At times the NT speaks of the inner leading and witness of the Holy Spirit, such as when the Spirit prompts Philip to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza (Acts 8:29; see also Acts 13:2; 16:6-7). We have no good reason to think that this type of communication was limited to the days of the NT, so we should expect at least some believers to receive private revelations from time to time. The question that requires a considerable amount of attention is: Is there a way to determine with certainty that the message has come from the Holy Spirit? We sometimes assume that if a message sounds “spiritual” then it must be from God, but this is not the case. In his first letter, John tells us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It is entirely possible to receive a spiritual message that does not come from the Holy Spirit. Thus, there must be an appropriate “testing” of the message.
If we think the Spirit is communicating something to us, we should first turn to the Scriptures. The Spirit guided the human authors of the Bible like the wind moves a boat. He will not convey a message to us that ignores or contradicts anything he himself led the biblical writers to record. The Spirit is not schizophrenic. Thus, we can say that a person cannot possibly know if it is indeed the Holy Spirit speaking to him if he does not devote himself to the study of Holy Scripture.
Beyond this, it is very difficult to determine whether or not a message is from God. We can seek the counsel of those we know and trust, but even the godliest man or woman is not an infallible interpreter. At some point, we simply have to respond to the revelation and see what happens. If you think God is telling you to start your own business, then begin taking steps in that direction. If in time the business fails, you may have to admit that you were wrong about the source of the thought, or that God wanted you to fail so that you would learn to depend more on him and less on your own efforts. If the business succeeds, perhaps it was a genuine word from God, but it would be wrong for you to declare this to be the will of God for the entire church. Maybe God wanted you to start your own business, but he certainly does not want all believers to do this. The reason we know this is because it is not taught in Scripture, which is our common guide to God’s will.
The written Word, which points us to the incarnate Word, is the only authority to which the people of God are called to submit without reservation. We open the Scriptures with absolute certainty that these words come from God. At our church, when we read Scripture publicly, whether we read from Leviticus, Psalms, Matthew, or Romans, the reader says, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” When it comes to private revelations, we can never have this same level of certainty. This is precisely why John tells us to “test the spirits.”
In certain circles of Christianity, a great emphasis is placed upon special manifestations of the Spirit. It’s as if those who experience such things have made it to the next level; they’ve moved from the Minor to the Major League. Why is it that we think we need more than the gospel? Why is it that the idea of some mystical experience is more exciting than the simple truth of Jesus Christ? When the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth was asked about special manifestations, such as speaking in tongues, healing of sicknesses, and private revelations, he said, “Let us gather around the substance of the Gospel, around the Cross and the Resurrection! Here is our bread. And so long as we need bread we may not call out for cake!” I think Barth is right. Those Christians who emphasize the Spirit do not rightly understand the Spirit. Remember what Jesus says in John 16:14: “[The Spirit] will glorify me.” The Spirit does not come to draw attention to himself, but to shine the light on the Son. J.I. Packer, one of the most important evangelical thinkers of the twentieth century, issues an appropriate warning for the church: “What then are the signs that Christ’s self-effacing Spirit is at work? Not mystical raptures, nor visions and supposed revelations, nor even healings, tongues, and apparent miracles; for Satan playing on our psychosomatic complexity and our fallenness, can produce all these things … The only sure signs are that the Christ of the Bible is acknowledged, trusted, loved for his grace, and served for his glory.”