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Tongues! Signs! Wonders! An Interview with Dr. Sam Waldron (Part 2)

This is the second part of an interview with Dr. Sam Waldron. It would, I’m sure, be helpful for you to read part one first.

One issue you do not address in the book, very much anyways, is the issue of guidance. How is the issue of guidance, how God speaks to us, how God guides us through life, how does that differ between a strict cessationist versus someone who believes in the continuing gifts?

There is no doubt that a careful continuationist like Wayne Grudem or John Piper could make the distinction appear fairly minor (or take Sam Storms as well). They can make that distinction appear fairly minor because they’re going to insist on the preeminence of the Word, and for them, to some extent, it would be. And they’re going to argue that many cessationists are going to allow some subjective element in guidance that looks a lot like (from one perspective) their allowance for some sort of fallible prophetic gifts today. However, again it comes back to whether you’re really going to honor the Word of God or whether you feel like you need something in addition to the Word of God to guide your life. Now I’m going to argue that the admission of continuing prophecy by even Grudem and Piper is the admission that it has some utility. And if it has some utility, what might that utility be? The implication that hangs there is that it has perhaps some utility in making specific decisions in your life. Now, they’re going to insist as very moderate continuationists on the importance of the Word and that no fallible prophetic guidance should take people in an opposite direction to the Word. All fine and good. But I think it still is distracting from what has to be central in Christian guidance and that is the light that the Spirit of God sheds on the Word of God that He has inspired. I believe that we have to be very Word-centered. If we are going to claim God’s guidance in any situation we have to claim on the basis of the revealed precepts and principles of the Word of God. If we pour into the mix all the things that they allow it tends to create the impression that the Word is not enough. It also tends to make people, rather than looking intensely and carefully into the Word to find God’s direction for life, it tends to make them not quite as intense about that. And how can you be as intense on the written Word when you believe there is genuine revelation out there besides that? And it seems to me that a cessationist is going to have a more exclusive emphasis on the guidance of the Word of God in his life, its principles and precepts, than a continuationist can easily have.

It seems to me, in speaking to Evangelicals, most Evangelicals do believe, or at least pay lip service to cessationism. They don’t believe in tongues or prophecy, and yet they still will say that “God told me” or “God stirred by heart.” Is it incompatible with cessationism to feel that God is using subjective stirrings of the heart or some type of prompting?

That’s a good question. It’s my opinion, and I probably can’t completely prove it, but I’ll just state this and it may ring true for you and a lot of people that read your blog. I do think that one of the reasons charismatics have been so successful in promulgating their views among Evangelicals is because Evangelicals themselves have come to a place where they have very loose and subjective understandings of important portions of the Word of God. They tend to apply promises and assertions of the Word of God that had originally a very specific context to themselves inappropriately. In other words, the clearest illustration of this, I think, is to take the statements about the Holy Spirit in John 14, 15 and 16 which at least in many cases have exclusive reference to the Apostles. And in each case you have at least initial reference to the Apostles. Evangelicals have applied a lot of those promises and statements willy-nilly to the guidance of the Holy Spirit today in their lives. And I think there has been a real tendency to devotionalize and spiritualize the Bible in a way that was made to order and set a lot of people up to when a charismatic came with his views, to not see all that much difference between their kind of subjectivism and the prevailing evangelical subjectivism.

I may have been wandering from your question a little bit. I do think that is an important issue. But remind me again, because your question went in a little bit of a different direction and I want to respond to that as well.

Is it inconsistent for an evangelical to say “God told me” or to base decisions on promptings or inner guidance?

I do think that language like “God told me” has to be qualified very carefully because the language is prophetic language. And so do I believe that God by His Spirit may lay something on our hearts in a way consistent with the Word of God or bring something to mind that is already an implication or application of Scripture. Of course the Holy Spirit does that as part of applying the Word of God to us. But those promptings, before they are labeled the promptings of God, have to be examined and supported from the Word of God. I really think that the Bible teaches a system of decision-making that is very objective in character…

It seems to me that it’s a lot easier than people make it, too. If you read a book like Decisions, Decisions by Swavely or Decision Making and the Will of God by Friesen…

That was really quite radical as the reception of that book showed because he was very Word-centered, very objective. And the reception of that book by so many evangelicals with such a surprising book just illustrates what I’m saying.

These books were certain to lay out a very biblical decision-making process that seems far easier than worrying about promptings and going out to find a certain number of confirmations.

I think that one of the missions of the biblical pastor is that they must be warning people against that kind of subjective what you might called providence-centered decision-making. The Reformed faith gives us the raw materials and commits us to the raw materials of a very objective Word-centered decision-making course. First of all, it tells us the great distinction between God’s secret and revealed will or between the decretive will of God and the presumptive will of God. We are not to base our decisions on any kind of assumed understanding of the decretive or secret will of God. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God and the things that are revealed to us and to our children that we might do all the words of this law.” So our decision-making has got to be firmly grounded on the preceptive will of God.

