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MIRACULOUS GIFTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT: Differing Arguments (Part 2)

Posted by Gabriel (G²) on November 15, 2007

This is an argument by apolegetist Sam Storms, who used to be a DIE-HARD Cessationist & later was convinved that Spiritual Gifts were available for today. He’s now, in his own words, a “Charismatic Calvinist” & has some of the most intriguing arguments on the issue that I know of.

 http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/are-miraculous-gifts-for-today-part-ii

In this study and the one to follow I want to identify and then respond to the six most frequently used arguments in defense of cessationism. If you are not familiar with that word it refers to the doctrine that certain spiritual gifts, typically (and mistakenly) those referred to as “miraculous” in nature (such as healing, prophecy, tongues, miracles, word of knowledge, etc.) ceased or were withdrawn by God from the church at the close of the first century or in conjunction with the death of the original apostles. I was a cessationist until 1988. Among the various arguments cessationists employ, the following six were those I most often heard and preached. I now find them wholly inadequate, indeed wholly misleading and false. Here is why.

1.         An argument frequently cited in defense of cessationism is that signs, wonders and miracles were not customary phenomena even in biblical times. Rather, they were clustered or concentrated at critical moments of revelatory activity in redemptive history. John MacArthur (in his book Charismatic Chaos) writes:

“Most biblical miracles happened in three relatively brief periods of Bible history: in the days of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the time of Christ and the apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a hundred years. Each of them saw a proliferation of miracles unheard of in other eras. . . . Aside from those three intervals, the only supernatural events recorded in Scripture were isolated incidents.”

Several things may be said in response to this argument.

First, at most this proves that in three periods of redemptive history miraculous phenomena were more prevalent than in other times. It does not prove that miraculous phenomena in other times were non-existent. Nor does it prove that an increase in the frequency of miraculous phenomena could not appear in yet a fourth era of redemptive history, perhaps our own.

Second, for this to be a substantive argument one must explain not only why miraculous phenomena were prevalent in these three periods but also why they were, allegedly, infrequent or, to use MacArthur’s terms, “isolated,” in all other periods. If miraculous phenomena were infrequent in other periods, a point I concede here only for the sake of argument, one would need to ascertain why. Was it because God is by nature stingy with miracles? Is he skeptical of their effectiveness? Or could it be that the alleged relative infrequency of the miraculous was due to the rebellion, unbelief, and apostasy rampant in Israel throughout much of her history? Let us not forget that even Jesus “could do no miracle there [in Nazareth] except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5), all because of their unbelief (at which, we are told, Jesus “wondered”, v. 6).

The point is that the comparative “isolation” of the miraculous in certain periods of OT history could be due more to the recalcitrance of God’s people than to any supposed theological principle that dictates as normative a paucity of supernatural manifestations.

           

Third, there were no cessationists in the Old Testament! No one is ever found to argue that since miraculous phenomena were “clustered” at selected points in redemptive history we should not expect God to display his power in some other day. In other words, at no point in OT history did miracles cease. That they may have subsided is possible. But what does that prove? Simply that in some periods God is pleased to work miraculously with greater frequency than he is in others.

The fact that miracles do appear throughout the course of redemptive history, whether sporadically or otherwise, proves that miracles never ceased. How, then, can the prevalence of miracles in three periods of history be an argument for cessationism? In other words, how does the existence of miracles in every age of redemptive history serve to argue against the existence of miracles in our age? It is a strange logic indeed which contends that the occurrence of miraculous phenomena in biblical times, however infrequent and isolated, proves the non-occurrence of miraculous phenomena in post-biblical times. The continuation of miraculous phenomena then is not an argument for the cessation of miraculous phenomena now! The fact that in certain periods of redemptive history few miracles are recorded proves only two things: first, that miracles did occur and, second, that few of them were recorded. It does not prove that only a few actually occurred.

Fourth, MacArthur’s assertion that miraculous phenomena outside these three special periods were “isolated” is simply false. He is able to make this argument only by defining the miraculous so narrowly as to eliminate a vast number of recorded supernatural phenomena that otherwise might qualify. I suppose the point is this: If miracles (using MacArthur’s arbitrary and restrictive definition of what constitutes a miraculous occurrence) were infrequent “then”, why should we expect them to be any more frequent “now”?

He insists that to qualify as a miracle the extraordinary event must occur “through human agency” and must serve to “authenticate” the messenger through whom God is revealing some truth. In this way MacArthur is able to exclude as miraculous any supernatural phenomenon that occurs apart from human agency and any supernatural phenomenon unrelated to the revelatory activity of God. Thus, if no revelation is occurring in that period of redemptive history under consideration, no supernatural phenomena recorded in that era can possibly meet the criteria set forth by MacArthur. On such a narrow definition of miracle it thus becomes easy to say they were “isolated” or infrequent.

But if “human agency” or a “gifted” individual is required before an event can be called miraculous, what becomes of the virgin birth of Jesus? On MacArthur’s definition of a miracle, not even the resurrection of Christ would qualify! What becomes of the resurrection of the saints mentioned in Matthew 27:52-53? Are we no longer permitted to call Peter’s deliverance from jail in Acts 12 a miracle simply because no “human” was instrumental in his escape? Was the instantaneous death of Herod in Acts 12:23 not a miracle because the agency was “angelic”? Was the earthquake that opened the prison in which Paul and Silas were housed not a miracle because God did it himself, directly? Was Paul’s deliverance from the venom of a viper (Acts 28) not a miracle simply because no human agency was utilized in his preservation?

To define as a miracle only those supernatural phenomena involving human agency is arbitrary. It is a case of special pleading, conceived principally because it provides a way of reducing the frequency of the miraculous in the biblical record.

MacArthur also insists that miracles always accompany divine revelation as a means of attestation. That miracles confirm and authenticate the divine message and messenger is certainly true. But MacArthur reduces the purpose of miracles to this one function while ignoring other reasons for which God ordained them. The association of the miraculous with divine revelation becomes an argument for cessationism only if the Bible restricts the function of a miracle to attestation. And such the Bible does not do.

My reading of the OT reveals a consistent pattern of supernatural manifestations in the affairs of humanity. Once the arbitrary restrictions on the definition of a miracle are removed, a different picture of OT religious life emerges. (See the chart in Jack Deere’s book, Surprised By The Power of The Spirit.)

Two other factors indicate that miraculous phenomena were not as “isolated” as some allege.

First, there is the assertion of Jeremiah 32:20 in which the prophet speaks of God who “sets signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and even to this day both in Israel and among mankind; and Thou hast made a name for Thyself, as at this day.” This text alerts us to the danger of arguing from silence. The fact that from the time of the Exodus to the Captivity few instances of signs and wonders are recorded does not mean they did not occur. Jeremiah insists they did. One might compare this with the danger of asserting that Jesus did not perform a particular miracle or do so with any degree of frequency simply because the gospels fail to record it. John tells us explicitly that Jesus performed “many other signs . . . in the presence of the disciples” which he did not include in his gospel account” (John 20:30) as well as “many other things which Jesus did” that were impossible to record in detail (John 21:25).

