Which Part of “From the Devil” don’t you understand?


“Therefore we ought and must constantly maintain this point, that God does not wish to deal with us otherwise than through the spoken Word and the Sacraments. It is the devil himself whatsoever is extolled as Spirit without the Word and Sacraments.”  – The Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article VIII, 10

As a church musician I am occasionally called upon to substitute for organists at other congregations.  I recently did a Sunday afternoon service at a nearby Lutheran church who was having their confirmation on Pentecost.  The graduating class was the largest I have ever seen, and it was a long service.  When the Pastor got up to speak, he spent the entire homily talking about “listening to the Holy Spirit.”  He told us stories of a few times that God had spoken to him personally, including what He said, and promised that God would speak to us too if we would simply apply his listening techniques.

I sat in that sanctuary, whose air conditioning has conveniently broken down right before a warm pre-Summer afternoon’s 2.5 hour service, and thought to myself as my blood begin to boil, “Well congratulations, you bungling magpie, you’ve just confirmed a sizable batch of atheists.”

Here’s how this plays out. For those who seek such immediate, personal divine revelation, there are four likely outcomes:

  1. They will listen and listen for this affirming, comforting voice from God that was promised them.  And then, when nothing happens, they will begin to wonder…  “Does God hate me?” “Is it because of some sin in my life that he won’t speak to me?” …and their view of God gradually becomes very sadistic and warped, as His silence causes them to question their status as His children.  Surely His children should receive assuring communication from their heavenly Father just like the preacher, right? The despair this leads to will result in giving up on the faith. “It isn’t worth the heartache, and even if it is true, it isn’t possible, so it’s definitely irrelevant.”
  2. Despite hearing nothing, they will pretend to have heard something anyway to fit in.  When they get tired of lying to themselves and to everyone else, they will leave the church for the sake of their intellectual integrity.  “Pastor says that God speaks to us, and if this doesn’t happen, it’s probably because God isn’t real.”
  3. Being psychologically unequipped to confront the despair of divine rejection and too afraid to leave the faith, they will begin to manufacture the voice of God in their heads. They will begin to imagine things He said to them out of desperation for some tangible manifestation of the presence of God, to assure them of their acceptance in His sight.  Intuitions, epiphanies, and coincidences start to be twisted into a web of personal revelation that is more superstitious than Christian.  Desperation to hear the voice of God leads to guessing games such as “I feel like God is leading me to…”  The focus of their faith is continually directed towards subjective phenomena and away from the cross of Christ until they find themselves wondering why they even bother getting up on Sunday morning.  “I can commune with God just fine wherever I am, the church gathering is just for the weak and un-spiritual.”
  4. At some point, they will cease to care whether or not they’ve actually heard anything, but the lack of actual spiritual experience isn’t about to prevent them from demonstrating it.  So they fake it till they make it, putting on a public show of false piety in order to show their righteousness before men.  “Of course I’m not one of those people who can’t hear God.”  At this point, reality cease to matter, because perception is influence.  And thus we’ve fostered a spirituality of Pharisaism.

This is where enthusiasm leads. Of course there are always other possibilities, but for those who take this teaching to heart, these are very common outcomes.

“Oh, but can’t God do whatever he pleases?  What if he does indeed speak to any of these students?  What if they claim to have heard His voice?  Are you going to tell them that their experiences are not real?  Who are you to judge someone else’s experience?”

Many people have told me with as much seriousness as conceivably possible that they have heard God speak to them.  How could I be so heartless as to tell them that their experiences, which to them seem so pivotal in life, are imaginary at best, likely contrived, or even from the Devil himself?

A man with an experience is never at the mercy an argument.  Nevertheless, the Scriptures teach:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…”  – Hebrews 1:1-2a

Stories from the Old Testament about God speaking to the prophets are not normative examples for your life.  God did not speak to the vast majority of the faithful in this way.  They understood this, and gladly accepted to hear from God through the mediation of the prophets because they feared God (Exodus 20:19).

