely, apostles who are also prophets. Like we say, Noël is wife and mother. Not two Noël’s, but two ways of describing the one Noël. Or another example is the way Ephesians 4:11 uses the term “pastors and teachers” — not two groups but one. One group is both pastors and teachers. The upshot, then, from Ephesians 2:20 would be that the apostles who are prophets are the teaching founders of the church, with Christ himself as the cornerstone.
Those would be my answers to the objections. But I can see the problems and feel the force of them. Some of you probably disagree with me on this. And I am sure that many of you are new to this and do not know what you think yet. We don’t need to agree on whether to call this experience “prophecy.”
Let’s see if we can have these common aims together even if some call it the gift of prophecy and others don’t. Let’s go back to Romans 12:6 and take up the command to use the gift of prophecy “in proportion to our faith.”
1. The Exaltation of Christ
Using the gift in proportion to our faith will mean that we use it to exalt Christ. That’s what faith does. Practically that means that, as I bow my head before entering this pulpit, I ask for the gift of prophecy. That is, I say (and you can say the same prayer for your small group as you are driving there), “Lord, bring to my mind thoughts and words, beyond my preparation, which will have the greatest effect for the glory of Christ. Bring to my mind applications and insights and words, besides those I have prepared, that will penetrate through hard hearts and convict, and others that will encourage and console and guide. Yes, I believe you have given me edifying insight already in my preparation. I am only now asking that to the gift of teaching you would add a gift of prophecy.” I pray that way and you can too.
2. Humility and Boldness
Using the gift in proportion to our faith means that we will use it both humbly and boldly. That is, we will not speak the prophetic word with any claim to divine authority, but with a humble claim to divine insight which we offer to be tested. But faith is not cowardly. Its humility is not silent. It speaks. It speaks the tough or tender word. It does not say, “The Lord told me to tell you . . .” but “I sense (or I think) that the Lord wants us (or you) to . . .” This approach leaves room for the testing the Bible calls for.
3. Love as the Measure of What We Say
Finally, using the gift in proportion to our faith means that we will make love the measure of what we say, because “faith works through love” (Galatians 5:6). Once a woman prophesied over me that my pregnant wife would give me a daughter, not a fourth son, and that my wife would die in childbirth. That was not a helpful prophecy. It was pointless. And, as you know, it proved false. Love did not govern the use of that gift. That is not the way saving faith uses gifts.
So in closing let’s listen to that great word of Paul at the center of his discussion of spiritual gifts:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1–2).
“Use the gift of prophecy in proportion to your faith” means, “Use it to love and build each other up in faith to the glory of Christ.”