Second, MacArthur inists that NT and OT prophecy are the same. He also readily acknowledges, as do all cessationists, that NT prophecy was a “miracle” gift. If OT prophecy was of the same nature, then we have an example of a miraculous phenomenon recurring throughout the course of Israel’s history. In every age of Israel’s existence in which there was prophetic activity there was miraculous activity. What then becomes of the assertion that miracles, even on MacArthur’s narrow definition, were infrequent and “isolated”?

Does any of this prove that God is doing signs, wonders, and miracles in our day? No. It merely proves that He may. It proves that it would be consistent with how God has acted in times past. It proves there is nothing in the biblical record concerning the alleged infrequency of miracles that would lead us to believe God will not do them in our day.

2.         A second argument to which the cessationist appeals is this: “Signs, wonders, and miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit such as tongues, interpretation, healing, and the discerning of spirits, were designed to confirm, attest, and authenticate the apostolic message.” It is only reasonable to conclude, therefore, as Norman Geisler has said, that “The ‘signs of an apostle’ passed away with the times of an apostle.”

It is true that signs, wonders, and miracles often attested to the divine origin of the apostolic message. But this is a persuasive argument against the contemporary validity of such phenomena only if you can demonstrate two things.

 

 

 

 

 

For another intriguing argument on the subject, John Piper h

First, you must demonstrate that authentication or attestation was the sole and exclusive purpose of such displays of divine power. However, there is not so much as a single inspired syllable of Scripture that does so. Nowhere in the NT is the purpose or function of the miraculous or the charismata reduced to that of attestation.

The miraculous, in whatever form in which it appeared, served several other distinct purposes. For example, there was a doxological purpose. Such was the primary reason for the resurrection of Lazarus, as Jesus himself makes clear in John 11:4 (cf. 11:40). The doxological purpose of the miraculous is also found in John 2:11; 9:3; and Mt. 15:29-31. Miracles also served an evangelistic purpose (see Acts 9:32-43). Much of our Lord’s miraculous ministry was an expression of his compassion and love for the hurting multitudes. He healed the sick and even fed the 5,000 principally because he felt compassion for the people.

There are several texts which indicate that one primary purpose of miraculous phenomena was to edify and build up the body of Christ. At one point in his book MacArthur says that noncessationists “believe that the spectacular miraculous gifts were given for the edification of believers. Does God’s Word support such a conclusion? No. In fact, the truth is quite the contrary.”

What, then, will you do with 1 Cor. 12:7-10, the list of what all agree are miraculous gifts such as prophecy, tongues, healing, and interpretation of tongues? These charismata, says Paul, were distributed to the body of Christ “for the common good” (v. 7), i.e., for the edification and benefit of the church! These are primarily, but not exclusively, the very gifts that serve as the background against which Paul then encourages (in vv. 14-27) all members of the body to minister one to another for mutual edification, insisting that no one gift (whether tongues or prophecy or healing) is any less important than another.

Again, what will you do with 1 Cor. 14:3 in which Paul asserts that prophecy, one of the miraculous gifts listed in 12:7-10, functions to edify, exhort, and console others in the church? The one who prophesies, says Paul in 14:4, “edifies the church.” And what will you do with 1 Cor. 14:5 in which Paul says that tongues, when interpreted, also edifies the church? And what will you do with 1 Cor. 14:26 in which Paul exhorts us to assemble, prepared to minister with a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation, all of which are designed, he says, for “edification”?

And if, as MacArthur says, “tongues never were intended to edify believers,” why did God provide the gift of interpretation so that tongues might be utilized in the gathered assembly of believers? If “tongues never were intended to edify believers,” why did Paul himself exercise that gift in the privacy of his own devotions? That he did so is demonstrable from 1 Cor. 14:18-19. There he declares: “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” This latter statement is Paul’s somewhat exaggerated way of saying he almost never speaks in tongues in church. In the absence of an interpreter, he most definitely won’t. Now listen carefully:

If in church Paul virtually never exercises this gift, yet speaks in tongues more frequently and fluently and fervently than anyone, even more so than the tongue-happy Corinthians, where does he do it? Dare I say, in private?

My point is this: all the gifts of the Spirit, whether tongues or teaching, whether prophecy or mercy, whether healing or helps, were given, among other reasons, for the edification and building up and encouraging and instructing and consoling and sanctifying of the body of Christ. Therefore, even if the ministry of the miraculous gifts to attest and authenticate has ceased, a point I concede only for the sake of argument, such gifts would continue to function in the church for the other reasons cited.

The second thing that must be demonstrated for this argument to carry weight is that only the apostles performed signs, wonders, miracles, or exercised so-called “miraculous” charismata. But this is contrary to the evidence of the NT. Others, aside from the apostles, who exercised miraculous gifts include

·      the 70 who were commissioned in Luke 10:9,19-20;

·      at least 108 people among the 120 who were gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost;

·      Stephen (Acts 6-7);

·      Philip (Acts 8);

·      Ananias (Acts 9);

·      Prophets in Antioch (Acts 13)

·      Philip’s daughters / prophetesses (Acts 21:8-9)

·      the unnamed brethren of Galatians 3:5

·      believers in Rome (Rom. 12:6-8)

·      believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5).

Furthermore, when you read 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, does it sound as if Paul is saying that only apostles are endowed with the charismata? On the contrary, “gifts of healings,” “tongues,” “miracles,” etc., are given by the sovereign Spirit to ordinary Christians in the church at Corinth for the daily, routine building up of the body. Farmers, shopkeepers, housewives, as well as apostles and elders and deacons received the manifestation of the Spirit, all “for the common good” of the church.

           

A counter argument is often made to the effect that signs and wonders and miraculous charismata in Acts were closely connected to the apostles or to those who were themselves associated with the apostolic company. But remember this:

First, the book of Acts is, after all, the Acts of the APOSTLES! We entitle it this way because we recognize that the activity of the apostles is the principal focus of the book. We should hardly be surprised or try to build a theological case on the fact that a book designed to report the acts of the apostles describes signs and wonders performed by the apostles!

Second, to say that Stephen and Phillip and Ananias don’t count because they are closely associated with the apostles proves nothing. Name one person, who figures to any degree of prominence in the book of Acts, who is not associated with at least one of the apostles? If we were to apply this argument to other issues in Acts, the results would be disastrous. For example, church planting is restricted to the apostles and those closely associated with them. Should we then not plant churches today?

Someone might still wish to object, insisting that there was a remarkable concentration of miraculous phenomena characteristic of the apostles as special representatives of Christ. But the prevalence of miracles performed by the apostles in no way proves that no miracles were performed by/through others.

See 2 Corinthians 12:12. Does not this text refer to the miraculous as “signs” of the apostles? No, in point of fact, it does not. The NIV contributes to the confusion by translating as follows: “The things that mark an apostle — signs, wonders and miracles — were done among you with great perseverance.” This rendering leads you to believe that Paul is identifying the “signs/marks” of an apostle with the miraculous phenomena performed among the Corinthians. But the “signs/marks” of an apostle is in the nominative case whereas “signs, wonders and miracles” is in the dative. Contrary to what many have thought, Paul does not say the insignia of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles. Rather, as the NASB more accurately translates, he asserts that “the signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, BY signs and wonders and miracles.”

