This post helped me to clarify a few things, namely this: private, subjective, unverifiable guidance of the Holy Spirit can have no part in teaching, preaching, or ministry. The reason is this: when you say ‘God told me’ you effectively redesign the Christian religion and make yourself a cult leader. Here is what I mean:
Scripture and (No) New Revelation
First of all, it seems clear enough to me that ever since the closing of the canon of Scripture there can be no such thing as private guidance from God, much less divine speech reportable as “God told me . . .” With most of historic Protestantism, I believe that no such thing happens, or has happened, since the apostolic age. Scripture first of all is sufficient, meaning that the Lord, the author of Scripture, has inspired just as much Holy Scripture as he desired and has made it clear that this is all that there will ever be. This can be seen in explicit statements in the Bible, but also from the nature of biblical revelation: as inspired word-explanation of redemptive deed, the Bible has stopped because redemption has been accomplished. There can only be more special revelation if there are more redemptive deeds; but the cross and the resurrection was the decisive, complete victory of the seed of the woman over the serpent. The Bible says that Christ will return, but not to deal with sin, because he has already defeated it once and for all. He will return to gather those who are waiting for him (Heb 9:27-28). All that remains until then is the application of the salvation accomplished, the gathering of the elect; and for the consummation there will be no need of written, authoritative interpretation because the events and their significance will be clear to all. And a third point: the Spirit of the Father, whom the Father and the Son sends, only glorifies the Son, and only takes what the Son has in order to apply it in the building of the church. The Spirit is the authorizing, authenticating divine agent in the apostolic testimony to the person and work of the Son, and he is the applier of the power of Christ and the deliverer of Christ’s inheritance. It is, therefore, clearly beyond his duty and even his nature as the one proceeding eternally from Father and Son, to deviate from the apostolic testimony to the mediatorial accomplishment of Christ. He cannot add to it; he testifies to it, guarantees it, convicts sinners of its judging and saving truth, and builds the church of Christ.
Of the nature of the case, then, Scripture is complete and sufficient, which is really to say the same thing twice (complete = sufficient). Therefore, to wait for additional revelation is to misunderstand the nature and function of Scripture and of the work of the Holy Spirit during the already-not-yet. Adding to Scripture implies that Scripture is not enough. This is, in point of fact, equivalent to creating a new religion on the back of the faith Christ has already established—as the behavior of pseudo-Christian cults verifies. All cults add to revelation; and, thereby, become non- or pseudo-Christian cults, false religions built with stolen ideas and words. This is to usurp Christ’s own authority and to misrepresent the Holy Spirit. Designing sermons, teaching, or ministry according to private guidance of the Spirit in effect creates a new religion from the stuff of Christianity.
As a pastor, teacher, or Christian counselor, to tell folks that your teaching is guided by what God told you or how the Spirit has guided you privately is to enslave their consciences, which is thievery and deception in the name of the God of the Bible. The person who claims “the Spirit told me” subjects his hearers to his elite and unimpeachable spiritual authority, a sort of ecclesiastical hijacking and demagoguery. ‘How do you know God told you?’ is an unwelcome question, but it is an obvious and necessary one. Even more to the point, we should ask: ‘how do I know that God told you?’
His Becoming Flesh in the Fullness of Time and the Objectivity of the Gospel
Scripture is complete and sufficient; Scripture is also objective. In the original languages, anyway, the Bible is the single, unified, supreme, authoritative means of encountering Christ, the only mediator, and it is guaranteed by His Spirit. Because there is only one Christ, then there is only one true historical accomplishment, one true gospel, and one authoritative account (Gal 1; 1 Cor 15:3–4; et al). This objectivity is of the essence of the gospel: the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God in the flesh, that day 2,000 years ago, on a cross on Golgotha, is the hope of the world. There is only one mediator, one Lord (Christ), faith (in Christ), and baptism (into his death and resurrection), one name under heaven (Christ); no one comes to the Father but through Him, the lamb God supplied. And Jesus Himself, in His Spirit, commissioned and inspired his apostolic heralds, both before he came (OT) and after he had ascended (NT), to record for the church a saving, objective account of his person and his work (1 Pet 1:10-12). Objectivity and the saving power of the gospel are one and the same. The objectivity and unity of the gospel entails the objectivity and unity of Scripture. Objectivity means equal access to all humans able to read; and it means that any Christian able to read is obligated to deliver God’s word without corruption, modification, or his own admixture, to anyone willing to listen.
