Do “Miracles” continue but not the Spiritual “Gift” of Miracles?2
As we seek to answer this question, I direct our attention to Galatians 3:1-5. Here the apostle Paul clearly describes both the initial reception of the Spirit at the moment of salvation (v. 2) and the on-going supply and provision of the Spirit throughout the course of the Christian life (v. 5). The initial gift of the Spirit to the Galatians (and to us as well) is described in v. 2 – “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” The on-going and continuous daily supply of the Spirit throughout the course of the Christian life is described in v. 5 – “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?” Several important observations are in order.
First, God never gives his Spirit at any time because we have put him in our debt by doing good things. Paul is ruling out any form of legalism or works-based approach to our experience of the Spirit. Twice in this paragraph, first in v. 2 and then again in v. 5, Paul rules out “works of the law” as the reason why or the instrument through which we experience God’s Spirit, whether that be at the point of our conversion or at any time during our Christian lives. By what means, then, or on what grounds does God give his Spirit to us? That brings me to the second observation.
Just as clearly as Paul ruled out works as the reason why we receive God’s Spirit he affirms that faith is the cause, instrument, as well as the grounds for our experience of the Spirit. Again, in both v. 2 and in v. 5 it is “by hearing with faith” that God bestows his Spirit. It is when we believe and trust God and his promises that he is pleased to pour out his Spirit, not only for the purpose of saving us and causing the Spirit to indwell us permanently (v. 2) but also for the purpose of working miracles in our midst.
Third, the faith to which God responds by giving us his Spirit comes by “hearing”. Hearing what? Obviously we “hear” the word of God when it is proclaimed or taught or read or communicated and made known in some other fashion. Anytime the truth about God and the gospel of Jesus Christ is heard and believed and trusted and treasured and embraced, God responds by pouring out his Spirit.
Fourth, merely “hearing” isn’t enough. We must have “faith” in what we’ve heard. Simply listening to a sermon or reading the Bible or memorizing Scripture isn’t enough. If you don’t believe what you’ve memorized it serves no good end. God doesn’t reward us with the Spirit simply because we’re smart or well-educated. In both Galatians 3:2 and 5 Paul says that our hearing must be the sort that leads to faith. In other words, we have to “believe in” and “trust” and “treasure” in our hearts what God has taught us or said to us in his Word. That’s what pleases God. That’s what serves as the instrument through which he pours out his Spirit.
Fifth, God is portrayed in v. 5 as “he who supplies the Spirit to you.” This is a present tense participle. God is by his very nature and also by his choice a God who loves to give more of his Spirit to his people when they humble themselves and trust the truth of his Word. This is almost a badge of identification. God is saying, “This is who I am. This is what I do. I continually supply the Spirit to my people.”
Sixth, we must remember that Paul is writing to Christians. These people in Galatia have already trusted Christ for their salvation. Earlier in v. 2 Paul referred to the provision of the Spirit that God made to them when they first trusted Jesus for salvation. But now in v. 5 he is saying that God continues to make provision for believing men and women. I stress this point simply because this is one verse that should forever put to rest the debate about whether God continues after our conversion to supply and provide us with more and more of the Spirit. He doesn’t call this experience in Galatians 3:5 “Spirit baptism” or “Spirit filling”. He doesn’t use the word “anointing”. All that matters is that God is the sort of God whose very nature and purpose is to give more of his Spirit on an on-going, daily basis to his people (see also Phil. 1:19; 1 Thess. 4:8).
Seventh, what specifically is it that God wants us to believe? What is the content or object of our “faith” to which God answers with the extraordinary supply and provision of his Spirit? There are several things Paul likely has in mind. Given the larger context and purpose of the letter to the Galatians, he surely has in mind our faith in the finality of Christ’s death and resurrection and our confidence in that gracious work of God as the only hope for salvation. Believing that we are justified by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone is central to what we must believe. This is obvious when we read on in v. 6 of Galatians 5 where Paul speaks of Abraham “believing” God and being justified as a result.
