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by Jacob Ninan
These days are characterised by gimmicks, techniques, showmanship and sensationalism even in Christian circles. Many ‘new’ things are happening and are being taught by preachers and writers, and we are getting confused not always knowing whether or not something is from God. We know that in the last days there will be many false prophets and teachers bringing out such deceptive signs and wonders that even the elect could be deceived (Mt.24:24). We need to know how we can preserve ourselves in sanity and faith when we are being bombarded by Satan and his demons on one side and slick human operators on the other side.
There are broadly two types of responses from people. One group accepts these new things thinking, “God is doing great things in these last days. Anyone who does such mighty things must be from God. In any case we don’t want to end up opposing God or resisting the Holy Spirit.”
The other group rejects them saying, “If it is not in the Bible it must be from the devil. If God wanted such things for His people He would have mentioned them in the Bible, and the apostles would have practised and taught them.”
I believe both these are extreme positions. The first group is neglecting to use their faculty for discernment in spite of clear warnings from Jesus and the apostles. They do not seem to have realised that God is not the only one doing signs and wonders these days (2Th.2:8,9). They also do not seem to have understood that God has no problem with sincere questions and doubts. The danger is when we oppose and resist what we know to be from God (Rom.1:21). On the other side it may look as if the second group is using discernment to judge what is or is not from God by applying the filter of God’s word. But their problem is that their filter is simplistic and literal. As a result many times they throw away the baby with the bathwater, as the saying goes.
Let us not put God in a box
Does God do new things at all? All through the Bible we see God doing new things which He had not done or people had not seen before. He is known for inventiveness. The important question now is, “Has God stopped doing new things? Has He already told us everything about what He does and what He will do?” For me the answer is a clear “No” because of the very nature of God. Of course we can never understand everything about God and His ways, because we are creatures with many limitations. Also, even though God has given us broad outlines about Himself and His plans it is ridiculous to imagine that every detail about God’s works or plans is contained in this small book called the Bible. The apostle John felt that the world could not even contain all the books that would be needed to narrate everything that Jesus did on the Earth (Jn.21:25)!
We know that there are many false prophets and teachers around. There are also those who are seeking to make money or build empires for themselves using the name of Jesus, even though they may not be teaching serious heresies or involved in demonic wonders. They may mislead people from the truth by things intended to impress, captivate, sensationalise and manipulate. Even in the days of Paul there were really few who sought after the things of God without seeking things for themselves (Php.2:19-21). We know that just because someone quotes the Bible he should not be assumed as coming from God, because even Satan quotes (or misquotes, to be precise) the Bible in order to mislead people, as he tried during the famous temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. He knows the literal text (including the Hebrew and the Greek) of the Bible better than any of us. We also know that his servants can speak and do miracles while using the name of Jesus and deny Him in spirit (Matt.7:21-23). So we are not to be deceived by the form. Jesus tells us that we should judge them by their fruit, to see whether their lives match up with the spirit of Christ (Matt.7:15,16).
The ground reality these days is very disturbing. Error abounds in every direction, in doctrine and practice. Ease of travel and communication has made it possible to spread error on a mass scale. The sheer volume of writing, preaching and practice makes such an appeal that many errors are ‘accepted’ under the (false) logic that if so many preachers and writers are talking about them they must be right. But numbers are not necessarily an indication of correctness. Actually certain heretical groups have shown better numerical progress than evangelical Christianity. People get swayed because they do not know much of the scriptures themselves, and they allow themselves to be moved by impressive speakers.
Many believers are really worried about the possibility of resisting the Holy Spirit and committing the unpardonable sin. When something supernatural is done quoting the Bible and in the name of Jesus, we would very much hesitate to classify it as coming from the devil. But there is no getting away from having to make judgments for our own safety and for those in our care. We are to assess what the ‘prophets’ tell us and to test the spirits to see if they are from God (1Cor.14:29;1Jn.4:1). We must indeed respect true prophets, but not everyone who calls himself a prophet or an apostle. First of all there are false prophets around. Secondly many speak presumptuously and we don’t have to be afraid of them (Deut.18:22). Thirdly even good prophets make mistakes. We cannot afford to accept something just because some preacher makes a ‘powerful’ presentation of it. The Holy Spirit is a spirit of truth, and He is not going to be offended when we sincerely seek to know the truth.
Conviction of the truth or manipulation?
God has given us the ability to think and to make choices, as a part of His image He has created us in. We should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by persuasive speakers. Even when preachers try to get the audience to participate in the meetings by raising hands, standing up, repeating some words, dial the number on the screen, or doing something else, let us not allow ourselves to be carried along without conscious and deliberate choices on our part. When we cannot understand what is happening or we are not in a position to make immediate judgment, is it not safe to wait and suspend judgment till we have better clarity? It takes no effort to drift with the flow, but it takes courage and strength to stand on our own feet and to use our head.
“What does the Bible say?”
Bible believing Christians respect the Bible as the final authority when it comes to all matters of doctrine and practice. We accept that whatever God does cannot be contradictory to what He has already revealed through the Bible. Even when He does something ‘new,’ He does not go against principles and teachings in His word. So it is important for us to pass everything we hear and see through the filter of the Bible and reject everything that goes against Biblical teaching. But some Christians take the simplistic approach of merely examining if something is mentioned in the Bible for making this judgment, which implies that if it is not, it goes out as being unacceptable. This is taking ‘only the Bible’ or ‘sola scriptura’ to extremes.
