Many people today claim to speak for God, or claim they have something to say from God. Many times, however, this claim is made with no real standard or with no real solid basis for people to believe it. I've written out six conditions and arguments many use to support people who make such claims, which we will now review. This isn't, of course, a complete list, only a list of possibilities I could think of and desire to talk about.
Possibility 1: They have dreams and visions.
Many leaders or ministers in the so-called "prophetic movement," or just in Hyper-Charismatic or Neo-Pentecostal circles in general, seem to rely heavily upon their dreams or visions. It is believed by many that these dreams and visions are being given by God and are meant to guide and direct the church in this modern day and age. People immediately uphold all these dreams and visions as coming from God and being meant to be followed.
Perhaps what disturbs me the most is that when I read about these men and women who talk of their dreams and visions, there seems to almost be little to no effort made either on their part or the part of their followers to discern whether or not this dream or vision really did come from God. When I bring this up, I'm usually charged with being a Pharisee, a divider of the church, etc., but I believe I have biblical grounds for doing so. For example, the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah against those who relied upon their dreams to instruct the people when, in fact, their dreams were all but useless.
"I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying 'I have dreamed, I have dreamed!' How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?" [Jeremiah 23:25-26]Many people might interject here with, "Ah, but the people in that verse are lying - they're blatant false prophets." They forget, however, the frightening words found in the prophecies of Ezekiel:
"They have seen false visions and lying divinations. They say, 'Declares the Lord,' when the LORD has not sent them, and yet they expect him to fulfill their word. Have you not seen a false vision and uttered a lying divination, whenever you have said, 'Declares the LORD,' although I have not spoken?" [Ezekiel 13:6-7]God says that the false prophets had literally seen false visions, and heard lying divinations, and believed them to be from God. This means the false prophets saw or discerned something which they perceived was from God, yet was not. They didn't make up a vision, they saw a legitimate vision...but it wasn't from God. We might look to Mohammad and Joseph Smith, two men who claimed to have seen and heard visions from God, as examples of this. These men had spiritual experiences and claimed to have spoken to divine entities, and yet most Christians would be quick to discredit their experiences as false.
People also forget another story, found in scripture's historical narrative:
And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.” [1 Kings 22:19-23]Micaiah is here speaking to King Ahab concerning the idea of war with Syria. All of Ahab's personal prophets claimed that they had visions and prophetic input that the war with Syria would go well. Micaiah, on the other hand, preaches that the war would go horribly, and then states that God had intentionally permitted the sending of a "lying spirit" in the mouth of all the prophets, so that they would prophesy falsely and bring ruin to Ahab. The prophets claimed to be speaking for and from God, but they were in fact speaking falsely - what's more, God had willed this to happen as a form of judgment.
So what is the standard in regards to dreams and visions? Let's go back to the words God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah:
"Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? declares the LORD." [Jeremiah 23:28]These are beautiful words to ponder: "let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully." God even compares dreams and God's word with straw and wheat, signifying how different they are.
Many might interject here that God has used dreams for His purposes. For example, the dreams of Pharaoh and the king of Babylon were interpreted by godly men to explain God's intentions, while Joseph and the wise men were warned by God about King Herod through dreams. That God can use dreams for His purposes or to give some amount of guidance or warning is certainly possible. However, what is our basis of authority, as scripture itself says? Scripture never says dreams are our authority - in fact, they often tell us otherwise, such as those false teachers who relied heavily on their dreams over the teachings of scripture, as many in the Neo-Pentecostal movement do (Jude 1:8). That God used x or y to get His will done does not automatically mean that we should likewise use or rely on x and y as our standard over and against scripture. Jonathan Edwards put it best when he said: "God has not given us his providence, but his word to be our governing rule" (Humble Inquiry).
Possibility 2: They perform miracles.
Many today uphold a belief that signs and wonders are necessary in order to evangelize (also known as "power evangelism"). Yet when the early followers of Christ asked for a sign that they "may see and believe" in Him, Christ merely identified Himself as the bread that came down from heaven to give life to the world (John 6:30-33). Certainly Christ performed signs and wonders during His ministry - as did the apostles - yet the hinge of belief was not on how many signs and wonders were performed, but on whether people truly had life in Christ granted them by the Holy Spirit.
In fact, Christ warns the disciples that signs and wonders can be made by false teachers and prophets.
"For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect." [Matthew 24:24]Paul makes a similar warning concerning the man of lawlessness.
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. [2 Thessalonians 2:9-10]Scripture makes it clear that it is entirely possible for false teachers to perform signs and wonders for the people to see. Therefore, the mere ability to perform a sign or wonder cannot be a standard to know someone is speaking to or from God.
Possibility 3: They prophesy events that come true.
If someone predicts an event, natural occurrence, or the results of an election, is that enough to demonstrate that they are speaking from or for God? Many are familiar with what scripture teaches regarding false prophets and prophesies that don't come true:
"When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him." [Deuteronomy 18:22]Yet many people forget what scripture likewise teaches regarding false prophets who prophesy things that do come to pass.
