Most believers think that God speaks to them on a regular basis. At least based on my experience, that appears to be the common perception. People use the expression “God told me” or “I heard God” all the time. Certainly, in its worst form, it announces the blasphemous declarations of today’s preachers of the prosperity gospel. Unfortunately, far too many people mimic that language in their everyday conversation. By using such language, they may be attempting to give legitimacy to a decision they’ve made or to defend some action they taken. For others, it may be an attempt to validate (or even to reach for) some level of perceived intimacy with God. They understand that intimacy is built on two-way communication, and so they feel a need to express their relationship to God in terms that capture the dynamic of dialogue, not monologue. But in all these cases, as teachers and leaders, we need to, first of all, help our people understand the theological dangers inherent in this kind of language. Second, we need to boldly present to people the power of God’s voice in its active sense through the Word of God.
For ages discerning pastors and theologians have recognized the dangers in claiming to hear the voice of God outside of Scripture. They recognize that there are stern warnings in Scripture against attributing to God words which, in fact, He did not speak (cf. Deut 18:20; cf. 13:1–5; 1 Cor 14:29–31). Because of the inherent authority that comes with a Word from God, the Lord recognized the potential abuse if people were to claim His authority for messages that merely come from their own imagination. For that reason, He not only established the very high standard of infallibility for all who claim to be His spokesmen, but He often confirmed them with accompanying miraculous signs (Acts 2:22; 5:12; 2 Cor 12:12). Therefore, for us to claim that God is speaking to us apart from Scripture potentially misrepresents God and places us in danger of His judgment. Instead, we recognize that divine revelation has come to us in the Holy Scripture (1 Cor 2:7–13; 2 Pet 1:19–21), and that this “canon” of Scripture was closed with the writing of the final book of the New Testament in the late first century (Rev 22:18–19). This has been the historic view of the church for most of its existence.
Unfortunately, some people wrongly conclude that a closed canon and cessation of special revelation mean that somehow we are destined for stagnant and lifeless interaction with God. They accuse those who are not open to new revelations from God to be necessarily opposed to His supernatural activity and resistant to the work of the Holy Spirit. In his book, Surprised by the Voice of God, Jack Deere was one of those people who suggested that if you aren’t hearing the voice of God outside of Scripture, you have simply imbibed a naturalistic world-view, and you suppress the notion of the supernatural. The unspoken assumption, of course, is that the supernatural must be experienced through the instrumentality of visions, dreams, and prophecies.
As church leaders, we ought not to shy away from emphasizing that God’s voice is living and active. In fact, these are the very adjectives that are given to the Word of God, the Scripture, by the writer of Hebrews. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). And the writer illustrates this truth over and over in the Letter to the Hebrews by repeatedly referring to Scripture, introducing quotations of Scripture with phrases like “He says” (1:6, 7, 8; 2:12–13; 3:7, etc.). B. F. Westcott notes, “For us and for all ages the record is the voice of God. The record is the voice of God, and as a necessary consequence the record is itself living. It is not [merely a book]. The constant use of the present tense in quotations emphasizes this truth: 2:11, 3:7, 12:5. Comp. 12:6.”
B. B. Warfield, affirms the comments of Dr. Westcott, writing: “Every careful student will recognize this at once as a very clear and very true statement of the attitude of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews toward the Old Testament.” Warfield notes that a similar attitude is found in the rest of the New Testament writers toward the Old Testament. God’s voice is living and active through Scripture. Michael Kruger points out that it was this “active” nature of the voice of God in Scripture that, in the early centuries of the church, set the New Testament documents apart from all the man-made writings that claimed to speak from God: “Scriptures do more than pass along propositional information (as important as that it); they are ‘living and active.’” It speaks. How could anyone say that a relationship with God based “merely” on hearing Him through His Word is somehow stale and dead, unless they didn’t really believe that His Word was active and living?
In emphasizing the active and living voice of God through Scripture, we stress that there is a vital connection between the Holy Spirit and the way He uses the Scripture in our everyday experience. The Holy Spirit is supernaturally active in the Scripture, and by it God is speaking into our lives all the time, bringing conviction, building discernment, directing our hearts, and sanctifying our lives. These are the works of the Spirit, and they are not natural. They are supernatural (1 Cor 2:14–16).
To have such a view of God’s voice, to have such a view of special revelation, and to have such a view of Scripture, is not to suppress the work of the Spirit or to settle for a mere distant relationship with God based on a one-way monologue. It is to recognize the dynamic power of the Word that is inherent in it. God does desire to speak to each one of us in fresh and active ways. But we simply need to understand that for us to truly say “God spoke to me” is not to claim that “God revealed something new to me.” To truly be able to say “God spoke to me” is, in fact, for us to say, “I listened to what God said” [through His living Scripture].
Shane Koehler is one of our eleven TES campus pastors, having served as teaching pastor at Faith Community Church in Woodstock, GA since 2003.