Marv and I are currently working through a series in which we are interacting with Michael Patton’s eight-part series entitled “Why I’m Not Charismatic”. You can also download Patton’s series in a 22-page PDF file.
If you want to read our first five posts, they are here:
To be honest, I believe this is the most difficult section of Patton’s series with which I have had to respond. It isn’t so much that the difficulty comes on biblical and theological grounds, but what has happened is that the lines have become extremely blurred. On a more positive note, this could be a good thing for the sake of seeing continuationists and cessationists come closer and closer to agreement, moving towards greater unity in this particular area of our theology (which includes practical theology or orthopraxy).
But with section 6 of “Why I’m Not a Charismatic”, this becomes difficult for at least two main reasons.
- Agreement that, because God is sovereign, He can do the miraculous.
- Terms like normative, expectations and sign gifts.
Now, I am aware some of these things have already been addressed previously in some form or manner. But they keep coming up, these same underlying statements. And, so, hence why I am re-addressing them, but hopefully with some newer thoughts.
1) God Is Sovereign and Can Do Miracles
This is where the blurring of lines, or confusion, begins. For example, Patton lays out this well-known argument from more modern-day cessationism:
Folks, we all believe in miracles to varying degrees. If you don’t then you have departed from the historic Christian worldview and slipped into some variation thereof (something of the deist sort).
I identify this as a more ‘modern-day’ argument because I am not sure you would have heard too many cessationists some 50 to 100 years ago arguing this. They would have believed that God certainly did (past tense) the miraculous in biblical times during the three main clusters of Moses-Joshua, Elijah-Elisha and Jesus-the first apostles. But the purpose of such had been fully exhausted long ago with the completion of the New Testament canon.
But, today, as Michael reminds us, we all believe in miracles to varying degrees.
I would identify these types of statements as a ‘get out of jail free’ card. I am not trying to be nasty here, but I am trying to be real. When it comes to discussion around these issues, many modern-day cessationists will slap this card on the table as if to say, ‘Yeah, well we believe in those things as well. We believe God is sovereign and can do whatever He wills.’ And, thus, this should settle the matter.
Now we must respect a cessationist’s acceptance that our God is truly a God of the miraculous. This is a starting point. And you even have people now, like Patton, who say they are open to all the gifts of the Spirit. But there is still much confusion when you start digging deeper into their belief, especially the more practical distinctions.
But I believe the arguments like, ‘Of course God is sovereign and, so, He can do miracles whenever He wants,’ can serve as a smoke screen. I suppose both Calvinists and Arminians believe in God’s foreknowledge and predestination, since the words show up in Scripture. But how does this break down for both groups? A lot differently.
So, Patton even notes some differences between the continuationist and cessationist.
A continuationist/charismatic is one who believes that the so-called supernatural sign gifts such as tongues, prophecy, worker of miracles, etc. are normative for the church and that we should commonly expect people to be gifted with them.
A cessationist is one who believes that the supernatural sign gifts ceased after the death of the last Apostle or shortly thereafter due to an exhaustion in their purpose. Therefore, we should not expect such gifts in the church today.
Differences? Yes, though oddly Patton makes this statement later on:
Even most cessationists believe that God could gift anyone with the gift of tongues or prophecy at his will.
This is where some can be left with a furrowed brow of confusion. What do cessationists believe here? Can God perform and give such gifts? Does God do such? Or does He not?
So, it seems at this rate, anyone could play a ‘get out of jail free’ card with regards to our beliefs. ‘Well, if God is really God and can do anything He wants, then He will do A or B or Y or Z.’ Or how about, ‘Well if God is really God, then He could reveal Himself to me.’ Or finally, ‘If God wants others to know about Him, He could tell them.’
Goodness, this all sounds like we are moving towards Christian-agnosticism. But don’t let the clay stand before the potter saying, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ There is responsibility with our faith. We cannot just claim something of black ink on white paper, or black type on a blog. There is responsibility given to the believer.
