The title for our seminar this afternoon is “A Word from the Lord? Evaluating the Modern Gift of Prophecy.” And that subtitle really defines our goal in this session. We want to look at prophecy in the contemporary charismatic movement and compare it to the Word of God.
It is important for me to note, at the beginning of this seminar, that much of what we will talk about today parallels what is found in the Strange Fire book. So, if you want to dig into this topic in more depth, I would recommend that resource as a place to start.
Definition of Terms
Now, before we begin, it is important that we define several terms:
Charismatic – The term “charismatic” is very broad, encompassing millions of people and thousands of denominations. Charismatics are known for their belief that the miraculous and revelatory gifts described in the New Testament are still in operation today and therefore should be sought by contemporary Christians. According to the International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, there are more than 20,000 distinct Pentecostal and Charismatic groups in the world. Those groups are generally subdivided into three broad categories or “waves.”
The First Wave refers to the classic Pentecostal Movement which began in the early 1900s under the leadership of men like Charles Parham and William Seymour. The Second Wave is known as the Charismatic Renewal Movement. It began in the 1960s as mainline Protestant denominations were influenced by Pentecostal theology. The Third Wave represents the influence of Pentecostal theology within evangelical denominations. It started under the leadership of C. Peter Wagner and John Wimber, both of whom were teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary at the time. Today, we will be using the term “charismatic” to encompass all three waves, doing so in an admittedly broad fashion.
(2) Continuationist – The term “continuationist” is similar to the term “charismatic” in that it refers to a belief in the continuation of the miraculous and revelatory gifts of the New Testament. Thus, continuationists assert that things like the gift of prophecy, the gift of tongues, and gifts of healing are still functioning in the church today.
However, the term “continuationist” is often used to differentiate theologically conservative charismatics from those in the broader charismatic movement. Well-known evangelical continuationists would include Christian leaders like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Sam Storms. And, it is important to note, that while we do not agree with their position regarding the charismatic gifts, we have much that we appreciate about these men. Thus, the term “continuationist” often helps us differentiate conservative evangelical charismatics from those in the broader movement.
Here is how one continuationist author explained the term:
The term charismatic has sometimes been associated with doctrinal error, unsubstantiated claims of healing, financial impropriety, outlandish and unfulfilled predictions, an overemphasis on the speech gifts, and some regrettable hairstyles. . . . That’s why I’ve started to identify myself more often as a continuationist rather than a charismatic. (Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, 86)
(3) Cessationist – The term “cessationist” refers to those who believe that the miraculous and revelatory gifts passed away in church history after the apostolic age ended. Cessationists therefore assert that supernatural phenomena like the gift of apostleship, the gift of prophecy, the gift of tongues, and the gift of healing are no longer functioning in the church today. Rather, they were given as signs to authenticate the ministry of the apostles during the foundational age of the church. Once the apostolic age has passed, and the canon of Scripture completed, the primary purpose for those gifts was fulfilled and they ceased.
With those key terms defined, we can now turn our attention to the gift of prophecy. When we speak about “prophecy” or “the gift of prophecy” or a “word of prophecy,” we are talking about the declaration of divine revelation. I think most charismatics and most cessationists would agree that—at a very basic level—prophecy might be defined as the human report of God-given revelation. For example, continuationist Sam Storms defines prophecy as is “the human report of divine revelation” (Four Views on Miraculous Gifts, 207).
And, in terms of a very rudimentary definition of prophecy, I think that is one that most cessationists would be happy to agree on. Biblical prophets like Moses and Isaiah received new revelation from God and they reported that revelation to the people both by speaking that truth and by writing it down. Many charismatics today similarly claim that they receive new revelation from God which they are then able to articulate as words of prophecy to others.
The word prophet itself comes from the Greek prophētēs which means “to speak in the place of” or to be a “spokesman.” So a prophet is a spokesman for God. And when someone claims to be exercising the gift of prophecy or claims to have a word from the Lord that is exactly what they are claiming. In that moment, at least, they are claiming to be a spokesperson for God.
The Need to Test Prophets
Throughout history, there have been many people who have claimed to be prophets, who have claimed to speak for God. But all Christians—whether charismatics or cessationists—would agree that at least some of these prophets were false prophets
For the sake of time, I’ll provide just three examples.
In the second century, there was a false prophet named Montanus. Montanus claimed to speak for God. He said that the world was about to end, promoted extremely legalistic ethical standards on his followers, and claimed that God was going to establish the New Jerusalem, not in Jerusalem, but in the town of Pepuza in Phrygia. Needless to say, his predictions did not come true. He was declared a heretic by the early church.
In the sixteenth century, during the time of the Reformation, there were a number of radical Reformers who predicted the end of the world. One of them, a man named Melchior Hoffman suggested that the New Jerusalem would be established in Strasburg, Germany. Another man named Jan Matthys said the New Jerusalem would founded in Munster, Germany. In response to the crazy predictions of these false prophets, Martin Luther sarcastically retorted that they had “swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all.”
In the nineteenth century, just to give you one more example, a New England native named Joseph Smith claimed that God had given him new revelation—in the form of some heavenly, golden tablets. Joseph Smith translated these golden tablets to produce the Book of Mormon. Though Smith was widely recognized as a con artist in his own time, and though he taught bizarre and unbiblical doctrines, Joseph Smith’s false prophecies sparked one of the largest cult movements in history.
