Monday, November 5, 2012


What was unique to the Apostolic Era?
What is Prescriptive for the Church Today?
Rev. John S. Erickson
Christ Lutheran Church
Chetek, Wisconsin


Dealing with any aspect of the Holy Spirit and his gifts in the church is risky business. I have found this to be the case on numerous occasions and the experience is not unique to me. John F. MacArthur, Jr. who has critiqued the modern charismatic movement comments, "A powerful intimidation factor works against those who want to deal with the issues biblically... Charismatic extremists can promote almost any idea they fancy on Christian television and radio, but those who attempt to examine such teaching critically, in light of Scripture, are muzzled... Those who do speak out inevitably are branded divisive, strident, or unloving." [MacArthur, Jr., John F., Charismatic Chaos , Grand Rapids: Zonder- van, 1992: p. 13,14.]
But is it unkind to critique church doctrine in light of the Scriptures? Is it 'divisive' or 'factious' to point out disagreement one might have with the teaching of another? Or, could it be that we actually have a moral imperative to carefully critique what is taught and preached in the name of Jesus and to act to 'lay bare' what is false and misleading? I believe the latter is the case. It is interesting to read the epistles of Paul in this light. It was not uncommon for Paul to "rebuke people by name in epistles meant to be read publicly (Phil. 4:2-3; I Tim. 1:20; 2 Tim. 2:17). John, the apostle of love, wrote a scorching condemnation of Diotrephes, a church leader who was ignoring the apostles' teaching (3 John 9-10)[Ibid., p. 15.]. As his second epistle shows, John's view of real love was inextricably bound with truth. In fact, love apart from truth is nothing more than hypocritical sentimentality. That sentimentality is running rampant in [the church] today."
There will be those who may disagree with some of what follows in this paper. There may be some made upset by it. But I trust you will look with me into an issue which has really become a watershed issue in the church today. I do not claim to have all the answers. I am still learning. On the other hand, I believe there is much in the Word and much said by good biblical scholarship that would call into serious question much that is being taught and practiced today in the area of the Holy Spirit and his gifts in name of Biblical Christianity. As a number of us look for fellowship with other Lutherans, this is one area where I believe history has proved there is a need for mutual understanding.


Before proceeding, let's be clear on the issue before us. All to often when raising a question such as that of our concern, one will be accused of not believing in the Holy Spirit, or of denying the power of the Holy Spirit, or at least of severely limiting the work of the Holy Spirit. I want to be clear, that I, with conviction, confess the Three Ecumenical Creeds, which in turn confess belief in the person of the Holy Spirit as well as in his work. I also believe that the Holy Spirit is active in our day, gifting his church, and that means the gifting of the individual believers who make up his church (i.e., "Now to EACH ONE the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good." I Cor. 12:7).
The issue I am lifting up, and it is no small issue, is the claim by many in the charismatic camp that there is no difference between the gifting of the Holy Spirit among believers today and the gifting of the apostles following the birth of the church at Pentecost. There are, for example, many who.say there is "no compelling reason why prophetic gifts might not be released today as well as in New Testament times. In fact, '...the person who is sacramentally united with Jesus ought prayerfully to expect Jesus to manifest in his sheep any of the boundless and surprising range of gifts to be used in the worship of God and the ministry to Christ's Body (I Cor. 12:1-13,27-31;14:1-5), and in the giving of a powerful witness to the world (Acts 1:4-5,8).' Charismatic gifts are not merely options, 'they are necessary manifestations simply because of God's command and promise, and active openness to them is our proper response.'" [Lindberg, Carter, The Third Reformation? Charismatic Movements and the Lutheran Tradition, Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, p.232.]
John Wimber is the leader and father figure for the newest major offshoot of the charismatic movement, known as "The third Wave of the Holy Spirit," also called the Signs and Wonders movement... The term Third Wave was coined by C. Peter Wagner, professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission, author of several books on church growth - and leading proponent of Third Wave methodology. According to Wagner, 'The first wave was the Pentecostal movement, the second the charismatic movement, and now the third wave is joining them.'" (MacArthur, p. 128).
Especially as we move into the 'third Wave' movement, we find persons who are "persuaded that miracles, visions, tongues, prophecies, and healings are essential supplements to the gospel. They view Christianity without these things as impotent, adulterated by the Western, materialistic mindset" [MacArthur, p. 131, quoting Wimber, Power Evantelism, p. 39-41]. Some in the Third Wave even go so far as to say that "unbelievers must experience the miraculous to be brought to full faith. Merely preaching the gospel message, they believe, will never reach the world for Christ. Most people will not believe without seeing miracles, they say, and those who do will be inadequately converted and therefore stunted in their spiritual growth."
It seems to me that much of the confusion we find today over the issue of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit has to do with one's understanding of the biblical use of the word miracles. In a real sense, Scripture itself adds to the confusion. Many of the divisions we find helpful in our thinking are not treated that way in Holy Scripture. We see an example of this in the way we think and speak of the 'sacred' as over against the 'secular.' Especially in Hebrew thought such distinction is for the most part unknown. All of life is sacred. All that has to do with life is sacred. In the same way Scripture isn't so concerned, as we are, in making a distinction between the constant provision of God and his particular acts. In other words, in the Bible we find the whole issue of miracles set in the context of a world view that sees the entire creation as being dependent on the sustaining activity of God and being subject to his will. " him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him" (Colossians 1:16,17). On the other hand, scripture at times does make an issue of the uniqueness of certain miraculous acts or periods of miraculous activity. "Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt - to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel" (Deuteronomy 34:10-12). And with the working of miracles by Jesus and later by his disciples, there is frequent mention made of how the people were filled with "wonder and amazement" at what they witnessed. There is no question but that God can act in ways that are "immeasurably beyond all that we might ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20). He can act either directly or through the use of human instruments, and, as he acted in the past, he still can and at times does, act today.
