Friday, February 19, 2021
It's Friday, February 19, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Does God Still Speak Through Prophets Today? The Explosion of Erroneous Prophecies about the 2020 Election Raises the Question in Mainstream Culture
There are some really big theological issues swirling about these days. And surprisingly enough, one of them ended up on the front page of the New York Times. The headline and the article by Ruth Graham was this, "Christian Prophecy Movement Is Hit Hard by Trump's Defeat." The subhead on the article, "Failed predictions lead to recriminations among believers."
Now, the background to this is fairly easy for us both to remember and to understand. There were some who claimed to be uttering words of prophecy who were declaring that Donald Trump had been reelected and that Joe Biden would not be inaugurated as president of the United States, even going right up until the evening hours before the inauguration. You had some claiming to be Christian preachers, claiming to hold the office of prophet, claiming to utter prophecy, who declared things that simply did not happen. And it was a double fault of course, because not only did what they say would happen, not happen, but what they said would not happen, did happen.
Now, issues of charismatic experience, prophecy, debates of intra-evangelical or inter-Christian sorts rarely make it onto the front page of the New York Times. The reason this story is or was on the front page of the New York Times has to do with the fact that it was tied to the 2020 election. It was tied to recent events going all the way back to January the 6th, for that matter, going all the way back to November the 3rd of 2020 and the election itself.
But as Ruth Graham begins her story, she tells us about Jeremiah Johnson, identified as a 33-year-old self-described prophet. We're told that he was, "one of the few evangelical Christians who took Donald J. Trump's political future seriously back in 2015." So that meant before his first run for the presidency or at the very beginning of that first run. Then, we read this, "This track record created a loyal audience of hundreds of thousands of people who follow him on social media and hang on his predictions about such topics as the Coronavirus pandemic, the makeup of the Supreme Court and the possibility of spiritual revival in America."
The article continues, and they took comfort ahead of the Presidential election last fall when Mr. Johnson shared a prophetic dream of Mr. Trump stumbling while running the Boston Marathon until two frail older women emerged from the crowd to help him get over the finish line. So when Joseph R. Biden Jr. was certified as the winner of the election, Mr. Johnson had to admit he let his followers down and he said this, and this is pretty amazing in itself. "I was wrong, I am deeply sorry, and I ask for your forgiveness." We're told he wrote this on a detailed letter that he had posted online. He went on to say, "I would like to repent for inaccurately prophesizing that Donald Trump would win a second term as the President of the United States."
Very quickly, Ruth Graham then summarizes, "The desire to divine the future is a venerable one, fueling faith in figures from ancient Greek oracles to modern astrologists. Christianity in particular," she explains, "is a religion whose foundational text is filled with prophecies proven true by the end of the book. Whether they get to prophecy continues into the present day," she writes, "has long been the subject of intense theological debate. But in recent years, the self-described profits have proliferated across the country, accelerating in stature over the course of the Trump era. They are stars within what is now one of the fastest growing corners of Christianity: a loose, but fervent movement," she writes, "led by hundreds of people who believe they can channel supernatural powers and have spiritual insights into world events."
Now, we are talking about something that is an old story in American Christianity. At least it is as old as the early years of the 20th century, but of course, as we're talking about prophecy, we're going to have to make a very clear distinction between biblical notions of prophecy and the claims about prophecy that had been made, especially in the modern Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Those, I will argue, are two very different things. And between those two realities is a continued conversation and tension among Evangelicals about the continuation of what are defined as spiritual gifts in the New Testament, including prophecy. And if it does continue, what exactly is it after all?
So a lot of issues to unpack here, but the first has to do with the reality that Evangelical Christianity and Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians are lumped in by the media with confessional historic Protestants as Evangelicals because the media has no other label for Charismatics and Pentecostals. And when it comes to conversionism and many other issues, they are often in symmetry with American Evangelicals, but when it comes to other issues, they are profoundly not. They are actually strains of the Pentecostal movement that deny the Trinity historically. They deny orthodox biblical Christianity, but in the main, what we're talking about here are the entrepreneurial, independent, charismatic ministries that are headed by pastors, sometimes either male or female, by the way, who claim to have the gift of prophecy.
Now, most Evangelicals thinking of the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements, think first of all, of speaking in tongues, that was claimed to have been recovered as something that had been true for the early church and was recovered in the reestablishment of a New Pentecost, especially in the early years of the 20th century, beginning with such events as the ministry of Charles Parham in Topeka, Kansas in 1901, and then the Azusa Street Revival that took place in Los Angeles between 1906 and 1915.
