Surprised by the Power of the Spirit
by Dr. Jack Deere
2 Timothy 3:5
"having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people".
2 Timothy 3:5
"having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people".
Were Miracles Meant to Be Temporary?No one ever just picked up the Bible, started reading, and then came to the conclusion that God was not doing signs and wonders anymore and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had passed away. The doctrine of cessationism did not originate from a careful study of the Scriptures. The doctrine of cessationism originated in experience.
The failure to see miracles in one’s own experience and to locate them in past history required an explanation. How do you explain an absence of miracles in your experience when the New Testament is filled with miracles? There are essentially three possibilities. First, there is something wrong with your experience. Second, God has withdrawn miracles because he only intended them to serve temporary purposes. Third, the answer is locked in divine mystery, like the mystery of election or predestination. The first answer would lead you to expect the miraculous when your experience was corrected. The second answer wouldn’t lead you to expect the miraculous at all. The third answer leaves the question open.
As far as I know, no one has ever really attempted to argue for answer three. Since the days of the Reformation, many Protestant theologians have argued for answer two, that the gifts were only temporary in nature. The Reformers had two major reasons for formulating and systematizing theological arguments against contemporary miracles. First, their enemies, the Catholics, appealed to Catholic miracles in support of Catholic doctrine. In effect they said, "We have miracles that show God approves of our doctrine. Furthermore, we have a long history of miracles stretching back to New Testament times. What miracles can you point to that show that God approves of your doctrine?" This attack led the Reformers both to deny the validity of Catholic miracles, past and present, and to formulate theological arguments against contemporary miracles.
But I believe that was not the major reason that the Reformers attempted to use the Scriptures to argue against contemporary miracles. I believe the major reason was their lack of experience of the miraculous. Had they witnessed noteworthy miracles, they would never have attempted to argue that miracles were meant to be temporary.
Thus the Reformers were confronted with a choice: was their lack of experience of the miraculous due to a defect in their experience or to a divinely planned obsolescence of miracles? They chose to believe the latter. They now had the monumental task before them of explaining why God would be so liberal in giving miracles to the first-century church and so stingy with miracles in the centuries that followed. The trick was to prove that miracles were meant only to serve temporary purposes in the first century But how could they prove that?
They essentially had three ways of proving this. The first, and by far the best, was specific biblical statements that God intended miracles to be temporary. The second was theological deduction. This way of arguing is not as strong as specific statements of the Bible, but it is a valid way of proving doctrines. The third line of proof was experience. They could draw conclusions from their own experience or from the experience of others in past history. Thus they could examine the preceding 1,300 years of church history to see if there was firm evidence of the gifts of the Spirit among Christians in the preceding centuries.
The argument from experience is, without a doubt, the weakest of the three kinds of arguments. When we examine past history, we often cannot be sure of the facts or the interpretation of those facts. Moreover, when we look at our own experience we may know the facts but not the reason for the facts. We may know, for example, that we are depressed but not know why we are depressed. Did we do something to bring on the depression? Is it a result of circumstances beyond our control? Thus, even when we can accurately ascertain the facts, we may not understand the reason for those facts.
The Reformers left no doubt which of three kinds of arguments they valued above all the others. Sola Scriptura ("only the Scripture’) was one of the great battle cries of the Reformation. Yet here they faced not only a formidable obstacle but an insurmountable obstacle, for they could not produce one specific text of Scripture that taught that miracles or the spiritual gifts were confined to the New Testament period. Nor has anyone else since then been able to do that.
Having been deprived of the most powerful weapon in their arsenal, specific statements of Scripture, the Reformers were forced to appeal to theological deductions. But how were they ever going to deduce that miracles were intended to be temporary from a book that begins with miracles, persists in miracles, and ends with miracles?
THE PRIMARY CESSATIONIST ARGUMENT
Here is how they did it. The Reformers argued that the primary purpose of New Testament miracles was to authenticate the apostles as trustworthy authors of Holy Scripture. How would this argument prove that miracles were temporary? Because after the apostles had written the New Testament, miracles would have fulfilled their purpose and would no longer be necessary, for now the church would possess forever the miraculously attested written Word of God. This remains the primary argument among modern cessationists.
