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The critics and listening prayer

People like me who believe that God speaks to people using a variety of means and not just Scripture face two frequent critiques: Luther’s tenet of Sola Scriptura and Hebrews 1:1-2. Sola Scriptura, according to Luther, meant “All that man needs for salvation is contained in the Bible.” He was …
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

People like me who believe that God speaks to people using a variety of means and not just Scripture face two frequent critiques: Luther’s tenet of Sola Scriptura and Hebrews 1:1-2.

Sola Scriptura, according to Luther, meant “All that man needs for salvation is contained in the Bible.” He was responding to the abuses of the organized church which had come up with a system of indulgences and papal writs that were extra-biblical. These were not necessary for salvation; they were part of a system the official church of the day used to control people. Luther was not making a case for God speaking to man exclusively through the Bible. He was arguing for the primacy of the Scriptures over the interpretation of the Scriptures.
Critics who cite Sola Scriptura as a critique of listening prayer are making two errors: They misinterpret Luther’s intent, and in any case, they are citing a man’s interpretation of Scripture rather than Scripture itself – the very practice they are attacking.

A second critique does come from Scripture – Hebrews 1:1-2 “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways. But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”

The critics of listening prayer interpret this to mean that the only way to hear God’s voice is through Scripture.
Is that true? Is the writer of Hebrews saying that God only spoke to the forefathers through the prophets? No, we know from the Bible that isn’t true.  He spoke to various people throughout the Old Testament who weren’t known as prophets, the most prominent patriarchs among them. All the writer is saying is that in the past, he spoke through the prophets, not that he spoke exclusively through them. Perhaps it was the most obvious way, but it wasn’t the only way.

Then, in verse 2, in contrast to this customary way in which God spoke, the writer tells his Hebrew readers that God has spoken to them directly through His Son.  This either means that Jesus was the messenger or that he was the message, or perhaps it means both. What it does not mean is that now that Jesus had come, God is only going to use the Bible to speak to people. For one thing, the Bible didn’t exist when the letter to the Hebrews was written. No, all this verse says is, “God has spoken to us by his Son.”

As Hebrews 1 continues, the writer goes on to place Jesus in scriptural and cosmological context by quoting Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah.  He further underscores Jesus’ credibility as God’s Son based upon the evidence of experience.  The writer heard him and God corroborated it through “signs, wonders and various miracles, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit” (2:4).  

In Hebrews 3, the writer appeals not to Scripture as a source of guidance, but to the act of listening to his voice: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”  To underscore that, he repeats his injunction to the readers in verse 15.  What is happening when we listen for God’s voice? It’s prayer. Some call it listening prayer. Far from obviating listening prayer, Hebrews is actually arguing for it.

In chapter 4 the writer hammers away at the same theme, this time citing God speaking through David and saying the same words, “Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts.” Again we see an emphasis not on reading, but on listening.  If the Lord says something three times in Scripture, it’s usually really, really, really important.

Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God is living and active. Is “the word of God” in this context in fact the  Bible itself as some suggest? At best it’s a debatable point – many commentaries suggest that “the word of God” refers to Jesus, in keeping with the theme the writer has been extrapolating which we first read in John 1.

Hebrews 4:14 again points to Jesus saying he’s our high priest.  And the rest of Hebrews builds on this theme.

So the book of Hebrews is not building a case for limiting God’s revelation to men to the Bible  or the New Testament, wherein Jesus is described, [over against the books of the Old Testament where the prophets spoke] and which in any case, didn’t exist at the time, but building a case for Jesus as God’s ultimate message to man.

If we’re to conclude anything about hearing God from Hebrews, it’s not that we should limit our attempts to hear God’s voice to Scripture. Rather, it’s the one that the writer repeated three times. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”

You can find hundreds and hundreds of examples of God speaking to man in the Bible.  It’s his modus operandi.  And he furthermore gives highly detailed instructions and procedures for doing so in both the Old and New Testament.  In contrast, we’ve got this one passage in Hebrews that has been taken out of the context of its Hebraic Christology by critics and used as a proof that God no longer speaks to us as he once did. In trying to underscore their “high view of Scripture,” they are actually twisting it in the very way they criticize.

The onus is on the critics to establish a scriptural basis for their claims. In torturing a meaning from it that doesn’t exist in the text, they are potentially guilty of the very heresy they would guard against.

