Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Affirming Divine Guidance: A Model from Acts 10


Many Christians throughout the centuries have believed that God guides his children by giving specific and varied kinds of communications.  Wayne Grudem effectively captures this reality when he writes:
I know that there is a small minority among Christians today who hold that God does not and will not guide us through the work of the Holy Spirit prompting us and leading us to choose one thing instead of another in our daily lives, not even occasionally. But surely the vast majority of Christians throughout all history have known and experienced the guidance of the Holy Spirit in making decisions, especially while they are praying and reading the words of Scripture, and they have known that this guidance includes not only the directions and commands and principles of Scripture, but also subjective impressions of God’s will and also additional thoughts or specific memories that the Lord brings to mind.[1]

The fact that God is personal and engages in a personal relationship with his children practically necessitates there be some sort of relational guidance as specified by Grudem.  Furthermore, as Dallas Willard reasons:
It is simply beyond belief that two persons so intimately related as indicated in Jesus’ answer to Thaddaeus [John 14.23] would not explicitly speak to one another.  The Spirit who inhabits us is not mute, restricting himself to an occasional nudge, a hot flash, a brilliant image or a case of goosebumps [sic].[2]

For purposes of this paper this idea of divine guidance will be assumed.[3]  The focus will, rather, be on understanding the nature of this guidance.  It will be argued that the kind of guidance as specified by Grudem fits under the general category of “revelation” in the New Testament.  This is to be understood within the parameters of New Testament prophecy which allows for the introduction of errors in reception, interpretation, and communication.  Furthermore, this paper will develop a model of guidance by a focused look at the narrative of Acts 10.  This model will  provide corrective instruction to both those who deny divine guidance for today because of its alleged subjectivity and for those who overly rely on the subjective elements inherit in some facets of guidance.
            The issue of New Testament prophecy is too large to be thoroughly reviewed in this paper but a few comments about a specific understanding of this subject will provide a basis for the discussion to follow regarding divine guidance of a specific and revelational nature.  For over three decades Wayne Grudem has championed a New Testament prophecy model which is defined as: “Speaking merely human words to report something God brings to mind.”[4]  This is to be distinguished from Old Testament prophets who spoke the very inerrant words of God—words with a Scripture-level authority.  Theologian Sam Storms has adopted this model and further specified why the nature of this prophecy is sometimes “fallible:”
The key is in recognizing that with every prophecy there are four elements, only one of which is assuredly of God: There is the revelation itself; there is the perception or reception of that revelation by the believer; there is the interpretation of what has been disclosed or the attempt to ascertain its meaning; and there is the application of that interpretation.  God is alone responsible for the revelation.  Whatever he discloses to the human mind is altogether free from error.  It is as infallible as he is.  It contains no falsehoods; it is wholly true in all its parts.  Indeed, the revelation, which is the root of every genuine prophetic utterance, is as inerrant and infallible as the written Word of God itself (the Bible).  In terms of the revelation alone, the New Testament prophetic gift does not differ from the Old Testament prophetic gift.

Error enters in when the human recipient of a revelation misperceives, misinterprets and/or misapplies what God has disclosed.  The fact that God has spoken perfectly does not mean that human beings have heard perfectly.  They may interpret and apply, without error, what God has revealed.  But the mere existence of a divine revelation does not in itself guarantee that the interpretation or application of God’s revealed truth will share in its perfection.[5]

