Section 5: The Holy Spirit
Digging Deeper Topic: Do the Miraculous Gifts Continue Today?
Summary of 3 Views
In the daily readings, we noted that the Holy Spirit gives spiritual gifts to believers, such as serving, teaching, encouraging, and mercy. Spiritual gifts are to be used “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).
The gifts I listed above aren’t particularly controversial. The New Testament lists of spiritual gifts, however, also include the gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. These “miraculous gifts” have been a source of a great deal of debate over the history of the Church. The main issue is: Does the Holy Spirit continue to give these sorts of miraculous gifts to believers today? Broadly speaking there are three main views. Before we delve into the details of the debate, we’ll briefly summarize each of them.
The Continuationist View
Many argue the Holy Spirit certainly does continue to give miraculous gifts to believers today. In support, they point to the book of Acts. On the Day of Pentecost, a sudden sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven, then the disciples saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them, and they were filled with the Holy Spirit. When the crowd came to see what was going on, the disciples started to speak in other tongues so that the people heard them in their own language and everyone was amazed (Acts 2:1-12). When someone suggested the disciples were drunk, Peter spoke to the crowd and quoted from the prophet Joel to explain what was happening:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:14-21).
According to the continuationist view, Peter quotes the prophet Joel to show that the Holy Spirit’s coming on the day of Pentecost signals the dawning of the New Age. The fact that the New Age has arrived fundamentally alters what we can expect the Holy Spirit to do in the life of believers. “Although Peter quotes from Joel 2:28-32 to explain the events on the day of Pentecost, the events themselves would probably have been understood more broadly as the fulfillment of the larger Old Testament expectation that anointing with the Spirit would be universalized in the new age.”[i] Because Joel and Peter both envision the Spirit working in dramatic ways in this age, the fact that he would give miraculous gifts to believers isn’t particularly surprising. What’s more, Paul specifically includes them in his lists of spiritual gifts. That shows he clearly expected the miraculous gifts to be manifested within the Church. Why else would he mention them? And Paul never says the Holy Spirit is going to stop giving miraculous gifts to believers.
The Cessationist View
Cessationists say, “Not so fast.” They whole-heartedly acknowledge the importance of the coming of the Spirit and of his work within the Church. However they are concerned about the implications of saying the miraculous gifts continue today. Prophecy is perhaps the source of their biggest concern. Cessationists argue if the Holy Spirit were to give prophetic knowledge to believers today, that would amount to “new revelation”. But we shouldn’t expect any new revelation to be given today because, as most theologians agree, God’s revelation ceased with the closing of the canon (i.e. when the last book of the New Testament was completed). For cessationists then, the closing of the canon necessarily brought with it the end of the gift of prophesy.
That is significant because, if we know the Holy Spirit no longer gives the gift of prophecy, the mere fact that a gift is listed in the New Testament doesn’t automatically mean it will continue to be given to believers today. A major piece of the continuationist argument, thus, loses its force.
Historically, some cessationists have also pointed to 1 Cor. 13:9-10 in support of their view. In those verses, Paul says that we know in part and prophecy in part, but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. A number of cessationists argue the perfect in that passage refers to the completion of the New Testament. Now that the New Testament has been written, the perfect has come, and therefore the imperfect (i.e. prophecy and the other miraculous gifts) have passed away.
The Open but Cautious View
Some theologians aren’t completely satisfied with either view. With respect to the cessationist argument, for example, they note 1 Cor. 13:9-10 doesn’t really point to the end of miraculous gifts. In context, “when the perfect comes” is a reference to the return of Christ. The point is that when Jesus returns, we will have perfect knowledge. At that time, other imperfect forms of knowledge will pass away because we will no longer need them.
Given that no other passage specifically says the miraculous gifts will cease, those who hold to the open but cautious view maintain that it is difficult to definitively say the Holy Spirit no longer gives such gifts to the Church. That, however, doesn’t mean we ought to assume the Holy Spirit is working today in exactly the same way he did in the early Church. The glimpses we get of the Church in the Book of Acts, for example, occur within a unique historical context. The foundation of the Church was being laid at that time. We’d be wrong to take what happened in that pivotal period in history and carry it over to our expectations for the Church today.
No Need for a Second Experience
In addition to arguing that the miraculous gifts continue to be given today, some continuationists have argued believers experience two distinct workings of the Spirit. When we put our faith in Christ, we are born again. That is our first experience of the Spirit’s power. Believers, however, sometime after their conversion ought to have another experience. This is said to be the time when the Spirit gives the believer power for ministry, and it is often referred to as baptism in the Spirit. According to some, speaking in tongues is the evidence that a believer has had this experience.
Not all continuationists hold to this view on two separate “comings” of the Spirit. Those that do, often point to the believers’ experience at Pentecost as evidence for their expectation. The disciples were already believers by the time we get to Acts 2. Yet they also needed to experience the Spirit’s coming in power. We see the same thing happening to the believers in Samaria (Acts 8), and in Cornelius’ household (Acts 10), and in Ephesus (Acts 19). So why wouldn’t we expect the Holy Spirit to work in the same way today?
