On Acts 29 and Spiritual Gifts image

On Acts 29 and Spiritual Gifts

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There's an intriguing discussion taking place within Acts 29 at the moment over whether, and to what extent, miraculous spiritual gifts (like prophecy or healing) continue today. Sam Storms, an Acts 29 pastor who will be known to many readers, has recently released a book called Practising the Power: Welcoming the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in Your Life, which assumes the continuation of the gifts and focuses on how they should be used. Matt Chandler, President of Acts 29, wrote the foreword to it, describing it as a book he has been waiting for for fifteen years. (Full disclosure: I endorsed the book myself, and am speaking on healing at a conference with both of them in October.) Then a few weeks ago Steve Timmis, the CEO of Acts 29, wrote a friendly but critical review of Sam's book, in which he expressed a rather different view of the gifts, focusing particularly on healing. The personal encounters I have had with various Acts 29 pastors, both in the UK and the US, indicate that this exchange reflects the diversity in the network as a whole on the continuation of the miraculous gifts today.

This, as I say, is intriguing. It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary). It’s also intriguing because Mark Driscoll was always emphatically charismatic on this point, sometimes insisting that being charismatic was one of his four distinctives, yet the network clearly attracted many who were less persuaded. It’s intriguing because it reflects a fairly important difference in ministry philosophy, not to mention theology, which in turn reflects a rather broader theological bandwidth than I am used to within Newfrontiers. It’s intriguing because the very name of the movement implies a continuationist relationship between today (chapter 29) and the rest of the book of Acts (chapters 1-28). Most of all, it is intriguing because of the debate itself.

Much of Steve’s article is excellent. He is certainly right that the power of the Spirit is not only shown in healings and prophecies, but also in (say) perseverance and evangelism and sanctification (and I imagine Sam would agree). But Steve’s primary concern with Sam’s approach is that “it sets out to challenge its readers to faith and expectancy, yet it inadvertently encourages them to be satisfied with something less than the New Testament Christianity it claims to espouse.” In other words, by explaining how we should pursue miraculous healing today—talk to the person, diagnose the issue, listen to the Holy Spirit, pray, speak to the sickness in Jesus’ name, and so on—charismatics create “a discrepancy between their experience and what’s described in the New Testament.” Charismatics say we believe the miraculous gifts continue today, but our practice indicates such a gulf between the apostles and us that we belie our own rhetoric. In Scripture, “it’s clear the Spirit’s intervention is immediate and effective. There’s no process—described or prescribed. If the gifts are operative for today, then it seems reasonable to expect them to reflect what we see in the New Testament.”

It’s worth taking that challenge seriously. Those who are cautious on the miraculous gifts, let alone cessationist, are making an important observation here: you guys really aren’t at the same level as Peter, John, Paul, Stephen, Agabus and co. In Steve’s critique of Sam, that is followed by ... and you know it, which is a difficulty for your position. In a number of other critiques of charismatic practice, it leads to ... and you pretend otherwise, and should be ashamed of yourselves. But either way, the substance of the challenge is important to consider. Most of your tongue-speaking is not in unlearned, earthly languages. Most of your prophecy is hit-and-miss. Most of your healings are not instantaneous. That’s a problem.

There are a variety of responses that a charismatic could make to this, and each has its place. Jesus himself didn’t always heal instantaneously. There are actually far more instantaneous and dramatic miracles these days than you guys give God credit for. Tongues in Paul’s letters were probably a prayer language rather than an earthly language. New Testament prophecy can be fallible, too. You’re speaking from within a Western, functionally materialist society, which misses out much of the global picture. Paul didn’t heal everyone, and arguably Jesus didn’t either. And so on.

But the best response, I think, is as follows. Yes, the apostles were more successful at healing than we are. There is, indeed, a discrepancy between our experience and what’s described in the New Testament. But the apostles were also more successful at evangelism. And church planting. And leadership. And cross-cultural mission. And church discipline. And teaching. And standing firm under persecution. And handling disappointment. Yet in none of these cases do we conclude that the gulf is so wide, their “success” so much greater than ours, that to write a book telling people how to share the gospel, or teach, or lead more effectively, is to encourage people to be satisfied with sub-biblical Christianity. Rather, we acknowledge the disparity, and seek to learn from it. What did they do? How did they do it? What can we learn? What are we missing? Which contemporaries of ours is God using in this area at the moment? What can we learn from them? And so on.

This is also the most charismatic response, in the best sense of that word: it is the response that places the strongest possible emphasis on charisma, on gift. Some people’s healing and prophetic gifts, like some people’s evangelistic and leadership and pastoral gifts, are more developed than others. I see fewer people healed than my friend Simon Holley, who sees fewer people healed than Heidi Baker, who sees fewer people healed than Peter, who saw fewer people healed than Jesus. When I preach the gospel, fewer people come to faith than when my friend Adrian Holloway does, who sees fewer people come to faith than when Billy Graham did. My teaching gift isn’t John Piper’s, and his isn’t John Calvin’s, and his isn’t Paul’s. Gifts vary. “As it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor 12:18).

So is there a discrepancy between the quality, quantity and immediacy of New Testament miracles and ours? Yes. Does that mean the miraculous gifts are not for today? No. Unless teaching is not for today either, that is. In which case, you probably shouldn’t be reading this in the first place.

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