Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?
Does God Want Christians to Perform Miracles Today?
John C. Whitcomb, Jr.
Director of Postgraduate Studies
Grace Theological Seminary
One of Satan’s most insidious purposes, through the ages, has been to enter a wedge between God’s people and God’s infallible, inerrant Word. It all began in the Garden of Eden when “the father of lies” asked Eve, “Yea, hath God said…?” and it continues today without abatement. Two distinct but related levels of this Satanic strategy can be detected in our day:
(1) Rationalistic doubts and denials of the supernatural acts of God as recorded in Scripture. This is being most keenly felt in evangelical circles today through various compromises with the theory of organic evolution, which attempt to reduce the great creative miracles of God to mere providential processes.
(2) The other strategy of the enemy is to encourage Christians to imagine present-day miracles where there are none, through the claims of self-appointed miracle workers.
The goal of the first strategy is to take away the Bible from us piece by piece, until we wonder what pieces of infallible Scripture are still left to us.
The goal of the second strategy is to take us away from the Bible by centering our attention on new claims of divine revelation by modern prophets, or on new and supernatural experiences and powers so that we have little time or interest in searching the Scriptures for God’s truth and for God’s revealed ways of perpetuating and promoting it.
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 4
The Pressure Is On
In every generation men have gravitated to religions that offer signs and wonders as their basic appeal. This has been a principal source of power for Roman Catholicism, which claims a continuing revelation accompanied by continuing signs. And what modern, fast-growing cult is devoid of prophets and miracle-workers? Old-line Pentecostalism, and now the “Neo-Pentecostal” movement, offer the miracle of tongues, the interpretation of tongues, and even faith-healers that attract millions. In tune with the times, Protestant liberalism has abandoned its old rationalistic formulas in favor of a more vibrant existentialism called Neo-Orthodoxy, which offers a direct “word” from God to sincere individual seekers the world over, whether they have actually heard of the historical Christ or not.
What may be considered a natural desire by men to see some token of God has surely been accelerated by the suffocating atmosphere of twentieth-century uniformitarian scientism. If Satan cannot take away the true God by the pressure of theoretical or practical atheism in the academic world, he will attempt to do so by pushing men to the invention of false gods that cannot really save or satisfy. That is surely the crisis of the present hour.
The prophet Isaiah felt such pressures in Judah 700 years before Christ. On the one hand, the deep skepticism of that age was represented by King Ahaz himself, who completely rejected God’s offer of a great supernatural sign (Isa 7:12). On the other hand, superstitious men (possibly including King Ahaz) were encouraging one another: “Consult the mediums and the wizards who whisper and mutter” (Isa 8:19). The true answer to such pressures was not that God never performs miracles, but that He does so on His terms only, and in accordance with His revealed program of history and redemption. “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn” (Isa 8:20). Thus, Isaiah himself cried out to God for global and spectacular signs of His power as in the days of Moses at Mount Sinai (Isa 64:1–3). And an even greater prophet, John the Baptist, sent two of his friends to Jesus to ask why the full glory of the Kingdom Age was not yet being manifested (Matt 11:2–6). Our Lord was continually teaching His disciples to pray for stupendous miracles when he taught them to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.” Their minds fascinated by this prospect, the disciples came to Jesus and pointedly asked Him, after His resurrection, “Lord, dost thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” His answer was not that there would never be such a literal kingdom and that God would never reveal His great power and glory to men. His answer to them was, in effect, “Not yet” (Acts 1:7).
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 5
God’s Plan and Purpose for Miracles
People often ask why it is, if God is still alive and powerful, He does not perform through men of faith today the same kinds of signs and wonders He performed when Christ and the apostles were here. The answer is that God has a plan in His dealings with men, and that plan does not happen to include a constant repetition of the same kinds of miracles in every time and place. If this were His plan, then miracles would lose their unique sign value because they would be taken for granted. God has wisely protected the significance of miracles in history by the rarity of their occurrence, even in Bible times. Enoch’s translation was the only miracle in over 1,700 years between Adam and the Flood. For centuries Israel suffered in Egypt with no special voice from heaven. Only rarely did a miracle occur during the centuries from Joshua to David. And God protected the absolute uniqueness of His Son’s miraculous ministry by withholding all miracles for centuries beforehand—even from John the Baptist, the forerunner himself (John 11:41).
Why did Christ perform miracles during His public ministry? Was it to prove that God existed? Was it primarily to help people who were sick, crippled, or in special physical need? No, the purpose was to identify Himself as Israel’s true Messiah and to confirm the new revelation He was bringing to the nation (John 20:30–31; Acts 2:22). Thus, the healing of the paralytic man was not for the primary purpose of helping him, or to prove that God exists, but “that ye may know that the Son of Man hath authority on earth to forgive sins” (Matt 9:6; cf. Deut 18:22). When John the Baptist momentarily questioned His Messianic identity, Jesus pointed to the people He had just healed as a fulfillment of the Messianic promise of Isaiah 35:5–6 (cf. Matt 11:4). Israel was thus historically conditioned to expect signs as the proper credentials of their Messiah and His apostles (John 4:48, 1 Cor 1:22, 2 Cor 12:12, Rom 15:19, Heb 2:3, 4). The great tragedy, of course, was that Israel willfully rejected the signs God did give to them (Matt 12:38, 1 Cor 14:21–22).
If supernatural signs were thus intended to serve as confirmations of God’s special messengers and their message, it seems obvious that such signs would no longer be needed after these messengers had brought their message. In fact, a sign without a message is worse than useless, as Paul and Barnabas discovered to their horror at Lystra (Acts 14:8–18). Thus, the superstructure of the true Church is built upon a foundation which consists exclusively of Christ and His apostles (Eph 2:20, 1 Cor 3:10–11, Rev 21:14). Since the foundation of a building only needs to be laid once, we may be sure that God has not given any new revelation to His people since the apostles died. The fact that only His apostles belonged in the foundation is seen clearly in our Lord’s high priestly
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 6
prayer, when He prayed for those who would believe on Him “through their word,” namely, the word of the apostles to whom “all the truth” would be given by the Holy Spirit (John 17:20; 16:13 ). To invent a message as from God when God has not spoken is dangerous indeed, for God is infinitely jealous of the boundary lines of His revelation to men (cf. Deut 4:2, 12:32 , 18:20 ; Prov 30:5–6; Jer 23:30–32; Gal 1:8; Rev 21:18–19). New Testament history suggests that the various sign-gifts, including the gift of tongues, were no longer in use after the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and that the gifts of knowledge and prophecy were set aside after the Book of Revelation was completed about A.D. 90. Thus, only the Apostle John lived to see the coming of “that which is perfect” (1 Cor 13:10), namely, the completed Bible. The Bible is perfect, because no one before John wrote the final chapter had anything more than a “part” of the truth (1 Cor 13:9; Heb 1:1). For someone now, in this superstructure phase of church history, to claim a new revelation from God would be a colossal step backward and downward to the “pre-perfect” foundation phase. Instantly, all of our Bibles would be incomplete! None of us could teach or preach authoritatively and effectively again, until, like Apollos, we could find someone to expound to us “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26).
Christ’s Miracles Were Unique
If God is indeed giving to certain men the power to perform healing miracles today, why are there so few of them, and why are their powers so limited, and why are the results so doubtful? By contrast, the miracles of Christ and His apostles were fantastically abundant, utterly spectacular, and totally undeniable. Let us consider each of these in more detail. First, our Lord’s miracles were abundant. The Gospel narratives make it quite clear that Christ healed vast numbers of people in many parts of Palestine and over a period of several years (cf. Matt 14:14, Luke 6:19, etc). With regard to the apostles, see Acts 5:12–16, 19:11–12 . But Church history since the days of the apostles, even in times of great revival and reformation, has not been characterized by physical miracles including healings (see Appendix). Second, our Lord’s healing works were spectacular in nature. Consider the healing of the man born blind (John 9:32); the replacement and healing of a man’s amputated ear (Luke 22:50); and the immediate and complete resuscitation to mortal life of a man who was not only dead but who had been decomposing in a tomb for more than half a week (John 11). By contrast, modern so-called faith-healers concentrate on those types of physical ailments that are functional rather than organic, and which can more easily be explained as psychotherapeutic rather than genuinely supernatural (for an excellent analysis of this entire problem, see Edmunds and Scorer, Some Thoughts on Faith Healing, The Tyndale Press, 39 Bedford Square, London W.C.1, 1956).
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 7
In the third place, our Lord’s miracles were undeniable. Note, for example, the testimonies of such unregenerate men as Nicodemus (John 3:2) and the chief priest (John 11:47, Acts 4:16). In stark contrast to the present situation, no one who saw the Lord Jesus Christ at work ever questioned the completely supernatural character of His healing miracles. The debate was centered entirely on the issue of whether God or Satan was the source of His power (Matt 12:24). The question we must ask, in the light of this fact, is not whether God still has the power to perform those kinds of miracles today, but whether it is His plan. For we may be perfectly sure that if it were His plan to do now exactly what He did through certain men nineteen centuries ago, there would be no modern day deniers of the reality of miracles, even as there were none in Jesus’ day!
Is God Healing Sick People Today?
It is my firm conviction that God is healing some sick Christians today (and I have seen this happen twice in my own family), but in a very different way than He did when Christ was here, and for a very different purpose. It is true that God occasionally raises up some desperately sick Christians to a continued life of worship and service; but He never does so through a faith-healer, and He never does so in such a spectacular way that godless men are absolutely forced to admit that a genuine miracle occurred.
God’s basic provision and pattern for the healing of Christians is outlined in James 5:13–16. Note carefully, in the first place, that the sick Christian asks for “the elders of the church” to come to him. He does not request to be carried to a miracle-healer! Secondly, God does not promise immediate and spectacular healing, nor does He exclude recuperation processes or the help of doctors and medicines. It is a “family affair,” and is not for “show.” In other words, it is not intended to serve as a sign to Israel or the unbelieving Gentile world that God is real. Its purpose is to encourage Christians to keep on trusting and serving the gracious Lord who renews their strength according to His will and purpose. In the third place, the healing is not automatically guaranteed each time! Otherwise, no Christians of the early Church would ever have died! We must therefore assume that “the prayer of faith” which was essential to the healing of sick Christians (James 5:15) was not always granted by the sovereign Lord, even as other gifts were provided only according to the will of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:11).