Pentecost, however, is not a repeatable event. Jesus had promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples in power, and he does. This marks a major event in redemptive history. More specifically, it marks the culmination of Christ’s ministry. He said he would send the Spirit and he has.[ii] As Peter notes, this is evidence that the New Age has dawned. So much more is going on in Acts 2 than a mere explanation of what the average believer can expect in his or her life. With the Holy Spirit’s arrival we can certainly expect that he will be at work. However, should we expect him to be at work in exactly the same way as on the day of Pentecost? Should we expect a sudden loud wind and tongues of fire, for example? Not necessarily.
What about the other examples in Acts though? The Samaritans for example had already accepted Christ, yet we are told they had not experienced the Spirit. Then we see the Spirit come upon them in a miraculous display when the apostles come to see them. The same thing happens in Cornelius’ house when Peter shares the gospel with him. Don’t these events show Pentecost was more than a one-time event? Doesn’t it suggest Luke, the author of Acts, saw a second experience of the Spirit’s power as a normal experience of believers? Not really.
The Book of Acts gives us a picture of the gospel going out into the world. Salvation is no longer viewed as something for Israel alone. All who put their faith in Christ are saved. That’s why we see the gospel spreading from the confines of Jerusalem to Samaria and beyond. When the Samaritans put their faith in Christ, do they benefit from the same salvation as Israel? Can there be any question when the Spirit comes upon them in power just as he did on the disciples in Jerusalem? What about when the gospel spreads even further? Peter goes to Caesarea and shares the gospel with Cornelius and his household. Do they receive the same salvation? Of course. Peter himself recognized the significance of the Spirit coming upon them. When some questioned whether Peter should have baptized Cornelius’ household because they were Gentiles, Peter referred to the Spirit’s powerful display and said,” If God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think I could oppose God” (Acts 11:18).
In the early days of the Church, not everyone was sure just how far God’s salvation extended. The Spirit worked in such a dramatic way to demonstrate that all who accept Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, are saved. The Spirit’s work in Samaria and Caesarea thus played a very specific role. We, therefore, shouldn’t expect it to be repeated in the lives of all believers. That’s why we don’t see this “two-stage” reception of the Spirit anywhere else in the New Testament outside of the books Acts.
The only condition to receiving the Spirit is faith in Christ. In 1 Cor. 12:13, Paul says, “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free.” When were we baptized in the Spirit? When we became part of Christ’s body, that is, when we put our faith in him at our conversion.[iii]
None of this is meant to suggest the Spirit doesn’t come in power when he enters a believer’s life. The question is: How does that power manifest itself? It’s important to remember that a supernatural work doesn’t automatically mean a miracle. Anything the Spirit does is supernatural, whether he works a miracle or not. A supernatural experience of the Spirit is what we need, not a miraculous one. The primary way the Spirit demonstrates his power is through the change he works within us as conforms us to the image of Christ.
That’s why Paul prays for believers the way he does. “The apostle expresses no concern for believers to experience the miraculous. Instead, his desire is that they experience the “power” of God in order to attain steadfastness and patience (Col. 1:11), to grow in the faith that makes Christ at home in their hearts and give them experience (Eph. 3:16-19), and to maintain their hope (1:18; cf. Rom. 15:13)…without denying the presence of the miraculous in the New Testament church, the clear emphasis of apostolic teaching is for believers to experience supernatural power in order to live as Christ in the world.”[iv]
The Holy Spirit begins that work as soon as we put our faith in Christ. There is no need for a second experience.
What about the Miraculous Gifts?
As we noted in our overview of cessationism, one of the arguments that the Holy Spirit no longer gives miraculous gifts involves 1 Cor. 13:9-10. The argument relies on understanding “the perfect” in that passage to be the completion of the New Testament. If that’s the case, then imperfect means of revelation, such as prophecy, would have ceased because there is no longer any need for them now that the perfect has come. But let’s take a look at the context of this passage.
Paul says that what we see now is a pale reflection. Later, however, we will see face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Who will we see face to face? Presumably, Christ. If that’s true, the perfection that will one day come most likely refers to Christ’s return, not the close of the New Testament. 1 Cor. 13:8-10, therefore, doesn’t offer much support for the cessationist view that the miraculous gifts ceased at that time.
If 1 Cor. 13:8-10 doesn’t refer to the passing away of the miraculous gifts, does that mean we should expect the Holy Spirit to give such gifts to believers today? Not necessarily. There’s reason to believe the early years following Christ’s death and resurrection were a unique period in Church history. If that’s true, we shouldn’t automatically assume the Holy Spirit is going to work today in exactly the same way he did then.
