I’m probably going to make some readers mad. It’s inevitable, I’m afraid. You see, ever since I first started teaching, over 1800 classes ago, I find that students get upset when I raise an issue, present alternative interpretations, and then tell them I don’t know the answer. Some get really upset.
So let me be quite clear: I don’t know all the answers but we don’t have to know all the answers to go to heaven. And a little humilty in our Bible study is a very good thing.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s try to see what we can conclude.
First, the Holy Spirit indwells all Christians. You can prove it from the Old Testament so powerfully that you really don’t have to work through all the New Testament passages — which is why I’ve not bothered with a comprehensive proof. The Old Testament studies I posted a few days ago should be quite sufficient.
Second, the indwelling Spirit works in all Christians to change our hearts and to impress on our hearts and minds God’s laws. The Spirit works with the word of God in so doing, but not exclusively through the word.
There is no need to suppose that this means we receive inspiration at the level of an apostle or the like. After all, God’s laws for Christians are pretty simple. As we studied in an earlier series, and as I’ve argued over at GraceConversation.com, the law that God mainly has in mind is love. It’s not enough for us to read the many commands to love. God himself, through his Spirit, changes us into new creations — restored to God’s image — to love. This is Romans 5 – 8, but especially 5:5 and the first half of chapter 8.
Of course, this is a special kind of love, a love that’s like God’s love — which is often quite different from how mankind loves. This is, of course, the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12, and many other passages.
Third, when the Holy Spirit does this, he violates natural laws all over the place. After all, were there no supernatural activity, there’d be no Spirit activity at all. This may not be what some like to call a “miracle,” but neither is it God working without violating natural law. God is working in a way that most of his people didn’t enjoy in the Old Testament — and they had God’s word, too. This is qualitatively different — in a big, world-changing way.
Now, notice that most who deny that God works supernaturally today also deny the indwelling or else they deny that the indwelling has a direct operation on the hearts of Christians. Well, they’re just very sadly mistaken.
Fourth, God answers prayers. If I pray for wisdom as James recommends, God gives wisdom. Perhaps he gives it by the Spirit. Or perhaps he causes me to have learning experiences that teach me wisdom the hard way. But God acts, and as a supernatural being, the way he acts is supernaturally.
We can debate just how powerful prayer can be, but I recommend what I think is a better course. Go teach your church’s ladies Bible class and ask them to tell you about answered prayer. Assure them that you won’t criticize or question their experiences and that this is a safe, private conversation. Promise that you’ll never say a critical word from the pulpit or in the bulletin.
Oh, and then ask them about angels and visions. Just let the women testify to God’s power. (If your ladies are too intimidated by you to be honest, I’ll set a time to speak with our ladies Bible class. No one could intimidate them.) Then being informed about God’s work within your own members, go read the many prayer passages again.
Now, obviously God sometimes refuses our requests. He even turned Paul down. The lesson isn’t that he says yes, no, or later. The lesson is that he really does sometimes say yes.
Fifth, you’d have to be blind (or willfully self-deceiving) not to see that God gives spiritual gifts even today. Just go over the lists of gifts from the New Testament post on spiritual gifts and ask yourself: do I know anyone with any of these gifts? And the answer will certainly be yes. Every Christian is gifted, but not all Christians know it or know the obligations that the gifts entail.
We do a great disservice to God and his mission when we deny that our members have been given gifts to equip them for God’s mission through the church.
Now, are these gifts miraculous? Well, define “miraculous.” If “miraculous” means given by supernatural power, then yes. If “miraculous” means a miracle as stunning as parting the Red Sea, then yes and no. Mainly no. But I’ve seen some people transformed by God’s hand in ways that astound me. Haven’t you? I’ve seen people take on tasks that I thought were totally beyond their abilities only to see them used by God to do mighty works in his name — far beyond my imagining. I’d have been no less astounded had God moved Mt. Everest. In fact, I don’t doubt his ability to move Mt. Everest. I doubted his ability to help some people I know do what they did.
Sixth, I have friends who speak in tongues. It’s a big deal to them, and I respect them as believers and children of God. I have no interest in speaking in tongues. Nor do I much want to be around when they do it. If I spoke in tongues tonight, it would not strengthen my faith one iota. But then, I’m an abstract thinker. Some people need an experience to really believe, and so if God strengthens their faith through tongues, I understand.
Are the tongues real, human languages? Probably not. No modern tongues that have been tested have been real modern languages (to my knowledge). Are they a special prayer language? Only God knows.
Are some tongues totally bogus? Yes, I think so. Are all tongues bogus? How could I prove such a thing? And for that matter, who says that what we call “tongues” today isn’t some gift from God entirely distinct from what the New Testament calls “tongues”? Who am I to impose a New Testament category on someone’s experience and then deny the validity of the experience?
Carson argues with considerable success that the “tongues” in Acts 2 are different from the “tongues” in 1 Cor 12 – 14. And this shouldn’t be a surprise. Paul specifically says that there are “different kinds of tongues” (1 Cor 12:10, 28). And if that’s so, the fact that modern tongues differ from the tongues described in the New Testament hardly proves that they aren’t from God.
You see, I don’t even know what all “prophecy” includes. It certainly includes the spoken and written words of great men such as Isaiah and John the Baptist. But it also includes the evidently ecstatic, uncontrollable utterances of Saul and his men in 1 Sam 19. It includes lots of things that are qualitatively different from Jeremiah and Daniel. And it is sometimes the sort of thing that causes listeners to immediately describe what they hear as “prophecy.” Because it’s iambic pentameter? What made some prophecy obviously prophecy to the listeners? Could it be something like what we call tongues? I don’t know. I can’t prove to the contrary.
