May 3, 2012

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Gift of Prophecy

by Nathan Busenitz

Was Martyn Lloyd-Jones a continuationist?

“Although charismatics and Pentecostals have both claimed him as an advocate of their views, a careful reading of ML-J establishes that they have misunderstood him.” So states Dr. Eryl Davies in his Themelios article entitled, Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: An Introduction.

Davies substantiates his statement (in part) by pointing to a section of Lloyd-Jones’s Christian Unity in which the Doctor (as he is often called) elaborates on the nature of New Testament prophecy.

Here’s what Lloyd-Jones said:

A prophet was a person to whom truth was imparted by the Holy Spirit.  . . .  A revelation or message or some insight into truth came to them, and, filled with the Spirit, they were able to make utterances which were of benefit and profit to the Church. Surely it is clear that this again was temporary, and for this good reason, that in those early days of the Church there were no New Testament Scriptures, the Truth had not yet been expounded in written words. 

Try to imagine our position if we did not possess these New Testament Epistles, but the Old Testament only. That was the position of the early Church. Truth was imparted to it primarily by the teaching and preaching of the apostles, but that was supplemented by the teaching of the prophets to whom truth was given and also the ability to speak it with clarity and power in the demonstration and authority of the Spirit.

But once these New Testament documents were written the office of a prophet was no longer necessary. Hence in the Pastoral Epistles which apply to a later stage in the history of the Church, when things had become more settled and fixed, there is no mention of the prophets. It is clear that even by then the office of the prophet was no longer necessary, and the call was for teachers and pastors and others to expound the Scriptures and to convey the knowledge of the truth.

Again, we must note that often in the history of the Church trouble has arisen because people thought that they were prophets in the New Testament sense, and that they had received special revelations of truth. The answer to that is that in view of the New Testament Scriptures there is no need of further truth. That is an absolute proposition. We have all truth in the New Testament, and we have no need of any further revelations. All has been given, everything that is necessary for us is available. Therefore if a man claims to have received a revelation of some fresh truth we should suspect him immediately.  . . .

The answer to all this is that the need for prophets ends once we have the canon of the New Testament. We no longer need direct revelations of truth; the truth is in the Bible. We must never separate the Spirit and the Word. The Spirit speaks to us through the Word; so we should always doubt and query any supposed revelation that is not entirely consistent with the Word of God. Indeed the essence of wisdom is to reject altogether the term ‘revelation’ as far as we are concerned, and speak only of ‘illumination’. The revelation has been given once and for all, and what we need and what by the grace of God we can have, and do have, is illumination by the Spirit to understand the Word.

(D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Christian Unity [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987], 189-91)

Clearly, Lloyd-Jones’s explanation of New Testament prophecy runs contrary to the continuationist position.

Because his name is often brought up by those who espouse a continuationist position, his description of prophecy becomes especially pertinent in the ongoing conversation about the gifts.

* * * * *

UPDATE: Some of the commenters below have suggested that Lloyd-Jones was only referring to inscripurated prophecy, and therefore his statements above do not apply to the contemporary continuationist position. However, this is not the case. In a paragraph introducing the above discussion, Lloyd-Jones described the kind of New Testament prophecy to which he was referring:

In the New Testament prophets are generally coupled with the apostles, as in the second chapter of this Epistle: ‘And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone’ [Eph. 2:20]. But though coupled with the apostles, prophets are obviously different.  For instance, it was not necessary that a prophet should have seen the risen Lord. Indeed he need not, in general, have most of the qualifications of the apostle. Essentially a prophet was a man who spoke under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is clear also that sometimes a prophet was a woman. We are told in the second chapter of Luke that Anna was a ‘prophetess.’ Likewise we are told in Acts that Philip the evangelist had four daughters who ‘did prophesy’ (21:9). There are many references to prophets in the New Testament. For instance, in Acts we are told that there were several prophets in the church at Antioch some of whom had come down from Jerusalem (11:27; 13:1). One of them named Agabus prophesied that a dearth was about to come upon the earth and he warned the Christian people about it. There is specific teaching about the prophets in the fourteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians.

(D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Christian Unity [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987], 188.)

Notice that Lloyd-Jones sees a distinction between apostles and prophets in Ephesians 2:20. This runs contrary to the common continuationist interpretation of that passage. Also, notice that Lloyd-Jones includes the daughters of Philip, Agabus, and even the congregational prophets of 1 Corinthians 14 under the umbrella of the NT prophecy he is discussing.

Nothing in Lloyd-Jones’s comments (in this particular section at least) suggests that he embraced the two-tiered view of NT prophecy that characterizes the contemporary continuationist position.