Now, what is the point of these historical examples? It is simply to demonstrate the truth that false prophets exist, and that they represent a major threat to the church. Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly warn believers about the danger of false prophets. If time permitted, we could go through dozens of passages that warn God’s people to avoid people who claim to speak for God but in reality do not.
How to Recognize a False Prophet
All of this raises a critical question for believers to ask: “How can we recognize a false prophet? How can we know when a person who claims to be prophesying for God, who claims to have received new revelation from God that he or she is now reporting to others … how can we know when that person is telling the truth?”
The Bible articulates three objective criteria for evaluating self-professed prophets. If a so-called prophet fails on any one of these three points, he shows himself to be a false prophet.
What are these three tests? Let me just state them briefly, and then we will look at them each in more detail:
1. Doctrinal orthodoxy – Because God is a God of truth, those who truly prophesy on His behalf proclaim doctrines that are right and true.
2. Moral integrity – God’s true prophets are those who not only proclaim His truth, they also live out His truth.
3. Predictive accuracy – Because God knows the end from the beginning, a true prophet declares divine revelation regarding the future with 100% accuracy.
Let’s consider each of these in greater detail:
First, a true prophet must be doctrinally orthodox. Conversely, any self-proclaimed prophet who deceives people by leading them into theological error is a false prophet. There are many passages we could look at which demonstrate this point. But I’ll just give you two:
Deuteronomy 13:1–5:  “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder,  and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom 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 find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.  “You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him.  “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you.
In other words, Moses is saying, if a prophet comes to you and even if the prophet makes predictions that come true—if the prophet leads you away from the truth and into error, than that prophet is a false prophet. And you’ll notice how seriously God treats this offense: He prescribes the death penalty for that kind of errant prophesy.
In a New Testament context, Peter gives a similar warning in 2 Peter 2:1:
2 Peter 2:1: But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.
There Peter equates false prophets with false teachers. Those who teach false doctrine demonstrate themselves to be false prophets.
Charismatic comparison: Now, if we wanted to do so, we could spend the whole time this afternoon document time after time that well-known charismatic “prophets” have taught egregious forms of doctrinal error. From the Prosperity Gospel to the Word of Faith movement to Oneness Pentecostalism, the larger charismatic movement is hardly known for its doctrinal orthodoxy.
When we see egregious doctrinal errors being taught by self-appointed prophets—like when Benny Hinn famously claimed there were actually nine members of the Trinity, or when Kenneth Copeland stated that Jesus took on the nature of Satan when He died on the Cross—we can be immediately certain that those individuals are not true prophets. So, doctrinal orthodoxy is the first test of a true prophet.
Second, a true prophet must have moral integrity. Any self-proclaimed prophet who lives in unrestrained lust and greed shows himself to be a false prophet.
Again we could look at numerous biblical passages to demonstrate this point. But, again, we will just consider two.
Jeremiah 23:14–16:  “Also among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen a horrible thing: The committing of adultery and walking in falsehood; And they strengthen the hands of evildoers, So that no one has turned back from his wickedness. All of them have become to Me like Sodom, And her inhabitants like Gomorrah.  “Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets, ‘Behold, I am going to feed them wormwood And make them drink poisonous water, For from the prophets of Jerusalem Pollution has gone forth into all the land.’ ”  Thus says the Lord of hosts, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you. They are leading you into futility; They speak a vision of their own imagination, Not from the mouth of the Lord.”
Clearly, these are false prophets. They claim to speak for God, but in fact they do not. And the Lord Himself notes the moral wickedness that accompanied these false prophets in ancient Israel.
In the New Testament, this same point is made. Jesus Himself, in the Sermon on the Mount, explained that you could identify false prophets by the fruit of their life (Matt. 7:20). The apostle Peter, back in 2 Peter 2, explains that false prophets were characterized by lust, covetousness, greed, and all sorts of iniquity. In verse 1, which we already read, Peter mentions false prophets. Then he describes them in verses 2–3.
2 Peter 2:2–3:  Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned;  and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
So again we see that false prophets can be identified by their lifestyle. As Jesus said, we can know them by their fruits. And when we see the fruit of gross immorality and impurity in someone’s life, we can be confident that he is a false prophet no matter what he might claim.
Charismatic comparison: Now, again, we could spend the rest of our time talking about the numerous moral failures and financial scandals that have plagued some of the most well-known figures in the charismatic world. We won’t do that this afternoon, but the point remains: When the best-known leaders and public faces of a movement are frequently embroiled in scandal and controversy due to lavish lifestyles or immoral escapades, it calls into question their self-proclaimed status as prophets of God.
Maybe just one example should be given. One of the most prolific prophetic groups within the broader charismatic movement was known as the Kansas City Prophets. This group included men like Mike Bickle and Rick Joyner, though two of the most highly-regarded of the Kansas City Prophets were Bob Jones and Paul Cain. Both of these men were regarded as prophets by their fellow charismatics. Both of them were highly visible and influential, especially within the Third Wave circles in which they ministered. But both of them were subsequently disqualified from ministry on moral grounds. Bob Jones had to be removed from ministry when it came to light that he was using his prophecies to garner sexual favors from women. And Paul Cain’s ministry was publicly scandalized when he admitted to long-term drunkenness and homosexuality. In both cases, their actions belied their claim to be true prophets of God.