It would be useless for cessationists to prove that the primary purpose of miracles was to authenticate Jesus. If that were true, then there would be no explanation for why the apostles did miracles. If the primary purpose of miracles was to authenticate the Lord Jesus as the Son of God, why did the apostles have to do miracles? Why couldn’t they just talk about the miracles that Jesus did, as many preachers do today?
Nor can cessationists say that the major purpose of the miraculous was to authenticate the message about Jesus. If that were true, they would have no explanation for why miracles were not still needed to authenticate the message about Jesus. In other words, if the first-century generation of new converts needed miraculous authentication of the gospel message, why wouldn’t the succeeding generations of potential converts need that same miraculous authentication of the message?
The only defensible position is to maintain that miracles authenticated the apostles. If someone asks why only the apostles needed authentication for their witness to be credible and not the succeeding generations of witnesses, the cessationists have an answer ready at hand. The apostles were not just any witnesses. They were unique in that they were the writers of Holy Scripture. Therefore, more would be required to give them credibility than any other witnesses in history. So the purpose of miracles was not simply to authenticate the apostles as reliable witnesses to Jesus. Miracles showed them to be trustworthy teachers of doctrine and ultimately authenticated them as the divinely accredited human authors of Scripture. In practical terms this means that the real purpose of miracles was to authenticate or confirm the Scriptures. Once they had written the Scriptures, miracles would no longer be necessary, for now the church would possess the written Word of God.
In order to make their case, cessationists have to prove two things. First, they have to show that miracles authenticated the apostles. Second, they have to demonstrate that this was the primary purpose of miracles. If it could be shown that miracles did not authenticate the apostles or that there were other equally important purposes behind miracles or the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, then their whole case collapses.
Like most people in my theological circles [Deere is an ex-Dallas Seminary professor, and as such, signed the Dallas theological position of cessationism and dispensationalism, until he felt he could no longer do so, and was forced to leave], I had accepted the cessationists’ explanation of the purpose of miracles, especially as it received its formulation in Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles. Like other fundamentalists, I was sure that I believed this because it was what the Scriptures taught.
When I look back on that period of my life, I know that I did not believe this because the Scriptures taught it. I believed it because I hadn’t seen any miracles, and I needed a biblical justification for my lack of experience. That twenty-minute phone call [recorded earlier in his book as a profound changing point in his spiritual journey] with Dr. White led me to examine the cessationists’ argument with a much more open mind. This time I found the argument to have about as much strength as a sparrow in a hurricane. What I thought was my strongest argument against the contemporary ministry of miraculous gifts turned out to be my "strongest weakness."
After my first conversation with Dr. White, I was determined to look up every reference to healing and miracles in the New Testament to see exactly what it said about the purpose of miracles. I had never done that before! What I found convinced me that healing and miracles were not meant to be temporary.
A CLOSER LOOK AT MIRACLES
The first thing I noticed was that there are very few direct statements in the New Testament regarding the purposes of miracles. I never found a statement to the effect that "God gave miracles in order to . . ." I discovered that the purpose of miracles is sometimes indicated by "function" words accompanying the miracles themselves. Mark, for example, says that miracles "confirm" (Mark 16:20). John says that they "testify" (John 5:36). Peter says that Jesus was "accredited" by miracles (Acts 2:22). At other times the purpose of a miracle must often be inferred from the context or from the results of the miracle.
One clear purpose of miracles was to authenticate the character of Jesus and his relationship with his heavenly Father. In this regard, miracles demonstrate the following: God is with Jesus (John 3:2); Jesus is from God (John 3:2; 9:32-33); God has sent Jesus (John 5:36); Jesus has authority on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2:10-11; Matt. 9:6-7; Luke 5:24-25); Jesus is approved by God (Acts 2:22); the Father is in Jesus and Jesus is in the Father (John 10:37-38; 14:11); in Jesus the kingdom of God has come (Matt. 12:28; Luke 11:20); and Jesus is the Messiah (Matt. 11:1-6; Luke 7:18-23) and the Son of God (Matt. 14:25-33).