Nathan Busenitz

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Nathan serves on the pastoral staff of Grace Church and teaches theology at The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles.
  • Michael Delahunt

    Thanks for this; I always thought Martyn-Lloyd Jones was a continuationist, but only in his latter days. Wasn’t he a continuationist in the topic of tongues? Not sure, so anything would be helpful.

  • Nick F.

    To me, the content of a person’s argument is far more important than their clout as a famous person. *Whether* Lloyd-Jones believed in continuationism matters far less than what he actually said about it. Hopefully this will encourage continuationists (like myself) to refine their thinking beyond “Well, Lloyd-Jones was a continuationist, and that’s good enough for me.” Thanks for setting the record straight.

  • Chris

    I have one problem with this argument, and there seems to be one obvious caveat for continuationists. He says that once the New Testament is written, there is no need for prophets. And he uses, as proof, the fact that Paul doesn’t mention prophets in the Pastoral Epistles. If we believe the Pastoral Epistles are Scripture, then we can say that as they were being written the New Testament was not yet fixed, and therefore even a cessationist would probably except prophecy to still be fuctioning at that time.

    The caveat that I would assume most continuationists would take is that they don’t claim to be “prophets in the New Testament sense.” Every continuationist I’ve ever met would readily claim that they were not an Apostle or prophet in the sense of Peter or Paul. They would redefine the office of prophet and the nature of prophecy, as Grudem does, in order to avoid these arguments. Therefore, they could actually affirm this excerpt and still hold that MLJ was a continuationist as they are, he just had not worked out the details of how to articulate that position.

    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Chris,

      Thanks for your response. I’ve added an “update” to today’s post which I think addresses your comment.


  • Bruce

    Greetings Nathan. I really appreciate your ministry.

    On this matter I am wondering if the statement itself is a misunderstanding of Lloyd-Jones? For example, in a work that is now out of print and not too well known it seems — “The Sovereign Spirit: Discerning His Gifts” (Forward by J.I. Packer) — the Dr. says in reference to church history (and this is just one small quote): Lloyd-Jones says, after giving various historical examples —- “…read these books and you will find this gift of prophecy that was given to men to see the future, the power of speech that was given to them, and the occasional miracle. Anyone prepared to say that all this ended with the apostolic age, and that there has never been a miracle since the apostles ia makung a most daring statement. Not only is there nothing in the Scripture to say that all these miraculous gifts had to end with the apostolic age; the subsequent history of the church, it seems to me, gives the lie to this very contention.”

    It seems to me that the point by Eryl Davies and the quote you reference is speaking about prophecy in the sense of new doctrinal truth, new normative revelation. And I would agree strongly, that yes in that sense (as would I) Lloyd-Jones would not be a continuationist. But all prophecy does not need to be so defined. If one defines it in the way that, for example, careful continuationists such as Grudem, Carson, Piper, etc. do (and it would appear Lloyd-Jones), then it is a different situation I think. At any rate, it seems clear that whatever his earlier views were, at least by the time the material in “The Sovereign Spirit” was given, Lloyd-Jones was a continuationist. I don’t know how one can say otherwise.

    • guest

      good analysis, Martyn lloyd Jones’ perspective on prophecy is very clear if you read all of his works. This excerpt is taken somewhat out of context. Jones is referring to prophecy as it relates to adding to scripture. I am also not aware of any continuationist who would disagree with the statements Jones makes in this excerpt.

      • Matt Waymeyer

        “A prophet was a person to whom truth was imparted by the Holy Spirit. . . . A revelation or message or some insight into truth came to them, and, filled with the Spirit, they were able to make utterances which were of benefit and profit to the Church. Surely it is clear that this again was temporary, and for this good reason, that in those early days of the Church there were no New Testament Scriptures, the Truth had not yet been expounded in written words.”

        You’re not aware of any continuationist who would disagree with this statement?

      • Nate_Busenitz

        Hi Guest,

        Thank you for your comment. Please see the update I’ve added to the end of today’s post. I do not believe that I am taking MLJ out of context in this instance.


    • Nate_Busenitz

      Hi Bruce,

      Thanks for your comment. I will need to get a copy of The Sovereign Spirit. It would be interesting to see when that material was developed and published.

      I’ve added an “update” to today’s post which addresses the kind of NT prophecy to which MLJ was referring.

      Thanks for interacting!

  • Mary Elizabeth Palshan

    Thank you for clearing this up; this issue has confused so many people I know. I can now recommend his works with greater confidence.

  • guest

    brother, this is very misleading. Just because he did not believe in prophecy in the same sense as modern pentecostals and even some charismatics does not mean he was a cessationalist. If you read all of his works, it is abundantly clear that he believed in the continuation of the gifts, including prophecy! He did not define prophecy like the pentecostals do but he did believe that the Spiritual Gifts continued. You cannot come away with any other conclusion than this if you actually read his works in their entirety instead of simple exerpts.

