We Still Need the Spirit’s Empowering Presence
Moses had stood before Pharaoh, led 600,000 Israelites out of Egypt, and received the Law from the LORD Himself. If there was someone that could feel accomplished and able you’d think it’d be Moses. Yet, he was humble and knew his need.
In fact, the book of Numbers says, “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (12:3). It seems there is a correspondence between proximity to God and the weighty work He’s called you to, and humility. The more one sees God, the more one is humbled by God and sees their need for God’s empowerment.
Moses had led God’s people out of Egypt and was forming them into a nation, yet Moses knew His utter need for the Spirit’s presence and leading. He said, “If Your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (Exodus 33:15).
Moses said that, but I fear that I, along with many other Christians, run straight into various situations without the least thought as to our need for the Spirit’s help and leading. The Spirit was given as the Helper, but very often I’m afraid we don’t seek out His help. I know I’ve been guilty of that. That, however, is foolish.
Jesus Himself said that it was better that He go because then He’d give the Helper to be with us always. And Jesus’ disciples waited for the power of the Spirit before they moved. Moses—seemingly very capable Moses—also knew his need for the power of God’s presence.
The Bible says that what brought us from spiritual death to spiritual life was the Spirit of God. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all” (John 6:63). The Spirit was absolutely critical at the beginning, and He is all the way to the end. Galatians says it this way: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
Here’s what comes to mind for me: we’re alive because we breathe, so we keep breathing; it’s good and keeps us alive. We wouldn’t think of just stopping breathing because it is critical for life. I think that’s basically what Moses had in mind. Moses is saying, ‘God, You brought us here, and we have no hope without You.’
Perhaps we don’t see our need for God because we don’t see what He’s done. We don’t see what He’s capable of. Perhaps we chalk a lot up to ourselves. We’re capable. We think we can manage in our own power. Perhaps we don’t feel much strain because we have a comfortable little life without many seemingly impossible goals.
But whatever the reasons, the reality is, we desperately need the Spirit’s empowering presence.
Moses did. The apostles did.
God’s Spirit is crucial at the beginning and through to the end. We need help and God has given Help.
We still need the Spirit’s empowering presence.
*Photo by Jon Tyson
Questions, Concerns, and Cautions
Questions. The first question I think it is important to ask is, what should be our level of expectation regarding the gifts? Sometimes proponents of the continuation of the gifts reference John 14:12, in that passage Jesus said, “whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do.” Some take that verse to mean that we should expect more miraculous gifts of the Spirit than even seen through the ministry of Jesus.
What, however, are the works that Jesus is referring to? I tend to agree with William Hendriksen’s understanding. He says, as a result of Jesus’ “departure the disciples will perform not only the works which Jesus has been doing all along (miracles in the physical realm), but also even greater works than these, namely, miracles in the spiritual realm.”
I believe that instead of always expecting the miraculous or never expecting it, we should understand that the miraculous is still possible. The gifts have not ceased. However, that does not mean that every Sunday will be a recreation of Pentecost. I believe we see through Scripture and the history of the Church that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are still given, yet they are not normative, they are not always given or to the same degree.
We are not to expect Pentecost but we are to expectantly pursue the gifts in accordance with Scripture for the upbuilding of the church. In the last days in which we are in, the actual outpouring of the grace gifts will look different at different geographical locations as well as different times throughout history. This is to be expected because in the New Testament there was no equal distribution of grace gifts and God’s mighty acts by the Spirit have in no way been evenly disbursed over the course of redemptive history. The Spirit moves where He wills (John 3:8) but that does not in anyway preclude us from praying for His special empowering. All over Scripture, the Spirit empowered people in mighty ways, we are in no less need of that special empowering today. Although we cannot demand it and it does not seem to be normative.
Second, why do so many unhealthy teachings and experiences go on within some churches that believe in the continuation of the grace gifts? There are various ways to answer this question but briefly, I think the issue shows a need for biblical leadership. That is not to say that biblical leadership has always been lacking in these churches. Paul himself had to provide correction to the Corinthian church that was dealing with various issues. But, he did provide that leadership, he did provide correction. I think it is important to note that abuses seem to abound where there is need for biblical balance regardless of the doctrine. I think for example of hyper-Calvinism or the issue of having orthodoxy but not orthopraxy.
I appreciate this important advice from Carson:
When God graciously manifests himself in abnormal and even spectacular ways, the wisest step that the leaders participating in such a movement may take is to curb the excesses, focus attention on the center—on Christ, on loving discipleship, on self-sacrificing service and obedience, on God himself—and not on the phenomena themselves.
