Tag Archives: preaching

When Someone Claims Divine Authority

moses_with_tabletsThe conversation began with the typical spiritual overtones I’d come to expect from this particular friend: “I have a word from the Lord for you.” I was in my first years of college, and this was a common refrain among many of my friends. Over the years, I have heard people make statements like this many times. Occasionally, the “word” they offered was productive and clearly from God. However, more often than not, what followed the opening claim to divine inspiration fell into two categories.

Let us call the first category: “Vague allusion.”

This is when the word that follows the claim is vague and can be interpreted in a variety of ways. The “word” they deliver is guised as having highly specific undertones, but the specifics don’t match any particular interpretation. I can remember when a well-meaning brother told me he had a vision for me! I excitedly sat to hear the vision as I had respect for this particular brother. He told me that I was standing before a blue background… that was it. The whole “vision.” On another occasion I was told that the “word” the Lord had for me was “peace.” No explanation… no attempt to understand the circumstances surrounding the supposed prophecy. Just, “peace.” Ok. So extrapolation and interpretation fall squarely on my shoulders. In Scripture this is the opposite of prophecy. Think about the prophet Daniel. He received the interpretation of the dreams, and that is what made him a prophet. Unexplained vague allusions are not prophecy.

Now don’t get me wrong. These are well meaning brothers and sisters who genuinely feel as though they are acting in obedience to the Lord. The trouble is in claiming the divine authority in connection with vague, easily misinterpreted statements. God is not vague. When we read prophecies in Scripture, they are not vague. And though Jesus speaks in parables, he frequently expected them to be understood by His disciples and if they were not, He often labored to explain them. Though the prophecies in Scripture may be complex and we may have difficulty understanding them, they are not vague. In fact they are often extremely specific!

The second common category is “Passively addressing offense.”

weneedtotalkIt was late and I was tired. I had been working long hours and had exhausted my mental reserves studying for various exams. My friend contacted me and told me that he had a “word” for me. He had been laboring over this for weeks and simply could not hold onto it any longer. “Brother, when you said that two weeks ago, the Lord was angered.” I can remember being mortified! I was literally trembling at the idea that I had displeased my Lord, so I asked for clarification. What was wrong with what I had said, specifically!? Can you point me to Scripture so I can know what not to do again? This was important! I asked what Scriptures I had particularly violated so that I might have some sense of clarity. None was offered. So I apologized for any offense and spent the next months in nervous fits. That is, until I realized what had actually happened. I had offended a brother and he felt the need to claim some divine authority in order to address his offense.

I spent months dealing with this particular offense. I wrestled and labored to discover my failing before God. The most difficult thing for me to understand was why God had not spoken to me, but had determined that I needed someone else’s voice.

Now consider for a moment: I’m a brash personality and I am naturally insensitive to the feelings of others. Couple that with the position of teaching the Bible, and I am a model example of how to offend people without really trying. So, it is not uncommon for me to have to explain myself to others. I don’t intend to offend, but sometimes I do. The trouble with the above example was where my friend had placed the offense. It is one thing to offend a brother. You can explain yourself and apologize and deal with the issue, but when you have offended the Lord, that is a different issue altogether. Offending the Lord requires repentance and knowledge of your own sin. In contrast to the above confrontation, The Lord is quite clear about the specifics of our sin against Him. There is no ambiguity with The Lord when He deals with sin. Consider when Nathan confronts David in 2 Samuel 12. After drawing David’s attention to the heinousness of sin, Nathan speaks directly and clearly to David. Likewise, God speaks plainly and His word cuts to the heart.

To be fair, there are times when people offer a “word” and it is actually consistent with Scripture and is legitimate. Apply those times appropriately. However, for those other times here are three things to look for.

Look for Scripture.

I’ve become inoculated to the claim to divine authority that is not accompanied by Scripture. You see, the Bible is the Word of God and He speaks to us through it. He is quite clear. So, if someone comes to me with a “word from the Lord,” I will strive to listen for Scripture or Scriptural validation of their claim. In the absence of that, I have learned to thank them for their voice, apply what is useful and dismiss what is not. It is important to remember that people who deliver “a word” to you are well-meaning, if sometimes misguided. The Lord speaks through Scripture. Test everything by the word of God (1 Thess. 5:21).

Look for specifics and clarity.