Paul Himself Lived to See the Passing of Miracles
If faith-healers are a vital part of God’s program for the Church today, why did the Apostle Paul experience the end of such powers during
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 8
his own lifetime? While at Ephesus, he healed many people by miraculous means (Acts 19:11–12); but God chose not to answer his prayers for his own bodily healing (2 Cor 12:7–10). The reason for this is exceedingly important: “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my power is made perfect in weakness.” What, then, shall we think of a modern faith-healer who states or implies that certain saints of God must continue to be cripples because they have insufficient faith or because they have not come to the right man? Is this the reason why great Christians such as John Calvin, David Brainerd, Frances Havergal, Robert Murray McCheyne, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and Fanny Crosby, among others, suffered many years of ill health or died young? If God’s power is made perfect in weakness, is robust physical health necessarily a measure of one’s spiritual well-being?
Paul’s last recorded miracles were performed on the island of Malta, one of which was a remarkable fulfillment of our Lord’s promise to the apostles that they would not be hurt by deadly serpents (Acts 28:1–10; Mark 16:18). But after Paul arrived in Rome, his miracle-working powers were apparently withdrawn by the Lord. In a letter to the Philippian church, he explained how Epaphroditus, their messenger to him, had almost died from a sickness, and the clear implication is that Paul was unable to help him (Phil 2:25–30). After a time, Paul was released from prison, visited the Aegean area again, and was brought back to Rome for execution. In his final letters to Timothy he explained that he had left Trophimus at Miletus sick (2 Tim 4:20). In fact, he knew of no faith-healer who could help Timothy either, so he recommended to him: “Be no longer a drinker of water [which was often dangerously polluted], but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities” (1 Tim 5:23).
Thus, step by step, God was removing the scaffolding of miracles from the early church as the New Testament Scriptures were being completed and the apostles and prophets were dying off. The Holy Spirit was now focusing the eyes of Christians exclusively upon the written Word, apart from which there is no salvation or spiritual maturity (2 Tim 3:15–17). God’s plan for this age, said Paul, is for men to walk by faith rather than by sight (2 Cor 5:7), just as our Lord reminded Thomas, the sign-seeker, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Christ Clearly Implied That Physical Miracles Would Be Supplanted by Even Greater Works during the Church Age
The very night of His betrayal, the Lord Jesus told His disciples: “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do because I go unto the Father”
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 9
(John 14:12). What did He mean by these words? The works that Jesus performed during His public ministry were fantastically great. Diseases were banished, demons were cast out, dead men arose, wine, bread, and fishes were created, and mighty storms were instantly calmed. But it must be recognized that each of these miracles was intentionally superficial and temporary in quality! In other words, no one was permanently helped by any of them, nor were men’s deepest needs met by such works of power! Creating food for one occasion did not automatically supply the need for later occasions. And with regard to bodily ailments, every diseased, crippled, leprous person Jesus ever healed finally died anyway—every one of them! And poor Lazarus! It is true that Jesus raised him from the dead, instantly and completely, with no convalescence needed. But later on he died again! Would you like to die twice? When Christ raises your dead body some day, would you want it to be raised to mortal life again? This was certainly no favor to Lazarus, nor was it intended to be! It was rather a mere temporary and limited sign of Christ’s power to do the greater work of resurrection to glory in the Day of the Lord (John 5:28–29).
In this light, our Lord’s words take on new meaning: “greater works than these shall ye do because I go unto the Father.” Can there be any greater works than the miracles of Jesus? Yes, there can be and there are. When our Lord returned to heaven, the Spirit of God came ten days later and baptized the disciples into the Body of Christ. Peter then arose, preached a sermon to a vast multitude of Jews, and three thousand men experienced the spiritual miracle of regeneration in one day! This was the “greater work” because it met man’s basic need, and met it permanently. Let it be remembered that our Lord’s purpose in coming to earth was not to preach the Christian Gospel but to make such preaching possible (1 Cor 15:1–4). If He had not died as our substitute for sin, there could be no Gospel (John 12:20–24). But since His death, resurrection, and ascension, many pastors, evangelists, and missionaries have won more men to saving faith than the Son of God did, and physical miracles have not been the cause of their success.
For a few years, the apostles and prophets did both the lesser works (sign-miracles) and the “greater works” (winning men to saving faith); but as the apostolic age reached its close the sign-miracles phased out and the “greater works” continue as God’s basic program for the Church age, until Jesus comes again. Then, at last, our need for complete and permanent physical transformation will be met, for “the Lord Jesus Christ shall change our body of humiliation, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil 3:21). And there will be no debate about the genuineness of that miracle, “for the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God”
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 10
(Rom 8:19). God does care about our physical needs and sufferings; but He has a special plan and program for dealing with these needs; and continual, guaranteed healings through special men and gifts does not happen to be in that program for the Church in its superstructure stage of maturity.
No, the Church doesn’t need new revelation from heaven today! We already have a completed Bible and the Holy Spirit of God to interpret and apply it! The Church doesn’t need more apostles to guide her through the troubled waters of this Satan-dominated world. An apostle might fail us, as Peter did at Antioch. That is why the Holy Spirit wrote, through Peter himself, that “we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Pet 1:19). The Church doesn’t need special powers, like those which Christ promised to the apostles in Mark 16:17–18, namely, (1) to cast out demons, (2) to speak with new tongues, (3) to pick up serpents, (4) to drink deadly poisons, and (5) to heal the sick. The Church doesn’t need any holy places, healing centers, faith-healers, or signs and wonders to appeal to the five senses. WHAT THE CHURCH NEEDS IS A NEW CONFRONTATION WITH THE WHOLE COUNSEL OF GOD, PROCLAIMED IN THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT WITH AUTHORITY AND LOVE, BY MEN WHO KNOW THEIR GOD AND WHO HONOR HIS ONLY WRITTEN REVELATION. Then, and then only, may we expect our deepest needs to be supplied, and God’s purpose for His Church to be accomplished in our day.
The Testimony of Early Church Fathers concerning the Cessation of Miracles after the Apostolic Period
(Quoting B. B. Warfield,
Miracles: Yesterday and Today.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted, 1965)
With regard to Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of the second century A.D., Dr. Warfield states: “The writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers contain no clear and certain allusions to miracle-working or to the exercise of the charismatic gifts, contemporaneous with themselves” (1.10). And after discussing the writings of third century A.D. writers such as Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Origen, and Cyprian, he concludes:
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 11
“And so we pass on to the fourth century in an ever-increasing stream, but without a single writer having claimed himself to have wrought a miracle of any kind or having ascribed miracle-working to any known name in the church, and without a single instance having been recorded in detail” (p. 12).
Beginning in the fourth century, however, Christian leaders apparently became so desperate for miracles to match the “miracles” they heard about from heretical and heathen sources, that they began to see “ecclesiastical miracles” everywhere. This trend increased into the Middle Ages, when nearly every “saint” in the Roman Catholic Church had to be supplied with a full display of miraculous powers! At the same time (and this point is exceedingly important for our discussion), they as much as admitted that these miracles were on a much lower level than the great miracles of Christ and the apostles!
For example, Augustine (died 430 A.D.), who in later life felt obliged to testify of many miraculous works going on in his day (though perplexed that no one was taking notice of them!—p. 45), stated in earlier days that none were occurring “Why do not these things take place now?,” he asked about 392 A.D. His answer: “Because they would not move unless they were wonderful, and if they were customary they would not be wonderful… God has dealt wisely with us, therefore, in sending his miracles once for all to convince the world, depending afterward on the authority of the multitudes thus convinced” (p. 41).
Chrysostom (4th cent.), the most eloquent preacher of his day, stated: “Argue not because miracles do not happen now, that they did not happen then… In those times they were profitable, and now they are not… Of miraculous powers, not even a vestige is left” (pp. 46–47).
Isodore of Pelusium (4th cent.) speculated: “Perhaps miracles would take place now, too, if the lives of the teachers rivalled the bearing of the Apostles” (p. 47).
Gregory the Great (6th cent.), commenting on Mark 16:17, asked: “Is it so, my brethren, that because ye do not these signs, ye do not believe? On the contrary, they were necessary in the beginning of the church; for, that faith might grow, it required miracles to cherish it; just as when we plant shrubs, we water them until we see them to thrive in the ground, and as soon as they are well rooted we cease our irrigation” (p. 47).
Isodore of Seville (7th Cent.), in similar vein: The reason why the church does not now do the miracles it did under the Apostles is, because miracles were necessary then to convince the world of the truth
GJ 12:3 (Fall 71) p. 12
of Christianity; but now it becomes it, being so convinced, to shine forth in good works…. Whoever seeks to perform miracles now as a believer, seeks after vainglory and human applause” (p 47).
Bernard of Clairvaux (13th cent.) asks concerning Mark 16:17, “For who is there that seems to have these signs of the faith, without which no one, according to this Scripture, shall be saved?” and answers by saying that the greatest miracles are those of the regenerated life (p. 48).
In struggling to explain this strange paradox in the thinking of early Christian theologians, namely, the absence and at the same time the presence of miracles, Dr. Warfield concludes: “The miracles of the first three centuries, if accepted at all, must be accepted on the general assertion that such things occurred—a general assertion which itself is wholly lacking until the middle of the second century and which, when it does appear, concerns chiefly prophecy and healings, including especially exorcisms, which we can scarcely be wrong in supposing are precisely the classes of marvels with respect to which excitement most easily blinds the judgment and insufficiently grounded rumors most readily grow up” (p. 12). And speaking of theologians of later centuries, he concludes: “No doubt we must recognize that these Fathers realized that the ecclesiastical miracles were of a lower order than those of Scripture. It looks very much as if, when they were not inflamed by enthusiasm, they did not really think them to be miracles at all” (p. 48).
Thus, church history confirms the clear inferences of Scripture that sign-miracles of all types ceased with the death of the apostles.
Grace Seminary, Grace Journal Volume 12 (Grace Seminary, 1971; 2002), 12:3-12.
The Cessation of Healing Miracles in Paul’s Ministry
Gary W. Derickson
Gary W. Derickson is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Western Baptist College, Salem, Oregon, and Adjunct Teacher of Bible, Western Seminary, Portland, Oregon.
