I have received several inquiries as to what I meant when I labeled myself as formerly being an “evangelical mystic“. I want to take a moment to communicate what I did and did not mean.
Prior to conversion I had no biblical understanding. I remember thinking that Christ was Jesus’ last name. I had asked the guy who led me to Jesus why there were two testaments, who Abraham was, along with strange things like should I shave my head like Paul. I was, to say the least, pretty biblically green.
My wife (who was unconverted) and I joined an Arminian SBC congregation which placed a considerable emphasis upon subjective leading. They studied Blackaby’s Experiencing God and spoke in terms of God leading them to do this and that, while also commonly maintaining that God spoke to them via dreams, in prayer and throughout the day. I did not think this was strange because, a) I was young, b) everyone talked like this, c) I saw some examples in the Bible of such things. So I also adopted much of this language and practice.
Now immediately someone will say, “Hey, you do have the Holy Spirit, don’t you?” Yes I do. And I believe in a vibrant, active and God-glorifying work of God through his Holy Spirit in not only my life but also the lives of believers. I believe the Holy Spirit baptizes, convicts, regenerates, gifts, renews, seals, intercedes, indwells, leads, and controls believers. My statement was not in any way an effort to minimize or marginalize the Holy Spirit.
My emphasis is upon what has become so common today in evangelicalism. What I am referring to is this constant reference to God communicating with people through what seems like every way imaginable with the exception of the Scripture. Often times folks speak of being ‘led’ to do this or that or that God has ‘told’ them not to do this or that. I have been told by well meaning evangelicals that I have to listen to the “still-small voice” of God.
The problem with this is that the Scriptures never command me to look inward for direction but rather to look to the revealed word of God. Believers are given the Scripture to be equipped and instructed for every good work (2 Tim. 3.16-17); we are told to meditate upon it (Ps. 1) so that we me have knowledge, wisdom and understanding cultivated (Prov. 3.3-5; 4.5-8).
Ironically, a new breed of self-appointed prophets has arisen. These religious quacks tout their own dreams and visions with a different phrase, ‘The Lord told me.’ That is mysticism, and it preys on people looking for some secret truth that will add to the simplicity of God’s all-sufficient, once-for-all delivered Word” (MacArthur, Our Sufficiency in Christ).
The reason for the mysticism label is because that is precisely what this is. BB Warfield used to distinguish Christianity from all pagan religions in that it was a religion that was revealed from the outside in, whereas, pagan mysticism is revealed from the inside out. Bible believers understand that their hearts are “more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick” (Jer. 17.9) and unable to be understood. As a result not only the source of the ‘revelation’ is to be questioned but also the interpretation.
In the comments one person mentioned Edwards as a guy who may have followed this type of thinking. I disagree. And perhaps the comment was not directed at what I am referring to here. In my reading of Edwards he seems to have been staunchly opposed to this type of practice, even calling such folks who practice this subjectivism “incorrigible”:
“Many godly persons have undoubtedly in this and other ages, exposed themselves to woeful delusions, by an aptness to lay too much weight on impulses and impressions, as if they were immediate revelations from God, to signify something future, or to direct them where to go, and what to do.”
“I would therefore entreat the people of God to be very cautious how they give heed to such things. I have seen them fail in very many instances, and know by experience that impressions being made with great power, and upon the mind…are no sure sign of their being revelations from heaven.” (Jonathan Edwards)
“Why cannot we be contented with the divine oracles, that holy, pure word of God, which we have in such abundance and clearness, now since the canon of Scripture is completed? Why should we desire to have any thing added to them by impulses from above? Why should we not rest in that standing rule that God has given to his church, which the apostles teaches us, is surer than a voice from heaven? And why should we desire to make the Scripture speak more to us than it does?”
“An erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that it is God’s manner in these days to guide His saints by inspiration, or immediate revelation….As long as a person has a notion that he is guided by immediate direction from heaven, it makes him incorrigible and impregnable in all his misconduct.” (Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England).
In fact Edwards had a running dialog with the famous evangelist George Whitfield. Whitfield was convinced that God had told him that his son would be a great preacher and that his name would be John. Whitfield had one son and he died at 4 months of age. These actions led Whitfield to say:
“I misapplied several texts of Scripture. Upon these grounds, I made no scruple of declaring ‘that I should have a son, and that his name was to be John.’….’Many good souls, both among clergy and laity, for a while, mistook fancy for faith, and imagination for revelation.” (quoted in MacArthur’s Reckless Faith).
When Christians put their subjective impressions on authoritative levels they, regardless of motives, undermine the authority, sufficiency and purpose of Scripture. Our fallen minds and hearts are never prescribed in the Bible to direct our steps, this task is reserved to the Holy Spirit inspired sure word of Scripture.
So how does this flesh out practically? Say you have a difficult decision (or an easy one for that matter) what do you do? You pray for wisdom (Jam. 1.5) for God gives generously, you study the Scripture for it is this that equips you for every good work (2 Tim. 3.17), you delight yourself in the Lord (Ps. 34.7), you get counsel from godly friends (Prov. 11.14; 12.20). And then you have prayed about it, if it is biblically wise, and seems to be consistent with the revealed word you should feel a confidence to do the right thing without having to affix the “God told me” or “God led me” talk so as to make it more authentic. Edwards has good advice on this:
“They who leave the sure word of prophecy–which God has given us as a light shining in a dark place–to follow such impressions and impulses, leave the guidance of the polar star to follow a Jack with a lantern. No wonder therefore that sometimes they are led into woeful extravagances.” [Jonathan Edwards, On Revival, p.14]