God Told Me!? (A Critique of Mysticism)

What do you do when a friend says, “God told me I needed to go on a diet,” or “The Holy Spirit spoke to me last night and said you should make more friends”?  How do we even begin to respond?  It’s not easy to respond to such comments; it takes patience and wisdom!  If you’ve heard these statements before, you might appreciate Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on this kind of “God-told-me” mysticism.  In the paragraphs below, Lloyd-Jones says these are his main critiques of mysticism: 1) it is claiming continuing inspiration, 2) it devalues Scripture, 3) it devalues the person and work of Christ, 4) it focuses on the Lord’s work in us so much that it forgets His work for us, 5) it is weak on the doctrine of sin, 6) it is entirely subjective, 7) it tends to extremism and fanaticism.  Here are his comments:

“The main criticism of the evangelical can be put in this form: It is a claim to a continuing of inspiration.  The mystic in a sense is claiming that God is dealing as directly with him as He was with the Old Testament prophets; he claims God is dealing with him as He did with the Apostles. …The mystic says he has received a new and fresh message and that he is in a state of direct inspiration…. Now we believe that God gave a message to the prophets, He gave a message to the Apostles; but we say that because God has done that, it is unnecessary that He should do that directly with us.

“My second criticism would be that mysticism of necessity puts the Scriptures on one side and makes them more or less unnecessary.  You will always find that persons who have a mystical tendency never talk very much about the Bible.  …They say, ‘No, I do not follow the Bible reading plans; I find one verse is generally enough for me.  I take one verse and then I begin to meditate.’  …He does not need this objective revelation; he wants something to start him in his meditation and he will then receive it as coming directly from God; he depreciates the value of the Scriptures.”

“I do not hesitate to go further and say that mysticism, as a whole, even tends to make our Lord Himself unnecessary.  …There have been people who have been mystical and who claim that their souls have immediate access to God.  They say that just as they are, they have but to relax and let go and let God speak to them and He will do so; they do not mention the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…The danger of mysticism is to concentrate so much on the Lord’s work in us that it forgets the Lord’s work for us.  …It is so concerned about this immediate work upon the soul that it quite forgets the preliminary work that had to be done before anything could be done upon the soul.  It tends to forget the cross and the absolute necessity of the atoning death of Christ before fellowship with God is in any way possible.”

“We can go further….  Mysticism is never very strong on the doctrine of sin.  The mystic tends to say, ‘…If you want to know God just as you are, you have to start getting into communion with Him, and He will speak to you and give you all the blessings.’  They never mention the doctrine of sin in the sense that the guilt of sin is such a terrible thing that nothing but the coming of the Son of God into the world and the bearing of our sins in His own body….”

“Another very serious criticism of mysticism is that it always leaves us without a standard.  Let us imagine I follow the mystic way.  I begin to have experiences; I think God is speaking to me; how do I know it is God who is speaking to me?  …How can I be sure that I am not the victim of hallucinations, since this has happened to many of the mystics?  If I believe in mysticism as such without the Bible, how do I test my experiences?  How do I prove the Scriptures; how do I know I am not perhaps being deluded by Satan as an angel of light in order to keep me from the true and living God?  I have no standard.”

“In other words, my last criticism is that mysticism always tends to fanaticism and excesses.  If you put feelings before understanding, you are bound to end in that, because you have nothing to check your experiences with, and you will have no reason to control your sensations and susceptibilities.”

Lloyd Jones goes on to mention that the Scriptures are the “only authority and final standard with regard to these matters, with regard to a knowledge of God.”  He said, “the evangelical doctrine tells me not to look into myself but to look into the Word of God. …It tells me that God can only be known in His own way, the way which has been revealed in the Scriptures themselves.”

This entire section is very much worth reading.  It’s found on pages 89-92 of Life in Christ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


Divine “Hunches” and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Why are Reformed Christians not charismatic or pentecostal?  How does a Reformed view of Scripture lead away from believing in continuing revelation from God?  Why don’t Reformed preachers and teachers say things like “Last night God told me….”?  Paul Woolley answered these questions well in his 1946 essay called “The Relevancy of Scripture”:

“…Scripture contains all the information which a man needs in order to set forth the way of salvation.  Further, the Bible contains all the guidance which is needed for the continuous living of the Christian life.  It is completely sufficient at this point.  If there are absolute rules which must be followed, the Bible states them.  In the absence of such rules the Christian is at liberty to follow a course or courses which accord with the general principles presented in Scripture.”