So our concern is not whether or not he can act, it is rather, are his miraculous acts normative for today? Or, to put it a little differently, does God, through the Holy Spirit, gift persons in his church, with the ability to perform 'signs and wonders' as he did his apostles in the first century? And, is this normative for the church today? And, are 'signs and wonders' things which we, as believers, should expect and seek until they become our possession?
This is where, I believe, we get to the core of the issue. It centers in one's definition of miracle. There are numerous ways one can understand the word 'miracle' and the definition one chooses will have much to do with his or her position on the larger question of the place of 'signs and wonders' in the church and in the lives of individual believers today.
Some would define a miracle as "an extremely remarkable achievement or event, e.g. an unexpected piece of luck." 'It was a miracle I passed the test.' [The New Lexicon Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, New York: Lexicon Publications Inc., 1989]. 'It was a miracle I made it to work on time.' On the other end of the spectrum, miracle might be defined as, "a supernatural event regarded as due to divine action, e.g. one of the acts worked by Christ which revealed his divinity" [Ibid.]. In this understanding, the feeding of the 5000, Christ's stilling of the storm, and his raising of Lazarus to life, among many other events, were miracles.
It is obvious there is quite a difference between these two understandings of the word. But there is also a whole range of understandings that fall between these two. For example, "It was a miracle. The doctors got it all." "It was a miracle, she got a knee replacement and can now walk." "It was a miracle, the other houses were destroyed by a tornado, but their house stood." And it is comments like this that raise the question. Are these really miracles in the biblical sense of the word?
There are a number of important words used in the Bible to designate miracles; thauma, 'wonder'; pele 'and therus, 'portent'; gevhurah and dunamis, 'display of power'; 'oth and semeion, and 'sign.'
"The usage of 'miracle' in Christian theology includes, but goes beyond, the meanings of the ancient words. A miracle is (1) an extraordinary event, inexplicable in terms of ordinary natural forces; (2) an event which causes the observers to postulate a super-human personal cause; (3) an event which constitutes evidence (a 'sign') of implications much wider than the event itself" [The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1969].
John MacArthur, Jr. says it well, "A miracle is an extraordinary event wrought by God through human agency, an event that cannot be explained by natural forces. Miracles always are designated to authenticate the human instrument God has chosen to declare a specific revelation to those who witness the miracle" [MacArthur,p. 106.]
"A miracle is an event in nature, so extraordinary in itself and so coinciding with the prophecy or command of a religious teacher or leader, as fully to warrant the conviction. on the part of those who witness it, that God has wrought it with the design of certifying that this teacher or leader has been commissioned by Him" [Strong, Augustus H., Systematic Theology Philadelphia: Judson, 1907, p. 118].
Lenski would agree with the understanding of miracle as being something unique. In his commentary on Mark 16:17 Lenski writes, "Jesus calls these miracles semeion, 'signs,' and uses the ethical term for them, which is far higher than 'wonders' or 'power works.' For a sign points beyond itself to something that is far higher, of which it is a specific indication"[Lenski, R. C. H., The Interpretation of St. Mark's Gospel, Columbus, Ohio: Wartberg Press, 1946, p. 768].
Former Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, is most helpful in helping to make all this practical. He would agree with the afore mentioned understanding of 'miracle' and he applies such to the subject of 'faith healing' or the gift of 'divine healing.' Dr. Koop (who calls himself a evangelical Christian of the Reformed tradition, is a past president of Evangelical Ministries and a long time member and elder of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia) is thoroughly convinced that it is God who brings about healing in the human body. Surgeons are able to do many things. Koop comments on his own skill and describes how he, over a period of time, perfected a procedure resulting in 'invisible' scars [Horton, Michael, ed., The Agony of Deceit; C. Everett Koop, M.D., "Faith-Healing and the Sovereignty of God", Chicago: Moody Press, 1990, p. 169-170].
I was the one who put the edges together, but it was God who coagulated the serum. It was God who sent the fiberblasts out across the skin edges. It was God who had the fiberblasts make collagen, and there were probably about fifty other complicated processes involved about which you and I will never know. But did God come down and instruct the fiberblasts to behave that way? [Ibid].
In a sense, He did. But He did it through His natural laws, just the way He makes grass grow, the rain fall, the earth quake. The question, then, is not, Does God heal? Of course He heals! ...[But] is it normally according to natural laws or [is it due to] an interruption of those laws (i.e., a miracle)?[Ibid].
Koop in speaking of miracles and specifically of the miracle of healing, makes the point, and a significant point (in my view), that "It is God who does the healing, but he does not regularly do so in a miraculous way. He heals according to His own natural laws" [Ibid. p. 175]. This ties in well with the understanding that Scripture generally does not differentiate between what we think of as the natural and miraculous. But does Koop believe in the possibility that God may at times circumvent or interrupt His natural laws? And not only that God himself may do so, but that he may in fact give the 'gift to do so' to some individual? The answer to these questions is, yes and yes! And as an example he suggests a look at Acts 3:6. Here was an individual who had never attended medical school who encountered a man who had never walked. Looking at that disabled man, this 'non-credentialed physician' said, "Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.