"If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and he says, 'Let us go after other gods,' which you have not known, 'and let us serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the LORD your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him." [Deuteronomy 13:1-4]If a prophesy given by someone does not come true, that's a good sign they are a false teacher (though some contest that). However, even if it does come true, that is not enough to verify that they are working for God. Rather, it is their doctrine and how well they keep to God's word. That is the ultimate decider as to whether or not the individual is, in fact, speaking for or from God in regards to miracles and wonders. A supposed prophet can split a hundred moons in half, and a supposed miracle worker can heal a hundred men of leprosy. If they are not speaking according to the word of God, they are not from God, and none of that will matter.
Possibility 4: They have a huge amount of followers.
We are essentially arguing here for spiritual pragmatism, wherein quantity is the defining quality - a kind of divine ad populum. As I've discussed in another post, scripture never says large numbers equals heavenly blessings. There are many examples in scripture where the believers were greatly outnumbered by the unbelievers or false believers (Gen 6:5-8; 1 Ki 19:18; Isa 1:9; Rom 11:5). There are some small churches out in the countryside who have far more Christians in them than some of the biggest mega churches in the major cities.
Possibility 5: They have a large number of people who claim to have been blessed.
Many people, in a spirit of emotionalism, will defend a teacher or ministry on the claim that "countless people have been blessed." The idea is that, since so many people have had changed lives or emotional experiences in this ministry, it must surely be sourced to God.
Of course, I once met a man who claimed to have been greatly blessed. He used to be a gang banger but was now a productive member of society. He followed God and assisted his community. He had found a complete turnaround. He had completely changed his lifestyle. This blessing he felt had come from God he claimed to have found in...
That a person has had a "changed life" is not enough to prove that someone or someone's ministry is from God. This is the problem with contemporary Christianity, which believes the faith to be nothing more than a catalyst for changing lives. This makes its followers no different than those who claim to have been blessed by turning to Sikhism, Mormonism, Buddhism, New Age alternatives or any other religion that claims to give you a better life now.
God certainly desires "changed lives" in the sense that we are to put away the old self and put on the new self, which abhors sin and wickedness. However, using a subjective argument like "my life is better, therefore this person is being helped by God" is, as said before, simply spiritual pragmatism. It should also be pointed out that if a person was indeed saved or bettered in their life, it was not because of that individual or their ministry, but by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Possibility 6: They believe in Jesus.
Oftentimes, when dilemmas are demonstrated in a person's theology or lifestyle, one of their followers will fall back on one simple fact. They will say: "Ah, but they believe in Jesus, don't they? Don't we all follow the same Messiah? That should be good enough!" Oftentimes this will be used to support superficial peace, saying: "I don't think we should continue arguing about this - after all, don't we all still believe in the same Jesus?"
It might sound ironic, as a follower of sola fide, for me to say that this is perhaps the weakest argument against such men. However, to say they believe in Christ and that is good enough is not sola fide but easy believism. Mere mental assent to Christ's existence is not a guarantee for salvation, nor does it demonstrate you are a true believer. During the Sermon on the Mount, Christ warned:
"On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, an do many mighty works in your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'" [Matthew 7:22-23]Christ speaks of men who did wonders and signs in His name (directly relevant to Possibilities 2 and 3, listed above), and yet when they come before Him on the day of judgment, Christ will say to them "I never knew you." He does not say "Oh yeah, you went to church for a while" or "Yeah, and you were a real disappointment in the end," but rather "I never knew you." They claimed to be followers of Christ, and even showed off miracles they believed demonstrated such a claim, and yet it turns out they were nothing more than goats masquerading as sheep.
False teachers, in fact, will come under the guise of men who are after the heart of Christ. The apostle Paul warned the church:
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of Light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. [2 Corinthians 11:13-14]It is not enough to simply decree a belief in Christ. Rather, we must present the fruits of such belief. Because I recognize that this opens up a whole other can of worms, I defer discussion on judging someone's faith, or whether or not we have the ability to discern it, to this post I made here.
Reviewing what we've gone over, what is the primary ground by which we know someone is speaking directly from or for God? The answer:
If they abide by His holy word.
That's disappointing to a lot of people, of course, but that is because they are not truly satisfied with the supremacy of God's word. They're not happy with just having God's word. They want the charismatic speaker who claims to have prophecies from God. They want the man rocking back and forth on stage talking about dreams he's had. They want the female preacher who gives good advice and has thousands of "saved" women attending her church. They want the pastor who has hundreds of stories of people who have been healed through miraculous or unique ways. They want the ministry led by people who claim the Holy Spirit is working through them for specific, specialized reasons. When people can't repeat the word of the Psalmist when he says "in the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches" (Psa 119:14), they will seek something to fill in that spiritual gap. Such people we should work with and try to save to the best we can, while remaining strong in our convictions and preventing ourselves from falling into the same trap as did they. "Save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh" (Jude 1:23).