Like many others, I grew up thinking that God stopped talking at the end of the first century when the last words of the Bible were written down, and today He speaks to us only through His Word. What follows here are eight good reasons why God would speak to us in addition to what He has given us in the Bible. This text comes from Forming: A Work of Grace.
At first take, it would appear that we can solve a lot of problems by simply limiting God’s word to what we find in the Bible. Unfortunately, this not only fails to solve the above problems, it introduces still more.
First, even among conservative scholars who agree on the basic principles of interpretation there can exist a wide range of understanding on very fundamental issues.1 Limiting God’s voice to the written Word in no way ends the confusion about how to live the Christian life. The very fact that we need a course in Christian formation in order to restore transformation to its rightful place may be an indication that people have just as much trouble using the Bible to live as they might have in hearing from God directly.
Second, the Bible is primarily a collection of stories about people who were led or not led by the Spirit – written down to show us what that looks like. Paul tells us that we have those stories specifically to show us what we need to know about how to live.2 The one thing they do not tell us is how to live life without God’s direct leading. In fact, they often provide examples of how our best idea of what to do apart from God’s leading falls short of what God has in mind, such as when the disciples wanted to keep the children away or send the crowds home, or when King Saul decided to do Samuel’s job. Consider how very different the story of Cornelius might be if God had not visited Peter previously and given him the understanding he needed in order to override his preconceived ideas about Gentiles. If anything, these stories show us how utterly dependent we are upon the Spirit for navigating through life.
Third, these stories make a lot of sense when we see the bigger issue, that the level of discernment needed and the kind of perspective required to see what God sees is way beyond us.3 If God does not show us how to see and discern, then we are left to “our own understanding”4 which is precisely what gets us into trouble in the first place! To say that your understanding is guided by Biblical principles does not solve the problem. You must still rely on your powers of reason and judgment to decide not only what principles to apply in a given situation, but when to be proactive in loving someone, what kind of love would be most appropriate for this one person at this time, and so on. We may feel very “Scriptural” in our actions and yet be way off base in terms of what is truly needed or loving at the time. How often have we looked back on something we did years earlier (even as a Christian) and wished we had known then what we know now? That should be evidence enough that we have a lot to learn besides doctrine. What if we had known better at the time how to engage with our Mentor to ask for help?
Fourth, Jesus was very explicit about the ministry of the Holy Spirit as a mentor for life (John 16). As He was preparing His disciples for the coming changes, Jesus told them directly that He was passing on His job of training to the Holy Spirit. Given the context of His statements, one would have to perform some very interesting theological gymnastics to interpret those promises as a prophetic description of the Bible. And we today are as in much need of a mentor as were the first twelve disciples.
Fifth, if the Bible is our only source of God’s living word to us, then one would have to say that for much of history the majority of His Word was beyond reach for most Christians. That being the case, in what way would His promises to be with them and guide them make any sense at all? Is Christianity a way of life that requires literacy or access to another literate person in order to grow? Did Christianity require the invention of the printing press in order to flourish? These are not trivial problems. It may be easy to equate God’s word to the printed text in modern times in modernized countries, but that perspective has some serious implications for millions of Christians over many centuries who would have no significant access to the truth necessary for life.
Sixth, Jesus addressed this very issue with the religious leaders of His day. Having no other direct source at the time, they were looking to the Scriptures for every detail on how to live. But Jesus changed all of that, arguing that the purpose of the Scriptures was to point to Jesus Himself, and that life was something that came from engaging with Him, not the printed Word (Jn.5:39-40). How are we to make sense of this interchange if His intention was to point us back to the Word as our source on how to live?
Seventh, while the Bible is “living and active” we can all see that it does not do its work automatically. Nearly every Christian who has attempted a devotional life has gone through periods of time where reading the Bible seemed more like doing homework than feeding the soul, despite their best efforts. We can try to find ways to fault the person involved, or we can consider the possibility that we need divine help to quicken the Word to our heart and mind, and most of us have had little to no training on how to engage the Holy Spirit in this way. If we are routinely missing God’s ministry to us of bringing the Word to life, our experience with dry devotionals actually makes perfect sense.
Finally, the Christian life is not just about knowing the right things to do, and that is not the only reason God would want to speak to us. His word is life, bread for the soul (Isa.55:1-3). His presence with us is more than an idea, it is a living reality that we can experience and be aware of. God wants to have an authentic relationship with us, and relationships are almost impossible without direct communication. Our needs go way beyond correct answers to our questions about what to do. We need to be loved! We need to hear God’s heart for us. And just as the manner in which a person says something to us is as important as what they say, so hearing God speak things into our hearts in exactly the way we need to hear them is part of what makes a conversational connection to Him so life-giving. God’s voice carries with it the power of life. And we need that life in order to live as God intended.
As important and inherently full of life as Scripture is, we need God Himself in order to live. God created us as relational creatures, He desires a relationship with us, and His directives are ultimately about being relational. He promised to be with us and guide us in all things, not just by giving us principles to live by, but by mentoring us in life and by speaking truth into our heart that we need day by day. And He was very careful to be quite explicit about this matter of our listening to His voice.
1 One glaring example is Romans 7 where Paul exclaims, “O wretched man that I am!” Whether or not Paul is speaking about the Christian experience has profound implications for bondage and freedom for believers. Yet theologians are divided over how to make sense of Paul’s literary style and meaning.
2 “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction.” (1Cor.10:11)
3 “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa.55:9)
4 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov.3:5)