The 'healer', Peter, took the disabled by the hand, lifted him up and IMMEDIATELY the feet and ankle bones of the disabled were given strength. The one who had never walked, stood, he leaped and went into the temple praising God. As Dr. Koop says, "That was a miracle!" [Ibid. p. 172].
It is worth taking note of some of the characteristics of this miraculous healing. It is also worth noting that this healing closely parallels the many healings of Jesus as well as of Paul and of the other apostles. All these healings were IMMEDIATE, COMPLETE, RADICAL, AND DEMONSTRABLE to those who formerly knew the disabled.
I would agree with the conclusion of Dr. Koop, that "Miracles... were the credentials of Christ and the apostles, to whom He gave the gift of healing. And one can assume, I think, that the cessation of these gifts came at the end of the apostolic age.. Tertullian, one of the great early church Fathers, studied this issue carefully and analyzed the miracles that had taken place among the apostles. He came to the conclusion that the phenomena that we call 'miracles' today, the sort of astounding signs carried out by the apostles, came to an end about two hundred years after the death of Christ" [Ibid. p. 175].
This then is the issue. Are the miracles born witness to in the New Testament, are such 'signs and wonders,' operative today? As has been pointed out already, many in the charismatic camp would say yes. Among those making such claims is Dr. Theodore Jungkuntz and his associates who hold, among other things that "All the charismatic gifts of the holy Spirit - those referred to in the New Testament in the technical Pauline sense as charismata (Rom. 12:6; I Cor. 12:4,31) or pneumatika (1 Cor. 12:1; 14:1) - are still promised and available to believers and are operative in parts of the Christian Church today. This specifically includes the Spirit's extraordinary gifts such as speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, gifts of healing, and the working of miracles, which were granted certain Christians in the days of the apostles..." [Charismatic Renewal in the Lutheran Church: "Renewal in Missouri"; Walter A. Maier - Concordia Theological Quarterly. January-April 1989. p.21.]
In contrast to this view, there are many who do not understand such to be the case. MacArthur speaks for a number of those who have studied the issue when he states, "I am convinced that the miracles, signs, and wonders being claimed today in the charismatic movement have nothing in common with apostolic miracles. And I am persuaded by both Scripture and history that nothing like the New Testament gift of miracles is operating today. The Holy Spirit has not given any modern-day Christians miraculous gifts comparable to those he gave the apostles."[MaacArthur,p. 109.]
MacArthur, Koch, and other of the authors I read, are all aware of the many claims made by charismatics. Oral Roberts, for example, was quoted in TIME, "I can't tell you about [all] the dead people I've raised. I've had to stop a sermon, go back and raise a dead person." And Peter Wagner of Fuller Seminary believes such things as raising the dead are taking place, "I now believe that dead people are literally being raised in the world today. As soon as I say that, some ask if I believe it is 'normative.' I doubt if it would be normative in any local situation, but it probably is normative in terms of the universal body of Christ. Even though it is an extremely uncommon, I would not be surprised if it were happening several times a year." John Wimber, mentioned earlier in this paper, "lists raising the dead as one of the basic elements of the healing ministry." [Ibid. p. 111-112 - referring to: TIME, July 13, 1987. p. 52., and to: Wagner, C. Peter , The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, Ann Arbor: Vine, 1988. 112. and to: John Wimber, Power Healing, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1987, p. 38,62.]
But if such miraculous things are taking place today is it not significant that not one instance of the raising of the dead can be verified? Oral Roberts for one, was challenged to produce names and addresses of those he had raised to life. He balked at the request. Later Roberts did share one incident which he said occurred some 20 years earlier when he claimed to have raised a child to life in front of ten thousand witnesses. "During a healing service, he recalled, a mother in the audience jumped up and shouted, "My baby's dead." Roberts said he prayed over the child and "it jerked, it jerked in my hand." ...Roberts conceded that neither that child nor others he said he had brought to life had been pronounced clinically dead. "I understand," he hedged, "there's a difference in a person dying and not breathing and [a person] being clinically dead." [Ibid. referring to: Norman Geisler, Signs and Wonders, Wheaton ILL: Tyndale, 1988, p. 119.]
One hardly need compare Robert's claim to that of the record of Jesus' raising Lazarus to life; Lazarus who had been in the grave four days. And further, If such 'raising to life' is taking place in the world today, and if, as Wagner believes, this is happening several times a year, then it should not be asking to much that at least one or two of these 'miracles' would be verified? [Ibid. referring to: Wood-ward and Gibney "Saving Souls" p.52.]
In the New Testament when such miracles were performed, they were verified. And further, as MacAurther points out, "Unlike the miracles in the New Testament, which were usually done with crowds of unbelievers watching, modern miracles typically happen either privately or in religious meetings. The types of miracles claimed, too, are nothing like New Testament miracles. Jesus and the apostles instantly and completely healed people born blind, a paralytic, a man with a withered arm - all obvious, indisputable miracles. Even Jesus' enemies did not challenge the reality of his miracles! Moreover, New Testament miracles were immediate, thorough and permanent. Our Lord and his disciples never did a miracle slowly or incompletely." In contrast to this, the miracles claimed to day are generally "partial, gradual. or temporary. The only "instant" miracles are healings that seem to involve forms of psychosomatic diseases..." Ibid. (MacAurther suggests that for a thorough discussion of this issue, including a look at all the biblical passages that are commonly used to refute this claim, one should investigate Geisler's volume, "Are Miracles Always Successful, Immediate, and Permanent?" appendix 2, p. 149-155.])
