Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Of Visions and Revelations

…I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 Corinthians 12:1

Those that know me know that I am about as non-Charismatic as they come. This is true by my practices in worship, no matter who I’m worshipping with. I’ve never raised my hands in worship, for instance, even when worshipping with Charismatic folks - unless it was to scratch my head.

This is also true in my theology. I grew up in a church that was Cessationist in its viewpoint, meaning that they believed that certain gifts that they called the “sign gifts” ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture around the end of the first century. Those sign gifts, in their view, included things like miraculous healing, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, and discernment of spirits. These were supposedly in existence for the purpose of supporting the church in its infant stages, but, when the perfect came (as they interpret I Cor. 13:10), these gifts ceased. I have for the most part adopted this viewpoint.

I have had some variation in this through the years, though, as I have come to have a broader view of God’s working in the world. I think my cessationist friends would agree with me that God actually heals miraculously sometimes. I think the problem with the cessationist view is more foundational, though. Without knowing it, the Christian who takes this line has adopted a basically Deistic approach to viewing the world, which says that God only steps in every once in a while to tamper with what He created. Otherwise, the world has continued on since He first created and stepped away from it, leaving it to operate by itself according to Naturalistic principles. It seems to me that the Reformed doctrine of Providence specifically counters this idea. God is always active in the world, down to the smallest detail, taking it the direction moment by moment that He wants it to go. Then again, one has to be a Calvinist to believe that, and most Evangelicals aren’t Calvinists or are at least inconsistent in their Calvinism. But I’m digressing from my topic.

Another hit to my cessationism has been through my adopting a Sacramental view of the world. This is really just an extension of what I just addressed. God, through the work of His Second Person, has procured salvation for all His people. He then extends the fullness of that salvation to them in this world through sacramental means. This is, as the Reformed theologians have taught us, primarily through the means of grace given to the Church, but, as Doug Wilson has pointed out in his book Mother Kirk, this is broader than just the means of grace as they are traditionally defined. All of the world is sacramental, in that it communicates or delivers salvation to the one being saved.

I haven’t generally thought about these things in relation to cessationism, however. The question of what spiritual gifts continue today and in what capacity they continue is a question I have yet to address sufficiently in my theological studies, and I recognize it as a gap in my thinking. I have known of Reformed theologians who are decidedly non-cessationist. One immediately thinks of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Gordon Fee, and the late David Chilton. I also think of James Jordan who, in his book The Sociology of the Church, proposes that God can and occasionally does work “language miracles” today. Although Jordan would probably still classify himself as a cessationist, he distinguishes the speaking of tongues that took place before the establishing of the canon and these “language miracles” he speaks of. Jordan rightly connects the developments that have taken place in the lands most impacted by the Reformation to the rationalism and mechanism of the Newtonian world view. It is no coincidence that Newton himself rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.

I also know that a number of theologians both past and present have addressed these issues. Some of their books are on my shelves, relatively untouched.

There have been those who claimed to have a conversion of sorts to the Charismatic movement and have later recanted it. Dave Hunt, who documented his own Charismatic experience in his book Confessions of a Heretic (or so I am told – I haven’t read the book), is an example of this.

My church background was somewhat inconsistent in its teaching on this. I was taught that I was to be led by the Spirit, and this was cast in terms that were decidedly Charismatic, although my fellow church members didn’t recognize this and wouldn’t have admitted it. In fact, the worship of the Plymouth Brethren is based around the principle that the Holy Spirit would lead worship himself rather than any man. But with the idea of free will running around, this caused no small measure of confusion. I was to listen for “the still, small voice” of God in prayer, a misappropriation of Elijah’s experience (I Kings 19:12) if I’ve ever heard one. I tried listening for that still small voice, believing as I had been taught that that was the way God would communicate to me. When I didn’t hear it, I believed that it was because I wasn’t holy enough, and that there was some unconfessed sin in my life. This was a source of much unnecessary emotional struggle in my young adult life. I later discovered that I wasn’t the only one to suffer under this sort of teaching. Here are a couple of articles that address these very issues, and they are articles that I would still recommend to anyone considering these things.

Having said this, I have had unusual experiences in my life that I have been unable to explain and that have left me wondering how they fit into God’s normal means of working in the world. Sometimes these seemed to be sudden and profound spiritual workings of God in my life. Sometimes these have seemed to be sudden spiritual afflictions of the “principalities and powers”, as Paul refers to them. These have been very rare in my life, but they have happened. I won’t relate the specifics. I can’t say I’ve always known why those things happened. In fact, maybe I’ve never really known. I haven’t ever been able to nail those experiences down theologically.

The reason I raise all this now is two-fold. I have a friend who had a serious emotional experience recently through which God communicated something very important to him. I won’t go into the details here, but the nature of the situation gave the clear impression that this wasn’t just something the guy ate for lunch coming back to haunt him. God actually seemed to tell him something that he wouldn’t have known apart from some miraculous revelation.

