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Working together with the word and the Spirit

by Jacob Ninan

There seem to be two camps among us believers who are getting at loggerheads with each other every now and then. For some the division between the camps is very sharp, and they keep a clear separation between the two allowing no interaction except to berate each other. There are also others who belong basically to one camp but they visit the other camp frequently. There seems to be only a smaller percentage of people who think that the division into two camps like this is wrong and that people in both these camps belong to the bigger camp called the body of Christ.

On one side I am referring to those who champion the written word of God, the Bible, as the only source of reference in all spiritual matters and practical life, and on the other side those who open themselves to be 'led by the Holy Spirit'. I am sure that to some people this division seems to be artificial because those who hold the Bible as their reference do not deny being led by the Holy Spirit, nor do those who claim to be led by the Spirit deny the authority of the Bible. That is fine as far as their doctrines go. But I want to take a look at some of the practical differences that come up between the two camps.

The 'Bible only' camp

The 'Spirit-led' camp

These are opposing views, and that is why there are many instances of quarrels between the two camps. The 'Bible only' camp keeps trying to point out the errors in the other camp by referring to the Bible and saying that the things the 'Spirit-led' camp does are not in the Bible and are therefore unacceptable. The 'Spirit-led' camp, on the other hand, keeps pointing to incidents and experiences of different people to prove that what they are doing is from God. This of course draws the response of the 'Bible only' camp that we cannot conclude doctrines based on experiences but only according to the word of God. The 'Spirit-led' camp tries to justify their actions by arguing that if the results are good, the means must be from God. Both sides keep quoting from the Bible, taking verses which the other side keeps shooting down!

A better way

It is a well known fact of human behaviour that when we feel strongly about something, we find it very difficult to tolerate another point of view, leave alone examine it objectively and without bias. But that is what we need to do in this case. If the 'Bible only' camp was entirely right, we would find it very difficult to explain many things that have happened and are happening in the 'Spirit-led' camp. It would not be correct to say that they are all from the devil, especially when people who are acknowledged to be godly and as those who know God closely are involved in them. On the other hand, it would also be equally difficult to say that they are all from God, especially when we look at some of the excesses that are being done in the name of being led by the Spirit. Therefore, the 'Spirit-led' position is also not entirely right. Obviously there are truths and errors on both sides, and we need to see how best they can walk towards each other.

We start from the position that the Bible has been given to us by God, written by men who were inspired by God, in order to teach, guide, correct, train and equip us for every good work (2Tim.3:16,17). The way Jesus used to quote from the Old Testament gives us an idea about how we are to use the word of God (including the New Testament) and what authority it has to have in our lives. The words of the Bible understood rightly are God's words for us, and we treat them with reverence and awe, and abide by what they tell us.

But are we correct if we limit the scope of God speaking to us today to just the literal words of the Bible? The point to be remembered is that the Bible does not cover all the different aspects of life in an exhaustive manner. Obviously we would be wrong to say that if the Bible does not explicitly permit some particular thing, that thing must be rejected. But some of the people in the 'Bible only' camp seem to be taking just that approach.

Steps forward

What should we do when we come across some subject that the Bible does not deal with? We must examine it to see if it would fit well with the principles, values and directions taught in the Bible. Certainly this is more difficult than just rejecting it outright, because this requires us to know more than the words of the Bible, the mind of God. That knowledge does not come easily, without spending much time with Him and with His word, and going with Him through different experiences of life. This somewhat arduous-looking way to that knowledge cannot be bypassed by getting hold of a few proof verses from here and there.

We know that the Holy Spirit is to lead us into "all the truth" (John.16:13). Many times it can simply be in the form of bringing specific verses from the Bible to our mind according to our special need, or reminding us of the things we have been taught from the Bible (John.14:26). It can also be in the form of opening our eyes to see some aspect of the truth in His word which we had not noticed before or some particular application of the truth in specific situations (Eph.1:18). These are all directly connected with the Bible. But what about situations that we face that are not specifically covered by the Bible?