This article addresses the issue of the cessation of the exercise of the gift of healing by the apostle Paul on the basis of the historical-theological evidence of the New Testament record. Three lines of evidence suggest that Paul was unable to perform healing miracles near the end of his ministry. The first line of evidence comes from a study of Pauline literature. The second line of evidence is from an evaluation of the record of the three men Paul failed to heal, their circumstances, and arguments that Paul would have healed them if he could. A third line of evidence stems from Hebrews 2:3–4. These three areas of evidence indicate that miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit were no longer being distributed to the body of Christ by the end of the first century, but that the church was being given gifted individuals (Eph. 2:20; 4:11). Nonmiraculous spiritual gifts, of course, continued to be given to believers by the Holy Spirit. Further, even those who had previously had the ability to perform miracles were no longer able to exercise that gift as they had previously done. God’s interventions through individuals gradually ceased in the waning years of the first century.
Miracles and Miracle Workers
The range of opinion on the issue of miracle workers is spread between those who believe God continues to work miracles today in the same manner and number as in the
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 300
first century1 and those who see miracle workers as a first-century phenomenon.2
Part of the difficulty in the debate stems from the way a miracle is defined. For example some accuse cessationists of being antisupernatural, of denying all miracles. Yet this is only rarely the case. Almost all evangelicals affirm that God can and does intervene today in miraculous ways. The issue for them, however, is whether He does so through human agents, or whether He sometimes performs miracles in answer to prayer apart from so-called “healers” or miracle workers.
Warfield identified miracles with the apostles and their generation and said their purpose was to authenticate the validity of the apostles and the witnesses of their
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 301
generation. He argued against modern miracle workers on the grounds that the gospel and its bearers no longer needed to prove they were from God. He also argued that history indicates that miracles ceased with the first-century generation of Christians.3 A belief in the closing of the biblical canon often includes an understanding that miracles must necessarily have ceased with its completion.4 Historical evidence seems to indicate a lack of miracles within the years immediately following the end of the apostolic age. Miracles then began to reappear in later centuries.5 This position is opposed by those affirming modern miracle workers. Adherents of both positions quote the same church fathers to support their positions.6
C. Peter Wagner, Gordon Fee, Oral Roberts, and others claim that miracles performed by miracle workers have continued and can and should be experienced in the church today. Proponents of the modern faith healing movement base their position on the doctrine of healing in the atonement and/or they argue that God must work in the same way now as He did in the first-century church.7 According to Wagner, “The power that worked in Jesus for His miraculous ministry not only is related to the power available to us today; it is exactly the same. As we relate to God in prayer, faith and obedience we have abundant resources to go forth in Jesus’ name to preach everywhere ‘with signs following’ as did the early disciples.”8
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 302
Roberts says present-day “miracles” are something “that we can’t explain but that makes a profound change for the better in our lives.” Such a miracle may have “a completely extraordinary nature” or “a nature that I alone might appreciate.”9 Thus for him, the individual is free to determine if something is miraculous. Booth defines a miracle as “an observable phenomenon effected directly or indirectly by supernatural power in which the laws of nature are not suspended or violated, but a supernatural power outside of nature intervenes with new effect for a specific purpose.”10 This definition is adequate for miracles when used of all supernatural events. Yet it is too broad when considering the question of signs performed by men. The miracles discussed in this article are those that involve a human agent through whom they are worked. The following is a suggested definition: “Miracles by miracle workers are those acts of God which He chooses to perform through the agency of either an apostle or a gifted person with the authority and ability to exercise miraculous power at will.” Only those performing supernatural acts at will are considered miracle workers.11 This definition does not imply that God no longer intervenes supernaturally on behalf of His own in answer to prayer. “It should be noted that the issue is not whether God works miracles today, for all evangelicals agree that He does. It is rather whether He works them through individuals today in the same way as He did in Acts.”12
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 303
An Argument from Silence
To argue a theological position based on the silence of Scripture is tenuous at best. Thiessen points out that an “argument from silence never settles a question conclusively.”13 This is true of the question of the continuance or cessation of miracles, because silence is used to argue both for their cessation14 and for their continuance.15 For example Duffield and Van Cleave ask, “Where is the statement in the Bible that miracles would cease to be performed?”16 Though the New Testament includes no instruction on the use and abuse of miracles in the church, the New Testament is not completely silent on the presence or absence of miracles. It becomes silent in Paul’s writings that follow his Roman imprisonment.17 This study seeks to show that the New Testament does have evidence indicating that God’s use of miracle workers ceased in the first century.
Miracles in Acts
The Book of Acts abounds with miracles, both described and implied.18 Though few miracle workers are named, Luke’s record implies more were active than simply those whose deeds he recounted.19 An examination of Acts has led some to conclude that a decline in miracles occurred in the time period covered by that book.20 But miracles are reported throughout Acts, beginning in the second chapter and ending in the last chapter
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 304
with Paul’s healing everyone on Malta who was brought to him.21 Time gaps between miracles, whether singular or multiple, do not indicate inactivity on the part of the apostles or others.
Acts was written not only to show how the gospel spread to the Gentiles, but also to validate Paul’s apostleship. The miracles Luke recorded were adequate to authenticate Paul’s apostleship. Thus rather than a full accounting of all miracles, only a sampling is provided, by which Peter, the foremost apostle, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, can be compared. Both are said to have performed multiple signs and wonders (2:43; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 19:11–17; 28:7–9). Luke recounted typical examples and unusual ones. That he did not mention miracles in every city and journey does not mean they did not occur.22 In fact the reports by Paul and his companions in Acts 15 indicate that they did occur.
Miracles in the Epistles
Silence about miracles in many of the New Testament epistles makes it difficult to argue for either a continuance or a decline in miracles. No direct scriptural statement is made about their continuance or cessation. Both positions interpret the silence as
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 305
favorable to their view.23 But as already stated, to argue from silence alone is a weak argument. Though not a proof of the cessation of miracles, the silence of the epistles on this subject indicates miracles were not considered significant.
Noting when the epistles were written helps bring into perspective their comments and silence about miracles. Silence in the later epistles is significant when seen in contrast with the earlier epistles’ references to miracles. If the record in the later epistles were mixed, with some referring to miracles as a present experience, then the silence of the others would prove meaningless. Still, silence throughout the epistles would not prove in itself that miracles had ended. Other evidence would be needed.
Dating the Epistles
Though the dates of when the apostles wrote the epistles are debated, the dates of the epistles in relation to certain historical events are generally agreed on. James,24 Galatians,25 the Thessalonian26 and Corinthian27 epistles, and Romans28 were written
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 306
before Paul’s first Roman imprisonment and during a time of apostolic miracle-working. During his first Roman imprisonment Paul sent letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and then, just before his release, to the Philippians.29 After this he wrote his first epistle to Timothy30 and a letter to Titus.31 During the same time period, Peter penned at least his first epistle.32 When Paul was incarcerated again in Rome, he wrote his final letter to Timothy as he anticipated his imminent death.33 Peter wrote his second letter about then. Hebrews was written after Paul’s death and before the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 (assuming a non-Pauline authorship of Hebrews).34 Jude and the epistles of John were written after the fall of Jerusalem.35
The References to Miracles in the Epistles
The demarcation between the period of miracles and the beginning of the church’s present experience seems to be Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. Every epistle written before that incarceration refers directly to or alludes to miracles as a “normal” experience in the church. These include James, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans. The Book of Acts indicates a continuance of miracle-working by apostles and others during this period as well. Then when Paul was imprisoned, there is silence in the Prison Epistles and all other New Testament writings thereafter about any present
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 307
experience of miracles. Only in Hebrews, written between Paul’s death and the fall of Jerusalem, is there mention of miracles but it is in the past tense.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul pointed to the miracles occurring among them as proof of God’s work in their midst apart from the Law (Gal. 3:5). This fits well with the testimony of Acts during the time of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13:4–11; 14:3, 8–10). Also Paul and Barnabas reported to the Jerusalem Council that miracles were accomplished in the Galatian churches (15:12). Paul’s reference to miracles in Galatians emphasizes their value as evidence of God’s work.
In 1 and 2 Corinthians the presence of miracles in the experience of the church is still evident. First Corinthians 12–14 discusses spiritual gifts and miracles as a normal experience, and in his second letter Paul pointed to his own miracles as evidence of his apostleship (2 Cor. 12:12). He was confident of his ability to exercise miraculous authority on demand, whether to heal or harm individuals. This is clear from his less-than-veiled threat to his opponents (13:10).36 If he did not know whether God would intervene miraculously on his behalf, he would not have written such a threat.
Romans 15:18–19 refers to miracles as part of Paul’s apostolic authority. Though he was referring in this passage to past deeds, there is no inference that miracles had ceased, or that his readers should expect that Paul would be unable to demonstrate his authority similarly should he visit them.
The reference in 1 Thessalonians 1:5 to “power” might refer to Paul’s exercise of apostolic authority, though the absence of descriptive terminology such as “signs and wonders” (as in 2 Cor. 12:12) indicates otherwise.37
The epistles Paul wrote either during or after his first Roman imprisonment make no reference at all to miracles as a present experience of the church.38 These include Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus.
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 308
The epistles, when placed within the time frame of Paul’s travels and the spread of the church, do reflect a pattern. Those written before Paul’s Roman imprisonment describe a church in which miracles and miracle workers were present and common. With the imprisonment of Paul came a silence concerning miracles in all his epistles written thereafter (as well as the epistles by Peter, Jude, and John).39 This silence is broken only by the reference to miracles in the past tense in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Though this does not in itself prove the cessation of miracle-working, it may imply it. This must be supported by further evidence.
The Men Paul Did Not Heal
Epaphroditus was sent to give Paul both sustenance and help (Phil. 2:25).40 He served Paul sometime between the middle and close of the apostle’s first Roman imprisonment.41 Though the epistle does not state whether Epaphroditus’s illness began during his trip to Rome or soon after he arrived, it had to be of sufficient length and severity for the Philippian church to learn of it and to warrant their concern, and for their concern in turn to be communicated back to Rome.42
Paul’s consternation at the severity of his friend’s condition is reflected in the phrase, “God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27). This, along with the phrase “he came close to death” (2:30), indicates that the illness was potentially fatal.43
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 309
One might argue from Paul’s sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi that he really did not need his services and thus had no need to seek to heal him.44 Yet Paul’s note of distress at Epaphroditus’s near-death illness reveals that the apostle did not want to see his friend die. Another inference is that Paul could not offer healing assistance at that time. If he could, it would have been simple to heal him by the exercise of his apostolic authority.