Third, is the popular “open but cautious” view of the gifts a biblically tenable one? I do not believe so. If the grace gifts are still given then Scripture exhorts us to “earnestly desire” them for the upbuilding of the body (1 Cor 12:31; 14:1, 39). If the Lord Jesus cares enough about His church to give gifts and Spirit-empowered abilities to serve people, should we not care enough about the church to use those gifts for that purpose? Are we okay with being merely open to these good gifts, and even cautious about them, when He has graciously given them for our corporate good? That option does not seem open to me (although I understand that it may take some time to study and pray over the topic). Though, this issue should never be one of contention or disunity.
Earnestly desiring the gifts of the Spirit for the upbuilding of the body should never be allowed to cause division in the body. The Spirit wants us to and works so that we “grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16). So, the gifts should never be pursued in a way that would cause disunity or disrepute.
Earnestly desiring the gifts of the Spirit for the upbuilding of the body should never be allowed to cause division in the body.Tweet
I do believer, however, if someone is “open but cautious” then they should study Scripture in depth on the topic. If they are cautious it is important that they be informed on what particularly they should be cautious about. If they are open they should know why and what they are open too. If they are open, they should earnestly desire the grace gifts and lead the church to be built up through the operation of the full range of the grace gifts of the Spirit. This is important, because if the nose is missing, where would be the sense of smell (See 1 Cor 12:12ff)? In the same way we want each part of our body functioning, we should want every grace gift functioning within the church body.
May we long to impart spiritual gifts to strengthen each other as Paul did (Rom 1:11). “If, as Paul puts it, God’s various gifts are given ‘for the common good’ and ‘for the building up of the church,’ then we should expect to flourish to the extent that we receive, steward, and enjoy them.” Thus, the “open but cautious” position is not, in my opinion, a biblical position. Though I believe it is appropriate to be “unsure but studying” even though I believe the correct view is “open and desirous.”
Concerns and Cautions. The Apostle Paul has some good words for us, both groups. He says earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Cor 14:39). And he also says all things must be done in a proper and in an orderly manner (v. 40). He says I will pray with my spirit, I will sing with my spirit (v. 15). And he says, I will pray with my mind, I will sing with my mind (v. 15). Whatever our view on the continuation of the gifts, our churches should not be able to be labeled either “charismaniacs” or “the frozen chosen.” Because God is not a God of confusion (v. 33) but He is a God of new and exciting life and there is reason for us to respond to Him with visible affection. May we, both of us, worship the LORD, as He deserves, in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
I believe there is a danger of emotionalism on one side and of distain for emotion on the other. The renowned philosopher, theologian, and pastor Jonathan Edwards said, “there is no true religion where there is nothing else but affection, so there is no true religion where there is no religious affection.” Emotions are not bad in and of themselves but emotions must be guided by Scripture and governed by the self-control of the Spirit. Jay Adams has said,
There are no damaging or destructive emotions per se. Our emotional makeup is totally from God. All emotions of which He made us capable are constructive when used properly (i.e., in accordance with biblical principles)… All emotions, however, can become destructive when we fail to express them in harmony with biblical limitations and structures.
It is also important that we realize that worship is to be a response to revelation, the glory and goodness of God, and not mere hype, lighting, and musical mood. When we respond with the correct emotions to God’s revelation it honors Him. There is a time to “rend our hearts,” for instance (Joel 2:13). As William Wilberforce said, “Scripture speaks with praise of the lively exercise of the passions towards their legitimate object.”
The Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA), is a denomination that has a history of reckoning with this important and controversial topic, and they have wisely said, “in all periods of highly emotional religious issues, excesses are inevitable.” The C&MA knows about both the “blessings and the mischief of the [charismatic] movement.” Though it is true that mischief and even grave harm is done by those who teach falsely and wrongly emphasis certain gifts at the expense of others, it does not mean that the gifts themselves are bad. The apostle Paul himself showed that “the correct treatment for abuse is not disuse, but proper use.”
As the C&MA states, “we must… remember that our ‘comfort zone’ is not the same as spiritual discernment, and at times even a gift manifested in love may make those ignorant of it uncomfortable. Therefore, patient teaching on the gifts and their manifestations is a necessity.” Further, we must work very hard to distinguish between a work of the Spirit and what is merely a work of man or even Satan.
