The Work of the Holy Spirit 2
The belief and practice of a continuationist church leader. This is the second of four articles on the subject of the work of the Holy Spirit as part of our All in the Family series.
The aim of the All in the Family series is to explore the breadth of belief and practice that exists amongst FIEC churches on matters that our Doctrinal Basis doesn't touch on and yet are important in church life.
For each subject we ask a variety of church leaders to respond to the same questions, with an emphasis on seeing how belief shapes practice in a local church.
In this collection on the work of the Holy Spirit, we have one cessationist paper and then three pastors whose understanding sits on the spectrum of continuationist views. These are:
- cessationism – Bill James
- continuationism – John James (this article)
- continuationism – John Risbridger
- continuationism – Greg Haslam
You can download a combined PDF of the four papers above.
Name: John James
Church: Crossway Church is a small, diverse, family of believers in Northfield, Birmingham. We meet in the heart of a housing estate that is ranked within the top 8% most deprived communities in England. Our desire is to be a church for our community, bringing the good news of Jesus to the people of Northfield.
In 2010 we began a process of revitalisation together, seeking to re-establish a flourishing gospel ministry that makes disciples, and over the past four years we have seen God work in some wonderful ways, to that end.
1) Do you believe that the miraculous gifts were the “signs of the apostles” and therefore confined to the apostolic era? Why?
It is important to be clear on the distinct roles gifts and signs play in the Bible. Jesus performed miraculous “signs” to accompany his message, which revealed his identify and mission and displayed his glory (John 2:11). It is also clear that miraculous gifts accompanied the apostles as “signs” which testified to the veracity of the good news they proclaimed (Heb 2:4). However, it is not the case that all miraculous gifts must be signs of the apostles. The New Testament does not indicate that the miraculous gifting of disciples of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, for the edification of the Church, is confined only to the apostolic eyewitnesses.
On the day of Pentecost though it is only the Eleven who speak in other tongues, Peter clearly intends this to be the beginning of the fulfilment of Joel 2, in which men and women, young and old, will all prophesy. In Rom 12 Paul addresses the church and lists a number of “gifts” they are likely to have amongst them, including prophecy, and in 1 Cor 12-14 the list includes healing, prophecy and tongues. There is nothing to indicate that these “miraculous” gifts are in a category distinct from the others listed and confined to the apostles. In fact the church in Corinth is clearly exercising a number of these gifts (with prophecy and tongues addressed directly), and Paul does not urge them to stop, or tell them they are mistaken, but instructs them to use them appropriately.
Beyond the lists, many specific spiritual gifts are mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, including those we might term “miraculous.” Paul encourages the church to treat prophecies appropriately (1 Thess 5:19-21), and recalls the prophetic message given to the elders concerning Timothy (1 Tim 4:14). Though Heb 12:13 is probably a spiritual healing of the “lame” who are struggling to “run” the race, James 5:14-16 must be taking as physical healing from sickness.
It can be tempting to divide Spiritual gifts into the “normal” and the “miraculous”, but the New Testament does not seem to do that. In fact, all Spiritual gifts are miraculous, and it is as miraculous for someone to grow in giving generously and teaching faithfully as it is for them to speak prophetically or have a prayer for healing answered.
When a distinction is made between the “normal” and the “miraculous” it is often accompanied by a particular expectation of what then qualifies as the exercising of such a gift. Though someone who is gifted to teach will be trained, make mistakes, develop, rely on others, read commentaries, working hard at their gift while giving all glory to God, we expect “miraculous” gifts to operate differently. Is someone’s healing, after prayer, through the gracious means of the NHS any less a supernatural work of God?
The desire to make “miraculous gifts” synonymous with the “signs of the apostles” is partly because we want to guard against a mistaken “signs and wonders” style charismaticism, but there is clearly a difference in the New Testament between these two categories, and though we should not expect the signs of the apostles to be manifest today, there is no reason at all not to expect God to continue to gift his church miraculously.
2) Does your church pray for sick people to be healed? How is this done? Do you expect healing to take place?
As a church we are happy to pray for sick people to be healed. James 5 is probably a very serious illness (if the elders must go to them) and the “praying over him and anointing him with oil” is probably the culturally conditioned aspect of the call. Also, important to see here this is not the special gift of a “healer”, but something the elders are to do. The emphasis here is on the power of prayer. What do we do when we don’t know what to do – we pray!
We have had specific occasions when church members have requested “the elders” come and pray, in this sense. I also often visit sick people and will pray both for their healing and that God will use their illness for his good in their lives.
Although in James it looks like there is a “promise” that God will always heal, the NT as a whole suggests that illness cultivates dependence on him, and that there are times when he does heal and times when he doesn’t.