If Epaphroditus’s illness occurred while he was en route to Philippi or while the Philippian delegation was still with Paul, they would have returned to Philippi knowing Paul had not been able to help him. If his illness occurred after their departure, then word would have later reached Philippi of his condition. In both cases their anxiety and Epaphroditus’s concern indicate that they understood that there was nothing Paul could do on his behalf.
Based on Paul’s comments about his anxiety for Epaphroditus one must conclude that Paul could not heal him. The attitudes of both Paul and the Philippians indicate a general understanding in the church that by that time miracles, even at the hands of apostles, were not an expected event. All Paul could do was pray for him and hope God would keep him from death.
Duffield and Van Cleave say Epaphroditus is an example of miracle healing. They say Paul’s statement that “God had mercy on him” (Phil. 2:27) refers to divine miraculous intervention.45 But this does not address the question of why Paul himself was unable to heal him. Also God’s mercy was expressed not through miraculous intervention but simply through His sparing his life.
Timothy joined Paul on his second missionary journey and was later described by Paul as one who served with him in the furtherance of the gospel as a child serving his father (Phil. 2:19–22). They had an intimate fellowship as well as a shared purpose and
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 310
attitude in ministry.46 Paul’s mention of Timothy’s illness is in 1 Timothy, which was written after Paul’s first Roman imprisonment while he was moving freely through the Roman world. Since this is the only mention of Timothy’s illness, it is not possible to say with certainty how long he had experienced physical difficulties. At any rate, Paul referred to Timothy’s “frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23).
Timothy’s illness, related to his stomach (or intestines), was chronic. Wilkinson identified his illness as probably a chronic achlorhydric dyspepsia, which would produce disabling attacks on his health.47 Paul’s instructions that Timothy not drink water exclusively may indicate Timothy had ingested contaminated water.48 Since the drinking water of that day was of questionable purity, drinking water that had not been “treated” with wine could have exposed him to intestinal difficulties. This would explain Paul’s advice to use wine medicinally.49
Since Paul had opportunities to heal Timothy and had expressed the desire to see him in full health, it is apparent that Paul was unable to help his favorite son in the ministry. So he told him to take medicinal measures to alleviate some of the misery. Also of interest is the fact that Paul did not tell him to call for the elders (as in James 5:14), nor did he offer to heal him at their next meeting. Unmistakably Paul was concerned for Timothy’s well-being. Thus it is legitimate to say that Paul, desiring Timothy’s health, would have healed him if he could have done so. Thus miraculous healing by apostolic injunction was simply not an option at that time.
Trophimus, an Ephesian, was one of several of Paul’s companions on his third
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 311
missionary journey (Acts 20:4–5). He was therefore a witness of Paul’s raising Eutychus from the dead at Troas (20:6–12). He was later seen publicly with Paul in Jerusalem and was one of the Greeks Paul was accused of taking into the temple (21:27–29). He may possibly have been included with Luke in the “we” statements of Acts 27 and 28. He is last mentioned in Paul’s letter to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:20) shortly before the apostle’s death.
Paul’s report to Timothy about Trophimus gives scant information on the nature of his illness. All that is known is that it occurred at a time when several men had left Paul and when Paul had sent some key men to key cities. Demas had deserted him (4:10) and all his other companions except Luke had left Rome (4:10–12, 20). Then Paul mentioned that he had left Trophimus at Miletus because he was sick and unable to continue with Paul. Trophimus’s illness came at a time when Paul could not afford to be losing the company of additional men. Thus if Paul had had the ability at that time to heal, he certainly would have exercised it. Only Luke was with Paul in Rome (4:11). Thus the loss of a companion, especially if Paul was en route to Rome as a prisoner, would sorely hurt the apostle. His need for helpers was good reason for wanting to restore Trophimus. This is further seen in his request not only for Timothy to come to him, but also for Timothy to bring John Mark who would be “very useful.”50
The clear inference is that Paul could do nothing to help Trophimus.51 Still the question is whether this nonhealing means that Paul did not have the freedom to heal, or whether it means something else. Duffield and Van Cleave respond by saying that “healing is not always instantaneous.”52 This response is weak, since there is only one noninstantaneous healing in the New Testament. Jesus healed a man born blind in two steps (Mark 8:22–26). Though there was a minute or two between Jesus’ spitting on his eyes and then the man’s full restoration, the second step in his healing brought instant relief. Thus Paul’s not healing Trophimus cannot be ignored.
The Significance of Paul’s Inability to Heal
The evidence of these three close associates of Paul whose illnesses were left to their natural course points to his inability to heal. Though this does not conclusively prove a loss of healing ability, it implies that loss. Either Paul could heal them and chose not to,
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 312
or he was helpless with regard to their conditions. To justify the position that Paul chose not to heal them, one must demonstrate either that they were not essential to his ministry or that he viewed their suffering as “filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24). But their illnesses came at times when their services were needed. It would not be strategic for Paul to weaken his team by eliminating key personnel, especially if he had the ability simply to speak the word or touch them and restore them to full health. His having delivered Eutychus from death shows his ability (at that time) and willingness to restore even those who were not essential to his ministry (Acts 20:7–12). This also shows that Paul could exercise this option at will, even when he was not being watched by an unbelieving audience.
Some explain that Paul did not heal his three friends because his healing ministry was only for nonbelievers in areas where the gospel was first being preached.53 Again Paul’s restoration of Eutychus rules out that view. Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12:12 about his ability to demonstrate his apostolic authority may well have included an ability to heal believers since that authority was to be demonstrated before believers, not unbelievers. Also Peter’s raising of Dorcas, a believer, shows that other apostles readily aided believers. The gifts of healing in Corinth show that at least in the early days of the church, believers could expect relief from illnesses. Thus one cannot argue that healings were for unbelievers only.
To argue that each of the three men either lacked faith or had unresolved sins is not acceptable either. They had each been with Paul on his missionary journeys and had seen him performing miracles, including healings. There is no reason to expect them then to doubt Paul’s ability. Further, Paul’s references to Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25–30 present the picture of a man of faith, courage, and commitment rather than of sin or faithlessness. Thus some other answer must be sought.
When the circumstances are reviewed, especially for Epaphroditus and Trophimus, their need as well as Paul’s requires one to conclude that Paul lacked the ability to intervene. Otherwise their suffering and his loss of their assistance were needless. From this one can say that there is evidence of a decline in miracles even within the experience
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 313
of the apostles, who were the principal miracle workers of the church. Those who wish to press for a continuance of miracles through the apostolic period into the present must explain Paul’s failure to heal his friends and assistants in the ministry.54
Miracles, though of some impact, were never an emphasis of the apostles’ ministry; they were not ends in themselves. The gospel was of primary importance. It was not miracles that drew people to Christ; it was the Holy Spirit working through the message of salvation. Paul did not point his readers to miracles as the key to conversions; instead, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
Miracles authenticated the apostolic messengers (2 Cor. 12:12). The experience of miracles among the Galatians was proof that they had received the Spirit by faith and not by the works of the Law (Gal. 3:5). In Corinth proof of Paul’s apostleship lay not in his miracle-working power but in the Corinthian believers themselves (1 Cor. 9:1–2). Thus the decline and cessation of miracles would not illicit any further attention. The silence would be understood as the result of a consistent nonemphasis on miracles in light of the greater need for people to respond to the gospel and to live by faith and not by sight before God. Therefore, though silence alone is a weak argument, silence combined with other evidences supports the position that miracles through miracle workers ended within the first century.
Seeing the purpose of miracles as authentication of the apostles explains the early nonemphasis on miracles in the apostolic literature and then silence concerning them in later epistles. Also it explains why Paul’s three friends were not healed. Since miracles had authentication as their primary purpose, it would be expected that they would decline as the apostles were accepted by the church as true representatives of God. Paul’s loss of miracle-working ability came as he was more widely accepted as an apostle and as the gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire.
The Epistle to the Hebrews mentions the miraculous only once. Its sole reference connects miracles to the apostles and those who heard Jesus’ teachings. The inference made from this link is that with the passing of that generation of believers came the
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 314
passing of miracles, since they were linked to eyewitnesses.55
“After it [the message of salvation] was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:3b–4). Several observations can be made about this statement. First, the main verb, “was confirmed,” is in the aorist tense, indicating that miracles had been experienced in the past. Second, the progression of revelation was from Christ, to those who heard Him, and then to “us.” Third, the ones to whom God was bearing witness (“them”) were the generation who heard Jesus, not “us.” Fourth, God’s bearing witness included signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, given according to God’s own will.
Of course the aorist tense is sometimes used without a past time meaning. But within the chronological structure of the sentence and the use of the temporal participle, “bearing witness,” the aorist verb “was confirmed” here strongly argues for miracles being past at the time Hebrews was written.56 The author clearly identified himself and his readers as a generation different from those who heard Jesus’ revelation directly. He also noted that God authenticated the original hearers’ testimony of their revelation by miraculous signs.
Arguing for the noncessationist position, the Bennetts write, “Paul’s power in the Holy Spirit did not decrease as he grew older. We find him manifesting God’s miraculous keeping and healing power more strongly, if anything, in the last chapter of Acts, than in the earlier times (Acts 27–28). Paul never slowed down even in his old age.”57 However, the evidence examined, especially concerning the men Paul was unable to heal, argues for
BSac 155:618 (Apr 98) p. 315
a decline if not an end, of his ability to perform miracles near the end of his ministry. This decline is noticeable in the record of those epistles Paul wrote in his first Roman imprisonment. By itself, silence in these epistles is not conclusive. But Paul’s own testimony of being unable to help Epaphroditus, having to leave behind Trophimus, and only offering Timothy medical counsel point to his loss of miracle-working ability. Clearly toward the end of his ministry Paul was unable to perform the same miracles he was able to perform earlier.58 “The important thing here is to understand that even those who lived just prior to a.d. 70, before the close of the canon of Scripture, did not see and did not have some of the signs and wonders and miracles that the contemporaries of Christ had experienced.”59
Thus the evidence of Scripture favors the view that miracles declined as their usefulness in God’s purpose ended.