A second purpose of miracles was to authenticate the message about Jesus. This was the major function of the miracles as far as the ministry of the apostles was concerned. Mark says that the Lord "confirmed his word [that the apostles preached] by the signs that accompanied it" (Mark 16:20).4 When Luke was describing the ministry of Paul and Barnabas at Iconium, he said that the Lord "confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders" (Acts 14:3). Notice that in both of these texts the Lord does not confirm the apostles themselves but rather "his word" or "the message" that the apostles were preaching. Signs and wonders do not testify to the apostles but to the message of salvation preached by the apostles. So the two principal things that are authenticated by miracles are the Lord Jesus and the message about the Lord Jesus.
When I looked up all of these references, I was astounded to discover that not one reference ever said that miracles bore witness to the apostles, confirmed the apostles, or attested to the apostles. In short, miracles do not authenticate the apostles! And if we think about the theology of the New Testament, this makes perfect sense. With the coming of Jesus Christ, God wants all attention directed to his Son. The primary task of the Holy Spirit is to exalt Jesus Christ. God is not interested in bearing witness to his servants but rather to his Son and the message about his Son.
The Argument from 2 Corinthians 12:12
Sometimes people appeal to 2 Corinthians 12:12 as a text that seems to say that signs and wonders authenticate the apostles. The translation of the NIV does give that impression: "The things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles - were done among you with great perseverance." This translation, however, is inaccurate. A literal translation is, "The signs of an apostle were performed among you in all endurance with signs and wonders and miracles."
In this passage Paul uses "sign" (semeion) in two different ways. The first use of "sign" in the phrase "signs of an apostle" cannot refer to miracles, for then Paul would be saying that "the miracles of an apostle were done among you with signs and wonders and miracles." What would be the point of such a statement? Paul does not say that "the signs of an apostle" are miracles, but rather that "the signs of an apostle" are accompanied by signs, wonders, and miracles. If Paul had meant that the signs of his apostleship were signs and wonders and miracles, then he would have used a different construction in the Greek language.
What then were the signs of Paul’s apostleship? In contrast to the false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13-15), Paul appeals to his suffering as a vindication of his apostleship (2 Cor. 11:16-33, cf. Gal. 6:17; 1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 6:3-10). Hughes suggests that Paul’s blameless life was a sign of his apostleship. Plummer suggests that the effectiveness of Paul’s preaching, that is, the many conversions among those to whom Paul preached, was also a sign of his apostleship. In addition to these signs, Martin adds the call of God (1 Cor. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:1). According to Martin, since miracles can be counterfeited by false apostles,
When I really began to ponder the idea that the miracles were given to authenticate the apostles and their ministry, I saw that it was not only unscriptural but illogical. If the primary purpose of signs and wonders and miracles was to confirm the apostles, then why did Stephen and Philip do signs and wonders? If someone says that it was because the apostles laid hands on Stephen and Philip, that doesn’t really answer the question. If the primary purpose of miracles was to authenticate the apostles, then why did any one else have a ministry of signs and wonders or miracles? Why did God give gifts of healing and miracles to the church? (1 Cor. 12:7-10; Gal. 3:5). I have never read or heard of a sufficient answer to that question.
There is yet another serious problem with this whole argument. Let’s review a point made earlier: If Jesus’ miracles were sufficient to authenticate him as the Son of God and to authenticate his message, why did the apostles have to do miracles? The standard reply is that the apostles had to do miracles to show that they were trustworthy witnesses to Jesus Christ and trustworthy teachers of doctrine. But why couldn’t they just preach about the miracles as much of the church does today? Can’t we be regarded as trustworthy witnesses today without doing miracles? If we can, then why did the apostles need miracles? The Reformers replied that the apostles were more than just witnesses, they were inspired writers of inerrant Scripture. Miracles were necessary to confirm their writings as Scripture. This is the assumption lying at the bottom of the whole argument, but is it a biblical assumption? Were miracles necessary to confirm the Scriptures?
Does the Authority of Scripture Rest on Miracles?
None of the writers of Scripture ever appealed to miracles to support their claims that they were writing Scripture. They certainly knew that they were writing Scripture. For instance, Paul wrote, "If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command" (1 Cor. 14:37, cf. 1 Thess. 4:15). However, Paul did not appeal to the miracles in his ministry to support the fact that he was writing Scripture. Nor did Peter, when he referred to Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16).
