Ask the Pastor: Do Miraculous Gifts Exist Today?
The second question asked this week by a congregation member is:
Have the miraculous gifts ceased to exist today?
Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile wrote on this hot-topic in Christian theology:
First, we have to admit that there’s a correct and an incorrect position on this issue. Somebody is right and somebody is wrong…
Second, we have to admit that how we view this issue substantially impacts the nature of the Christian life. It matters. It’s not an inconsequential idea. Someone worships God appropriately, someone doesn’t…
Third, we have to admit that this issue practically impacts Christian worship and fellowship. It’s not only a private matter, but a corporate one as well.
His point, then, is that this is a issue that needs to be studied and discussed. It affects everything we do as Christians.
Where do we start?
If by the miraculous gifts you mean the Holy Spirit inspiring new Scripture…Yes, that has ceased. That’s done. We have what we call the canon of Scripture. It is completed. We have all of what God means to tell us in His Word. His Word is sufficient for all matters of faith and practice.
Let’s be clear: It is not like the Holy Spirit, the third person of Trinity, is no longer at work in vibrant and vivid ways today. I mean, what could be more a more powerful and miraculous display of the Holy Spirit’s work today than a complete 180-degree turnaround that occurs when the Spirit takes and transforms those dead in their sin into a new creation? A biblical conversion is only of the Holy Spirit! According to Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul says this involves nothing less than a work of recreation and resurrection.
Also, I believe it is worth noting this discussion isn’t whether all and every spiritual gift has ceased. The debate is not about whether any at all are present at all in the church today. Rather, the issue is whether a certain limited number gifts have ceased, not that the large remainder of other gifts has continued. The latter is not in question—the former is.
Someone once said, “Well, Darin, aren’t you putting the Holy Spirit in a box?” The Bible knows nada at all of a whimsical, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type Spirit. Yes, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of ardor and fervor, but He is also the Spirit of order. Note 1 Corinthians 13:33 and 40:
1 Corinthians 14:33 For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints,
1 Corinthians 14:40 But all things should be done decently and in order.
These verses speak in the context of the matter of spiritual gifts. Thus, our prayer should be for an ardor- or fervor-inspired order of the Spirit in our churches today.
Okay, Pastor, Give Me the Summary!
What?, When?, and Why?.
First, what were the miraculous and revelatory gifts (like apostleship, prophecy, tongues, and healing) according to the Word of God? Scripture gives us a clear description. But when we compare that biblical description with the modern charismatic movement, we find that the latter falls far short. Though charismatics use biblical terminology to describe their contemporary experiences, nothing about the modern charismatic gifts matches the biblical reality.
For example, God’s Word explicitly says that true prophets must adhere to a standard of 100% accuracy (Deut. 18:20–22) and nothing in the New Testament exempts them from that standard. The book of Acts depicts the gift of tongues as producing real human languages (Acts 2:9–11), and nothing in 1 Corinthians redefines tongues as irrational babble. And the New Testament further describes the miraculous healings of Jesus and the Apostles (including the healing of organic diseases like paralysis, blindness, and leprosy) as being immediate, complete, and undeniable (cf. Mark 1:42; 10:52; etc.). These, and many other Scripture passages, demonstrate the truly extraordinary quality of the biblical gifts.
But here is the point. The modern gifts of the charismatic movement simply do not match up to their biblical counterparts. Modern prophecy is fallible and full of errors. Modern tongues consists of unintelligible speech that does not conform to any human language. Modern healings do not compare to the miracles performed by Jesus and the Apostles.
So, I don’t deny that charismatics have lots of experiences. But I do deny the notion that those experiences match what the Bible describes as the miraculous and revelatory gifts of the New Testament. The modern experiences don’t even come close. There is nothing extraordinary about fallible prophecy, irrational tongues, or failed healings. While I recognize that sometimes God providentially chooses to heal people through answered prayer, those occurrences are not at all the same thing as the New Testament gift of healing.
Second, when did the gifts cease? One important passage that helps answer that question is Ephesians 2:20, which explains that apostles and New Testament prophets were the “foundation” upon which the church was being built. Before the canon of Scripture was complete, that foundation was still being laid through the apostles and prophets, and through the miraculous and revelatory gifts that accompanied and authenticated their ministries. But once the foundation was laid, those offices and gifts passed away. To follow Paul’s metaphor, the foundation is not something that is rebuilt at every phase of construction. It is laid only once.