Think about the ministry of the Apostles in the early church. They filled a special role. Paul, for example, refers to the Church as being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:19-20). As scholar Richard Gaffin, Jr. explains:
“In any construction project (ancient or modern), the foundation comes at the beginning and does not have to be relaid repeatedly…In terms of this dynamic model for the church, the apostles and prophets belong to the period of the foundation. In other words, by the divine architect’s design, the presence of apostles and prophets in the history of the church is temporary.”[v]
That’s why we don’t see anything corresponding to the Apostles’ ministry today. One of the corollaries of this fact is that we shouldn’t assume everything in the New Testament is intended to be a picture of what the Church ought to look like today. In other words, “the question of the presence of contemporary miraculous spiritual gifts cannot be solved by simply looking at what occurred in the biblical picture of the early church and by asserting that the same is intended for the church today.”[vi]
That, of course, doesn’t automatically mean the miraculous gifts have ceased. But, when add the purpose of miracles into the equation, we have further reason to question whether miraculous gifts were intended for the Church today. Look at Jesus’ ministry. Why did he perform miracles? On one level, it was because he had compassion on people, and, thus, wanted to heal them. But the overarching purpose of the miracles was to serve as a sign that Jesus was who he claimed to be. Jesus’ miracles demonstrated he was not an ordinary teacher. Ordinary teachers couldn’t do what he did. The miracles marked him as special. As a result, when he said he was the Messiah, the people had reason to believe him.
In the same way, the Apostles were marked as special by “signs, wonders, and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12). The Apostles were charged with the task of being the authoritative witnesses to Jesus. As the gospel spread beyond Jerusalem however, more and more people would naturally ask the question: Why should we believe what you say about this Jesus? The miraculous powers the Apostles displayed helped to authenticate their message.
But the Apostles weren’t the only ones who performed miracles were they? Paul’s inclusion of miraculous gifts in 1 Corinthians suggests there were individual believers in Corinth doing some fairly remarkable things. Yet the fact remains miracles are much more often associated with the Apostles. That is why, for example, in Acts we are told the believers brought their sick to them (Acts 5:12-16, 9:36-42). If miraculous gifts were generally given to believers within the Church, we wouldn’t necessarily expect that. The sick could be taken to anyone with the gift of healing, not just the Apostles.[vii]
The New Testament as a whole seems to mark the time of the Apostles as a unique period in church history. The Apostles laid the foundation of the Church by spreading the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem and they were specially endowed with miraculous power to authenticate their message. With their passing, that foundational period came to a close and it would be wrong to assume the miraculous manifestations of the Spirit that accompanied their ministry continued in exactly the same way.
That’s what makes the subsequent history of the Church so interesting. In the years following the death of the Apostles, the miraculous gifts seem to have gradually dissipated. Saucy describes the post-New Testament Church’s experience this way:
Beyond the limitedness and the character of the reports of miracles from this early period, we also find evidence of the ‘growing suspicion that miracles are dying out’ and that the miracles of this time were ‘different in kind from those of the apostolic age’…Although the church fathers of the second and third centuries did not say it directly, there is considerable evidence in their writings for the opinion later explicitly taught by Chrysostom and others that the age of miracles was essentially over…Origen and especially the later writers began to refer more to conversion and the transformation of lives by the gospel as evidence of continuing miracles in their times.”[viii]
It appears something changed in the years following the death of the Apostles. This is not entirely surprising given the fact that their ministry was foundational, and not necessarily normative for the Church throughout all time.
What are we to make of the miraculous gifts then? In light of the fact that the Bible does not directly say such gifts have ceased, we need to be open to the possibility of the Spirit working in miraculous ways within the Church. However, given the close association of miracles and the foundational apostolic ministry, we ought to be cautious about accepting every report. Scholar Graham Cole summarizes the open but cautious attitude this way:
Open but discerning is the way forward that I would advocate… In practical terms, for me thus far that has meant adopting a position in the debate that is little different from cessationism. Experience has taught me to be discerning. Over the years I have heard “tongues” spoken on more than one occasion. I have seen the ecstasy on the faces of those who so spoke. I do not begrudge their ecstasy. I do not deny that God may have blessed them and others through their utterances. I have also heard the interpretations of some of them. In the main these interpretations have been pastiches of Scripture phrases expressed in a fervent praise mode. These interpretations have been unexceptional. I have also heard prophesyings in a congregational setting. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the “prophets,” but the actual “prophecies” were vague and loosely based on Scripture passages which I recognized. But are these the tongues, interpretations of tongues, and prophesyings of which Paul wrote?[ix]
To be faithful to Scripture, we should acknowledge it is possible that the Holy Spirit would choose to work through certain believers in miraculous ways at times, but we should guard assuming he regularly does so in the Church today.
[i] Douglas A. Oss, “A Pentecostal/Charismatic View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today: 4 Views, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Wayne A Grudem, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1996), 266.
[ii] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr, “A Cessationist View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today: 4 Views, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Wayne A Grudem, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1996), 36-37.
[iii] See Grudem, 767.
[iv] Robert L. Saucy, “A Open But Cautious View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today: 4 Views, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Wayne A Grudem, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1996), 99.
[v] Gaffin, 43.
[vi] Saucy, 102-103.
[vii] Ibid., 109.
[viii] Ibid, 114-15 quoting in part from J.H. Bernard, “The Miraculous in Early Christian Literature,” in The Literature of the Second Century, ed. F.R. Wynne, J.H. Bernard, and S. Hemphill (New York: James Pott & Co., 1891), 156.
[ix] Cole, Ch. 9.