I had an experience in a former parish that bears this out. There I had to deal with several self-proclaimed charismatic healers after I found they had been working with casting out a demon in a young girl in the our youth group. I was soundly denounced by these folks for having interfered. However, I am still convinced I did the right thing. For one thing there were the legal ramifications of a so called exorcism going on with an underage girl with out knowledge of her parents. Further, when looking into the incident with a couple of church board members, we found that the one who claimed the 'spirit of discernment' which diagnosed the demon in this girl, claimed she had just received that gift in the past several days. It was also found that she had only a week or two earlier received the gift of tongues after practicing 'speaking in tongues' over a period of days while she stood washing dishes in her kitchen. I was also was told by these 'healers' that I was to see that this girl was brought back to them for further prayer and follow-up, because, although this demon had been dealt with, it would take time for this girl to be whole once again.
Following this 'healing' this girl was hospitalized for some time for depression and suicide attempts. And rather than admitting that their 'deliverance' had not been a deliverance, these 'healers' turned to put the blame on me and various of the church council members because we were hindering the work of the Holy Spirit.
Having said all this, I want to make clear that I do not in any way question the power of God to heal or to question that God does in fact heal today as surely as he did in the first century church. I believe as MacAurther comments, "...God is always operating on a supernatural level. He intervenes supernaturally in nature and in human affairs even today. I believe God can heal people apart from natural or medical remedies. I believe all things are possible with God (Matt. 19:26). His power has not diminished in the least since the days of the early church. Certainly salvation is always a supernatural act of God!" [Ibid. p.109]
In the midst of this mess in my former parish, I visited with an older member of the congregation. He was in his mid eighties at the time... and shared with me how some years earlier there was a situation where there seemed to be evidence of demon possession. He shared how the pastor and deacons met in fervent prayer regarding that individual. I don't remember if the affected individual was even present for all these prayer sessions, and yet... after a time there seemed to be little question but that deliverance took place. This fellow however had no time for the theatrics of these 'healers.'
Can God heal? Yes! Can he do so in extraordinary ways? Yes! Is the extraordinary normative today? No! "I do not believe... God uses men and women as human agents to work miracles in the same way he used Moses, Elijah, or Jesus. I am convinced that the miracles, signs, and wonders being claimed today in the charismatic movement have nothing in common with apostolic miracles. And I am persuaded by both Scripture and history that nothing like the New Testament gift of miracles.. is operating today. The Holy Spirit has not given any modern-day Christians miraculous gifts comparable to those he gave the apostles." [Ibid.]
Here, I believe, is the crux of the matter, "gifts comparable to those he gave the apostles." If, in fact, the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to believers today are not comparable in their power and effect and if they are not normative now, as they were then, then let us not claim them to be, or claim they are 'essential' or 'necessary supplements' to our faith.
There are a number of things one might consider in answering this question. For one thing, we should, in this discussion, be considering only miracles performed by 'true' agents and therefore, miracles that are 'of God.' It is interesting to realize that there is considerable in Scripture concerning miracles that were, or will be, performed by 'evil agents.' "In some mysterious way the Devil and those under his sway have had, and are to have, power to counterfeit the prerogative of deity, namely, the display of miraculous power. The Bible speaks of miracles performed through the power of the Devil (II Thessalonians 2:9; Revelation 16:14); by false christs and false prophets (Matthew 24:24; Revelation 13:13). These miracle-workers are exemplified by the Egyptian magicians (Exodus 7:11,22; 8:7), by the Witch of Endor (I Samuel 28:7-14), by Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-11). Counterfeit miracles were designed to support false religions (Deuteronomy 13:1-3); are a mark of apostacy (II Thessalonians 2:10-12); Revelation 13:14; 19:20); and are not to be countenanced (Deuteronomy 13:3)." [Lockyer, Herbert, All the Miracles of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan books, 1961. p. 17. ]
It should also be pointed out that one of the 'signs and wonders' that seems today to be the'definitive' gift of the charismatic [i.e., tongues] is not a phenomena limited to the Christian world. Karl Koch mentions that in a visit to South Africa he was told that "many possessed Bantu natives spoke in tongues. These Bantus cannot be associated at all with Christianity, although there are obviously some Christians among them." [Koch. p. 32.]
In East Asia and Japan, Koch heard of "Buddhist and Shintoist priests who speak in strange languages and tongues while in trance... in the Philippines I actually heard a possessed man speak in foreign languages which he himself had never learned.. "
Koch also points out that one need not go to foreign countries to witness 'tongues.' "Spiritistic mediums all over the world often speak in foreign languages when in a trance." And as he points out, even from his brief investigation of religions and spiritism throughout the world, "it becomes clear that speaking in tongues is not always a gift of the Holy Spirit. After all, no heathen witch-doctor and no spiritistic medium can have a gift of the Holy Spirit. [Rather] all over the world we find that speaking in tongues is connected with excitable spiritual conditions. It does not matter whether this state of excitement has been stirred up by dancing and singing, or through alcohol, drugs or suggestion." [Ibid. p.33.]
Likewise the gift of healing "has been claimed through the centuries by Christians and pagans alike... Oriental psychic healers say they can do 'bloodless surgery.' They wave their hands over affected organs and say incantations. Supposedly people are cured. Witch doctors and shamans even claim to raise the dead. Occultists use black magic to do lying wonders in the healing arts... Raphael Gasson, a former spiritualist medium who was converted to Christ, said, 'There are many, many Spiritualists today who are endowed with this remarkable gift of power by Satan, and I myself, having been used in this way, can testify to having witnessed miraculous healings taking place at healing meetings in spiritualism." [[MacArthur p. 203-204. For further information see see: Raphael Gasson, The Challenging Counterfeit, Plainfield, N.J.: Logos, 1968.]