Consider the example of finding God's will for us in something like choosing someone to marry. The Bible tells us not to take on an unequal relationship (2Cor.6:14). Getting married to unbelievers is certainly an unequal partnership, and this is specifically prohibited here. But knowing this is not enough for us to know exactly whom we are to get married to. This is where the Holy Spirit comes in. He guides our thoughts, grants us peace as we consider a certain person, warns us when we are about to make a mistake, etc. So we do need to go beyond the strict realm of what is written in the Bible, don't we? We also see that it is the Holy Spirit whom we need to guide us in such situations, don't we?

The times of the apostles

In the times of the apostles, there were several instances of the Holy Spirit giving specific directions about what to say and do, where to go, whom to meet, etc., outside of what the existing scriptures of those days, the Old Testament, said. (I know the argument that the 'Bible only' camp makes, saying that now that the New Testament is also there, scripture is complete and there is no need for anything outside of it. But more of this later.)

How did Peter know about what Ananias and Sapphira had done? We could conclude from the fact that Peter mentioned to them about lying to the Holy Spirit that it was He who told him about it (Acts.5:3). Was this a supernatural word of knowledge?

When the young man Stephen was being questioned by the High Priest and the others, he looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at His right hand (Acts.7:55). Wasn't this a vision? Saul saw Jesus in a vision on the way to Damascus, and Ananias saw a vision concerning Saul! (Acts.9:3-6,10). Cornelius saw a vision that directed him to call for Peter to speak to him, and Peter saw a vision telling him to go to Cornelius (Acts.10:3,10,11). Paul had visions where the Lord appeared to him and told him what to do (Acts.22:18-21), and encouraged him (Acts.23:11;27:23,24). An angel appeared to Peter and led him out of prison twice (Acts.5:19;12:7).

An angel asked Philip to go to a particular road and the Holy Spirit asked him to join the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch with whom he then shared the gospel (Acts.8:26-29). This was certainly extra-scriptural guidance. (To cap it all, the Spirit of God went on to supernaturally transport Philip from there to another place! v.39,40). On the other hand, the Holy Spirit guided Paul and others not to preach the gospel to Asia at that time, and forbade them from going to a certain place (Acts.16:6,7). Rather specific guidance, isn't it?

A prophet called Agabus is recorded as predicting a famine that was to come upon all the world, and this happened (Acts.11:28). The Spirit of God testified to Paul that bonds and chains awaited him in Jerusalem (Acts.20:22,23). The same prophet Agabus confirmed this to Paul (Acts.21:10,11). This was not forth-telling, but certainly foretelling.

The reason why I have listed some of these incidents is to point out that the Holy Spirit led the apostles in some extraordinary ways, to encourage them personally and to guide them in their ministry. These incidents could not have happened if the apostles had taken a position of strictly limiting themselves to studying the Old Testament and staying within its boundaries.

Is the Bible the final provision?

The argument saying that now that the scriptures are complete there is no need for the Holy Spirit to do things like those mentioned above, does not make sense. Does it mean that we do not have to face situations now where we need special guidance and help as in the days of the apostles? On the contrary, are these not times when, because of the increasing activities of Satan and the pressures of the times, we need the Holy Spirit more than ever? If you search the scriptures, you will find that the idea that the miraculous and supernatural operations of the gifts of the Spirit have ceased is just a conclusion reached by some people rather than a clear statement in the scriptures. Look at 1Cor.13:8-12, which some people quote to prove that when the perfect comes (which they imply to be the final completion of the written scriptures), things like prophecies, tongues, etc., will pass away. But 'perfect' here is not referring to the completion of the writing of the scriptures, but standing before the Lord on the final day and seeing Him face to face! Look at another argument quoting 2Pet.1:3, which says that God has given us all things pertaining to life and godliness, from which they imply that the scriptures are all that we need. But doesn't this 'all' include the Holy Spirit, fellowship with other believers, the body of Christ, etc.?

