You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the Name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:21-22).
Cessationists and non-Charismatic Evangelicals use this passage of the Bible all the time to shoot down any attempt at modern day prophecy. Because they are committed to a philosophy called sola Scriptura, or “Bible-only” kind of thinking–they also believe that the Bible is inerrant–morally, theologically, grammatically, geographically, literarily, scientifically, etc. But because they are the spiritual children of the rationalist Enlightenment church, they don’t really know what it means to experience God outside of reading the Bible. They don’t know about experiencing dreams, visions, voices, impressions, signs, coincidences, healings, and miracles. All they know is the Bible; and that makes sense to their minds.
They see these mystical experiences as strange, esoteric, and occultic. They push them away even though they are gifts of the Holy Spirit. These sorts of Evangelicals have no way of knowing how to discern authentic spiritual experiences from occultic and human counterfeits. So they just lump them all together and brand them as occultic. That way they can continue with a clean conscience in knowing that the Bible Gospel will lead them home to Heaven. They know that they can trust the Bible to be the surefire Word of God. Jesus encountered people like this in His day that didn’t believe in Him. He said, “You search and investigate and pore over the Scriptures diligently, because you suppose and trust that you have eternal life through them. And these very Scriptures testify about Me!” (John 5:39, AMP). Men like this have more faith in the Scriptures than they do in the Holy Spirit. And it is through the Holy Spirit that we encounter Jesus directly through spiritual experiences (John 15:26). We are called by God to have a relationship with Him in Spirit and in Truth (John 4:23). Evangelicals have the truth part down (Bible theology), but they don’t know about the Spirit part; and it is the Spirit that gives life, not the letter (2 Cor. 3:6).
Because Bible-only Evangelicals have this concept of the Word of God as perfect, it immediately affects the way they see the modern day claims of prophecy in the Charismatic movement. They believe that the above passage in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 means that if a man has a spiritual experience of any kind, then he better prophesy 100% perfectly. For if he doesn’t, then he should never be allowed to prophesy in church ever again for the rest of his life–and what’s more, he should be labeled a false prophet. Of course, this unattainably high level of accuracy barely ever happens, for prophetic accuracy is very low these days. Prophecy is relatively new to the Evangelical church–only about 20 years.
Anyone who has studied Charismatic prophecy books, or has known any Charismatic prophets, or has had prophetic experiences–knows that there are levels in the prophetic. There are obscure visions and clear visions, quiet voices and loud audible voices, sparkling lights and visitations from Jesus, spiritual impressions and the interpretation of coincidences. Some revelatory experiences are mysterious and symbolic and need to be interpreted after patiently waiting, praying, and meditating about them–sometimes after months and years.
We should bear in mind that the context of the Deuteronomy 18 passage is warning about false prophets of the occult. It’s not referring to men of God that misinterpret a mysterious dream or vision. The prophets of the Bible were highly developed in their understanding of dreams, visions, and spiritual experiences. Daniel is said to have been a man that could “understand visions and dreams of all kinds” (Dan. 1:17). Although there were times when Daniel or John didn’t understand their dreams and visions, they always had an interpreting angel in the visionary experience to help them understand the meaning.
But a lot of the times, things aren’t so clear and developed and understandable. In reference to dreams and visions, Paul said, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor. 13:12). The spiritual gifts are just not as clear cut and reasonable for Evangelicals that lean away from the gift of prophecy. If you are a highly developed prophet or seer, then yes, you may attain a great level of prophetic accuracy in your old age. But until then, if you have an experience you’re unsure of, be sure not to be presumptuous about it, and just share your experience (and your doubts) and you can’t go wrong–for most people. And avoid using the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord” unless you’ve had a visitation from Jesus or some very clear revelatory experience.