In these days, God speaks to us through Jesus.  On the mount of transfiguration He says, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to Him!”  This doesn’t mean that the voice in your heart is Jesus.  It means that as the prophets were to Israel, Jesus is to the church.  The voice of Christ is heard in preaching and His Word, just as He has promised: “The one who hears you hears me,” (Luke 10:16).  In His means of grace we have all we could ever ask for from a Holy God, before Whom none could stand and live (Exodus 33:20).  These are life giving words— literally.

For those who are certain of having heard “the voice,” there are a variety of possible explanations that can reconcile experience with Scripture, ranging from an over-spiritualized epiphany or imagination to mental illness.  But we shouldn’t confuse the work of the Holy Spirit with personal revelation.  Jesus taught that the Holy Spirit would guide us into all truth and remind us of His teaching.  Those moments when a Biblical passage or teaching we’ve struggled with suddenly makes sense to us,  those times we struggle with a decision and Biblical teaching on the matter is brought to memory or made clear: this is the work of the Holy Spirit through the written Word.  If it cannot be traced back to the written Word, it is not of God.  God is not a liar. He speaks only where He has promised to speak, through preaching and His Word. Hmmmmm, who could it be, who could it be, that is urgently desiring to distract our focus from the Bible and direct it towards terminal introspection, seeking to find some inner light from within?

church ladeyLutherans have such a robust, tangible, mystical, and beautiful pneumatology.  That any of our preachers would exchange this priceless treasure for the imaginary trinkets of enthusiast snake oil salesmen is a travesty.  It robs people of the true joy of genuine Gospel comfort that can be found in the very real voice of God that IS speaking to us, not to give us secret information like some sort of voodoo psychic, but to comfort and assure us that we are genuinely loved, absolutely His, fully forgiven and accepted into His family, for Jesus’ sake.  The Jesus who is God speaking to us says, “This is my body, which is given for you.”  “Your sins are forgiven.”  “Surely I am with you always.”  This voice is the only one we need to hear, it is the only one that gives hope, and any Lutheran pastor or congregation worth their salt will make this voice the heart and soul of their spirituality.  To do otherwise is to take Jesus from the people with one hand, and leave them with the traditions of man, certain preparations of our own invention.  Damned sinners don’t have time for such presumptuous games!  Which part of “from the devil” don’t you understand?

After the service I hung my head and shuffled back home, thanking God for the faithfulness of my own pastor. He had just taught us earlier that the events of the original day of Pentecost (Acts 2) were singular occurrences in the manner of the incarnation and resurrection.  Today, the Holy Spirit comes to us through His means of grace. “In this Christian Church [the Holy Spirit] daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers,” (Creed:III). The Holy Spirit and His gifts are ours. Let us cling to them.

About Miguel Ruiz

Miguel Ruiz is a post-Evangelical adult convert to confessional Lutheranism and a vocational church musician. He is a commissioned Minister of Religion in the LCMS, serving Our Savior Lutheran Church and School in Centereach, New York, as the director of parish music and music teacher. His journey down the Wittenberg trail began when he was roused from his dogmatic slumber by the writings of Michael Spencer and Robbert Webber. After a period of Cartesian doubt seeking a confessional identity, he finally found his home in the Lutheran church. When he isn’t busy running upwards of 12 rehearsals a week, he loves writing as a way to interact with other perspectives and to pontificate on his doxological agenda. He enjoys exploring the treasury of 2000 years of sacred music, and has found his life’s calling as a cantor, with a mission to “put the Gospel on the lips of the people of God through song, that the Word might dwell in their hearts through faith.”


Which Part of “From the Devil” don’t you understand? — 18 Comments

  1. For the very reasons you (excellently) cite, that enthusiast scares me 100 times more than that evolutionist from Valpo. Not to diminish the harm the latter is causing, but to use a warfare analogy, that enthusiast is like a MG-42 whereas Becker is like a Brown Bess (musket). Both can be dangerous, but enthusiasm is spraying WAY more lead downrange among the sheep in this Synod.

  2. @Marc L. #1

    Excellent arms reference! With the title, “From the Devil”, this old devil dawg just grunted, “hoorah!” in response to your comment.

