The Work of the Spirit | pt. 5

You can see the previous post in this series here.

Gifts of the Spirit confirm the gospel. Fourth, the gifts of the Spirit serve to authenticate the gospel message (e.g. Rom 15:18-19[1]) and that is still necessary especially in certain contexts but that is not the exclusive reason that God gave the gifts of the Spirit. D.A. Carson correctly points out that just “because miraculous signs have a distinctively attesting role in some instances, it does not follow that this is the only role they play.”[2] Although some assert that the gifts of the Spirit ceased with the closing of the canon they make that claim without biblical warrant. As Carson says, “There is no exegetical warrant for thinking certain classes of the Spirit’s manifestations cease once the crucial points of redemptive history have passed.”[3]

Gifts of the Spirit are poured out in the last days. Fifth, the gifts of the Spirit are part of what it means to be in the last days and we are in the last days.[4]

Cessationists who claim that the healings of Jesus and the apostles where merely authenticating signs of their status as bearers of canonical revelation misunderstand Jesus’ own explanation of them. For Jesus, they are rather expressions of the liberating reign of God, bursting into history, and it is as such that they attest the message of the kingdom.[5]

The gifts of the Spirit are to be expected because they indicate the presence of the Kingdom in the last days. The presence of the Holy Spirit is a sign of the new covenant.

The Spirit’s empowering is needed to carry out the Great Commission. Sixth, the empowering of the Spirit, including spiritual gifts, is necessary to carry out the great commission (See Acts 1:8[6]). We continue to need the grace gifts. As Schreiner has said, “We don’t have the strength and ability to serve in a way that pleases God on our own.”[7] So, how then is it any less vital that we receive power from the Holy Spirit to be His witnesses (v. 8)? And if the later part of the verse applies to us, that is the great commission, how does the empowering part not apply? It seems to be that they must go together. Otherwise, it leaves us trying to do it in our own power, and that is most unbiblical. We are to walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3-4). And part of what would be recalled by the early readers of Romans would be the empowering of powerful grace gifts for the upbuilding of the church.

The continuation of the gifts is the expectation of the New Testament. Seventh, the gifts were pervasive throughout the New Testament. This itself does not mean that they definitively continue but it should, I believe, make us expectant. Christian fellowship and Christian sacrifice might in many ways be at their height in the New Testament and it often does not look exactly like it did in the early church, and in some ways that seems to be okay. We have different challenges and the culture is different. However, in other ways, the New Testament puts forward an ideal for us to work towards. Could it not be the same regarding the pervasive outpouring of the gifts of Spirit in the early church?[8] That is not to say that the New Testament experience is normative, that does not seem to be the case in regards to fellowship, sacrifice, and the gifts God has given for the building up of the church. But just because they are not normative does not mean we are not to strive in that direction and it certainly does not mean that God does not still pour our all sorts of gracious gifts.

History seems to indicate the continued gifts of the Spirit. Eighth, one can make a historical argument for the continuation of the grace gifts.[9] The issue of the continuation of the grace gifts does not stand or fall on historical argumentation though. But it is important to realize that there have been claims throughout the history of the church that substantiate the continuance of the grace gifts.[10] Like many things, there seems to be an ebb and flow. The analogy of a wave seems to be more fitting than a constant stream. The testimony of the biblical record itself does not give us uniformity in regard to the work of the Spirit. There are periods when He moves in power and there are periods when we cannot sense His work at all. It is the Spirit’s prerogative; the Spirit works the way He works (John 3:8).