Jonathan Edwards gives five evidences of a work of the Holy Spirit that we would be wise to consider. First, the Spirit will work in such a way as to exalt Christ (1 Cor 12:3). Second, the Spirit will work against Satan and his work. Third, the Spirit will cause people to have a greater regard for Scripture and will establish them in God’s truth. Fourth, the Spirit will lead people in truth and convince them of what is true. Fifth, the Spirit will cause people to love God and man. Further, Edwards says,
The surest character of true divine supernatural love—distinguishing it from counterfeits that arise from a natural self-love—is, that the Christian virtue of humility shines in it; that which above all others renounces, abases, and annihilates what we term self… Love and humility are two things the most contrary to the spirit of the devil, of any thing in the world; for the character of that evil spirit, above all things, consists in pride and malice.
The Spirit’s work in us, whatever form that work takes, should not produce pride but humility. Also, the fruits of the Spirit should always accompany the gifts of the Spirit to a high degree (Gal 5:22-23).
It is also very important that we understand, as Jonathan Edwards says, “A work is not to be judged of by any effects on the bodies of men; such as tears, trembling, groans, loud outcries, agonies of body, or the failing of bodily strength.” Thus, Allen Ross is correct in saying, “It is presumptuous for anyone to say that others do not have the joy of the Spirit if they do not dance and shout in a certain way… [or] have particular spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit works differently in people.”
As a last caution, it is important to hear from Cecil M. Robeck in his book The Azusa Street Mission and Revival. He says, “As a church historian, I have… come to realize that revival is not the normal state of affairs, nor is it intended to be so. Those of us who appreciate the role that revival plays often miss this.” Robeck compares revival to smelling salts. Smelling salts have their purpose. They revive people and bring them back to consciousness. But they are not for everyday life. “Imagine a roomful of people convinced that they need to keep on inhaling smelling salts in order to keep on living.”Read More…
The ministry of a prophet does not contradict or add to Scripture but if truly from God is infallible. This is very controversial but it seems to be the correct conclusion when we unbiasedly consider the biblical evidence. It is helpful here to consider what Sam Storms has said, “If noncanonical revelation was not a threat to the ultimate authority of Scripture in its emerging from, neither should it pose a threat to Scripture in its final form.” Many, however, do not buy that.
For example, John MacArthur says, “extrabiblical revelation always leads to error!” Then he proceeds to look at cults and mentions the Book of Mormon as an example. It is true that there are many false claims to revelation but that in itself does not mean that there is not still revelation. If we truly believe in solo Scriptura we need to show where the Bible says there is no longer revelation.
Schreiner, in his helpful book Spiritual Gifts, argues that prophecy no longer continues because the prophecy in the New Testament was infallible and what is happening now is not infallible. He never demonstrates, however, that all of what is called “prophecy” today is not at least in some cases from God and thus infallible. Further, this is not an argument grounded in Scripture. Instead, Schreiner is simply making an assertion about all modern claims to prophecy. That, we should see, is a big sweeping claim.
I believe Schreiner actually helps the case for the continuance of prophecy because he makes a strong argument that not all prophecy is inscripturated. That is a big part of what I believe regarding prophecy. I believe infallible prophecy continues today but just like in the Old and New Testaments, not all infallible prophecy is included within the canon.
Schreiner shows that New Testament prophecy does not differ from Old Testament prophecy. He says,
New Testament prophets spoke authoritatively and with complete truth to the situations in their churches. The fact that most prophecies weren’t written down and preserved is completely irrelevant as far as the truth of the prophecies is concerned. It is a category mistake to think that if prophecies are without error, then they must be written down and included in the Scriptures. And it doesn’t logically follow that prophecies must contain errors if they aren’t preserved and written down. God spoke authoritatively and truly through the prophets, even if their prophecies weren’t recorded and preserved. They spoke the infallible word of God to their contemporaries, who needed to hear these true and authoritative words of God.
Further, in chapter 7, Schreiner makes a convincing case for infallible prophecy. He argues that “the idea that New Testament prophecies are mixed with error is mistaken.”
I believe that what the prophets of today share is similar to what Agabus shared. Of course, some claim that Agabus’ prophecy in Acts 11 was wrong. They, however, are mistaken. Ferguson concludes, “Paul’s testimony assumes its accuracy. We have no reason to believe that Agabus’ prophecy failed. Luke gives no indication that Paul thought it had done so.”
Prophecy is never produced by human will; instead, the person with the prophecy speaks what God gives them to say by the Spirit (2 Pet 1:20-21). Thus, prophecy is infallible because prophecy gives the words of God and God always speaks the truth (Titus. 1:2; John 17:3,17; Heb 6:18; Prov 30:5). Of course, we can misunderstand or disobey but God’s words are always without error.
