Why the Gift of Prophecy Is Not the Usual Way of Knowing God’s Will

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, 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 you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We have spent two weeks on the gift of prophecy, defending its relevance today and defining it. We said last Sunday evening that the gift of prophecy is a very different thing than the verbally inspired speech of the apostles and prophets who wrote Scripture. It is based on a spontaneous revelation from the Holy Spirit, but it is fallible and in need of sifting because our perception of the revelation and our thought about it and our delivery of it are all fallible.

The Bible teaches that the very words of Scripture are inspired (2 Timothy 3:16). But the spiritual gift of prophecy is different from the inspiration of Scripture. It does not guarantee that the report of God’s revelation will be infallible. Instead, the Bible teaches us to test these prophecies and hold fast to whatever is good. In fact, it teaches that much good — much edification — is to be expected from such timely words in the congregation.

The Danger of Overestimating Prophecy’s Role

Now what I want to try to show today is that this gift of prophecy is not meant by God to be the usual way we should make decisions about the will of God. I think this is necessary to say because the discovery of a new spiritual reality almost always makes us overestimate its role in the Christian life.

“God wants conformity to his Son, not just external compliance with instructions.”

I think this is especially true of prophecy. If God really speaks today (we begin to feel), then surely this is the way to know his will about jobs and mates and investments and purchases and travel plans. And pretty soon we tend to forsake the language of wisdom and insight and reason and persuasion, and instead use the language of “God told me to do this,” and “God told me to do that” about almost everything.

So what I want to do first with some examples is to show you that Paul himself, who believed so much in the gift of prophecy, did not live his own life by constant words from the Lord or encourage others to.

How Paul Thought Through Life Decisions

For example, in Philippians 2:25, he said, “I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus.” The word is “reckon.” I have reckoned that it is necessary to send him. He did not get a revelation from the Lord. He “reckoned” with the needs and the circumstances and the principles of Scripture and made his decision, confident that it pleased the Lord.

Another example is in 1 Corinthians 16:4 where he describes his plans like this: “If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.” The word for “advisable” is “fitting” or “worthy.” Paul is asking about the fitness of the decision. He anticipates being led not by a prophetic revelation in this case, but by a sober assessment of what is fitting and advisable in view of the situation and what he knows of God.

He advises others the same way. To the Corinthians who are embroiled in a dispute between some members, he does not counsel them to ask for a prophecy; he says, “Can it be that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the brotherhood?” (1 Corinthians 6:5). He expects that spiritual wisdom should be used in the ordinary course of life to settle matters that arise.

So we are alerted not to carry our enthusiasm for prophecy beyond limits. It is not supposed to become the usual way we make the hundreds of decisions we must make each day.

Why Did God Set Things Up This Way?

Why do you think this might be? I think the basic reason is this: if you live your life not on the basis of spiritual wisdom but on the basis of external revelations, you are not compelled to deal so deeply with the corruption of your own heart and mind. It is possible for a servant to hear the commands of his master and do them without really loving his master or being like him. But if the master refrains from telling the servant the details of what he wants done, and simply says, “Go now, and be a good representative for me in what you choose,” then the servant is forced to consider what his master is really like and how deeply his own heart and mind conform to the heart and mind of the master.

God wants conformity to his Son, Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29), not just external compliance with instructions. He wants us to see the way he sees and desire the way he desires and assess the way he assesses and be repelled by what repels him. And so he does not short-circuit all this inner transformation of likeness to Christ when he calls us to do his will.

Three Crucial Aspects of Confirming God’s Will

We can see this most clearly in Romans 12:2. As Paul makes the great turn from the weighty theological matters of chapters 9–11 to the practical considerations of chapters 12–15, he says right at the outset that the basic means of doing the will of God is a mental ability to prove or confirm what is the will of God. “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This verse shows us at least three crucial things about confirming what the will of God is.

First it shows us that the will of God must be “proved,” that is, it must be examined and verified and embraced. “that you may prove what the will of God is. . . .”

The second thing it shows us is that this examining and verifying and accepting is done by the Christian mind: “Be transformed in the renewal of your mind, that you may prove. . . .” It is the mind of the Christian that does the proving of the will of God.

“Satan cannot copy the renewal of the mind in righteousness and holiness.”