    • I’ve read Nate’s post a few times, and he is careful not to call him a cessationist. This post makes the observation that charismatics (usually relying on Piper’s tirade about MLJ a few years ago) often claim MLJ as their own. I take Nate’s point being that the truth is more nuanced than “MLJ was a continuationist.”

    • Nate_Busenitz


      Thank you for your comment. It is difficult to see how providing an extended quote (with citation) from MLJ is misleading. I am attempting to bring balance to what I believe is a popular misconception about Lloyd-Jones’s views.

      Though I have not read everything MLJ has written, I stand behind the conclusions of of a Lloyd-Jones scholar like Eryl Davies. I am also willing to allow this citation from Christian Unity to speak for itself.

      Your comment leads me to believe that you have read all of Lloyd-Jones’s seventy-five or so published works. If so, how would you account for his comments regarding prophecy from Christian Unity?

      Thanks for your willingness to interact.


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  • Jonathan Anderson

    Nate, although Lloyd-Jones wasn’t a cessationist, this is a very helpful argument because of the abuse of Lloyd-Jones from the continuationist camp. The carefulness with which he argues for the cessation of revelation seems to be matched by an equal confusion between the gifts of healing and occurrences of medical miracles. This is one of the few areas that I disagree with the Dr. (my fourth son’s middle name is Lloyd-Jones, if I need to establish my partiality!). Here is an excerpt from a letter by Lloyd-Jones in 1969:

    “I am in agreement [with the Church of the Nazarenes’] apart from one thing, namely, that they believe the Baptism with the Holy Spirit confers entire sanctification. In other words they are really the followers of the teaching of John Wesley on holiness. When Maynard James originally sent me this booklet I pointed out of course our disagreement at this point but was able to say that I thought his terms of ‘tongues’ was excellent and balanced.
    “On this question of faith-healing I certainly agree with him. I expressed my disagreement with the view put in the Christian Medical Fellowship publication at the time. I think it is quite without scriptural warrant to say that all these gifts ended with the apostles or the apostolic era. I believe there have been undoubted miracles since then. At the same time most of the claimed miracles by the Pentecostalists and others certainly do not belong to that category and can be explained psychologically or in other ways. I am also of the opinion that most, if not all, of the people claiming to speak in tongues at the present time are certainly under a psychological rather than a spiritual influence. But again I would not dare to say that ‘tongues’ are impossible at the present time.” (Letters 1919-1981 (Banner of Truth), 201-202)

    And, for what its worth, in 1971 he wrote, “I have never spoken in Tongues either in private or in public.” (Letters, 205)

    I honestly believe it would have been a help for Lloyd-Jones to use more precision in his discussion of ‘gifts’ as opposed ‘miracles.’ I think this confusion led to keep the door open to continuationism.

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  • Timj

    Question About Illumination:
    I agree with Lloyd-Jones’ explanation of the Holy Spirit’s role in the origin of Scripture. It is his final words regarding the Holy Spirit’s role in understanding Scripture, i.e. the doctrine of illumination, for which I find no Biblical support. To which Scripture would you appeal to defend the Dr.’ statement, “what we need and what by the grace of God we can have, and do have, is illumination by the Spirit to understand the Word” (from blog above)?

    As for John 14:26 and John 16:13: 1) revelation not illumination is under consideration. 2) These promises were made to the apostles, not Christians in general.

    As for 1 Cor. 2:10-16: again 1) revelation is the context, not illumination. 2) the apostolic “we” is used.

    As for 1 John 2:20,27: If “anointing” is taken to be the Holy Spirit the verses do not teach illumination, but that the Holy Spirit has directly revealed all the truth to each Christian. No Bibles needed. Sorry Thomas-Nelson 🙂

    • I’ll take that challenge on a future blog post Tim. But I see the doctrine of illumination everywhere. Like even in phrases like “open my eyes so I might behold wonderful things from your law.” But a full answer is a longer post. Look for it in the next few weeks. Thanks man.

      • Timj

        Thanks Jesse

  • Will Varner

    You know, he was a preacher, not a systematic theologian. He said many things over the course of many decades. His views “evolved” and he preached them, not lectured on their fine points. He drew on a heritage of great preachers who were not charismatic who taught that preachers should seek the baptism of power. RA Torrey also did that, as well as other evangelists not in the pentecostal tradition. Once can even find Spurgeon quotes that are similar. Because he preached these themes at different times, things now sound contradictory. We all should claim him, not a group here or there who pick out what they want from what he said. I rest my case.

    • MMJ

      Hi Will,
      I am trying to figure exactly what you mean and where you land.
      Can you please re-state and or elaborate?