So we see prophecy in the New Testament was both accurate and highly significant for the actions of the church but it was not on par with Scripture in the sense that it was not to be inscripturated. It is not the type of revelation to be inscripturated. It is not didactic revelatory teaching but pertains to the local body or a local situation. As in disclosing someone’s heart (as in the Spurgeon’s real-life example) and that encourages the local body because they see the Lord at work. It is not something that would add to the canon.
The Gifts Must Function in Accordance with Scripture
When the gifts of the Spirit are carried out and employed within the parameters of Scripture then a lot of the concerns that cessationists have should be able to be set aside. So, first, let us consider some of the parameters that Scripture puts in place for us. The gifts must function in a way that serves others (1 Pet 4:10-11), edifies (1 Cor 14:3, 12), is clear and ordered, not confusing or chaotic (14:23, 29, 33, 40), is loving (1 Cor. 13), and exalts Christ (Eph 3:21; 1 Cor 12:3).
Scripture further says that tongues must be interpreted if they are shared in the gathering (1 Cor 14:27-28), prophecy must be weighed (v. 29 cf. 1 John 4:1; John 7:24), only two or at most three prophecies or tongues can be shared at a public gathering (1 Cor 14:27-29), and all things should be carried out in an orderly way (vv. 30-33, 40) for the express and emphatic purpose of building up the body of Christ (e.g. v. 12). Paul says, “When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (v. 26). Why? “For building up” (v. 26). Thus, Paul tells us to “earnestly desire” (12:31; 14:1, 39) the Spirit-empowered gifts and “strive to excel in building up the church” (14:12).
Second, let’s ensure we have a biblical understanding regarding the more controversial issues related to the gifts of the Spirit. I created an acronym to help us consider this subject more effectively. The acronym is G.I.F.T.S. Here is a summary of the acronym:
- God continues to give gifts to build up the church.
- Individuals with the gift of prophecy do not contradict or add to Scripture but if what they share is truly from God then it is infallible.
- Fallible apostles still exist and are gifted men of God but the office of Apostle does not continue.
- Tongues are used in two overlapping ways in Scripture and should be pursued and practiced as outlined in the Bible.
- Scripture is to always be obeyed as the final authority.
We will now look at each of those bullet points in order.
You can see the previous post in the series here.
There is no exegetical reason for believing the gifts have ceased. Ninth, despite what many believe, there is no convincing exegetical argument for the cessation of the grace gifts. 1 Corinthians 13:10 plays a prominent role in many cessationists’ arguments. It did for me when I was taught as a kid. There is another hermeneutical issue, however. Thomas R. Schreiner says,
To see ‘the perfect’ as referring to the New Testament canon is an example of anachronism…
Instead of referring to spiritual maturity or to the canon of the New Testament, ‘the perfect’ most likely refers to the second coming of Christ, the end of the age. The perfect is equivalent with seeing God face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).
John MacArthur says although many “scholars [e.g. B.B. Warfield, Richard Gaffin, Robert Thomas, Thomas Edgar, Simon J. Kistemaker] disagree on the identification of the ‘perfect,’ they all reach the same conclusion—namely, that the miraculous and revelatory gifts have ceased.” He goes on to say that “we must look elsewhere than 1 Corinthians 13:10, to passages like Ephesians 2:20, where Paul indicated that both the apostolic and prophetic offices were only for the foundational age of the church.”
Many, such as John MacArthur, Richard B. Gaffin, along with Schreiner, end up making the argument that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased because they claim, otherwise, the canon of Scripture would be in jeopardy. That, however, is rather a different issue than if the gifts of the Spirit continue or not. For one, the canon of Scripture, as well as the very existence of the Church, has been in jeopardy since the outset. The way to defend Scripture, as well as the church, is a more robust understanding of what Scripture teaches, not fear.
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) 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.” 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.”
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.
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.
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.
You can see the previous post here.
There is no indication that the gifts would cease before Christ’s second coming. The Bible never indicates the cessation of the grace gifts until the return of Jesus, this is the second reason I believe in their continuance. There is no indication in the New Testament that the gifts would cease before the coming of Christ. Of course, it is possible that they could just fade out but we would not expect that to be the case from reading the Bible. Jack Deere contends that “If you were to lock a brand-new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a cessationist.”
In 1 Corinthians 1, it seems to indicate the expectation that the gifts will continue until the coming of Christ. If you read the letter as the first recipients would have there is nothing at all that would make you think otherwise. In 1 Corinthians 1:7, Paul says, “…you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Notice it says “any gift” and it seems as if the gifts will continue until the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ. That seems to clearly indicate that the gifts of the Spirit will continue until Jesus returns.