Listen, I am completely convinced of the sovereignty of King Jesus and that our Father in heaven can accomplish anything He wants. Nothing can thwart His plans. Nothing! But that will never stand as an excuse for the saints to not pursue all that God has for us in Christ by the His Spirit.
So, with regards to miracles, healings, prophecy, etc, we can’t just sit around and claim God’s sovereignty and go about our business as if we have ticked (checked) all the boxes that are required. We can’t even simply tick the box that says, ‘I’m open’ (see more here). Many have been open to Christ. But following is a different matter.
2) The Confusing Terms
Ah, but here comes the clarification of the contention and difference, this from Michael’s own words:
A charismatic, however, believes that these are normative and that we should expect them. Did you get those two important words? Normative. Expect.
The words normative and expect can cause the two groups to talk past one another, and even people within the same group can talk past one another due to these terms. Now, I already addressed the word normative in my part 2, but I thought I would reiterate some things and share some more thoughts.
I believe the use of these terms can become just another ‘get out of jail free’ card. Why? Because each person has a different definition of what is normative and what is to be expected. But just as I was not willing to grant the first pass, I cannot allow this one either.
Cessationist and continuationist would both agree that the fruit of the Spirit are normative and to be expected. I’ve yet to hear anyone claim for their ceasing and I don’t expect to ever hear such. But do we always see the fruit manifested? Heck, there are even periods when we might say the fruit of the Spirit seemed quite foreign to a portion of the church. I’m thinking the period of the Crusades, I’m thinking of western expansion into places like Africa or North America (all in the name of Christ many a times).
But, guess what? These are still normative and to be expected, right?
There have been times when polygamy was acceptable, but the norm and expectation, from a biblical standpoint, was to the contrary. There was a time when indulgences and penance were acceptable, but the Christlike norm and expectation should have been different. There was a time when slavery was acceptable, but the norm and expectation was to the contrary.
Ah, but this is much different with the issue of miracles and healings. Is it? I know what Scripture teaches as the norm and expectation of the body of Christ. Christ’s body is to be all of Christ in all the earth.
Michael goes on to remind us:
However, there may be times in history when miracles do happen much more regularly. God moves in time at his leisure and has complete freedom. We dare not attempt to bind his freedom with an artificial theological position of our own systematic comfort. I believe that there are times in history and places where miracles do seem to become regulars. But, generally speaking, they are extremely rare. Too much expectation can set us up for disillusionment. Most people don’t get healed. Everyone stays dead. Christian’s bills sometimes don’t get paid.
Wow! Let’s just hand out an infinite book of passes, those ‘get out of jail free’ cards. We need a bunch here today.
This kind of thinking, this kind of theology, this kind of practical theology leaves us with a bunch of theory and absolutely no expectation. In theory, we say it could happen. But we walk around with no expectation at all. That is not too healthy, is it? We never step out in faith to pray for the sick, we never take the time to listen to God as if He might speak, we never step out to utter that which we believe God is communicating.
Sure, we might fail or miss it at times. You know, just as those in the cloud of witnesses could have and did miss it at times, and all those since. I’m not trying to throw out my own ‘get out of jail free’ card. This is simply the reality that God’s people can and do miss things. God speaks and we don’t realise it. God doesn’t speak and we think He does. I’ve prayed for people before with a faith that they would be healed, and they weren’t. I’ve not prayed for people at times because I didn’t want to deal with the disillusionment of another non-healed person.
But, as a friend wrote in a song – Our disillusionment is how we grow. But I still want to take steps of faith. And as we keep journeying in hearing God, we will become more and more sensitive to the words of the Father, looking to emulate the Son’s own reliance upon the Father (John 5:19).