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 is helpful in providing the balance to James 5. Though the “thorn in the flesh” may well be a particular person that is causing Paul difficulty, the fact that he speaks of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and difficulties suggests that sickness is not always healed, and can be used by God to grow us in dependence on him.
It is striking that we have the example of Epaphroditus, whom God had mercy on, and was brought back from the brink of death (Phil 2:25-30) and Trophimus who is left sick, by Paul, in Miletus (2 Tim 4:20). We must pray for sick people to be healed, give all glory to God when that healing takes place (by whatever means), and yet also prepare people for the reality that God may well not answer the prayer in the way we have requested. We must also pray for sick people to allow God use their sickness for good in their lives.
3) What do you understand by the gift of prophecy? Is it practiced in your church? In what way?
a) What do you understand by the gift of prophecy?
Our clearest insight into what the gift of prophecy is comes in 1 Cor 14. Here it is suggested that prophecy is a revelation received by the prophet (v30), within his or her control (v29-33). It should be spoken intelligibly (v9), to the Church (v3), to teach others (v19, 31), so that they may be built up, encouraged and consoled (v2-5, 26, 31). It also has the ability to convict unbelievers of the truth (v24-25). Prophecy is not infallible, thus it is not essential that is be shared (v29-32), and it should be weighed (v29) against the authoritative word of Jesus (v37-38).
Prophecy cannot simply be preaching. In 1 Corinthians they are clearly not delivering prepared sermons, though one would hope that good preaching should still be “prophetic” according to the observations above. In 1 Corinthians prophecy is at least at times spontaneous, though I wouldn’t want to insist on spontaneity.
Prophecy cannot also simply be “telling the future.” If prophecy can result in unbelievers worshipping God, then it must contain something of the gospel. The gospel itself is a prediction of the future coming of Christ, and other New Testament prophets can be quite specific in their predictions (Acts 11:28, 21:10-11). But prophecy is broader than future predictions.
In one sense, at Pentecost we all become prophets. In Acts 2 we become those who declare the wonder of God (Acts 2:11) – and Peter regards Joel 2:28-32, where sons and daughters will prophecy, as something of an explanation of this.
John Piper has defined prophecy as “Spirit prompted, Spirit sustained, revelation rooted, fallible speech” (in an MP3 sermon). This corresponds with Don Carson’s definition, “A spirit-prompted utterance, but with no guarantee of divine authority in every detail.” (Carson, Showing the Spirit). These are helpful definitions as far as they go.
b) Is it practiced in your church? In what way?
In terms of Acts 2 and 1 Cor 14:24-25, I would encourage us as a congregation to see the speaking of the truth of the gospel, intentionally and personally, into each other's lives as a helpful context in which prophecy will be fostered. In our preaching, Life Groups, 1-2-1 discipleship, and open times of prayer, praise and testimony I expect there to be “prophetic” elements going on throughout. It is clear that there are times when someone is able to apply the gospel to another with precision and accuracy that is evidently inspired by the Holy Spirit.
There have also been occasions when people have felt they have been given specific prophecies for individuals or the leadership or the church family. On these occasions we ask the person to inform us as an eldership so that we may weigh carefully what has been shared, before deciding whether or not to take it further or share it with anyone else. We want people to know that we will welcome such a prophecy, but would not make a spectacle out of it. I think these kinds of prophecies are probably pretty rare, and are actually pretty rare in the New Testament too. It is worth remembering that the book of Acts spans a number of decades.
4) What do you understand by the gift of “tongues”? Is it manifested today? If so how and when?
a) What do you understand by the gift of “tongues”?
Again, our clearest insight into the gift of tongues comes in 1 Corinthians. Although in Acts 2 they speak in other intelligible languages, in 1 Corinthians the tongues are not understood on their own at all. Here they are spoken to God (v2) and are thus a prayer language (v14-15). They may be accompanied by a gift of interpretation (v5, 27) which the speaker themselves should pray for (v13). Without interpretation, the speaker is edified (v4), and so private use of the gift without interpretation is not forbidden (v39). If interpreted the whole church may then be edified (5, 13-17, 28).
In the Old Testament, when God addresses his people through incomprehensible tongues it is a sign of judgement (v21), and thus uninterpreted tongues will perform that function to unbelievers (v22). Tongues will not contribute to their conversion like prophecy, but to their rejection of God, His people and the gospel (v23).
If in Corinth tongues are a private prayer language (when uninterpreted), then it seems distinct from Acts 2, where they are various kinds of tongue or language. This warns against a single definition to fit all occurrences (a point worth bearing in mind regarding prophecy too).