Proponents of the charismatic movement have managed to shift the burden of proof regarding the temporary nature of some gifts to their opponents. They have done this by assuming that all things are to be the same throughout the church age, and they have demanded proof otherwise. . . . Since the facts of church history reveal that the Holy Spirit has not been functioning in all the ways that He did in the book of Acts, then the basic assumption that all things remain the same is false. It is contrary to the facts; therefore the burden of proof properly falls upon those who claim that all gifts are for the entire duration of the church age.60
This study has sought to demonstrate that evidence in the New Testament shows that it is wrong for proponents of faith healing to claim that God must work the same today as He did at the beginning of the church. Even within the New Testament era there are strong indicators that all did not remain the same in the way God was working.
BSac 155:619 (Jul 98) p. 316
1 1. Karen Ball, “An Evaluation by Theologians,” Christian Life, October 1982, 67; Dennis Bennet, “Does God Want to Heal Everybody?” Charisma, September 1983, 59; Peder Borgen, “Miracles of Healing in the New Testament,” Studia Theologica 35 (1981): 101; Herald Bresden with James F. Scheer, Need a Miracle? (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1979), 16; Nick Cavnar, “Miracles: Do They Really Happen?” New Covenant 12 (November 1982): 5; Kenneth Copeland, Walking in the Realm of the Miraculous (Fort Worth: KCP, 1979), 64–65; Robert C. Dalton, Tongues Like as of Fire (Springfield, MO: Gospel, 1945), 119; A. De Groot, The Bible on Miracles, trans. Jos. A. Roessen (De Pere, WI: St. Norbert Abbey, 1966), 13; Christiaan De Wet, “Biblical Basis of Signs and Wonders,” Christian Life, October 1982, 28; Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (Los Angeles: L. I. F. E. Bible College, 1983), 377–84, 388–92; Gordon Fee, “On Being a Trinitarian Christian,” Crux 28 (June 1992): 2-5; Oral Roberts, A Daily Guide to Miracles (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1975), 190–91; Pat Robertson, My Prayer for You (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1977), 57, 64; Ken Sumrall, “Miracles and Healing,” in The Holy Spirit in Today’s Church, ed. Erling Jorstad (Nashville: Abingdon, 1973), 105–8; G. Aiken Taylor, “Miracles—Yes or No?” Presbyterian Journal, August 14, 1974, 7–9; C. Peter Wagner, “Healing without Hassle,” Leadership 6 (Spring 1985): 114-15; idem, “A Vision for Evangelizing the Real America,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 10 (April 1986): 59-64; and idem, “Spiritual Power in Urban Evangelism: Dynamic Lessons from Argentina,” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 27 (April 1991): 130-37.
2 2. Robert Anderson, The Silence of God (New York: Dodd Mead, 1897), 18; John L. Booth, “The Purpose of Miracles” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1982), 202–3; Thomas R. Edgar, Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1983), 260; Anton Fridrichsen, The Problem of Miracle in Primitive Christianity, trans. Roy A. Harrisville and John S. Hanson (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972), 135, 147; Henry W. Frost, Miraculous Healing (New York: Revell, 1931), 127–29; A. C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles (New York: “Our Hope,” n.d.), 146; John B. Graber, “The Temporary Gifts of the Holy Spirit” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1947), 56; Ada R. Habershon, The Study of the Miracles (London: Pickering & Inglis, n.d.), 240, 242; C. Everett Koop, “Faith Healing and the Sovereignty of God,” Tenth (July 1976): 62; Rolland D. McCune, “A Biblical Study of Tongues and Miracles,” Central Bible Quarterly 19 (Fall 1976): 19; John Phillips, “Miracles: Not for Today,” Moody Magazine, July-August 1982, 73; Charles C. Ryrie, “Greater Works Than These,” Good News Broadcaster, June 1983, 33–34; Paul E. Sywulka, “The Contribution of Hebrews 2:3–4 to the Problem of Apostolic Miracles” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1967), 47; and John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit at Work Today (Chicago: Moody, 1973), 43–44.
It is wrong to accuse noncharismatic evangelicals of denying miracles. Men such as Henry Frost, while arguing against modern miracle-working, recognize that God still does perform miraculous healings in answer to prayer, though not always (Miraculous Healing, 6, 117). Ryrie also says God still performs miracles today. Even so, he holds that the miraculous gifts are past, since their purpose of authenticating God’s message and messengers is no longer needed (The Holy Spirit [Chicago: Moody, 1965], 87).
3 3. Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1918; reprint, London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), 5–6.
4 4. The meaning of τὸ τέλειον (“the perfect”) in 1 Corinthians 13:10 is often a part of the argument.
5 5. Erroll Hulse, “Can We Do Miracles Today?” Banner of Truth, July 1981, 26; and Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, 9–10.
6 6. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles, 25–31; A. J. Gordon, The Ministry of Healing (New York: Revell, 1882), 237–42; Charles Hummel, “Healing: Our Double Standard?” Christian Life, November 1982, 33; and John C. Whitcomb, “Does God Want Christians to Perform Miracles Today?” Grace Journal 12 (Fall 1971): 10-12.
7 7. William F. Bryan, “Miraculous Continuity,” Alliance Witness, January 24, 1979, 3–4; Charles E. Carlston, “The Question of Miracles,” Andover Newton Quarterly 12 (November 1971): 99-107; and J. Rodman Williams, The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today (Plainfield, NJ: Logos International, 1980), 59. It is not the intention of this article to address every area of the modern faith healing debate. Rather, it examines only one aspect of the debate, namely, the New Testament evidences concerning the status of “miracle workers” as the Apostolic Age drew to a close.
8 8. C. Peter Wagner, “The Power of God and Your Power,” Christian Life, July 1983, 46. In extreme contrast to them are groups such as the Bay Area Skeptics and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. These have investigated men such as Peter Popoff, David Paul, and W. V. Grant and have documented evidence that they are actively engaging in deception rather than truth when they promote themselves as healers. See the Summer 1986 issue of Free Inquiry for articles on these men. Peter Popoff’s deceptions are especially well documented. It can be argued that though they preach about miracles, in actuality they are nothing more than “con” artists, wolves in sheep’s clothing.
9 9. Roberts, A Daily Guide to Miracles, 139.
10 10. Booth, “The Purpose of Miracles,” 8.
11 11. As Fee notes concerning the use of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 14:2, Paul’s instruction there “lifts Christian ‘inspired speech’ out of the category of ‘ecstasy’ as such and offers it as a radically different thing from the mania of the pagan cults. There is no seizure here, no loss of control; the speaker is neither frenzied nor a babbler. If tongues is not intelligible, it is nonetheless inspired utterance and completely under the control of the speaker. So too with prophecy” (Gordon D. Fee, 1 Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987], 696).
12 12. Sywulka, “The Contribution of Hebrews 2:3–4 to the Problem of Apostolic Miracles,” 15. Again, all evangelicals agree that when God intervenes miraculously, He at times can and does do so through a human agent. This may be through an “insight” (what charismatics might call a “word of knowledge”) or a touch that leads to a sudden restoration of health (“the gift of healing”). However, the question is, Does God give individuals the authority to function as healers today in the same way the apostles and others were healers? Or is what is seen today different as He responds to prayer at times according to His purposes, but without granting a level of authority or ability similar to what He gave in the first years of the church’s life? More importantly, is there evidence that God chose to act differently even in the first century? If things changed with the apostles, then they could change for others also.
13 13. Henry C. Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 300.
14 14. Edgar, Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? 38; Don W. Hillis, Tongues, Healing, and You! (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), 2:28; John F. MacArthur Jr., The Charismatics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 76; and Wayman D. Miller, Modern Divine Healing (Fort Worth: Miller, 1956), 303.
15 15. Taylor, “Miracles—Yes or No?” 9.
16 16. Duffield and Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 406.
17 17. Miller, Modern Divine Healing, 317.
18 18. Certain incidents, though supernatural, were not miracles performed by human agents. These include Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9), visions (7:56; 9:3–16; 10:3–6, 10–16; 16:9; 18:9), Philip’s transportation by the Spirit (8:39–40), angelic activities such as Peter’s rescue (12:7–11) and Herod’s demise (12:20–23), and Paul’s rising after he was stoned and left for dead outside Lystra (14:19–20).
19 19. Edgar, Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? 271.
20 20. James N. Forge, “The Doctrine of Miracles in the Apostolic Church” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1951), 46; Frost, Miraculous Healing, 124; Roy E. Knuteson, “Are You Waiting for a Miracle?” Kindred Spirit, Fall 1979, 22; and Walvoord, The Holy Spirit at Work Today, 41.
21 21. Acts records twelve miracles having a single beneficiary or victim. These include Peter and John healing the lame man (3:1–4), the Lord’s taking the lives of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1–11), Ananias of Damascus healing Saul of his blindness (9:17), Peter healing Aeneas (9:32–35), Peter raising Dorcas from the dead (9:36–42), Agabus prophesying (11:27–28), Paul blinding Elymas (13:4–11), healing a lame man (14:8–10), casting out a demon (16:16–18), raising Eutychus (20:7–12), and ignoring the bite of a venomous snake (28:1–6).
Acts includes ten references to multiple miracles, including tongues, healings, and raising the dead. They include the sign of tongues-speaking on the Day of Pentecost as well as tongues in Cornelius’s home (10:44–48), four references to signs and wonders being performed (2:43, 5:12; 6:8; 8:6–13; 14:3), Paul’s extraordinary miracles in Ephesus (19:11–17), and his multiple healings on the island of Malta, beginning with Publius’ father (28:7–9). The first of these miracles may have occurred in A.D. 30 (on the Day of Pentecost), and the last may have been sometime between October 59 and February 60.
22 22. While miracles are recorded in Paul’s first and third journeys, no mention is made of them in his second journey. This does not necessarily mean he performed no miracles then; it only suggests that Luke chose not to list any miracles at that point in his narrative. Hillis suggests that healings were spasmodic rather than continuous during the apostolic era (Hillis, Tongues, Healing, and You! 9). Still the general tenor of Acts suggests that with at least the apostles there was a fairly regular pattern of miracles accompanying their preaching. Miracles were the “norm” for the apostles, represented first by Peter and then Paul, at least through the time period covered within Acts.
