Spiritual gifts


Portions of 1 John 4:1-6 are often cited in discussions of spiritual warfare.  John’s admonition to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn 4:1) is cited as evidence that we need to exercise spiritual discernment to distinguish between angelic and demonic spirits, or even good and bad human spirits.  And then there is 1 John 4:4b: “Greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world.”  This Scripture is typically quoted in the context of overcoming the Devil.  But are these passages being interpreted correctly?  Are they referring to spiritual warfare?  To find out, let’s look at the context:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. [2] By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, [3] and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. [4] Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. [5] They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. [6] We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. (1 Jn 4:1-6, ESV)

A key word in this passage is “spirit.”  Many presume that when John talks about “test[ing] the spirits,” he is referring to angelic and demonic beings.  It’s clear, however, that John uses “spirit” in several ways in this passage.  And in verse one he uses “spirit” to refer to human teachers, not angels and demons.  This is evidenced by his juxtaposition of “spirits” with “false prophets” who “have gone out into the world.”

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There has been an on-going and interesting exchange between Sam Storms and Michael Patton at Parchment and Pen on the issue of the charismata.  Storms has written a good article giving 10 bad reasons for being a cessationist and 10 good arguments for being a continuationist.  Patton has responded with his case for cessationism.  Unlike most traditional cessationists, Patton doesn’t claim that the Bible teaches cessationism per se.  He admits that his primary reasons for holding to cessationism are experiential in nature: both his own lack of experience of the charismata, as well as the general lack of the charismata throughout church history.  He calls this a de facto cessationism.  This differs from traditional cessationism in that it claims the gifts have ceased as a matter of fact, rather than because of a matter of necessity.  While he finds Biblical support to show reasons for this de facto cessation of the charismata, he does not believe the Bible demands that the charismata cease.

Storms also has a great treatment of tongues, clearing up many of the misconceptions about the gift, as well as demonstrating how so many of the non-charismatic criticisms of the gift miss the Biblical mark.  Patton also addressed tongues, which Storms’ responded to.  I would highly recommend reading through the dialogue.

I’m always bothered when Christians speak of God “healing” someone through surgery, or when they call something a “miracle” that does not clearly bear the marks of supernatural intervention. While we should ultimately thank God for all good things, if a surgeon fixes your body, then it was not a divine healing–it was a medical healing.

We should thank God for giving the doctors the knowledge and wisdom to fix our body, but to attribute the healing to divine intervention cheapens the Biblical concepts of divine healing and miracles. When God performs a healing, surgeries are not necessary. When God does a miracle, His direct involvement will be obvious because the outcome will defy a naturalistic explanation. Did your headache go away? Great, thank God for it. But if you popped an Aspirin at the same time you prayed for the headache to go away, you should probably be buying shares in pharmaceutical companies rather than telling people God healed your headache.

I was always taught that the gifts of the Spirit were only for those who have first received the Spirit. The Scriptural justification given was usually an appeal to 1Corinthians 12:13, where in the context of discussing spiritual gifts Paul said, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.” Paul went on to compare the church to a human body, arguing that each person has a function in the body of Christ based on His spiritual gifting. It is argued, then, that if one has not received the Spirit, He is not in the body of Christ, and thus does not have a spiritual gift. I think this interpretation is mistaken both exegetically and logically.


Exegetically, Paul does not make the point those who advance this idea claim he is making. He does not argue that one must be in the body of Christ in order to have a spiritual gift. He simply notes that of those who are in the body of Christ because they have received the Spirit have a spiritual gift as well. The only thing we can gather from the text is that having the Spirit is a sufficient condition for having a spiritual gift; we cannot conclude that it is a necessary condition. While all those in the body of Christ have a spiritual gift, that does not preclude anyone who is outside the body of Christ from having a spiritual gift. Having the Spirit may be the norm for those who have a spiritual gift in NT times, but it does not mean there can be no exceptions.


Logically, it is clear that the gifts of the Spirit are not predicated on one’s possession of the Spirit. The OT saints operated in the gifts of the Spirit even though they were not filled with the Spirit. One may counter that the spiritual gifts Paul spoke of are different than what we see operative in the OT, but why should we believe that? How does an OT miracle differ from a NT miracle? How did one’s ability to discern different spirits differ in the OT from the NT? Only two of the nine spiritual gifts are unique to the NT period (different kinds of tongues, interpretation of tongues). The rest were exhibited in days of old, and thus there is no reason to think that one must have the Spirit to have the gifts of the Spirit. Again, that may be the norm during the current dispensation, but there is no good reason to believe it is a hard and fast rule.

When it comes to the gift of prophecy, a common attitude is that those who exercise the gift may get it wrong from time to time, and that’s just the nature of the game. We learn to use the gift by trial and error. We are humans, and we make mistakes. Sometimes we are “on”, and sometimes we “miss it.” So the story goes.

I find this view of the prophetic gift to be in stark contrast to the OT portrayal of prophecy. If a man claimed to speak for God, and what he said did not come to pass, the man was considered a false prophet and was to be punished with death (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). We read of Samuel that “none of his prophecies fell to the ground unfulfilled. All Israel from Dan to Beer Sheba realized that Samuel was confirmed as a prophet of the Lord” (1Sam 3:19-20 NET). What confirmed Samuel as a prophet was his 100% success rate in the use of his prophetic gift.

Prophets had to get it right 100% of the time. There was no room for trial and error. Indeed, why should there have been? Prophecy is God’s revelatory communication to man via man. God never “misses it,” so how could it be that someone with the gift of prophecy could miss it?

One might respond that there could be a problem with the transmission: God tells man what to say, but man misunderstands what God has spoken. But how could this be? It presumes that God tries: God tries to communicate His message to man, but fails to do so (due to some spiritual defect in the medium). Does that describe the God of the Bible? No. God does not try. If God wants to communicate something to someone, He will succeed in doing so. Indeed, the human medium cannot possibly miss what God is communicating. He may choose to ignore it; he may choose not to pass it on to the intended recipients; but he cannot miss it. In Scripture, God spoke to both believers and unbelievers alike, and neither group ever had any question as to who was speaking to them, or what was being spoken. If God desires to speak He will make Himself and His message clear.

Someone else may respond that people “miss it” because they mistakenly identify their own thoughts or impressions as God’s. This falls prey to the same problem as the suggestion above. It presupposes that God delivers His message to us in a way that is not clear, so that it is difficult to discern God’s voice from our own internal voice: Sometimes we properly identify God’s voice, and sometimes we mistake it for our own. Where in Scripture do we see this kind of ambiguity in the way God speaks to those He wishes to communicate with? Not even the pagans doubted that God was speaking to them when He spoke to them. There was nothing to discern because it was quite evident that it was God. There was no mistaking it. Prophesying is not a skill someone learns. There is no learning how to discern the difference between our thoughts and God’s words. God simply chooses to reveal a message to an individual, and that individual passes it on to others. All that is required is obedience to deliver the message God has clearly communicated.

To think that those who make prophecies today have the liberty to get it wrong from time to time, one must presuppose that the nature of prophecy has changed from the OT to the NT. But why think this? Is there some text that tells us the nature of prophecy has changed? Do we see a difference in the content of prophecies between the OT and NT? No. Then why conclude that whereas those exercising the prophetic gift in the OT had to get it right 100% of the time, today there is room for error?

This brings me to my next point: the content of most modern-day prophecies do not resemble the prophetic gift as portrayed in Scripture.

Is it really prophecy?

The content of what pass for prophecies these days does not bear the marks of Biblical prophecy. The vast majority of prophecies do not predict anything, or say things that only God could know. They are usually just words of encouragement, that apart from the introduction “Thus sayeth the Lord,” sound indistinguishable from a mini sermon.

Prophecy is predictive in nature. If it wasn’t, the test YHWH gave the Israelites to judge a prophetic utterance ceases to make sense. According to YHWH, the Israelites could discern a true prophecy from a false one by observing if the prophecy “came to pass” (Deut 18:22). Something cannot come to pass if it did not pertain to the future. We read that none of Samuel’s prophecies went unfulfilled. A prophecy that has nothing to do with the future cannot be fulfilled. OT prophecy was all about the future.

Did this change in the NT? No. There are two examples in the NT where the gift of prophecy was operative, and on both occasions the content of the prophecy was predictive in nature: Agabus predicted a great famine (Acts 11:28) and Paul’s arrest at Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11). On what basis, then, do we have for thinking that prophecies can be mere words of encouragement? I would not want to rule that out in principle, but examples of such should be the exception to the rule. In our practice today, however, they are the rule (in my experience).

If a prophetic utterance is the word of God, it should tell us something about the future; most purported prophetic utterances do not tell us anything about the future, therefore they are probably not prophetic words from God. The simple fact of the matter is that it is easy to think of encouraging words to prefix “Thus sayeth the Lord” to. It’s not so easy to predict the future.

Conclusion

Based on what prophecy is—God’s revelatory communication to man—it stands to reason that no matter what covenant one is under, someone with a genuine gift of prophecy could never be mistaken in what they prophecy.