I also think Paul has in mind our faith and confidence in the character of God. Do you believe God is the sort of God who loves to do wonderful things for his people? Do you believe God is the kind of God who delights to build up and restore and heal? Do you believe that God is of such a character and nature that he has compassion on his people and rejoices to do them good at all times? Believing this about God is crucial to our experience of the supernatural work of the Spirit.
Related to the former point concerns our faith that God is able to do such things. I would simply remind you that Jesus always responded to that sort of faith with healing and deliverance and blessing (see especially Matt. 8:2; 9:28-29). The woman with the issue of blood in Mark 5 was healed when she simply touched Jesus' garment. “Your faith has healed you” (v. 34), said Jesus. In other words, “What I enjoy and respond to is your simple confidence and trust in my ability to make a difference in your life.” Simply put, we must labor to believe and trust and bank our souls on the truth of everything God has said in his Word.” That is what Paul means when he speaks of the “hearing with faith” here in Galatians 5.
Eighth, God is working miracles among and through these Galatian Christians in the absence of any apostolic influence. As far as we know, there were no apostles present in Galatia when Paul wrote this. Thus, contrary to what most cessationists say, miracles were not exclusively or even primarily the work of apostles but were typically found among ordinary, average Christians like those in first century
Ninth, notice the close, intertwined connection between believing the word of God and experiencing the supernatural work of the Spirit. Many today want to create a dividing line between the mind and the ministry of the Spirit. They have bought into a terribly destructive lie which says, “If you want more of the Holy Spirit, put your mind in neutral. Don’t clutter up your life with a lot of thinking and theology. Open up yourself to the Spirit by suspending or even suppressing your mental and intellectual activity. Your mind only gets in the way. Thinking does no good.”
That is not what Paul says. He says that it is only when we “hear” God’s Word and respond in “faith” to what we’ve heard and learned that God supplies the Spirit to work miracles in our midst. Good theology is the soil in which the supernatural takes root and blossoms in miracles.
We now turn our attention to the spiritual gift of miracles. The most literal translation of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is “workings of powers” (energemata dunameon). Although all gifts are “workings” (energemata) or “energizings” by divine power (compare with vv. 6, 11), the word is used here in conjunction with “powers” (dunamis) for a particular gift. The word often translated “miracles” in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is actually the Greek word for powers (dunamis). Thus we again have a double plural, “workings of powers,” which probably points to a certain variety in these operations.
What are these “workings” or “effectings” or “productions” of “powers”? Whereas all the gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are certainly miraculous, the gift of miracles must primarily encompass other supernatural phenomena as well. Simply put, whereas all healings and prophetic words are displays of power, not all displays of power result in healing or prophetic words. So, what kind of displays of supernatural power might Paul have in mind here?
We should probably include those rare occasions when someone was raised from the dead, as seen, for example, in Acts 9:40 where Peter raised Tabitha from the dead. Paul’s prophetic declaration of judgment on Elymas, leaving him temporarily blind (Acts 13:8-11), as well as the instantaneous deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) may well be included in what the apostle had in mind. Although I’ve never heard of anyone else turning water into wine or stilling the waves on a raging sea, such power over nature would clearly be instances of miraculous activity. I’m not inclined to include here deliverance from demonic spirits, given the fact that this is a privilege, power, and authority that Jesus appears to grant to all his followers (Luke 10:17-20). Elijah’s fervent prayer “that it might not rain” (James 5:17), together with his subsequent prayer that the rain should resume, would also be a good candidate for the gift of miracles (in spite of the fact that Elijah lived under the old covenant, before the new covenant age in which spiritual gifts were dispersed among God’s people).
Many draw a distinction between “miraculous” gifts of the Spirit, on the one hand, and “miracles”, on the other. Such folk 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 a 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 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 a wrong-headed and misleading understanding of these gifts. Not even 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 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. 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 the cessationist to describe a miracle 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.
This is what Paul had in mind in Galatians 3:5. 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.
The fact 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., 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? 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 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. 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 debate.