“There is one very important consequence of this fact [of the sufficiency of Scripture].  God does not today guide people directly without using the Scriptures.  There are no divinely given ‘hunches.’  God does not give people direct mental impressions to do this or that.  People do not hear God’s voice speaking within them.  There is no immediate and direct unwritten communication between God and the individual human being.  If the Scriptures are actually sufficient, such communication is unnecessary.  On the other hand, if such communications were actually being made, every Christian would be a potential author of Scripture.  We would only need to write down accurately what God said to us, and we would legitimately be adding to the Bible, for such writings would be the Word of God.  Many people have thought they were writing new Bibles.  Many more people have thought that God spoke to them directly.  But when these supposed revelations are examined, what a strange mass of nonsense, contradiction, and trviality this so-called Word of God proves to be.  Many of my readers could construct a pot-pourri of such supposed revelations from the accounts which they have heard themselves – and what a sorry mess they would make!”

Paul Woolley, “The Relevancy of Scripture” in The Infallible Word, p. 191-192.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


Sam Storms on Spiritual (Charismatic) Gifts

The Beginner's Guide to Spiritual Gifts by Dr. Sam Storms, http://www ... I’ve not read many books about spiritual gifts from a charismatic perspective.  Therefore, I recently worked through Sam Storm’s book, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, to learn more about charismatic theology/practice.  As a Reformed Christian, I’m not charismatic, but I do want a proper understanding of this movement.  Below is a brief review of this book.

There are ten chapters in this book: 1) When Power Comes to Church (an introduction), 2) Right? Wrong? (10 myths about charismatic/spiritual gifts), 3) Words of Wisdom and Knowledge (prophecy and utterances), 4) Faith and Healing, 5) It’s a Miracle (miracles in the church), 6) Prophecy and Distinguishing of Spirits, 7) Who Said God Said? (knowing the Bible in order to test prophesies), 8) What is the Gift of Tongues, 9) Tongues and Interpretation, 10) Letting Your Gift Find You.  There’s also an appendix on how to pray for healing and one on “when a gifted person falls.”

Storms does give several charismatic stories in attempt to prove his points.  One worth mentioning is his account of a prophet telling a friend that God was going to send a comet to prove that the church should have a 21 day period of prayer and fasting.  The comet came.  This man also said God spoke to him in a dream telling him about a drought and famine, and the next summer was dry (see chapter five).  There are other similar stories of dreams, healings, and revelations.

This book was a reminder to me of why I am not a charismatic. The way Storms explains the passages of Scripture in view (such as 1 Cor. 12) were unconvincing, subjective at times, based on probables at other times, lacking in OT references, and without solid exegetical or theological support.  I was also troubled by Storms’ logic based on experience and emotional appeal (I’m thinking of the logical fallacy of “playing to the gallery”).

Here are some phrases I found unsettling:

“To reject spiritual [charismatic –spl] gifts, to turn from this immediate and gracious divine enabling, is, in a sense, to turn from God. …In denying them, we deny Him” (p. 13).

“If you are not earnestly desiring to prophesy, if you are not praying for an opportunity and occasion to speak prophetically into the lives of the church and other believers, you are disobeying God!” (p. 111).

“It is a sin to despise [charismatic – spl] prophecy” (p. 141).

I also disagree with Storms’ discussion of faith.  He says there are three different kinds of faith: conversion faith (the faith through which we’re justified), continuing faith (the daily faith we have), and charismatic faith, which “appears to be spontaneous and functions as the divinely enabled condition on which the more overtly supernatural activities of God are suspended” (p. 60).  Storms says charismatic faith is not given to every Christian, and it is a special faith that enables a believer to trust God to bring about a sort of blessing not promised in Scripture (p. 61).  Storm then goes on to talk about five levels of faith for healing.  To divide and dissect faith in this way is unhealthy at best.  Here Storms is at odds with the historic confessional understanding of faith: there are not “faiths” that we have as Christians, but “true faith” in Christ alone for justification by grace alone.  I’m not saying that Storms is denying justification by faith alone, but his discussion of faith is not in line with the Reformation; one should remember this when reading Storms’ other works.

I don’t recommend this book, obviously.  I realize that Reformed theology doesn’t have all the answers to Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 12, but its answers are better and more biblical than that of charismatic theology.  This book has reminded me of this fact!  As Richard Gaffin and others have said, Scripture is sufficient for us today; we no longer need prophets and revelations.

Sam Storms, The Beginners Guide to Spiritual Gifts (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2012).

shane lems
hammond, wi

Disturbing Driscoll Divination

Though I (Shane) usually don’t read blogs, a friend of mine (thanks, PC!) pointed out a Teampyro blog post (HERE) which dealt with a disturbing and dangerous sermon clip by Mark Driscoll.  I don’t know anything about Teampryo, but this is a blog post worth reading (including a video and transcript of Driscoll’s sermon clip). 