Comments (31)

  • Thank you Seth for this solid reminder of how God speaks to us. I think the only place of hard and troubling reality is when two people who claim to be engaged in listening prayer in the tribe of Jesus have a difference of insight. What happens then? Love, prayer and commitment from 10,000 feet. I already hear the coyotes tonight.

  • **mArC** The Schifano Tribe

    This was an awesome write up and very informative. Thanks, I learned quite a bit from this Seth. Peace on you.

  • I enjoyed reading this.

    Last night I was reading the first few chapters of John and God was revealing a lot to me about Christ as the Eord of God. Where Christ is present so is the voice of God.

    I’d be interested in hearing what your response to Butch’s comment is. Sometimes I think that perhaps God speaks on an individual basis to where each pf us are at more than we realize and we take it as a word for everyone.

  • Seth,

    I posted the following rant on Marc’s blog and I thought it fit here as well. God has been stirring me about this for some time:

    Why do we call the Bible the Word of God? The Bible itself testifies that Jesus is the Word of God, yet if an American Christian were to challenge that assumption, he would be considered a heretic!

    John testifies to this fact in his gospel and in Revelation:

    John 1:14 ~ The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

    Revelation 19:13 ~ He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.

    Why aren’t we considered heretics for considering something other than Jesus as God’s Word? Why isn’t this thought of as blasphemy? Throughout history, even in Jesus’ time, men have tried to make Scripture into God. Look at what Jesus says to the Pharisees:

    John 5:39 ~ You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.

    The Bible is a testimony to Jesus. Every story, every prophet from Adam to Revelation tells the wonderful story of Jesus, our Alpha & Omega. We have made the Bible an idol! Paul warned about us worshiping the created, not the Creator. The Word of God is Jesus and the word of God is the message of Jesus that is spoken to His disciples by the Spirit of Truth.

    Test this, fellow Christians, this is what makes our faith unique. We have a living Savior who still speaks today, unlike other dead religions whose figureheads are dead and whose writings are dead. We have the Spirit-inspired scriptures that testify to a living, breathing God who we have communion with. HE STILL SPEAKS TO US TODAY…with or without the scriptures!

    Read Acts and notice the dozens of times Luke refers to the word of God. Since there was no Bible then…what was he speaking of?

  • Awesome insight Seth, and a very good explanation of it as well. I often contend with folks who reject us because we still believe that God “speaks” to our hearts in prayer. This is a very helpful explanation that demonstrates what the scripture means on this matter.

  • Seth:
    Thanks so much for this post. I was once a scriptural literalist. Then God started talking to me and who was I to say he couldn’t do that. I will simply conclude with the words of our Lord: “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.” I encourage the brethren to listen for he is always speaking and leading and teaching us.

  • He speaks. We listen. Or not.

    God has been willing to creatively speak through an ass (Numbers 22), rocks (Luke 19:40), a tree (Exodus 3), in clouds (Exodus 16:10), to children (I Samuel 3:1-4:1a), and through children (Matthew 21:16).

    I believe that he is creative enough to speak through prayer.

    Ultimately: He speaks to us to reveal himself for his purposes through whatever creative & God-crafted means at his disposal. He speaks in love – as Love – for the sake of love (again-to reveal himself). Not being God, I cannot verify his motives or modi operandi outside of the reality of his word. I can attest to what I’ve experienced in my life and attributed to him. He can speak. I hope to listen and obey. I’ll leave stone tossing for others much more righteous and wise.

    The Reality: I wrestle with doubt and wonder if he spoke, would I be wise or attentive enough to hear and then to obey.

    Thank you for a forum where we can agree and disagree in love-always keeping the main thing in sight- that God is revealed and we get out of his way as we seek, ask, and knock after him.


  • Assuming a contrarian response is welcome, I’d like to begin by asking why there would be a need for listening prayer in the first place if Scripture is sufficient to form us into the likeness of Christ in the first place?

    If a contrarian response is not welcome, feel free to ignore or delete this comment.

  • @Jesse, I’m assuming you’re referring to:

    2 Tim. 3:16-17, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

    I don’t see where that implies Scripture is all that’s needed to form us into the likeness of Christ. Profitable is a far cry from sufficient. What about the role of the Spirit?

    John 16:13 ~ But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.


    II Peter 1:3 ~ His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.

    Divine power not divinely inspired scripture is everything. Agreed?

  • @Glenn

    It seems by the end of your comment, we may as well forsake Scripture altogether, no? Direct access to the Spirit should mean we don’t really need to keep referring to the Bible.

    Or am I missing something?

