Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?
I think it is helpful to recognize cultural shifts because our cultural world view affects our theology. We need to do some self-examination and understand why we might be attracted to this or that theology. We need to recognize that there is a world view that drives us and it drives our understanding of Scripture. It ought to be the other way around, but it often is not. What I hope is that we are open minded enough to let scripture shape our world view. So, we need to study all the arguments that are presented in this article and be sure biblically before we jump into conclusion.
In 1901 a Pentecostal revival began in the United States which taught that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the NT are still in effect today. The one they were and are most concerned with was and is the gift of tongues. Although the original Pentecostal doctrine taught that the Holy Spirit was given at a “second blessing,” most modern Pentecostals would agree that the new believer receives the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation. But after conversion, the Holy Spirit comes in special empowering experiences, sometimes known as the baptism of the Spirit or sometimes called “the second blessing.” When they talk about being “refilled” they do not mean you get more of the Holy Spirit. You get more of His power. When this happens, a person will speak in tongues as a “sign” that they have received this second blessing. They teach that all Christians should seek this experience and consequently speaking in tongues becomes a main focus of many Pentecostals.
In the 1960’s the Charismatic movement began. This was a renewal movement among evangelicals that emphasized that all the gifts were still active - tongues, miracles, healings, etc. They have not formed their own denominations, but have existed within existing denominations. Pentecostals and Charismatics are very similar in their theology.
This is the second world view that is shaping the mind set of many “Christians” today and the understanding as well as interpretation of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and other related passages.
- THE VINEYARD MOVEMENT
In the 1980’s another movement began. It is sometimes known as the Third Wave. (Pentecostalism being the first and Charismatics being the second). It is more commonly known today as the Vineyard Movement. It was begun by and made popular by C. Peter Wagner and John Wimber and Jack Deere. They believe that all the spiritual gifts are functioning today. Their emphasis is not on tongues, it is on miracles and prophecy. Like the Charismatics, they teach that the Holy Spirit can “come in varying degrees of intensity” after salvation, so that the believer is overwhelmed, empowered, etc. These later events are identified as being “filled with the Spirit.” They teach that one can get more of the Spirit at various times in the Christian experience to help with such things as martydom, persecution, special tasks, etc. Another manifestation of getting more of the Spirit would be the ability to perform miracles, healings, speak in tongues, prophecy, etc.
They teach that the proclamation of the gospel, done properly, is done with signs and wonders. Thus, it is also called the Signs and Wonders movement. So, Third Wave, Signs and Wonder Movement and Vineyard Movement all refer to the same thing.
John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard movement, in his revised book on Power Evangelism, writes: “The explanation of the gospel -- the clear proclamation of the finished work of Christ on the cross -- comes with a demonstration of God’s power through signs and wonders. Power evangelism is a spontaneous, Spirit-inspired, empowered presentation of the gospel. Power evangelism is preceded and undergirded by demonstrations of God’s presence, and frequently results in groups of people being saved. Signs and wonders do not save; only Jesus and substitutionary work on the cross saves.”
Through these supernatural encounters people experience the presence and power of God. Usually this takes the form of words of knowledge...healing, prophecy, and deliverance from evil spirits. [(John Wimber and Kevin Springer, Power Evangelism: Revised and Expanded with Study Questions (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992), p. 78.]
Beloved, all of the above groups hold that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue to be in effect today. So, we can call them “Continuationists”. From this point forward, I will use the term “Continuationist” to include Pentecostals, Charismatics and Third Wave movement. Although there are some differences, they all believe that sign gifts are still active today.
Many believe that individuals having the gifts of apostle, prophecy, healing, tongues, or performing miracles at will have ceased. These people are called “Cessationists.” “Continuationists” claim that “cessationists” put God in a box, but that is not true. “Cessationists” teach that God can still do miracles. He does still heal people when people pray. God, through the Holy Spirit can do anything He wants. But they believe, from their study of scripture and history, that God has chosen to circumscribe His activity and to structure it according to certain patterns, based on the principle of seed. That is every kingdom started miraculously, but continue with seed.
- THE OPEN BUT CAUTIOUS VIEW
This view recognizes that there are no explicit verses in the New Testament that say that miraculous gifts have ceased, and so, this group wants to stay open to the possibility that the miraculous gifts may still exist, but at the same time, they are uncomfortable with the teachings and practices of the charismatic and Third Wave movements. I would guess that this is the view held by most evangelicals. It is probably held by most evangelicals because they too are uncomfortable with what they’ve seen practiced among Pentecostals, Charismatics and Third Wave people, but they don’t want to be accused of putting God in a box, and so they remain open, but cautious. From afar, a person could see little difference between it and the Cessationist position. But, in reality, these people are practical cessationists.
Thus, we can divide the debate into two parts—the “Continuationists” and the “Cessationists”. It is a very difficult debate to sort through. But we have no option than to go through it.