No text of Scripture says that the authority of Scripture rests on miracles! In reality, it is just the opposite. Scripture tests miracles, but miracles are not a test for Scripture. Moses made this plain long ago. He warned the people that if a prophet or a dreamer of dreams gave them a sign or a wonder, and it came to pass, they were to ignore that miracle if it contradicted what had already been revealed to them (Deut. 13:1-5). If the primary function of miracles was to confirm Scripture, how would anyone judge the miracles of false prophets (Matt. 7:15-23), false christs and their prophets (Matt. 24:24), or the Antichrist (2 Thess. 2:9)?
This theory is also inconsistent with the actual character of the canon of Scripture. We have authors of Scripture who were not apostles and who never did any recorded miracles! These include Mark, Luke, and Jude (the brother of the Lord who wrote the letter of Jude). The book of Hebrews is even anonymous! All of these writers were non-apostles, and none of them have recorded miracles. Do these books have less authority than Paul’s letters? If the authority of Scripture rests on miracles done by its authors, then these writings would of necessity have less authority.
If those who hold this theory respond that Luke was a friend or a partner with Paul in ministry, and that is why his writing is to be viewed as inspired, then they would have to abandon the idea that miracles were needed to confirm Scripture. They would have to add a new criterion for canonicity: friendship or partnership with the apostles. This criterion for canonicity also lacks any direct scriptural support. If they argue that Peter commissioned Mark to write the gospel of Mark, they are now relying on tradition rather than Scripture itself. That puts them in the awkward place of having tradition establish the authority of Scripture rather than Scripture being our ultimate authority.
In any case, we have five works that constitute a very large portion of Scripture - the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, the book of Acts, the letter of Jude, and the book of Hebrews that cannot be explained by the theory that miracles were necessary to authenticate the Bible.
Orthodox theology has long held that the authority of Scripture does not rest on miracles. The authority of Scripture rests on its Author. Although there may be a number of factors that help to convince us of the authority of Scripture, we are ultimately persuaded of its authority by the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Were Miracles Needed to Launch the Church?
Some people teach that miracles were necessary for the gospel message to gain a hearing in the first century They see the miracles and healings of Jesus and the apostles as a sort of rocket booster to get the church "launched" and to get the gospel message an audience. Later, after the church was established and the gospel message had a place among other world religions, then the rocket booster could be jettisoned without any great loss to the church.
Thomas Edgar expresses this view when he writes,
However, the miraculous sign gifts put this whole message in a different perspective, since the miracles were evidence that the message was from God. The situation since the first century has never been the same. Missionaries going to jungle areas are referring to an individual with a reputation in the world, to a recognized religion and religious Figure, as far as the world is concerned. These missionaries come from groups of believers in countries where this religion is prevalent. It may be considered helpful by many to have miraculous confirmation of this gospel today. This may or may not be true, since full and well-testified confirmation has already been given by Christ and the apostles and is still ignored by those who live in countries where it is well known. There can be little doubt, however, that the need for confirmation at the beginning was greater than the need for this today.
Edgar’s explanation is also false because it substitutes worldly recognition for God’s power. Edgar maintains that after Christianity "had become a recognized group with some reputation" (emphasis mine), it no longer needed the power of miracles. Who would want to trade the miraculous power of God for worldly reputation? Warfield answered a slightly different form of this theory when he wrote, "When the protection of the strongest power on earth was secured [i.e., the Roman empire] the idea seemed to be the power of God was no longer needed." Where in the Scriptures can anyone find support for such an idea?
Finally, there is something else in this argument that is troubling to me. I have already stated that one of the legitimate functions of the miracles of the Lord and the apostles was to authenticate or testify to Jesus and the message about him. But were miracles evernecessary in order for people to believe in the gospel? Edgar writes as though they were, at least in the beginning of the church. Why? According to Edgar the historical obscurity and novelty of the gospel message seemed to have required miracles to prove it. He asks, "Who could accept such a message?"
This is dangerously close to demeaning the inherent power of the gospel message. Surely the gospel which "is the power of God for salvation" was sufficient apart from miracles. Surely God did not have to do miracles in order to achieve his ends.