Paul, thus, seems to believe that all of the gifts will not be lacking until “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:7). Paul expects that those who are witnesses of Christ will have the spiritual gifts available to them until “the perfect comes” (cf. 13:8-12), that is “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7). It is also important to note that in the context of 1 Corinthians, “spiritual gifts” (χαρίσματι cf. HCSB, NLT, NIV, Rom 1:11) cannot be limited to encouragement and the like but must also include what is considered the “charismatic gifts.”
In the last post, we looked at “God the Spirit and the Filling of the Spirit.” In this post, we will be looking at…
Next, we need to understand that God the Spirit gives “grace gifts.” God’s abundant grace that we see demonstrated all throughout redemptive history issues in grace gifts. God expresses His grace concretely in the rich number of grace gifts He bestows upon the Church for its upbuilding. Schreiner observes this and says, “I would define spiritual gifts as gifts of grace granted by the Holy Spirit which are designed for the edification of the church.”
The Spirit was vital at the beginning of the church and He continues to be on through to the consummation. He brought the birth of the Church, He hovered over the Church like He hovered over the water at the beginning. The Spirit does not bring charismatic chaos but the creation of order. That was the Spirit’s work at the beginning and it is the Spirit’s work today. There is no biblical warrant for believing in some big discontinuity between the work of the Spirit then and the work of the Spirit now in the last days. Actually, Scripture says, “in the last days I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17). We are in those latter days today and we still need the empowering presence of the Spirit.
The hodgepodge, unlearned, and often unimpressive group of Jesus followers did not see the messianic movement die. Instead, the people of the way (Acts 9:2) actually exploded in growth, this group of people that followed a crucified and cursed man who claimed to be God, this group of people who had no leader on earth. How did this group survive let alone thrive?
Because Jesus did not leave His disciples without what they needed. Jesus sent the Helper.
Jesus said, that it was better that He go. That seems shocking. As it should. And as it did for the first disciples. We are left asking, how could it be better that Jesus’ bodily presence not be with us?
Thankfully Jesus answers that question. He tells us that He will not leave us as orphans. He gives us the Helper, the Holy Spirit, to be with us (See John 14).
The Grace Gifts Continue Today
“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be My witnesses” (Acts 1:8). Will we? Will we receive power?
I have written on this subject elsewhere but here we’re going to look at the text of 1 Corinthians and evaluate what it’s says regarding the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit.
First, it’s important that we acknowledge that this is a controversial issue. And it’s important that we consider these questions from an unbiased perspective.
What we were taught in the past should not determine our beliefs. We also should not let misapplications or extremes that people have that hold a certain belief dissuade us from holding a certain belief. The validity of a theological truth must be determined by what the Bible itself says. It’s important that we first agree on that.
Scripture is the final say on wether or not the gifts of the Spirit continue, not whether or not we understand each of the gifts perfectly or whether or not those who believe the gifts of the Spirit continue practice everything in a way that builds up the body of Christ in accordance with Scripture. Those other things are distractions (in logical argumentation they are referred to as the red herring fallacy).
So, what does 1 Corinthians itself say about the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit?
“Are the gifts of the Spirit for today?” This is a big question and an important one because it impacts the church, missions, and individual’s spiritual lives. It is an important question because many denominations and individuals are divided over it.
Truly and sadly very often “those who [speak] most loudly of being led by the Spirit [are] the very persons responsible for quenching the Spirit’s work.” Interestingly, this was also true of the Corinthians of Paul’s day. Yet, Paul does not say, “Away with the Spirit!” Instead, he says, “Don’t quench the Spirit” (1 Thess. 5:19)! The Spirit is not the problem; we are.
I think both camps, cessationists (they believe the gifts have seized) and continuationists (they believe the gifts continue), are right on some points and wrong on others. “Error is much more likely to be propagated, when it is mixed with truth. This hides deformity and makes it go down more easily.” Those who believe that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit continue and those that believe they do not both very often sound right. This likely means that both arguments have been construed wrongly.
Neither side is understanding the question rightly. Of course, I will not satisfy everyone, or, perhaps, anyone. But this is my attempt to satisfy myself on this subject. And I hope to bring you along as well.
We will first look at four negative arguments that people make that believe the charismatic gifts have seized. Then we will look at one positive argument in favor of the continuation of the charismatic gifts. I also have included a long excursus that outlines a somewhat chronological example of the ongoing powerful and uncommon work of the Spirit since Pentecost. Finally, we will look at a few practical reflections.