Do "miracles" continue but not the "gift" of miracles?1
I often hear cessationists insist on a distinction between miraculous “gifts” of the Spirit, which they contend have ceased, and “miracles,” which they are happy to acknowledge continue even into the present day. That is to say, they deny that the “gifts” are valid but are open to the possibility that God can perform miracles if he so chooses throughout the course of church history. Let me say two things by way of response to this.
First, this distinction carries weight with people only (or at least to a large degree) because of an entirely fallacious understanding of how miraculous gifts of the Spirit operate. My sense is that cessationists want to deny the validity of “miraculous gifts” but affirm “miracles” because they don’t like (or believe in) the idea of any one person today claiming to operate in healing or prophecy or word of knowledge. They don’t like it because they don’t see it. That is to say, no one always heals at will or prophesies at will or is the recipient of revelatory words at will. Cessationists have a notion of spiritual gifts that if one ever, on any occasion, might heal or prophesy, they should be able always on every occasion to do so. And since everyone (me included) acknowledges that no one ministers in any miraculous gifting at this level of consistency and accuracy, cessationists can only conclude that such gifts ceased.
This, I insist, is an entirely wrong-headed and misleading understanding of these gifts. Not even the Apostle Paul operated in his gifting in this manner. The more overtly supernatural or miraculous gifts, and especially the ones dependent on divine revelation (word of knowledge, word of wisdom, prophecy, discerning of spirits) are not permanent and residential, as if they are always present in a person and can be used at the will of the believer. They are occasional and circumstantial. They are given by the sovereign good will of God according to his timing and purpose. They can only be exercised when he wills, not when we will.
So, the fact that no one who ever healed can always heal, or the fact that no one who ever prophesied can always prophesy, or the fact that no one who ever worked a miracle can always work a miracle, proves absolutely nothing about the cessation or perpetuity of such gifts. There is no need for a cessationist to deny the validity of miraculous gifts while affirming the validity of the miraculous since all instances of miracles, whether healing or revelatory words or the like, are subject to the sovereign will and providential oversight of God.
My first point, then, is this. Cessationists are drawing the wrong conclusion from the relative absence or alleged infrequency today (or in church history at large) of miraculous gifts. They were never under the control of the individual and were never designed by God to operate whenever we will or whenever we pray. Their relative absence or alleged infrequency is due to the intrinsic nature of the miraculous itself, not to any supposed purpose of God concerning the on-going validity or, conversely, cessation of the gifts Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.
If cessationists would only acknowledge the distinction between gifts that are residential and permanent (such as teaching or mercy or evangelism or leadership or exhortation) and those that are occasional and circumstantial (such as healing, word of knowledge, wisdom, miracles, faith, discerning of spirits), much of this debate would, I believe, simply go away.
Second, cessationists must be able to differentiate between what Paul calls the “gift of miracles” (literally, the “working of powers”) in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and the occurrence of a “miracle” which they seem happy to acknowledge can still occur in our day (and throughout church history). But what is the difference? You can’t respond or answer by saying, “The difference is between a gifted ‘person’ who always operates at will in this sort of supernatural power and the isolated occurrence of a ‘miracle’ that comes merely by the sovereign hand of God.” Why doesn’t this response work? There are two reasons.
The first reason is what I said above: there never was and never will be, as far as I can tell from Scripture, any person (aside from Jesus) who “always operates at will in this sort of supernatural power.”
The second reason concerns how the miracles that even cessationists admit do occur, actually occur. Here’s what I mean. Most cessationists would acknowledge that on occasion God heals the sick or perhaps performs a so-called “nature” miracle. But how does God do it? Or better still, through what means or instrumentality does he do it? Is it not in most instances through or in response to the prayers of God’s people? Is it not after and because the Elders have anointed a person with oil and prayed the prayer of faith (James 5)? Is it not typically, by some manner or other, through a human being who is seeking God, looking to God, and praying to God for precisely such a supernatural intervention?
I’m not suggesting that God never performs a miracle by fiat or in some unmediated way. Of course he does. But when it comes to healing or revelatory experiences in particular, it is most often through the impartation to a particular person or persons of a “gift” for a healing or a word of revelatory insight or some other expression of power.
I would simply ask all cessationists who say they believe in miracles (or that God can surely perform them beyond the time of the NT) to describe for me one that they’ve seen or heard of that occurred independently of Christians who were praying and seeking God for his supernatural power or were in some other way directly involved in the facilitation of that miracle. For every example they might cite, I’ve got ten where God did it through a human instrumentality. That, I believe, is what the “gift of miracles” (1 Cor. 12:10) is all about. It is about God, at his time and according to his purpose, imparting a gift or enablement to a particular person on a particular occasion to accomplish a particular purpose.
Perhaps the best illustration of what I’m getting at is found in Galatians 3:5. There Paul asks, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” Note two things in this text that apply to our discussion. First, it appears that God sovereignly, according to his will and timing, was performing miracles among the Galatians. Some might think that this is what even cessationists concede can and on occasion happens throughout the course of church history. No special spiritual “gift” is required for God to do this.
But I’m persuaded that this is, in fact, yet another reference to the “gift” of miracles. Observe what Paul says concerning how or by what means such miracles are performed: “by hearing with faith”! The Galatians (and we, too, I believe) hear the Word of God, the Spirit whom God gives to us awakens belief in its truths and deepens faith in who God is and what he can do, to which God then responds by imparting or bestowing a “gift” to work a miracle or display his supernatural presence.
Second, that Paul has in view here precisely the same phenomenon (the “gift of miracles”) that he describes in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and again in 12:28-29 is evident from the language he employs. In Galatians 3:5, the phrase “works miracles” is a translation of the Greek energon dunameis, which is virtually the same terminology Paul uses in 1 Cor. 12:10 to describe the spiritual “gift” of miracles (energemata dunameon; in 12:28-29, where his description of the gifts is abbreviated, he uses dunameis alone). Does God “work miracles” among us, or do gifted individuals “work miracles” among us? Yes! God “works miracles” among us by awakening faith in his Word, in conjunction with or as a result of which he imparts a gracious divine enabling (i.e., a charisma, a gift) so that the believer can “work miracles” among us.
So, if cessationists are willing to recognize that this is the nature of the “gift of miracles” as well as the nature of gifts of healings and revelatory experiences, etc., then what’s the point or value in denying that such “gifts” continue in the life of the church all the while they concede that miracles still occur?
The bottom line is that I think cessationists continue to draw this distinction because they don’t want to be forced into a theological corner where they are found doubting or, worse still, denying that the omnipotent God of the universe “can” do something. They want to be able to justify praying for a miracle when someone is sick, and to be able to account for other similar supernatural occurrences without conceding this debate to the continuationist.
Thus, I simply don’t see this as a helpful or biblical distinction. I believe that God continues to bestow the “gift of miracles” much in the same way he most likely did in the early church: rarely, occasionally, and most often (but not always) through a particular Christian person who was seeking God, believing God, and praying for a particular supernatural breakthrough. I believe God continues to bestow “gifts of healings” much in the same way he most likely did in the early church: rarely, occasionally, etc., etc.
And so, this oft-heard insistence by cessationists that miracles can certainly occur but not through the “gift of miracles” or that healings can occur but not through the “gifts of healings,” is a distinction without a difference that serves only to cloud and confuse people in this discussion.