John MacArthur on hearing God’s voice, the dangers of this way of thinking, and the sufficiency of Scripture

John MacArthurI’m going to guess that you either think you’ve heard God’s voice, or you know someone who says that they have heard God speak to them.  This post, then, is for you and hopefully will help you filter through these ideas and/or experiences.  I’m going to quote John MacArthur in a letter that we received a few days ago from Grace to You.  Unless otherwise noted, all underlined emphases are MacArthur’s, though I added the section headings.

God told me…

There’s a phrase that has taken hold in Christian conversation — one you’re probably familiar with.  Whether you heard it from a preacher on television, from your own pastor, a believing friend, or during a religious radio broadcast, I’m sure you’ve heard someone, somewhere say the words, “God told me ______.”

Hearing the voice of the Lord is not a new idea.  I’m sure you could cite several biblical examples of God’s speaking to His chosen people to communicate to them His will.  On a few extraordinary occasions in Scripture, whether through His Spirit or in an audible voice, God provided specific, practical instructions directly to individuals.

Many believers today want to have that same kind of experience.  They want personal, spiritual direction from the Lord.  Attempting to receive guidance from God, they listen longingly for His audible voice or wait for some intuitive, emotional prompting or impression that will unveil His will for their lives.

But that kind of communication, whether it’s audible or intuitive, is not trustworthy.  In fact, it’s useless — and can even be dangerous.

Why isn’t it trustworthy?  To begin with, there’s no valid way to discern divine truth in what a person hears or feels.  Experience is unreliable because it’s always subjective.  There are no means set forth in the Bible to test or prove or discern the meaning of some inner voice or prompting you may think you heard or felt.  In fact, Scripture never gives believers even the slightest encouragement to listen for private revelations from God.  [I think that last sentence is a great and valid point.]

Danger within and without

To put it in practical terms, how could we objectively know the difference between the moving of God’s Spirit within us and a bad case of indigestion? [I used to pose this question to some Mormon elders I was meeting with a couple years ago – a “burning in the bosom” could be directly related to the tacos you ate the night before!] If you’re earnestly looking for a personal, unique word from the Lord, what’s to keep you from misinterpreting your common, everyday aches and pains — or thrills and euphoria — as direct revelation?  Using your own experiences to determine divine truth gives too much weight to your own perspective and interpretation.  Scripture says, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26).  The church does not receive new or private revelation, either corporately or individually.  Scripture clearly warns against adding to the completed revelation given in the Bible (Revelation 22:18).

In our fallen state, we simply lack any mechanism to discern divine thought.  We can sometimes look back on events and see how the Lord orchestrated circumstances to accomplish his will, but we cannot reliably discern His thoughts in the midst of a situation.  We don’t have the capacity to comprehend how He’s moving in our lives until He’s already moved — and even then, we can’t appreciate the full magnitude of His supernatural work.

Furthermore, hearing a voice doesn’t necessarily mean what you heard is correct, or that it’s even from God.  To hear a voice and assume it’s the Lord is a huge leap — especially when there is no definitive way to know whose voice it really is.  Televangelists, in particular, are prone to jump to that conclusion.  But just because you hear something doesn’t mean it was the Lord.

Is there a reliable way to distinguish between the sound of God’s voice and that of a demon?  Even if what a person hears or feels seems to match up with Scripture, how can he be sure he’s not being manipulated by demonic forces?  Listening for ambiguous, mystical messages provides Satan with all sorts of opportunities to tempt, confuse, pervert, and deceive.  Earnestly hoping to hear from the Lord doesn’t mean you’ll only hear from Him.

Does God communicate with us?

So if we can’t clearly or objectively determine whether what we’re hearing and feeling is truly coming from the Lord, how do we legitimately receive communication from Him?  What reliable source can you turn to for God’s instruction in your life?

The only trustworthy source of divine truth, guidance for your own spiritual growth, and instruction for the church is the written Word of God.  No emotional urging or mystical experience can trump the concrete, fundamental truth God has given us in Scripture.  Does God still speak?  Yes, but not in an audible voice.  He speaks through the pages of Scripture.

The Bible alone has survived the test of time, and countless attacks from doubters, liars, and heretics.  Its objective truth is proved every day in the transforming work the Lord accomplishes through it.  Even the apostle Peter, who witnessed Christ’s transfiguration firsthand, heard the voice of the Lord numerous times, and performed miracles himself, counted Scripture as “a more sure word” — the final word regarding God’s revelation (2 Peter 1:19).

What drives the quest for hearing God’s voice?