Well, that brings us to a third test. In addition to doctrinal orthodoxy and moral integrity, a true prophet must meet one more qualification.
Third, a true prophet must demonstrate predictive accuracy. Or to put this in the negative, if someone claims to speak prophetic revelation from God about the future (or about secret things), but then those predictions do not come to pass, the Bible declares that person to be a false prophet.
Once again, let’s look at the Scriptures to see this principle delineated. And we could look at a number of texts, but again we will limit ourselves to two.
Deuteronomy 18:20–22:  ‘The prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’  “You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’  “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
Well, that is just about as clear as it could possibly have been said. How can we know if a prophet is really speaking for the Lord, or if the prophet is presumptuous and false? Well, in addition to the other two tests we’ve already covered, look at the prophet’s predictions about the future. Do his prophetic revelations come true? If not, then that prophet is a false prophet.
The rest of Scripture reverberates with this same truth. According to Isaiah 44:26, God confirms the words of His true messengers. According to Jeremiah 28:9, the true prophet is the one whose prediction comes true. This is because, according to Ezekiel 12:25, the word which God speaks will come to pass.
By contrast, all a false prophet can do is hope that his predictions will come true. Look at what God says of false prophets in Ezekiel 13.
Ezekiel 13:3–9:  “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Woe to the foolish prophets who are following their own spirit and have seen nothing.  O Israel, your prophets have been like foxes among ruins.  You have not gone up into the breaches, nor did you build the wall around the house of Israel to stand in the battle on the day of the Lord.  They see falsehood and lying divination who are saying, “The Lord declares,” when the Lord has not sent them; yet they hope for the fulfillment of their word.  Did you not see a false vision and speak a lying divination when you said, “The Lord declares,” but it is not I who have spoken?’  Therefore, thus says the Lord God, ‘Because you have spoken falsehood and seen a lie, therefore behold, I am against you,’ declares the Lord God.  ‘So My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and utter lying divinations. They will have no place in the council of My people, nor will they be written down in the register of the house of Israel, nor will they enter the land of Israel, that you may know that I am the Lord God.’”
Again, God’s Word is very clear. Those who prophesy presumptuously in God’s name, predicting things that don’t come to pass, such self-proclaimed prophets meet with God’s displeasure. They show themselves to be false prophets and their prophesies ought to be rejected and ignored.
Charismatic comparison: Now when we compare modern charismatic prophecy to this biblical requirement, we find that it again falls short. By their own admission, proponents of the modern gift of prophecy readily acknowledge that modern prophecies are often inaccurate and full of errors.
Let me give you some examples from charismatics themselves:
Rick Joyner: “There is a prophet named Bob Jones who was told that the general level of prophetic revelation in the church was about 65% accurate at this time. Some are only about 10% accurate, a very few of the most mature prophets are approaching 85% to 95% accuracy. Prophecy is increasing in purity, but there is a still a long way to go for those who walk in this ministry” (Rick Joyner, “The Prophetic Ministry”, The Morningstar Prophetic Newsletter. Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 2).
So Joyner openly acknowledges that modern prophecy is full of inaccuracies. But, how can modern prophets get around the warning of Deuteronomy 18:20–22? Well, they simply ignore it. Listen to what Rick Joyner says:
Rick Joyner: “One of the greatest hazards affecting maturing prophets is the erroneous interpretation of the Old Testament exhortation that if a prophet ever predicted something which did not come to pass he was no longer to be considered a true prophet (see Deut. 18:20–22). The warning was that if this happened, the prophet had been presumptuous and the people were not to fear him. If one predicts something in the name of the Lord and it does not come to pass, he probably has spoken presumptuously and needs to be repented of, but that does not make him a false prophet. No one could step out in the faith required to walk in his calling if he knew that a single mistake would ruin him for life.” (ibid.)
Rather than submitting to what the biblical text explicitly says, Joyner arbitrarily dismisses Deuteronomy 18 as if it doesn’t apply. But pretending it’s not there doesn’t make it go away. The biblical standard is 100% accuracy. The problem is not with the biblical standard, it is with modern would-be prophets who fail to meet that standard.
Joyner is not the only charismatic prophet who contends that it’s acceptable for modern prophecy to contain errors.
Bill Hamon: “We must not be quick to call someone a false prophet simply because something he said was inaccurate. . . . Missing it a few times in prophecy does not make a false prophet. No mortal prophet is infallible; all are liable to make mistakes.” (Bill Hamon, Prophets and Personal Prophecy, 176)
Jack Deere suggests that even if a prophet were to “miss it so badly” that his prophecy “had immediate destructive effects” in the lives of other people, we still should not regard that person as a false prophet (cf. Jack Deere, The Beginner’s Guide to the Gift of Prophecy, 131–32). Elsewhere, he explains:
Jack Deere: “Prophets are really messy. Prophets make mistakes. And sometimes when a prophet makes a mistake, it’s a serious mistake. I mean, I know prophets just last year that cost people millions of dollars with a mistake they made. I talked to people who made the wrong investments, actually moved their homes, spent tons of money…”( Jack Deere, National School of the Prophets, “Mobilizing the Prophetic Office,” May 11, 2000, tape #3).
