When Fancy Is Mistaken for Faith

by John MacArthur / Monday, August 26, 2019

In the lead-up to the Truth Matters conference in October, we will be focusing our attention on the sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture. One of our previous blog series, Looking for Truth in All the Wrong Placesstrongly emphasizes those doctrines. The following entry from that series originally appeared on June 14, 2017. -ed

When Fancy Is Mistaken for Faith

If God is still speaking to us today—even if only through mental impressions and still, small voices—shouldn’t we consider those messages to be as relevant as anything written in Scripture, if not more so?

That very issue was hotly debated during the Great Awakening. It was one area where Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield did not (in the beginning) see eye to eye. Clearly on this question Edwards would not have been the least bit sympathetic with modern charismatics. Edwards believed prophecy had ceased along with the rest of the charismatic gifts. (Edwards’s cessationist views are spelled out in his book Charity and Its Fruits [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1969 reprint], 38, 44-47; and in even greater detail in his “Distinguishing Marks” in Jonathan Edwards: On Revival [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1984], 137ff.)

Whitefield was far more willing than Edwards to treat subjective impulses as if they could reliably reveal the Holy Spirit’s leading. In 1740 Edwards confronted Whitefield on the issue. He later wrote to a friend,

I indeed have told several persons that I once purposely took an opportunity to talk with Mr. Whitefield alone about [subjective] impulses: and have mentioned many particulars of our conference together on that [matter]: That I told him some reasons I had to think he gave too great heed to such things: and have told what manner of replies he made; and what reasons I offered against such things. And I also said that Mr. Whitefield did not seem to be offended with me: but yet did not seem to be inclined to have a great deal of discourse about it: And that in the time of it he did not appear to be convinced by any thing I said. [1]

At the height of the Great Awakening, this issue became, in Iain Murray’s words, “the talking-point of the whole country.” [2] Edwards clearly warned his congregation not to place much stock in subjective impressions. He saw this as a particular danger in a time of revival, when religious affections are heightened and the imagination more active than usual. Murray writes,

The “impressions” or “impulses” which [Edwards] criticized were varied in character. Sometimes they involved an element of the visionary. Sometimes they appeared to provide foreknowledge of future events. And sometimes they were accompanied and supported by random texts of Scripture. . . .

Against this belief Edwards argued that a Christian might indeed have a “holy frame and sense from the Spirit of God” but the “imaginations that attend it are but accidental” and not directly attributable to the Spirit. [3]

Edwards had carefully studied this issue. He was convinced that the tendency to follow subjective impulses was a dangerous path down which to travel: “[An] erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that it is God’s manner in these days to guide His saints . . . by inspiration, or immediate revelation.” [4] He saw several dangers in the practice, not the least of which was its hardening effect on the person supposedly receiving the revelation. “As long as a person has a notion that he is guided by immediate direction from heaven, it makes him incorrigible and impregnable in all his misconduct.” [5]

Edwards also knew from both church history and personal experience that

Many godly persons have undoubtedly in this and other ages, exposed themselves to woeful delusions, by an aptness to lay too much weight on impulses and impressions, as if they were immediate revelations from God, to signify something future, or to direct them where to go, and what to do. [6]

Edwards’s advice was straightforward:

I would therefore entreat the people of God to be very cautious how they give heed to such things. I have seen them fail in very many instances, and know by experience that impressions being made with great power, and upon the minds of true, yea eminent, saints . . . are no sure signs of their being revelations from heaven. I have known such impressions fail, in some instances, attended with all these circumstances. [7]

A generation before Edwards, the illustrious Boston pastor Cotton Mather had experimented with this very tendency, believing that God would grant him “particular faiths” for specific prayers to be answered. Convinced God had promised to grant certain prayer requests, Mather prophesied that his wife would recover from a serious illness, that his father would return to England to serve the Lord, and that his wayward son would return to the Lord. Only after those and several other expectations went unfulfilled did Mather begin to question his doctrine of “particular faiths.” [8] (Mather’s proneness to trust subjective phenomena—a fallacy shared by many of his colleagues—may have also kept him from acting sooner than he did to halt the Salem witch trials.)

George Whitefield also learned the hard way that subjective impulses can be tragically fallible. When Whitefield’s wife was expecting her first child, he prophesied that she would have a son who would become a preacher of the gospel. The child was indeed a boy, but he died at the age of four months. He was Whitefield’s only child. Murray writes,

Whitefield at once recognized his mistake saying: “I misapplied several texts of Scripture. Upon these grounds, I made no scruple of declaring ‘that I should have a son, and that his name was to be John.’” When back in New England, in 1745, he could say feelingly of what had happened there, “Many good souls, both among clergy and laity, for a while, mistook fancy for faith, and imagination for revelation.” [9]

As God’s people we must not set ourselves up to commit the same mistakes. We must not confuse our imaginations with divine inspiration. More on that next time.

(Adapted from Reckless Faith.)

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