Are Spiritual Gifts for Today?
A vicar visits a primary school where the children are being taught the creed. Each child has been given a line to learn. Happily they recite it to her until silence interrupts the part where the next line should be ‘I believe in the Holy Spirit’. Eventually a child offers an explanation. “I’m sorry vicar, the boy who believes in the Holy Spirit isn’t here this morning.”
Two ministers are talking at an airport at the end of a study tour. One says I am not convinced that the gifts of the Spirit as seen in Acts are for today. God used the miraculous to confirm his word, but now we have the Bible we have all we need to believe. The other minister replied: ‘I’ve seen too much to be say I believe that is true” Pressed as to what he meant he said, “I’ve seen eight people who were blind see, the lame walk, the dead rise. I’ve seen miracles both here in the UK and on my mission trips in Africa, so I cannot say I do not believe that the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit is here for today”.
A theology student sent on evangelistic mission to Camden market, armed with a belief survey, was annoyed by the limited results coming from asking passers-by what their worldview was. He asked permission from the organiser to offer to pray for people instead. With a bold friend he went to the other end of the market and started shouting ‘Get your free healing here’. As short while later an Asian woman with arthritis had been healed, and his and her day had been radically transformed.
The Holy Spirt has been called ‘the author of every positive revolution in the life of the church’, ‘Satan’s unsolved problem’, and ‘God’s secret weapon bringing explosive life to everyone’but through history has often been ignored, misunderstood or unthought of. It probable doesn’t help that an early version of the creed had the ‘Holy Spirit’ called the ‘Holy Ghost’ – which is enough to scare any kid into not turning up to school to recite their lines.
Our topic today is to seek to understand a little of who the Holy Spirit it and what activities we might be expecting to see Him involved with in the 21stCentury.
We’ll partly do this by looking at the history of the Charismatic Movement since 1906, and especially since 1960, as well as some personal stories from today, and partly by digging into the scriptures to see if there is a template for charismatic ministry in the life of the church today. I’ll pick up on Kingdom Theology that argues that the whole charismatic ministry of Jesus – healing the sick, raising the dead, giving sight to the blind, is a blueprint for usual ministerial practice, and that is why you see the ministry Jesus performs replicated and even enhanced in the book of acts (where even an apostle’s shadow/handkerchief is used to heal people).
Let’s start with two passages to whet the appetite, which will also help us define what spiritual gifts, or ‘spiritual graces’ might actually be…
The first is very well-known and comes in the middle of the most extended discussion in the Bible of two of the charismatic gifts – speaking in tongues and prophesy. It’s 1 Corinthians 13… lets look at it together…
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.11 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. 12 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.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.[ESV]
This is very helpful for our discussion for three reasons:
- It gives some brief account of some of the spiritual gifts/graces. There are languages both human and angelic that can be spoken in, there are powers to prophesy, and understand mysteries. There is supernatural access to knowledge. There is faith that can do what Jesus said it could – move mountains. There is an ability to give financially and even to give our life in martyrdom.
- It sets all these in an important context – that of love. Without love – which never ends – you can have all of these and be/gain nothing. Only when these gifts/graces are done in and with love can we benefit.
- It helpfully confronts the issue raised in our airport anecdote of whether these gifts might at some point cease to be useful, and it tells us exactly when that will be.
So let’s consider this third point: 1 Cor 13:8-9 says love never ends, but gifts of prophesy, tongues, and [presumably supernatural] knowledge will end.
When might this be that these gifts end? Could it be at the end of the apostolic era? At 2:30am in the morning in the year AD96 when the Apostle John breathes his last on the Island of Patmos, all this suddenly ceases? Could it be at the end of the missionary era, when nations have been Christianised and Empires turn to follow the Way? Perhaps when Constantine was converted in 324 AD. Could it be when the canon of Scriputre is collated and formed in the 5thCentury AD – the written word supplanting the need for anything else miraculous?
Well according to God’s word the end of these spiritual gifts is none of the above… it is “when perfection comes”. Perfection is in v. 10 a time when we shall know fully and be fully known. As the child in the car on a long journey says: ‘Are we there yet’? The fact that we even ask that question suggests that we are not.
Let’s look at a parallel passage to corroborate this idea that the spiritual gifts are here with us right through to perfection coming:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”[a]
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?[b] 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[c] and teachers,[d] 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,13 untilwe all attain to the unityof the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturemanhood,[e] to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
Again notice a few things:
- The ethical framework: Gifts are to be used with humility, patience, gentleness, love and an eagerness to maintain unity – because we are all part of one thing – the one church.
- That the grace gifts come from a giver, who gives to all. The NIV has verse 7: as ‘to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it’.
- That his gifts include the ministries of various of people ‘apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers’
- That these ministries are for the sake of the body of Christ
- That these ministries continue (v.13) untilthe body of Christ reaches unity, maturing and the measure of the stature of the fulness of God.
To make the obvious point: if the church is not yet measuring up to Christ, mature and unified, these ministries of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, teacher must still be continuing.
But despite this for many years the more obviously supernatural gifts were not prominent in the church…
Despite various strands of Christianity that emphasised an experiential component to the faith, (e.g. early Methodists) and had what might be called by contemporary charismatic Christians as ‘manifestations of the Holy Spirit’, emphasising gifts of the Spirit as recorded in various lists in the New Testament as being important for today was something that took off in the 20thCentury, through three waves of experiences.
The first wave began with the 1906 revival at Azusa Street. An outbreak of the Spirit in a poor USA neighbourhood which birthed Pentecostalism in its various formats. This led to tongues speaking and a seeking after a second blessing / enduement of power which they equated with the New Testament ‘Baptism of the Holy Spirit’.
