Tim: We often hear today that many believers from a Muslim background—especially those from closed countries who do not have easy access to God’s Word—are claiming they had a vision of Christ and that in this vision he directed them to a place or person where they could hear the gospel. This proclamation of the gospel led to their conversion. Do you believe these stories? Do you consider such visions a valid means that God may work in our world today?
John MacArthur: There are several points that could be made in answer to this question. Let me begin with just a general comment about how to interpret experience. It is important to remember that, as Christians, we ought to develop our theology from Scripture and then interpret experience accordingly. Danger comes when believers get that backwards—allowing experience to define their theology, and then reinterpreting the Bible to make it fit.
With regard to these kinds of stories, I am always somewhat skeptical about third- and fourth-hand accounts of supposedly supernatural happenings. It’s not that I doubt the power of God to do whatever He wants. Obviously, He can (Psalm 115:3). But I question whether the story itself is an accurate record of what actually took place. Sometimes well-meaning people misinterpret what really happened. Sometimes second-hand stories are unintentionally exaggerated. And sometimes, sadly, people purposefully manufacture tall tales.
For example, there are unbelievers in false religions all over the world who claim to have received divine revelations or to have witnessed miracles. I don’t believe any of those things, because they are reported by people who do not truly know God.
Regarding the visions in question, it is important to recognize that those who have investigated such claims have found the evidence to be sorely lacking. For example, this article directly addresses the issue.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to hear that Muslims are coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That is remarkable, and I rejoice in that reality! Moreover, I would gladly affirm that their regeneration truly is a miracle (just as it is for every sinner), even if I would deny the notion that any previous dreams, impressions, or experiences were revelatory or miraculous.
I suppose that brings us to the crux of the matter. Do I believe that people in the Muslim world are actually seeing Jesus Christ? No, I do not. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:8 that he was “the last of all” to see the risen Christ. So, I believe that precludes anyone outside of those listed in 1 Corinthians 15 of being able to claim legitimate visions of the resurrected Savior. (The apostle John, of course, was one of those included in 1 Corinthians 15. Accordingly, I don’t believe the book of Revelation sets a precedent for believers to expect genuine visions of Jesus to occur throughout church history.)
Furthermore, it is important to note that these individuals are still unbelievers when they reportedly have these experiences. Consequently, these experiences (whatever they are reported to be) cannot constitute examples of the charismatic gifts having continued, since spiritual gifts are only given to believers (1 Cor. 12:7)—and these people do not come to saving faith until later.
Finally, the New Testament clearly states that the way in which the gospel is spread in this age is through preaching. As Paul explains in Romans 10:14–15, unbelievers will not hear the gospel unless missionaries go to them proclaiming the good news of salvation:
How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!”
To claim that the gospel is now being spread through supernatural visions and revelatory dreams (rather than gospel preaching) goes contrary to Paul’s words in those verses.
By the way, that is why we live-stream our church services every Sunday in Arabic (through gracechurch.org) so that those sermons are available to Arab-speakers all around the world. We believe that faith comes from hearing the proclamation of the good news. In our efforts to fulfill the Great Commission, we can’t assume that supposed visions are legitimate, when the means that God has ordained is the proclamation is the gospel.
Now, can God providentially work in such a way as to use people’s thoughts and impressions to draw them to faith in Jesus Christ? Yes, I believe that’s possible. As I noted earlier, God can do whatever He wants. But that work is neither revelatory nor miraculous. Phil Johnson gave a helpful explanation of this point in his breakout session at the Strange Fire Conference. He said this:
How do we understand that inner sense, especially when God seems to use it to prompt us to pray, or witness, or duck and run at precisely the right moment? Because let’s be honest: that kind of thing does happen to most of us from time to time.
Here’s the point: I do believe that God might providentially use a spontaneous thought in my head to accomplish something wonderful. But that’s what it is, and no more. It’s a remarkable providence, not a prophecy [nor a revelatory vision]. As I have been saying, God ultimately controls and uses everything providentially… . The fact that He uses an idea in my mind to achieve some good purpose doesn’t make the idea itself inspired.
So where does that leave me? Well, I praise God that, in His perfect providence, He is drawing Muslims to saving faith in Jesus Christ. At times, the circumstances in which these individuals hear the gospel and are converted may sound extraordinary to us. Certainly, the miracle of regeneration is always extraordinary! But for reasons that come from the study of Scripture, I do not believe anyone today is genuinely experiencing supernatural visions or revelatory dreams.
Those interested in thinking more about this topic should check out Fred Butler’s helpful blog post on this topic.
SI Moderator - Greg Gordon