In light of these comments this view of New Testament prophecy will be called the “Grudem/Storms” model. As can be expected, this view has not gone unchallenged.[6]  This model will be utilized to understand the nature of contemporary guidance.[7] 
            Two aspects of the Grudem/Storms model are relevant to the notion of divine guidance.  The first is that God can give clear revelation but this can be misunderstood by the recipient or something from the receiver can be added into the revelation as an interpretative gloss.  This is most clearly seen, for example, in Acts 21.4[8] The second aspect is when a revelation from God is not clear so there is interpretative ambiguity inherent in the process.  Critics of the Grudem/Storms model deny the possibility of this second notion but, as will be shown below, there is biblical evidence to support such a possibility.  These two insights from the Grudem/Storms model help elucidate the notion of contemporary divine guidance as seen and developed from Acts 10.
Acts 10 provides an extended narrative for insight into the way guidance can function.  Although it is not Luke’s main intent to teach an explicit model for guidance, there is, enough information from which to construct a usable model for guidance today.  By looking at the whole complex of factors that make up the decision making process in Acts 10 one can begin to answer some objections to divine guidance as well as to provide scripturally sound boundaries for those who are prone to overemphasize the subjective elements in divine guidance.  Space constraints will not allow a full exegetical discussion of Acts 10 but a brief view of this narrative along with a look at how this narrative is spoken of elsewhere in the book of Acts will suffice to show the multi-faceted approach to divine guidance.
            Acts 10 begins with a revelation to Cornelius about his need to send for Peter.  This chapter ends with Cornelius and his household being baptized.  This narrative features Peter’s experiences which bring him to the change in his thinking that allow him to fully participate in God’s plan of Gentile inclusion.  In Acts 10.9 Peter is engaged in a discipline of set prayers.  In the midst of this praying he falls “into a trance” (v. 10).  Next, a revelatory event happens in which  unclean animals are shown to Peter and a divine voice commands him to “kill and eat” (v. 13).  Peter is emphatic in his refusal but the voice clearly states, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”[9]  This sequence happens three times.  It is important to note this revelatory experience does not bring with it an inherent sense of clarity as noted in verse 17—“Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be.”  The perplexity causes Peter to “reflect on the vision” (v. 19) which obviously engaged his rational faculties.  In the midst of this reflection the Holy Spirit “speaks” to Peter about three men looking for him (vv. 19-20).  Simultaneous with this, the three men from Cornelius are at the front gate in a uniquely and providentially timed event.[10]  When Peter finally comes to Cornelius’ house he says the following: “God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean” (v. 28).  But how is it that God “has shown” this to Peter?  At no point in the narrative did God explicitly say these words.  Peter’s conclusion is a result of multiple factors including disciplined prayer, a revelatory vision, the direct speech of the Holy Spirit, rational thought processes, and providential events.  Putting all these factors together allowed Peter to come to his conclusion regarding how he is to view Cornelius and, by extension, all Gentiles.  The visionary experience by itself did not yield this clarity; it was one factor among many that led Peter to his conclusion.
            Before continuing on with an examination with how this narrative of Acts 10 plays out in the rest of the book of Acts, it will helpful to consider a common objection to modern day revelatory guidance.  As indicated above, the Grudem/Storms model of prophecy allows for  potential error to enter into the process of interaction between the divine revelation and the reception, interpretation, or communication of that revelation.  In responding to this view, Richard Gaffin queries: “This poses a question (which, unless I have missed it, is not really addressed by advocates of this view): Why would God reveal himself in such an ambiguous, not to say ‘inefficient’ way?”[11]  Greg Koukl, in a series of articles arguing against “hearing God’s voice,” develops this objection further.  Koukl labels his objection as, “Does God Try?” and argues that any view which says that God is speaking but somehow the human recipient fails to “hear” properly compromises the character of God—either his knowledge or power.  Koukl argues, “What God attempts, He accomplishes.”[12]  He adds:
The same is true for hearing God’s voice.  If human limitation interferes with God’s communication, we surrender our argument for the inerrancy of Scripture.  If, however, God is big enough to secure word-for-word accuracy of the text, the same rationale applies to hearing the voice of God.  It is impossible for man to short-circuit God’s design.[13]

In responding to this objection Timothy Bayless argues God may have aims that are best achieved only by allowing a person to hear his revelation but without full comprehension.[14]  Bayless lists the following hypothetical examples to substantiate his point:
·      God could make his own communicative efforts less-than-clear in order to help train [a person named] Orcutt in an ability—that of recognizing what God’s voice is like; or that of helping Orcutt discern God’s voice from among competing distractions.

·      God could allow Orcutt to miss his voice at various times, or in various ways, in order to help Orcutt form certain habits of character—courage to act in faith on the basis of good reasons, for instance; or as incentive for cultivating a less distracted life.

