The Three Positions on the Spectacular Gifts in
Have you wondered about 'Signs and Wonders' in the Church today? Have you wondered about 'Gifts of the Spirit'? Should Christians expect divine healing from every illness? How about Cessationism? (the belief that the spectacular signs concluded with the conclusion of the mission of 'the 70' and the completion of the Bible canon).
As David Wells has pointed out (God, the
Evangelist) there are really only three possible positions to
adopt on the spectacular signs, or, 'signs and wonders' in
today's Church. We will list the three, then I will make a few
comments upon each. But, first of all, it should be noted that
all of these positions allow for - and hopefully expect -
answered prayer - this includes the 'cessationist'
Here are the three positions;
This teaches that the spectacular Gifts ceased with, or soon after, the time of the apostles. The more spectacular Gifts were only given to the Church in order to celebrate Christ's arrival and to highlight the work of the original apostles. In this way, the name of Jesus Christ quickly gained fame; otherwise, in a world without today's fast media communications, it would have taken considerable time for the news of Christ to have travelled very far. The early Church needed to quickly gain notoriety - this is how God chose to do it! After all, news of miracles will always travel fast! The spectacular miracles (tongues, prophecy, outstanding healings etc) were, according to this, the Signs of the Apostles. Before any should reject this teaching too quickly, we should just note that the Signs of an Apostle teaching appears to be backed up by the following Scriptures; Acts 5: 12-16, Acts 14: 3, Acts 19: 11, 2 Cor 12: 12 & Hebs 2: 3-4. But one Scripture which has been used, 1 Cor 13: 8-10, has come under considerable fire in recent years as not being supportive of the position. Cessationists say the 'perfect' of 1 Cor 13: 10 refers to the completed Bible canon, after which there would be no further purpose in miracles. The problem, though, is that this 'perfect' appears to refer to Christ's second coming, which obviously has not yet happened; therefore those things which verse 8 said would cease (prophecies, tongues etc) should still be occurring. This 'cessationist' position has had the greatest following within the Reformed movement, but it is not correct to say that all Reformed people hold to it - they certainly don't.
2. The 'Faith position'.
This position would say that all the Gifts should still occur today. After all, did not Jesus say that His followers might be expected to do even greater works? And in Mark 16: 17-18, Jesus appeared to expect His followers to continue to perform great wonders.
But the testimony of the 'Church Fathers' of the early centuries is interesting here; for while they spoke of miracles still occurring, overall they noted something of a diminution in their frequency. The faith position would say that all of the Gifts should still occur today but often do not because we lack faith. This appears attractive at first, after all, did not Jesus say, 'When the Son of Man returns, will He find faith upon the earth'? However, upon careful meditation and contemplation one can see quite sizeable problems here! One is that upon our consideration of the lives of great men and women of faith such as Hudson Taylor and George Muller, one may note little or no exercising of the spectacular Gifts.
All of us who have read about George Muller, for example (and I am his greatest admirer) have noted some of the amazing answers to prayer which he experienced and yet, I believe that I am correct in saying that he only saw a very small number of divine healings - even in his very long life of 93 years!
So we have the situation that many of the most faith-full who have lived in comparatively modern times, have not received these Gifts, nor apparently even seen the need of them.
Secondly, this position has led to enormous judging of one Christian by another within congregations. If one is not dramatically healed upon anointing by a 'healing evangelist' is this necessarily because one lacks faith?
Thirdly, this position - in actual practise - promotes Gifts to a status which they simply do not enjoy in the New Testament. This position has been the classic Pentecostal/charismatic position. And yet, it is encouraging that an increasing number of these groups are now starting to distance themselves from it. The position - taken to an extreme - has been the classic 'health, wealth and prosperity gospel' approach. Within this schema, faith is hijacked from the biblical model and becomes something which requires God to give us everything we want, whether it is ever-radiant health, financial affluence or that spectacular Gift to impress fellow-believers! If we do our bit, then God must act! The approach also appears to be overly concerned with the 'here and now'- yet, biblically, we are encouraged to look to eternity.
In fact, biblically faith is very much tied up with God's sovereignty and His choice in that. Sometimes we may want something but His answer is No; just as it was when Paul wanted to be healed of his famous 'thorn in the flesh'.
Finally, this 'faith' position toward the spectacular Gifts has sometimes led to a demanding approach where God is begged to 'send down' the Gifts - these people rarely seem interested in those less spectacular gifts such as knowledge, faith, giving, teaching and encouragement although they greatly outnumber the showy Gifts in the various New Testament lists of the Gifts. But the apostle Paul seems to make it clear that it is God - not us - who decides which Gift goes where!
3. The balanced approach.
The balanced approach would avoid extremes and insist on recognising God's complete sovereignty in whether or not He might allow a miracle to occur, or any spectacular Gift in any particular scenario. Indeed we might term this 'balanced approach' a biblical approach. It would question the categoricalism of the first two approaches. One might say that these Gifts can occur today in scenarios in which the Lord wills them to occur, but it is entirely within His jurisdiction.
Neither can we ever demand any particular Gift; perhaps it is the Lord's will that we are equipped with a quieter Gift! Any talk of 'claiming the promises on faith' must take full account of all scriptural teaching - not just favourite bits!
God alone decides where the more spectacular Gifts are needed for the equipping of the Body of Christ. This third position is, perhaps, mid way between the extremes of the first two, and concerned to avoid their extremes.
God has obviously granted some of these Gifts afresh during periods of Revival as even most Reformed people will admit. But then, it appears, suddenly withdrawn them again - we cannot question His decision and choice in this.
There is also very strong evidence that the Gifts are granted wherever God considers the proclamation of the gospel to be going into new areas for the first time! This would certainly explain some of the miracles we have heard about when the gospel has been taken into fresh areas of places like China and Nepal!! We at Museltof wholeheartedly support this third position as being eminently sensible. It also means that we can say that positions 1 and 2 are not wholly incorrect, just somewhat biblically unbalanced. For example, the teaching that the early spectacular miracles were the 'Signs of an Apostle' appears to be backed up by Scripture (Acts 5: 12-16. Acts 14: 3. Acts 19: 11. 2 Cor 12: 12. & Hebs 2: 3-4.) How else would the name of Christ have spread so quickly?
Yet this is not to say that some of the more spectacular Gifts can never re-occur, in fact most would agree that they have; some would say only in periods of Revival, many others would say rather more often than that - but only where God has granted them!
On the 'faith' side, one might say that a lack of faith is indeed occasionally a problem, but perhaps not the problem that some of the more extreme charismatic 'healing evangelists' would insist! Maybe some of these guys - who have frequently built up quite a following, should go back and carefully and prayerfully reconsider some of the Scriptures which they have thrown at people! No, I don't cast them all together, but I have occasionally been very concerned at things which one has been told.
A very experienced Pentecostal minister, now retired, told me privately that during his long ministry he had seen some 'Gifts' which were emotionally induced and he knew of other manifestations which he strongly suspected were due to demonic activity!! Yes, he also saw a few that he believed were genuine. This came from a vastly experienced Pentecostal minister!!
We are to 'try the spirits', we really do need to be careful.
So when people ask me if God heals today, I say, Yes, but we see a reduced, or restricted healing ministry. Yes, I have prayed for people and seen them dramatically healed at times but God does not treat me like the apostle Peter where his very shadow falling over sick people caused them all to be healed! Why? Because I am not the apostle Peter!! Let us employ a little humility in recognising some of these things!
Moreover, to stage a 'healing meeting' in which a few hundred people are invited and to announce to them, 'Tonight you can all be healed - but only if you have enough faith!' is - to me - the very height of spiritual irresponsibility! It is also inexcusable since it betrays a somewhat restricted understanding of Scripture. Too restricted, perhaps, for one to have set oneself up as a 'leader'! One may also imagine that the collection baskets are soon passed around!
Frankly, brothers and sisters in Christ, such behaviour by a few has brought terrible shame on all of us who call ourselves by the name of Christ!!
In bringing this to a close, I wish to quote some very wise words from G.C. Berkhouwer and Adrio Konig. The words come from Konig's 'The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology';
"In the past it was too glibly taught by some that 'the age of miracles is past' and the miracles occurred in the first century to effect a rapid and thorough establishment of the Church...G.C. Berkhouwer has gone into this in depth and shown what was the legitimate motive for miracles; they were aimed at founding and extending the Church throughout the world. He levels severe criticism at overzealous attempts 'in faith' to exert power which cannot with certainty be identified with the triumphant revelation of God's kingdom. He also, on the other hand, repudiates the restriction of miracles to the first centuries. We find nothing in Scripture to suggest a specific age of miracles and a specific age without them. The numerous signs which followed Pentecost should make us cautious about setting boundaries to God's wonderful deeds... there is nothing in the New Testament to prevent God from making use of miracles and signs today in order to extend and establish the Church. He who genuinely believes that miracles no longer happen, must ask himself if he takes God's power seriously or has secretly capitulated to determinism... it is therefore wrong in principle to deny their possibility or to neglect asking the Lord for them. Yet it is clear from Acts and the rest of the New Testament witness after Pentecost that things may take a more natural course. This does not suggest that Jesus' working through the Spirit has been discontinued; simply that He is working in more ways than miracles only...we must recognise that the Spirit distributes His Gifts separately to each individual 'as He wills' (1 Cor 12: 11) - and that we cannot demand miracles as if they were God's only way of dealing with our problems! We must respect the Lord's freedom to give the Church those Gifts and miracles which He sees fit"
(The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology, Konig, p156, pub;Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1989)
There is one book which we would strongly recommend on healing, discussing such matters as anointing with oil, it is 'Miraculous Healing' by Henry W. Frost. First published in 1931 but reprinted in 1999 by Christian Focus (UK). Try to get a copy!
Robin A. Brace
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You may also wish to go through these links:
ARE THERE REALLY PROPHETS IN TODAY'S CHURCH?
IS PHYSICAL HEALING INCLUDED IN THE ATONEMENT?
MUSELTOF COUNTERCULT AND APOLOGETICS
WITNESS TO THE WORD