When Mike Bickle interviewed Bob Jones about his prophetic ministry, Bickle asked, “So there has been errors; there’s been a number of errors?” Jones responded with this: “Oh, hundreds of them.” And at the National School of the Prophets (on May 13, 2000), Chuck Pierce and Cindy Jacobs similarly acknowledged: “We’ve made a lot of mistakes. There’s no excuse but we need to do better.” Self-proclaimed prophet Kim Clement sums up the charismatic viewpoint with these words: “You can be a wrong prophet and not be a false prophet.” (Trinity Broadcasting Network, “The prophetic ministry of Kim Clement,” Aug, 13, 2002)
In spite of the fact that Scripture says that a true prophet must be held to the standard of 100% accuracy, modern prophets simply ignore that standard, being content with the fact that their prophecies contain hundreds of mistakes. (Mike Bickle even admits that modern prophecy has about an 80% failure rate.)
Even among conservative evangelical continuationists, this same sub-standard approach to prophecy is made.
Wayne Grudem: “There is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted” (Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 110).
Consequently, continuationists admit that people can rely too much on the subjective guidance of prophecy.
Wayne Grudem: “Usually this has been because they did not realize that prophecy in the Church age is not the word of God, and can frequently contain errors” (Grudem, The Kingdom and Power, 84).
In light of its fallible nature, continuationists caution people from depending on prophecy to make decisions:
Sam Storms: “One should avoid looking to or depending on the gift of prophecy for making routine daily decisions in life. God does not intend for the gift of prophecy to be used as the usual way we make decisions regarding his will” (Storms, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, 211).
The implications of this view make it essentially impossible to know when a prophecy is actually true or erroneous.
Wayne Grudem: Pastorally, if someone is in charge of a home fellowship group or if a pastor is in charge of a prayer meeting, you call it as you see it. I have to use an American analogy, it’s an umpire calling balls and strikes as the pitcher pitches the ball across the plate. (Wayne Grudem in his debate with Ian Hamilton, Timestamp 59:53; online at: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2012/02/23/a-debate-on-the-continuation-of-prophecy)
By ignoring the objective standards of Scripture, evaluating this view of modern prophecy is hopelessly reduced to total subjectivity.
Wayne Grudem: “Did the revelation seem like something from the Holy Spirit; did it seem to be similar to other experiences of the Holy Spirit which he had known previously in worship. Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations . . . and become more adept at recognizing a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts.” (The Gift of Prophecy in the NT and Today, 120-21; emphasis mine)
How Do Charismatics Rationalize Fallible Prophecy?
All of this raises an important question. If the Bible requires 100% accuracy for prophets, then how can the charismatic movement justify prophets who regularly speak errors when they claim to be speaking words from the Lord?
In 1989, Benny Hinn predicted that Fidel Castro would die sometime in the 1990s; he also predicted that the homosexual community in America would be destroyed by fire before 1995, and that a major earthquake would devastate the East Cost before the year 2000. In the 1990s, Kansas City prophets Bob Jones and Rick Joyner similar predicted that Southern California would soon be swallowed by the Pacific Ocean after a major earthquake. More recently, Pat Robertson predicted that the U.S. would experience a horrific terror attack in the second half of 2007. According to Robertson: “”The Lord didn’t say nuclear, but I do believe it’ll be something like that – that’ll be a mass killing, possibly millions of people, major cities injured. . . . There will be some very serious terrorist attacks . . . The evil people will come after this country, and there’s a possibility – not a possibility, a definite certainty – that chaos is going to rule.” (Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, 2007. cf. Russell Goldman, “Pat Robertson’s Worst Gaffe’s”, ABC News, May 18, 2013). Just last year, Robertson predicted that Barack Obama would lose his bid at a second presidential term.
Those kind of stories could be multiplied many times over. They represent just a few examples to make the point. If we were to apply the standard of Deuteronomy 18, we would have to consider these men to be false prophets.
But charismatics are quick to say, “Just because a modern prophet gets a prediction (or even many predictions) wrong, that doesn’t make him a false prophet.” How can they say this? The answer may surprise you.
Defenders of modern prophecy generally claim that there are actually two categories of prophets (or prophecy) depicted in Scripture. The first kind of prophet is the one that is described in Deuteronomy 18. That kind of prophet had to be 100% accurate. His prophecies were infallible and authoritative. This category of prophets includes the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament prophets, and all of the writers of Scripture. These prophets declared God’s revelation perfectly, meaning it was free from any errors.
But according to charismatics and continuationists, there is a second type of prophet depicted in the New Testament. These second-tier prophets are called “congregational prophets”—and according to charismatic authors, these prophets were not held to a standard of complete accuracy.
So the argument essentially goes like this. While first-tier prophets (like Moses, Isaiah, Peter, and Paul) were held to a standard of complete accuracy, these second-tier congregational prophets were allowed to deliver prophecies that were full of errors. Because this second-tier form of prophecy was not infallible, it was also not authoritative.