Finally, we must look to the purpose of the gifts—why they were given. The New Testament explains that they functioned to authenticate God’s messengers, while the canon of Scripture—and thus the fullness of God’s revelation—was still incomplete. Jesus Himself was “attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs” (Acts 2:22). Paul referred to “the signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12). The author of Hebrews spoke of the Gospel being attested by God “both with signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:4).
After the apostolic age passed, with the foundation of the church laid and the canon of Scripture closed, such attestation was no longer required. The sufficiency of Scripture and the fullness of God’s completed revelation in His written Word is so glorious that it no longer needs miraculous confirmation. As Peter explains, the prophetic word is even more sure than the most extraordinary of eye-witness experiences (2 Pet 1:16–21). In the all-sufficient Scriptures, God’s truth is self-attesting and self-evident through the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:12).
Who Were the Apostles?
To really understand this teaching, we must first understand what the word apostle means in the New Testament.
In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul lays out in detail the blueprint of the New Testament church. The church is the great house-building project of God. He is the Master Architect of bringing Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. Between Christ’s ascension to heaven and His return, the church is what God is working on building. This is why Paul says in 2:19-20:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,
First, notice that the foundation has already been completed. Any builder that a clue of what he/she is doing knows that you build the foundation first. You don’t have to keep relaying the foundation when you update the kitchen or master bedroom. A correctly laid foundation is followed, then, of course, by the ongoing building of the structure on that same foundation until it is finished.
Likewise, since God knows perfectly, sovereignly, and masterfully what He is doing in the building of His church, we know we are in the building of the structure, but the laying of the foundation is done—a thing of the past.
Second, again, the apostles and prophets, along with the chief cornerstone, Christ, are the church’s foundation. For Jesus, this was accomplished for our salvation in His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. This is why Paul said in 1 Cor. 3:11:
For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
But remember that Paul said the apostles also belong to the foundation. This doesn’t mean that Jesus is lacking anything in His work of salvation. Our salvation was finalized in His person and work. However, it was because the apostles’ witness, authorized by the risen Christ Himself, that they are mentioned as being part of the foundation. Christ’s once-for-all work is completed and part of the foundation and is joined together with the once-for-all and completed witness of the apostles. Out of this eventually comes the Christian canon.
In short, according to Ephesians 2:20, the apostles had a temporary, non-ongoing role in the life of God’s church.
How do you know the apostles aren’t around today. Several reasons:
- Acts 1:21-26 – To be an apostle, you needed to be an eye and ear witness of the risen Christ.
- 1 Cor. 9:1 – Paul considers himself an exception to this rule by how God brought Him to salvation (Acts 9).
- 1 Cor. 15:7-9 – Paul seems to indicate he is the last of the apostles
- Letters to Timothy – It is well-known that Timothy was Paul’s close confidant . Yet, interestingly, Paul never calls him an apostle.
What About Prophets From Ephesians 2:20?
The prophets mentioned aren’t those of the Old Testament. Paul’s point isn’t that the foundation mentioned above is made up of witnesses from the old and new covenants. Just a few verses later and in very similar wording, the prophets in view are said to belong to the “now” of the new covenant, which is in contrast to the “other generations” of past covenant history (Ephesians 3:5).
which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit.
Notice also Ephesians 4:11:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,
The prophets aren’t identical to the apostles. So, what does this mean? Ephesians 2:20 is clear, then, that prophecy was a temporary gift for the foundational building of the church. And, further, that the New Testament prophets, along with the apostles, are no longer part of the church.
As Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson comments:
Apostles exercised a foundational ministry which was given appropriate attestation. As a result, manifestations of the Spirit, which served as confirmations of new revelation, appeared in the churches. The primary function of these gifts itself suggests their impermanence (The Holy Spirit, p. 226).
By God’s divine design and plan, the apostles and prophets had a temporary role in the Church’s history and don’t continue beyond its foundational time and era (Eph. 2:20). By extension, neither are tongues, since, according to 1 Cor. 14, they are tied to prophecy. Thus, tongues pass out of the life of the Church, along with the passing of the apostles and prophets (and other means of bringing God’s Word).
What’s the Take-Away?
Tongues and prophecy have ceased. What remains, though, is God’s Word. It is supremely and solely sufficient and authoritative until Jesus comes. The Word, as one of the most prominent and historical Christian theological documents states, is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:10).
Non-revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit are still displayed in the church for mutual edification and the advancement of the kingdom (Rom. 12:6-8).