If all that’s true, why do some believers still look beyond the Bible for a special, personal word from the Lord?  At the heart of their desire for fresh revelation is a fundamental lack of faith in the absolute sufficiency of God’s Word.  They simply don’t believe the Bible gives enough answers for the problems and struggles in their lives; or they don’t grasp the degree to which Scripture is living and active — that it is God speaking to us clearly and distinctly.

I trust that you’re not entertaining that kind of thinking.  If you reject the sufficiency of Scripture — or even if you simply look to supplement it with fresh, personal revelation from God — you cut yourself off from the only reliable source of God’s truth.  The Bible isn’t a book of static, lifeless words.  It’s alive and active in the hearts of God’s people.  It’s the vessel through which the Lord performs His transforming work, sanctifying and shaping us into His likeness.  It’s not simply the record of what God has said in the past — it’s what He’s saying to you and me every day.  His Word remains perpetually applicable and relevant.

Because God does speak to His people through His Word, there’s no more serious undertaking than studying the Bible.  Understanding biblical doctrine isn’t an academic pursuit for believers — it’s knowing His mind.  By studying Scripture, we’re able to grasp His instructions for all matters of life and godliness.

You know, someday we’re not only going to hear God plainly, we’re going to see him face to face.  But for now, as Paul the apostle wrote to the Corinthian church, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Our faith, however, can and should be fueled by the concrete, objective truth of Scripture, which in this life and by God’s design, is as rock solid (or more so) as actually hearing his voice and seeing his face.

Related posts on this blog

God’s will, horses and mules, and your mind. Thoughts from John Stott for folks who think God “speaks” to them

Is the Bible the Word of God? Part 2: Martin Luther on hearing from God in the Bible

😉  [The Porpoise Driven Life]

Book recommendations

Finding the Will of God: a pagan notion? by Bruce Waltke

Just Do Something: A Liberating  Approach to Finding God’s Will, or how to make a decision without dreams, visions, fleeces, impressions, open doors, random Bible verses, casting lots, liver shivers, writing in the sky, etc. by Kevin DeYoung

22 comments on “John MacArthur on hearing God’s voice, the dangers of this way of thinking, and the sufficiency of Scripture

  1. chanda says:

    This is a lie. God does speak to us and He is alive and working in our lives today.

    • 🙂

      Chanda, don’t take this the wrong way, but did you read the entire post? MacArthur would undoubtedly say that God is alive and that he is working in our lives today. He also says that God speaks, but he does that primarily through Scripture and not in an audible voice.


  2. Clearly, when we hear a “word” that runs contrary to the Bible, that’s not God. But God may speak to us in something besides Elizabethian English or some other formal language. As long as the word we hear does not violate a scripture or a scriptural principle, I can’t see what’s wrong with saying “I heard God.”

    If we worked for Wycliff and furnished people with the Bible in their own language, we might hear God differently than ever before…

    Bottom line? I hear voices; sometimes they are not in harmony with scripture, but sometimes they are…why can those latter voices not be God’s?

    • Thanks for your comment Michael.

      I think there are several potential issues with the idea that God speaks to individuals “today.”

      One is that there is very little precedent in Scripture of God speaking to people. There are a few notable examples such as Noah, Moses, Paul, etc., but they are a very small percentage of all the people mentioned in the Bible, and the circumstances were usually out of the ordinary.

      Even if the voice that a person hears says something that is in line with Scripture, it’s completely subjective and impossible to validate. Anyone can say, “God told me [anything],” and nobody can really refute it.

      The sufficiency of Scripture comes into this also, or the lack of sufficiency. Is the Bible really so insufficient or inadequate that God feels the need to orally or audibly fill in the blanks for certain individuals? Closely related to that, I have friends and acquaintances who claim to hear God on a regular, sometimes daily, basis, and one thing I’ve noticed that they have in common is that they rarely read their Bibles. It appears to me then that they may have conjured up these voices, or opened their minds to these voices, to supplement or replace their limited knowledge of Scripture. That may sound harsh, but it is what I have observed over the years.

  3. OOOOPS….a typo. why can’t those latter voices not be God’s?

  4. Leo Leal says:

    When someone says that God can’t. That should immediately send red flags to listeners. Please my brothers and sisters in Christ don’t ever let anyone tell you that your personal experience with thee almighty God was a lie. If you truly heard God then it happened. We are God’s sheep we know are shepard’s voice. Some people will never understand this. But I guarantee you that God does Talk to people audilblely. God has spoken to me and proveded it to me by speaking to another sister in Christ. Making a long story short. It was humanly impossible for man to do what I experienced or a Demon to read the thoughts of another. Anyway my is point Mc Carther’s arrogance or lack of personal experience does not give him the right to dimiss the possibilty of hearing GOD. Since I knew him he has always fell short in this area.

