How the Holy Spirit Gives Us Utterance Today
“We speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth,
but which the Holy Ghost teacheth.”
— I Corinthians 2:13
One of the great blessings given to man by his Creator is the ability to speak. It is true that, since the fall of man into sin, this gift is often used to work much wickedness (James 3:5–10); but to do so is an abuse of the gift that should be used to praise and glorify God at all times (Psalm 71:8). As the one who has given man the ability to communicate through speech, the Lord can be said to “give utterance” to every speaking human being. However, the Bible also tells us about a very special way that God has given utterance to certain people — controlling their words so completely that the words spoken are no longer the words of men, but the very words of God Himself (as this is described in the verse quoted above). At times, the words that the Lord prompted those people to say were in languages that they had never before learned, as was the case on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the disciples in rich measure and “the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). Following that occasion, the Lord continued to give the apostles utterance so that in all their teaching, preaching, and writing as the “ambassadors for Christ” (II Corinthians 5:20) God supplied them with the exact words that He wanted them to convey to the people without any corruption or error introduced from their own human reason (I Corinthians 2:13; I Thessalonians 2:13). The Lord had done this same thing also through the mouths and pens of the prophets in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 1:9; Ezekiel 3:27; II Peter 1:21; II Timothy 3:16). Since the very words of the prophets and apostles were given them by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, this process and the doctrine which sets it forth is called “verbal inspiration.”
Now a natural question to ask at this point is: Does God still do the same thing through people today — conveying His Word through them apart from the Scriptures (giving them extra-biblical revelations)? While it is certainly true that God could move people today to speak and write inspired words, as was done through the prophets and apostles of old, yet these three important facts need to be kept in mind: 1) He has not promised to do so; 2) We do not need Him to do so; and 3) It is dangerous for us to expect Him to do so.
Jesus did promise the apostles that the Holy Ghost would give them the exact words they were to say and that they would not even need to pre-plan their remarks, since God would be speaking through them (Matthew 10:19–20). Christ also promised that the Holy Ghost would give them perfect recall of everything that He had ever told them (John 14:26). But such promises were not given to His believing followers of all times. Now sometimes Matthew 10:19–20 (as well as the parallel passages in Mark 13:11 and Luke 12:11–12) are cited in support of the idea that God gives all Christians the words they are to say when they are beset by those that seek to harm them. While God may, indeed, grant us clarity of thought so that we can recall previously learned Bible verses in difficult situations (as many Christians have experienced), that is not what Christ here specifically promises. Notice what He says: “When they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you” (Matthew 10:19–20). This is a clear promise of divine inspiration that was given directly to the apostles — that without any thought being taken on their part, their mouths would deliver messages from the Lord. Such promises have not been given to us Christians of today.
And, really, we do not need God to give us the ability to speak and write Spirit-inspired words, as He did in the case of the prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles and evangelists in the New Testament, because He has already given us the inspired words that they wrote as His penmen, as these have been recorded for our learning in the Bible (Romans 15:4). So then, rather than telling us to expect the Holy Ghost to give us immediate revelations (apart from the means of His written Word), God directs us Christians to the Scriptures through which the Holy Ghost works to put His Word into our hearts and on our lips. This was also true for the other believers at the time when the Old and New Testaments were written. Consider these passages: “These words which I command thee this day shall be in thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). “From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness; that the man of God may be perfect [complete], thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (II Timothy 3:15–17). Because God has already caused to be recorded in the Scriptures everything that we need to know pertaining to our saving faith and our life of sanctification, we Christians today are not to look for direct spiritual revelations such as the Lord graciously provided to some of His people of old before they had the complete revelation of His will and grace through the mouths and pens of the prophets and apostles. But “whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
There is great danger in looking for God to speak through Christians today as He did through His messengers of old, because it draws people’s focus away from what God actually has said in Holy Scripture, and it encourages them to look for divine guidance from those whom God clearly says that He is “against” (Jeremiah 23:31) and who worship Him “in vain” (Matthew 15:9). In Luther’s day, Thomas Müntzer and the “Zwickau prophets” claimed to receive extra-biblical revelations from the Lord, and they deceived many. And, of course, the Pope (both then and now) claims to be the mouthpiece of God, even while blatantly contradicting the Bible. So then holding firmly to the principle of sola Scriptura (namely, that Scripture alone is the source and standard of true Christian doctrine), Luther wrote:
In those things which concern the spoken, outward Word, we must firmly hold that God grants His Spirit or grace to no one, except through or with the preceding outward Word, in order that we may be protected against the enthusiasts, i.e., spirits who boast that they have the Spirit without and before the Word, and accordingly judge Scripture or the spoken Word, and explain and stretch it at their pleasure, as Muenzer did, and many still do at the present day, who wish to be acute judges between the Spirit and the letter, and yet know not what they say or declare. For the Papacy also is nothing but sheer enthusiasm, by which the Pope boasts that all rights exist in the shrine of his heart, and whatever he decides and commands with his church is spirit and right, even though it is above and contrary to Scripture and the spoken Word (The Smalcald Articles, Triglotta, p. 495, §3–4).
