Well, this morning, I’m going to conclude my series within a series. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was starting a three-part lesson to try to help us move forward together as a church in regard to spiritual gifts. Admittedly, my first two lessons focused on trying to convince all of us that we should be continuationists (as opposed to cessationists) in regards to the gifts. That is, we should believe that the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, for example, are still around and will continue until the Lord returns. In the first lesson, I tried to lay out the cessationist argument and respond to that argument, and in the second lesson tried to make my argument for the continuation of the gifts.
However, I realize that there may be some of you who remain unconvinced that we should speak of and earnestly desire gifts like prophecy today, thinking these things have ceased. And, as I mentioned, I didn’t want to just leave things there, thinking, “Well, too bad if you disagree with me, we’re pressing forward in our pursuit of spiritual gifts.” So, that brings us to this morning, where I want to lay out a proposal for how we can move forward as a church, even if we are made of a group of continuationists and cessationists. And it’s important to me for two reasons that we do take time to think about going forward. The first reason is simply because I like the church to walk together in as much unity as possible, and though issues like spiritual gifts are tertiary or (at best) secondary-level issues, I’d still like to make sure we’re not letting any disagreement divide us. The second reason is because, as a continuationist, I’m convinced that we’re bound to obey the command of 1 Corinthians 14:1 – “Pursue love and earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” Therefore, I really want to provide some means by which we all believe we can obey this command.
Therefore, this morning, I want to suggest some things that we can all agree on (I hope) and will help us move forward together. And I want to acknowledge that I am indebted to an article by Vern Poythress titled, “Modern Spiritual Gifts as Analogous to Apostolic Gifts: Affirming Extraordinary Works of the Spirit within Cessationist Theology.” 1 So, you can tell that Vern Poythress is working within a cessationist framework from this position, but I find the article very helpful. I want to summarize some of his points this morning, seeing if we can agree on them, and then charting a way forward as a church.
The Spirit works in extraordinary ways in our day.
Poythress first acknowledges that the Holy Spirit works in extraordinary ways in our day. In his article, he records some pretty amazing historical realities where the Spirit was working powerfully. He notes of extraordinary stories told of Charles Spurgeon, Samuel Rutherford, John Flavel, Cotton Mather, and the like. These are the kinds of things that I don’t think anyone would oppose. If you’ve been here for the entire series, I might compare these episodes of the extraordinary work of the Spirit in our lives to the story I started off with concerning Donna Green2 and the story I last ended with concerning me talking to Jonathan Douglas3. That is, I don’t think anyone would debate that the Spirit wasn’t working in those situations. Cessationists might simply want to say that Donna Green and I, in each of these stories, had an impression or prompting from the Spirit to think and say something. Tom Schreiner, for example, argues that we shouldn’t call such things “prophecies” but “impressions from God” which he gives to “guide and lead us.”4
Poythress is not as determined to say we shouldn’t use terms for the gifts found in the Bible, like “prophecy,” “a word of wisdom,” “a word of knowledge,” or the like. He, in a much more non-committal way says, “It may or may not be appropriate to call them by the same terms as those used in the New Testament.”5 And this leads us to a second point Poythress makes that I want us to see.
The ways the Spirit works in our present day are at least analogous to the gifts of the Spirit in the apostles’ day.
I’ll talk about the gift of prophecy more specifically next week, but if prophecy in the New Testament was the Spirit bringing something spontaneously to one’s mind that he or she might share with another in hopes of edifying, encouraging, or consoling the other, then it seems like we have something that is at least analogous to that today (although I’m willing to say that we have that very gift in operation today by the Holy Spirit). Again, I don’t think anyone would deny that the story I shared concerning Donna Green or the story I shared involving Jonathan Douglas were evidence of the Spirit’s powerful working in our midst. They simply might say that this was like the gift of prophecy (or word of knowledge, or word of wisdom) seen in the New Testament, but it wasn’t the same thing. I’m okay with that.