It is worth investigating how something unintelligible can be self-edifying, when in 1 Corinthians 14 edification is clearly linked to the mind (v6, 9, 14, 19-20, 31, 35). Interestingly, Thiselton (1 Corinthians) connects tongues with our eschatological groaning in the Spirit, and Garland suggests therefore that tongues signify our weakness in this age. He notes, “we do not know how to pray except with unspeakable groans, and the Spirit comes to our aid.” (Garland, 1 Corinthians). If so then uninterpreted tongues, by the Spirit, articulating to God our eschatological longing, may well have an edifying effect on the speaker.
b) Is it manifested today? If so how and when?
Understood this way, I think tongues can be manifest today, and is something of a private prayer language, signifying our weakness and dependence on God, expressing our longing for the new creation.
We would not encourage public speaking of tongues in this way, but would instead ask people to be praying that God would give them an interpretation that would allow them to express the tongue in an intelligible manner.
However, I would be very happy for people to privately utilise the gift of tongues for their own edification.
5) What are the clearest evidences of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of your church?
The clearest evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of our church is sacrificial love for God and for others. Jesus summary of the law (Mark 12:29-21) and his continual refrain throughout his farewell discourse that we might love as he has loved us (John 13:34-35) makes it clear that love is at the heart of Spirit wrought discipleship.
A love for God necessarily means no longer enjoying sin and beginning to grow in holiness (1 John 3:1-10), enjoying a new freedom that means that sin no longer reigns over us (Rom 6:11-14). The love is a sacrificial love, because it requires the continual mortification of the flesh. A sacrificial love for other people is also clearly the evidential fruit of the Spirit in our lives. When Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-26) he begins with love, and much of what follows is by nature relational: patience, kindness, gentleness etc. It is clearly also the point Paul is trying to make by placing 1 Corinthians 13 at the heart of his teaching regarding spiritual gifts. “Do you want to know what true ‘spirituality’ looks like,” says Paul, “it looks like love.”
6) What would you say to Christians who believe that in theory all the gifts are available today and yet do not expect to see them manifested in their church?
I would want to ask on what Biblical grounds they are being asked not to expect them. Why would God make available gifts that we are not expected to see manifested? If we are not actively praying that God will gift us as a church, and if we do not have some level of expectation that that prayer will be answered, then why would we see them manifested in our church.
Often we think that if they are miraculous gifts they will just appear without any room or encouragement given to them. However, that is not the way we view other gifts. It is not by accident that many gifted teachers realise their gifting, grow in their gifting and bless the church greatly in that gifting, in contexts where an emphasis is given to raising up Bible teachers! But gifted bible teachers are no less a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit than gifted prophets.
I would also want to ask what it is they would be expecting to see. If we take our cue from the most extreme examples on the God Channel then there is a good reason why we will not see them manifested in our churches. However, if we seek to define these gifts within the parameters the Bible gives then we would probably find that there are ways these gifts are already being exercised in a variety of contexts, we are just cautious about labelling them such.
7) How do you handle differences of opinion on spiritual gifts within church leadership, within church membership and in your relationship with other churches?
We would ask our church members to respect the line that we take. Within the church there are some who would regard our position as restrictive, and others who would regard it as far too open. Our position on gifts is not part of our statement of faith, and so we are happy to welcome people into membership from a variety of backgrounds, and simply ask that they would respect our position and not seek to undermine it.
We would want the leadership to be in agreement on this issue. If there is a tension amongst the leadership on an issue like this, and if different leaders in different contexts are pushing different positions it is unhelpful for the membership, and can be pastorally damaging. It can also result in it being a “taboo” subject which the leadership cannot speak on because they are not in agreement. However, if there is unity then it can be taught carefully, with conviction, in a way that will serve the entire church whatever previous experience they may have had.
In our relationships with other churches we are keen to make a distinction between primary and secondary issues and to make sure they we are finding unity around a common understanding of the gospel, rather than a common understanding of the gospel plus spiritual gifts. There will be many ways it is possible to express that unity, whilst respecting a difference on this issue, without undermining our convictions.
However, there may well be limits to the way we can express that unity if there is a considerable difference of opinion that would result in confusion. So, for example, it would be difficult to plant a church, or engage in mission, in partnership with a church that had particularly strong convictions about the need for signs and wonders to accompany evangelism. It would be important to be honest about that early on. However, that difference of opinion should not stop us partnering with such churches around the gospel in a way that may help them and us plant churches and engage in mission more effectively. We are involved in a coalition of churches that is seeking to plant 20 churches in Birmingham by 2020, and we make clear that we are “together, planting churches” rather than “planting churches together.”
- David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament) (Baker Academic, 2003)
- Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar New Testament Commentary Series) (William B Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010)
- Francis Chan, Forgotten God (David C Cook, 2009)
- Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2012)