The other reason is an experience I just had earlier this week, being an unusual dream experience. Now unusual dreams, especially right before I get up, are nothing uncommon for me. One morning a few weeks ago, right before I woke up, I was dreaming I was sitting on what appeared to be a college campus listening to Ravi Zacharias speaking in the open air. As it turns out, my clock radio had come on and Ravi’s radio show was on. My mind had simply brought this into the dream.

This dream, however, was a bit more unusual, as I think you’ll see. In the dream, I was at what seemed to be a retreat center of sorts. I was there with some friends, and we had met there to talk about some serious matters that remained undefined in the dream. This part of the dream I could make sense of. I had had a similar experience over the weekend, and this was just turning up again in my dream. At this point, the setting in the dream shifted somewhat, as dreams often do. It turned out that I was actually at the Bible camp that I grew up at as a child and worked at as an adult. I then went into the chapel where worship and Bible classes were held. The dream chapel was different from the real chapel, however. It was definitely the same chapel, but much larger, more the size of a small auditorium. It had the same floor, the same folding chairs, and the same cinder block walls. And pretty close to the same color paint.

Worship was about to begin. The room was full of people. I was up front by the stage where those who led worship would be standing. At the camp I grew up at, I began to help leading the singing in my later teen years. So I spent a lot of time on the stage, and therefore my being there in the dream made sense. In the dream, I started to go get my guitar (which apparently wasn’t with me). Realizing that worship was starting and that I wouldn’t have time to get it, I sat down off to the side of the stage next to a girl in a group of people. It turned out to be a girl that I had had a crush on during my teen years. This girl was one of the few girls that I had ever regarded as being godly. And to this day, she still is. She and I have hardly ever spoken even until now. But I always admired her from afar. The strange thing about this is that through the years I attended the camp, she hardly ever came. After I first saw her, I always hoped she’d be there at the next year of camp, and she never was again until we were young adults. When we met again, I was recovering from a breakup, and we didn’t really seem to hit it off. She has since married, and in the dream I was aware of that.

During worship at the camp, we would at best have two or three guitarists and maybe a pianist. In the dream, however, there was a whole worship team on the stage, complete with male and female singers. Everybody in the room stood up as they began to sing. Normally with music in my dreams I wouldn’t actually hear a song, I would just know music was playing. But in this dream, I actually heard the song. Strangely, it wasn’t a song I think we ever sang at camp. It was instead a song we sang when I served at His Mansion Ministries. It is called You Are Worthy of My Praise. It is sung in a round, with the men taking the initial line and the women echoing immediately with the same line. And the men and women in the chapel were singing the parts in my dream. I haven’t heard that song in years, and I never play it on guitar. I don’t even like praise and worship music anymore. So this was a bit strange too. To add a bit of kookiness to the dream, the men were dancing and signing the lyrics to the song as they sang. I guess there had to be some humor in there somewhere.

And then I woke up. During the worship scene and right after I woke up I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of longing for those things from my past. And I guess all this would have been bizarre enough if not for what happened right after I awoke. I hadn’t been awake for a minute when, in my sleepy stupor, these verses popped into my head:

13 These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

It was verse fifteen in particular that I thought of, though I didn’t have any of these memorized, and the passage was vague in mind. I hadn’t read Hebrews recently, and, so far as I can remember, I haven’t heard it read in church or on the radio recently either. Considering that I hadn’t heard them or read them recently, the fact that these verses came immediately to mind was the strangest part of the whole event. I would have counted the dream as being like any other aside from this.

So, what should I make of all this? Was God attempting to communicate something to me through this? Obviously the more Charismatic of us would say “yes”. And the cessationist would say “no”. And a whole bunch of people in between wouldn’t know what to say.

Do I think that God was attempting to communicate to me through this? The best answer I’ve been able to come up with as I’ve thought about it is, “Yes. I think. I’m not entirely sure. Maybe.”

I know that the past several years for me since I left the church I grew up at have been difficult in their own way. I have moved from church to church, just looking for a place I could call home. I have often felt like Adam as God brought the animals to him to name. Adam finished naming them all, and not a one of them was a suitable mate for him. And I haven’t found the church that I really feel like is suitable for me. Ending the analogy here, I’ve just dealt with each situation as best I could while I was in it.

I’ve never really regretted leaving my home church. I wouldn’t go back there. But I left much security, much certainty, and much community behind, and I wish I could have it again. But in a larger sense, I didn’t leave a church behind - I left who I was behind. This wasn’t such a voluntary thing. If I was going to mature, I had to leave. I had no idea it would lead to such a wandering in the wilderness. But I still wouldn’t go back.

Having said all of this, the best I have been able to make out of my experience is this: God has His hand on me. He is taking me to a better country than the one I left. And I may never live to see the fruit of anything I’ve done in this life. But those things done in the name of Christ and for the sake of His kingdom shall not fail, but shall serve to accomplish the goal they are purposed for. And I can rest assured that this is true.

But, as I’ve said, this is the best I can make out of the experience. I’m not going to change my theology over what happened to me. I’m not going to start attending the local Pentecostal church because of this. God has left this, as he has other experiences in my life, hidden behind a veil of mystery. If He wants to lift that veil, He can do it at any time. And until He sees fit to do that, I will strive to continue according to the truth I know from His word. That is sufficient.


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