As another example, we read in Acts 16:6-10, “And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
Now, there are a number of interesting details about this text. One of them is that Luke doesn’t give us insight into how they knew the Holy Spirit was forbidding them to speak the word in Asia or how they knew the Spirit was not allowing them to go into Bithynia. Luke just says the Spirit wasn’t forbidding them and wasn’t allowing them. Another is that Paul apparently shared the vision with the whole group, allowing all of them to conclude what the vision meant, since Luke writes, “Immediately we sought to go into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”
But aside from these interesting details that might force us to wonder if we’re understanding how the Spirit worked even with Paul in this text (perhaps more like he works with us than we often think?), here we have an incident of the Spirit giving Paul a vision he had that led them to conclude they should take certain action different from what they were originally seeking to do (i.e., go to Bithynia).
Back in 1998, I was getting ready to go to Florida for a few days with a friend to visit a family there over spring break. So, knowing that they hadn’t seen me in a while and wouldn’t see me over spring break, my parents came down to spend the weekend with me. The last night my dad was visiting me he had a dream. Now, what’s interesting about this is that my dad claims that he rarely dreams, and if he does, he simply doesn’t remember them. But on this night, he dreamed a very vivid dream and remembered all the details. In the dream, I was driving in my car to Florida and I was involved in an accident while driving because my breaks went out on my car, and I was killed. My dad said that it was so vivid that he went from being in shock, to arguing with God, to mourning deeply, to acknowledging that God was sovereign and wise, to walking in a saddened peace. Anyway, he woke up that morning, and concluded that he should take my car for a drive. And sure enough, he determined that my brakes were in dire need of replacement, gave me the keys to his car, and took my car back to Paducah to have the brakes replaced. Sure enough, the mechanic there confirmed that the breaks were shot and likely to go out at any moment.
Now, this is something my dad would not have done otherwise. After all, his car was pretty new and much nicer than mine. He wouldn’t have even checked on the brakes without having the dream. Again, he assumed (wrongly) that I was sensible enough to maintain my car well. But, similar to the episode in Acts 16, he had a dream, concluded in light of that dream that he should make a change of plans, and let me drive his car to Florida.
Yet again, I don’t think anyone would deny that the Spirit moved my dad by means of a dream to keep me from endangering my life (and that of my friend who was traveling with me). Is it pretty much the same kind of thing that we see the Spirit doing in Acts 16? Perhaps. But if we’re hesitant to go that far, then I think we can agree that it’s at least an example of the Spirit working in an analogous manner to what we see in the New Testament. Now, let’s move on to another point of what I hope we can all agree on.
Modern gifts of the Spirit (or works of the Spirit analogous to the gifts we see in the NT) are neither infallible nor authoritative.
I think this is the point that can help us all relax. Aren’t we afraid of someone coming along and saying, “God told me that you need to (fill in the blank)”? Well, aside from the fact that I don’t think anyone should ever go around saying, “God told me” (something we’ll talk about more next week), we can relax and understand that no gift of the Spirit in our day is infallible or authoritative. So, we can all let out a sigh of relief.
Now, sometimes we think that if the Spirit reveals information to us in what seems like a more miraculous manner, then it carries greater authority and is obviously infallible, but that simply isn’t the case. Let me go back to the story I shared two weeks ago. I was praying for Jonathan Douglas and the thought spontaneously came to my mind that it would be helpful for him to make a mission statement for his family. I told him the next morning how that thought had come to my mind, and he wept, confirming he though the Lord was leading him to do that very thing the day before I shared that with him.
I admit, that is a remarkable story. It seems oddly remarkable to me since the thought of a family mission statement was the farthest thing from my mind as I prayed for my brother that day. The thought just came into my head from seemingly nowhere. But what if I had said, “Jonathan, I was praying for you last night, struggling to think about how you can manage using time with your family well, etc., and I came to the conclusion that it would be reasonable of you to develop a mission statement for your family so that you can make sure you’re using your time with them in the best manner possible”? That’s not a whole lot different from what actually happened is it? Both versions (the real story and the version I just created) end with me telling Jonathan that perhaps he should make a mission statement for his family. In the second version, am I certainly right because I thought this through and came to a good conclusion? Is Jonathan bound to obey my suggestion because it comes from a fellow believer who was praying for him and really concerned about him when I arrived at what could be helpful for him? Of course not. My words weren’t authoritative or infallible. Jonathan could have said, “Thanks for the helpful thought but I think I’ll do something else.”