23 23. Robert L. Hamblin, “Miracles in the Book of Acts,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 17 (Fall 1974): 34; T. Norton Sterrett, “New Testament Charismata” (Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1947), 203–4; Sywulka, “The Contribution of Hebrews 2:3–4 to the Problem of Apostolic Miracles,” 12; and Taylor, “Miracles—Yes or No?” 9.
24 24. Peter Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 22; Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970), 761–64; Harold W. Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age” (Th.D. diss., Dallas Theological Seminary, 1965), 356–57; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 276–78.
25 25. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 464; Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 241–42; Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 31; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 216–18.
26 26. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 566, 579; Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 262–63; Charles C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians, Everyman’s Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody, 1959), 12–13; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 192–94, 197–98.
27 27. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 441–43; Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 292; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 203–5, 208–9.
28 28. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 396–97; Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 293; and John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), xvi. Thiessen bases his view on the internal evidence in 2 Corinthians and Romans 15:25–27 regarding the collection for the saints (Introduction to the New Testament, 226). Also Romans reflects the fact that Paul was about to go to Jerusalem. Gaius and Erastus were both identified with Corinth (Rom. 16:23).
29 29. T. K. Abbott, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: Clark, n.d.), xxix-xxx; Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 325–28; J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London: Macmillan, 1913; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1953), 31–46; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 250–51.
30 30. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 623; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 262–63.
31 31. Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 347; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 266.
32 32. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 795–96; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 284–85, 290–91.
33 33. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 623; Hoehner, “Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 348–52; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 269.
34 34. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 716–18; Leon Morris, “Hebrews,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 12:8; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 303–4.
35 35. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, 883–84, 894, 898; and Thiessen, Introduction to the New Testament, 295–96, 321–23.
36 36. Philip E. Hughes, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 485.
37 37. F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), 15; James E. Frame, Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: Clark, 1912), 269; and William Neil, The Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, Moffatt New Testament Commentary (New York: Harper, 1950), 17.
38 38. Forge, “The Doctrine of Miracles in the Apostolic Church,” 53.
39 39. Koenig says 1 John 4:1–6 alludes to “the charismatic phenomena of prophecy and miracles as events in the church’s life” (John Koenig, Charismata: God’s Gifts for God’s People [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978], 96). Yet these verses need not necessarily be understood in that light. Bruce points to the instruction in 1 John 4:2 as the key to discernment, referring back to the Old Testament test of prophets in Deuteronomy 13:1–5 and 18:22, along with Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 12:3 (F. F. Bruce, The Epistles of John, 103–5). Marshall concurs (I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John, New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 203–10).
40 40. Epaphroditus had gone to Paul as more than a courier; he was a representative of the church at Philippi.
41 41. This is seen in Paul’s expectation of release in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 2:24).
42 42. F. W. Beare, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Philippians, 2d ed. (London: Adam & Black, 1969), 98.
43 43. Based on the implied meaning of παραβολευσάμενος (“having gambled with his life”), Lightfoot argues that Epaphroditus’s illness resulted from exhaustion or some unusual exposure (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 124–25). Martin argues for something more than accidental illness, since risking his life “suggests some deliberate action on his part, not the ill-wisdom of setting out at the wrong season of the year for travelers” (Ralph P. Martin, Philippians, New Century Bible Commentary [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], 121). Whether exhaustion or exposure, the risk to Epaphroditus’s life is evident from Paul’s expressed concern, “lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Phil. 2:27). The illness threatened to do more than just incapacitate him for a while.
44 44. If Epaphroditus was well enough to travel from Rome to Philippi, he would certainly have been well enough to serve Paul. Thus his being sent home stemmed from Paul’s desire to remove anxiety on the part of both the apostle and the church in Philippi (Phil. 2:28).
45 45. Duffield and Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 411.
46 46. F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 457; and Robert Rainy, The Epistle to the Philippians, The Expositor’s Bible (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, n.d.), 158. Paul described him as his fellow worker (Rom. 16:21), referred to him as a fellow author of five of his epistles (Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Phile. 1), and used him as a messenger to several churches (Acts 19:22; 1 Cor. 4:17, 16:10; Phil. 2:19; 1 Thess. 3:2, 6). His letters to Timothy also show the closeness of their relationship and the importance of Timothy to Paul.
47 47. John Wilkinson, Health and Healing (Edinburgh: Handsel, 1980), 110.
48 48. W. E. Vine, The Epistles to Timothy and Titus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965), 88.
49 49. Robert G. Gromacki, Stand True to the Charge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 153. According to Hoehner’s chronology Paul was in contact with Timothy on at least two occasions between his arrival in Rome and the writing of his first epistle to Timothy (“Chronology of the Apostolic Age,” 33–40).
50 50. John R. W. Stott, Guard the Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 119.
51 51. Booth, “The Purpose of Miracles,” 203.
52 52. Duffield and Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology, 411.
53 53. David Clark, “Miracles Lead to Revivals,” Christian Life, November 1982, 34; De Wet, “Biblical Basis of Signs and Wonders,” 33; and C. Peter Wagner, “Signs & Wonders: What Difference Do They Make?” Christian Life, November 1982, 78.
54 54. Booth, “The Purpose of Miracles,” 202–3.
55 55. Edgar, Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? 269; Charles C. Ryrie, “Miracles (or What Happened to Your Handkerchief, Paul?),” Moody Monthly, September 1980, 83; and Sywulka, “The Contribution of Hebrews 2:3–4 to the Problem of Apostolic Miracles,” 43, 47.
56 56. The author’s use of the present tense participle συνεπιμαρτυροῦντος, “bearing witness,” identifies God’s testimony through signs, wonders, and gifts of the Holy Spirit as being contemporaneous with the time of the main (aorist) verb, ἐβεβαιώθη, “was confirmed.”
57 57. Dennis Bennett and Rita Bennett, The Holy Spirit and You (Plainfield, NJ: Logos, 1971), 131.
58 58. Booth, “The Purpose of Miracles,” 202–3; Knuteson, “Are You Waiting for a Miracle?” 22; Brian G. Peterson, “The Significance of Miracles within the Transitional Framework of the Book of Acts” (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1976), 30; and Whitcomb, “Does God Want Christians to Perform Miracles Today?” 7.
59 59. Ryrie, “Greater Works Than These,” 33.
60 60. Edgar, Miraculous Gifts: Are They for Today? 267.
Dallas Theological Seminary, Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 155 (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1998; 2002), 155:299-316.
Contemporary Issues in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Spiritual Gifts Today
John F. Walvoord
[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]
One of the important ministries of the Holy Spirit to believers today is the bestowal of spiritual gifts upon Christians at the time of their conversion. While Christians may have natural abilities even before they are saved, spiritual gifts seem to be related to the special purpose of God in calling them and saving them; and in the language of Ephesians 2:10 they are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
Spiritual gifts are divinely given capacities to perform useful functions of God, especially in the area of spiritual service. Just as the human body has members with different capacities, so individual Christians forming the church as the body of Christ have different capacities. These help them contribute to the welfare of the church as a whole, as well as to bear an effective witness to the world. Spiritual gifts are bestowed by the sovereign choice of God and need to be exercised in the power and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Every Christian has at least some spiritual gifts, as according to 1 Corinthians 12:7, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit.” After enumerating a partial list of such gifts, the apostle concludes in 1 Corinthians 12:11, “But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.” The analogy of the human body is then developed as illustrating the various functions of members of the body of Christ.
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 316
Spiritual gifts obviously differ in value, and the list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is given in the order of importance. In 1 Corinthians 13, the importance of the use of spiritual gifts in love is emphasized. Some gifts which were bestowed in the early church seem no longer to be operative today, and this introduces the important consideration of the extent of contemporary spiritual gifts.
Spiritual Gifts Used Today
Practically all serious expositors of the Word of God agree that some spiritual gifts continue throughout the age. These constitute the more important and essential capacities within the church which enable it to function and fulfill its divinely purposed role.
The gift of teaching or expounding the Scriptures is one of the more important gifts and is mentioned in Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28; and Ephesians 4:11. Obviously the teaching of divine revelation to others is a most important function of the members of the body of Christ. Although all believers have the capacity by the Spirit to receive divine revelation as is taught in the Word of God, all do not have the same gift in communicating this truth to others. The teaching gift does not necessarily require superior knowledge, but it does require the capacity for successful communication and application of the truth to the individual. No doubt the gift of teaching natural truth is similar to that of teaching spiritual truth, but the spiritual gift is especially adaptable to teaching the Word of God. Hence a person might be quite gifted in teaching natural truth who would not be effective in teaching the Word of God.
A common gift among Christians is that of ministering one to the other mentioned in Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. This gift varies a great deal depending on the person and the situation, and some are able to minister in one way and some in another. The total work of God depends upon the capacity of the members of the body of Christ to minister in this way.
The gift of administration is related to wise direction of the work of God in the church and is mentioned in Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. Comparatively few Christians are able administrators in the realm of spiritual things, and those lacking this gift should seek direction and guidance of those that do.
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 317
The gift of evangelism mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 refers to unusual capacity to preach the gospel of salvation and to win the lost to Christ. While all Christians should be a channel of information to others and should do the work of an evangelist as Timothy was instructed to do (2 Tim 4:5), nevertheless, some will be more effective in preaching the gospel than others.
The gift of being a pastor or shepherd of the flock also calls for special abilities. In Ephesians 4:11, pastors and teachers are linked, indicating that a true shepherd will also be able to teach or feed his flock, and that a true teacher should have some pastoral abilities. While these qualities may be found in various degrees in different individuals, the link between teaching and shepherding the flock is inevitable for one who wants to be effective in preaching the Word of God.
The gift of exhortation mentioned in Romans 12:8 has the thought of presenting the truth in such a way as to stir to action. Sometimes those who have a gift of exhortation are not necessarily good Bible teachers, and vice versa, and men with these varied gifts are all essential to the work of the church.
Some less important gifts are also mentioned in the Bible, such as the gift of giving or having the special grace of sharing earthly possessions as mentioned in Romans 12:8. The gift of showing mercy relates to the special ability to show empathy and sympathy for those in need and is mentioned in Romans 12:8. The gift of faith or that of special trust in the Lord is included in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10. All of these gifts abide throughout the entire church age and constitute the divinely appointed enablement for the church to fulfill its task.