Paul’s point is that miraculous phenomena accompanied his ministry in Corinth. Signs, wonders and miracles were attendant elements in his apostolic work. But they were not themselves the “signs of an apostle.” The signs of an apostle, the distinguishing marks of true apostolic ministry were, among other things:

(1) the fruit of his preaching, i.e., the salvation of the Corinthians themselves (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1b-2, “Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, as least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”; cf. 2 Cor. 3:1-3);

(2) his Christ-like life of holiness, humility, etc., (cf. 2 Cor. 1:12; 2:17; 3:4-6; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3-13; 7:2; 10:13-18; 11:6,23-28); and

(3) his sufferings, hardship, persecution (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; 4:7-15; 5:4-10; and all of chp. 11).

Paul patiently, in perseverance, displayed these “signs” of his apostolic authority. And this was accompanied by signs, wonders and miracles he performed in their midst.

Let us also remember that Paul does not refer to the “signs” of an apostle nor to the miraculous phenomena that accompanied his ministry as a way of differentiating himself from other, non-apostolic Christians, but from the false apostles who were leading the Corinthians astray (2 Cor. 11:14-15,33). “In short,” writes Wayne Grudem, “the contrast is not between apostles who could work miracles and ordinary Christians who could not, but between genuine Christian apostles through whom the Holy Spirit worked and non-Christian pretenders to the apostolic office, through whom the Holy Spirit did not work at all.”

Nowhere does Paul suggest that signs and wonders were exclusively or uniquely apostolic. My daughter once took dance lessons and especially enjoyed ballet. Although only 10 years old at the time, she had incredibly strong and well-developed calf muscles. Indeed, it might even be said that the “sign” of a ballet dancer is strong calf muscles. But I would never argue that only ballet dancers display this physical characteristic. I only mean to say that when taken in conjunction with other factors, her lower leg development helps you identify her as one who dances on her toes. Likewise, Paul is not saying that signs, wonders and miracles are performed only through apostles, but that such phenomena, together with other evidences, should help the Corinthians know that he is a true apostle of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the fact that miraculous phenomena and certain of the charismata served to attest and authenticate the message of the gospel in no way proves or even remotely suggests that such activities are invalid for the church subsequent to the death of the apostolic company.

 

 

 

The third argument for cessationism pertains to the alleged negative assessment given by many to the nature, purpose and impact of signs, wonders and miracles in the NT. I had been taught and believed that it was an indication of spiritual immaturity to seek signs in any sense, that it was a weak faith, born of theological ignorance, that prayed for healing or a demonstration of divine power. Some are even more pointed in their opinion. James Boice, in his contribution to the recent book Power Religion, quotes with approval the sentiment of John Woodhouse, to the effect that “a desire for further signs and wonders is sinful and unbelieving.”

            But consider, for example, Acts 4:29-31, which records this prayer of the church in Jerusalem:

“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bondservants may speak Thy word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders takes place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.”

This text is important for at least two reasons: it shows that it is good to pray for signs and wonders, that it is not evil or a sign of emotional and mental imbalance to petition God for demonstrations of his power; and, secondly, it shows that there is no necessary or inherent conflict between miracles and the message, between wonders and the word of the cross. Let me take each of these points in turn.

First, it is good and helpful and honoring to the Lord Jesus Christ to seek and pray for the demonstration of his power in healing, signs and wonders.

But what about Mt. 12:39 and Mt. 16:4? Doesn’t Jesus denounce as wicked and adulterous those who “crave” and “seek” after signs (cf. 1 Cor. 1:22)? Yes, but note well whom he is addressing and why they are denounced. These are unbelieving scribes and Pharisees, not children of God. These who made such demands of Christ had no intention of following him. “Seeking signs from God is ‘wicked and adulterous’ when the demand for more and more evidence comes from a resistant heart and simply covers up an unwillingness to believe” (John Piper). Seeking signs as a pretext for criticizing Jesus or from a hankering to see the sensational is rightly rebuked. But that certainly wasn’t the motivation of the early church, nor need it be ours. Perhaps an illustration will help. John Piper explains:

“If we are carrying on a love affair with the world, and our husband, Jesus, after a long separation comes to us and says, ‘I love you and I want you back,’ one of the best ways to protect our adulterous relationship with the world is to say, ‘You’re not really my husband; you don’t really love me. Prove it. Give me some sign.’ If that’s the way we demand a sign, we are a wicked and adulterous generation. But if we come to God with a heart aching with longing for vindication of his glory and the salvation of sinners, then we are not wicked and adulterous. We are a faithful wife, only wanting to honor our husband.”

Do you come to God insistent on a miracle, being prompted by an unbelieving heart that demands He put on a show before you will obey him? Or do you come humbly, in prayer, with a desire to glorify God in the display of his power and an equal desire to minister his mercy and compassion and love to those in need? The former, God condemns. The latter, he commends.

Second, the power of signs and wonders does not dilute the power of the gospel nor is there any inherent inconsistency or conflict between wonders and the word.

Still, there are those who appeal to Rom. 1:16 and 1 Cor. 1:18,22-23, texts that assert the centrality of the cross and the power of the gospel to save (theological truths to which all of us, I am sure, wholeheartedly subscribe). But who wrote these passages? Was it not Paul, the same man who described his evangelistic ministry as one characterized by the “power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:19)? Was it not Paul, the same man who wrote 1 Cor. 12-14 and about whom most of Acts, with all its miraculous phenomena, is concerned? Was it not Paul, the same man whose message and preaching came “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4)? Was it not Paul, the same man who reminded the Thessalonians that the gospel did not come to them “in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”?

And here I speak reverently when I say that if there is an inherent inconsistency or conflict between miracles and the message then someone forgot to inform God, for it was He, according to Acts 14:3, “who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.” If signs and wonders dilute the word of God’s grace, if signs and wonders detract from the centrality of the cross, if signs and wonders reflect a loss of confidence in the power of the gospel, someone should have told the Almighty about it for He seems to have thought differently on the matter. If there is a conflict between wonders and the word, it is in our minds that the problem exists. It isn’t in Paul’s mind. And it certainly isn’t in God’s.

Signs and wonders and miraculous phenomena could not save a soul then nor can they now. The power unto salvation is in the Holy Spirit working through the gospel of the cross of Christ. But such miraculous phenomena “can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest; they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion. Like every other good witness to the word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines” (Piper; cf. Acts 9).

Furthermore, be it noted that if any generation was least in need of supernatural authentication, it was that of the early church. Yet they prayed earnestly for signs and wonders. Remember:

“This was the generation whose preaching (of Peter and Stephen and Phillip and Paul) was more anointed than the preaching of any generation following. If any preaching was the power of God unto salvation and did not need accompanying signs and wonders, it was this preaching. Moreover, this was the generation with more immediate and compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection than any generation since. Hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Lord were alive in Jerusalem. If any generation in the history of the church knew the power of preaching and the authentication of the gospel from first-hand evidence of the resurrection, it was this one. Yet it was they who prayed passionately for God to stretch forth His hand in signs and wonders” (Piper).