In other words, when congregational prophets spoke, their prophecies did not have to be obeyed because, after all, they might be riddled with mistakes. In a sense then, this congregational-form of prophecy was essentially nothing more than Spirit-led advice, which may or may not be accurate, and which was optional for people to follow. According to continuationists like Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms, it is this kind of prophecy that has continued to today. Speaking of modern prophecy, Wayne Grudem says it this way: “I would put this idea of God bringing things to mind in the same category of authority as advice or counsel from a godly person” (Debate with Ian Hamilton, Timestamp: 27:39).
To redefine “prophecy” as “Spirit-led advice” provides a convenient explanation for all of the fallacious and outrageous words of prophecy that are spoken by modern prophets. Sadly, however, many Christians are coerced into doing things they otherwise would not do, on the basis of a supposed word of prophecy.
Charismatic author Kim Crutchfield acknowledges that prophecy can be used to abuse people in the church. :
Kim Crutchfield: Some churches and church leaders become abusive. Abusive church leaders use prophecies to castigate, vilify, and place fear in a person’s heart. These are false prophecies uttered as a tool of social control. They predict doom for those who leave a church. Such leaders do not allow people to question the prophet, judge the prophecy or call the message into question. This is a clear abuse of spiritual authority. Unscrupulous leaders often use prophecies and words from the Lord to manipulate their flock. It is a crass form of spiritual manipulation. . . . [It] leaves people vulnerable to the whims and manipulations of would-be prophets. (Kim Crutchfield, “The Use and Abuse of Prophecy,” May 19, 2011. Online at: http://www.kimcrutchfield.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=60:the-use-and-abuse-of-prophecy&catid=34:theomusing)
So you can see the devastating effects this type of prophecy can have in the church. It can really burden people with false messages.
But there is an even bigger problem: That is not how the Bible defines prophecy. The notion of a lower-class of prophets who were frequently inaccurate in their prophetic declarations is completely absent from the New Testament.
The New Testament nowhere suggests that prophets in the church were to be held to a lesser standard than their Old Testament counterparts. In fact, the New Testament evidence indicates exactly the opposite: New Testament prophets—no matter what church congregation they were part of—were held to very same standards as those employed in the Old Testament.
For starters, the New Testament refers to both Old Testament prophets and New Testament prophets using the exact same terminology, without any clarification or distinction made between the two.
John MacArthur: “The New Testament uses identical terminology to describe both Old and New Testament prophets. In the book of Acts, Old Testament prophets are mentioned in Acts 2:16; 3:24–25; 10:43; 13:27, 40; 15:15; 24:14; 26:22, 27; and 28:23. References to New Testament prophets are interspersed using the same vocabulary without any distinction, comment, or caveat (cf. Acts 2:17–18; 7:37; 11:27–28; 13:1; 15:32; 21:9–11)” (John MacArthur, Strange Fire, 119).
The word prophētēs is used in the New Testament to describe both Old Testament prophets and New Testament prophets. No distinction is made between the two.
Sam Waldron: “If New Testament prophecy in distinction from Old Testament prophecy was not infallible in its pronouncements, this would have constituted an absolutely fundamental contrast between the Old Testament institution and the New Testament institution. To suppose that a difference as important as this would be passed over without explicit comment is unthinkable” (Sam Waldron, To Be Continued?, 65).
But there are other indications as well. In Acts 2:18, Peter quoted from Joel 2:28 to describe what prophesy would be like in the New Testament age. Joel 2:28 is an Old Testament passage, meaning that the type of prophecy it describes is Old Testament quality prophecy. In other words, by using that passage, Peter was declaring that New Testament prophecy would be the same as the Old Testament prophecy that Joel described.
Also, the New Testament describes its prophets (men like John the Baptist, Agabus, and the apostle John in the book of Revelation) in the same way that Old Testament prophets were described.
For the sake of time, let’s just consider the ministry of Agabus, who is mentioned a couple of times in the book of Acts. New Testament scholar David Farnell notes the parallels between Agabus and Old Testament prophets:
David Farnell: [Agabus] introduced his prophecy with the formula, “This is what the Holy Spirit says” (Acts 21:11), which closely parallels the Old Testament prophetic formula of “thus says the Lord” so frequently proclaimed by Old Testament prophets (e.g., Isa. 7:7; Ezek. 5:5; Amos 1:3, 6, 11, 13; Obad. 1; Mic. 2:3; Nah. 1:12; Zech. 1:3-4). This same introductory phrase introduces the words of the Lord Jesus to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Like many Old Testament prophets, Agabus presented his prophecies through symbolic actions (Acts 21:11; cf. 1 Kings 11:29-40; 22:11; Isa. 20:1-6; Jer. 13:1-11; Ezek. 4:1-17; 5:1-17). Like the Old Testament prophets, Agabus was empowered by the Holy Spirit as the prophetic messenger (Acts 11:28; cf. Num. 11:25-29; 1 Sam. 10:6, 10; 2 Sam. 23:2; Isa. 42:1; 59:21; Zech. 7:12; Neh. 9:30). Like the Old Testament prophets, Agabus’s prophecies were accurately fulfilled (Acts 11:27-28; 21:10-11; cf. 28:17). (Farnell, “Is the Gift of Prophecy for Today?” Bibliotheca Sacra, 1992–93)
After an exhaustive study of New Testament prophecy, Dr. Farnell came to this conclusion:
David Farnell: In summary the early post-apostolic church judged the genuineness of New Testament prophets by Old Testament prophetic standards. Prophets in the New Testament era who were ecstatic, made wrong applications of Scripture, or prophesied falsely were considered false prophets because such actions violated Old Testament stipulations regarding what characterized a genuine prophet of God (Deut. 13:1–5; 18:20–22). . . . The early church affirmed the idea of a direct continuity between Old Testament and New Testament prophets and prophetic standards (ibid).