We might also look at the miracle worker as a person, and compare what we see in the New Testament to what we see today. In brief, we see in Jesus, one "to whom all power was given" (Matthew 10:1; 28:18; John 10:17, 18; 11:25, etc). His, was also a power that was foretold (Isaiah 9:6; 35:5,6; 42:7). But we notice he never performed miracles simply to display his power, or to gain the attention of people, or for his own benefit. Always, he used his 'gift' to help those in need.
When it comes to the miracles performed by the apostles and/or other human agents we see first of all, that they were not able to act directly as did Christ. They had no 'reservoir of deity.' They were only able to act as power was given to them by God. "...Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Peter, Stephen, Philip, Paul, Barnabas, and other apostles and disciples (Luke 10:9,17; Acts 2:23; 5:12) were only channels through whom miraculous power flowed." [Lockyer. p. 17.]. But here too, as was the case with Christ, we find in these 'miracle workers' a concern that their 'miracle working' does not point to themselves, but to God, and to the power of God (Acts 3:12-13; 14:14ff). Today however, it often seems that when a pastor or evangelist has some 'success' in praying for the sick they are often labeled as having the 'gift of healing,' and that person becomes a specialist in healing. "The unfortunate outcome of such a practice is that man rather than Christ receives glory when results do occur." [Bailey, Keith M., Divine Healing, The Children's Bread, Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1977., p. 143-144.]. And while it is true that in the first century church 'gifts of healing' were associated with certain members in the church (I Cor. 12.30), it is also the case that these persons were not known as 'divine healers.' Rather the exercise of those gifts implied "the rendering of service among believers." Today it is too often the case that it is the healer and/or his or her 'ministry' that is the beneficiary of these 'gifts' (It is to 'get a name' and/or 'reputation as being truly spiritual... and in some cases, rich!). [Ibid.]
But let us look at the miracles themselves as we find them pictured for us in the New Testament. What can we say about them, as compared to the 'claimed' miracles today?
On the one hand, many charismatics (and this includes Dr. Jungkuntz and his associates), on the basis of their interpretation of certain Bible passages hold to the following beliefs:
1. All the charismatic gifts of the Holy spirit - those referred to in the New Testament in the technical Pauline sense as charismata (Rom. 12:6; I Cor. 12:4,31) or pneumatika (1 Cor. 12:1; 14:1) - are still promised and available to believers and are operative in parts of the Christian Church today. This specifically includes the Spirit's extraordinary gifts such as speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, gifts of healing, and the working of miracles, which were granted certain Christians in the days of the apostles...
2. The extraordinary gifts in particular should be sought by all of God's people through prayer.
3. These gifts are to be especially valued, because the believer's possession and use of them represent the fulfillment of the promises of God's Word (regarding the bestowal of these gifts) on which the believer's faith has relied, bring him a personal experience of God's gracious presence, and all of this, in turn, confirms his faith.
4. With faith confirmed in this way, he is enabled to triumph increasingly over sin and empowered to serve God and his brethren in renewed dedication. Through the believer's own spiritual growth and that fostered in his brethren, the needed renewal in the church occurs. The use of the extraordinary gifts is both an expression of the believer's sanctification and that which is particularly promotive of his sanctification. [Maier, Charismatic Renewal in the Lutheran Church: "Renewal in Missouri."]
But do we find evidence that such miracles (see #1 above) are still "available" and "operative" today? A quick trip through the book of Acts is most informative in this regard. There is more, but look first at Peter and his dealing with Ananias and Sapphira (5); and to his healing of the paralytic (9:33); and to his bringing Dorcus to life (9); or his escape from prison (12)... these were miraculous happenings, and note that the healings were healings. The paralytic "immediately got up," the formerly dead Dorcus "sat up." One might also consider Philip's trip to Azotus following his meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch. This was certainly unparalleled missionary travel (8:26ff).
Look also at Paul: at his blinding of Elymis (13:11),at his healing of the crippled man (14:10; at his and Silas' prison release (16:25ff); at the reference to miracles which God worked through him (19:11); at his raising to life of Eutychus (20:7ff); at the insights given him as to what lay ahead when he and his companions would be shipwrecked as well as his being made immune to the snake bites that were part of that experience (28:3-5).
As we study the book of Acts we see that the miracles performed by the disciples were truly miracles. The healings were immediate, complete, verifiable, and done in the open. MacArthur adds other characterics of the miracles done by the apostles. They healed with a word or a touch (9:32-35), they healed instantly (3:2-3), they healed totally (9:24), they were able to heal anyone (5:12-16), they healed organic disease (they did not deal in functional, symptomatic, or psychosomatic problems), they raised the dead (9:36-42). And as MacArthur states, "Despite all the claims being made today, no one is exhibiting those six traits in any healing ministry." It could, and should also be pointed out, that "According to Scripture, those who possessed miraculous gifts could use their gifts at will. Contemporary healers do not heal at will. They cannot. They do not have the biblical gift of healing." [MacArthur p. 214-215.]
As to the purpose of the miracles ('signs and wonders') it was mentioned above, that many charismatics understand the reason for, or value in, these gifts to be that the 'believer's possession and use of them will bring the recipient a personal experience of God's gracious presence, confirm his faith, enable him to triumph increasingly over sin, and empower him to serve God and his brethren in renewed dedication. Put another way, the benefit seems to center in self. Scripture is clear that these 'gifts of the Spirit' are to be used for the good of the church. "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good." [Corinthians 12:7]
Lenski, I believe he reads Scripture correctly in this, points to the fact that the 'sign' and/or 'wonder' "always signifies something, points beyond itself to something greater." The Pharisees of Jesus' day looked for a sign from heaven. Signs had been given throughout their history, but they wanted one now that would prove that one greater than the prophets was among them.