Others have argued that signs, wonders and miracles breed a spirit of triumphalism inconsistent with the call to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Those who desire and pray for the miraculous, so goes the charge, do not take seriously the painful realities of living in a fallen world. Weakness, afflictions, persecution and suffering are an inevitable part of living in the “not-yet” of the kingdom.

But when I read the NT, I see no inherent conflict between signs and suffering. And be it known that it is the NT, not the posturing or glitz of certain TV evangelists, that must be allowed to decide the issue. Paul certainly sensed no incompatibility between the two, for they were both characteristic of his life and ministry. As C. K. Barrett put it, “Miracles were no contradiction of the theologia crucis he proclaimed and practised, since they were performed not in a context of triumphant success and prosperity, but in the midst of the distress and vilification he was obliged to endure.”

As John Piper has said, “Paul’s ‘thorn’ [in the flesh] no doubt pressed deeper with every healing he performed.” His own personal trials and afflictions did not lead him to renounce the miraculous in his ministry. Nor did the supernatural displays of God’s power lead him into a naive, “Pollyanna” outlook on the human condition. Again, if signs and suffering are incompatible, one must look somewhere other than in the Bible to prove it.

4.         A fourth argument pertains to the closing, completion, and sufficiency of the canon of Scripture. Signs, wonders and miraculous gifts accompanied and attested to the truth of the gospel until such time as the last word of canonical Scripture was written. The need for such manifestations of divine power therein ceased. The Bible itself has replaced miraculous phenomena in the life of the church.

There are several problems with this argument.

In the first place, the Bible itself never says any such thing. No biblical author of whom I am aware ever claims that written Scripture has replaced or in some sense supplanted the need for signs, wonders and the like.

Secondly, why would the presence of the completed canon preclude the need for miraculous phenomena? If signs, wonders and the power of the Holy Spirit were essential in bearing witness to the truth of the gospel then, why not now? In other words, it seems reasonable to assume that the miracles which confirmed the gospel in the first century, wherever it was preached, would serve no less to confirm the gospel in subsequent centuries, even our own.

Thirdly, which is greater: Jesus or the written word? Which is greater: the Son of God or the Bible? Jesus, of course! But if signs, wonders and miracles were essential in the physical presence of the Son of God, how much more so now in his absence! Surely we are not prepared to suggest that the Bible, for all its glory, is sufficient to do what Jesus couldn’t. Jesus thought it necessary to utilize the miraculous phenomena of the Holy Spirit to attest and confirm his ministry. If it was essential for him, how much more so for us. In other words, if the glorious presence of the Son of God himself did not preclude the need for miraculous phenomena, how dare we suggest that our possession of the Bible does?

5.         Yet another argument is from church history: “If the so-called miracle or sign gifts of the Holy Spirit are valid for Christians beyond the death of the apostles, why were they absent from church history until their alleged reappearance in the twentieth century?”

To argue that all such gifts were utterly non-existent is to ignore a significant body of evidence. After studying the documentation for claims to the presence of these gifts, D. A. Carson’s conclusion is that “there is enough evidence that some form of ‘charismatic’ gifts continued sporadically across the centuries of church history that it is futile to insist on doctrinaire grounds that every report is spurious or the fruit of demonic activity or psychological aberration” (Showing the Spirit, 166).

If the gifts were sporadic, there may be an explanation other than the theory that they were restricted to the first century.

·      Limited access to the Scriptures

·      Theological ignorance

·      Spiritual lethargy

I don’t think it at all unlikely that numerous churches which advocated cessationism experienced these gifts but dismissed them as something less than the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The ministry of Charles Spurgeon is a case in point. Consider the following account taken from his autobiography:

“While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’ A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man, ‘I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul’” (The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon [London: Curts & Jennings, 1899], 2:226-27).

Spurgeon then adds this comment:

“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (ibid., 227).

My opinion is that this is a not uncommon example of what the Apostle Paul described in 1 Cor. 14:24-25. Spurgeon exercised the gift of prophecy (or some might say the word of knowledge, 1 Cor. 12:8). He did not label it as such, but that does not alter the reality of what the Holy Spirit accomplished through him. If one were to examine Spurgeon’s theology and ministry, as well as recorded accounts of it by his contemporaries as well as subsequent biographers, most would conclude from the absence of explicit reference to miraculous charismata such as prophecy and the word of knowledge that such gifts had been withdrawn from church life. But Spurgeon’s own testimony inadvertently says otherwise!

If we concede that certain spiritual gifts were less prevalent than others in the history of the church, their absence may well be due to unbelief, apostasy, and other sins that serve only to quench and grieve the Holy Spirit. Both theological ignorance of certain biblical truths and a loss of experiential blessings provided by spiritual gifts can be, and should be, attributed to factors other than the suggestion that God intended such knowledge and power only for believers in the early church.

Finally, what has or has not occurred in church history is not the ultimate standard by which to judge what we should pursue, pray for, and expect in the life of our churches today. The final criterion for deciding whether God wants to bestow certain spiritual gifts on his people today is the Word of God. It is unwise to cite the alleged absence of a particular experience in the life of an admired saint from the church’s past as reason for doubting its present validity. Neither the failure nor success of Christians in days past is the ultimate standard by which we determine what God wants for us today. We can learn from their mistakes as well as their achievements. But the only question of ultimate relevance for us and for this issue is: “What saith the Scripture?”

6.         Sixth, and finally, there is another reason why I remained for years committed to the doctrine of cessationism. It isn’t based on any particular text or theological principle and yet it probably exercised more of an influence on my life and mind than all of the other arguments combined.

I’m talking about fear: the fear of emotionalism, the fear of fanaticism, the fear of the unfamiliar, the fear of rejection by those whose respect I cherished and whose friendship I did not want to forfeit, the fear of what might occur were I fully to relinquish control of my life and mind and emotions to the Holy Spirit, the fear of losing what little status in the evangelical community that I had worked so hard to attain.

I’m talking about the kind of fear that energized a personal agenda to distance myself from anything that had the potential to link me with people who I believed were an embarrassment to the cause of Christ. I was faithful to the eleventh commandment of Bible-church evangelicalism: “Thou shalt not do at all what others do poorly.” In my conceit and pride I had unconsciously allowed certain extremists to exercise more of an influence on the shape of my ministry than I did the text of Scripture. Fear of being labeled or linked or in some way associated with the “unlearned” and “unattractive” elements in contemporary Christendom exercised an insidious power on my ability and willingness to be objective in the reading of Holy Scripture.

I’ve learned an important lesson, far beyond the point at issue in this study. I’ve learned, in the words of J. I. Packer, that “the reaction of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” Packer explains it this way:

“If you are walking backward away from something you think is a mistake, you may be right in supposing it is a mistake, but for you to be walking backward is never right. Sooner or later people who walk backward in the physical sense stumble over some obstacle behind them which they never saw, because their minds and their eyes were fixed on what they were trying to get away from, and then they fall. We are meant to walk forward, not backward. Reaction is always a matter of walking backward, and thus it brings its own nemesis.”

I believe all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are valid for the contemporary church for these reasons.