Following 'christianisation' of the Roman empire by Emperor Constantine around 300 AD, the church passed into the hands of professional priests who were more interested in politics and power than in Christ and His people. It was in the 16th century that a reformation started, which is still going on in many forms and stages. (For this point I am taking a somewhat general view of church history). There was not only a return to 'faith' from 'works' but also a return to the word of God from men's traditions and rituals. The other phase of the ongoing reformation was the recognition of the Holy Spirit as a Helper, Counsellor and Teacher who comes by our side to help us, and who lives in us and works through us with power. He began to be recognised as the "very present Help in the time of need" and the One whom Jesus has given us in His place after He went off to be with the Father. We cannot afford to be stuck at the level of merely having 'faith', without going forward with the word of God and the Spirit of God. And we also cannot afford to have just faith and the word of God, without the Holy Spirit acting in all His power. Actually, we cannot even understand the word of God in the right way unless the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and reveals His truths to us.

Pitfalls on the other side

But as we seek to go forward along with the Holy Spirit, we are immediately faced with a totally confusing array of experiences and stories. God has warned us in His word about false signs, false wonders, false apostles, false prophets, false teachers, false workers, false brethren and even false Christs. He has told us to not to believe every spirit but to test them (1John.4:1), not to accept every prophecy but to examine each one (1Cor.14:29;1Thess.5:19-21), not to receive everyone who comes using the name of the Lord but to examine his teachings (2John.1:7-11), not to believe that every supernatural thing is from God, because even Satan and his demons are supernatural beings (Matt.24:24;2Cor.11:14,15), etc. Certainly, we have to recognise that not all things that are taught or practised by people in the 'Spirit-led' camp are from God.

At this point, many in the 'Bible only' camp are only too eager to examine everything according to the word of God. But the major mistake that many make is in looking merely at the written word and not going into the spirit of the word. When we come across some 'new' teaching or experience, how shall we judge it with reference to the Bible?

The learning process

As I said earlier, since the words of the Bible do not cover every possible situation or subject, absence of a specific mention in the Bible should not outright rule out new ideas or concepts. A second point is that since the Bible does not prescribe detailed rules of procedure for doing things that are mentioned in the Bible, there should be scope for people who are engaged in those activities to discover such details through a process of learning including through making mistakes. Those who are not actually involved in such activities and thus have no experience are really not in a position to say how things should be done, except to teach general principles based on the word of God.

For example, consider the case of evangelists who go out to un-reached areas where people are different from them in terms of race, culture and language. Obviously these evangelists will discover new ways of presenting the gospel and dealing with the people there, which are not given in the Bible. This is not so very objectionable to 'Bible only' camps. But think of those dealing with demons, healing the sick through prayer, counselling people in ways that include the use of supernatural words of knowledge, etc. This is a different class of activities altogether! But is it not logical to think that those who are involved in such activities obtain specialised experience which others do not have? When such people try to explain how these things are done, others who have not been exposed to such experiences may find things altogether foreign and feel like rejecting them. They can point out how such things are not mentioned in the Bible, etc. On the other hand, it is also possible that the people who do have experience in this area may give wrong explanations for their experiences because they cannot fully understand things themselves. Surely there is a possibility of error on every side, from being totally in error to being partly in error.

Think for a moment what can be done if, instead of trying to prove each other wrong, both sides make an attempt to understand each other and to see if there could be some truth in what the other is saying. In this way both can learn and go forward.

What are some of the aspects that need to be examined? Does the experience or teaching contradict the teachings of the scriptures? Does it harmonise with the godly principles and character revealed in the Bible? Does it look like something that blends with the spirit and character seen in Jesus or the apostles? Are things being done in love, decency and order? Is the preacher or teacher trying to promote himself or draw people to himself, or is he seeking to exalt Jesus? Do his methods tend to make people dependent on him or on God? Will his methods take away the people's freewill and make them subject to him? Is it the people's welfare or their money that interests him? Think on these lines.

Are we simply trying to preserve our position or are we open to learning? It is true that we all have a natural fear or hesitation for venturing into new areas because there are risks involved. We would rather sit comfortably with things we are sure of. Certainly there are dangers and risks ahead, and Jesus has specially warned us about them. Let us walk carefully, but let us go forward.

-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, October 2006

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