      • Will Varner

        You want to know where I “land,” I assume you want a confession of faith. I am a cessationist, non-Pentecostal, who has a high Calvinist soteriology. Do I check out? Years ago at BJU I was exposed to a lot of revivalists in the Southern mold (like John R. Rice) who taught about a Spirit baptism of power for preaching. They were in no way Pentecostals – no tongues, no prophesyings. While I am not saying that MLJ was influenced by them, I wonder if he just longed for more power in his preaching and for revival to come. So I think he taught accordingly. Yes, it was theologically imprecise. Yes, he opened the door to later trends at the Chapel. Today young YRR types read his sometimes infelicitious comments and get all uptight theologically. I just think you have to read him in the above context and stop fretting about it. Have I made myself more unclear?

  • Ken Stiles

    I think the claim that MLJ was a continuationist stems primarily from the following book:
    Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Joy Unspeakable: Power & Revival in the Holy Spirit,” ed. by Christopher Catherwood (1985; repr. Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1987), 251. The content of the book was originally delivered in sermon form in Westminster Chapel 1964–65, as part of a series of expositions on John’s Gospel (see Catherwood’s introduction, 11–14). There is a more recent reprint, but I do not know whether it contains Catherwood’s (MLJ’s grandson) introduction. I don’t have the book in front of me, so I can’t provide any juicy quotes, but the above edition is in the TMS library.

    If I remember correctly, MLJ was earnest in promoting revival, and believed that revival happened as a result of Spirit baptism (the post-conversion experience kind). During these times of revival, when the Spirit is being poured out on many people at once, things like speaking in tongues and other miraculous stuff can happen, but not always.

    The closest thing to a theological explication of MLJ’s understanding of Spirit outpouring/Spirit baptism and its connection to revival is Iain Murray’s, “Pentecost-Today?” (also in the TMS library). The major difference is that Murray is a down the line cessationist. I would say that MLJ was a non-cessationist, but for different reasons than present day continuationists.

    • Ken Stiles

      Forgot to mention (just in case someone somewhere cares), I believe that MLJ did not want the manuscript published until he was dead, and Banner of Truth wanted nothing to do with it. Both of which were contributing factors to “Piper’s tirade about MLJ a few years ago.”

  • hopechurch

    Great article. One problem. Where are the writings of these prophets, apart from one of Agabus statements to Paul? By inference even from MLJ himself there were more than those listed. If they delivered God’s inerrant word (in lieu of the NT written text by known authors) where are these writings, what did they talk about, why have these inerrant scriptures been lost to Christianity?

    My answer is: They did exist, they’re unnamed, and unrecorded as their prophecy was not innerant or equal to the New Testament writing, they are subject to judgement and can be lost as Paul says if another has a prophesy the first must sit down. We are talking about Wayne Grudem’s view on prophecy inspired but not inerrant.

    • Bruce

      To be precise and fair, Wayne Grudem’s view of prophecy is not one of either inspired or inerrant. I think he goes to great pains to make that clear in his treatment of the matter.

      • hopechurch

        Great comment Bruce. I am certainly not meaning plenary, verbal or mechanical inspiration rendering the Bible, in its original autographs inerrant and infallible. I believe Wayne’s position on prophecy today is: illumination, subject to error, judgement by others, fallible and errant but encouraging.

        My point relates more to the MLJ article. It appears there was ‘lost inerrant reveltation amongst unknown unnamed New Testament prophets, only if you hold the cessationist position.

        If you hold Wayne’s view, God used inspired (Holy Spirit recalling to memory) speakers and writers for the New Testament autographs only and at the same time gave the church one means by which the Holy Spirit would work namely the spiritual gifts for local churches. These gifts functioned not as cessationists claimed but under a different category.

        • Bruce

          Yes, I see what you are saying. Thank you for the clarification.

          To be fair to the cessationist position I suppose one could say that inspired, inerrant prophecy was lost, or not included or regarded as canonical Scripture because it simply was non-normative in content and not intended by God for the whole church for all time.

    • Noah Hartmetz

      You seem to be misunderstanding the cessationist position. The utterances don’t have to be written down to prove their inerrancy. For example, John 21:25 is clear in saying that Jesus did other things besides what are written in the gospel. Are we to assume that the words that Jesus spoke and the works that he did were not inerrant simply because the gospel writers did not write them down?

      Beyond this, the answer you provide is one that is not found in Scripture. Instead it is being brought into the text from the outside, also known as eisegesis, and has at its foundation a faulty understanding of Ephesians 2:20.

  • Mike Jarvis

    Seems pretty clear to me. Thanks, Nathan!

  • Crabtree

    Lloyd-Jones was a thorough expositor and well-respected by Christians of all stripes. His commentary on Romans is a masterpiece.

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