If someone has the gift of prophecy, God speaks to them. Since God is never wrong, and always clear in what He intends to communicate, the prophetic medium should always be “on.” If they miss it, they should not be trusted as an oracle of the Lord.

I think the reason people “miss it” today is because they do not really have the gift of prophecy. While well-intentioned, they are misinterpreting personal ideas/impressions/feelings (self-talk) as words from God, and attaching to them divine authority. Since we do not require that prophecies predict anything, it is virtually impossible to test these so-called prophecies (how can a word of encouragement be wrong?). And since we do not require that those who speak on behalf of God be right 100% of the time, we have no way of knowing when someone who claims to speak for God is truly speaking for God, and when s/he is improperly invoking divine authority for personal ideas.

Paul told us to judge prophecy (1Cor 14:29). We can only do so if we employ the Biblical criteria for prophecies: (1) they come to pass; (2) the person uttering them is a reliable spokesman for God, evidenced by the fact that s/he has never been mistaken in what s/he has prophesied.

What do you think?

I intended to send this out some time back, but never got around to doing so.

J.P. Moreland is a Christian philosopher extraordinaire. I’ve read a lot of his material, and he is a hardcore evangelical intellectual (yes, those terms can go together!). So it was surprising when I heard him speaking of the supernatural during a radio interview with Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason. He spoke of how the Gospel is spreading in other parts of the world—particularly the Muslim world—through supernatural events. I’ve heard a lot of amazing stories of the miraculous in Pentecostal circles, but I have to admit that these stories are even more amazing. And I’m not talking about healings! Listen to the broadcast. You’ll be glad you did!

The interview took place during the second hour of the program, so jump ahead to the 58:00 marker where the interview begins (you may have to wait a few minutes for your computer to download the broadcast to the point where you can jump ahead that far).

Do you ever find yourself frustrated by the fact that you don’t see miracles happening in your local church on the level they did in the NT? Next to knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, my strongest longing in Bible college was to experience, and be used in the supernatural. I wanted to see the same miracles I read about in the NT performed in my midst as well. More specifically, I wanted to be the vessel the Lord used to work those miracles. I prayed every day for this. I believed God would do it. I fasted in faith to see the breakthrough. It never happened.

Yeah, there were little things that happened here and there, but nothing major, and nothing consistent. It frustrated me to no end. What was wrong with me? What was wrong with everyone else for that matter? After all, I wasn’t the only one praying in faith to be a vessel of God in this area, and failing to see results. My intellectual and existential struggle with this reached crisis proportions by the end of my junior year, causing me to seriously reconsider the Christian faith. After all, if the God of the Bible is a miracle worker, and the Bible promises that those same miracles will follow those who believe—and yet they weren’t—then maybe there’s something wrong with this whole Christianity thing.

Of course, I understood from passages such as I Cor 12 that while God can work through any believer to perform any miracle at any time, there are some in the body who are specifically gifted in those areas, and thus we should expect to see the miraculous being exhibited more frequently in their lives than in others’. But this did not alleviate my frustration, because other passages in Scripture seemed to indicate that at least some of the miraculous should be exhibited in the lives of all believers.

After several years of frustration and thinking on the topic, I came to the following conclusion: I had false expectations about the miraculous. While defending his apostleship against those who challenged it Paul said, “Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds.” According to Paul the signs and wonders he performed proved that he was an apostle of Jesus Christ. We tend to read the exploits of Paul in the Book of Acts and come away with the impression that every Christian can do exactly what Paul did, but this fails to take into consideration Paul’s unique office in the body of Christ. If every Christian performed the miraculous just like Paul, how would the miraculous have been a distinct confirmation of his apostleship? Not everyone is an apostle. Apostles have the unique ability to work miracles—many and great miracles—that other believers do not have. This does not mean that non-apostles will not work any miracles, but it does mean that they may be less notable, and clearly not as frequent. We should not expect to be used in the miraculous on the same level as what we read about in Scripture.

We also have to have the proper perspective on the frequency of the miraculous even in Scripture. While a lot of miraculous things are recorded in Acts we have to remember that they were spread out over a period of about 30 years. Now it certainly might be the case that there were a lot more miracles that took place during that period of time that just weren’t recorded, but we should not get the idea that these miracles in Acts were occurring every day.

Do I say all of this to say that we should not be looking for the miraculous? No, God is still in the miracle-working business. We just need to manage our expectations, not expecting that the signs of an apostle be wrought by those who are not apostles.

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