  • @Jesse

    If the Spirit leads us into all truth, how can it contradict the Scriptures? Remember that most of the believers in the early church did not have access to Scriptures readily. Paul admonished Timothy to continue the public reading of Scripture so that people would be able to hear it at all.

    Certainly none of the Gentiles would have had Jewish scriptures and letters from the apostles were rare and not readily available. Why didn’t the apostles mention anywhere the need to reproduce and make available scripture to new converts? Yet, Luke continually mentions that the word of God continually was spread. How was it spread without getting copies of manuscripts into believer’s hands?

    Feel free to email me at: [email protected] if you want to take this further off the grid.

    In Him,


  • Glenn,

    I’ll wait for Seth to chime in if he’d like for us to take us off the grid.

    I might phrase the same question back to you only slightly rephrased: if the leading of the Spirit won’t contradict Scripture, isn’t Scripture sufficient?

    Is it possible that the Spirit does not intend to operate outside of Scripture?

  • @Justin Long

    First, you wouldn’t be the famous Justin Long – from Dodgeball and such? Because that would be amazing.

    Second, I’m not opposed to what you’re saying, but I what I wonder is this: if Scripture cannot inform us on what to do “now,” and we need the Spirit to do that, how can what we hear from the Spirit be tested? If Scripture doesn’t speak to that, how do we know its actually the Spirit speaking?

  • Justin nails it pretty well. The tyranny of the “or” instead of the genius of the “and” is too often what we choose. Because scripture says something “in these last times, God has spoken to us through His Son” we assume that means “only” but that isn’t what it said. God speaks through His Spirit, which indwells all believers (and doesn’t contradict His written word). Rhema and Logos are two good ways of looking at this. Rhema is the word “spoken directly to me” where as the Logos often refers to the word of God (scripture or Christ).

  • @Bob Higgins – I understand perfectly what you’ve said, its just logically inconsistent. If the Spirit actually will “lead us into all truth” Scripture is a distraction, at worst, and a waste of time, at best.

    You say that we assume the verse means “only” despite it not saying that, but neither can it support the alternate assumption of him speaking to us through his Son and also through out our own personal revelations. You lost that battle the second you chose to fight it.

    So, again, if Scripture is the litmus test for so-called personal revelations, why have the “middle man” of personal revelations?

    Are they primarily reminders to turn our attention back to Scripture?

  • @Jesse

    Since there are hundreds of translations and paraphrases, what about interpretation? Even Jesus’ disciples, after 3 years of extreme discipleship could not properly exegete scripture until the Spirit opened their eyes to the true meaning:

    Luke 24:45 ~ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

    If you study scripture and the Spirit does not reveal what God is saying, you’re back to square one. Without the Spirit’s interpretation, you can come up with any meaning. So doesn’t it make sense to frame it as, all teaching from God or any “word of God”, whether it comes from scripture or a teaching or a direct inspiration, is from the Spirit?

  • @Glenn

    If someone has a poor understanding of Scripture, or if the Spirit hasn’t yet opened their heart to understand it, any personal revelation received would need to be treated with more suspicion, not less. If you haven’t a way to test them (if you don’t understand Scripture), personal revelations should be avoided.

    The problem with saying, “Without the Spirit, you can come up with any meaning” is that someone can come up with their own meaning and attribute it to the Spirit quite easily. Simply saying, “Thus sayeth the Lord…” doesn’t make it true.

    So to answer your last question: absolutely not. The Church has one authority…Scripture itself. All personal revelations are valid to the extent that they are in agreement with Scripture and this requires that personal revelations which cannot be backed up by Scripture are suspect.

    And because of that, we must ensure that Scripture is exegeted correctly when it is interpreted. Fortunately, it is pretty easy to know when this has been done and when it hasn’t.

  • @Jesse

    Firstly: To say to Bob he “lost that battle the second you chose to fight it,” is in my opinion a bit rude. I don’t get where you feel justified in that conclusion anyhow.

    When the Bible says “in these last times, God has spoken to us through His Son” I see it very evident that it can support both through personal revelation and scripture. I don’t hold Christ (the Word) to the physical body he inhabited on earth. He is the Word of God, not flesh. The Word of God can and is spoken to all of us through the Spirit. The Word of God is both the physical manifestation that was Christ incarnate as well as the “personal revelation” spoken to us all today. God did not go mute once scripture had been written.