The Pentecostal movement took its name from the claim that this was a second Pentecost. This was a recovery of the gifts that had been given in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost, including speaking in tongues. But even as speaking in tongues is the first issue that Evangelicals often think of in the Charismatic and Pentecostal movement, it might be that prophecy is a far more important theological issue in terms of understanding what is actually at stake, because in prophecy, you have people claiming to speak for God, claiming to speak Spirit-inspired, Holy Spirit-directed utterances that are in addition to Holy Scripture.
Now, I'm going to argue that that historic Pentecostal claim to prophecy violates the Scripture principle of the book of Christianity. We understand that God has given us 66 Holy Spirit-inspired books and what we call the Holy Bible, the canon of Scripture, and we believe that God does not speak in the same way, offering newly propositional revelation in the modern age. But rather with the close of Scripture, we had the fact that God now speaks through his word. He's no longer speaking his word in the sense of revealing new texts, new paragraphs, new sentences, new books, but God instead, through the Holy Spirit, is speaking to his church in a way that is just as real through the actual words of scripture, the text of the 66 books of the Bible.
But yesterday, we were talking about a moral embarrassment that came to Christianity in the United States through the revelations of sexual abuse and worse, at the hands of one who was a Christian evangelist. We'll talk more about one aspect of that story later in the program today. But right now, we're looking at the fact that there's more than one way for Christianity to be embarrassed. We can be embarrassed by moral behavior. We can also and should also be embarrassed by false teachers and false teaching.
The particular embarrassment I'm talking about here is the embarrassment for a Christian, a biblical Christian, a gospel-minded Christian, picking up the print edition of the New York Times and finding on the front page, Christian prophecy as it's defined here in a way that is humiliating, because we're talking about claims of divine revelation and words of prophecy that turned out to be profoundly untrue, period, categorically.
Now, it's not so much that the New York Times really isn't interested in theology. That's true, but more profoundly, it is interested in American politics, and here you're looking at the intersection of American politics and claims about prophecy. And the point is that the prophecies were wrong. Now, let's just remind ourselves of the most basic biblical fact that we must keep in mind, and that is this, God does speak and he never speaks in error. Everything that God speaks is true. It is categorically true. It is eternally true. It's unconditionally true.
The Bible doesn't allow for any utterance from God or from a prophet of God speaking under the inspiration of God that is false. Just remind yourself of the concern in the Old Testament about false prophecy and false prophets. Think of a text like Deuteronomy 18:20, where the penalty for claiming to be a prophet and speaking outside God's inspiration and a prophecy that turns out to be untrue, that sentence was actually death.
One of the true prophets of scripture, that is the great prophet Jeremiah, in Jeremiah chapter two, verses nine and following spoke of false prophets. These were prophets who dream false dreams. Again, this is a word of absolute condemnation. It brings disrepute upon God and upon God's people.
As you look to the Old Testament, even as you look to the New Testament church, God did speak through prophecy. He spoke through prophets, but he validated the prophecy by making their words true. If the words were false, those words were clearly understood by the people of God not to have ever come from God.
Later in the article, the interest of the New York Times becomes very clear when Ruth Graham writes, "Prophecy is a facet of the fast growing charismatic Christian movement, which has an estimated half-billion followers worldwide and is characterized in part by the belief that the 'gifts of the Holy Spirit,' which also includes speaking in tongues and supernatural healing continue into the present day rather than being an artifact of biblical times."
Now, let me just say, I'm a cessationist. I'll explain what that means, but that's not the language I would use. She continues however, "Mr. Trump supercharged the public profile of this already ascended stream of Christian culture. His evangelical advisory council included unprecedented numbers of charismatic leaders, including his primary faith advisor, Paula White, a charismatic pastor and televangelist."
Going back to the beginning of this article, it's important to recognize that Jeremiah Johnson who still claims to be a prophet, he did admit that his prophecy was wrong and he apologized for it, but from a Christian worldview perspective, I'm going to argue that biblically speaking, the bigger problem is that he believes he holds the office of prophet now. And it also implies that either he was speaking on behalf of God, and it turns out that he actually wasn't, or that you have the problem that God spoke error. Now to his credit, he does not blame God, but what we still have here is the fact that you had someone claiming to be a prophet, claiming to utter prophecy. And as he now accepts and admits the prophecies were untrue.
Now, that leads us to some very interesting questions. Theologically, what do we think about the continuation of some of those supernatural gifts? And by the way, all of the gifts, all the spiritual gifts are supernatural gifts, but you often hear that kind of language attached for reasons we can understand to miraculous healings, claims of prophecy, and of course, speaking in tongues. Now, from the perspective of biblical theology, I want to argue that when you look at the Bible, the Old and New Testament, what you have in its most basic form is promise in the Old Testament and fulfillment in the New Testament. Now, that also includes the fulfillment of prophecy. Just consider the gospel of Matthew, where Matthew will say over and over again, these things happen in order that the scriptures may be fulfilled. Over and over again, Matthew points to the fulfillment of prophecy.