    + pax +

  3. This reads like a missing chapter from Rev. Jonathan Fisk’s book “Broken” — EXCELLENT commentary! Thank you for shining the light of truth on the darkness of deceit (Ephesians 5:11), especially for “Newtherans” like me who thought they escaped this nonsense only to discover it’s alive-and-well in the Lutheran church too. In a weird way, it’s comforting for me to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way in response to experiencing (pun intended) the same things you observed and wrote about here. Thanks again.

    Grace And Peace,

  4. I had an enjoyable revelation when you used the words “personal revelation”. It’s amazing to me how frequently I can struggle to put into words things in my walk with the Lord and then see them so simply put out elsewhere. That is why I love congregation. Consider the opportunity to restore this man gently. Talk to the elders about this if that is possible.

  5. “Against the Enthusiasts” – one reason why The Nicene Creed 3rd. Art on the Holy Ghost is in the past tense: “Who SPAKE by the prophets” …

  6. i like that you said everything God speaks to us can be traced back to scripture. However I definitely believe that God speaks to me even when I’m not reading His Word. There’s no reason to believe that God has stopped speaking to people individually outside of the confines of scripture. Even while reading the Bible I have to rely on the Holy Spirit to help me understand how it applies to situations and how certain situations can be referred to it. It is an old book written a long time ago in a language that does not translate properly into English. So I need the Holy Spirit to show me. And I’ve seen the result of the Holy Spirit speaking to me And the results that come from me submitting to the Holy Spirit.

  7. Amen,Brother and keep writing on this subject, it is a very serious problem and sad to hear it’s not foreign to the Lutherans.

  8. Good stuff, Mr. Ruiz.
    When in the ELCA, one of the heretical refrains, regarding homosexuality, was,”The spirit is telling us new things (regarding same-sex attraction).” Ever since, I am mistrustful of anyone who intones “The Spirit” without the full Name, the Holy Spirit. Without “Holy”, we can make Him into our own image to justify our sins.

  9. @Nathan Knell #6

    It is one thing to have the Holy Spirit illuminate Scripture through understanding it properly. If that’s what you mean by “God Speaking to you” through the Word, I agree wholeheartedly.

    But you have no way of knowing whether or not any voice you hear, be it an audible one or a voice “in your head” is the Holy Spirit. You don’t think Satan doesn’t itch for the chance to lead us astray through our own feelings, thoughts, or “inner voices”? For that matter, let’s set Satan aside for a moment: our own flesh is fully capable of giving us impressions and imaginations on its own, and the fact that it’s turned against God should be warning enough for us to heed.

    (By the way, as an aside, when God spoke in the Scriptures, it was almost always in an audible voice outside of that person, not a voice in the head).

  10. “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place.” (Acts 8:26)

    “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph 2:10)

    “A man’s steps are from the Lord;
    how then can man understand his way?” (Prov 20:24)

    “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

    You cannot discount your head being turned toward something, a voice from the outside (as I am sure an angel would be), or a simple reminder of a passage, something read or said, when you encounter something in life. God does communicate and direct our lives wherever we do not interfere or block Him out. It makes no sense to confine His voice and actions to only those moments when the Scriptures are opened in our presence. You cannot for fear of becoming obsessed with an inner revelation or of the devil’s power close yourself off from God. In such a case, the enemy wins. We carry the assurances of not only His Word but His presence in our lives. the devil will tempt us and try to direct us to his voice or some inner drive of our own, but we can rely on God’s protection. We can recall His Word in moments of decision. In those times, God is speaking to us even if there is no Bible in our hands.

    I guess your post-evangelical background has you on high alert. Maybe you’ve seen snake dancers or tongue babblers insisting on outward signs of God’s voice and presence. I can assure you, I have had prayers answered (God’s voice), been given opportunities to serve (God’s voice), been shaken awake while driving, been guided as husband and father, as naturalist watching the stars and the birds and wildflowers, and as an employee. The lines of communication are open, if you know how to listen and what it means to hear. God is not silent, He does not wait for us to be in the moment, He makes the moments.