I knew Driscoll wasn’t very Reformed, I knew he wasn’t a “5 point” Calvinist, and I knew he had charismatic tendencies.  This sermon excerpt is far worse than those things.  When you watch/read it, you’ll see that it is beyond crazy Pentecostalism and is borderline neopaganism (or something like that).  Driscoll here is unbiblical, unwise, not pastoral, not helpful, and frankly, this is a dangerous teaching.  As the other blog said, we shouldn’t give Driscoll a pass for this.  Even if he has done “good work” in the past, he needs to be rebuked and he needs to repent.  If his elders/deacons won’t speak up, other Christians need to lovingly address this false teaching.  It’s not a minor thing.

I usually don’t weigh in on these issues.  And I almost deleted this post several times.  But since I’ve blogged on Driscoll’s books in a somewhat favorable way, I feel compelled to point this out.  I’m going to go back and put some sort of a note on the blog posts I’ve done on Driscoll’s books.  Andrew and I certainly don’t want to endorse any unbiblical teaching.

My advice?  Get over Driscoll.  Move on.  Grow up.  Mature.  Read more solid, more biblical, and less trendy theology.  Read Thomas Watson.  Read Michael Horton.  Read Louis Berkhof.  Read Martin Luther.  Read R.C. Sproul.  Read the Christian classics.  Sure, these guys might not crack jokes, cuss, talk crudely about sex, and tell about their visions and rated ‘R’ dreams, but they will teach you mature, grown-up Christian theology.  That’s what the church needs.  Do not be children in your thinking…but in your thinking be mature (1 Cor. 14.20; cf. Eph 4.13, Col 1.28, and Heb. 5.14). 

shane lems

Owen on “Enthusiastical Ecstasies”

  I really appreciate this section of John Owen’s discussion of regeneration in his book, The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power.  Since the arrival of Pentecostalism in the West around 100 years ago, some people have wrongly taught and thought that regeneration and conversion have to do with elation, ecstasy, frenzy, convulsions, or some sort of trance.  This causes a lot of problems in the Christian life.  Not only is it a distortion of the Spirit’s work, it also causes Christians who have never been “enraptured” to wonder if they’re really Christians.  Even worse, it makes some Christians fake ecstasy so they can say they had a “conversion experience.”  John Owen cuts through these unbiblical aspects of what we know today as Pentecostalism (which has roots in the radical Anabaptist movement after the Reformation).

“The work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration does not consist in enthusiastical raptures, ecstasies, voices, or any thing of the like kind.  Such things may have been pretended to by some weak and deluded persons: but the countenancing of such imaginations, or teaching men to expect them, or esteeming them as conversion to God, while holiness was neglected, is a calumny and false accusation, as our writings and preachings fully testify.”

“Therefore as to this negative principle we observe that the Holy Spirit usually exerts his power in the use of means, and that he works on men agreeably to their natures.  He does not come upon them with involuntary raptures, using their mental powers as the evil spirit wrests the bodies of possessed persons.  His whole work is rationally to be accounted for, by those who believe the Scriptures and have received the Spirit of truth whom the world cannot receive.”

“Indeed, the efficiency of the Spirit in quickening our souls (which the ancients always termed his ‘inspiration of grace’) is no otherwise to be comprehended than any other act of creating power, for as we hear the wind, but know not from where it came or where it goes, so is everyone that is born of the Spirit (John 3:8).  But this is certain, that he works nothing but what is determined and declared in the written word, and that he puts no force on the faculties of our souls, but works in them and by them suitably to their nature.”

In this same section, Owen later exhorts pastors to know what the Bible teaches about the Spirit’s work of regeneration (giving life to a spiritually dead person).  He says that if a pastor doesn’t know what the Bible teaches, then all sorts of things will be substituted for the truth, and everyone will be tricked into thinking they’re regenerate when their not, or think they are not regenerate when they are.  This is profound.  If a pastor thinks regeneration is about visions, emotions, ecstasy, tremblings, and tongues, he will preach towards those things and the people will attempt to get those things.  That is a seed-bed of legalism, pride, and/or despair.  Legalism because those things are said to be necessary; pride because those who have them think they are higher on the Christian ladder; despair because those who don’t have them will be unsure of their salvation.

Reformed Christians are not putting the Holy Spirit in a box when we agree with Owen above.  We are avoiding legalism, pride, and despair by focusing on the “ordinary means” the Bible emphasizes when it comes to the Spirit’s work of regeneration: preaching, repentance, faith, and the good works (the fruit of the Spirit) that follow.