God is not vague. He is extremely direct. He does not muddy understanding of His intentions but clarifies it. When God speaks, He always brings clarity to confusion. When Nathan confronted David in 2 Sam. 12, there is no confusion. When Moses delivers the Word of God in Exodus 32-34, God’s voice is clear. When Isaiah speaks to Hezekiah, there is no confusion in His prophecy (Isaiah 37-38). Take a look at all the notable times when God’s prophets confront various kings in the Old Testament. Every time God’s prophets bring a prophecy, they bring clarity into a situation that is confusing. The voice of the Lord is no different in the New Testament. Consider when Philip was told to approach the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), or when Ananias receives a vision about Saul and argues with God about it (Acts 9:10-19), or when God tells Paul no after he asks for the thorn to be removed (2 Cor. 12:7-10). So, if someone claims to speak from the Lord, then clarity should follow. Further, when God addresses sin, He deals with specifics. The address of sin is always clear and the guilt is always obvious. He gave an entire law to His people and frequently names the specific sins and the manner in which they are committing them. So, when someone claims a word from God, look for specifics.

Look for opportunity to be holy.

The prophecies that are given to the people of God always have one thing in common: an urging to righteousness. God calls His people to repent from sin and obey Him. More than that, He equips them through His word to do so. The call of God on His people has not changed. If you believe in Jesus, He calls you to live righteously. (1 Peter 1:15)

Finally, be gracious to those who claim to speak from the authority of God. They seldom know the danger they bring upon their souls if they are found to misrepresent God. Be loving, honest, and extremely careful.

The Power of the Pulpit

What can stir the affections for Christ? What is it that brings the soul to the point of contrition? What brings the heart to an understanding of Salvation? What is it that draws people to Christ? What changes the condition of the soul, inspiring life change? What is the power of the pulpit?

Most pastors believe the power of the pulpit is their personal ability to persuade people to come forward at an altar call. Preachers tend to craft their sermons and even their services around an emotional appeal that leads into an invitation/altar call. In church history, this is a relatively new phenomenon.

For almost two thousand years of Christian history people turned to faith in Christ without an altar call. There is no example in Scripture of people being ushered or called to walk to the front of a crowd to make a declarative statement or decision. Sure, they were called to repent and believe, but that was done where they stood. They were called to turn from sin and trust in Jesus for their righteousness right where they stood. And they were called to make a meaningful choice to follow Jesus without the aid of music or an aisle to walk down.

Then a man named Charles Finney (1792-1875) established “the anxious bench.” Over time this has morphed into our modern altar calls. Finney believed that you could persuade the soul of man by creating a perfect setting. If you put the music in the right place, appeal to the emotions in the correct manner, ensure the lighting is properly set, and lay out the right words, then people will come forward. And, in a very practical since, Finney was correct. If you set the stage correctly, you’ll be able to manipulate many people into walking forward. (To be clear, I’m not questioning Finney’s motives… His heart was to see people become committed followers of Christ. He was simply extremely pragmatic and humanistic in his approach.)

It is true that one can set the atmosphere to convince people to walk forward. However, history and modern church demographics have called this methodology into question. In the last several years a slew of material has been written decrying the shallow, consumeristic Christianity that is so prevalent in American churches. Easy-believe-ism is often cited as a result of a kind of altar call faith.

So what are we to do? If we are not to focus our messages around an emotional appeal that calls people to walk to the front, then what is the power of the pulpit?

The answer is simple. It is so simple that it is simply assumed by most preachers… though rarely practiced.

The power of the pulpit comes from the Scripture. The Scripture is the power in our messages.

“Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” Rom. 10:17

“All Scripture is breathed-out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim. 3:16-17

“…devote yourselves to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching.” 1 Tim. 4:13

“For what was written in former days (Scripture) was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of Scripture we might have hope!” Rom. 15:4

The Spirit of God through the Word of God is what changes the soul of man. It is not our clever methods or our well-crafted appeals that challenge the soul. It is the conviction that comes from hearing the Word read and proclaimed aloud. One of the most powerful things you can do as a teacher is read the Bible out loud!

So, I propose we change the way we approach our Sermonizing. It seems as though our message ought not to be crafted around an appeal to emotions, but rather, it should be the explanation of Scripture. Be clear, be plain, be honest.  If you will focus on teaching the Bible, you will see life-change in people. If you will focus on clearly explaining the Word of God and showing people the character and nature of God, you will find people living changed lives. Teach the Bible so that people see Christ! Engage the hearer in heart and in mind. Teach so that people better know Christ. Don’t try to manipulate the emotions to garner a response. Instead, focus on teaching the Bible clearly.

Further, structure your services around meeting with God. Show people Jesus, and then worship will follow. Let the climax of your service be knowing and meeting with God Himself! Make everything you do point to Jesus. He has promised that His Word will never return void.