Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, people have claimed to receive spiritual gifts, dreams, visions, and special revelation. How do we determine if a spiritual experience is genuinely from God? In the Middle Ages, the number of reported spiritual experiences reached a feverish level. Folks got attention for such reports, and in some cases money and a large following. We’re in a similar environment today. Are all spiritual experiences false?
One main aspect of the Protestant Reformation was “sola Scriptura” (by Scripture alone). It was primarily aimed at curtailing some excessive church practices. Indirectly, it addressed the authority being given to spiritual experiences.
One response is the doctrine of cessationism; which holds the position that spiritual gifts and new revelation ceased with the Apostles. This position makes discerning experiences easy because all are rejected as manifestations of a person’s imagination, desire, greed, or Satan. That’s a good list as most experiences fall into one of these categories, particularly the first three. Unfortunately, the list excludes God as a possible source; God who has been working in people’s lives since creation. Respected Bible teachers such as John F. MacArthur, Jr., Alistair Begg, and R.C. Sproul are cessationists, along with most holding a Calvinist theology.
I respect these teachers, and I agree with them on new revelation ending with the Apostle John’s Book of Revelation. But God is God. He isn’t bound by our doctrine. He will never contradict what He said in the Bible, but He can do what He wants.
My Skin in the Game
Admittedly, I have some skin in this game because despite my strongly held anti-supernatural worldview, God dramatically intervened in my life and dragged me to faith in Christ. What He did was biblically sound, not new revelation, and neither expected nor desired. Yet, He did it. I also hold a Doctoral degree in theology and ministry from a conservative, evangelical perspective. And I have spent the previous four years studying this topic. Consequently, if my experiences are genuine, I can contribute to this topic.
Spiritual Experiences are Never Earned
Christian writers throughout the centuries all conclude that genuine experiences cannot be produced by one’s effort, piety, desire, or position in the Church. Only God, out of His divine prerogative and infinite wisdom, chooses to work in peoples’ lives. He does so anyway He wants, anytime He wants, to anyone He wants. No one earns them — No one. They are solely the work of God’s grace, are always in agreement with Scripture, and do not contain new revelation.
While dramatic experiences are uncommon, what we can be certain of is that God is always working in our lives through the truth of His Word and the presence of His Holy Spirit to grow us to Christlike maturity.
Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you, (James 4:8).
Testing the Spirits
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world, (1 John 4:1, NAS).
As the Apostle John says, we must “test the spirits” because not all are from God, but it also means that some are. Unfortunately, the Bible doesn’t contain a nice bulleted list of instructions for performing such tests. But since there isn’t one, maybe we don’t need one; maybe determining who’s who is simpler than we expect. Although the Reformation’s “sola Scriptura” position re-established the Bible’s authority in the life of the believer, it unintentionally jettisoned the accumulated wisdom of the Church regarding spiritual discernment; wisdom that would help us out a lot right now.
You’ll Know Them by Their Fruit
Spiritual discernment is a big topic. Too big to treat in a blog, so let’s cut-to-the-chase. In short, Jesus succinctly summed up the test when He said, “You’ll recognize them by their fruit,” (Matthew 7:16). Taking all biblical examples into consideration, we can safely say that an experience is genuine if it results in the following fruit:1
- Christlike humility
- An intense love for God and others
- A pursuit of holiness and deep personal prayer
- Love for God’s Word
- A biblical fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10)
- The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)
Experiences are not from God if they:
- Elevate the person to a special status: Apostle, prophet, Commander of the Lord’s armies, a second Moses, Renewer of the Church, etc.
- Proclaim the end of the world
- Claim to unlock the power or authority of heaven
- Do not come true
- Claim new revelation or secret knowledge
- Are about making money or gaining power
- Contradict the Bible
A current example of a self-proclaimed prophet’s message that contradicts the Bible was examined yesterday in a post by fellow blogger, “Pastor Unlikely.” You can read his post at Beware of the Grace Robbers: It is not about Works!
Tell me what you think.
Dr. Rob Oberto is the award winning author of Intimacy With God: One Man’s Journey available from Amazon.
©2017 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.
1Thomas Dubay, Fire Within (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 237–242.