This is what I found: there were many conversations among the church leaders, or with “discerning members,” who were concerned that there was a diminishing of the prophetic on Sunday or in prayer gatherings. The absence of such words was a sign of sickness. Rather than being glad at the faithful ministry of the Word in preaching, we were concerned with the absence of the prophetic. Though denied on paper, in practice, such words were given more weight than preaching — but not as much weight as Scripture.
A few weeks ago you posted a warning against the desire for ongoing prophecy. [See alsothis—Ed.] In it you told a story of what happens when people look to words from God beyond Scripture. I wanted to stand as a witness to the dangers you highlighted.
I am not doing this to call out any group in particular. The idea that we can be Reformed and charismatic is too pervasive to attach it to any one association. So I will speak of the ideas behind it. My particular experience is representative of what it is like to be in that world of doctrine and practice.
I came to faith in college. My earliest years as a Christian were in a vibrant and intense campus ministry. Fellowship on the campus was a 24/7 thing. We ate meals, walked to classes, prayed, and roomed together. I cannot begin to count the hours of spiritual conversation we had. Spiritual hunger marked my life.
There was a mix of Christians on campus. CRU was there. Some pretty wild Pentecostals were there. God brought dispensational Calvinists into my life. I got hooked on prophetic charts, Spurgeon, and later on John Piper. I also drank often from the more Reformed well. The authors that drew me had a sense of a great God, the evil of sin, the complete work of Christ, and the call to holiness. I could not get enough of their theology.
Outside of my reading, my Christian life was not remarkable. After the first wave of conversion change, I settled into the routine of battling the flesh. My particular sins were those of a young adult – self-indulgence, laziness, being opinionated, not honoring my parents, and sexual sin. My sins grieved me. I looked for help for this inner war. I wanted to be free from sin. Once again, it was the Reformed tradition that gave me hope and sanity.
My experience of church was a different cat. It seemed limp and without energy. The contrast between the church and my experience of fellowship on campus left me perplexed and critical. I began to read about revivals and to pray with others for the same. All I knew is that church was not what it was supposed to be.
To my surprise God called me to ministry My elders confirmed my calling. I was trained. I entered pastoral work. I began to imagine that I would be the solution to the low state of things in the church. My preaching would be what God used to send an awakening. Revival did not happen. Calls to special prayer were met with a yawn. And when we did pray it was always for people’s hangnails. I was more aware than ever of the poor state of spiritual vitality in the church.
My thirst for more drove me on. I began to explore the doctrine of the Spirit. Raised as a cessationist, I believed that the Holy Spirit comes to each believer at conversion, after that there is nothing more to it. I was told that expecting more was dangerous. Then I preached Romans. When I came to chapter 8, Lloyd-Jones’ treatment of the Puritan view of the work of the Spirit post-conversion grabbed my attention. Here was an historically grounded pneumatology that bred anything but low expectations. I wanted more than ever to see God awaken the church, to speak freshly into the lives of his people, to anoint my ministry with such power.
I began to look for a new context for ministry—one where there was a greater openness to the Spirit. This was during the era where there seemed to be two options: dead orthodoxy or seeker-friendly pragmatism. Neither was an option for me.
The Third Wave
About this time, the Vineyard churches came along, with their distinct emphasis on prophecy. Some of my friends were swept up into this third wave. Their experiences and testimony drew me in. What they described and how they prayed for me answered my thirst for more. I found in them a sense of the immediacy of the Spirit’s work in any given situation, and a boldness to speak into people’s hearts and lives.
I was careful in my thinking. I wanted an argument, not just an experience. I listened to sermons by leading evangelicals as they considered God’s work and the Spirit’s activity in the church. I read critics and defenders of the leaders of the Vineyard. I began to track with new churches who identified themselves as Calvinist and Charismatic. I became “open but cautious” about the ongoing work of the Spirit in the church.
Then someone gave me a theological defense of continuing prophecy. Unlike most books by charismatics, this was the first treatment of prophecy that seemed grounded in careful exegesis and theological reasoning. The author argued from Scripture that there was an ongoing work of the Spirit in the church, what some called small “p” prophecy, in which God spoke with immediacy to a given situation or person, but the word given was not authoritative. Unlike Scripture, it was polluted by the person who delivered it. This was God giving a less than authoritative but genuinely prophetic word to people and churches today.
I began to attend gatherings where this was practiced. Friends prayed over me, sometimes with surprising insight. I concluded that this was a viable position. It presented the possibility of a robust pneumatology in my life and the church while upholding the uniqueness of Scripture. The canon was closed but it allowed some dynamic for “present” communication from God.
I became part of a church that practiced the prophetic gift. Their watchword was “desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophecy.” To be among people who expected God to speak, who tested the “words” from God, who were filled with faith and boldness in speaking those words to each other – this was immensely refreshing. There were times, in prayer, when someone with the “gift of prophecy” would get an impression. They would pause the prayer time and speak it to the person it was for. These words were very personal. They often resulted in tears of joy. People spoke such words over me.
There were also times when such a word would be shared during Sunday worship. They were also delivered and received with high hopes. Usually those words were more generalized (to whom it may concern) than personal (to person with this name). However, people would often comment afterwards that the “word” shared had their name on it.