So, with the particular words normative and expectation, I think they become unhelpful on many counts. If a continuationist speaks of all gifts of the Spirit being normative or that we should expect them, I am pretty sure most don’t believe this necessarily warrants that we each walk around every single day laying hands on the sick and seeing healing or receiving revelation that we stand up an prophesy publicly. I’m not sure this was the mindset of even the early church. Maybe, maybe not.
But the problem begins when we take a more individualistic mindset on these things, or only viewing things from the standpoint of our own local church. We forget that Christ has a body of believers spread right across planet earth, possibly reaching the 2 billion mark now, which Patton testifies to himself on his own blog. Even if that number were a bit high, and even if we sliced that number to only consider those who were truly pursuing Jesus, we would be left with a large portion of people interested in pursuing the things of God. And to think that Jesus might even do something without the express permission of His people.
But in our western mindset, we only think about our lives or our local church. Yet Jesus is Lord of a body that spans across all 24 time zones. I’m thinking that, though you or I might not see a miracle today, God is quite actively at work all across the world and these things are taking place on a daily basis. Remember, 2 billion Christians today.
And please don’t put this off to just third-world areas. Yes, there is a lot more regular testimonies of miraculous activity in places like Africa, India and China. I have plenty of ministry friends that can testify to such. But I almost vomit when I hear someone argue that, the reason this happens more regularly in the third-world is because the testimony of Christ has not fully spread to those areas nor are the Scriptures fully distributed in these places. Huh? What?
So if these people in the third-world spread the gospel a little more, receive more copies of Scripture and acquire more theological training, then the norm and expectation would then be to see the miraculous fade? Are we serious? This only resembles the age-old argument that these things pretty much faded sometime after John, the apostle, died and the New Testament canon was completed. It’s just more suitable for the modern day. Please give me a break.
God’s activity, the norm of His activity, is to do that which only He can do – to reveal Himself, to testify to Himself, to break in with the kingdom rule of God which brings salvation, righteousness, healing, revelation, faith, hope, peace, joy, etc. That is God’s activity from Genesis to Revelation, which includes us since Christ has not returned to marry His bride.
As to our expectation, well Jesus did teach that those who believe in Him would do the works that He did (John 14:12), which is not only tied to miracles or healings or prophecy, but does include those. Luke starts off Acts by telling us that, in his first book, he wrote to tell all that Jesus began to do (Acts 1:1), thus expecting more to continue via His Spirit-empowered body. And Paul says to earnestly desire spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14:1), even telling us to not despise prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:20) and to not forbid speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39). And remember, Michael tells us that Scripture actually does not teach that these gifts will end.
So, if they are not to end, and we have so much encouragement to continue on in these things of Jesus, then let’s get on with lining ourselves up with the challenge of the God-breathed Scripture. Let us take the free-pass cards back off the table.
Normative – Yes, knowing that Jesus has a people spread across planet earth.
Expectation – Yes, according to the teaching of Scripture, which Michael affirms.
As for sign gifts, those who frequent To Be Continued will note that we are not huge fans of categorising certain gifts of the Spirit as sign-gifts. It’s a dubious category that cessationists have created to serve their own purpose. I am a little more benevolent than Marv in recognising that this sign-gift category might be semantically sustained. But, if so, there is still nothing suggesting that this sign-gift group gets chucked out or becomes rare as the church moved into the second century AD.
Still, so we don’t get too repetitive, and so I don’t go on and on, I point you to this post and this post to read more about the sign gifts.
So, of course, it is quite easy for both cessationists and continuationists to espouse their belief in God’s sovereignty and that He can perform miracles whenever He wants. That’s great in one sense, but not too helpful in another. Doctrinal statements consisting of white paper and black ink don’t lead to something being a reality in our lives. Rather, we are challenged to align ourselves with Scripture’s teaching, this being true even if what we see around us is contrary to biblical teaching. And Michael Patton believes Scripture teaches that these gifts will not cease.
So, what is the next step? I think Marv already gave some practical points to consider in part 3.
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