The greatest miracle in the world is that God loves us and his Son died for us. His love for us is, and forever will remain, an inexplicable mystery. The most amazing supernatural event ever to occur was the incarnation and then the death of the eternal Son in the place of sinful humanity, followed by his bodily resurrection. Surely the greatest wonder is that by faith alone in Jesus Christ we receive the gift of eternal life. Surely the greatest power any human will ever know is the power of the cross of Jesus Christ. Through the cross we not only have forgiveness but also access into God’s glorious presence.
The power of Christ’s death is so great that no Christian has to live under any moral bondage. No Christian has to be at the mercy of lust, anger, sin, fear, death, or Satan. Surely this good news is the greatest news that has ever been given. Surely this message is greater than any miracles accompanying it. Surely the gospel is capable of capturing the hearts of people without requiring any accompanying miracles!
When I was seventeen years old and committed to rebellion, my heart was completely captured by Jesus when I heard a friend tell me about the inexplicable grace of the gospel. I knew nothing of the rest of the New Testament, nothing of the other miracles, and yet that night, December 18, 1965, at 2:00 AM, by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ I became a new creation. That is exactly what the apostle Paul said the gospel message would do. He wrote:
Edgar says, "Who could accept such a message?" For one Lydia and her family had no trouble at all accepting this message as they heard Paul preach it without any accompanying miracles (Acts 16:14-15). In the first century the Holy Spirit was perfectly capable of producing conviction and belief without miracles (John 16:8). John the Baptist’s ministry also brought conviction and repentance, but John did no miracles (John 10:41). Even the world religions and cults have been born and are flourishing without the power of miracles. Do we seriously want to claim anything less for the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ?
I believe that miracles do have an authenticating function, and later I will argue that they can open wide doors for preaching the gospel and even bring people to repentance. However, the simple preaching of the gospel could do all of these things without miracles at any time in history and can still do them today. When miracles are given by God to authenticate gospel preaching, it is done on the basis of grace, not out of a divine necessity to make up for a deficiency in the gospel message. Miracles are a gracious gift from God which may serve many functions, but we should never isolate one function and view it as the ultimate and necessary purpose of miracles unless we have clear biblical evidence for doing so.
Using the Gospels & Acts to Support Miracles Today
It has been said that we cannot use the Gospels and Acts as evidence that God heals or works miracles today because they are "transition" books. Acts gives us the record of the transition from the Old Testament era to the New Testament era. Acts shows the church in its infancy, its immaturity. Therefore, we cannot determine what is supposed to be normal in church life based on the book of Acts. All we can determine is what was normal in the immaturity of the church. Above all, we cannot draw doctrine from the book of Acts-or so the argument goes. Doctrine for the church is to be drawn from the epistles of Paul.
If this argument were valid, it would actually mean that the Gospels and Acts would tell us nothing about Jesus’ attitude toward healing and miracles today. It would only reflect his attitude at the beginning of the church’s birth. This argument is false for a number of reasons.
First, theologians have always used the Gospels and Acts for doctrine. For example, since Calvin’s day Reformed theologians have been delighted to use John 6:44 and Acts 13:48 to prove the doctrine of unconditional election. Likewise, dispensationalists appeal to the Gospels and to Acts to support their dispensationalism. John 1:17 is used by dispensationalists to prove there is a clear distinction between the dispensations of law and grace. Professors of missions and evangelists regularly use the Gospels and Acts to teach doctrines of missions and evangelism. The Gospels and Acts are major sources for our doctrine of Christology They are primary sources for the study of how the New Testament uses the Old Testament. The book of Acts is also crucial in determining what we believe about church government (cf. Acts 20:17ff.). It is simply not true that we cannot use the Gospels and Acts for doctrine. Everyone does it.
What this argument really means is that we may not use the Gospels and Acts to determine doctrine about supernatural events in the life of the church today. In other words, people who use this argument are actually employing an antisupernatural hermeneutic when they read the book of Acts.
Let me explain what I mean by this and then illustrate it.
Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. It deals with the rules of interpretation, that is, how we ought to interpret the Scriptures (or any written text, for that matter). An antisupernatural hermeneutic is a system of interpretation that eliminates the supernatural elements of the Bible. German liberal theologians such as Bultmann did this by "demythologizing" the New Testament miracles. They claimed the miracles did not occur at all; they were stories invented to give expression to myths that had been current in the ancient Near East. Conservative writers who would never dream of treating the Scriptures in this cavalier manner have another way of employing an antisupernatural hermeneutic. They have a system of reading the Bible which says that all the miracles occurred back then, but they are not meant for today.