THE PROOF TEXTS
Here are some of the more commonly used verses in the debate:
- 1 Cor 13:8-10
This text says that gifts of prophecy will be done away, tongues will cease and knowledge will be done away ... when the perfect comes. Both sides (“Continuationists” and “cessationists”) use this verse for support. Charismatics say that the perfect is the return of Jesus at His second coming, therefore, tongues, prophecy, etc. will continue until that time. Some ‘cessationists’ have taught that the perfect is the Bible (i.e., the completion of the canon). If you take it to mean the completion of the canon, that makes for a very neat package that proves cessationism, but it is very doubtful that Paul is talking about the completion of the canon. What Paul is talking about in the context is our imperfect knowledge and how that will change when the perfect comes. Understanding the “perfect” to be the completed canon implies that Scripture is only sufficient when we have the completed canon. Just having the OT or a few letters from Paul was not enough. I don’t think anyone wants to say that. I certainly don’t get that impression when I read the Psalms. And the prophets didn’t excuse the people’s wickedness because they didn’t have the completed canon. I doubt that Paul even had the concept that there would be a completed NT canon someday. He thought Jesus would be back in his life time. Also, in the context, it implies that when we have the completed canon, we will no longer know only partially. Our knowledge will then be complete. That obviously isn’t so. I think we have to conclude that “the perfect” refers to the return of Christ. Therefore, this verse doesn’t prove that miraculous gifts will cease when the last book is added to the Bible. BUT, and a very important BUT, it also doesn’t prove that they will continue until Jesus returns as Continuationists say. Paul does say these gifts “will pass away,” and the Greek emphasizes that tongues will “cease,” so I would say that it argues more for cessationism than for continuation, but that doesn’t tell us when they will pass away. It doesn’t say they will pass away in the first century. We will have to look elsewhere for support.
- Heb 2:3-4
The context is this: These Jewish Christians are wanting to return to the old Jewish law. The writer of the book of Hebrews is writing to convince them not to. Part of his argument is that in the same way that the law was confirmed by supernatural signs (vs 2), so also was the gospel about Jesus confirmed by supernatural signs. Therefore, it is also from God and supersedes the old.
Both Continuationists and Cessationists use this verse for support. The debate about the grammar in this verse. In the statement: “God, bearing witness by signs and wonders and various miracles…” the word “bearing witness” is a present participle. Continuationists argue that since this is a present participle, the miracles were still being worked among the readers of Hebrews. The problem with this is that 90% of the time, participles in a genitive absolute construction are temporal and linked to the main verb. Our main verb in this passage is the aorist verb “confirmed.” Aorist tense means past tense. Thus the “bearing witness” should be understood to be simultaneous with the apostle’s attestation of the message by signs and wonders. In other words, those who heard (the Lord first hand, i.e. the apostles) confirmed their message by performing signs and wonders.
What about the “us” in verse 3? Undoubtedly, there were many first-generation believers in the congregation that had witnessed the miracles performed by the apostles. The “us” doesn’t require that all the people witnessed the miracles, just that some of them had. So, the verse does refer to miracles worked among the readers of Hebrews. But it does not say that the miracles were still occurring. It also does not say that the Hebrew readers were performing signs and wonders. The emphasis is that this was all past tense.
In fact, the writer of Hebrews could have made his argument much stronger if he had just pointed to miracles currently taking place among the Hebrews. Instead, he can only point to miracles performed by the apostles. Since he didn’t point to their current experience, the logic is that miracles must have ceased by then. Compare Gal 3:5, written much earlier. There Paul points to miracles occurring among the readers as proof that the new system of faith is superior to the old system of law. Why didn’t the writer of Hebrews do the same? I recognize that this is an argument from silence, and we have to be very careful when making such an argument, because one can argue almost anything from silence, but to me this silence is deafening. The problem is Continuationists can’t hear it. This verse is also significant in that it shows that the purpose of signs and wonders was one of authenticating that the messengers and their new revelation were from God.
Well, beloved friends and listeners of LTBS, I have just shown some of the most used passages to prove cessationism are also used to prove the continuation of the miraculous gifts. I think Hebrews 2:3-4 is pretty strong for cessationism. Nevertheless, I think we could look at the historical argument.
- ARGUMENT FROM THE HISTORY OF SALVATION
When I refer to the history of salvation, I’m referring to those periods in history when it is really obvious that God is working in history to bring about the salvation of man. In understanding argument, we need to distinguish those special periods when miracles were performed by individuals from God’s sovereign power and providence. Beloved, scattered throughout history are the miraculous acts of God Himself. E.g. Joshua had miracles take place (i.e. sun stood still), but Joshua didn’t do it. The writing prophets performed no miracles even though they were getting divine revelation from God. Hezekiah’s life was extended. That was miraculous, but Hezekiah didn’t do it.
Through the ages, as God has unfolded His plan of Salvation, there have been several turning points where some big changes were made. At these points, various individuals were instrumental in bringing about the changes.
The first big event in the history of salvation was when God picked Abraham from among the nations and promised that He would bless the world through Abraham’s descendants. The ultimate fulfillment of this promise was the birth of Jesus, His death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. There were not a lot of people that needed to be convinced of this revelation -- just Abraham, and he believed, therefore, no miracles were performed.
In history, there were really only five periods in which miracles occurred regularly and were performed by an individual.