  5. Laurie Leal says:

    Please do not be deceived God-Abba Father created us in His image. He Talks to His Children. We can here His Voice. The Holy Ghost lives in our Heart. Jesus is on God’s right hand making intercession for those who walk in FAITH. Jesus Christ Came thru the Spirit to conquer Death and Sin once and for ALL. So people all over the world can be free from sin and death even Jews,Gentiles,muslims,ALL PEOPLE ARE FREE FROM DEATH AND SIN miracle. SAVES US. NO MORE FIGHTING FREEDOM IN THE SPIRIT. Walk in theSpirit not the Flesh. God’s children hear His voice. AMEN

  6. Laurie Leal says:

    St. John Chapter One verse 5. King James Version. And the Light Shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. John 3:19 And this is the condemnation, that Light came into the world,and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. Continue finish chapter

  7. Laurie Leal says:

    Jesus died to make us All able to unite in Spirit. Read St. Jon Chapter 14, 15, 16, 17. God is Love

  8. Laurie Leal says:

    The Miracle is the Spirit Can live in us. If we believe and walk in Faith. God’s SPIRIT. United together all people All over the world. If you receive God’s Spirit your my Brother. I have Brothers and Sisters all over the world in the Spirit. Walk in the Spirit not in the flesh. Die to self daily. Let God’s Spirit free in you what greater vworks shall you do!

  9. […] J.G wrote "I often still feel lost or afraid because I think I will misread God's messages" I can get caught up in "ok, God what are you trying to tell me" moments too. My heart is so deceptive it could lead me to believe God is telling me whatever my desires may happen to be. The Bible tells us that "He who trust in his own heart is a fool". This article features a letter by John MacArthur that really illustrates the only way we can truly know what God is communicating to us. John MacArthur on hearing God’s voice, the dangers of this way of thinking, and the sufficienc… […]

  10. EMC says:

    OK. Let me say this. I’d worked many years in full-time Christian service in both a church and then a school. I now work for the government. My experience with “God’s voice” has been directly reflective of my life’s position. Where there is constant, direct opposition to God and where there is the rare Christian, I believe God does on occasion speak to His own. I can recount a few instances that He has led me with His voice through a dark, difficult situation as I worked in a corrupt, subversive environment.

    My father is a retired Baptist minister, so I know the hesitancy for pastors to teach ANYTHING but hard copy scriptural guidance. They are trying to protect the flock.

    But, after all, our God is living God and His word and words are alive. I am convinced that as Christians living in the world — but not of the world — begin to experience further hideous decay of morality in America and begin to suffer persecution that preachers may begin to alter their belief system on this topic. They may begin to the apply obvious Biblical examples of God’s voice to His children to our modern world and give Him His place.

    I praise God for His mercies toward me when I am at the frontline, when I can rely on Him implicitly for His true guidance no matter what even the preacher may teach. God’s teaching and leading voice trumps all. (God bless and keep our men of God in this country.) Ultimately, my trust is in God. He never changes. Great is His faithfulness.

  11. […] HL :… […]

  12. jaco says:

    Hi John, I agree with your article. What resources of John MacArthur did you use. I am a great fan of him and would like to work through it.

    • John says:

      Hi Jaco,

      Glad you liked the article. The quotes from MacArthur came from a monthly support letter that we receive from Grace to You. Unfortunately I don’t think that I kept the original letter – I’ve looked everywhere I can think of and I haven’t been able to find it. Sorry I can’t help you out with that.


  13. Paul Walker says:

    Things I noticed while reading this article:

    MacArthur advocates that personal revelation is never encouraged in scripture… yet he fails to see Jesus as the primary example of how we should live. It would seem in the Gospels that Jesus is always hearing the voice of the Father. “I only do what the Father tells me”. I do think MacArthur is only half right here regarding the personal revelation bit. He is right in the sense that a “word” is never meant for an individual. It is as Paul says, meant to build up the body… But Paul expects that individuals will hear individually and respond corporately. 1 Cor 14.

    MacArthur is a cessationist.

    MacArthur advocates a worship of the bible above an active living relationship with the God of the Universe.

    Notice how MacArthur calls the bible the WORD of God…. this is actually horible theology to call the bible the Word (scripture never refers to itself as the Word, or all sufficent).. according to John’s gospel the only true word is the Word made flesh.