    Secondly, personal revelation is how God continues to speak today to each of us. As you said it would be too easy to say “Thus sayeth the Lord….” God would be remiss(and thankfully He is not!) if He did not give us a litmus test for what we hear to be His voice. Forget not that our enemy is very much alive and cunning enough to try and disguise himself as a voice from God.

    Go ahead though and dispute what I’ve said. I’ve seen your debates back and forth on other blogs and you are truly gifted at the art of a good debate! 🙂

  • @Zan

    I am curious as to which blogs I’ve commented on and conversed with others on that you are familiar with? No big deal, just curious.

    As far as my comment to Bob. I honestly wasn’t intending to be rude. It was a statement of fact. The text doesn’t support either assumption, his included. When he debunked it supporting his oppositions’ assumptions, he debunked it supporting his. The text says what it says and nothing more. His point was well made, so well that it excluded his own assumptions. That’s all I was saying…perhaps I should have been more clear.

    So here’s where I see your logic being problematic. You quote the verse, “God has spoken to us through His Son” but your commentary afterward indicates that’s not the way you have read it. “Has spoken” means “in the past.”

    Your commentary might fit better had the verse read, “God is speaking to us through His Son.” Obviously that’s not the case, so I’m inclined to dismiss your commentary. Unless you can substantiate that reading of the text, I see most of what followed as moot.

    But, you did make a fantastic point that God did not go mute once Scripture had been written. Amen and amen. I agree completely. Where we’ll disagree, no doubt, is how God speaks to us.

    It is a logical fallacy to assume that God does not speak through Scripture. The closing of the canon does not mean that God ceased to speak, but it does mean that he ceased to unveil new revelations not found in Scripture. The consistency between the Old and New Testaments indicates that God is one who doesn’t invent new content, but keeps rehashing the old stuff because we just cannot seem to get it.

    So, you’re right. He’s not done speaking. He’s just not saying anything new. And that means good news for us – we don’t have to guess about what God is about today. His Scripture reveals it perfectly for us. He’s about what he’s always been about: redemption through Jesus Christ.

    But let me ask you. In your second to last paragraph, you admit that we can be deceived through personal revelations and that Scripture is our litmus test. So I ask: are personal revelations meant to convey new information to us or point us back to Scripture.

    Depending on how you answer, I’ll have a couple follow up questions.

  • Acts 8:26-40 illustrates both the imporantance of hearing by the Spirit and hearing of the Word of God. I have no battles to “win” — mine was won a long time ago 🙂

  • Jesse and Glenn, why don’t we take the discussion between the two of you off line at this point. I’d be happy to put you in touch if you’d send me your email addresses. I know those of us who are working out our faith with an effort at grace appreciate the respectful exchange of views.

    My own view is that it up to those people who want to try and prove that God has limited himself to speaking through the Scriptures to show in Scripture that he said he would in fact do that. The method we see throughout Scripture is of God using a variety of means.

    If he were to decide to change his modus operandi, it would stand to reason that he’d tell us that. So far in the comments, we have a lot of words, but no Scriptural back up beyond the Hebrews 1 passage that this blog post deals with.

    It is up to the critics to prove their point in Scripture. It is dangerous to say “things are different now than they used to be” without scriptural proof.

  • Well I would point to the fact that it is commonly accepted that Hebrews was written some 30 years after Christ was crucified. The phrase “in these last days he has spoken to us” does not seem to indicate a 30 year gap in hearing Christ’s physical voice, but that could perhaps be lost in translation and I can not read it in it’s original language. I did however check all the various English translations available and they all use the exact or roughly the same words.
    Note the “he has spoken”. It implies an action that is ongoing or very recently stopped. In my mind a different tense should have been used to imply the 30 year gap if that is what was meant, but again it could all be lost in translation and we should all brush up on our Greek for a more accurate reading.

    I do not see where you derived your assumption that I or anyone else that has commented thinks God no longer speaks through Scripture. I wholeheartedly think He does. I also think He speaks outside, but never conflicting with, Scripture. I again go back to my argument that the “Word of God” is more Christ than it is words written in any language on parchment.

    This is what I have to say to your question “are personal revelations meant to convey new information to us or point us back to Scripture.” God is not going to tell me something “new” in that He tells me something that does not align with Scripture. However He reveals things in new ways to me that either reinforce or reveal Scripture.

    A comment that you made to Glenn was “if someone has a poor understanding of Scripture, or if the Spirit hasn’t yet opened their heart to understand it.” Yes it is the Spirit that opens the heart! He SPEAKS to us to reveal further Truth within scripture.