So what’s the bottom line on all of this? Nothing in the New Testament suggests that there was a second-tier of congregational prophets in the early church that was held to a lower standard of prophetic accuracy. Rather the opposite is true. The New Testament indicates that prophets in the church were measured by the same criteria as Old Testament prophets: (1) moral integrity, (2) doctrinal orthodoxy, (3) and predictive accuracy.
Now, at this point there are at least 3 main objections that continuationists will raise in response. So, let’s deal with each of these one at a time.
(1) First, proponents of fallible prophecy will often point to Romans 12:6 which in the New American Standard version reads, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith.”
Based on this verse, charismatics argue that the accuracy of one’s prophecy can vary depending on the amount of a person’s faith. In other words, if a person only has 80% faith, his prophecy will only be 80% accurate.
But that is not the best understanding of the Greek in this case. The word “his” before “faith” is not there in the Greek. Rather, the word that is actually there is the definite article “the.” In other words, the verse would be better translated this way: “if prophecy, according to the proportion of the faith.” This verse is not teaching that the accuracy of prophetic declarations varies in proportion to how much faith a person has. Rather, it is arguing that words of prophecy must accord perfectly with the faith—that body of previously revealed truth that constitutes sound doctrine (cf. Jude 3–4).
In other words, rather than teaching that prophetic declarations can be inaccurate, it is stating that they must be absolutely accurate and orthodox, in keeping with that which has been previously revealed … otherwise they are to be rejected.
(2) Second, proponents of fallible prophecy often look to 1 Thessalonians 5:20–22 in order to assert that because New Testament prophecy had to be tested, it must have been fallible. First Thessalonians 5:20–22 reads as follows: “Do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from every form of evil.” Based on this verse, continuationists ask, “If New Testament prophecy was infallible, like Old Testament prophecy was, why did Paul command believers to test it carefully?”
We would respond by making the following observations:
(A) Paul’s statement, “Do not despise prophetic utterances” was written at a time when all agree the gift of prophecy was still active in the church. So, when cessationists reject the false predictions made by self-appointed modern prophets, they are not disobeying Paul’s command. Rather, they are taking the command to test prophesy seriously. When we test modern prophets by the biblical standards of (1) moral integrity (2) doctrinal orthodoxy, and (3) predictive accuracy, we are right to reject those who do not pass the test. In fact, in verse 22, Paul states that those “prophecies” which do not pass the test (and by implication those who declare such prophecies) are to be regarded as evil, and believers are to abstain from them. There is a gravitas to that kind of rejection of error which cessationists seek to take seriously.
(B) The fact that Paul instructed his readers to “examine [prophetic utterances] carefully” does not imply that New Testament prophecy was fallible. Rather, it indicates that false prophets posed a real threat to the New Testament church (cf. Matt. 7:15; 24:11; 2 Tim. 4:3–4; 2 Pet. 2:1–3; 1 John 4:1; Jude 4). Consequently, believers needed to examine all supposed prophecies carefully, so as to distinguish between true prophets and false prophets.
John MacArthur: “The Thessalonians, in particular, needed to be wary of false prophets. Paul’s two epistles to them indicate that some within their congregation had already been misled—both with regard to Paul’s personal character (1 Thess. 2:1 – 12) and the eschatological future of the church (1 Thess. 4:13 – 5:11). Much of Paul’s instruction was in response to the erroneous teaching that was wreaking havoc within the Thessalonian church. Perhaps that is why some of the Thessalonians were tempted to despise all prophetic utterances, including those that were true” (Strange Fire, 125).
(C) The idea that New Testament prophecy had to be “examined” or “tested” does not mean it was qualitatively different from Old Testament prophecy. The very reason God told the Israelites that true prophecy had to be orthodox (Deut. 13:1–5) and accurate (Deut. 18:20–22) was so that they could test it. And why did it need to be tested? Because, just as in New Testament times, the threat of false prophets was an ever present danger (cf. Deut. 13:3; Isa. 30:10; Jer. 5:31; 14:14–16; 23:21–22; Ezek. 13:2–9; 22:28; Mic. 3:11).
