I’ve been thinking about the issue of miracles and the miraculous gifts a lot lately. Whilst I am not a cessationist, for biblical reasons, I do share many of the concerns that cessationists often point out when some continuationists begin putting practical meat on the bones of their convictions. I see the same phenomena and arguments and often struggle with them for the same reason as many cessationists. It may even be that some of the phenomena to which I would ascribe ‘gift’ language, my cessationist friends would happily affirm but would call it something else.
But, I don’t see anything in the Bible that demands cessationism and I struggle to see that a straightforward reading of scripture alone would lead to that conclusion, despite some of the nonsense that passes as supposedly being from the Lord today. I am perfectly open to the idea that tongues, healings and prophecies may happen today (though we would need to have some discussion as to what I mean by those things – I suspect some of my definitions would be unacceptable to some continuationists and some cessationists would be unhappy at my labelling of phenomena they readily acknowledge this way).
But there is something I don’t expect to see today. I do not expect to see the Lord working miracles through individuals today. Now, I want to be clear that I do believe that the Lord may work miracles as he chooses today. But I do not believe that the Lord will work miracles through any given individual today. That is, I don’t expect people to be able to wave their hand and the lame jump up and walk. The Lord may miraculously grant healing as he chooses – I don’t think anything is impossible for him – but I wouldn’t expect to see an individual touch someone or wave their hand, and for that person to jump up and walk, a non-existent limb to reappear, or a dead person come back to life.
The fact is, I don’t think just any old body can do miracles. The preferred terminology in scripture is the word σημεια (semeia, signs). The purpose of a sign is that it points to something. A sign is only a sign if it has significance. So the question is what do the signs in scripture signify?
It is notable that the only people who did signs were prophets, apostles and Christ himself. It is also important to note why they did these signs. Let’s just look at some of the instances of signs and their purpose in scripture.
In Exodus 4, Moses asks the Lord why anybody should believe that God has appeared to him. The Lord gives Moses some miraculous signs and states, ‘“This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”’ The signs given to Moses were specifically to prove that he had been sent by God as his spokesman.
When Elijah was battling the prophets of Baal, he prayed this:
O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. (1 Kings 18:36)
The purpose of the miraculous sign was to attest that Elijah was a true prophet sent by God in stark contrast tot he false prophets of Baal.
Similarly, when Elijah raises the widow’s son, upon seeing the sign, the widow exclaimed, ‘“Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”’ The sign clearly pointed to the fact that Elijah was, indeed, a prophet sent from God and that his words were true.
When Jesus is visited by Nicodemus, in John 3, the Pharisee declares: ‘”Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”’ The point here is clear, Jesus could be believed as – at a bare minimum – a prophet sent by God because of the miraculous signs that he did.
Later on in John’s gospel, Jesus states:
Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. (John 14:11)
The signs attested to the fact that Jesus was from God and his words could be trusted.
As we get to the books of Acts, we see those sent by Christ as apostles doing signs and wonders. Even Paul, in 2 Cor 12:12 that ‘The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.’ That is, the proof that the message brought by the apostles was the authoritative Word of God was that signs and wonders were done through them.
Finally, we see in Hebrews 2:4 that, ‘[The gospel] was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him [i.e., apostles], while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his own will.’ Again, the point here is that the truth of the gospel – brought by the apostles themselves – was confirmed by the signs that they did.
As RC Sproul has rightly pointed out here:
If anybody can perform miracles, if a person who’s not an agent of divine revelation can perform a miracle, then obviously a miracle cannot certify an agent of revelation. Let me say it again. If a non-agent of revelation can perform a miracle, then a miracle cannot authenticate or certify a bona fide agent of revelation. Which would mean that the New Testament’s claim to be carrying the authority of God Himself, because God has certified Christ and the Apostles by miracles, would be a false claim and a false argument.
The point here is that only agents of divine revelation – that is, Prophets (with a capital P), Apostles (with a capital A) and Messiahs (of which there is only one) – will be attested by God with miraculous signs, defined in the narrow sense.
What this means is that we should only expect to see individuals performing miraculous signs if we believe there are ‘big P’ prophets, ‘big A’ apostles and messiahs running around today. Because I don’t believe there are any such people anymore, I do not expect God to attest anybody with miraculous signs today. Because signs signify someone specially appointed by God to reveal his divine words and teaching, and we now have God’s word fully and finally revealed in scripture and we no longer have ‘big A’ apostles in the church, I do not believe we will see any miracles worked through individuals today.
Now this does not mean that God does not work miracles today. He may choose to work in whatever way he chooses. But I believe such things will happen apart from individuals. As even the Westminster Confession of Faith states – ‘God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of (ordinary) means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure’.
Nor does this mean that tongues, healings and prophecies cease. For a start, such things always extended beyond ‘big P’ prophets and apostles. Evidently, tongues were prevalent within the Corinthian church and were never signs that attested to appointed office as an agent of divine revelation. The Lord may choose to grant these things as he wills, entirely in line with the WCF statement above.
It is my view that healings today will typically accompany prayer. That is, the Lord may heal miraculously as he wills and – though it will not be through the waving of an individual’s hand – it may well be linked to an individual’s prayer. There are those whose prayers may seem more efficacious than others in this regard. This is evidently a work of the Lord, rather than the individual, but is rightly considered a healing gift. Likewise, the Lord may grant in scenarios such as preaching, bible studies or even conversations in which such apt application of the scriptures to the life of an individual – apart from the speaker knowing anything about that situation – that we might rightly consider this prophetic. This is not a miracle (in the tight definition) but it is no less prophetic. Similarly, the Lord may grant an individual a tongue as he sees fit. These are not ‘signs’ to attest to anything because Paul seems clear in his instructions to the Corinthian church that these are not for the public gathering and thus cannot be a sign for anyone else.
God still works miraculously today. I have no reason to believe that miracles have ceased and I see no Biblical reason to expect any of the gifts to cease either. But I don’t expect to see miracles, signs and wonders worked through individuals today because I don’t expect to see apostles and messiahs today. This is important because we submit to authority of Jesus Christ and his apostles because they were attested with signs and wonders. If we don’t expect God to add to his authoritative Word in scripture, we shouldn’t expect to see miracles worked through individuals anymore.