A second wave occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s when traditional denominational leaders – including Episcopalians like Dennis Bennet, Anglicans like Michael Harper, and Baptists like Terry Virgo – found that an encounter with the Holy Spirit was hard to contain in the wineskins of their denominations. This led to a proliferation of house churches, rainbow guitar straps and 3 chord choruses, and some significant pockets of renewal in the established churches largely within existing forms.
A third wave produced a seismic shift within historic denominations when the Vineyard movement was birthed by the conversion of Righteous Bros musician John Wimber, who wanted to know when he got to do the stuff he read about in the New Testament. In the early 1980s David Watson and David Pytches each linked him to the UK Anglican scene. This caused a surge of church planting, new ways of conducting services, and perhaps a more nuanced theology of the Holy Spirit as something to keep being filled with again and again (not just a second blessing). ‘Doing the stuff’ and ‘power evangelism’ meant an increase belief in and focus on healing and prophetic ministry (often intertwined through ‘words of knowledge’ – specific revelations that someone in a congregation had a particular health need. Important writings from this movement include the works of Jake Deere and Wayne Grudem which became paradigmatic for explaining how these gifts of the Spirit fit into the biblical order.
Arguably a crucial fourth wave was the mid-1990s experience synonymous with both the Toronto Blessing, and enshrined, amplified and exported globally, through the rapidly expanding HTB Alpha Course which accelerated on the back of conferences held at HTB where the manifestations of the Toronto Blessing were in full effect. At its best this led to an increased sense of the immediacy of God, significant emotional healing and manifestations of the spirit which were either deeply liberating or plain weird, and sometimes both – notably barking like dogs / lots of crying.
Underlying the third wave was a belief in Kingdom Theology. This has many implications including a) seeing the world as a battleground between the Kingdom of God and the Prince of this world, b) taking this life seriously not just as a dress rehearsal for eternity but as Kingdom/eternal life now, c) and (crucially for this survey) seeing Jesus as a paradigm of how we are supposed to express our ministry and humanity.
This latter point partly hinges on Peter’s statements in Acts regarding who Jesus is and how he did ministry:
Acts 2:22: Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through himin your midst, as you yourselves know
Acts 10:38: God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
So in Kingdom theology Jesus is a man just like us, who ministers in power becausehe is empowered by the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel of John Jesus says he ‘only does what the Father is doing’ [John 5:19]. So the picture is of Jesus as a human minister, emptied of divine power [cf Philippians 2], ‘doing the stuff’ because of the power of the Holy Spirit which he perfectly harness as he can see clearly what God the Father wants a human agent to join him doing through the Holy Spirit. This position is outlined well in Bruce Collins’ Jesus’ Gospel, Jesus’ Way
The way Luke-Acts mirrors the supernatural ministry of (the Holy Spirit through) Jesus with the supernatural ministry of the (Holy Spirit through the Apostles) provides further evidence for this… almost everything Jesus does in Luke’s gospel is done by an apostle – from lame men walking to dead people coming back to life. If anything in Acts miracles/healings become even more miraculous… whereas in Luke 8 a woman is healed by touching the clothing Jesus is wearing, in Acts 5 Peter’s shadow heals people and Paul’s handkerchief in Acts 19 does the same thing.
Kingdom theology means that the gifts of the Holy Spirit become normalised… any human can do acts of the Kingdom, through the Holy Spirit… you do not need to be the Son of God (nor one of the original apostles). ‘Everyone gets to play’.
John 14… Greater things…
A verse worth substantial reflecting on in John 14:12 where Jesus promises that anyone who believes in him will do ‘greater works’ he had done. Andrew Wilson deals with possible interpretations of this systematically here: https://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/what-are-the-greater-worksand this is well worth reading fully.
A clear context for the verse is that Jesus is going to the Father and they will send us the Holy Spirit. The greater works, are greater partly because they occur in the post-resurrection period! They can be signs and point to resurrection life and hope and bring about the ultimate miracle of new and eternal life.
But Wilson concludes that Jesus knew what he said when he said it, and he meant what he said…
“I’m telling you the truth, if anyone believes in me, they’ll do the sorts of things I’ve been doing – miraculous healings, prophetic revelation, feeding the hungry and laying their lives down for others out of love – and they’ll even do the “greater things” I’ve been talking about, like bringing resurrection life to people who are dead to the Father and dead to me, so that they pass from judgment to life. My works have repaired people temporarily, and that ministry must and will continue amongst my followers, as signposts to my glory and my love for them. But when the Spirit comes, those who follow me will repair people eternally, by transferring them from death to life through faith in me. That’s even greater.
One of the most winsome books written with those sceptical about the gifts of the Spirit being in operation today is Jack Deere’s Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit. He tells his story of conversion on this issue to card-carrying charismatic. One of the turning points came when he was being intently prayed for by his wife (unknown to him). He started a dialogue with John White, (author of When the Spirit Comes With Power) and realised that his opposition to spiritual gifts being operational today was not based on biblical studies and hermeneutics but on experience – and specifically on his non-experience. He realised that his lack of encounter with miracles, healing, tongues, prophesy etc gave him a framework through which he read the scripture, and he used that framework to make sense of the gap between his non-experience and the Acts of the Apostles.
The contrast with this is John Wimber, radically converted, who went to church having read the New Testament and was nonplussed when he realised they didn’t share his assumption that they should get to ‘do the stuff’. As a pastor he felt called to preach through Luke’s gospel and offer healing prayer at the end of the services each week. He resolved to continue until something happened, and had a whole year of ‘failure’ until healings began to be regularly seen.
The one assumed nothing would happen and got what he expected. The other assumed something should happen and eventually got what he dreamed of…
So are the Gifts of the Holy Spirit for today? Well that may be up to you…