    “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.” It would seem logical to us to assume it is a one-and-done, having the scriptures revealed to us. But our logic is not God’s logic. His ways are not our ways. Could it be there is an ongoing conversation where God opens our spiritual eyes to deeper truths within the scriptures as we are ready? i.e. listening prayer?

  • There is a tension among God’s revelation through Creation, Scripture, Christ, the church, and personal revelation. Scripture must come first as it is God’s primary chosen form of revelation for this age. Personal revelation must be weighed against it. Scripture does not answer all the questions, nor does it seek to. Personal revelation would seem to be a significant component for being called to ministry, and, from what I’ve gathered from various writings and church missives, it is viewed as essential even among the staunchest proclaimers of Sola Scriptura.

  • When I read this blog yesterday I was interested to see the discussion that followed… I was not let down!

    Thanks, lots to chew on- the issue with listening is the follow up- obedience. That’s the tough part, I guess, not remaining stiff necked or hard hearted.

    I guess I have to trust that the God who speaks to me loves me.

  • After reading all this interaction, I have clearly heard Father’s heart speak. What I write next did not come from the Bible directly, He relayed it to my heart. Receive it or dismiss it, but weigh it.

    “My children, love me so much. Don’t argue with each other over how I speak today. I will use any means I, The Lord see fit.

    Jesse, I love you and love to speak to you through the Bible. I love what we have. I love your passion for me Jesse, I simply love to love you.

    Glenn, your heart for me and me alone is so honorable.

    Zan, you will see me more clearly than ever and will see my love manifested in front of your very eyes.

    Butch, we dance well together. A divine dance. Rest.

    Ian, I take such delight in you and I love to watch how you work things out in life. You are so fun.

    Justin, I am raising you up for a mighty call. A Kingdom commission. You will be my spokesman.

    Allie, your faith makes me proud. It is your faith and hope in me that gets you through the battles you encounter. You are my heavenly ballerina.

    Bob, strength and loyalty are your banner. Your heart swells with love that comes from me. The people around you are affected by that love. Don’t worry, you are changing the world around you as you abide in me.

    Scott, remember I gave you “Stoutheartedness”. My son, my beloved son, on my knee is where I like you most. Embracing you like my little boy, on my knee you make me proud, Scott.

    Seth, faithful, enduring child of mine, You are the apple of my eye. You are hidden and protected, in a wrinkle, in the hem of my robe, which fills The Temple. You are exciting to watch. I love you son.

    Love one another.


  • Dear Gents-
    i hopped on this morning to apologize for my cheeky response to the thread yesterday. It has dogged me all night and into the morning. You and your conversant wonderings deserve respect…not cheekiness. Please forgive me.

    And then to read mArC’s post…

    Carry on fellow sojourners. Onward & upward.
    your “little sister in the fray”,

  • Has anyone actually gone back and read Hebrews in context? That should clear up real quick a lot of the confusion Seth introduced in the original post…

  • this is really good and I read all of the comments too! Ha! Quite a bit there and it reminds me of this book I’ve been reading called Holy Fire. My favorite quote

    THERE HAS BEEN A SILENT DIVORCE IN THE CHURCH, SPEAKING generally, between the Word and the Spirit. When there is a divorce, sometimes the children stay with the mother, sometimes with the father. In this divorce you have those on the Word side and those on the Spirit side. What is the difference? Those on the Word side stress earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, expository preaching, sound theology, rediscovering the doctrines of the Reformationjustification by faith, sovereignty of God. Until we get back to the Word, the honor of Gods name will not be restored. What is wrong with this emphasis? Nothing. It is exactly right, in my opinion. Those on the Spirit side stress getting back to the Book of Acts, signs, wonders, and miracles, gifts of the Holy Spiritwith places being shaken at prayer meetings, get in Peters shadow and you are healed, lie to the Holy Spirit and you are struck dead. Until we recover the power of the Spirit, the honor of Gods name will not be restored. What is wrong with this emphasis? Nothing. It is exactly right, in my opinion. The problem is, neither will learn from the other. But if these two would come together, the simultaneous combination would mean spontaneous combustion. And if Smith Wigglesworths prophecy got it right, the world will be turned upside down again.

  • Just my own 1RM worth, esp. for Jesse: I think Scripture is all that is required on a day in and day out basis for formation in the likeness of Christ. On the other hand, I think it behooves us to listen for the voice of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit as they guide us in what they want us to do “now” today. The two go hand in hand.

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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