Spiritual Gifts which Are Temporary
The question as to whether certain spiritual gifts are temporary is one of the debated areas of truth relating to the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church. While most of the church will agree that certain spiritual gifts were discontinued after the apostolic age, others are insisting that gifts given at the beginning of the church age continue in the same way throughout the entire period.
On the surface it is quite clear that the modern church does not function quite like the apostolic church. There is an evident decline in miracles, though God is still able to perform the miraculous. No longer does the testimony of the church depend on its
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 318
capacity to support its oral testimony by phenomenal miraculous works. It is also clear from the history of the Bible that miracles were evident in some periods for particular purposes while almost absent in others. Three notable periods of miracles are mentioned specifically in the Bible, that is, (1) the period of Moses, (2) the period of Elijah and Elisha, and (3) the period of Christ and the apostles. In each of these periods there was a need to authenticate the message that God gave his prophets, but once this need was met the miracles receded.
The problems relating to the question of whether some gifts are temporary have been focused principally on the gift of tongues, the gift of interpreting tongues, and the gift of miracles or hearing. Relatively little controversy has been aroused by considering certain other spiritual gifts temporary.
It seems evident from the Scriptures that the gift of apostleship was limited to the first century church. Apostles were distinguished from prophets and teachers in 1 Corinthians 12:28. During the apostolic period they had unusual authority and were the channels of divine revelation. Often they had the gift of prophecy as well as that of working miracles. Generally speaking, those who were in the inner circle of the apostles were eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Christ, or like Paul had seen the resurrected Christ subsequent to His resurrection. In Protestantism comparatively few claims have been advanced that any exist today with the same apostolic gift as was found in the early church.
The gift of prophecy although claimed by a few, generally speaking, has also been recognized as having only passing validity. In the early church prior to the completion of the New Testament, authoritative revelation was needed from God not only concerning the future where the prophet was a forthteller, but also concerning the future where the prophet was a foreteller. The Scriptures themselves contain illustrations of such prophetic offices and their exercise. The gift is mentioned in Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:10; and 14:1–40 . A number of illustrations are found as in the case of Agabus who predicted a famine (Acts 11:27–28), and who warned Paul of his sufferings (Acts 21:10–11). Among the prophets and teachers at Antioch according to Acts 13:1 were Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Paul. Even women could be prophets as illustrated in the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). Paul clearly had the prophetic gift as manifested in Acts 16:6ff; 18:9–10 ;
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 319
22:17–21 ; 27:23–24 . Among the others who were evidently prophets were Judas and Silas (Acts 15:32). All of these were used as authoritative channels through which God could give divine revelations, sometimes about the contemporary situation and sometimes about the future.
New Testament prophets were like prophets in the Old Testament who spoke for God, warned of judgment and delivered the message from God, whether contemporary or predictive. The Old Testament prophet, however, was more of a national leader, reformer and patriot, and his message usually was to Israel alone. In the New Testament the prophet principally ministered to the church and did not have national characteristics.
In order to be a prophet the individual had to have a message from God in the form of special revelation, had to have guidance regarding its declaration so that it would be given forth accurately, and the message itself had to have the authority of God. The prophetic office, therefore, was different from the teaching office in that the teaching office had no more authority than the Scripture upon which it was based, whereas the prophetic office had its authority in the experience of divine reception and communication of truth.
In the early church the prophetic office was very important and was considered one of the principal gifts discussed somewhat at length in 1 Corinthians 14, and given more prominence than other gifts in the list in 1 Corinthians 12:28. Because no one today has the same authority or the experience of receiving normative truth, it is highly questionable whether anyone has the gift of prophecy today. No one has come forward to add even one verse of normative truth to the Bible. While individuals can have specific guidance and be given insight to the meaning of Scripture, no one is given truth that is not already contained in the Bible itself. Accordingly, it may be concluded that the gift of prophecy has ceased.
The gift of miracles, while a prominent gift in the early church (1 Cor 12:28) and frequently found in the New Testament, does not seem to exist today in the same way that it did in Bible times. Throughout the earthly ministry of Christ, hundreds of miracles were performed in attestation of His divine power and messianic office. After the ascension of Christ into heaven, miraculous works continued in the early church, on many occasions attending the
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 320
preaching of the Word and constituting proof that it was indeed from God. With the completion of the New Testament, the need for such miraculous evidence in support of the preached Word seems to have ceased and the authority and convicting power of the Spirit seem to have replaced these outer manifestations.
In holding that the gift of miracles is temporary, it is not taught that there are no miracles today, as God is still able to do supernaturally anything He wills to do. It is rather that in the purpose of God miracles no longer constitute a mainline evidence for the truth, and individuals do not (as in the apostolic times) have the gift of miracles. While some who claim to have the gift of miracles today have succeeded in convincing many of their supernatural powers, the actual investigation of their operation, which in some cases may be supported by individual miracles here and there, is often found to be quite deceptive, and often the alleged hearings are psychologically instead of supernaturally effected. The thought is not that God cannot perform miracles today, but rather that it is not His purpose to give to individuals the power to perform miracles by the hundreds as was true in apostolic periods.
What is true of the gift of miracles in general seems also to be true of the gift of healing in the early church mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28, 30. In biblical times there were special acts of divine healing, and undoubtedly there were hundreds of instances where the apostles were able to demonstrate the divine power that was within them by restoring health to those who had various physical disabilities.
A survey of the present church, while not without its segment of those who claim divine healing, does not support the contention that it is the same gift as was given in the early church. That God has the power to heal supernaturally today is obvious, and that there may be cases of supernatural healing is not to be denied. Healing as a divine method for communication or authenticating the truth, however, is not the present divine purpose, and those who claim to have the gift of healing have again and again been proved to be spurious in their claims. While Christians should feel free to pray and to seek divine healing from God, it is also true that frequently it is God’s will even for the most godly of people that like Paul they should continue in their afflictions as the means to the end of demonstrating the sufficiency of God. Cases of healing are relatively rare in the modern church and are not intended to be a means of evangelism.
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 321
Probably the most controversial of the gifts of the Spirit in the contemporary doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the gift of tongues. According to Acts 2:1–13, on the day of Pentecost Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the feast were amazed to hear the apostles speak in their language, and they asked the question, “How hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:8–11). This was clearly a supernatural work of God and a testimony to the authority and truth of the apostles’ message concerning Jesus Christ.
Two other instances occurred in Acts—one in Acts 10:46 on the occasion of Peter speaking to the house of Cornelius, and the other in Acts 19. In Acts 11 Peter analyzing their speaking in tongues said, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). In the instance mentioned in Acts 19 when Paul encountered certain disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus, as Paul “laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them, and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). It would seem reasonable to conclude that in all of these three instances in Acts there was a supernatural manifestation of the Spirit in the form of empowering men to speak in languages which were not known to them. It should also be observed, however, that these are the only three instances mentioned in the book of Acts, and that apart from the discussion in 1 Corinthians 12–14 there is no other reference to speaking in tongues in the New Testament. What is the explanation of this gift and can it be exercised today?
Although some writers have distinguished between the instances in Acts which were clearly in known languages and the experience of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 12–14 , there does not seem to be adequate basis for this distinction as the same expressions are used in both places. The term “unknown tongue” as in the Authorized Version in 1 Corinthians 14:2 is, of course, inaccurate as the word “unknown” is not in the original. There is no evidence that the gift of tongues used languages that were unknown to men, although there is reference to the theoretical possibility of speaking in the tongues of angels in
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 322
1 Corinthians 13:1. The instance in Acts 2 was clearly in known languages as the recognition of a language as a known language is essential to any scientific confirmation that genuine speaking in tongues has taken place. If those speaking in tongues had only babbled incoherent sounds, this would lend itself to fraudulent interpretation which could not in any way be checked. Accordingly, it should be assumed that speaking in tongues in the Bible was a genuine gift, that it involved speaking in existing languages unknown to the speaker, and that actual communication took place in such experiences. Hence, genuine speaking in tongues cannot be explained simply by hypnosis or psychological emotionalism, but has to be recognized as a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit.
The purpose of speaking in tongues is clearly defined in the Scriptures. It was intended to be a sign in attestation to the gospel and a proof of the genuineness of the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 14:22). Although words were expressed and the glory of God was revealed, there is no instance in Scripture where a doctrine was revealed through speaking in tongues, and it does not seem to have been a major vehicle for revelation of new truth.
In all three instances in Acts, speaking in tongues served to prove that what was taking place was a genuine work of God. In Acts 2, of course, it was the gift of the Spirit and the beginning of the New Testament church. In Acts 10 it was necessary as an evidence to Peter of the genuineness of the work of salvation in the household of Cornelius and was designed to teach Peter that the gospel was universal in its invitation. The third instance in Acts 19 again served to identify the twelve men mentioned as being actually converted to Christianity instead of being simply followers of John the Baptist. In all of the instances in Acts, tongues were a sign that the work of the Holy Spirit was genuine.
The only passage in the New Testament that deals theologically with the gift of tongues is found in 1 Corinthians 12–14 . In the Corinthian church, plagued with so many doctrinal and spiritual problems, it is rather significant that three chapters of Paul’s epistle to them are devoted to expounding the purpose and meaning of tongues, giving more attention to this problem than to any other which existed in the Corinthian church. On the whole, the chapters are designed to correct and regulate speaking in tongues rather than to exhort them to the exercise of this gift. In the light of the fact that none of the other epistles of New Testament books apart
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 323
from the book of Acts deal at all with this subject, it would seem apparent that speaking in tongues, although it existed in the early church, was not a major factor in its evangelism, in its spiritual life, or in its demonstration of the power of God. It seems to have been prominent only in a church which was notoriously unspiritual.
The gift of tongues is introduced in 1 Corinthians 12 as one of many gifts, and significantly as the least of the gifts enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12:28. It is number eight in the list, and immediately afterward the apostle makes plain in the questions that are asked that spiritual gifts are not possessed by all the church and only a few would necessarily speak in tongues. The entire next chapter of 1 Corinthians is devoted to motivation in speaking in tongues, and he points out that the only proper motivation is love. Accordingly, they were not to exalt the gift and they were not to use it as a basis for spiritual pride. Speaking in tongues without love was an empty and ineffectual exercise.