    The devil has no power over us. We have God’s assurance on that. He can tempt and we will succumb and sin, but that is the power of sin, not the power of the devil. Temptation is not power and we know that God will strengthen us against any temptation, no matter how loud or what parts of us it touches: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) – And, presumably, the prince of this world.

  11. “I can assure you, I have had prayers answered (God’s voice), been given opportunities to serve (God’s voice), been shaken awake while driving, been guided as husband and father, as naturalist watching the stars and the birds and wildflowers, and as an employee. The lines of communication are open, if you know how to listen and what it means to hear. God is not silent, He does not wait for us to be in the moment, He makes the moments.”

    Nobody is denying that God providentially works through ordinary means. Nor do we not believe that God is capable of miraculous intervention, such as people who are healed after they are prayed for. We’re not deists who hold to a “clockmaker” theology. But I also don’t go through life searching for “God’s voice” when He tells me everything I need in the Holy Scriptures and will guide me through circumstances as they naturally unfold.

    Those who depend upon a supernatural revelation or “hearing God’s voice” instead of finding sufficiency in what He has given us through the Bible are 1.) displaying a subtle but nevertheless real lack of faith in the adequacy of the written Word and 2.) open the door for enthusiasm. And this is a PERFECT venue of temptation from the devil: to look like God in the area of supernatural revelation.

    How quickly we forget passages like II Corinthians 11:14 and blindly assume that all things appearing supernatural are of God like the New Ager and the Pantheist!!

  12. @HL #13

    HL, you’re not listening. Read the link:

    Your Biblical examples are not normative. Read Hebrews 1. God NEVER promised to speak directly to all believers through an audible voice. OT believers knew this because they feared the holiness of God and realized to hear his voice is to die. Therefore, they happily heard his message through the mediation of the prophets. For us, that mediation is Christ. This is a beautiful thing!

    You cannot discount your head being turned toward something, a voice from the outside (as I am sure an angel would be), or a simple reminder of a passage, something read or said, when you encounter something in life.

    You cannot discount this being the Holy Spirit working through the Word. If it is addressed in Scripture, the Holy Spirit works to remind us of these things. Our flesh (the Old Adam) does not remember these things on its own. If it is NOT contained in the Scriptures, it is probably a matter of Christian freedom, and any voice that advises otherwise is legalism. Satan is the ultimate legalist. He desires to see us all perish under the condemnation of the Law.

    It makes no sense to confine His voice and actions to only those moments when the Scriptures are opened in our presence.

    We don’t. That’s not what it means for the Spirit to work through the Word. When we pray, with the Psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart,” we are asking God to transform our desires to hate sin and to love righteousness. The Spirit does this through the Word, and so IF you find yourself desiring to fear, love, and trust in God, this cannot be a result of your personal will or decision. It is rather a gift from God, given to you, by the Holy Spirit, through the Word. Apart from the Gospel spoken to us, we cannot desire to live in a manner genuine pleasing to God. Whether the book is currently open in front of you is irrelevant. Once you read or hear it, it’s too late: The Word has entered your mind and subconscious, and there’s no restricting how the Holy Spirit might use that to enlighten you at any point in the future. God’s Word is that powerful. Once spoken, it cannot be recalled.

    I guess your post-evangelical background has you on high alert. Maybe you’ve seen snake dancers or tongue babblers insisting on outward signs of God’s voice and presence.

    You don’t know the half of it, but I’m not from the snake handler tribe.

    I can assure you, I have had prayers answered (God’s voice), been given opportunities to serve (God’s voice), been shaken awake while driving, been guided as husband and father

    Answered prayers is one thing. Hearing voices in your head is another. I’ve had plenty of the former. When I get the latter, I’m visiting a shrink that day. So should you. But I don’t think you’ve literally heard a voice. Most Charismatics I’ve known (very many, mind you) describe “the voice” as a strong impression. Pressed further, they concede it as an emotional inclination. Unless you hear words that you’re willing to write down and literally bet the farm on, I’m just not impressed. When God speaks, there is no chance of mishearing or deception. Most “prophets” I’ve know speak in Nostradamus, with so many possible “interpretations” that is’ virtually impossible for “the voice” to be disproven. See “conspiracy theory.”