For example, when one of my students would tell me he wanted to become a missionary and plant churches because he was inspired to do this as he read Paul’s story in the book of Acts, I would give him my blessing. I had no problem believing that God would use Paul’s story in Acts to inspire a student to become a missionary and plant churches. I thought this was a valid use of Scripture. But if that same student were to tell me that after reading the book of Acts he wanted God to use him in a healing ministry, I would have immediately corrected him. I would have told him that this was a false use of the Scripture. In other words, I employed a system of interpretation that said, "You are free to copy the nonmiraculous elements in the Gospels and Acts, but you are not free to copy the miraculous elements."
I was reading the Gospels and Acts through the lens of an antisupernatural hermeneutic. Every time I came upon a miraculous story, these lenses agreed that the story happened, but they filtered out any present-day miraculous application of that passage.
How does one justify this antisupernatural hermeneutic? Where in the Scriptures are we told to read the Bible like this? Where in the Scriptures are we given a hermeneutic that says you may copy the things that are nonmiraculous, but you cannot copy or expect the miraculous events for today?
This argument is false for a second reason. In the ancient world, especially in the ancient Near Eastern world of which the Bible is a part, the most common way to communicate theology was to tell a story. Stories were written to communicate theological doctrine. Sometimes modern writers treat the Gospels and Acts as if they were nothing more than "newspaper" accounts of what happened. They are definitely more than this; they are themselves theologies. When Luke wrote his Gospel and the book of Acts, he selected all of his material very carefully to teach definite theological truths to his audience.
This is still common today in the East. I just returned from a large conference in Singapore, and one of the pastors there told me that it was very common for one of the Chinese Christian fathers in his church to answer his child’s theological question with a story. When we think about how much both the Old and New Testament consist of narrative literature, we are forced to conclude that God also liked this method of teaching theology.
In my copy of the King James New Testament, the Gospels and Acts take up 205 pages, the Pauline Epistles 87 pages, other epistles 34 pages, and Revelation 22 pages. The Gospels and Acts make up 59 percent of the New Testament. All of the Epistles together make up 35 percent. If the argument were true that we cannot use the Gospels and Acts as sources of doctrine, that would mean we would have to discard virtually 59 percent of the New Testament as doctrinally worthless. That would give us only 35 percent of the New Testament from which to determine our doctrines!
Of course, nobody really believes this. They only mean you cannot use the Gospels and Acts to determine the relevance of miracles for the church’s present ministry, and this is a completely arbitrary decision. It is not based on the teaching of the Bible but rather on a personal prejudice.
A third reason that this argument is false is because it contradicts Scripture. The apostle Paul said that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine[!], for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 KJV). Paul said all Scripture - not just the Epistles but the Gospels and Acts - is profitable for teaching.
The argument contradicts Scripture in another way. At least six times in Paul’s writings he either commands Christians to follow his example as he follows Christ’s example, or he approves of those who follow his example (1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:1; Phil. 3:17; 4:9; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2 Thess. 3:9). Paul did not make a distinction between those elements in his life that were miraculous and those that are not viewed as miraculous. Paul copied Christ. Christ had miraculous elements in his life, and so did Paul. Are we only to imitate those nonmiraculous elements in the lives of Jesus and Paul? Are they simply to be examples for moral living but not for miraculous ministry? Paul makes no such distinction when he exhorts us to imitate him.
We must remember that the only inspired record we have, or ever will have of church history is the book of Acts! This is the only period of church history where we can be absolutely sure that our record is one hundred percent accurate. It is the only period of church history where we can be absolutely certain of God’s opinion of the church’s life and ministry.
The book of Acts is the best source that we have to demonstrate what normal church life is supposed to look like when the Holy Spirit is present and working in the church. Here we find a church that has passion for God, is willing to sacrifice - even to the point of martyrdom - and is a miracle-working church. Why would we think that God wants the church to be something different today? Would anyone seriously rather have the church in Calvin’s day or the church in twentieth-century America as the model of normal church life?
