Miraculous Spiritual Gifts

  • Read 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 here.
  • You can listen to this sermon here.

I know that this is a contentious issue. I certainly don’t regard myself as an expert on explaining the work of the Holy Spirit. I highly recommend the book Four Views: Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? According to this book I’d be classified as “Open, but Cautious” regarding the presence of miraculous gifts in today’s church.

NOTE: By miraculous gifts I primarily refer to those found in 1 Cor. 12:9-11: Healing; Miraculous Powers; Prophecy and the Interpretation of Prophecy; Tongues and the Interpretation of Tongues.

I’m “Open” because I don’t want to impose limits upon God. I don’t believe the Biblical teaching on the work of the Holy Spirit is crystal clear. I openly acknowledge the limitations of my understanding. The Holy Spirit freely acts however He deems best, with or without my approval. If I say the Holy Spirit can or cannot do something, I believe arrogance has clouded my good judgement.

I’m “Cautious” because my understanding of the Bible indicates that if miraculous gifts haven’t ceased, then they certainly are not the normal occurrence they apparently were in the New Testament. I’m also Cautious because the churches that most loudly argue for the presence and normality of miraculous gifts don’t appear to follow the Biblical guidelines for using those gifts. In my mind, that calls into question the authenticity of those gifts. Further, the churches that the Holy Spirit allegedly “fills” more than my church still experience similar levels of sin and holiness that I experience within my fellowship.

1 Corinthians 14 provides a great base for conducting this conversation. One of the first observations that’s a little disconcerting for most cessationists (people who believe all miracles have ceased) is found in v18. Paul claims to speak in tongues more than anyone, but as we read v19 he apparently does this in private, not in the church assembly. This is awkward, because cessationists often want to argue that tongues in the NT always refer to human languages as in Acts 2. Yet if Paul speaks in tongues in private, what’s the point of speaking a language that’s not his native language. It seems most likely that he privately worships God while using ecstatic tongues. This was apparently common among pagan and Jewish worship practices of the day. (See Oster, 1 Corinthians, 1995:288, also Hays, First Corinthians, 1997:212) Also, verse 5 contains the awkward statement that Paul wishes that “every one of you speaks in tongues.”

Clearly, (ecstatic) tongue speaking was a normal part of Christian worship in the first century. At the same time, Paul immediately describes it as an inferior gift to that of prophecy. Verse 5 also says, “The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues.” In this chapter Paul expresses greater concern for the nonbeliever who may enter the assembly. He describes how prophesy will convict people of sin and lead to worship (v24), while tongues will demonstrate only confusion (v23). Chapter 13 also demonstrates this attitude when faith, hope and love are described as enduring beyond the gift of tongues.

1 Corinthians 14 certainly doesn’t teach the cessation of miraculous gifts. In fact, in provides guidelines for their use. It seems to me that most of these guidelines are ignored by the current Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. Here’s my summary:

  • “Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.” (v12) Referring to prophecy over tongues (v4).
  • Those with the gift of tongues should speak one at a time and no more than three per assembly (v27).
  • Tongues should not be part of the assembly unless someone with the gift of interpretation is also present (v28).
  • Prophets should behave equally orderly. (v29-31)

We find, one of the key concepts to this discussion in v32, “The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.” We cannot argue that the Holy Spirit just overwhelms us and we must worship in this way. It seems clear to me that the ancient exercises of these Miraculous Spiritual Gifts differed greatly from the way some churches express them today.

I believe that receiving the Holy Spirit in our lives is a one time event that happens to all Christians at the moment of baptism (Acts 2:38). I believe that the time of the apostles was a special moment in history where the Holy Spirit worked in miraculous ways as a sign and testimony to the truth of the Gospel. Perhaps the most telling argument for this is to consider the letters to Timothy and Titus.

These letters were probably the last ones we have preserved that Paul wrote. As Paul coaches the next generation of church leaders he makes no mention of apostles, or prophecy. When Paul describes the next generation of church leaders after the apostles he talks of teachers, preachers, and elders. Despite his close relationship with Paul, Timothy is never appointed as an apostle. That special era came to an end, and with it the miraculous gifts that they exhibited.

This is a huge topic, so I think I’ll wrap up my discussion here. I know I’ve only scratched the surface and perhaps raised more questions than I’ve provided answers. Please feel free to continue the discussion by leaving a comment below.

In closing I’ll just say that I’m never going to look someone in the eye and deny whatever they’ve experienced. The most I can say is that I don’t find many of the modern miraculous expressions of the Holy Spirit described in the Bible. At the end of the day though, I accept Jesus words in John 3:8 “The Spirit is like the wind that blows wherever it wants to. You can hear the wind, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going.” So I won’t put the Holy Spirit in a box, but I do believe that the Fruit of the Spirit more accurately reflect the Spirit’s presence in someone’s life today than looking for miraculous spiritual gifts.

And a final quote from Richard Oster,

Notwithstanding all the sermons and lessons that have been built upon the terminology in 12:8, we in fact know amazingly little about what these individual gifts looked like in practice. To be sure there is no doubt that both Paul and the Corinthians knew what he was talking about, but from our historical distance it is extremely difficult to fill in the details. Typically we can do little more than re-create a skeleton based upon general etymology and basic meanings of the words. We are certainly no on solid interpretive ground when we merely flesh out these terms by twentieth-century spiritual and pietistic experience.

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