But what about the fact that in the real version of the story the thought spontaneously came to my mind in prayer and I wasn’t just working logically through what might be helpful to my brother? Well, that is interesting, but it doesn’t make my recommendation to Jonathan any more infallible or authoritative. That morning that I shared the thought that spontaneously came into my mind while praying for my brother, he could have responded, “Well, that’s an interesting thought. I’m glad that thought gave you peace and you were able to go back to sleep, but I think I’m going to do something else.” And that would have been fine. Again, gifts of the Spirit like that in our lives aren’t infallible or authoritative. We can be wrong, and others aren’t sinning because they don’t do what we think (unless what we think lines up with the Bible, in which case they’re bound not because we think it but because the Bible says it). The reason Jonathan excitedly made a mission statement for his family after I shared the thought with him was because he’d been thinking the same thing the day prior and felt the Lord had used me to confirm the idea, not because he thought that if the Spirit had perhaps brought something to my mind it must be infallible and authoritative.
But here someone might say, “But if the Spirit really did bring it to mind, then shouldn’t it necessarily be heard as an infallible and authoritative word?” My answer to this is, “No it shouldn’t,” and I say that for a few reasons. One, only the Bible is an infallible and authoritative guide for believers. Let us never depart from that understanding as believers. Two, we are already well aware of a situation where someone can be ministering by the power of the Holy Spirit and still not be infallible and authoritative when we consider preaching. I have felt on a number of occasions that the Spirit is empowering the preaching of the Word through me. I think you’ve known it as well, either on the preaching or receiving end.
When I’m in the middle of preaching a text, being empowered and equipped in a manner that all recognize, is what I say then all of the sudden infallible and authoritative? Of course not. I can still say something wrong, interpret something incorrectly, and apply something poorly. I’m utterly fallible. Nor are you bound to obey what I say in that moment, no matter how powerful you perceive the Spirit to be working in that moment, as if what I say is now necessarily authoritative. The only time my words are authoritative when I stand behind the pulpit is when what I’m saying lines up exactly with what the Word of God says. But even then, you’re bound to obey what’s been said not because I said it but because the Bible says it. So, if we’re already aware of situations where we regularly minister in the power and equipping of the Holy Spirit and in those situations still do not speak infallibly or with divine authority, why do we think that changes in other situations where people are ministering in the power and equipping of the Holy Spirit. Simply stated: when we minister according to the gifts of the Holy Spirit what we say is never infallible or authoritative unless it lines up exactly with what the Bible says (in which case it’s only authoritative because the Bible says it, not us).
Therefore, I think we should always understand that any modern spiritual gifts are fallible and non-authoritative. And I mean this whether we comfortably call the Spirit’s works in and through us by the terms we see in Scripture (e.g. prophecy, words of knowledge, words of discernment) or we just believe that the Spirit works in ways that are analogous to the things he did when he gave these kinds of gifts in the New Testament times.
But let me make one final note of application, then:
I don’t think the Lord will hold us accountable to use the right terms, but I do think he’ll hold us accountable to his command that pursue love and earnestly to minister to one another by the equipping and working of the Holy Spirit.
That is, I don’t think we’re sinning if we call something prophecy and it isn’t or call something not prophecy when it is. But I do think we’re being disobedient if you and I aren’t characterized by a love for our brothers and sisters that leads us to long for and earnestly desire the Spirit to gift, equip, and empower us to minister to others for their building up, encouragement, and consolation. Therefore, within this framework, I want to encourage us as a church to pursue love and earnestly desire spiritual gifts. Amen.
1 This can be accessed at http://www.frame-poythress.org/modern-spiritual-gifts-as-analogous-to-apostolic-gifts-affirming-extraordinary-works-of-the-spirit-within-cessationist-theology/. Poythress has also written a more popular-level piece on this same topic that can be accessed at http://www.frame-poythress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/PoythressVernWhatAreSpiritualGifts.pdf.
2 This story can be found here: http://cccjackson.org/index.php/resource/sunday-school-theology/text/1125-why-this-sunday-school-series.
3 That story can be found here: http://cccjackson.org/index.php/resource/sunday-school-theology/text/1139-an-argument-that-the-gifts-continue.