First, there is the absence of any biblical evidence indicating they are not valid. This is not, however, a mere argument from silence, because the NT is anything but silent concerning the presence of the charismata in the church. If certain gifts of a special class have ceased, the burden of proof is on the cessationist to prove it.

Second, the ultimate purpose of each gift is to build up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:3,26). Nothing that I read in the NT nor see in the condition of the church in any age, past or present, leads me to believe we have progressed beyond the need for edification and therefore beyond the need for the contribution of the charismata. I freely admit that spiritual gifts were essential for the birth of the church, but why would they be any less important or needful for its continued growth and maturation?

Third, four texts come to mind. 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 implies that the gifts of the Spirit are operative until “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). Ephesians 4:11-13 explicitly dates the duration of the gifts. They are required “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ” (v. 13). In 1 Corinthians 14:39 Paul commands “the brethren,” among whom I include myself, “desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.” And despite the controversy that still surrounds it, I remain convinced that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 dates the cessation of the charismata at the perfection of the eternal state, consequent upon Christ’s return.

Fourth, I believe that the charismata are designed by God to characterize the life of the church today for much the same reason I believe in church discipline for today and in rule by a plurality of elders for today and in the observance of the Lord’s Supper for today and in a host of other biblical practices and patterns explicitly ordained in the NT and nowhere explicitly designated as temporary or restricted to the first century.

Fifth, and finally, I do not believe the Holy Spirit simply inaugurates the new age and then disappears. He, together with His gifts and fruit, characterizes the new age. As D. A. Carson has said, “the coming of the Spirit is not associated merely with the dawning of the new age but with its presence, not merely with Pentecost but with the entire period from Pentecost to the return of Jesus the Messiah.” Spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and related revelatory phenomena such as dreams and visions, are explicitly said by Peter to be the fruit of the outpouring of the Spirit, the latter being the evidence for the advent and presence of the “last days” (Acts 2:17ff.).

 

 

 

For another intriguing argument, consider this one by John Piper:

 

http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1991/746_How_Signs_and_Wonders_Helped_Add_Multitudes_to_the_Lord/

 

Acts 5:12-16

Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.

Two weeks ago we looked at the prayer in Acts 4:29–30 and I concluded that we should pray that way. The needs of the world today are so great and the present experience of the church is so weak, that we should long for the very thing they longed for. In the face of great opposition the Christians cried to God like this: “Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” They cried for boldness in their witness; they cried for God’s hand to be stretched forth in healing; and they cried for God to perform signs and wonders. They were not just “open” to signs and wonders. They were desperate for them. They prayed for them to come.

Why Did They Pray for Signs and Wonders? 

And the question I want to get to in a few minutes is this: why did they want so badly for God to show signs and wonders? Why did they want him to stretch forth his hand to heal? This was the generation that had more immediate and more compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection than any generation since. Hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Lord were in Jerusalem. This was the generation of witnesses whose word was least in need of supernatural authentication of all the generations following. This was the generation whose preaching (apart from signs and wonders) of the mighty, soul-saving Word of God was more anointed than the preaching of any generation following—the preaching of Peter and Stephen and Paul. Why did this generation, with its immediate access to resurrection witnesses, and its extraordinary preaching, feel such a passion to see God stretch forth his hand to heal and do signs and wonders among them?

You need to know exactly where I am coming from. This historical question is important because one key objection to our cry for God’s healing power and for his signs and wonders shatters on the answer to this question. I will come back to that in a few minutes.

To Help People Come to Saving Faith 

In today’s text we see a pretty clear answer to the question why the church wanted signs and wonders—with all their dangers, with all their abuses—why they prayed: “Lord, stretch out your hand to heal and do signs and wonders in the name of Jesus.” Acts 5:12 says, “Many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.” (I think “they” refers to all the church, because of the sequence of thought in 2:43–44.)

Verses 13 and 14 describe two results of this demonstration of signs and wonders. First, the people of Jerusalem—the outsiders stood in awe of the apostles and the church. Ananias and Sapphira had died, signs and wonders were being done, and verse 13 says, “None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor.” But that’s not all. In the midst of all this fear and amazement and wonder, many were coming to faith in Jesus. Verse 14: “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.”

So I would say what Luke wants us to see is this connection between the signs and wonders done by the apostles in verse 12 and the multitudes being added to the Lord in verse 14. And I would say, then, that this is why the church prayed so earnestly for signs and wonders to be done. Signs and wonders helped bring people to the Lord. They helped bring people to saving faith.

A Pattern in the Book of Acts 

This is not an isolated instance in the book of Acts. It is a pattern. I count at least 17 times where a miracle helps lead to conversions in the book of Acts. We have seen the miracle of Pentecost lead to 3,000 converts and the miracle of the lame man in Acts 3:6 lead to 2,000 converts (Acts 4:4). Acts 9:34–35 and Acts 9:40, 42 are the clearest examples. Peter heals Aeneas and Luke says, “And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.” Peter raises Tabitha from the dead, and Luke says, “It became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

There is no doubt that the working of miracles—signs and wonders—helped bring people to Christ. That is what Luke wants us to see and that is surely why the Christians would pray in Acts 4:30 that God would stretch forth his hand to heal and do signs and wonders. It would help bring people to Christ.

An Objection Against Praying for Signs and Wonders 

Now let me bring in the objection that is sometimes brought up against praying for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with power in signs and wonders today. Some people say that this compromises the centrality of the Word of God. It depreciates the value of preaching God’s Word. It jeopardizes the sufficiency of the Word of God to save sinners. If signs and wonders are added to preaching, it must be because God’s Word is not trusted or esteemed as sufficient to save. That’s the sort of thing you hear. Right?

Texts Seeming to Support It

Well, this objection seems to have some crucial texts going for it. Romans 1:16 says, “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation.” The gospel, not signs and wonders. In 1 Corinthians 1:22–23 Paul says, “Jews demand signs, Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified . . . the power of God . . . ” And Jesus himself said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39; 16:4).

Creates a New Problem

These are the kind of texts that are brought against seeking the Lord today for signs and wonders. But I have not yet heard any of these objectors even ask the question let alone answer it: if praying for signs and wonders belittles the preaching of the gospel, and if only wicked and adulterous people want signs, then why did Peter and John and the disciples pray for them in Acts 4:30? Why does Luke bend over backwards to show how valuable they are in winning people to Christ?

Do you see what people are doing? They are giving the impression that seeking signs and wonders today is a problem for reasons that would have also made it a problem in the book of Acts, namely, it compromises the sufficiency of preaching. But they don’t address that problem. So let me address it, because it is the really important question. Why was the prayer for signs and wonders in Acts 4:30 not wicked and adulterous, and why did it not jeopardize the sufficiency of preaching as the power of God unto salvation?

Why Is the Prayer of Acts 4:30 Not Wicked?

The answer to the first question is this: seeking signs from God is wicked and adulterous when the demand for more and more evidence comes from a resistant heart and simply covers up an unwillingness to believe. If we are carrying on a love affair with the world, and our husband, Jesus, after a long separation, comes to us and says, “I love you and I want you back,” one of the best ways to protect our adulterous relationship with the world is to say, “You’re not really my husband; you don’t really love me. Prove it. Give me some sign.” If that’s the way we demand a sign, then we are a wicked and adulterous generation.