God used miracles with Moses to confirm Moses as God’s messenger and to show Israelites God’s power over the gods of Egypt. Israelites needed to be separated from Egypt and back in the land so that God could fulfil His promise to Abraham. The miracles confirmed Moses and his message so that the people would follow him back to the promised land.
- Elijah and Elisha
They were raised up in a time of great apostasy primarily to deal with baal worship and deliver the people from Ahab and Jezebel. (I don’t know if it is significant to our argument. It’s just a thought I had. John the Baptist did no miracles. If he was “Elijah,” (Matt 11:14) and miracles are normative, then why didn’t he do miracles? Especially since Elijah did)
Jesus miracles were performed to authenticate that He was the promised Messiah. This was obviously a major event in the history of salvation.
- The Apostles
The Apostles’ miracles were performed to authenticate them as apostles of Jesus and their message as being from God. As the apostles took the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the end of the earth, they performed miracles to authenticate themselves as messengers of God and to authenticate this new message when they arrived in each new area.
- The two witnesses in Revelation
The two witnesses of (Rev 11) will also do miracles. [I don’t know if it is significant to our argument. It’s just a thought I had]. Pointing out that they will do miracles implies that others will not (even the 144,000).
Let me point out that some Continuationists teach that just because miracles weren’t mentioned in between these periods doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. They argue that they did occur, but were not recorded in scripture. That statement is an argument from silence. We’ve already discussed the danger of using “arguments from silence.” If we go to the Bible to try to observe some sort of pattern in God’s dealings with man, we have to analyse the evidence that we are given. We can’t just ignore it. Which attitude is correct? “I don’t care if the Bible only mentions three people in the Old Testament with the ability to perform miracles. I think it happened all the time.” or this: “Why is it that only three people in the Old Testament performed miracles? What could the reason be?” Think about it. I pray you understand this argument.
One explanation or reason is this: There are special periods when God is more obviously at work to bring about the salvation of mankind, and it is at those times when God chooses to use certain individuals in miraculous ways to authenticate the messenger and his message. Therefore, the ability to perform miracles is not the norm throughout history. Yes, miracles did occur throughout history, but not miracles performed by a miracle worker.
A related argument made by Continuationists is that Cessationists define the “miraculous” too narrowly. If we limit our definition to signs performed through human agency, then we can claim that miracles only happened at three distinct times in history and consequently leave out most of the miracles in the Bible which prove that miracles are normative. What about the sun standing still for Joshua, the Virgin Birth, Jesus’ resurrection, the earthquake that delivered Paul and Silas from jail, the instantaneous death of Herod in Acts 12:23, etc. It’s true we don’t count those, but I don’t see any signs and wonders people claiming to have experienced anything on par with the sun standing still, virgin births, people being raised from the dead, etc. If miracles are normative throughout history and those are “normal” miracles, then where are those types of miracles today? The miracles that occur today are healing miracles brought about by laying on of hands and prayer, or someone’s life being saved because a dog walked in front of a car and kept the car from going into the junction just as an armoured truck speed through the junction. Certainly, God caused that dog to be there. Certainly, God healed the person of the cancer overnight. But do these qualify as gifts of miracles? Couldn’t the healing also be attributed to what James talks about when he says, “If anyone is sick, call the elders and have them pray…” Couldn’t the driver just marched break and ask God for grace for the car to stop?
- THE ARGUMENT FROM THE CLOSED CANON
Continuationists argue that none of the spiritual gifts have ceased. At the same time mainstream Continuationists would all agree that we have a completed canon. No new inspired revelation is being given today to be added to the end of our Bible. Remember, the gift of apostle and prophet involved the giving of revelation which was recorded in scripture. If we are not receiving new revelation, then at the least there is some measure of discontinuity or cessationism. Either the revelatory gifts have changed in quality or they have ceased. If those gifts have ceased, then why can’t other gifts cease? Especially those gifts that typically accompanied the messenger and new message to authenticate them as being from God.
Beloved, please remember, I did say that it was only 5 periods in which miracles occurred regularly and were performed by an individual. These five periods if considered in the context of biblical dispensations, you will agree with me that all the three 3 dispensation were introduced by miracle. Thus, we conclude the following about the purpose of miracles
- Miracles introduced new eras/dispensations of revelation: All the three eras of miracles were times when God gave His written revelation
- Miracles authenticated the messengers of revelation.
- Miracles called attention to new revelation.
We could discuss this issue for the next six months and not solve the debate. Our purpose is not to prove that miracles don’t happen. It is to put miracles in perspective. We must remember that God can do anything He wants, with anyone He wants, anytime He wants. When the Old and New Testaments were complete, God’s revelation was finished (Heb 1:1-2) Through many signs, wonders, and miracles God authenticated His Book. Is there an ongoing need for miracles to substantiate God’s revelation? Can anyone with faith “claim” a miracle, as some teach? Does God do miracles on demands? And the phenomena being hailed today as signs, wonders and healings bear any resemblance to the miracles performed by Christ and the apostles?
Please let me stop here. I look forward to hearing from you. They are more arguments, but let’s take it one after the other. Thank you.