When I teach on this subject I tell people that it is like a pyramid. The bottom is prayer, of course. We need prayer for the Spirit to help us understand the Word of God. Then there are the precepts of the Word of God right there at the foundation too and then also there are the principles, what I call the principles of the Word of God, which are not so much the direct commandments - “thou shalt,” “thou shalt not” - but the priorities or principles that the Bible inculcates: membership in the local church and the importance of daily prayer and Bible reading. You may have a hard time finding a specific command “thou shalt read your Bible every day” or “thou shalt never, under any circumstances be a member of a local church,” but those things are clearly biblical priorities. Then after you get through all those things there is a place for providence in the sense of what providence has already set as limitations. God doesn’t want a blind man to be a test pilot. If it makes you sick to hear about medical procedures over the dinner table, like it does me, clearly God did not aim you to be a doctor of medicine. And then I go from the whole issue of providence to finally talking about preference and there is certainly a biblical place, when all those other things are already set, to think about what your preferences are because those preferences often reveal what your gifts are. So you’ve got prayer, precept, principle, providence and preference. It’s a nice little outline anyways.

Let me go right back to cessationism and ask this. In recent days we’ve seen some interesting developments between continuationists and cessationists, not the least of which was John MacArthur asking C.J. Mahaney to preach from his pulpit. And then there is the upcoming Together for the Gospel Conference which will have Presbyterians, Baptists, continuationists and cessationists banding together for the gospel. Do you think it is feasible or even desirable for continuationists and cessationists to come together in this way or to worship as members of the same church or denomination?

I am glad to see someone like MacArthur embracing someone like Mahaney because Mahaney is, again, a fairly moderate continuationist and because the things they have in common in terms of their commitment to the Reformed understanding of the gospel are certainly more important than the things about which they may differ. And I think wherever Christians can embrace each other and work together, and especially those who have in common a commitment to the Reformed faith, that is good. And so I think something like Together for the Gospel is probably going to have positive effects.

Having said that, I wouldn’t have written my book if I thought the differences between cessationism and continuationism were so unimportant that, for instance, the two different views ought to be tolerated in the same local church. I think you have to take a position one way or another in a local church and I don’t think I would be comfortable in a formal association that publicly confessed that either view was fine. So I think you have to make a distinction between local church fellowship, and even denominational fellowship. I think at those levels the issue of continuationism or cessationism is pretty important to sort out and have an opinion and position about because I think it’s going to lead to division and difficulty when you try to make the fellowship that close. But in the larger sphere of men agreeing with regards to the issue of the gospel and men who represent quite different movements and denominational structures coming together to say, “hey, we agree about these things and we want everybody to know we agree about these things,” I think that’s a positive thing.

It is, as they say, Together for the Gospel. The gospel is a primary issue and this is a secondary issue.

I have to say that and that’s why I felt it was right, proper and necessary to maintain what I hope was a very irenic approach that avoids name-calling and insinuating implications. A lot of people hold implications or views that continuationists don’t really hold. And I tried to maintain that kind of irenic spirit.

Yes, and I thought you dealt with the foundational issues and did not chase after the red herrings as some people might fear and that are very easy to deal with than the more foundational issues that are far more difficult. What do continuationists fear in cessationist theology?It seems that there is some fear that if we become cessationists we will be missing out on something.

That is, of course, one of the reasons I included the last chapter in my book. I think they view cessationists as kind of withered and dry and powerless and unexciting. And I think they tend to associate their view of the spiritual gifts with the present power and excitement of the Spirit of God. I think too often, of course, those kind of fears have seemed to be confirmed by the relatively dry, dusty and dead local Baptist church as opposed to the apparently or outwardly exciting, enthusiastic, bold worship of the local charismatic church. Clearly one of our main responsibilities as cessationists is to put the lie to that by the character of our worship and of our service to God. And to show that the secret of spiritual power and life is not in a very questionable (and even dangerous-in-its-implications) understanding of the continuation of the spiritual gifts, but in the Word of God preached with power and applied by the Spirit of God. And I think the Reformation, what God did through Calvin and Luther and the mainstream Reformers who rejected the sixteenth century version of the charismatic movement - look what God did through them in terms of what he did through their preaching of the Word of God and through the restoration of biblical worship and biblical practice of the Word of God. That has to be our example here. It’s up to us to show that our understanding of cessationism can lead to a powerful and enthusiastic kind of Christianity and not what has too often been, in truth, the deadness of the typical evangelical church.

Let me say that the very problem with the evangelical church is that the Word of God was not being preached in its full implications and in its truthfulness in how it ought to be preached in terms of the sovereignty of God and the preaching of what is basically an Arminian easy-believism. Nobody is going to get excited about that and nobody should. It wasn’t until I understood the doctrines of grace and the demands of grace on my life and the necessity of holiness in the Christian life that I felt any sense of call to preach the Word of God. And so I think there is a part of me that is just a trifle sympathetic to charismatics when they talk about the deadness of the typical evangelical church. I think there was a degree of truth in that critique but the problem wasn’t with the Word-centered Christianity, it was with the lack of a full commitment to the Word of God and the presence of deadening evangelical traditions and errors that tended to drain the power and life out of the evangelical churches.

At this point I would have liked to have come to a nice conclusion by asking one final question to wrap everything up. However, my list of questions ran dry. Oops. Instead, I stuttered for a while before Dr. Waldron bailed me out by discussing mutual acquaintances. Be sure to return next week when I discuss similar issues with Dr. Wayne Grudem.