But if you come to God with a heart aching with longing for vindication of his glory and the salvation of sinners, and that’s why you long to see him stretch forth his hand to heal and do signs and wonders in the name of Jesus, then you are not wicked and adulterous. You are a faithful wife, only wanting to honor your husband, Jesus.

Why Do Signs and Wonders Not Compromise Preaching?

The answer to the second question—the question why signs and wonders do not have to compromise the power of preaching the gospel—goes like this: Acts 14:3 says that Paul and Barnabas “remained a long time [in Iconium] speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” This is utterly crucial: Signs and wonders are God’s witness to his Word. They are not in competition with the Word. They are not against the Word. They are not over the Word. They are divine witnesses to the value and truth and necessity and centrality of the Word.

Here is the way I would sum up the relationship between the gospel and signs and wonders: signs and wonders are not the saving Word of grace; they are God’s secondary testimony to the Word of his grace. Signs and wonders do not save. They are not the power of God unto salvation. They do not transform the heart—any more than music or art or drama or magic shows. What changes the heart and saves the soul is the self-authenticating glory of Christ seen in the message of the gospel (2 Corinthians 3:18–4:6).

But even if signs and wonders can’t save the soul, they can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest; they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion. Like every other good witness to the Word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines.

Seeking Signs and Wonders in Prayer Today 

My purpose this morning has not been to defend the validity of signs and wonders for today. I have done that before, and will no doubt do it again. The purpose has been to show what their function was in the book of Acts and how that is no hindrance to our seeking them today, just like they were sought in Acts 4:30—as divine witnesses to the Word of God’s grace.

And I do believe God wants us to pray for them today. Nor am I alone in the reformed community that loves the sovereignty of God and the doctrines of grace. So I close with a challenge from one of our most revered spokesmen, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions . . . Was it only meant to be true of the early church? . . . The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary—never! There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 31–32)

Lloyd-Jones believed in the steady-state, regular, ordinary ministry of the church. It has its blessing and its glory from the Lord. But I think he became increasingly disillusioned with business as usual toward the end of his 30 years of steady-state ministry at Westminster Chapel in London in 1965.

[We] can produce a number of converts, thank God for that, and that goes on regularly in evangelical churches every Sunday. But the need today is much too great for that. The need today is for an authentication of God, of the supernatural, of the spiritual, of the eternal, and this can only be answered by God graciously hearing our cry and shedding forth again his Spirit upon us and filling us as he kept filling the early church. (Joy Unspeakable, p. 278)

What is needed is some mighty demonstration of the power of God, some enactment of the Almighty, that will compel people to pay attention, and to look, and to listen . . . That is why I am urging you to pray for this. When God acts, he can do more in a minute than man with his organizing can do in fifty years. (Revival, pp. 121–122)

Part 1: Are Wonders against the Word?

I am one of those Baptist General Conference people who believes that “signs and wonders” and all the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are valid for today and should be “earnestly desired” (1 Corinthians 14:1) for the edification of the church and the spread of the gospel. I agree with the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preached in 1965:

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions. . . . Was it only meant to be true of the early church? . . . The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary – never! There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 31-32)

My purpose here is not to defend any contemporary pattern of ministry. Instead I want to give Biblical reasons for my conviction and Biblical answers to some objections. This conviction flows out of my God-centered, Bible-based, Calvinistic commitment to the sovereignty of God and the supremacy of his revealed Word. It is not a departure from any truth I have championed in the past.

This question determines my starting point: Is the experience of signs and wonders detrimental to the centrality of Scripture and preaching? In other words, does it depreciate the supernatural power of God’s written and preached word; does it contradict the sufficiency of the gospel to save sinners; does the search for signs signify a loss of confidence in the word of the cross?

The reason I take this question so seriously is that it is rooted in Biblical texts. Romans 1:16 says, “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation.” The gospel, not signs and wonders. Paul says, “Jews demand signs, Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified . . . the power of God . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). The “word of the cross is . . . the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Sign-seeking is a diversion from the power of Christ crucified. Thus Jesus himself said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” (Matthew 12:39; 16:4).

But there is a fatal flaw in bringing these texts against every longing for signs and wonders. They would prove too much. If desiring signs and wonders dilutes the power of the gospel–then the early Christians and the apostles themselves were wicked and adulterous, because they so passionately wanted God to do signs and wonders alongside their powerful preaching.

For example, Peter and John and the disciples prayed in Acts 4:30, “Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Here we have godly men and women praying for signs and wonders to happen in the name of Jesus. And Luke does not portray them as a “wicked and adulterous generation” for doing so. They are exemplary.

Not only that, Luke himself labors in the book of Acts to show how valuable signs and wonders are in winning people to Christ. He does not portray them as a threat to the gospel, but as a witness to the gospel. The reason the church prayed so passionately in Acts 4:30 for signs and wonders to happen is because God was using them to bring multitudes to Christ.

I count at least 17 times where miracles help lead to conversions in the book of Acts. The clearest examples are in Acts 9:34-35 and 9:40,42. Peter heals Aeneas, and Luke says, “And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.” Peter raises Tabitha from the dead, and Luke says, “It became known to all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.”

There is no doubt that the working of miracles–signs and wonders–helped bring people to Christ. That is what Luke wants us to see and that is why the Christians prayed for signs and wonders to happen.

This raises two questions: 1) Why was the prayer for signs and wonders in Acts 4:30 not wicked and adulterous, in view of what Jesus said in Matthew 12:39? and 2) Why did the seeking and occurrence of signs and wonders in the missionary effort of first century Christians not contradict the sufficiency of the gospel as the power of God unto salvation?

The answer to the first question comes from the context of Jesus’ indictment of sign-seeking. Seeking signs from God is “wicked and adulterous” when the demand for more and more evidence comes from a resistant heart and simply covers up an unwillingness to believe. If we are carrying on a love affair with the world, and our husband, Jesus, after a long separation, comes to us and says, “I love you and I want you back,” one of the best ways to protect our adulterous relationship with the world is to say, “You’re not really my husband; you don’t really love me. Prove it. Give me some sign.” If that’s the way we demand a sign, then we are a wicked and adulterous generation.

But if we come to God with a heart aching with longing for vindication of his glory and the salvation of sinners, then we are not wicked and adulterous. We are a faithful wife, only wanting to honor our husband.

The answer to the second question–the question why signs and wonders need not detract from the power of the gospel–comes from Luke’s own explanation of how wonders and the word are related. In Acts 14:3 he says that Paul and Barnabas “remained a long time [in Iconium] speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands”. This is utterly crucial: signs and wonders are God’s witness to his word. They are not in competition with the word. They are not against the word. They are not over the word. They are divine witnesses to the value and truth and necessity and centrality of the word (see also Hebrews 2:4; Mark 16:20).

Signs and wonders are not the saving word of grace; they are God’s secondary testimony to the word of his grace. Signs and wonders do not save. They are not the power of God unto salvation. They do not transform the heart–any more than music or art or drama which accompany the gospel. Signs and wonders can be imitated by Satan (2 Thessalonians 2:9; Matthew 24:24), but the gospel is utterly contrary to his nature. What changes the heart and saves the soul is the self-authenticating glory of Christ seen in the message of the gospel (2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6).