However "this conception is wrong, as wrong as the unbelief from which it springs. The value of a sign does not lie in the the display it makes, not in what may make it a 'wonder,' but in what it signifies, grace, mercy, deliverance, and salvation. In any number of miracles there is no display at all, but oh, how blessed is what they all signify! But this is in vain for unbelief." [Lenski, p. 320.]
Could it not be - I believe it is the case - that when Jesus said, "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah," (Matthew 12:39) that he was also speaking to our present generation. There really is little question, if one takes an honest look at church history, but that the 'signs and wonders' of the New Testament were "credentials for the apostles and their gospel message, seals that proved their message genuine and exhibited the fact that the living and risen Jesus was present with them and working through them." [Ibid. p. 768.]
The fact of the matter is, 'signs and wonders' will not be of much help in bringing the unbeliever to faith in spite of Wimber's conviction to the contrary. In speaking of reaching the unbeliever we recall father Abraham's conviction that "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31). Further it is even questionable as to whether such 'signs and wonders' will "help to confirm one in his or her faith faith and help that one to triumph increasingly over sin as well as to empower him or her to serve God and others in renewed dedication." [Lenski, p. 322.]
"All the signs that Moses wrought did not change Pharaoh's obdurate heart. [As already mentioned], Though one might arise from the dead and warn the five wicked brothers of Dives, they would not believe. Voltaire cast off the mask when he declared: 'Even if a miracle should be wrought in the open market place before a thousand sober witnesses, I would rather mistrust my senses than admit a miracle.
Unbelief always finds a way to decline the truth, no matter with what credentials it is presented. As was the case here, another credential can always be demanded which discredits those already furnished. What, for instance, would prevent the Pharisees from claiming that even 'a sign out of the heaven' was wrought by the aid of Beelzebuyl? This applies to all modern unbelief which rejects all the testimony to the divine records regarding the reality and even the possibility of miracles and all that they signify. Where the Word plus the signs awaken no faith, it is useless to offer a sign." {Ibid.]
Rather than the empowering for the working of 'signs and wonders,' the Holy Spirit today works, as Scripture seems to make clear (and Lutheran understanding seems to agree with this), solely through Word and Sacrament.
"The work of the holy Spirit consists in bearing witness of Christ by taking of His, that is of Christ's life, work, and teaching, and declaring it unto us and thus make us see what all this means to us. In this way He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the the whole Christian Church on earth, and preserves it in union with Jesus Christ in the one true faith, as we learn in Luther's explanation of the Third Article.
In His work to call, gather, enlighten and sanctify, the holy Spirit uses the Means of Grace. It is through the Word and Sacraments that He does this work. It is when we make the right Christian use of the means of Grace that the Holy Spirit can enter into our hearts and increasingly enlighten us with his gifts and thus sanctify and preserve us in the true faith.
The work of the holy Spirit, then, is to apply to the individual the work Jesus did for us. Man must be brought to see his need of the Savior, and be made willing to accept Him. This work the Holy Spirit does in the heart." [Tanner, Jacob, Ten Studies In Church Doctrines, Mpls.: Augsburg, 1930., p. 36.]
Further, as Tanner points out, the work of the Holy Spirit, beyond the gift of faith, includes regeneration, Sanctification and assurance. He continues and makes the following point.
"There are two conditions or factors, however, that must not be overlooked. They are: watch and pray. We must watch over ourselves, especially over our heart, watch the world and the Devil, if we are to be preserved, and to grow in grace and usefulness.
Prayer is the breathing of the new life. It is communion with our heavenly father in Christ Jesus. It is praise and thanksgiving for God's grace and goodness. Prayer places all our needs before our heavenly Father, and it enables Him to control the heart and fulfill his promise in the way in which
He himself knows is best.
Again we must remember that at the same time as it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to watch and pray, it is man himself that must do the watching and praying. And it is only as we watch and pray and obediently and trustingly use the Means of Grace, that the holy Spirit can preserve us from all danger and keep and guard us in all difficulty. [Ibid. p. 41.]
It is clear from Scripture that the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer is to make the Word real and alive. It is not the work of the Holy Spirit to sensationalize the things of God or to 'tickle the fancy' of our imagination through gimmickry. The Spirit works with the Word. The Word which has been written, and contains what it does, "that [we] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). And as far as 'signs and wonders' they served their purpose in the days of the inauguration of the church. Now Holy Scripture contains witness of these things and we can "know that his/this testimony is true" (John 21:24b).
(For a brief look at the decline of the gifts in the New Testament see the appendix attached to this paper.)
But again the question, Does and/or can God work miracles today? As has been pointed out, yes! Do we find him working miracles through his servants today as he did in the New Testament Church? The answer to this seems to be two fold. Yes he can, and on occasion it seems, he does. But this is not the norm!