Paul himself considered the Bereans of Acts 17:11 to be more noble because, even though he was an apostle, they had tested his teachings against the backdrop of previous revelation. As Luke says about them, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
So where does that leave us regarding 1 Thessalonians 5:20–22? John MacArthur provides a helpful answer:
John MacArthur: “Putting all this together, we see that 1 Thessalonians 5:20 – 22 does not support the charismatic case for fallible prophecy. Rather, it leads to the opposite conclusion, because it calls Christians to test any message or messenger that claims to come from God. When we apply the tests of Scripture to the supposed revelations of modern-day charismatics, we quickly see their ‘prophesying’ for what it really is: a dangerous counterfeit” (Strange Fire, 126).
(3) The third objection raised by many charismatics regards the prophet Agabus and his prediction in Acts 21:11. According to continuationists, Agabus was a true prophet who got the predictive details of his prophecy wrong. In their minds, he provides an example – in fact, the only example – of a New Testament prophet who failed to make an accurate prediction.
In Acts 11:28, Agabus is affirmed as a true prophet, who accurately foretold the coming of a severe famine. But controversy surrounds Acts 21:10–11, when Agabus warns Paul of the coming persecution he will face if he returns to Jerusalem. Luke writes:
Acts 21:10–11: As we were staying there [in Caesarea Philippi] for some days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands, and said, “This is what the Holy Spirit says: ‘In this way the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.’ ”
According to continuationists, the overall gist of Agabus’s prophecy is accurate, but the details are wrong. In particular, Agabus erred when he stated (1) that the Jews would bind Paul and (2) that the Jews would deliver Paul into the hands of the Romans. As continuationist Wayne Grudem explains, this is “a prophecy whose two elements—‘binding’ and ‘giving over’ by the Jews—are explicitly falsified by the subsequent narrative” (The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 80). Elsewhere, Grudem adds that, for Agabus, “the prediction was not far off, but it had inaccuracies in detail that would have called into question the validity of any Old Testament prophet” (Bible Doctrine, 411).
So, how are we to think about Agabus? Are the details of his prophecy explicitly falsified by the biblical text? Did he err when he predicted that the Jews would bind Paul and hand him over to the Romans? I certainly don’t think so. Rather, I believe Agabus got the details exactly right.
Here are five reasons why:
A. Nothing in the text states that Agabus got his prophecy wrong. Neither Luke, nor Paul, nor anyone else in Scripture criticizes the accuracy of Agabus’s prediction or says that he erred. Thus, at best, the continuationist approach to Agabus is based on an argument from silence.
B. Luke’s description of what happened to Paul in Jerusalem implies that the Jews “bound” him (just as Agabus predicted). Later in Acts 21, Luke explains what happened to the apostle shortly after he arrived in Jerusalem.
The Jews “laid hands on” Paul (v. 27), “seized” him (v. 30), “dragged” him out of the temple (v. 30), “sought to kill” him (v. 31), and “were beating” him when the Roman soldiers finally arrived (v. 32).
In Acts 26:21, Paul reiterates (before Agrippa) that the Jews “seized” him in the temple and “tried to kill” him. Since Paul did not willingly go with the Jewish mob (a point implied by verbs like “seized” and “dragged”), they would have had to restrain him in some way as they forcibly removed him from the temple—using whatever was immediately available to bind him.
Thus, in both Acts 21 and Acts 26, the implication is that Paul was bound by the Jews before he was delivered to the Romans. Agabus explicitly said that Paul would be bound and the text implies that that is exactly what happened. (The Greek verb deo [“to bind”] can mean to arrest or imprison, but it can also mean to tie up with ropes [Luke 19:30] or to wrap with rags [John 11:44].) Not only does the text not state that Agabus’s prophecy was wrong, it gives us good reason to believe that his prediction that Paul would be “bound in this way” by the Jews was exactly right.
C. Paul’s later testimony confirms that the Jews “delivered him over” to the Romans. Continuationists claim that Agabus also erred when he predicted that the Jews would give Paul over to the Romans. But is such an error demanded by the text?
In Acts 21:32, Paul is being beaten when the Roman cohort arrives. The Jews, upon seeing the soldiers, stop assaulting Paul (v. 32). The bloodied apostle is then arrested by the Romans (v. 33). The implication of the text is that the Jews backed away and relinquished Paul into the hands of the Romans once the soldiers arrived. Such accords perfectly with Agabus’s prediction.
The accuracy of Agabus’s statement is further strengthened by the testimony of Paul himself. Acts 28:16–17, describing Paul’s arrival in Rome, says this:
Acts 28:16–17: When we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him. After three days Paul called together those who were the leading men of the Jews, and when they came together, he began saying to them, “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.” (emphasis added)
Significantly, Paul uses the same word for “delivered” that Agabus used in Acts 21:11 (paradidomi).
D. Agabus is quoting the Holy Spirit. In Acts 21:11, Agabus begins his prophecy by stating, “Thus says the Holy Spirit,” (just like the Old Testament prophets would declare, “Thus says the Lord”) and nothing in the text indicates that he was wrong to do so. (In fact, the Holy Spirit Himself inspired Luke to record Agabus’s prophecy in just that way, with no qualifications or caveats.) Those who wish to accuse Agabus of error ought to be very careful, since Agabus himself is quoting the Holy Spirit.
