Recently I was in a conversation with some friends on the issue of how the Holy Spirit communicates with believers. This issue has become a source of great confusion and frustration for me because the more I look at the positive examples of the Holy Spirit acting and communicating with people in scripture, the greater conviction I have that the way modern people claim to “hear the voice of God” represents at best a non-biblical and at worst an unbiblical doctrine of divine speech. Such confusion often causes people to claim that they were “led” by the Holy Spirit or that God “called” them to do a certain thing, when in reality God was leading them in no such way. Leading and calling become trumps cards used often to lazily ignore or disregard the clearest way in which the Holy Spirit communicates, i.e., through the principles laid out in scripture. Yet such parlance flows from the mouths Christians as though this were a normative motif in the NT.
First, I need to define what exactly is the type of divine speech I reject. This view I will call the “inner voice” view (Hereafter IV). On this view the Holy Spirit communicates his will through some kind of ineffable internal prompting, a rather vague incommunicable sense or feeling of what to do or believe in a given situation. Sometimes this feeling may be in response to external circumstances and events going on around the person, i.e., there have been “opened doors” which they then interpret as God “telling” me to make or not make some decision. One, as it were, reads the tea leaves of their lives and then makes a choice based on what they “feel” God wants them to do. Further, though not essentially part of the view, some might add that hearing God’s voice in this way is something all Christians should be able to do and indeed is a discipline that they ought to be attempting to cultivate. An identification is made between listening to the Spirit and waiting for this inner sense, prompting, or compulsion of what to do.
Let me start by saying that I do not wish to put any non-necessary constraints on God’s power or God’s desire to communicate with his people. My issue is one of Biblical exegesis and (if I’m being totally honest) the fact that I as a believer do not and have not experienced God leading and calling me to do things in this way (but mostly the former).
To start with, the argument most often used to justify (IV) is simply to appeal to one’s direct experience of the inner voice as justification. However, such a response is clearly question-begging because it assumes the very proposition at issue, i.e., that this method of divine speech is a biblical teaching and the holy spirit can and does speak to people in this way. Of course, if it’s not a Biblical teaching because either the Bible is silent on the issue or because it runs contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, then we should at best be agnostic about it’s divine origin and at worst reject it entirely.
What then does scripture have to say on the issue? I will not enumerate all of the passages here that are used to defend (IV), but I will consider 2-3 of the most plausible candidates.
Before proceeding however, the simple questions that must be asked of all of the passages are the following: What is the means or mechanism through which the Holy Spirit communicates in the Biblical passage? Is the means identified or not identified? If the means is identified, are there any explicit references to an inner voice (as defined above)? If the means is not identified, what should we infer about the means?
My contention then is twofold: (1) that whenever the Holy Spirit speaks or communicates, the means is never explicitly identified as through some kind of inner prompting or feeling, (2) in places where the means is not identified, it is an illicit inference based on an argument from silence to insert an inner voice into the passage (which incidentally I think is the only way an inner voicer – for lack of a better term – can justify their view).
All this being said, let’s consider Rom. 8:14 & 16 “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God… The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” These are wonderful Biblical truths that I affirm entirely, but they don’t support (IV). First, we need to understand the sense of what Paul means by “led by the spirit” in v. 14. The most clear way to understand it is to contrast it with what it means to “live according to the flesh” in v. 12. Flesh and Spirit are being presented as corollary notions. Living in the flesh means to set our minds “on the things of the flesh” v. 5, which bring death and destruction. And the remedy is therefore to set one’s mind on the “the things of the Spirit” which bring life. Being “led by the Spirit” therefore is larger than demarcating one method of divine communication, i.e., it refers to the entirety of God’s ways and God’s truth and human beings willingly submitting ourselves to that. Someone might object by claiming that an inner feeling is one of ways in which God leads and directs our lives. That may be true, but that idea is being imported into the text and cannot being derived from it. Moreover, if one wishes to claim that “led by the spirit” is referring to the inner voice of the Holy Spirit, then one must also say that living according to flesh in this passage is solely referring to those who ignore such promptings. No one reading Rom. 8 could come away with that conclusion, thus this passage cannot mean what the inner-voicers claim that it means.
What about v. 16? Does not the testifying of His Spirit to ours give some grounds for (IV)? It would depend on the definition of the word “testifying.” If by testifying you mean, communicate through an inner feeling, then yes of course. However, is there reason to think that the apostle Paul means that? Not in the least. Firstly, even if it did mean to the refer to an inner feeling, the content of the testimony is clear from the text, i.e., that we are his children and heirs. However, having the Holy Spirit confirm and seal our salvation is very different than relying on an inner feeling to decide what to major in in college, i.e., relying on the immediate testimony of His Spirit as the means for making more mundane life choices, as so many tend to do. Moreover, at the end of John and 1 John we get two functionally equivalent statements about the reason why John wrote his gospel and epistle (1 John 5:13), “ These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Here the means by which the confidence comes is through the “writing” itself, i.e., through the God-Breathed scripture. Therefore, could it be that the means in which the God testifies with our spirit that we are his children is through his word in Rom. 8? Whether this view is the correct sense of testify in this passage or not is irrelevant. The point is that although his Spirit is said to testify with our spirit, the means through which that happens could be many and varied, and it would be to go beyond the text to infer (IV) in a non-question begging way.
In future posts, I’ll deal with passages in Acts, John, and Galatians, respond to some red herring objections (e.g., my view entails that believers do not have a relationship with God but with the scriptures), and I’ll also propose a model that I think captures better what I think the NT teaches regarding the resources believers have to help them make decisions.