I have witnessed things myself that are worth touching on at this point. Just recently a number of us received the first issue of a newsletter "A threefold Cord," being published by an element in the AALC that is insisting on the legitimacy of the three strand understanding of the makeup of that church body, one of those 'strands' being the charismatic, even 'third wave' understanding of things. A highlighted article on the back page of this issue interested me. It is titled, "'Walking Miracle' stuns doctors." The author then goes on to speak of Pastor Paul Wiekert and his recovery from surgery after the removal of a large, malignant tumor from behind his left eye last fall. The doctors said he would never walk again, he would lose his sight, and he would suffer slurred speech permanently. However he was back in his pulpit three weeks later, and "he didn't even have a headache." He underwent seven weeks of radiation treatment and has made what appears to be a full recovery. [A Threefold Cord, No. 1 Lent 1995, Box 428, Fairbank, IA]
Now the question. Was this, as the author suggests, a miracle? And I mean, a miracle in the New Testament sense? Now I am not questioning that God healed this pastor... he did! But was this a miracle? If you think about it... you will realize that if it was indeed a miracle in the New Testament sense... he wouldn't have had to have gone to a doctor. Neither would he have had to wait three weeks to get back into his pulpit. Neither would he have had to undergo seven weeks of radiation treatment. And neither would it only 'appear' that he has made a full recovery. Remember, the New Testament Miracles were, immediate, complete, radical and demonstrable! Remember, 'Our Lord and his disciples never did a miracle slowly or incompletely.'
I also think of a young three year old who was struck by a car some years ago. It was a miracle that she was even alive. Some thought it would have been better if she had been allowed to die because of the concern over certain brain damage and disfigurement. In this case everything medically possible was done... but there was also prayer and the anointing of oil by the elder's of the congregation of which this girl's family was a member. Unbelievable as it might seem, this girl fully recovered from her injuries. There was no brain damage although there was some permanent scaring. Was this a miracle in the New Testament sense? Again, I think not. Did God heal in a most marvelous way? Yes!
I am also reminded of a former teaching associate of mine. This teacher was a devout Christian lady. Interestingly, this was an incident she had not shared with too many people, it was something very special between her and her God. One day this lady realized something was wrong with her eye and went to a ophthalmologist (it turns out it was a doctor I myself had used - a well known surgeon) and he discovered a retina detachment. This was a few years ago now so they did things a little differently than they do today, she was sent immediately to the Mayo Clinic.
It was as she sat waiting for a few moments in the Mayo Clinic that she realized that in the receiving the bad news, and her rush to get to the Mayo Clinic, she had failed to make this a matter of prayer. So, there in the waiting room, she turned to God in prayer. She asked forgiveness for her failure to turn first to the 'Great Physician,' and she asked that, with regard to this serious eye problem, his will be done.
She was called in to the examination room. The specialist examined her and could find nothing wrong. She was sent back to her own ophthalmologist, himself a specialist in out-state Minnesota, and he too could find no indication of the tear he had seen all to clearly only hours earlier. This doctor, as well as this woman, was convinced, this was a miracle! This was extraordinary... it could not be explained in terms of ordinary natural forces... there was no explanation other than the intervention of God. Was this a miracle in the New Testament sense? In some ways I would have to say yes. There seemed to be evidence that this was a healing that was immediate, complete, radical and demonstrable. On the other hand, it is interesting to note there was no human agent involved in this healing. There was only (and I don't in any way want to minimize the importance and significance of this) the fervent prayer of one of God's children in which the situation was laid out before the Lord and the request made, "Thy will be done."
I also bring to mind one final example. I believe it was at a mission conference I attended some time ago when a speaker shared how he found himself on a trans-Atlantic flight. This fellow found himself with a seat partner with whom he found he was unable to communicate. Neither of them knew the language of the other. After they were into the flight for some time, this fellow sensed a real burden to share the gospel with his seat mate. But there was the very real barrier of language. Quietly he prayed for an answer. And the next thing he knew he was speaking this other fellow's language. And for the rest of the flight, over a period of several hours, they shared together on the things of God. When this fellow debarked from the plane, his 'gift' of language was gone. And he was never again able to speak that language (whatever it was), nor did he ever again have a similar experience.
Was this a miracle in the New Testament sense of the word? It seems quite obvious doesn't it? God can work, and when the situation warrants it, he will work in what can be described in no other way, than in truly miraculous ways. But what is his normal manner of his working? There seems to be little question but that the Lord generally works quietly and often behind the scenes. We are reminded of this when we bring that scene on Mt. Horub to mind. "The Lord was not in the strong wind, nor in the storm, nor in the earth-quake, but in the still small voice" [Koch. p. 7.]. Today we must remember this afresh. God does not speak to us in ecstasy, nor in the noise and hysteria of so-called supernatural experiences. Loss of restraint and self-control is not a sign of His presence. Our God is a God of order. The Spirit of God is a Spirit of power, and of live, and of discipline.
Luther understood the church on earth as that place where the Word of God is preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered. This strongly suggests that Christian worship is not some 'stage show,' it is not 'crowd manipulation,' it is not some sort of 'pep fest,' but it is where God's people gather for the proclamation of the Word and participation in the Sacraments. It is through these means that the Holy Spirit gifts his people, first of all with salvation, and then with such other gifts as he will, to edify his church.
