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Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? - Part I

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 ceased or were withdrawn by God from the church at the close of the first century or in conjunction with the death of the original apostles.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 reducesthe 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.


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, BYsigns 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.


To be continued . . .