    God is not silent, He does not wait for us to be in the moment, He makes the moments.

    So tell me then: What’s my problem? Am I not listening right? Do I lack sufficient faith? Have I not applied the right techniques to hear? Is there too much sin in my life?

    I’ll pass on those sports. Finding God’s guidance and leading is not a Gnostic Easter egg hunt. The omnipotent, divine, benevolent creator of the universe does not resort to such petty games to get His point across. He is much kinder than that. He sent His Son to show us. Then He sent His apostles and Spirit to make sure that it got written down. His Spirit is still here because we are so sinfully incompetent that apart from divine intervention we still couldn’t understand the plain text. He leads us into all truth by the Spirit working through the Word. Why would we trade such a beautiful truth for anything speculative? Is it not far better to bend our ear to listen where we can be sure that God is speaking? I’d say that the Book is magic, but that would be a crass understatement. What is contained therein will literally raise the dead and give the faithful eternal life. That is some strong stuff to be so lightly discarded for subjective promptings.

  13. @Miguel Ruiz #15

    I have never heard an actual voice, but I have felt God’s presence. Am I ill? I don’t think so. In daily life, I am presented with moments and opportunities, God is active and pointing me. I did have a personal experience, not a voice, at a moment when I needed it and it left me forever changed. I say that as someone baptised the day I was born because my parents didn’t think I would live, as someone who grew up among very old-fashioned German Lutherans. Am I deluded? I have also seen a few miraculous medical recoveries. These were people beyond medicine.

    I am not even sure that the prophets heard the kind of physical voices we might imagine and I don’t think little voices dictated what Evangelists wrote. Breathed and inspired are deeper than words.

    If someone says he heard God’s voice, I would be highly skeptical, if it was a message to deliver. Less so if it was an instruction to go somewhere, but still skeptical. But the skepticism is easy to deal with because we have God’s Word and no message can contradict it and no added message would have any purpose. But a direction to go somewhere? Well, what was it for and what happened? Again, compare that to Scripture.

    I see your point but you need to consider that things are possible and voices can happen. It is wrong to promise such results. But it is equally wrong to say that God does not stay close to you or that He does not have a personal stake in your daily life. I also know too many people who look outside of Scripture for God’s plan for their lives and I tell them all the same thing: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

    I’ll leave you this question: has God given anyone the powers described in Luke or do you think that was a one-time deal for a primitive age?

  14. @HL #16

    Now we’re getting somewhere.

    I have never heard an actual voice,

    That’s what I’m talking about. I know people who claim to have. I am convinced they are mistaken.

    but I have felt God’s presence. Am I ill?

    No, but you are probably deceived. How can you KNOW that what you felt is the presence of God? You’ve felt your heart, like Wesley, “strangely warmed,” but how can you jump from this emotional sensation to the dogmatic assertion that it is the sure sign of the presence of God? Where in Scripture are we told that God’s presence will be detected with our feelings? Never. The presence of God, in the Scriptures, is usually revealed through words and signs. Whatever emotional experience you may have had, and it may have been a very good, positive, and enlightening experience, people from other religions get them too. Many Christians never do. We do not rightly ascribe this as being a part of the Christian faith. There’s nothing wrong about the Holy Spirit stirring up within us a deeper affection for God, we should all pray for this, but he doesn’t do it randomly. He does it through the revelation of who God is, in the face of Jesus.

    Another religion makes a big deal out of this burning in the bosom too, by the way. If it could be trusted, then I should have joined them. True story: I read from the book of Mormon, just like the missionary said, and prayed and asked God to show me if it was true. And I experienced, just as they promised, a heartwarming sensation! …is this an indicator of truth? For pete’s sake, it even went precisely as scripted! Either the Mormons are the truth, OR, emotional experiences do not give us truth.