Are modern tongues from God? Well, that’s the wrong question. A better question is: are the utterances we call “tongues” ever from God? Who could say no?
This is admitted an argument from ignorance. But I refuse to make up rules to fill in the gaps in the Bible. God’s holy word leaves me unable to answer for sure just what “tongues” and “prophecy” include, and therefore I have to humbly limit the conclusions I draw. It’s not my job to fill in the gaps.
Seventh, many college educated, Western missionaries report having seen miracles in the mission field, such as the casting out of demons. Some of the stories are quite remarkable. On what basis do I call them all liars or deluded?
Eighth, it seems to me that tongues help those with an immature faith the most. And it seems that miracles (in the sense of a wonder) tend to show up (if at all) mainly in mission areas or other places where the faith is new. And it seems that miracles didn’t so much die out as decline after the apostolic age. And that’s quite consistent with my understanding of the 1 Cor 13. The more spectacular gifts are for the immature. In fact, we see plenty of examples, going back to Num 11, where prophecy and tongues are given for just long enough to demonstrate that the Spirit has been given. You see, the real point isn’t the tongues. It’s the Spirit. The tongues were often (always?) given to affirm the receipt of the Spirit promised by the prophets — and the salvation that accompanies the Spirit.
Ninth, yes, most faith healers are charlatans. Yes, many claimed miracles are lies or self-deception. But I know of no reason to suppose that God has necessarily stopped doing miracles. 1 Cor 13 only addresses spiritual gifts, whatever that passage means. Miracles were indeed given to confirm the word, but that’s not the only reason God does miracles, and nowhere does he say that he’ll only do miracles until the word has been confirmed. In fact, that’s quite plainly not the case. After all, tongues and prophecy were often given to confirm the receipt of the Spirit.
Tenth, but then, I’ve not seen the dead resurrected, seas parted, or evil people destroyed by fire and brimstone. And that concerns me not at all.
You see, I figure God makes the rules and does whatever suits him. If it suited him to empty the graveyards, he could do it and that would be just fine. Even in OId Testament times, God’s miracles came unevenly. He did wonders when it suited him, and he often did no wonders at all — even for centuries. Therefore, I’m quite comfortable with the conclusion that God hasn’t had the earth swallow his enemies lately solely because that’s just the choice he’s made. He may make a different one tomorrow. It’s really not my area to tell God when to do a wonder, you know.
Now, when someone tells me he has the gift of healing, my attitude is pretty simple: please heal me. If he doesn’t, well the guy may be bogus or God may think his grace is sufficient for me just as it was for Paul and his ailment. Either way is cool, because it’s God’s decision. I have no claim on God’s power to heal.
If you’ve read much of my stuff, you should know that I’m hyper-analytical, trained in mathematics and law, and I grew up on science — chemistry sets and Erector sets. Gemini space launches and fossils. I’m a rational sort of guy. And rationally, I could no more deny that God can still do miracles than I could deny that he used to do miracles. It’s the same God. And God makes the rules. I don’t.
And, for that matter, if God is still doing “little” miracles, such as changing my heart to be more like his, then God can still do “big” miracles if it suits him. There’s no bright line between big and small. Indeed, if we are to believe the Old Testament prophets and the apostles, the work of the Spirit in our hearts will change the world. That’s a really big miracle in my book.
To me, it’s just that simple.
But if you disagree with me, we can laugh about it in heaven — when I think we’ll be astounded to learn just how much of our lives was a product of the miraculous and we just couldn’t see it. We have scientific, Western, Enlightenment eyes, trained not to see miracles. But God will forgive that, too.
For the hyper-ventilating
For those of you hyper-ventilating over the tongues thing, I find much of the modern Charismatic movement to routinely violate 1 Cor 14 and to contradict the Biblical doctrine of grace. These churches often teach that tongues and other charismata have to be earned, violating the doctrine of grace. Their erroneous theology is skillfully critiqued by F. D. Bruner in A Theology of the Holy Spirit. But this series is about the erroneous theology of many within the Churches of Christ.
Discovering that God works supernaturally today any way that pleases him does not repeal 1 Cor 14 or the New Testament’s doctrine of grace. On the other hand, neither are we forced to choose between Deism and modern Pentecostalism. Indeed, I was around when many Churches of Christ split over Pentecostalism in the 1970s. I think it happened as an over-reaction to the Spirit-less Deism being taught in many Churches at the time. There is a better, middle way.
In the end, 1 Cor 13 gives the solution. It’s all about faith, hope, and love — especially love. Church leaders should be teaching their members about salvation through faith, the hope we have in a faith-based salvation, with God on our side, working within us through the Spirit to see hope realized in us, and the love that the Spirit pours into our hearts so we’ll participate in the mission of God for which we’ve been equipped by God through his Spirit.
A church filled with the faith, hope, and love described in the Bible won’t divide over the Spirit.
Testing the spirits
My refusal to draw lines I can’t find in the Bible does not mean we should be gullible. The scriptures are plain that we are to test the spirits.
(Deu 13:1-3a) If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a miraculous sign or wonder, 2 and if the sign or wonder of which he has spoken takes place, and he says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” 3 you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer.
(1 Cor 14:29) Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.
(1 Th 5:19-21) Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; 20 do not treat prophecies with contempt. 21 Test everything. Hold on to the good.
(1 John 4:1) Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
If someone claims the power to prophesy, heal, interpret, or whatever, we are required to test the truth of the claim. Because even the magicians of Pharoah’s court could do miracles, even if the claim is true, as Moses taught in Deuteronomy and John teaches in 1 John 4, we must test their teaching and work against the scriptures.