Spiritual gifts


Story of ChristianityMuch of the Bible is written in narrative form.  It tells a story – a true story, but a story nonetheless.  There is a lot of information in the Bible to digest, and it’s easy to get lost in the details and miss the big picture.  So how does one put it all together?  What is the essence of the Biblical story?  What is the basic story line from Genesis to Revelation?  Various attempts have been to condense the major themes and events in the Bible into a coherent, terse story line.  Here is my attempt to arrange the puzzle pieces into a clear picture, such as it is.  I hope it will tie together some loose ends that may exist in your mind and offer you a bird’s-eye view of the greatest story ever told: (more…)

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.”

(more…)

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.

A common attitude toward the gift of prophecy is that those who exercise the gift may get it wrong from time to time, but that’s just the nature of the game. Prophecy is something that must be practiced. We learn the gift by trial and error. We are humans, after all, and we make mistakes. Sometimes we are “spot 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 Biblical portrayal of prophecy. If a person claimed to speak for God, and what s/he prophesied did not come to pass, that person was considered a false prophet and was to be executed (Dt 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). What confirmed Samuel as a prophet was that his prophecies were accurate 100% of the time.

 

Prophets had to get it right 100% of the time. There was no room for trial and error. Indeed, when you understand the nature of prophecy, it’s perfectly understandable why true prophets will always bat 1.000. Prophecy is God’s revelatory communication to humans via a particular individual. God never “misses it,” so how could it be that someone with the gift of prophecy could ever “miss it”?

Could there be a problem with the transmission? God tells the person what to say, but s/he misunderstands what God has spoken. But how could this be? God doesn’t try. He doesn’t try to communicate His message to the prophet but fails to do so. If God wants to communicate something to someone, He will surely succeed in doing so. While the human may choose not to pass on what God has communicated, God will ensure that His message is understood. That’s why God could say that a person who “missed it” even once should be executed. It’s because God is always clear in His communication, making it impossible for the prophet to “miss it.”

 

Perhaps someone could “miss it” because they mistakenly identify their own thoughts as God’s. But this presupposes that the way God communicates is so unclear that we can mistake our own thoughts for God’s. Where in Scripture do we see God speaking to people in an ambiguous manner? God spoke to both believers and unbelievers alike, and no one ever had any question as to who was speaking or what was spoken. If God desires to speak, He will make Himself and His message clear. There was no mistaking God’s message. No one in the Bible ever said “I think God is speaking to me” or “I think this is what God is saying to me.” Prophesying is not a skill someone learns. If God gives you a prophetic word, you will know it’s coming from God and you will know precisely what to say.

 

To think that those who prophesy today have the liberty to get it wrong from time to time, one must presuppose that the nature of prophecy in the NT era is different from that of the OT era, but why think this? Is there some NT text that says this? No. So why think NT saints using the gift of prophecy have room for error whereas OT saints using the gift of prophecy did not?

 

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?

 

What passes for prophecy these days rarely bears the marks of Biblical prophecy. The vast majority of prophecies do not predict anything, or communicate things that only God could know. They are usually just words of encouragement that – apart from the introduction “Thus says the Lord” – sound indistinguishable from a mini sermon.

 

The distinguishing mark of prophecy is that it is predictive in nature, as evidenced by God’s test for a prophet (Dt 18:20-22). According to YHWH, the Israelites could discern a true prophet from a false prophet by observing if their prophecy “came to pass” (Dt 18:22). Something can only come to pass if it pertains 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.” This is not to say that all prophecies are predictive in nature, but we should expect at least some prophecies to be predictive in nature.

 

There are only two examples in the NT where we see the gift of prophecy in operation, and both entailed a prediction regarding the future: Agabus predicted a (1) great famine in Acts 11:28 and (2) Paul’s arrest at Jerusalem in Acts 21:10-11. So why should we think that the gift of prophecy is only for encouragement rather than predicting something about the future?

 

A genuine prophetic utterance should typically tell us something about the future. Most purported prophetic utterances today, however, do not, and thus I have little reason to believe they are genuine prophetic utterances. It’s easy to speak some encouraging words. It’s not so easy to predict the future.

 

Wrapping up

 

Based on what prophecy is – God’s revelatory communication to man – it stands to reason that no one who genuinely has the gift of prophecy could ever “miss it.” They will be right 100% of the time because the God who gives them the information is right 100% of the time and ensures that the person will understand the source and message 100% of the time. If a person claims to be a prophet or claims to be used in the gift of prophecy, but they never give a predictive and testable prophecy, or if they have prophesied something that did not come to pass, then we know that such a person is not a prophet, is not being used in the gift of prophecy, and should not be trusted as an oracle of God.

 

I think many well-meaning people are mistaking personal ideas/impressions/feelings (self-talk) as words from God, and attaching divine authority to them. Most of these people do not predict anything, but want to be considered prophets. If they do not have a track record of predicting events that have come to pass, then we have no reason to consider them a prophet or a person who is used in the gift of prophecy. Paul told us to judge prophecies (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.

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.