But, now, a brief word of caution is in order concerning expressions that Christians sometimes use: Without necessarily meaning to claim divine inspiration for his own words, a Christian might say something like, “I was so nervous that I thought I would say everything wrong; but then God gave me just the right words to speak.” While such a statement can be understood correctly as referring to God blessing a person’s speech (meaning basically, “God helped focus my concentration so that I could speak better than I thought I’d be able to”), it could also wrongly be thought of as meaning that the exact words used (even though not quoting from the Scriptures) were given to the person through a kind of “verbal inspiration” in the same way God moved the holy men to write the Scriptures. Similarly, if a Christian is complimented concerning something that he said or wrote (assuming that he was not quoting the Bible), it is not wise for him to say things like, “Those weren’t my words; those were from the Lord.” Now such a statement might be intended to be a humble acknowledgment of the fact that all good things come from God; but it basically exalts that person’s words to the level of Scripture by essentially referring to his own words as the words of the Lord. And if taken that way, then what would stop that person’s words and opinions from being cited and imposed upon other Christians as the inspired words of God? What then would stop the words of men from being regarded as having the same divine authority and infallibility as belongs rightly only to the Bible? Hence, the potential danger should be readily observed.
Similarly, care must be taken in rightly understanding certain poetic expressions that we find in some well-known hymns, which a person might misunderstand as asking God to grant us extra-biblical revelations. In The Lutheran Hymnal (©1941), Hymn 411, verse 7, we find these words: “Help me speak what’s right and good …Help me pray, Lord, as I should.” This should be understood as God moving us, by means of His Word, to do good in our lives of sanctification (Philippians 2:13), particularly in connection with the words we say. In Hymn 428, verse 5, we sing to the Lord: “Words which Thou Thyself shalt give me must prevail.” If this is understood as God bringing to our remembrance previously learned Scripture passages, then there is no problem. Obviously, however, there would be a problem if one takes this as meaning that we expect the Lord to convey divinely inspired messages through us that are not found in the Bible.
Thus to avoid confusion and promote a correct understanding of the issues involved, a two-part answer should be given to the question, “Does the Holy Spirit give us utterance today?” 1) No, not in the same way He did with the prophets and apostles; but 2) Yes, through the instruction of the Scriptures, the Holy Ghost does move us to speak His Word faithfully. By means of the divinely-inspired text of the Bible, the Spirit of God puts His Word into Christians’ mouths and hearts so that they are able to know it for themselves (II Timothy 3:15; Psalm 119:11; etc.), to meditate upon it for their comfort and strengthening (Psalm 1:2; Romans 15:4), and to convey the vitally important messages of Law and Gospel to others (Matthew 28:20a). Indeed, we who have been blessed to receive the Word of the Lord in this manner have the privilege and obligation of confessing it with our mouths. God says: “He that hath My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully” (Jeremiah 23:28; see also Matthew 10:32 and Romans 10:9–10). The Lord tells us to be ready to give an answer to those that ask us concerning our Christian faith (I Peter 3:15); and the kind of answer He wants us to give is not one that begins with, “I tend to think about it this way,” or, “Here’s my opinion on the matter.” On the contrary, we are to “speak as the oracles of God” (I Peter 4:11) by drawing the answer directly from the Bible. And rather than asking the Lord to increase our spiritual understanding apart from the means of His written Word (by immediate revelation), we should rather pray that He would grant us such knowledge directly through the study of His Word—“Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy Law.” “Give me understanding according to Thy Word” (Psalm 119:18, 169).
God will certainly answer such prayers for spiritual wisdom. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). The Lord says: “I will put My Law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33; see also Romans 10:8). Again, this putting of His Word into our hearts is not done through the process of divine inspiration that took place with the holy writers of the Bible; but it comes about through the learning of Holy Scripture. We do not bind God in this matter (we do not limit His ability to grant a person immediate revelations); rather it is God who has bound us to the Scriptures. Accordingly, He directs faithful pastors to study Holy Writ (II Timothy 2:15); and He says that the subject matter of their preaching is to be “the Word” (II Timothy 4:2). There is no allowance for teachings that go beyond what Scripture teaches (I Timothy 6:3–5). Furthermore, the correct understanding of the Bible is to be drawn only from the Bible itself for the very reason that it (in contrast to the musings of the human mind) was inspired by God. “No prophecy of the Scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:20–21).
Since the words of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Ghost, since it is the Holy Ghost who through the Scriptures works the faith that receives His Word, and since the Holy Ghost also moves us as a fruit of saving faith to praise Him with our lips and to speak His Word to others, it is certainly true that the Spirit of God does give utterance to us Christians of today. “O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise” (Psalm 51:15). It is a fact that whenever we accurately quote the Scriptures and correctly apply the Law and the Gospel in speaking to others, the Lord God Himself is speaking to them through us (Luke 10:16). We should be very eager to be thus used by our Lord and Savior in the work of His kingdom for the spiritual welfare of those that hear us and to the honor of God’s holy name. May the Holy Ghost, therefore, continue this work in us through His powerful Word and fill us with a zeal to be His mouthpieces in conveying His life-giving Word to our fellow human beings — all to the praise of the glory of His grace in Christ Jesus!
“Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another, in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).
— P. E. B.