“Greater things than these” image

“Greater things than these”

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Jesus promised that those who believe in Him would do greater miracles even than those he himself had performed. Church history, though, has been divided over what this meant: was miraculous power given just for a season – a season which has now passed – or is it still available today?

...those miraculous powers and manifest operations, which were distributed by the laying on of hands, have ceased. They were only for a time. For it was right that the new preaching of the gospel, the new kingdom of Christ, should be signalised and magnified by unwonted and unheard-of miracles. When the Lord ceased from these, he did not forthwith abandon his Church but intimated that the magnificence of his kingdom, and the dignity of his word, had been sufficiently manifested.1

 
Would it surprise you to learn that the above words are those of Reform champion John Calvin?  Yet here we find one of the (for Charismatics at least) uncomfortable trends of the Reformation: the seeds of the Doctrine of the Cessation of Miracles, what Phil Moore referred to in his recent seminar at Together on a Mission as ‘the failure of the Reformation’.
 
Simply put, the cessationist doctrine held that the age of miracles had ceased.  Miracles no longer occurred because their initial purposes - to establish the divinity of Christ and to establish the truth of the Gospel - have been fulfilled.  Therefore, miracles are no longer necessary and Christians are required to live by faith alone and not seek signs or tokens from God.
 
Calvin’s view was not an obscure opinion – in fact, it became the prevailing attitude towards the supernatural amongst the learned Protestant elite (puritans included) in the post-Reformation period and, sadly, one of the defining characteristics of the established church.  John Hooper, Bishop of Worcester and Gloucester, and a Protestant martyr, stated that

I believe . . . the gospel in the very time by God appointed was confirmed and approved by heavenly miracles, as well as by Jesus Christ himself, . . . and that after such a sort, that for the confirming thereof there is no more need of new miracles; but rather we must content ourselves with that is done, and simply and plainly believe only the holy scriptures, without seeking any further to be taught; watching and still taking heed to ourselves, that we be not beguiled and deceived with the false miracles of Antichrist, wherewith the world at this day is stuffed.2


 
Born essentially out of anti-Catholicism, criticism of priestly abuses of the supernatural led to an outright hostility towards miracles as a whole.  Indeed, any contemporary miracles were seen not as ‘true’ miracles, but rather as the false signs and wonders warned about in Matthew 24, and marks of the antichrist.  Unequivocal denial of miracles addressed the potential anxiety that could be caused by the necessity for discernment: if the devil could indeed transform himself into an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), how could one know if a given sign was a true miracle or a deception of the devil?
 
For Protestants, the gospel itself was sufficient for the believer – everything that needs to be known is found there. Those who sought miracles left themselves open to deception and new religion, uncertainty and innovation.  William Perkins, the famous puritan theologian, stated that

God is tempted when men require a signe at his hands…And thus doe all those tempt God, which refuse to embrace the doctrine of the Gospel, because they cannot see the ministers therof to confirme the same by miracles. Thus do many Papists plead against our religion, embracing rather the mysterie of iniquity, because: it is confirmed vnto them by lying wonders; not considering that the truth which wee professe was once sufficiently confirmed to bee the truth of God, by his owne testimony thereunto in signes & wonders through the hands of his Apostles.3

 
In certain ways, the cessationist doctrine seems almost like a logical conclusion of the principle of sola fide: if a person is saved by faith alone, then what role do miracles play?  Well, to answer the question, let’s revisit what Jesus has to say about miracles.  One of the promises he makes to his followers is that

...these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. (Mark 16:17-18)

 
Furthermore, Jesus states:

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
(John 14:12-14)

 
The fundamental weakness of the cessationist doctrine is simply that there is no scriptural basis for it.  There is no mention of a ‘time-limit’ to the miraculous.  And notice the caveat here: so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  In this regard, the issue of salvation in relation to miracles seems almost moot.  We can do away with dense theological questions of whether miracles induce faith, or if faith is first required to apprehend miracles.  The simple fact is that miracles glorify God, the same God who created the universe, who holds time and eternity in his hands, and whose ways are unfathomable. Why should we even question the idea that this same God would perform miracles here and now as he did in the days of the Bible?
 
Sadly, the cessationist attitude became the prevailing one in English Protestantism – indeed, if you are looking for occurrences of the miraculous in the history of English Christianity since the Reformation, you will have more luck studying Catholic annals! It was only really with the rise of Pentecostalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then the Charismatic movement in the 1960s, that Christians began to reclaim the miraculous gifts of the Spirit.
 
Yet the reality is that even today we face people, Christians included, who are suspicious of or even downright hostile to things of the Spirit.  It’s not seen as terribly British, and some Christians even feel that Charismatic worship is disrespectful because it doesn’t seem very reverential!
 
I think this is a challenge for us: a challenge to really step out in things of the Spirit and to really believe God can do the impossible: and I speak to myself as much as anyone else here! I am passionate about seeing the culture and expression of Christianity in the UK change in this regard: I want to see the church throw off the shackles of ‘Britishness’, the stiff upper lip and the fear of what others think: I want to see a church in the UK that actively demonstrates God’s power and might, so that He may be glorified.  I don’t think we should settle: I think we should be seeing more of the miraculous - we know God can do these things; maybe we need to start really, faithfully and persistently pursuing them. Amen?

Footnotes

  • 1 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol.4, Part 21, Chapter 19 from John Calvin (Trans. by Henry Beveridge, Esq), Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Printed for the Calvin Translation Society, 1845-46), p. 627.

  • 2 John Hooper, A briefe and clear confession of the Christian faith, conteining an hundreth articles, according to the order of the Creede of the Apostles (1581), quoted by Robert Bruce Mullin, ‘Horace Bushnell and the Question of Miracles’ from Church History, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Cambridge University Press, December, 1989), p. 461.

  • 3 William Perkins, The combat betvveene Christ and the Diuell displayed: or A commentarie vpon the temptations of Christ: preached in Cambridge by that reuerend and iudicious diuine M. William Perkins (London: Printed by Melchisedech Bradwood for E. E[dgar] and are to be solde [by Cuthbert Burby] in Pauls Church-yard at the signe of the Swan, 1606), p. 34.

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