Question: I have often heard from some Pentecostal friends statements like: I had a vision where I saw such and such thing. To be specific, I have a friend who often shares with me that he saw different visions. In one vision, he said he saw Jesus, then heaven in another. Then he claims that Holy Spirit talks to him. Could you help me to know whether the Bible supports these things? If yes, can it be experienced by any normal Christian who has prayer life?
Answer: Let me say that I identify with your question — being a relatively conservative, middle-of-the-road type of Christian, who is neither Reformed nor Charismatic. But most importantly, I consider the Bible to be the complete and inerrant word of God — the ultimate authority — the source and the touchstone of truth — and this is a critical part of my answer to your question. You see, Charismatics will say that they believe that the Bible is the authoritative word of God, but their actions can tell a different story; they expect extra-biblical phenomena like “words from God,” healings and visions to be common among believers. But such events were anything but common in the Bible.
That being said, the Bible does not preclude these activities. But phenomena like visions, dreams and “words from God” — ones that purport to give Christians “official” information from God — are all suspect to me.
Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)
Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar. (Proverbs 30:6)
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. (Rev. 22:18)
These verses show God’s attitude toward appending his Bible. You see, he has already written everything down… and I’m thinking that he does not want us expanding his holy writ. But I do think that he wants us to explore his word with our bodies, minds and spirits. Let’s just not add to the data.
That being said, I see no problem with your friend having visions of Jesus… or heaven… or a conversation with the Holy Spirit… since God often revealed himself like this in the Bible (Dan. 1:17; Joel 2:28). The question is, is that normative for today — for the mature Church — and in this era where we have the completed Scripture?
The first century Church had no New Testament scripture to reference… because they were writing it! But they were blazing new trails, too, (with the Holy Spirit) and these included activities that we associate with Charismatic churches; they prophesied, spoke in tongues, healed… and the fact that this was how the Church acted at its beginning argues for the continuance of those activities today. But God’s people used to sacrifice animals, too… and we don’t do that anymore. So, it’s reasonable to expect that the New Testament Church should make appropriate changes as it ages.
God reveals his will for humankind progressively through the ages. That is, he gives us information timed to his redemptive clock — and he holds people responsible for the light of their time. For instance, the Jews were not responsible to the Law while they were in Egypt… because the Law had not yet come to them! But after Sinai, they were responsible for it — and this change seems natural and right. In like manner, people were speaking in tongues, healing and prophesying routinely in the early Church… but this was while the first generation of Christians was still alive — and this was a unique generation.
The early disciples were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Furthermore, they wrote the New Testament… and that’s pretty specific stuff! But once they completed New Testament manuscripts, the activities that were essential in the pre-canon age tapered off … and many of us do not prophesy now. But has something really changed? Or are a lot of us just missing out?
I am not inclined to accept a “word from God” as a word from God in a world where the Scripture is complete, sufficient and inerrant… I mean… why would I? I have everything I need right now… and without the extra-biblical input. I commune with God at will (having an open channel through the Holy Spirit). I have my Bible (which is everything God wants me to know in writing). I also have my Church family and the work that God has given me to do. I am spiritually rich beyond anything I deserve… and I would feel presumptuous seeking a “word from God” when I have so many already.
For instance, we have God’s “word” (his revelation) in creation (Rom. 1:18-25); we have God’s word in the Living Word, Jesus Christ (1 Jn. 4:9), and we have the Bible — the written word of God (— a special revelation that could be only be completed after the disciples testified to Jesus’ life, resurrection and messianic fulfillments… which they have done [1 Cor. 15:3-8]). So what remains? Are we missing any “words?” I say no… but Charismatics demonstratively disagree.
I have been a Christian for many decades now, and in that time I have had God-focused dreams, epiphanies… and the occasional great moving of the Holy Spirit. But these were rare … and if you think about it, they should be rare, not normative — and that is my primary objection to the Charismatic excesses: they demand a miracle-a-moment! That is unrealistic and unbiblical.
It is important to note, however, that even in a moment of spiritual epiphany, I have never been tempted to countermand Scripture… but this is because I know Scripture; this is a comparative weakness among Charismatics. If a person believes that God is still adding to his written word, then that person’s value of the written word will be necessarily lower… because it is necessarily in flux.
I am not saying that the Charismatic sector does not have its scholars or serious Bible students — please understand that I am painting with a broad brush. But people like me who believe that God’s written revelation is completed, inerrant and sufficient study it more carefully because it is not subject to amendment. Now, God’s word is always open to interpretation — that’s how God set it up — but when a person approaches the Bible as God’s sufficient word, that brings a special focus… and that focus is a little off in the charismatic sector.
You have asked me of your friend’s report, does the Bible support these things? Yes… but there are qualifications. The early church had plenty of prophesies and “words from God” … but there was an expectation that they might not align with God’s word even then! So they tested everything against the Scriptures (Acts 17:11), and they rejected anything that did not conform to that… and this was regardless of whether or not the “prophet” claimed to be speaking by the Holy Spirit.
So note which revelation was always the most important: any ostensive word from God had to conform to the written word… or else it was discarded. This is why I call the Bible the touchstone for truth — and this statement was true even while the New Testament was being written.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good,
(1 Thessalonians 5:19–21, NIV, emphasis mine)
You’ve also asked me if a “normal” Christian might experience these kinds of things in a prayer life. (My friends in human services remind me that there are no normal people… there are only average people.) My answer is yes — although I do not personally expect such phenomena… and that might be why it’s not normal for me. You see, a person can work on being more in tune with God’s Spirit like they work at anything else — by continually going at it. But this is not a brutish exercise where you wrestle God into submission. It is more a practiced willingness and patience. With practice, one can hear God’s voice through the din.
I have friends who are credible Christians, and who experience things like your friend experiences. I have learned not to dismiss their testimonies out of hand. Humans vary widely in temperament and sensitivity, and it would be a boring world if we all just ground-away in philosophy and logic like I tend to do. But that’s my own process, and it satisfies me in God… while it would not do so for everybody.
I simply admire people who can sidle up to God’s Spirit and warm the room because of it. But not everyone who goes through the spiritual motions is the real deal. This, however, does not mean that all people who manifest what I might call “spiritual excesses” are not the real deal… although I suspect that they are a minority.
As to your friend, he could be having a legitimate experience… I just don’t know. But since I believe most of these “spiritual” phenomena are self-induced and have nothing to do with God, the odds are that any individual experiencing these is experiencing self-induced spiritual feelings, is deceived… or is a deceiver. Where does this leave your question concerning the legitimacy of these Charismatic practices?
The Bible out-and-out models these things… and it does not specifically overturn these things… although millions of Evangelical Christians manifest none of these things… but the completed Scripture argument gives us the permission to opt-out of these things. So, what is to me (and thousands of others) a “normal” prayer experience does not turn into what your Charismatic friend (along with his thousands) experiences. And although I do not experience these things in the normal course of prayer and worship, the progression of revelation argument (and especially as it pertains to having a completed Bible) is not powerful enough standing alone for me to condemn the Charismatic practices.
I fear, my friend, that you are at the same place you were when you asked the question. Since credible Christians will take both sides of this argument, it is a secondary issue in the faith. As such, I find it reasonable that a God who made us so variable — both as individuals and as cultures — expects variance in our practices. I have become much more live-and-let-live over the years, but this doesn’t mean that I have stopped seeking the best and fullest truth… and neither have you! God bless you.