    MacArthur questions whether an individual would objectively know whether or not it is the voice of the Lord speaking. It would appear MacArthur is forgeting Paul’s direction to wiegh in community. (1 Corinthians 14)

    MacArthur misquotes (badly) 2 Peter 1:19

    MacArthur doesn’t mention the role of Holy Spirit, who according to Jesus guides us into all truth. MacArthur puts all his revelation into scripture… ironically coming under the rebuke when Jesus says:

    “You study the Scriptures, because you think that in them you will find eternal life. And these very Scriptures speak about me! Yet you are not willing to come to me in order to have life.- Jesus

    • Orangechip says:

      Paul, I respectfully disagree with many of your assertions.

      How does he misquote 2 Peter 1:19? you don’t say how.

      The bible never describes itself as sufficient? Have you not read 2 Timothy 3:16-17?

      When Jesus said that the Holy spirit Guides us into all truth, Was that for us or for the apostles? The context makes that answer crystal clear. But for the sake of argument, lets assume you are right and that promise is for all of us. If the Spirit guides us into ‘ALL’ truth, we’d be omniscient and all knowing. We wouldn’t need community. We wouldn’t need counsel. Just give me the holy spirit and i won’t need to read the scripture or anything else. So obviously the ‘all’ is limited to ‘all’ of something. I would argue its the scriptures.

      Finally, you assert that we should model Jesus because he only did what he saw the father doing. Yet again, you failed to look at the obvious context.

      Listen to Greg Koukl’s answer to that objection:

      What of Jesus? Jesus said He did the things the Father told Him to do.
      If Jesus regularly received direct revelation and guidance from the Father,
      shouldn’t we expect the same?

      This is a fair challenge. After all, Jesus is our model.
      Paul said, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, cf. 1 Thess. 1:6).
      One popular writer put it this way: “When I want to learn how to know and do the will of God, I always look to Jesus. I can find no better model than Him.”5 He then
      cites Jesus’ statement in John 5:17, 19-20:

      My Father has been working until now, and I have been working….Most assuredly, I say to
      you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do, for whatever
      He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him
      all things that He Himself does….

      The Father showed Jesus. Jesus is our model.
      Therefore, we should expect the Father to show us in like manner. That’s the rationale.
      There is no question that Jesus is a model to us. But is Jesus our model in everything? Is there reason to believe some characteristics of Jesus’ relationship with the Father might be unique? I think the answer is yes.
      Jesus not only was the perfect man and humble servant, but also the Messiah and incarnate Son of God. Clearly, we should imitate Jesus’ human perfections. But aren’t prerogatives of divinity or messianic office in a different category?
      Let’s look at the passage more closely. Something important is missing from the citation (note the ellipses). The omission of verses 18, a portion of 19, and verses 21, 22, and 23 is unfortunate.

      Each is vital to our understanding and seriously qualifies the application of this passage, as this more complete citation of John 5:17-23 shows:
      (17) But He answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am
      working.” (18) For this cause therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He not only was breaking the Sabbath, but also was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.
      (19) Jesus therefore answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can
      do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing, for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.
      (20) For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing, and
      greater works than these will He show Him, that you may marvel.
      (21) For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.
      (22) For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son,

      He then summarizes, These verses form a complete literary unit. If the
      Father showing Jesus “all things that He Himself is doing” is an example for us to model, then what of the phrases joined with it that immediately follow?

      Are we also to imitate Christ by giving life to whom we wish, judging the world on the Father’s behalf, and demanding that all people honor us as they honor the Father?

      I look forward to further discussion on this important topic.

      • Brandy says:

        Wow. I’m sorry I can’t say more, Or contribute to the discussion… but just wow. What a great word. And very encouraging. Thank you for taking the time to respond. I found myself scratching my head after reading the above comment. And you gave a great refute. Bless you!

      • John says:

        I agree with Brandy – thanks (belated) for taking the time to respond in depth. I was at a Bible study last night where someone used the “Jesus doing what he saw the Father doing” argument as a basis for us doing something, and I couldn’t remember where I had seen or heard a refute of that. What do you know…it was in a comment on my own blog! Thanks again!

  14. Etido says:

    John with reference to your statement that God spoke to few notable people, have you forgotten that there were priests in those days who heard God onbehalf of the people of God and have you also forgotten thatthere was no Holy Spirit then and that there is The Holy Spirit now. Dont you think that Jesus telling his disciples he would send the Holy Spirit to remind and teach us all things means God speaking to us? How will he remind and teach without speaking? If God doesnt speak apart from scripture then how can we even understand the scripture that we didnt write???????

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