The same thing is declared by Peter. On the day of Pentecost, it's declared by the Apostles in the Book of Acts. It is declared by Jesus and all four of the gospels. It is defined encyclopedically by the apostle Paul in his letters to the churches. Promise and fulfillment is the basic theme of Scripture, and Ruth Graham is exactly right. When you're looking at Christianity, you are looking at a claim that God offered prophecies in the past that became true, not just in a sense of becoming true sometime, that became true most importantly in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, is himself the fulfillment of prophecy and the prophecies yet unfulfilled will be completely fulfilled in Christ at the end of the age.
In American Christianity today, there are a spectrum of positions on these issues that range from the openly, avowedly charismatic and Pentecostal, that's full on, to those who claim to be fully open to the spiritual gifts, even if they are not absolutely normative. That is to say, they accept that there are Christians who do not exercise what they define as these gifts, but nonetheless, they're expected. They're fully open.
The third position will be described as open, but cautious. You see a lot of Evangelicals who define themselves that way. They say they're open to the continuation of those gifts in the modern age, but they're cautious. That is to say they recognize that there could be real problems with claims made about tongues, healings or prophecy, and we're certainly seeing that here.
There are others who would be described in a fourth position as doubtful, but open. In other words, they are doubtful that those gifts are continuing in the church today, but they're open to reports about healings or any number of other things that would be biblically defined. The last position is the opposite of the charismatic position and it is the cessationist position. Now, that means that the two great positions in this divide are continuationists claiming that these gifts continue into the church today and cessationists arguing that those gifts, those particular gifts, those gifts of revelation, most importantly, the supernatural gifts that affirmed the apostolic message ceased in the Apostolic Age. They ceased by the end of the New Testament.
Now, I want to be clear. I am a friendly cessationist. That is to say, I'm not angry about it, but I am drawn by Scripture, driven by Scripture to affirm the cessationist position on those issues and why? Well, for one thing, because I think one of the main goals of the Christian Church should be to avoid any kind of theological trap that ends up in this kind of headline in the New York Times.
How Does the Church Understand the Gift of Prophecy Today? A Look at the Various Positions and the Witness of Scripture
But there's a bigger issue here. Let's admit it. And that is the fact that when you have people including some Reformed Evangelical Christians in the church today, when there are claims of the continuation of the gift of prophecy, they actually can't mean what prophecy meant in the Old Testament. They can't, and the most honest of them admit that right up front.
They're not talking about new, absolutely new revelation from God. They're not talking about a 3rd or 4th Corinthians that's going to appear. They're not talking about a new apostolic revelation in that sense, but they are talking about prophecy using a word that they define differently than was true in the Old Testament. They talk about prophecy as a particular spiritual gift that usually is something like an application of scripture, but there is more to this than just an encouragement of one Christian to another. They are claiming Holy Spirit inspired utterances, but then you have the problem that leads us to the New York Times, which is sometimes those utterances turn out to be false. They turn out not to be from God.
Thus, how do you have a fallible gift or a gift of sometimes fallible prophecy that's a prophet to the church? I want to tell you right upfront, there are faithful Christians who hold this position, but I do not hold this position. And I think this position comes with inherent dangers, it comes with confusing the definition of prophecy. I have difficulty getting some of my friends in this position actually to fully define what prophecy means to them. But nonetheless, I do understand that many of them are faithful Christians from whom I have learned much.
I do believe that the further you get towards the charismatic and Pentecostal movement in terms of many of these claims, the more theological danger becomes apparent. I do believe that the New Testament makes clear that there were gifts that came as confirmations of the apostles preaching. When the apostles preached, there were dramatic signs, spiritual signs, there were gifts of prophecy, there were miraculous healings. There were things such as the gift of tongues, just look to Acts chapter two in the gift of Pentecost, but it was the apostle Paul himself who made a distinction when it came to these particular gifts saying that they would cease when the perfect comes. You see that in 1 Corinthians 13:8 and following, but what then is the perfect?
Well, in the truest sense, the perfect is the perfect one, the Lord Jesus Christ and his coming. But the apostle Paul is talking about these gifts in the age of the early church. So it must mean something after that, perhaps the consummation of the kingdom, the perfection of what it means to be with Christ, no longer seeing through a glass darkly, but seeing him face to face. But at the same time, the most important thing is to understand, they are not normative for eternity. At least that much is clear.