·      He could allow Orcutt to miss it in some fashion in order to maintain what some have called “epistemic distance” from Orcutt—this plausibly being the only way in some cases to preserve human freedom or moral responsibility.[15]

Peter’s experience in Acts 10 provides support to Bayless’ viewpoint.  God provided Peter with an initial revelatory experience that did not yield immediate clarity.  Why did not God simply tell Peter, “Don’t call any man unclean”?  Why the vision?  One potential reason God did it this way was that this process allowed Peter to develop in his thinking and practice in a way which would not occur if God simply told Peter the end result.  In light of the visionary experience Peter is existentially challenged and disturbed.  This prepares Peter for further insights that will need to be taken into the depths of his theology.  This can be no mere toying with the peripheral edges of Peter’s thinking; a major change must take place within his thought and praxis.  In light of this, both Gaffin’s “inefficiency” objection and Koukl’s “does God try?” objection lose their force.  God may, in his sovereign intentions, allow for a lack of clarity in reception of a revelation without compromising his perfect character nor the inerrancy of inscripturated revelation.
            Returning to Acts 10 and its development in later chapters it is instructive to note there are a number of “confirmations” regarding God’s revelation that follow in the subsequent narrative.  In Acts 10.30-33 Cornelius relates his experience to Peter.  This provides epistemic confirmation for Peter: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality” (Acts 10.34).  Later, as Peter is preaching the gospel, the Holy Spirit falls upon those who were listening.  The fruit born by this preaching is a supernatural confirmation with vivid, visual results.  Furthermore, there is a measure of communal confirmation in verse 45—“All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.”[16]  In Acts 11 Peter relates the whole story to the Jerusalem church.  In his narration Peter stresses the confirmations mentioned above.  He mentions the six brethren with him (Acts 11.12), Cornelius’ report (11.13-14), and the Holy Spirit falling upon them (11.15).  He then adds a further confirmation in verse 16—“And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”  This is a confirmation by consistency with the teaching of Jesus—a form of confirmation by Scripture.  The opposition to Gentile inclusion quiets down in Acts 11.18 but it comes back again in Acts 15.1-2.  Peter again relates his story in short form (Acts 15.7-9).  Then James mentions Peter’s story (15.14) and points to the Old Testament scriptures to show confirmation and agreement (Acts 15.15-18). 
            The following chart summarizes the relevant elements from the above discussion:
Factors in Peter’s Acts 10 Experience
1.  Disciplined prayer
1.  Experience—Cornelius’ experience
2.  Revelatory vision
2.  Fruit of ministry
3.  Direct speech of Holy Spirit
3.  Communal—others see the reality
4.  Rational thought processes
4.  Jesus’ words
5.  Providential events
5.  Old Testament Scriptures

All these elements are derived from the text and provide a framework from which to build a model for guidance today.
            The model of guidance being offered here is multi-faceted in nature but it ought not to be seen as check-list in which a decision is simply run through a rigid theological algorithm.  Rather, these various components found in Acts 10 are to be in kept in perspective.  By so doing this model provides guidance and boundaries for both those who deny contemporary guidance and those who readily affirm it.  Both views can fall into error regarding this issue.
            Those who deny divine guidance are often motivated by a good desire to uphold the centrality of God’s written word.  They hesitate to affirm subjective elements in the guidance process because these are thought to be beyond rational and scriptural controls.  They often stress the objective nature of Scripture and its clarity; what is needed is reflection on the text of Scripture with the illumination of the Spirit.  The Acts 10 model developed above recognizes subjective elements.  More importantly, the model allows for revelatory elements that do not have immediate clarity.  God can, and has, revealed himself in such a way as to not be immediately understood.  When this insight is combined with the Grudem/Storms model which indicates the possibility of adding faulty interpretative thoughts to a revelation it goes along way to answering the charge of radical subjectivity.  Acts 10 thus speaks of (1) revelation that is not immediately clear, (2) the possibility of misinterpreting the revelation, and (3) the need for a whole complex of factors to effectively hear what God is saying.
            On the other side are those who readily affirm God’s revelatory activity in guidance.  The danger is some might so focus on this aspect that they forget the importance of the other elements of guidance.  The immediacy of a revelatory incident can lead a believer to downplay the need for rational analysis, scriptural confirmation, or communal involvement.  There is also the danger of illegitimately seeking revelatory insights for virtually every aspect of one’s life instead of learning to how to live with wisdom.  Dallas Willard calls this the “message-a-minute” view of guidance and wisely notes:
According to this first view, either God is telling you what to do at every turn of the road or he is at least willing and available to tell you if you would only ask him. . . . There is no evidence in the life of Peter or Paul, for example, that they were constantly receiving communication from God.[17]