Subjective revelation has no place here. It is disallowed by design.
Claims to private illumination or guidance—“the Spirit told me to preach this passage to you” or “God guided me to preach about this topic”—have the same effect. The Bible’s structure is open for all to see, given by God for the church. To claim that it must be applied, preached, or taught according to secret, private guidance implies that the spiritual health of a congregation depends upon special, private, spontaneous guidance from God extraneous to Scripture, and unavailable to all but one person; this is the sort of injustice and abuse of office that was prevalent in pre-Reformation Rome, and that is perfected today by pseudo-Christian cults. It sets the preacher or the teacher up against, or even in place of, the Spirit’s perfect wisdom in the crafting of Scripture and Christ’s own commissioning of teachers (Eph 4) for the purpose of growing in knowledge of the Son of God.
Cults thrive on such ‘insights’ because, being private, they can be neither reviewed nor tested nor fact-checked. And so the congregation is held captive to the unimpeachable mystical insights of their leader, and the Scripture is robbed of its unique, self-attesting authority and objectivity, its availability to all who will open it. Cults and popes partner with the hapless evangelical in undermining the authority of Scripture.
God makes some of his people teachers and preachers, but he does not privilege some people over others in giving of knowledge of himself and of the gospel; the knowledge of the truth is available to all. It is open to all in the Bible, so that we, all people, can access it and test what we are being taught in light of it. Private revelation is an incursion of elitism and mysticism that demeans the sheep.
The Authorship and Structure of the Bible and Post-Apostolic Teaching and Preaching
I don’t know that the Holy Spirit has ever won an award for literary achievement; but nonetheless I think he is a trustworthy author if there ever was one. The only rule of faith and life is the canonical Scriptures as given to the church. A whimsical selection of biblical texts guided only by purported secret insight is corruption of gospel ministry, distrust of divine authorship, and disloyalty to the only head of the church. As John wrote, Jesus did many other things—too many to write about. So, we already have a careful selection, very wisely pieced together and providentially preserved.
As musicians do with the scores of Beethoven or Brahms, or museum curators with historic canvases and ancient artifacts, so the people of Christ should be invested intensely in both the details and the full shape that the Spirit has given to the Scriptures, in examining and ennjoying its original form, for the sake of the church and the glory of God. Artists know that to re-structure a Beethoven symphony, or to copy and paste portions of a Brahms sonata, is to re-write and to engage in dual authorship. The same is true of Scripture. Writers know that if I re-arrange your essay, I’ve interrupted your authorial prerogative. I’ve become a co-author. It is the same with Scripture. Painters know that if I add some color here or there, or turn a painting upside down, I’ve modified the final product, obscured the original intention, and even changed the meaning of the painting. It is no different with the Bible.
The Cause: I’m Not Sure What it Is
So why the spiritual looseness? I can only guess. Perhaps studying a book and reporting to the congregation what was learned lacks mystical allure. Even worse, to discover that Calvin preached it better centuries ago, or Augustine nearly two millennia past, can really take the wind out of the crowd-pleasing heart. But it should. At the end of the day, Scripture is an objective written word open to all. It was the Lord’s decision to have his self-revelation and his revealed will written down so that it would be a clear and objective, authoritative word to end all disputes. The Bible is the universally available Word of God standing in authority over all councils and traditions of men. And so a teacher of the church has no more solemn duty than careful and consistent study of the Bible under the guidance of historic teaching and confession.
I am afraid that the pastor who boasts of private revelation has succumbed to a fear of mediocrity and anonymity. Self-concern is creeping at the door. He overlooks the inspired means of the Spirit’s work. He attenuates the authority and finality of Scripture. He has swapped his own contrived pseudo-spirituality for the hard work of studying the Bible under the tutelage of the church’s greatest teachers. I do not relish the thought, but what else could be the attraction, but self-concern and the fear of man? Maybe just laziness; perhaps inability. But at the end of the day the question to ask of teachers and preachers and Christians bearing witness is this: whose church is this? Whose people are these? Whose gospel is it? Whose word, whose sacrament? Christ’s and his alone.