So when I'm asked straightforwardly, do you believe in the gift of prophecy? I say, absolutely yes. I believe that God gifted prophecy to his people in both the Old Testament and in the New and all of the prophecy we need is all the prophecy we have found right there in the text of Holy Scripture. And that Scripture is then to be read, it is to be memorized, it is to be preached, it is to be taught to the nations. And in the preaching of the gospel from the text of the word of Scripture, prophecy is then given to the church, but it is the prophecies that are revealed in the text of scripture and not beyond or external to it.
And here's the bottom line as we bring this discussion to a close, if we consider that to be the church's proper posture, here's the one thing we know. It will never be nullified, that will never be proved wrong, it can never be negated because God has said it. He has spoken it in Scripture. It is written and it is true for ever.
How Should We Think About the Gospel Ministry of One Who Has Fallen? The Gospel Never Fails, Even If the Preacher Does
But finally for this week, a pastoral dimension, as we think about The Briefing yesterday, I did talk about the tragedy of the report that's come out concerning the late evangelist Ravi Zacharias, but it raises a theological, a pastoral question that's been presented to me and I want to address in the format of the briefing in a way that I hope will be encouraging and also a bit educational and for that matter affirming, and it comes down to this.
You have people who sometimes look at a failed ministry and say, well, what about the people who came to Christ during his ministry, through his preaching? What about people who came to Christ because of the preaching of the gospel that happened under this minister, this pastor, this evangelists? When there has later been a denial of the faith, there are preachers, of course, who have declared themselves to be atheist. There are those who fail morally, sometimes absolutely abysmally. And the question is, does that nullify the gospel that was preached in their message?
The bottom line is this, the gospel is the gospel. The gospel saves, even if the lips that utter it are lips that are later discredited. It is the gospel that can't be discredited. It is not a preacher who cannot be discredited. And when it comes to Christian ministry, this is something that church has had to think about through centuries that have included everything from plague to persecution, and persecution actually was the occasion of the church having to think about this most ardently, most urgently.
At the end of the third century and in the beginning of the fourth century, the Christian Church, Christians were horribly persecuted by the Emperor Diocletian. This is known as the Diocletian Persecution and under it, especially in North Africa, that becomes very, very strategic. Especially among Christians in North Africa, there were some who denied the faith. There were some ministers who denied the faith. They were often identified as priests at that time. They denied the faith and then the question came, what about their ministry?
Now, the church at that time was holding to a sacramental theology and a doctrine of the priesthood, that meant that there was a faithful priesthood that was handed down from priest to priest, from bishop to bishop. And the question was, if a minister performs a ministry and then the minister subsequently denies the faith, is the ministry in-authentic? Is it then nullified? It could come down to an ordination. It could come down to the consecration of a bishop in the church at that time. It could come down to the ministry in a total sense at the time.
It could come down right now to the question, if you heard the gospel or you know someone who heard the gospel and came to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, by hearing the gospel preached by a pastor whose ministry was later discredited by morality or by theological error, are you still saved? And the answer is yes, because you were never saved by the preacher. You were saved by Christ. You were saved through the preaching of the gospel, and the gospel has not failed, even if the preacher has.
In that period in the early church, there were those who were known as the traditores. They were those who had, that's the word for handing over. They'd literally handed things over to the Roman officials as a sign of their apostasy. That is the fact that they were denying the faith that included the Bible, it included ornaments of worship. Most importantly, it did include the Bible. They handed the Bible over to the Roman authorities as proof of the fact that they were now denying Christ and it was a huge theological crisis. And we can understand why it was and why it is a huge theological crisis because tragically enough, there are the traditores in our age as well, in every age until Jesus comes.
The most comprehensive answer to this question came from Augustine, the most influential and important of the theologians of the early church. And Augustine made very clear that it is not about the preacher. Then that's what we better understand. It's not about the preacher. Now, in terms of moral responsibility, preachers must keep in mind. Let's just think about where we began the briefing today, that it is by sin that embarrassment and disrepute is brought upon the church, but all Christians have to understand that Augustine was right in this sense. The church has been right through the centuries in this sense. It's the power of the gospel that saves. It's the preaching of the word of God that saves. It is Christ who saves. And yes, there are those who preach the gospel and then fall into sin or fall into error. But insofar as they preach the gospel, those who heard the gospel and believed are saved. They need have no question about their assurance of salvation because after all they are not trusting the preacher, they were trusting Christ.
And so we end today where we began, our ultimate confidence must be in God and in God alone. We look to hear his word in his word, the written word of Scripture, and in Scripture alone, his final authority and final word. We trust in Christ alone for our salvation. We're thankful for the human agents, for the preachers, teachers and evangelists who brought the word to us.
But our confidence in the end is where it must have been in the beginning, in Christ and Christ alone.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce college, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.