    I have also seen a few miraculous medical recoveries.

    So have I. We should not be so surprised when God answers prayer like that.

    I did have a personal experience, not a voice, at a moment when I needed it and it left me forever changed.

    I’ve had some rather timely epiphanies myself, usually in times of emotional duress. God can use our circumstances to lead us, but only to the extent that they provide us the opportunity to fear and love Him by hearing and trusting His word.

    Breathed and inspired are deeper than words.

    Words are not so trivial and inept as you might think. That God Himself deigned to use words as a means of creating and redeeming us puts an infinite value on their right use. The Bible is not deeper than words: It uses words to give us the Word. These very words we take to the bank, we hang on their every jot and title, because there is no one else to whom we can go: They are the words of eternal life. Theories of inspiration aside, you may have a point with the Evangelists (though they actually DID hear very literal words coming from Jesus himself when he taught, which they likely recorded verbatim at least part of the time), but the OT seems to depict the prophets having actual conversations with God. Scary stuff.

    you need to consider that things are possible and voices can happen.

    You need to consider that you are assuming quite a lot about me there. I’m a former Charismatic. I’m not close minded about this, I’ve been there, tried that, got the T-shirt. God can do anything he wants, sure. But He will not go back on His word. He tells us to listen to Christ, not our subconscious. He tells us that in these last days Christ is how he speaks to us, analogous to how the prophets were his medium in the OT. Based off the scriptures, you can be sure that a voice you hear in your head is not God because then he would be contradicting himself. A liar. This is not being close minded: it is rather liberating! It means that tons of little choices become matters of Christian freedom, and we never have to second guess what God is telling us because we have it written down! …and if God wants for you to be in a particular circumstance for some sort of divine coincidence, believe me, he is perfectly capable of orchestrating that on his own without your autonomous will playing a part in it. Don’t take that pressure on yourself, it’s not worth it.

    But it is equally wrong to say that God does not stay close to you or that He does not have a personal stake in your daily life.

    Amen. God cares about the details. Everything in our vocation is before the face of God. He wants us to work with all our might. He wants us to love and serve our neighbor as best as we possibly can. He wants us to keep His kingdom as our foremost priority and seek to serve Him only. He wants to guide and teach us how to do this. He is not giving us little secret tips and tricks along the way through voices, emotions, or pictures in the clouds.

    For your question: It clearly was not a one time deal, it happened again continually throughout the book of Acts. As far as the “sign gifts” go, the Apostles had these abilities, and they were able to give these abilities to others. These people who received them from the Apostles were not able to pass them down. There is no documented evidence from church history to suggest otherwise, this completely fits with all the facts that can be known. By the end of the second century we see no mention of this happening. Did the church “go off the rails” so soon? Any church body who claims that is basing their tradition off a conspiracy theory, and half wind up becoming cults.

    However, certain “powers” described in Luke most certainly persist to this day. The authority to forgive sins is most certainly given to the church for all time. Exorcisms are also a continuing reality that is practiced in nearly all branches of Christendom.

    Great question! Thanks for your honesty in this exchange.

  15. I fell into this a few years back, thinking God spoke to me within my mind. When I was 16 I had an experience in my car when I thought I heard God tell me “I love you.” I didn’t think anything of it then, until later when I encountered this charismatic theology in college. I have a pretty good feeling that I had contrived that voice at will. It did not provide much in the way of comfort, but instead either “puffed me up” spiritually or filled me with doubt. I was afraid that if I rejected this teaching as false, I would be rejecting God himself.

    My Lutheran upbringing and education is what saw me through it. During the time I was “hearing God’s voice” I checked everything I thought I heard against Scripture, aware of the possibility of the Devil being involved. It was the enthusiastic teaching that made it even more difficult when I went through a low point in my life. God felt distant. I couldn’t depend on his “voice” anymore. Instead, I was forced to depend upon my baptism as the only bedrock I had. God sent me through a furnace and burned away the chaff. I feel so sorry for evangelicals who do not have such an understanding of baptism.

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