I am deeply concerned about a creeping Deism within the Churches of Christ. Following Campbell’s lead, many among us have long denied the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We just have trouble getting comfortable with the mystical and miraculous. We want to push all such things into the safely distant past.
But this has led to a peculiar doctrine taught by a vocal few. These men argue that the age of miracles is over and therefore God now only works within the laws of nature. If we pray for healing, then God will not heal if to do so would violate the laws of nature. If we pray for rain, then God will only work within the laws of nature to make it rain.
The result is to make prayer futile insofar as prayer touches our lives on earth. We can effectively pray for forgiveness, as forgiveness happens in heaven, but pray for a better job or even for help to seek and save the lost, well, God just doesn’t work that way anymore.
Now, those who take this view insist on denying its natural implications. “Does this mean that God, in order to help us through answering our prayers or acting to bless us providentially, must perform a miracle (a miracle is an event that contravenes natural law)? Of course not! Who believes otherwise?” Glenn B. Ramsey, Living Oracles (April 2004), a publication of Tennessee Bible College.
But nature has no free will. If I drop a book, it obeys the law of gravity every single time. It can’t choose not to. God could not cause a different result without violating a law of nature. If my wife’s cancer was going to kill her, it was going to do so because that’s the outcome dictated by the laws of nature. For any other outcome to occur in response to prayer, the laws of nature must be violated! God cannot change natural outcomes except by violating the laws of nature.
Why on earth would we seek to limit God in this manner? What drives such perverse thinking? Does the Bible somewhere declare God to be under the thumb of nature? I think not!!
(Col. 1:15-18) [Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.
Paul says that Jesus even now is holding everything together. The creation exists only because Jesus wills it! And is he subject to the laws of nature in any sense? Clearly, no, as this would deny his ultimate supremacy.
I learned a long time ago to be very wary of any doctrine invented for polemical reasons. In other words, if the argument was built to win an emotionally charged debate with a perceived enemy, then it’s a doctrine forged in war, and the first casualty of war is–truth.
The idea that miracles have so ended that even prayer is largely futile was invented to refute the Pentecostals and charismatics at a time when churches were dividing over these doctrines. We were reaching for any rhetorical device, any refutation that would keep our people safe from Pentecostal error. And as so often happens in times of distress, we over-reached. And we created some truly horrible teachings.
In so doing, we’ve denied to many the inexpressible comforts of prayer and the blessings of the indwelling Spirit. Blessings from God given to us for our comfort and strength have been denied just to win a debate or two.
Here’s the truth. The Holy Spirit did not die in AD 70 or 100. He’s still alive, well, and working in this church. Jesus went to heaven and sent his Spirit to live with us and within us forever. I make the arguments in detail in The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace, available for free download.
Prayer works. God is not limited to working only within his heaven. God lives, loves his people, and is active on earth bringing his will to fruition. He has not left us orphans.
(John 14:16-18) “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”
(Matt. 28:20b) “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Phil. 4:6) Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Beware of those who would make God subject to the nature that he made. Beware of those who insist the Spirit works only through the word, that is, naturally and not miraculously. Beware of those who are too blind to see the miraculous today. They are far too much like the Pharisees who, when they saw miracles, refused to give God credit and so blasphemed the Holy Spirit. When our doctrine contradicts God’s activity on earth, our doctrine is wrong.