Ferguson objects that continuationists provide “no generally convincing theological explanation for the disappearance of certain gifts during the greater part of the church’s existence.”[11] I think Ferguson is mistaken because he has failed to account for at least four factors. First, there are in fact various claims about the practice of the gifts still being in operation throughout church history. History would seem to say it is unlikely that they did disappear.[12] That is not, however, to say that they have always been given with the same proportions throughout church history.[13] There is no reason to think that they have to continue to the same degree, though. Just because there is variation does not mean the gifts have ceased. Second, certain grace gifts may be especially prevalent when the gospel is going forward to a new region which could account for “dry spells” of the outpouring of certain grace gifts.[14] Third, Paul tells Timothy to fan into flame the gift that was given him and Paul says, “eagerly desire” the greater grace gifts. So, apparently, one can have a gift and it not be functioning, or, at least to its full potential because it is either not eagerly desired or properly pursued.[15] Perhaps that is why Paul said, “do not quench the Spirit” (1 Thess 5:19). Fourth, as we have seen above, there is no clear biblical warrant for thinking that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased. One of the important solas of the reformation is sola Scriptura. Even if one concedes that history leads us to think one thing, we must be captive to the word of God, not our (perhaps very faulty[16]) understanding of history.

It is also important to consider that at the end of history it appears there will be both prophecy and miraculous works. Revelations 11 says “I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy… They have power to shut up the heavens so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want” (v. 3, 6 cf. Exod 7-12; 1 Kgs 17: 1; 2 Kgs 1:10, 12; Jas 5:17).[17] It is admitted that the book of Revelations is notoriously difficult to interpret but it seems it should be at least admitted by the cessationist that Revelations shows that prophecy, as well as mighty works empowered by the Spirit, could, in fact, continue until the end. At least this passage, in my opinion, makes it very difficult to say definitively that they have ceased.

____

[1] “One purpose of miracles is certainly to authenticate the message of the gospel” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 359). “In the New Testament, Jesus’s miraculous signs attested that he had come from God” (Ibid., 358) (cf. Matt 4:23; 9:35; 10:7-8; 12:28; Luke 4:18; 9:1-2; John 2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:53-54; 6;2, 14; 7:31; 9:16; 11:48; 12:11; Acts 8:6-8, 13).

[2] Carson, Showing the Spirit, 156. He goes on to say, “The healings and other miracles of Jesus are explicitly connected not only with the person of Jesus, but also with the new age he is inaugurating” (Ibid.).

[3] Ibid., 155.

[4] Oss says, “Peter equates Pentecost with the emergence of the new age, specifically identifying this event with the Old Testament expectation of the ‘last days’ as a time of messianic blessing (cf. Isa. 2:2ff.; Jer. 31:33–34; Ezek. 36:26–27; 39:29; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1ff.). Hence, with the outpouring of the Spirit the awaited age has come.” He goes on to say, “The presence and empowering activity of the Holy Spirit thus characterizes the life of God’s people during the last days… Failure to incorporate the empowering dimension of the Spirit’s work into pneumatology results in an understanding of the Spirit that is not only less than fully orbed, but also deficient…. Finally, the last days do not conclude until the Lord’s return (Acts 2:20b). There is not a scrap of biblical evidence that the last days are subdivided, postponed, or changed prior to the day of the Lord. Indeed, all evidence indicates that the last days continue in characteristic fashion without any pivotal changes until the Lord brings them to a close with his return (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1; 2 Tim. 3:1; Heb. 1:2; James 5:3; 1 Peter 1:20; 2 Peter 3:3; 1 John 2:18)” (Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?, 267).

[5] M. Turner, “Spiritual Gifts,” 791 in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. See also Carson, Showing the Spirit, 155.

[6] Simon J. Kistemaker says, “Only through the indwelling person and power of the Holy Spirit are the disciples able to witness for Jesus Christ… Jesus’ word, ‘You will receive power,’ applies first to the twelve apostles and then to all believers who witness effectively for Jesus Christ” (Acts, 54).

[7] Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, loc. 359.

[8] “In all other areas of the Christian life (such as evangelism, moral conduct, doctrine, church government and ministry, etc.), we seem to take the patterns of the New Testament as patterns we should imitate in our lives today” (Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?, 345). Why would it be only in the area of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit that we would we be unwilling to take the New Testament as God’s pattern for us today? (See Ibid.)