But even if signs and wonders can’t save the soul, they can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest; they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion. Like every other good witness to the word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines. Therefore the early church longed for God to stretch forth his hand to heal, and that signs and wonders be done in the name of Jesus.

The fact that the early Christians prayed so earnestly for signs and wonders (Acts 4:30) is all the more striking when you realize that they, of all generations were in least need of supernatural authentication. This was the generation whose preaching (of Peter and Stephen and Philip and Paul) was more anointed than the preaching of any generation following. If any preaching was the power of God unto salvation and did not need accompanying signs and wonders, it was this preaching.

Moreover this was the generation that had more immediate and more compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection than any generation since. Hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Lord were alive in Jerusalem. If any generation in the history of the church knew the power of preaching and the authentication of the gospel from first-hand evidence of the resurrection, it was this one. Yet it was they who prayed passionately for God to stretch forth his hand in signs and wonders.

Therefore I conclude that in our zeal for the centrality of the word we should not go beyond the word by making signs and wonders enemies of the word of the cross. Nobody was more jealous for the power of the word than Paul. Yet he described his mission as Christ working through him “in the power of signs and wonders” (Romans 15:19). Were these the unique “sign of an apostle” and thus not valid for us? I don’t think so. That will be the question answered in the next section.

Part 2: Signs and Wonders and “the Signs of the Apostle”

In the previous section I argued that when the early Christians prayed for signs and wonders (Acts 4:30) they were not “evil and adulterous;” nor were they abandoning the centrality of the preaching of the cross. Signs and wonders witnessed to the word of grace (Acts 14:3); they did not replace it. They did not save; they helped open people to the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation.

Another objection raised against signs and wonders is that those who pursue them do not take seriously the futility of a fallen world, the Christian call to suffer, and the “not yet” of the kingdom. This is a very important objection because we do live in a fallen and futile world (Romans 8:21-22). We groan in bodies that will not be redeemed before the second coming (Romans 8:23). The power of Christ is made perfect in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22). And our afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).

The answer to this objection is that signs and wonders happen within ministerial suffering, not instead of it. Notice that all the texts quoted in the preceding paragraph about the place of suffering came from Paul. That’s not surprising, because at the very beginning of his ministry Jesus said, “I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). Paul’s life was one long experience of suffering – physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally.

So we ask: Did this make signs and wonders inconsistent in his ministry? No. He summed up his ministry like this: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Romans 15:18-19).

In other words, a life of suffering and a ministry of signs and wonders were not inconsistent for the apostle. C. K. Barrett put it like this in his Commentary on 2 Corinthians: “Miracles were no contradiction of the theology of the cross which Paul proclaimed and practised, since they were performed not in a context of triumphant success and prosperity, but in the midst of the distress and vilification he was obliged to endure” (p. 321).

What this means is that many high-living healers today are far from the spirit of Paul. But it also means that the prayer for signs and wonders today is not necessarily a denial of the Biblical call to suffering. Paul’s ministry (not to mention Jesus’) proves that. If we see a man in a wheelchair performing a healing ministry for others, let us not be among the number who stand back and say the ominous words, “Physician, heal thyself.” Paul’s “thorn” no doubt pressed deeper with every healing he performed.

Now the question rises: Were the miracles of Paul the unique “sign of an apostle”? Should we refrain from praying for signs and wonders today, since they were meant to authenticate the authority of the apostles who were the once-for-all foundation of the church (Ephesians. 2:20)?

In 2 Corinthians 12:11-12 Paul is defending his apostleship. He says, “I am not at all inferior to these superlative apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of the apostle were performed among you in all patience by signs and wonders and miracles.” Note the wording carefully. The “signs of the apostle” are not equated with signs and wonders. The “signs of the apostle” are done “by (or with) signs and wonders and miracles.” (Beware: the NIV misses the Greek construction entirely!)

This probably means that “signs and wonders and miracles” were part of the validating work of God in Paul’s life, but by no means the whole of it. For example, Paul calls the transforming power of his preaching the “seal of apostleship”: “Am I not an apostle? . . . You [my converts] are the seal of my apostleship” (1 Corinthians 9:1-2; see also 2 Corinthians 3:2). He also says that the way he works without asking for pay is a way of showing his authenticity (2 Corinthians 11:7-12); and all the sufferings he endures for the gospel are mentioned as evidence of his vindication over the “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:22-33). Charles Hodge suggests eight evidences of apostleship which may be included in “the signs of the apostle” (Commentary on 2nd Corinthians, p. 291).

The text does not require that “signs and wonders” be unique to the apostles. For example, if I say, “The sign of a professional biker is strong thighs,” I do not mean that no non-professionals have strong thighs. I only mean that professionals do, and when taken together with other evidences, this can help you know that a person is a professional biker. Paul is not saying that only apostles can perform signs and wonders. He is saying that apostles certainly can, and together with other things this will help the Corinthians know that he is a true apostle.

Consider an analogy with the miracle-working of Jesus. Was it a sign of his messiahship? Yes it was. In Matthew 11:2 John the Baptist’s disciples asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus’ answer was, “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” In other words, it would be fair to say that the miracles of Jesus were “the signs of messiahship.”

Nevertheless in Matthew 10:8 Jesus commissions the twelve and says, “Preach as you go saying, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” They were to do the miracles he was doing. But this does not prove that each of the twelve was the messiah. So somehow the miracles of Jesus could evidence his messiahship even though non-messiahs could do them. The reason is that the miracles themselves are only part of the evidence. Taken together with other things, they confirm his messiahship. So it is with “the signs of the apostle”. It is not that only apostles can do them, but that they are a crucial part of the evidence.

There are good Biblical reasons for thinking that signs and wonders are not meant by God to be unique to the apostles. I’ll mention four.

Jesus sent out the seventy, not just the twelve apostles, “to heal the sick” (Luke 10:9). And when they returned, they said that the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name (Luke 10:17). These miracles in Jesus’ name show that apostolic signs and wonders are not unique to the apostles.

In the book of Acts, Stephen “did great signs and wonders among the people” (Acts 6:8), even though he was in the “deacon” category not the apostle category (Acts 6:5). Similarly it says that “the multitudes gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did” (Acts 8:6). Philip was not an apostle, but performed miraculous signs.