The Owen quote above is found on page 133 of The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power.

shane lems

Pietism and Subjectivism: Undoing Biblical Worship

  The Pietist movement and subjectivism are two things – among others – that have corroded, watered down, and weakened Christian worship in the United States.  When all the emphasis is on the self, feelings, experiences, and emotions, you know you’re in the realm of pietism and subjectivism (that or an Oprah show).  We’ve all heard these types of phrases: “what will my heart feel” to “I could sing of your love forever,” to “I feel your presence” to “let it burn in me.”  The objective truths of Scripture – sin and salvation – are only alluded to (if at all) and the enraptured feelings of the inner self are front and center.  Rather than asking what God wants us to do in worship, many simply do what makes them feel a religious “high.”  Unfortunately this is even prevalent in many Reformed and Presbyterian churches which historically have placed the objective truths front and center. I like what Scott Clark has to say about this topic.

“Perhaps the most outstanding example…of the subjective turn in Reformed piety is in public worship.  It would not be hard to find a Reformed congregation today in which the Sunday (or Saturday night) liturgy begins with twenty-five minutes of Scripture songs sung consecutively, each song blending into the next, perhaps augmented by a Power Point or video presentation.  In this increasingly popular liturgy, the singing is followed by a dramatic presentation which, in turn, is followed by congregational announcements, most of which focus on the various cell-group programs.  Increasingly, the sermon is a brief, colorfully illustrated, emotionally touching collection of anecdotes, in which the hearer is not so much directed to the law and the gospel, but, in one way or another, to one’s self.”

“Anxious to intensify the religious experience of parishioners or to make the church accessible to the nonchurched, many Reformed congregations have turned to new measures, to drama, dance lessons, and even a service arranged thematically by the name of the local professional sports franchise.  Such practices are rather more indebted to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival practices than they are to Geneva, Heidelberg, or Westminster Abbey.  Such practices are also symptoms of the synthesis of Reformed worship with the emerging modern culture in which, as Philip Rieff noted, hospital and theater replace the church” (p. 73).

 R. Scott Clark, Recovering the Reformed Confession (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2008).

shane lems

Sortes Biblicae, Sortilege, or Bible Lottery

Bible Study LibraryBruce Metzger wrote a fascinating article in The Oxford Companion to the Bible (which he also co-edited) called Sortes BiblicaeSortes is a very ancient method of fortune-telling (also called sortilege), which consisted of using popular literature in a random way which would in turn be followed as guidance for life.  For example, people would write verses of Virgil or Homer on bit of material and then randomly select one and follow its teaching or advice (sort of like a fortune cookie).  Alternatively, some people would arbitrarily open Virgil or Homer and take a random verse as prophetic guidance.  Other names you’ll see for this include sortes Homericae or sortes Vergilianae.

Metzger relates this to the early Christian church.

“Even though Christianity denounced augury [divination] and the related practice of sortilege, many continued to use such practices in the early church.  A specific type of soothsaying (sortes biblicae) pursued by Christians involved using the Bible to divine their destiny by ‘sacred lots.’  After randomly opening the Bible and selecting the first line their eye fell upon, early Christians considered the passage a divine message to be applied to the problem that had caused them to employ such means of divination.  The widespread use of sortes biblicae is confirmed by its repeated condemnation.  For example, in France, the Gallican synods of Vannes (465 CE), Agde (506), Orleans (511), and Auxerre (570-590) passed ordinances vowing to excommunicate any Christian who ‘should be detected in the practice of this art, either as consulting or teaching it.'”

Metzger later notes how a few manuscripts of the Gospels (from roughly the 3rd to the 10th centuries) even contained small footnote type fortunes on the bottom of certain pages.  These fortunes included statements like these: “You will be saved from danger,” “Expect a great miracle,” “Seek something else,” and so forth.  He also quotes Augustine, who said this type of Bible lottery is a tad better than outright divination.  However, Augustine also said, “I am displeased with this custom, which turns the divine oracles, which were intended to teach us concerning the higher life, to the business of the world and the vanities of the present life.”

So the Prayer of Jabez/Joel Osteen methodology is ancient and Christians have been struggling against this practice for a long time.  I agree with those early synods mentioned above.  This is a practice which should not be done for many reasons.  It distorts the main message of the Bible (salvation in Christ), it twists the main purpose of Scripture (knowing and following Christ), it ignores basic biblical interpretive methods (context and Scripture interprets itself), it breeds ignorance and laziness (avoiding serious Bible study), it fosters an anti-church attitude (private, random interpretation rather than a corporate reading of the Word), it is unwise (biblical wisdom means applying the broader teachings of Scripture to specific life instances), it is unbiblical (not prescribed in the Bible), and ultimately makes a mockery of God’s Word (mixing it with the methodology of darkness – divination).  Of course we need to use patience and love when dealing with this error among Christians, but it certainly should not be allowed to occur in the church because it is an unbiblical use of the Bible.

For more information on this topic – which has to do with the modern charistmatic notion of “feeling led” – you’ll have to read the John Newton essay I mentioned before (here).

shane lems

sunnyside wa