E. No one in church history accused Agabus of errant prophecy until modern times. The church fathers don’t talk about Agabus much. But when they do, they equate him (in accuracy and authority) with the Old Testament prophets (like Isaiah and Ezekiel). There is no hint of “fallible prophecy” in their description of Agabus or his prediction in Acts 21:11. Now, I could go through quotes from well-known early Christian leaders, from Augustine to Chrysostom to Ambrose to Cyril. And what you would find is that these early theologians never question the accuracy of Agabus. Moreover, they regard him as being equal to Old Testament prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel.
When we consider the evidence from both Scripture and church history, we find that there is no valid reason to accuse Agabus of fallible prophecy. There were no errors with his prediction in Acts 21:11.
And that again underscores the problem for the continuationist position. Because, as we noted earlier, if Agabus did not err in his prophecy, then there are no examples of fallible prophecy in the New Testament.
We have just a few minutes left, so let’s review what we’ve covered so far. The Bible articulates three criteria by which to evaluate a true prophet from a false prophet. Those criteria are (1) doctrinal orthodoxy, (2) moral integrity, and (3) predictive accuracy.
In the mainstream charismatic movement, many modern prophets fail on all three of those criteria. However, failure on just one of those three is enough to disqualify a person from being regarded as a true prophet. This afternoon we have primarily concentrated on that third criteria, “predictive accuracy.” What we have found is that, even proponents of modern prophecy readily admit that it often contains errors and mistakes.
Charismatics and continuationists attempt to compensate for that reality by suggesting that there was a form of New Testament prophecy that also contained errors and mistakes. However, upon closer examination, there is no biblical evidence to back up that assertion. As John MacArthur explains: “Fallible prophets are false prophets—or at best, misguided nonprophets who should immediately cease and desist from presumptively pretending to speak for God. . . . When compared to the clear criteria set forth in the Word of God, nothing about modern prophecy measures up” (Strange Fire, 119).
By contrast, cessationists teach that the gift of prophecy has ceased. According to Ephesians 2:20, the apostles and prophets were for the foundation age of the church. When the apostolic age ended, prophets also quickly vanished from the scene. With the canon of Scripture complete, there is no longer any need for us to receive new revelation from God. We have the prophetic Word, and it contains all that we need for life and godliness.
At the most practical of levels, the notion of continuing revelation from God is at odds with the sufficiency of Scripture.
I would like to close our time by citing three well-known figures from history on the topic of prophecy. All three of these are found in the Strange Fire book, so you have access to them there. But I think they provide a fitting conclusion to our discussion about modern prophecy.
The first is from David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the well-known British pastor of the early twentieth century. Listen to what he said about the gift of prophecy:
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. . . . 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], 191–92)
That is an excellent summary of the cessationist position. It also underscores the dangers that come from insisting that there are still prophets who are active in the church today.
A second quote comes from another well-known British pastor, this time from the eighteenth century. It is none other than Charles Spurgeon:
Dear Brothers and Sisters, honor the Spirit of God as you would honor Jesus Christ if He were present! If Jesus Christ were dwelling in your house you would not ignore Him, you would not go about your business as if He were not there! Do not ignore the Presence of the Holy Spirit in your soul! . . . To Him pay your constant adorations. Reverence the august Guest who has been pleased to make your body His sacred abode. Love Him, obey Him, worship Him! Take care never to impute the vain imaginings of your fancy to Him. I have seen the Spirit of God shamefully dishonored by persons—I hope they were insane—who have said that they have had this and that revealed to them. There has not, for some years, passed over my head a single week in which I have not been pestered with the revelations of hypocrites or maniacs. Semi-lunatics are very fond of coming with messages from the Lord to me and it may save them some trouble if I tell them once and for all that I will have none of their stupid messages. . . . Never dream that events are revealed to you by Heaven, or you may come to be like those idiots who dare impute their blatant follies to the Holy Spirit. If you feel your tongue itch to talk nonsense, trace it to the devil, not to the Spirit of God! Whatever is to be revealed by the Spirit to any of us is in the Word of God already—He adds nothing to the Bible, and never will. Let persons who have revelations of this, that, and the other, go to bed and wake up in their senses. I only wish they would follow the advice and no longer insult the Holy Spirit by laying their nonsense at His door. (Charles Spurgeon, sermon entitled, “The Paraclete,” October 6, 1872)
Those words may sound harsh, but they underscore just how serious this issue is. As Spurgeon understood, it is not a trivial thing to claim that you have received a word from God when in fact you have not. It is not a light thing to claim a prophesy from the Lord and then speak things that are full of errors and inaccuracies.
To make that point, we will end with a quote from the prophet Jeremiah. Listen to God’s warning to any and all who would presume to speak false prophesies in His name:
Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you. They make you worthless; They speak a vision of their own heart, not from the mouth of the Lord. . . . I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words, then they would have turned them from their evil way and from the evil of their doings. . . . I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in My name, saying, ‘I have dreamed, I have dreamed!’ How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart. . . . Behold, I am against the prophets,” says the Lord, “who use their tongues and say, ‘He [the Lord] says.’ Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” says the Lord, “and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness. Yet I did not send them or command them; therefore they shall not profit this people at all,” says the Lord. (Jer. 23:16–32)
That warning could not be clearer. The Lord opposes all who claim to prophesy and yet speak words that come from their own imaginations rather than from Him.