Paul writes to all the churches of Galatia and says, “Does he who is supplying the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:5). The point is that God is now supplying his Spirit to the Galatians and working miracles among them when he is not there. Hans Dieter Betz notes that “the [present] participle ‘supplying’ (epichoregon) suggests a continuous supply rather than an initial and momentary ‘outpouring'” (Hermenia, Galatians, p. 135). And Ernest Burton says, “In view of the dative ‘to you’ after ‘supplies,’ the ‘miracles’ must be supposed to have been wrought not principally by Paul but by the Galatians themselves, as 1 Corinthians 12:10,28,29 imply was the case among the Corinthians” (I.C.C., Galatians, p. 152).
Peter Masters does not adequately deal with this grammatical fact when he says that these miracles refer to Paul’s own miracles which he had worked among the Galatians when he was recently among them (The Healing Epidemic, p. 134). Burton also wrestles with our very question concerning “the signs of the apostle” and astutely observes, “2 Corinthians 12:12 indeed suggests that such things were signs of the apostle, yet probably not in the sense that he only wrought them but that the dunameis of the apostle were in some way more notable, or that they constituted a part of the evidence of his apostleship” (Galatians, p. 152)

Finally, 1 Corinthians 12:9-10 says that among the spiritual gifts given to the members of the church at Corinth were “gifts of healings” and “workings of miracles.” Thus (as Burton suggested) such “signs and wonders” were not the “sign of the apostle” in the sense that only apostles could do them. Various gifted members of the church were also empowered in these ways as well. This is confirmed in verses 27-29, where these gifts are distinguished from the gift of apostleship.

Therefore, if signs and wonders were not limited in function to validating the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, but rather had a role in the edifying and evangelistic work of the church in general, then there is good reason to trust God for their proper use today. In the next section we will see that the New Testament calls for this very thing.

Part 3: Signs and Wonders till Jesus Comes

In the previous section I argued that “signs and wonders” in the New Testament were not the prerogative of apostles only. The “seventy” performed them (Luke 10:9,17), deacons performed them (Acts 6:8; 8:6), Galatian Christians performed them (Galatians 3:5), Corinthian Christians performed them (1 Corinthians 12:9-10). Since signs and wonders were not the prerogative of the apostles, there is no New Testament warrant for inferring that these miracles were to cease after the apostolic age.

In fact, I want to argue in this section that the New Testament teaches that spiritual gifts (including the more obviously supernatural or revelatory ones like prophecy and tongues) will continue until Jesus comes. The use of such gifts (miracles, faith, healings, prophecy, etc) give rise to what may sometimes be called “signs and wonders.” Therefore signs and wonders are part of the blessing we should pray for today.

There is no text in the New Testament that teaches the cessation of these gifts. But more important than this silence is the text that explicitly teaches their continuance until Jesus comes, namely, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12.

The main point of this passage is that love is superior to spiritual gifts like “prophecies” and “tongues” and “knowledge”. The basic argument for the superiority of love is that it lasts forever while these gifts do not. They cease “when the perfect comes,” but love goes on forever. The reason given for why these gifts cease is that they are “imperfect”. But when the “perfect” comes the imperfect will pass away. So the key question is: When does the “perfect” come which marks the end of the imperfect gifts like prophecy?

The answer is plain in the text if we follow Paul’s line of reasoning. Verse 8 says, “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (RSV). Why are these gifts temporary? The answer is given in verse 9: “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect.” So the reason these spiritual gifts are temporary is their incompleteness or imperfection.

How long then are they to last? Verse 10 gives the answer: “When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” But when is that? When does the perfect come? The answer is given in verse 12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” The “now” of incompleteness and imperfection is contrasted with the “then” of seeing face to face and understanding even as we are understood.

So the answer to the question of when the perfect comes and when the imperfect gifts pass away is the “then” of verse 12, namely, the time of seeing “face to face” and “understanding as we are understood.” When will this happen?

Both of these phrases (“seeing face to face” and “understanding as we have been understood”) are stretched beyond the breaking point if we say that they refer to the closing of the New Testament canon or the close of the apostolic age. Rather, they refer to our experience at the second coming of Jesus. Then “we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2) The phrase “face to face” in the Greek Old Testament refers to seeing God personally (Genesis 32:30; Judges 6:22). Thomas Edwards’ hundred-year-old commentary is right to say, “When the perfect is come at the advent of Christ, then the Christian will know God intuitively and directly, even as he was before known of God” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 353, italics added).

This means that verse 10 can be paraphrased, “When Christ returns, the imperfect will pass away.” And since “the imperfect” refers to spiritual gifts like prophecy and knowledge and tongues, we may paraphrase further, “When Christ returns, then prophecy and knowledge and tongues will pass away.”

Here is a definite statement about the time of the cessation of spiritual gifts, and that time is the second coming of Christ. Richard Gaffin does not do justice to the actual wording of verse 10 when he says, “The time of the cessation of prophecy and tongues is an open question so far as this passage is concerned” (Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 111). It is not an open question. Paul says, “When the perfect comes [at that time, not before or after], the imperfect [gifts like prophecy and tongues, etc.] will pass away.”

Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 teaches that such spiritual gifts will continue until the second coming of Jesus. There is no reason to exclude from this conclusion the other “imperfect” gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Since these include miracles, faith, healings, etc., with which we associate “signs and wonders”, there is clear New Testament warrant for expecting that “signs and wonders” will continue until Jesus comes.

Now add to this conclusion the forthright command in 1 Corinthians 14:1, and you will see why some of us are not only open to, but also seeking, this greater fullness of God’s power today. This command says, “Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” And it is repeated twice: “Earnestly desire the higher gifts” (12:31); “Earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (14:39).

I wonder how many of us have said for years that we are open to God’s moving in spiritual gifts, but have been disobedient to this command to earnestly desire them, especially prophecy? I would ask all of us: are we so sure of our hermeneutical procedure for diminishing the gifts that we would risk walking in disobedience to a plain command of Scripture? “Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.”

I have come to the point of seeing that the risk lies in the other direction. It would be a risk not to seek spiritual gifts for myself and my church. It would be a risk not to pray with the early church, “Grant your servants to speak your word with boldness while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through your holy servant Jesus.” Disobedience is always a greater risk than obedience.

Much of my experience disinclines me to “earnestly desire spiritual gifts” especially the gift of prophecy. However, I do not base my prayer for such spiritual empowering on experience, but on the Bible. The Scripture is sufficient for all circumstances by teaching us the means of grace to be used in all circumstances. And I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones that one of the means of grace needed in our day is the extraordinary demonstration of power by signs and wonders. Here is what he said:

What is needed is some mighty demonstration of the power of God, some enactment of the Almighty, that will compel people to pay attention, and to look, and to listen. . . . When God acts, he can do more in a minute than man with his organizing can do in fifty years. (Revival, pp. 121-122)

Lloyd-Jones calls this mighty demonstration of power a fresh baptism in the Holy Spirit and he relates it directly to spiritual gifts.

The special purpose . . . of the baptism with the Holy Spirit is to enable us to witness, to bear testimony, and one of the ways in which that happens is through the giving of spiritual gifts. (The Sovereign Spirit, p. 120)

By the use of these gifts, he sees the possibility of “compelling people to pay attention” in their speed to destruction. By this, the gospel could receive fresh authentication in our day as in the days of the apostles.

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions . . . Was it only meant to be true of the early church? . . . The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary–never! There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 31-32)

But now we can say even more. In 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, there is a clear teaching that not only were these things not temporary, they were meant to last till Jesus comes.

 

http://www.desiringgod.org/Search/?search=signs+

 

 

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One Response to “MIRACULOUS GIFTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT: Differing Arguments (Part 2)”

  1. […]  https://emissary7.wordpress.com/2007/11/15/miraculous-gifts-of-the-holy-spirit-differing-arguments-pa… […]

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