Sam Storms, in his defense of New Testament prophecy, urges caution on this point as well.  He looks at a number of passages which speak to the need of using rational capacities and wisdom in decision-making (Philippians 1.9-10; 2.25; 1 Corinthians 6.5; 16.4; Colossians 1.9; Romans 12.2).[18]  In light of the elements uncovered in Acts 10 it is readily apparent that reasoning can and should be used in reflecting on revelatory moments.  This is not unspiritual or a demonstration of a lack of faith.  It is to simply recognize that God uses an entire range of elements to guide his people.
            God’s guidance has been recognized throughout the history of the church.  By examining the dynamics of this guidance in light of the work of Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms on New Testament prophecy enables guidance to be placed on a firmer foundation.  New Testament revelations are not necessarily of the same authority as Old Testament prophecies.  The New Testament contains examples of revelations that (1) are unclear (Acts 10) and (2) may contain errors of interpretation and addition (Acts 21.4).  Recognizing these realities helps understand how divine guidance should be understood today.  The narrative in Acts 10 demonstrated a number of elements in both the experience and the confirmation of guidance.  Using the full spectrum of elements places guidance on a more sure footing.  The multi-faceted nature of divine guidance also provides a corrective to both those who affirm and those who deny divine guidance today.

*NOTE: This paper (and appendix) is also available at my page on

     [1] Wayne Grudem, “A Response to O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word” n.d., 3.  Online:
     [2] Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 22.
     [3] Besides the piece by Grudem listed above (footnote #1) and the book by Willard (footnote #2) one could read with profit philosopher J. P. Moreland’s piece entitled “’Hearing God’: A Biblical Case?” J. P. Moreland’s Web (November 29, 2011), n.p. Online:
     [4] Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1988), 67.  Grudem uses the definition “telling something that God has spontaneously brought to mind” in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1994), 1049.  In an earlier work he spoke of “two types of NT prophecy, the one thought to have a divine authority of actual words, and the other only thought to have a (divine) authority of general content…” The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock Publishing, 1999 [1982]), 111.
     [5] C. Samuel Storms, “The Third Wave View,” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views ed. Wayne Grudem, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 207-208.
     [6] As well as the presentations and responses by Gaffin and Saucy in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views see also Kenneth L. Gentry Jr. The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy: A Reformed Response to Wayne Grudem (Memphis, Tenn.: Footstool Publications, 1989) and O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth, 1993).
     [7] See the Appendix of this paper for a brief discussion of the nature of the Grudem/Storms model and how one of its main insights as developed from Acts 21.4 is presupposed by even some of its most vocal critics.  This Appendix is available HERE.
     [8] This issue is looked at in the Appendix where the teaching of Acts 21.4 is examined in more detail--see previous footnote [7] for link to Appendix.
     [9] In Acts 10.14 Peter answers the voice by saying: “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.”  There may be an echo of Ezekiel 4.14 here in that Ezekiel’s response to the Lord’s directive to cook his food over human dung provokes this response from Ezekiel: “But I said, ‘Ah, Lord God!  Behold, I have never been defiled; for from my youth until now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has any unclean meat ever entered my mouth.’”  In Ezekiel’s case the Lord allows Ezekiel to substitute cow dung in the place of human dung (Ezekiel 4.15) and maintain some sense of ritual cleanliness.  For Peter, however, the vision is repeated three times to confirm God’s intentions.  Peter is not allowed to maintain his notions of “clean” and “unclean.”  These notions are to be radically re-oriented as the subsequent narrative shows.
     [10] The providential component is not a coincidence or a mere throw-away detail of the narrative.  When Peter recounts this story in Acts 11 he mentions that it was “at that moment three men appeared” (Acts 11.11) thus drawing specific attention to this detail of providential timing.
     [11] Richard B. Gaffin, “A Cessationist View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (ed. Wayne A. Grudem; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 52.
     [12] Greg Koukl, “Does God Whisper? (part three),” Solid Ground (November/December 2011), 6.  Online:
     [13] Koukl, “Does God Whisper? (part three),” 6.
     [14] Timothy Bayless, “Objections to Hearing God (part five): A Response to ‘Does God “Try”?’” J. P. Moreland’s Web July 19, 2012, n.p.  Online:
     [15] Bayless, “Objections to Hearing God (part five), n. p.
     [16] The witnesses, including Peter, totaled seven people for Acts 11.12 mentions that six brethren went with Peter.
     [17] Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 57.  That this is a real problem is seen by those who ask God for revelation about what to wear on a daily basis and what kind of shampoo to buy; examples that are found in T. M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Vintage Books, 2012), 76, 94.
     [18] Storms, “The Third Wave View,” 211-212.