Third, it shows us that for this to happen the mind must be renewed. “Be transformed in the renewal of your mind, that you may prove. . . .” Ordinary human thinking will not be able to examine and verify and embrace the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

So you can see, can’t you, why God would not make prophecy the usual means of finding his will? If he did, it would minimize, or even evade, this utterly necessary transformation and renewal that is so crucial. God does not want mere external compliance to a set of rules or even a set of prophecies. He wants a people who are deeply, deeply different from the world in the kind of minds that they have. He wants us to have minds that think the way he thinks and see the way he sees and feel the way he feels so that they choose the way he chooses. Therefore he doesn’t tell us to leave thinking behind and listen for messages. He tells us to be changed, be transformed, be metamorphosed in the way we think. “Be transformed in the renewal of your mind.”

How Can We Be Transformed in Our Minds?

How then shall we be transformed in this way? How can we make our minds new so that we don’t think the way the world thinks but the way God thinks about what is good and bad, helpful and harmful, beautiful and ugly, true and false? Let me point you to four biblical steps.

1. Recognize Your Need for Renovation

Recognize that you are in need of a deep renovation of the mind. Ephesians 4:17–18 describes what we are all like apart from this renovation. “Now this I affirm and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; they are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”

The reason I said we need a deep renovation of the mind is because the root of our futile thinking goes down deep into the hardness of our heart. If you follow Paul’s thought backwards up from the root of hard-heartedness to the terrible fruit of futility, it goes like this: hardness of heart gives rise to blameworthy ignorance, which gives rise to alienation from God, which gives rise to a pervasive darkness of understanding, which gives rise to incredible uses of the human mind in the service of futility. When the heart is out of love with God, the mind knows not what it is for. It stumbles like a genius in the dark along a precipice of destruction.

Can you think of anything more tragic and painfully ironic than thousands of brilliant men and women of intellect hearing the final sentence: “Your thinking was futile; I never knew you.” So the first step in the renewal of our minds is to recognize the need for deep renovation of heart and mind.

2. Depend on the Holy Spirit

The second step to a renewed mind that proves the will of God is to depend on the Holy Spirit. Paul says in Titus 3:5 that “God saved us not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.”

The renewing agent is the Holy Spirit. We cannot make ourselves new. It is a supernatural divine work of God’s Spirit. It is just as wonderful as the Spirit’s revelation in the gift of prophecy. And it is more wonderful than prophecy because Satan can copy prophecy in soothsaying and sorcery, but Satan cannot copy the renewal of the mind in righteousness and holiness. The main work of the Holy Spirit is not to give us prophecies about the will of God but to change us into new, holy people who know and love the will of God.

So the second step to mental newness is to depend on the Holy Spirit. Humbly rely on him and not yourself.

3. Pray for Spiritual Understanding

Pray for the Spirit to give you spiritual understanding that can prove the will of God. We know that Paul made this a top priority for his churches because this is what he prays for them again and again. For example in Philippians 1:9–10, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent.” Love abounding with knowledge and insight is the renewal of the mind that can examine and verify and embrace things that are excellent. And Paul pursues it by prayer.

Colossians 1:9 is another example: “We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” Do we want to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will? Yes. That is our heart’s desire! Then (according to Paul) we need spiritual wisdom and understanding — that is, we need to be renewed in the “spirit of our minds” (Ephesians 4:23). And that is what Paul prays for “without ceasing.” “We have not ceased to pray for you. . . .”

So the third step to a renewed mind is to pray for it. Ask, seek, knock. Will not your Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him (Luke 11:13)?

4. Focus on the Glory of God

The fourth step is to focus your attention on the glory of God. You can see this most clearly in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Beholding the glory of the Lord we are being changed. You become like what you behold. You live like what you look at most. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:16–18:

“You become like what you behold. You live like what you look at most.”

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Daily renewal of the inner person — the person who proves what the will of God is — that renewal comes from looking not at the world with all its fleeting glory, but at the unseen things of eternity which are radiant with the glory of God.

Proving, Examining, Verifying, Embracing

So I affirm again in closing: the gift of prophecy, precious and edifying, is not meant to be the usual way of knowing the will of God. Rather the usual way is by proving — by examining and verifying and embracing — the will of God by means of a renewed mind. So I ask you:

  1. Do you see how deep is the need for the renovation of your mind?

  2. Do you trust in the work of the Holy Spirit?

  3. Do you pray without ceasing for spiritual wisdom and understanding?

  4. And do you look steadily at the glory of God in things that are eternal — in the face of Jesus Christ — in the Bible? There is no other way to become like Christ in the world than to behold Christ in the Word.

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of the sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1–2) Do you, both day and night? It is the only way. We become what we behold.