Recently John MacArthur hosted the “Strange Fire” conference at his church in California. During this conference MacArthur and other well known speakers highlighted the dangers of charismatic theology and the supreme importance of the Word of God. I’m grateful for MacArthur’s steadfast commitment to the Word of God as well as his desire to highlight false doctrine. I, along with many others, have benefited from John MacArthur’s faithful, long-haul, verse by verse exposition of the Bible.
And I certainly agree that the charismatic movement has produced some seriously jacked up theology. Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, and other charismatic preachers have left a trail of “healed”, “slain”, “spirit-filled” carnage behind them. But… (in the words of Pee Wee Herman, “All of my friends have big buts…”)
I am concerned MacArthur and other cessationists are discarding significant portions of Scripture in response to the abuses of the charismatic movement. As Christians, our theology cannot be knee-jerk, reactionary theology. Many good things in the church are abused. Preaching is abused (see Joel Osteen, et. all). Worship is abused. Money is abused. Authority is abused. The abuse of something doesn’t mean it should be stopped. Rather, it should be informed and governed and shaped by the word of God. The fact that the charismatic movement has created massive problems shouldn’t mean we instinctively argue for the cessassation of the spiritual gifts.
So, with that in mind, let me humbly lay out a biblical, theological case for the ongoing, supernatural, miraculous work of the Holy Spirit as described in the New Testament. To my friends who are cessationists, I love you. I love your passion for the supremacy of Scripture. All I ask is that you would consider what I’m saying.
FROM EDEN TO REVELATION
The chief delight of the garden of Eden was immediate and intimate fellowship with God. When Adam and Eve sinned they forfeited the privilege of God’s immediate presence. They were driven out of the garden and away from the presence of God. But because we serve a redemptive, restoring, rescuing God Adam’s sin was not the end of the story.
The rest of the Bible tells the grand story of God restoring and even surpassing all that was lost at the Fall. God began by calling Abraham to himself. Out of Abraham God created the people of Israel. God promised to dwell with the people of Israel, and in this promise we see the beginnings of God’s divine restoration plan. In Exodus 29:44-46 we read:
I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.
God was committed to dwelling with his people. He was committed to restoring all that had been lost at Eden. But Israel’s access to the presence of God was extremely limited. Only the High Priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and he could only do it once a year.
Certain men and women also experienced the immediate and powerful presence of God. The Holy Spirit would come upon prophets and judges and kings, empowering them to speak oracles and perform mighty deeds. For example, in Judges 14:6 we see the Spirit of God descending upon Samson: “Then the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him, and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done.” But the Holy Spirit would not remain upon these men and women.
As God’s redemptive plan unfolded one thing became crystal clear: the people of Israel did not have the ability to keep covenant with God. Their hearts were bent toward sin and idolatry. They continually strayed from the true and living God. If God was going to have a people for himself he would have to perform heart surgery on his people. He would have to give them hearts that longed to obey. And so in Jeremiah 31:33-34 we read the glorious promise of a new, heart-changing covenant between God and his people:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
The promise of new, covenant keeping, God-loving hearts is one of the great and glorious promises of the New Covenant. A second astonishing promise of the New Covenant is the promise of the immediate, indwelling presence of God’s spirit. The Spirit of God would no longer be limited to prophets, priests, kings, and judges. Rather, every covenant man and woman would experience the continual, ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.
We see this clearly when the Lord said through Jeremiah, “…they all shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest…” We also see this clearly in Joel 2:28-29, which says:
And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
Under the New Covenant prophecy, visions, and dreams would no longer be the exclusive property of prophets, priests, kings, and judges. Even male and female servants would receive the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. God would no longer dwell in a tent or a temple, but in each of his covenant people. This incredible promise, like the one in Jeremiah, is a New Covenant promise.
Both of these promises are gloriously fulfilled through Christ. In Christ we receive new, regenerate hearts, which love and obey God. And, in Christ we receive the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is made clear again and again in the Book of Acts. When the first Christians began prophesying and speaking in tongues Peter said, “But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel…” (Acts 2:16) In other words, Peter interpreted the events of Pentecost as being part and parcel with the New Covenant.
We see this again in Acts 10:44-45 when the Spirit falls upon Cornelius and his family: “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles.” The fact that Gentiles experienced the filling of the Spirit was proof they were part of God’s covenant family. The broad dispensation of the Spirit was proof that the New Covenant era had dawned.
Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit God is slowly restoring all that was lost in Eden. Adam and Eve forfeited the immediate presence of God through their sin. Jesus secured the immediate presence of God for us through his obedience. The promise of being filled with the Holy Spirit is clearly a New Covenant promise. It isn’t an apostolic era promise or a promise only in effect until the completion of the canon. It is part and parcel with the New Covenant.
ARE PROPHECY AND MIRACLES FOR TODAY?
The most common argument against modern prophecy, tongues, and miracles is that those things were for the purpose of validating the gospel preached by the apostles. In other words, when people prophesied, spoke in tongues, or were healed it was proof that the gospel was real and that Jesus was the Messiah.
While I understand this argument I have serious theological and exegetical problems with it. First, this argument fails to take into account the significance of the Joel 2:28-29 New Covenant promise. Despite the best arguments from guys like MacArthur, I can’t see this as anything other than a New Covenant promise. The original context of the promise and the interpretation by Peter in Acts 2 don’t give any indication this promise would cease after the apostolic era or after the completion of the Canon of Scripture. The cessassion of the gifts isn’t described anywhere in Scripture. At best it could be inferred as the logical extension of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. However, I’m not comfortable building my theology on inferences and logical extensions.
The most straightforward reading of Joel 2 is that in the last days (a.k.a after Christ) every covenant man and woman would be filled with Holy Spirit. Every Protestant agrees on the priesthood of all believers. I would challenge cessasstionists that a robust doctrine of the priesthood of all believers requires fully embracing Joel 2:28-29.
Because Joel 2 and Acts 2 indicate that being filled with the Spirit is a New Covenant promise the onus falls very heavily on cessassionists to prove that this promise has ceased to be in effect or that somehow the supernatural elements of this promise have ceased. To do so requires jumping through some serious exegetical hoops. Joel 2:28-29 promise must be arbitrarily parsed at odd places and a significant amount of anachronistic interpretation must be injected into the New Testament. Personally, I’m not comfortable jumping through those hoops.
The second major problem I have with the cessassionist argument is that prophecy, miracles, and tongues did not only accompany the apostolic preaching of the gospel. 1 Corinthians 14:26 makes it clear that the Corinthians experienced tongues and prophecy in the regular church gatherings: “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.”
In Galatians 3:5 Paul said, “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…” This implication is that God supplied the Spirit to the Galatians and regularly worked miracles among the Galatians as a result of their faith in Christ.
SO WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE SUPERNATURAL?
Charismatic craziness is not anything new. Paul encountered charsmatic chaos in the Corinthian church. Those folks were absolutely out of control. They were like a Holy Ghost frat party. They were trying to out-prophesy and out-tongue each other. They were getting drunk during communion. They were sueing the heck out of each other. They had major, major problems.
In spite of all the abuses occurring in the Corinthian church Paul did not command them to cease and desist with the spiritual gifts. Rather, he commanded them to do several things:
DO EVERYTHING IN ORDER
For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:31-33)
Prophecy, tongues, and even miracles are to be done in an orderly, peaceful fashion. So much of the chaos that exists in charismatic churches is the result of failing to obey this simple command.
TEST EVERYTHING BY THE WORD OF GOD
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. (1 Thessalonians 5:19-20)
In the Old Testament every prophet was to be tested. This requirement has not changed. Everything that occurs in a church must be tested against the clear revelation of God’s word. Every prophecy, tongue, and “revelation” must be tested against the Word of God.
Let me be clear on something: I fully believe in the sufficiency and authority of God’s word. Prophecy, tongues, and revelations do not add one iota to the completed word of God. I realize this sounds like a contradiction. What I mean is this: God may give someone specific prophetic insight into circumstances I am experiencing. This prophetic insight does not add anything to Scripture. However, it can help me apply God’s revealed word to my circumstances in a way that I would not do on my own.
God’s word is sufficient to sustain me through every trial. However, God may choose to supernaturally heal me from sickness as a way of encouraging me and giving me a taste of the Kingdom to come. If he does not heal me it’s not because of a deficiency in my faith, it’s because he is sovereign. I do not have any problem simultaneously embracing the sufficiency of God’s word and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
THE END OF SPIRITUAL GIFTS
When will spiritual gifts cease? When Jesus returns. 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 says:
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
These verses are crucial for our understanding of the Holy Spirit. When will prophecy and tongues and miracles and revelations cease? Paul spells it out clearly. The spiritual gifts will cease when the perfect comes. When we know fully. When we see face to face. I have a seriously difficult time interpreting this as anything other than the return of Christ. I simply cannot say that I know fully or see face to face right now. But a day is coming when I will see him face to face, and on that day the spiritual gifts will cease.
Until that day I will pursue the active, ongoing work of the presence. Guided by the Word of God and love for my fellow believers, I will pursue the Spirit. If you disagree with me that’s okay. We’re united by Christ, and one day all our disagreements will pass away along with the gifts of the Spirit.
Don’t let the crazy, unbiblical charismatics rob you of one of the most significant blessings of the New Covenant.