Does such an understanding of the function of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer diminish one's understanding and experience of the power of God in one's life and in the world? I don't believe so. God, and his power, authority and dominion are far beyond any human attempt to understand these things. And this is where faith enters the picture. Faith is "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is accepting what we don't know and understand as real and factual. How can the written Word, and how can participation in the Sacraments lead to saving faith? I don't really know. But God's Word tells me it does, and he promises that "whoever believes in [the one and only Son of God] shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). It is by faith that I must accept this as possible and true. I can't 'see' the truth of it, I can only accept the word and testimony of Holy Scripture. What is 'ultimate' is something we cannot experience with the senses. So let us not seek for 'proof signs' which our Lord plainly said would not be given us. [Matthew 16:4.] What is 'ultimate' is objective truth which must be accepted by faith. But there is a reward for such faith. For by faith, even by faith which to some may appear to be 'blind faith,' the believer can come to an assurance of the truth of God until the day when 'faith will be made sight.' [See Hebrews 11:1 and John 17:8:32 ]
So, what is prescriptive for the believer today? First and foremost, be in the Word. Meditate on the Word (Psalm 1:2). Secondly, since it is clear that the Holy Spirit of God works with us through Word and Sacrament, it is imperative that that we are consistent and faithful in worship. Thirdly, since prayer is the 'breathing of new life' the believer will want to spend time, daily, in prayer. A part of that prayer time ought to be spent in asking that God would gift as he sees fit [I Corinthians 12, with special emphasis on asking to be gifted with the greatest gift of all, that of love (I Corinthians 13)] and that the Holy Spirit would then give the willingness, wisdom and strength to put that gift(s) to use for the "common good." Praying further, that the Holy Spirit would help the believer to "live by the Spirit" (Galatians 5) and specifically, that the "fruit of the Spirit" (verses 22-26) might be born out in one's life to the glory of God (I Cor. 10:31) and in witness to the world (Matt. 5:16)..
And then... to focus in more with regard to the topic at hand... there should be no hesitancy to look to God for help in times of need and trouble. After all, God has invited us to do so. Time and again, and all through Scripture, we hear God informing us that if we call on him, he will answer. And in this regard we would do well to practice what James lays out for us in the fifth chapter of his Epistle. "Is any one of you in trouble? he should pray... Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up... The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:13-16). Trusting in God's promises, the believer places his or her concerns in the hands of God and leaves it in the wisdom, mercy, and grace of God, as to how he (God) will answer.
And finally, if, as a believer, one finds that they have been 'gifted' in a rather unique and special way - no matter what that gift might be - that person must always keep in mind that the gift has been given for the "common good" and is to be used, with deep humility, to the glory of God.
The Issue Of The Decline Of The Gifts
In his volume, Karl Koch addresses the issue in the context of the 'tongues' issue. "Whoever is acquainted with the early history of Christianity knows that the gift of tongues slowly dies out. In its place came the written word, the collection of New Testament writings." [Koch., p. 41.]
In considering the question of decline, it should be recognized that there are at least three viewpoints on this issue. There is the view that the gift of tongues has in fact not been decreasing but to the contrary, it has been increasing. There is the view that the gift of tongues completely ceased by the end of the second century AD. The third viewpoint does not rule out the possibility of speaking in tongues today, but is strongly opposed to what we find in the present day tongues movement. [Ibid., p. 40]
As we consider the gift of tongues we must consider it in light of the various epochs in God's revelation to humankind which we find recorded in the Bible. The experiences of the children of Israel just before and then following the exodus from Egypt would be one such epoch. While in Egypt there was no need of miracles. However God did intervene while they were in the wilderness with his sending of manna. When the children of Israel reached the land of Canaan there was no longer a need for such intervention . However, the times of the prophets Elijah and Elisha mark another epoch. Their miracles, signs and prophecies are another stage in God's revelation to humankind. The gift of tongues was, in a similar sense, intended, and reserved, for a particular time in history. From the pages of the New Testament as well as from church history we know that the gift of tongues diminished, and ceased by the end of the second century. [Ibid., p. 40, 41.]
Also, if one reads the places in Acts which deal with the gift of tongues and where the Holy Spirit came upon all people, you will see that in every case all the people involved spoke in tongues. If one then moves to examine Paul's letter to the Corinthians, you will note that in Corinth it was no longer the case that everyone spoke in tongues. In 1 Corinthians 12:30 Paul asks the rethorical question, "Do all speak in tongues?" He wished to say, "No, not everyone speaks in tongues." [Ibid., p. 41]. So within the New Testament we have within 20 years of the original out pouring of the Holy Spirit, an obvious decline in the gift of speaking in tongues. It is also noteworthy that after the writing of the first letter to the Corinthians, the issue of tongues is never again mentioned in the New Testament.
While this may sound to many like dispensationalism, I would remind you that the author here quoted is a Lutheran theologian. Likewise, no less a theologian than R. C. H. Lenski writes, "These signs were thus credentials for the apostles and their gospel message, seals that proved their message genuine and exhibited the fact that the living and risen Jesus was present with them and working through them... The miraculous gifts were seals that were appended to the gospel preaching in the early days only." [Lenski., p. 768 and p. 771.]
"They followed those that came to faith (v. 17, the verb is in the aorist), and even then not promiscuously and like a common thing but in given cases as the Spirit saw fit. When sufficient attestations were provided, these miraculous gifts ceased; for those recorded in Scripture were sufficient and stand today as signs and credentials for us, just as if they had been wrought before our eyes. To call for an endless line of signs declares only that the original signs were not enough. But the Lord does not discredit himself and his promised signs in such a foolish way." {Ibid., p. 771]
I believe Luther also saw this as being a very important function of miracles at the time of the apostles. They "declared the Word of God alone and confirmed it by miraculous signs as it stands in the text... and they went forth and preached in all places and their words were confirmed by the signs which followed" (Mark 16:20). [WA 10 III, 145,6-146,21.]. Luther and Lenski and neither would Koch be considered dispensationalists, yet all seem to agree with the understanding that a major function, if not the function of miracles in the first century, was the authenticating of the message and the messenger. And that following this early function, and expecially following the setting of the canon of the New Testament Scriptures, the need for 'signs and wonders' ceased.

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