Remember a point mentioned earlier: If you take a new convert, who prior to his conversion knew nothing about the history of Christianity or the New Testament, and you lock him in a room with a Bible for a week, he will come out believing that he is a member of a body that is passionately in love with the Lord Jesus Christ and a body that consistently experiences miracles and works miracles. It would take a clever theologian with no experience of the miraculous to convince this young convert differently.
Whatever purposes we assign to the miracles of the New Testament, period, we cannot say that God did them out of necessity to make up for deficiencies surrounding the initial preaching of the gospel. The healings and miracles were entirely gracious on God’s part. The gospel could have and would have been believed apart from any miracles. Nor can we say that God did miracles to authenticate the apostles or to prove the authority of Scripture.
Yet the entire New Testament - including the Gospels and Acts-reveals that God did do miracles, he did heal people, and he had important purposes for these activities.
1. Calvin lamented that his Catholic opponents did "not cease to assail our doctrine and to reproach and defame it with names that render it hated or suspect. They call it 'new' and 'of recent birth.' They reproach it as 'doubtful and uncertain.' They ask what miracles have confirmed it" (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Prefatory Address, 3).
For a helpful discussion of this period, see John Ruthven, On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic of Benjamin B.
Warfield (Ph.D. diss., Marquette University, 1989). See especially chapter two, "Historical Antecedents to B. B. Warfield's Cessationist Polemic," pp. 21-62. Sheffield Press will publish this work in the fall of 1993.
2. The two texts most commonly used to serve this function are Ephesians 2:20 and Hebrews 2:3-4. Ephesians 2:20 is considered in more detail on page 248. The cessationist interpretation of Hebrews 2:3-4 is evaluated in note 6 of this chapter.
3. Calvin was not as narrow regarding the purpose of miracles as his posterity would become. In the Institutes he saw miracles: proving the deity of Jesus because unlike the apostles Christ did miracles by his own power (1.13.13); confirming the gospel preached by the apostles (PA3); and he used the miracles of Moses to argue that miracles confirmed Scripture and vindicated the authority of God's servants (1.8.5).
The Reformers' emphasis on the authenticating function of miracles crystallized into its final form in Benjamin Warfield's Counterfeit Miracles. Warfield saw the distinctive or Primary purpose of miracles as the authentication of the apostles as trustworthy teachers of doctrine (pp. 6, 21, 23). Ultimately then the purpose of miracles is to authenticate the inscripturated revelation of God (pp. 25-26). In my opinion, this was and is the best possible way to attempt to prove from the Scriptures that miracles and the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were confined to the New Testament period.
4. The majority of New Testament scholars do not think this verse or the last twelve verses of Mark's Gospel were written by Mark himself.
They think that the original ending to Mark's Gospel was lost and that these verses were added later by someone other than Mark. Nevertheless, these last twelve verses were written very early in the history of the church, for they are found in several manuscripts of Tatian's Diatessaron (A.D. 170). They were also quoted by Irenaeus (who died in A.D. 202) and Tertullian (who died in A.D. 220). At the very least, therefore, these verses reflect what the early church thought about the purposes of miracles, even if these verses are not considered part of the original Scriptures.
5. There is one use of the verb "to bear witness," martureo, in which it is said of the Gentiles at Cornelius' house that God "showed [that is, bore witness] that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us" (Acts 15:8). Here the point, however, is not that he allowed Cornelius and the Gentiles to work miracles to authenticate them as special servants, but rather that his giving the Holy spirit to them demonstrated that they were believers on a par with the Jewish Christians.
6. The word translated as "confirmed," abebaioo, is also used of Christ's confirming the promises of God to the patriarchs (Rom. 15:8) and of God strengthening his servants (1 Cor. 1:8; 2 Cor. 1:21; Col.
2:7; Heb. 13:9). But it is never used of miracles confirming a servant.
Hebrews 2:3-4 is frequently used by cessationists to prove that miracles ceased with the apostles. The author of Hebrews asks us:
How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This
salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to
us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs,
wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit
distributed according to this will.
The author of Hebrews is not limiting this text to the apostles. He does not say that the message was confirmed by the apostles, but that the message was confirmed "by those who heard" the Lord.