[9] Three modern examples come to mind. (1) There is an account of Spurgeon using what I would label the gift of a word of knowledge (see Charles Spurgeon, The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon (Cincinnati: Curts & Jennings, 1898-1900) 2:226-27), (2) there is George Muller and his documented gift of faith, and (3) the missionary Bruce Olson recounts a modern example of tongues (as in Acts 2, not a referring to a prayer language) in his book Bruchko and the Motilone Miracle ([Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2006], 71) and of healing (Bruchko [Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2006], 138-38), and a vision (Ibid., 140). On visions and dreams see Sam Martyn, “The Role of Pre-Conversion Dreams and Visions in Islamic Contexts: An Examination of the Evidence” STR 9.2 (2018): 55–74 as well as the late Nabeel Qureshi’s testimony to their role in his own conversion.

[10] See e.g. the many examples of “extraordinary works of the Spirit” that Vern Poythress gives in “Modern Spiritual Gifts As Analogous to Apostolic Gifts,”95-101 in JETS 39/1 (March 1996) and Nigel Scotland, “Signs and Wonders in the Early Catholic Church 90-451 and their Implications for the Twenty-First Century,” 159 in European Journal of Theology 10.2 (2001): 155-167. Bruce Carlton, in his book Amazing Grace, tells of an exorcism that happened in Cambodia in 1994. I have meant Carlton, he was one of my professors at Boyce College. He is trustworthy and balanced in his views. He says this in his book: “Signs and wonders are not always needed for people to believe in Jesus. We cannot put God into human-made boxes and expect Him to work according to our designs and plans. Some people build a box and say that signs and wonders are no longer necessary, negating the miraculous work of God in their lives and in the lives of others. Others build a box and say that signs and wonders are necessary, often falling into the trap of becoming Christian magicians. I prefer rather to be attuned to the work of the Holy Spirit and rejoice in all the He does. To me, every heart that is turned from darkness to light by the power of the Holy Spirit is a miracle!” (Carlton, Amazing Grace: Lessons on Church-Planting Movements from Cambodia [Chennai, India: Mission Educational Books, 2004], 198).

[11] Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 223. Regarding tongues, Harold Hunter says, “It is an a priori assumption of many modern historians that silence on the subject denotes absence” (“Tongues-Speech: A Patristic Analysis,” 136 in JETS 23/2 [June 1980]). However, various explanations can be offered. Hunter outlines a few possible explanations.

[12] Origen said this in c. 248: “The Jews no longer have prophets or miracles. Yet, traces of those things are still found among Christians to a considerable extent. Some of these miracles are more remarkable than any that existed among the Jews. I have witnessed these myself” (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 301).

[13] First Samuel 3:1 speaks of a time when “the word of the Lord was rare” and “there was no frequent vision.” So, there does clearly seem to be times when there is a lag in certain workings of the Spirit. That, however, does not mean that the Spirit ceased working once and for all.

[14] It may be helpful to consider something C.S. Lewis said: “You are probably quite right in thinking that you will never see a miracle done:… They come on great occasions: they are found at the great ganglions of history—not of political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men. If your own life does not happen to be near one of those ganglions, how should you expect to see one? If we were heroic missionaries, apostles, or martyrs, it would be a different matter. But why you or I? Unless you live near a railway, you will not see trains past your windows. How likely is it that you or I will be present when a peace treaty is signed…” (Miracles [New York: Macmillian, 1960], 135),

[15] Paul says “do not neglect the gift you have” (1 Tim 4:14) but instead “earnestly desire” the gifts (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1, 39) and “fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Tim 1:6).

[16] Consider the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity and its implications in regards to human knowledge and that our judgment can be faulty and biased.

[17] Dennis E. Johnson says, “We may suspect that these two witnesses symbolize the whole church in its role as witnesses to God’s truth and against the world’s lies and wickedness” (Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation, 171).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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