In chapter 14 the discussion on the significance of the gift of tongues deals with the subject in some detail. At least five major points are made. First, tongues is defined as a gift which is not nearly as important as the other gifts such as the gift of teaching or the gift of prophecy. The problem was that speaking in tongues could not be understood by anybody without the gift of interpretation, and was limited in its capacity to communicate divine revelation. Paul accordingly says that it is better to speak five words with understanding than ten thousand words in a tongue unknown to the hearer (1 Cor 14:19). It is clear from this that Paul exalts the gifts that actually communicate truth rather than the phenomenal gift of tongues which was more of a sign gift.
Second, it is pointed out that speaking in tongues should not be exercised in the assembly unless an interpreter is present. The principal exercise of speaking in tongues was to be in private, but even here Paul indicates that praying with understanding is better than praying in an unknown tongue (1 Cor 14:15).
Third, the importance of speaking in tongues is found in the fact that it is a sign to unbelievers, that is, a demonstration of the supernatural power of God, and that tongues is not primarily intended for the edification of believers (1 Cor 14:21–22). The Corinthian church, however, was told that unless speaking in tongues was conducted with proper order, it would not achieve its purpose of convincing unbelievers but would rather introduce an element of confusion
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 324
(1 Cor 14:23). In the public assembly the exercise of the gift of prophecy, that is, the communication of a revelation from God in a known language, was more important and more effectual in leading to faith and worship than the exercise of the gift of tongues (1 Cor 14:24–25).
Fourth, spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues as well as the exercise of the gift of prophecy should be regulated and should not be allowed to dominate the assembly. The principle should be followed that they should be exercised when it was for the edification of the church. Ordinarily only two or three in any given meeting should be allowed to speak in tongues, and not at all if an interpreter was not present (1 Cor 14:27–28). A blanket prohibition was laid down against women speaking either as a prophet or in tongues in the church assembly (1 Cor 14:34–35). The general rule is applied that all things should be done decently and in order.
Fifth, as a final point he allows that tongues should be exercised and not forbidden, but that its limitations should be recognized and its exercise should be in keeping with its value. From this thorough discussion of the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, as well as the introductory two chapters, it is evident that speaking in tongues was not intended to be a primary source of revelation or a primary experience of power in the church. It was rather collateral and auxiliary as a proof of the truth of God.
If the speaking in tongues was truly exercised, however, in the early church and under proper regulation was beneficial, the question of course still remains as to whether a similar experience can be had by the church today. Because it is almost impossible to prove a universal negative in an experiential matter such as this, especially in the light of many who claimed to have exercised the gift, a practical line of approach is first of all to examine the question as to whether the Scriptures themselves indicate that speaking in tongues was a temporary gift and then, on the basis of the total evidence, to ask the question as to what one should do in the light of the claims of many that they have the gift of speaking in tongues today.
There are at least four arguments leading to the conclusion that tongues are temporary. First, it is clear that there was no exercise of speaking in tongues before Pentecost. Christ and the apostles and John the Baptist did not exercise the gift of speaking in tongues prior to Pentecost. There is no evidence that such a
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 325
spiritual gift was given in the Old Testament period. Accordingly, it follows that if such a gift was given at Pentecost it also could be withdrawn according to the sovereign will of God.
Second, according to the Scriptures, tongues were especially to be a sign to Israel. Isaiah 28:11 prophesied, “For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.” This is quoted in 1 Corinthians 14:21–22 as being fulfilled in the exercise of the speaking in tongues. Such a sign-gift would be fitting and effective at the beginning of a new age, but it would not necessarily be required throughout a long period of time.
Third, although it is debated, it seems evident that some other spiritual gifts were temporary such as the gift of apostleship, the gift of prophecy, the gift of miracles, and the gift of healing. If these gifts so effective in establishing the church were used in the apostolic period but seem to fade thereafter, it would follow that the gift of tongues might have a similar withdrawal from the church.
Fourth, the statement is made in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that tongues would cease. It, of course, can be debated as to whether this means that tongues will cease now or whether they will cease at some future time. The point is, however, in either case that tongues are temporary and not a continued manifestation indefinitely in the purpose of God. These evidences seem to point to the conclusion that speaking in tongues is not a gift which can be expected to be exercised throughout the entire church period.
The natural question, however, is how can we account for the exercise of speaking in tongues today as it is claimed by many individuals. That there is some sort of a phenomenon which is identified with speaking in tongues is a manifest feature of contemporary Christianity. The answer is threefold.
First, much of the phenomena of speaking in tongues today seems by all normal tests to be babbling without known words or language. Such can be completely explained by psychological means and without supernatural inducement.
Second, claims are made in some cases that speaking in tongues is in definite languages recognizable by those who are familiar with these languages. Although such claims are few and far between and hard to demonstrate, if such a claim can be substantiated the question is how can it be explained. This introduces a second possibility for explaining a portion, at least, of the tongues phenomena today.
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 326
It seems clear that Satan is able to counterfeit the gift of tongues and occasional reports are received of those claiming to speak in tongues who actually express the most horrible blasphemies against God.
A third possibility in explaining the contemporary claim for speaking in tongues is, of course, to recognize that in some rather remote instances it is a genuine spiritual gift. Many evangelical Christians do not feel that there has ever been evidence in our century of the exercise of the genuine gift, but if such could be substantiated in a particular case it still would not justify the great majority of instances of speaking in tongues which apparently are not at all what the Scriptures refer to as speaking in tongues.
Much of the difficulty in the modern Pentecostal movement is found in the fact that rarely will it submit the exercise of the speaking in tongues to scientific demonstration. If a given instance of speaking in tongues was put on electronic tape and played separately to several individuals who claimed to have the gift of interpretation and their evaluation or translation would prove to be identical, it would be a scientific demonstration of the genuineness of speaking in tongues such as was true on the day of Pentecost. Unfortunately the Pentecostal movement has not, as far as the present speaker knows, been willing to submit speaking in tongues to such a scientific proof and in fact objects to such a process. Until they do, they continue to raise questions as to the genuineness of the exercise of the gift of tongues in the contemporary situation. Even if proof were advanced of one genuine instance of speaking in tongues today, it would not prove the genuineness of any other instances.
It is also obvious that while speaking in tongues was a genuine gift in the early church, it was peculiarly adapted to abuse. In the Corinthian church it was a source of pride on the part of unspiritual people who exercised the gift but who had little spiritual power or holiness attending its exercise. Unfortunately, the same tendencies sometimes are observed today in those claiming to speak in tongues who make it a source of pride instead of effective testimony for the Lord. It is not true, as often claimed, that speaking in tongues is a proof of either the filling of the Spirit or of spiritual power. There is no basis for pride in the exercise of such a gift.
The danger of the abuse of tongues may be itemized as existing in four areas. First, speaking in tongues is not as sometimes claimed
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 327
today a prominent spiritual gift but is the least of all spiritual gifts and is the least effective in propagating Christianity.
Second, tongues is not a required sign of salvation and by its very nature as a gift would be given only to a few, not to all Christians. The lack of reference outside the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians is proof that it was not an important feature of the experiential Christianity in the first century.
Third, it is quite clear that speaking in tongues is not in itself a proof of spirituality. The church that seems to have exercised it the most was the least spiritual. The history of the tongues movement seems to have given rise to emotionalism and excesses of various sorts which have not been beneficial to the propagation of the gospel. That women were prominent in speaking in tongues in the church in Corinth is indicative of the dangers that exist in Pentecostalism today.
Fourth, it is not true that speaking in tongues is an inseparable evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. While one who spoke in tongues in the early church obviously, if it were a genuine gift, was also baptized into the body of Christ, it is quite clear from 1 Corinthians 12:13 that every Christian is baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ, but only a few speak in tongues. Accordingly, the attempt to make tongues a necessary sign of either spirituality or salvation is an abuse of the doctrine which is expressly prohibited in the Scriptures.
A practical approach to the problem of speaking in tongues is probably not one of attempting to prove to Pentecostals that they do not have the gift, although this may be our own conclusion. It is rather that evangelical Christianity should insist that Pentecostalism should confine the exercise of their supposed gift of tongues to the regulations and limitations imposed by the Scriptures themselves. Obviously, if the Pentecostal movement followed closely the regulations laid down in 1 Corinthians 12–14 , there would be little harm, if any, in exercising the supposed gift, for it would be regulated and kept within bounds and properly evaluated. The improper use and promotion of the gift of tongues, however, is detrimental to the exposition of Bible doctrine as a whole, and confuses the issue of both salvation and spirituality. Accordingly, evangelical Christians are duty bound to speak out on this subject and in Christian love to reaffirm what the Scriptures teach on this theme.
If the gift of tongues is suspect as far as contemporary exercise, it also follows that the gift of interpreting tongues would not be given
BSac 130:520 (Oct 73) p. 328
today. Because of the nature of the gift of interpreting tongues, it is difficult to check on it, but if a bonafide case could be found of one who without knowledge of a foreign language would be able to interpret such a foreign language if exercised in the gift of tongues, and this in turn could be checked by someone who knows the language naturally, there would be scientific evidence for a supernatural gift. There still would be the possible question of whether this was of God or of Satan. However, the Pentecostal movement has seldom come forward with any such proof, and until they do it is reasonable to question whether the gift of interpreting tongues can be exercised today.
The gift of discerning spirits, while not related to speaking in tongues, is another factor that seems to be temporary in the church. This was the gift of discerning whether a person supposedly speaking by the Spirit was speaking of God or of Satan. It is probably true that Christians today who are spiritually minded can discern whether one is Spirit directed or demon possessed, but it does not seem to be bestowed upon the church today as a particular gift.
In approaching these matters which are controversial, Christians should avail themselves of the revelation of Scripture and attempt to find a workable basis for solving these problems. The important truth is that there are spiritual gifts bestowed on the church today. The proper use of these gifts in the power of the Spirit is essential to fulfilling the work of God in and through His church. While the temporary gifts are no longer necessary to the testimony of God, the exercise of the permanent gifts is vitally important and the best demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit.
Dallas Theological Seminary, Bibliotheca Sacra Volume 130 (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1973; 2002), 130:315-328.