The apostles were not the only ones who heard the Lord. Others heard him also, and others did miracles and received miraculous gifts of the Spirit. In other words, the writer of the book of Hebrews seems to be saying that neither he, nor his audience, heard the Lord directly nor saw his miracles directly.
They first heard the message about the Lord Jesus through "those who had heard him" directly. When they heard this message, God, confirmed it by working signs and wonders through he group that preached to them.
It could have been the apostles who preached to them, but it also could have been others who had originally heard the Lord.
The text certainly leaves open the possibility that God will confirm with miracles the message about the Lord Jesus when it is preached by others who did not hear Jesus directly.
7. "Signs, wonders, and miracles" are in the dative case and are probably meant to be taken as datives of accompaniment.
8. He would have used the nominative case rather than the dative case.
See Ralph P. Martin, 2 Corinthians (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1986), p. 436.
9. The word in 2 Corinthians 12:12 translated "perseverance," hupomone, implies suffering as well. He also appeals to revelations from the Lord in defense of his apostleship (2 Cor. 12:1-10).
10. Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1962), p. 457. He cites 2 Corinthians 1:12; 2:17; 3:4ff.; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3ff.; 7:2; 10:13ff.; and 11:6, 23ff.
11. Alfred Plummer, Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians
(Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1915), p. 359. He cites 2 Corinthians 3:2 and
1 Corinthians 2:4; 9:2).
12. Martin, 2 Corinthians, p. 434.
13. Ibid., p. 434-36.
14. Ibid., p. 438.
15. This is what The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:
The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be
believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or
church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author
thereof; and therefore it is to be received because it is the Word
of God (1.4).
In support of this statement the Westminster divines appealed to 2 Peter 1:19, 21; 2 Timothy 3:16; 1 John 5:9; and 1 Thessalonians 2:13.
Calvin made the same point in the Institutes (1.7.5).
16. Again, consider the teaching of The Westminster Confession of Faith:
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the church to
an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the
heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the
majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the
whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it
makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other
incomparable excellencies and the entire perfection thereof, are
arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word
of God; yet, notwithstanding our full persuasion and assurance of
the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the
inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word
in our hearts (1.5).
On this point the Westminster divines appealed to 1 John 2:20, 27; John 16:13-14; 1 Corinthians 2:10-12; and Isaiah 59:21. Calvin made this same point in the Institutes (1.7.5).
17. Thomas Edgar, Miraculous Gifts (Neptune, N.J.: The Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), pp. 263-264.
18. Counterfeit Miracles, p. 21.
19. Warfield dismisses this explanation as unscriptural (ibid., p. 21), and calls it "helpless" since
the reason which gives for the continuance of miracles during the
first three centuries, if valid at all, is equally valid for their
continuance to the twentieth century. What we shall look upon as
the period of the planting of the church is determined by our point
of view. If the usefulness of miracles in planting the church were
sufficient reason for their occurrence in the Roman Empire in the
third century, is hard to deny that it may be sufficient for the
repetition of them in, say, the Chinese Empire in the twentieth
century. And why go to China/? Is not the church essentially in the
position of a missionary church everywhere in this world of
unbelief? When we take a really 'long view' of things, is it not at
least a debatable question whether the paltry 2000 years which have
passed since Christianity came into the world are not a negligible
quantity, and the age in which we live is not still the age of the
primitive church? (Benjamin B. Warfield, Counterfeit Miracles
[Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1918; reprint edition 1972],
The Anglicans to whom Warfield replied held the same theory as Edgar, only they saw the miracles ceasing at the end of the third century rather than at the end of the first as Edgar does. Warfield's objections are still valid regardless of where one puts the cessation of miracles.
21. This subject is referred to today in academic disciplines as "narrative theology." The advances in recent scholarly discussions of narrative theology ought to eliminate forever this argument that we cannot use the Gospels and the book of Acts as sources of doctrine.
FOR FURTHER STUDY ON THE ERRONEOUS DOCTRINE OF CESSATIONISM WHICH ORIGINATED WITH THE FOUNDERS OF THE REFORMATION I RECOMMEND THE FOLLOWING BOOK WRITTEN BY DR. JACK DEERE: