Note: I wrote this as a response to a very difficult and large question, that of the Holy Spirit’s role in the modern church, specifically about Spiritual Gifts. As many know it is very popular in Pentecostal Churches to focus on this issue, but on the other hand the more conservative Christians won’t even touch it with a ten-foot pole. This is my feeble attempt to respond to some of the aspects, but without being able to into detail or back it up Scripturally as I would like. I do not cover all the issues, and my full-view (especially in practical terms) is not defined or explained well here. My attempt is to help all realize that balance must be found and Scripture is the source. I leave the heavy lifting to you, and though I have done much already I am not in a place to share fully yet for I have not come to defined conclusions for now.
I am very, very skeptical of those who act as if the Holy Spirit is no longer active and seldom present today. Those who believe this many times they get tagged with the title “cessationists”, but I am finding this to be a wrong title, for no one believes the Holy Spirit to be “dead”. Actually the question that should be asked instead is: “Where is the Holy Spirit?” The answers given always border the extremes, and if you know history and Scripture, this is a dangerous place to be. Scripture is full of “powerful tensions” such as the free will of man and God’s predestining man’s future, or Christ being fully man while still fully God, or the Trinity of three persons yet one essence. These are things to wonderful and complex for our finite minds to grasp. In the same way we treat Spiritual Gifts as doctrine, as dogma to be taught, instead of what God intended them to be—gifts given by God to his saints to build the church. May I suggest it may be more difficult to understand them than we might think. We must, if we claim to hold the Scripture as our guide, try to carefully discern what the Holy Spirit’s role is in our current age and what that has to do with Spiritual Gifts. On one side of the spectrum we have the Charismatics who put the Holy Spirit and its work at the center of their teaching and theology. Scripture does not do this; it puts Christ at the center, and the Holy Spirit as the silent Helper. They also say that all the gifts are still active and present, centering on the gifts of healing, miracle-working, and tongues. While Paul does talk about these gifts as coming from the Spirit, he talks about it very little in comparison with the other teachings of the Church. The doctrines Paul “harps” on are very clear, such as the Gospel, Christology, and Sin. Spiritual Gifts are not a doctrine, for starters, but even beside this it is not a center-point and not a well-developed point of Paul’s teaching. Spiritual Gifts are largely secondary, because they come upon us by God’s grace and it doesn’t take much work to describe to us what they are and of what value they are (No one had to tell Peter how to speak in tongues at Pentecost).
Yet for every swing of the pendulum on the Grandfather Clock there is a counter swing that is equal to it. These are those who are “cessationists” in teaching, yet “the spirit is dead” in practicality. Miracles no longer exist in their minds, and all supernatural or unexplained activity (even if well-recorded) is claimed to be fraud. Their bias is that the Spirit does not and will not work today; to defend their stance they must throw out all counter evidence. But cessationists do not teach this; they state that the Holy Spirit, God himself, is able to do anything he so desires. God used tongues, healings, and miracles in the time of Christ and the Apostles in an obvious way, and he will again in the future during the End Times and in the Millennial Kingdom. But in between these two ages God is able and willing to do miracles and supernatural things in order to protect and advance his Church.
I must admit that my view of cessationists was wrong and I believed them all to be extremists. Yet Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and C.S. Lewis to name a few, strongly believed that God had stopped using the gifts of tongues, healing, and miracle-working in our current age and their lives showed great balance in thought and practice.
Now I must argue, simply because of what I see in the world today: miracles have and do occur. The distinction I wish to make is that miracles have been “peppered” as it were across the history of mankind, but only in three main ages (Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the Apostles) have miracle workers existed. Scripture points to Paul and Peter as men who could heal those sick and no one could question its veracity. Outside of these time periods we had the Creation of the world, the Flood in Noah’s time, and many other instances that God worked miraculously. Yet John MacArthur makes a good distinction that these miracles were performed by God on man, not by man through God’s power (as with Moses and the Red Sea). And on top of that, it must be realized that miracles outside of these three ages are few.
Today, do miracles occur? There are too many stories by great and respected men (Brother Yun, Paul Washer, countless missionaries, etc.) to throw away the possibility. In fact, I would say they should be expected, miracles should be expected because we dwell in the presence of an Almighty and living God! More obvious are the stories by countless Muslims who came to Christ through visions in the night, or of those (like George Muller) who had prayers answered emphatically.
I think it is safe to say that miracle workers no longer exist; the last ones were the Apostles (the next will be the two prophets in the Tribulation). Yet miracles do exist, and prayer does bring healing if God so wills. But it is God’s answer to a prayer and not the miracle workers gift. Those that are demon possessed can be cured by prayer, if God so wills, but we can no longer invoke authority like Christ and the Apostles did. Yet we must expect the Spirit to be working, and to pray as if he is living and active. I find myself in this very problem many times: I pray as it were “to an empty sky” and when I pray sometimes I pray for small petty things. I receive small and petty things in response, but God is waiting to send great blessing if we ask in faith. Christ taught this many times, perhaps the clearest being Matthew 21:22 “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Cessationists have correctly diagnosed Scripture and closed the door to the miraculous gifts, but some have erred by not putting into practice faith in prayer, and faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. In this I believe we have much to learn from the Charismatics. They are not wholly wrong, although they are at a far extreme. The Holy Spirit is full of power and it was sent to us by Christ at Pentecost in order to spread the Gospel like wildfire and strengthen the church (John 16:7). Let us begin to act in faith and to pray as to receive, and to do great and difficult things for God knowing that the Holy Spirit is who accomplishes all things, through willing servants. Let us be the willing servants of God! Let us also test the “miracles” of our day and discern which are from God and which are lies which lead astray (Mark 13:22). Above all let us find the truth in Scripture and defend it with all of Scripture. We must teach what all of Scripture teaches, not what fits our worldview or our experience. God help us.