I recognise this is a major issue for many Christians who believe that God has already given us all things that pertain to life and godliness in the Bible (2Pet.1:3). The problem is that the last phrase of this sentence, ‘in the Bible,’ is not there in that verse! The ‘all things’ that God has provided for us, apart from the Bible, include the Holy Spirit, ministries in the church, gifts of the Holy Spirit, fellowship with people of God, etc. Some people seem to believe that when the writing of the Bible was complete with the last book in, that completed the revelation of God to man. This teaching seems to have come from noting that the Book of Revelation warns about adding to the words of that book (Rev.22:18), and also from the assumption that when the writing of Scripture was complete, we have been given the perfect revelation of God (1Cor.13:9,10). Now, the Book of Revelation was not the last book to be written; apparently John’s first epistle was. If the warning in Revelation pertained to the writing of Scripture, we have to concede that additional parts were indeed written after Revelation. So obviously, the warning refers, as it says clearly, only to the words of prophecy in that book. The reference in 1Cor.13 was obviously to the time when we would be standing in heaven before the Lord when everything would be perfectly clear, and not to the writing of Scripture.
Adding to scriptures?
Am I implying that God is still adding to the scriptures? No. Am I saying that God is continuing to reveal Himself now beyond what is given in the scriptures? No and yes! I believe God is not showing us or doing anything that is entirely outside the Bible. He does nothing that is contrary to what He has already said there. But within the framework of what is given in the Bible, I believe He shows His people more details of how things actually work out in practice. This should be so obvious that it does not need any explanation. But for the sake of clarity let me point out an example. The Bible mentions the framework regarding spiritual warfare, without going into detail. But He shows people who are actually involved in that work how things are to be done. Such details are not given in the Bible, even though whatever is to be done has to pass the filter of Biblical principles and guidelines. On the practical side it is also good to remember that whatever is being done by different people in the name of spiritual warfare may not all be from God, because there is room for demonic deception as well as human error. Let us not make the mistake of throwing out something entirely because we have found some error within it. (I know the argument some give saying that if there is even some poison in a glass of milk the whole glass is to be thrown out. But the analogy does not apply in all cases.) Let us also throw out something entirely because some people are doing it altogether wrongly.
Going beyond the letter
If we take the view that what is literally not in the Bible is not acceptable, it would essentially be placing God in a box and foreclosing His freedom to act in sovereignty and wisdom. Obviously this is the easiest way out of the problem because then we don’t have to apply our mind to it to decide. But how then shall we proceed if we want to acknowledge the Bible as our final authority in all spiritual matters? Certainly what is required is to judge according to the spirit of the Bible rather than the letter, isn’t it? We must judge according to the principles and values taught there, and see if something new that is happening or is being taught fits in with the character of God and what He has revealed through His word. We can also look for the corroborating witness of the Holy Spirit in our spirit (the anointing that teaches us all things) (Rom.8:16;1Jn.2:27), and also the witness of more mature and experienced people of God.
Admittedly there is some subjectivity about this process, and different men of God may likely come to different conclusions. But we cannot afford to give up walking on the way of discovery just because this is so. Each of us needs to go through the steps of examining things for ourselves and waiting on the Lord for guidance. We cannot also afford to ‘just accept’ whatever our own church group believes or practices, because that approach also would block our further progress. Imagine if Martin Luther had hesitated to examine the teachings and the practices of the Roman Catholic Church!
On one extreme we have people who propose that since the use of musical instruments in the church meetings is not mentioned specifically in the New Testament it should be avoided, and on the other hand we have people barking like dogs and rolling on the floor supposedly under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. It may be comparatively easy to come to conclusions about such extremes but more difficult to make decisions about many things that lie in between.
What if things are not clear?
As long as we are on this Earth we have to reckon with the fact that many things are going to be unclear for us. We shall be seeing all things dimly, as in a mirror. Even after we seek the Lord sincerely about the correct judgment on various issues that are not clear from the Bible, there could be several possibilities that we might face, such as the following.
1. We may not be mature enough, and therefore not yet ready, to receive the right answer. Obviously there are heights and depths and breadths to God’s wisdom, and we can understand any of His ways only to the extent that we have grown and known Him. So it may be that even though we seek Him sincerely, we may get to the answer only later on in our lives. Therefore we need to keep on going after it.
2. God may sometimes give us an interim answer because that is all that we can understand now. It is like God giving permission for divorce in the Old Testament because of the hardness of their hearts, even though He hated divorce in His heart (Mk.10:4,5;Mal.2:16). Jesus came and revealed more of God’s heart to people who had been trained through the rigours of the Old Testament. As we grow nearer to God, He may show us more of His heart.
3. When two of us seek the Lord concerning the same thing, we may not always come to the same conclusion. This does not necessarily mean that either of us is wrong. This is somewhat confusing, isn’t it? But the fact is that both of us may be in different phases of spiritual growth and our sincerity, humility, faith in God, reverence for God, etc., may also be different. Doesn’t this happen even in the interpretation of the written word of God?
4. When we desperately need the answer to make decisions about our own actions, we are more likely to get the right answer, than when we are sitting in an armchair and trying to figure out things out of curiosity.
5. If we are trying to find some reason for bringing down some servant of God in the opposite camp, we are liable to get a wrong answer, because God is not the only one giving out answers! Also God knows how to show Himself astute to those who are being crooked (Ps.18:26).
So what shall we do?
Yes, it calls for sincerity, effort and persistence on our part, but it is better to pursue after truth even with the risk of making mistakes than succumbing to pressures lazily or slavishly. Keeping our heart and mind open to learning new things as well being willing to change from what we have followed in the past are one side of the story. At the same time, caution and hesitation before accepting anything that comes along are what provide the safety factor.
-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, June 2008
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