Several years ago, I attended a conference that was held at a charismatic church. The building was the size of a small country and, being an inquisitive fellow, I decided to take a little stroll through the church’s many corridors. Halfway through my journey, I came upon a room from which a host of odd sounds echoed, but out of fear for my own well-being, I did not enter. I later found out that I had heard the sounds of “tongues training.” I learned that it was the church’s practice to instruct its young people on how to properly speak in tongues. From stressing the importance of using consonants when speaking in tongues to showing the manner in which one’s body should be moved while exercising the gift, the church sought to teach its youth to be good charismatic boys and girls.
Perhaps the practice of that church is not representative of the charismatic movement at large. Still, such a practice raises many questions, and such questions require Biblical answers. As Christians, we are called to think and respond Biblically. It is therefore essential that our assessment of the exercise of the revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit be a Biblical assessment, for we cannot affirm Biblical doctrine from within the realm of sentiments and reactions.
What is more, in our assessment, it must not be our aim to search Scripture in order to find proof-texts that explicitly demonstrate that revelatory gifts, such as tongues-speaking and prophetic utterance, are not to be exercised in the church today. To look for such instruction would be to seek a needle in a stack of needles. Scripture attests of itself as God attests of Himself; thus, when we humbly look to God’s definitive Word as our authority, we look for His pattern and purpose as He has sovereignly displayed it. And this is the pattern: Throughout history, God has established His Word. And He has done so largely through the use of signs and wonders.
Throughout the Old Testament, God revealed His Word to His people and confirmed its declared authority with many signs and wonders. During the Exodus of Israel, the Lord identified Himself with the Hebrew slaves of Egypt. He authenticated His Word to Pharaoh through the prophetic word of Moses (Ex. 7–12). He brought His people out of bondage (Ex. 12), parted the Red Sea and led the children of Israel through it on dry ground (Ex. 14), revealed the Law (Ex. 20ff), and established His people in the Promised Land. During the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, the Lord also established His prophetic Word with many powerful manifestations. Take, for instance, God’s authentication of Elijah when he boldly proclaimed the Word of the Lord to the men of Ahaziah: “So Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, ‘If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men.’ And the fire of God came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty” (2 Kings 1:10).
Thus, repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, God established His work of redemption with attesting miracles. Indeed, His purpose was to redeem His people, both from physical bondage and, more so, from spiritual bondage.
In the same manner, throughout the New Testament, God authenticated His revelation that was manifested in Christ and the apostles (John 1:14; Matt. 10:7). Christ fulfilled the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17), and in Him God demonstrated His wondrous attesting power to all who were given the eyes to see and the ears to hear (Matt. 13:14–15). Jesus Himself spoke boldly of the Father’s attestation of His earthly ministry: “ ‘But I have a greater witness than John’s; for the works which the Father has given Me to finish—the very works that I do—bear witness of me’ ” (John 5:36). This theme recurs throughout John’s gospel. Jesus declares most poignantly, “ ‘… though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him’ ” (John 10:38).
The apostles of Christ were messengers, delegates of the Messiah with the ordained power to heal sicknesses, cast out demons, and raise the dead. They were witnesses of the risen Christ, for they had received their apostleship directly from Jesus Himself. In some cases—such as Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Philip (Acts 8:6), who were delegates of the apostles—God attested His redeeming purpose in and through those who represented the Gospel that the apostles proclaimed. The coming of Christ brought the inauguration of the kingdom of God. In the earthly ministry of Jesus, the kingdom of God began to advance against the kingdom of Satan, and the declaration of the coming of the kingdom was given divine authentication (Mark 3:20–27).
As for the place in the history when God’s redemptive purposes culminated, the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian Gentile converts: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19–20). In the same manner, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, affirming the relation of the apostolic witness to the foundational era of the church: “Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds” (2 Cor. 12:12).
It is clear that it was not Paul’s primary intention to instruct these churches about the revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit; neither was he concerned with making a defense as to the passing away of such gifts (1 Cor. 13:8–10). Rather, the significance of Paul’s references to the foundation of the church and the attestation of the apostles’ divinely ordained authority has to do with God’s purposes of redemption as manifested with divine revelation. 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).
Simply put, the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit established the witness of those upon whom the household of God was founded. As the apostles proclaimed the greatest news that the world had ever heard, God established the truth of redemption with the greatest works that the world had ever seen—the blind received sight, the lame were made to walk, lepers were made clean, terminal diseases were purged, dead men were made alive, and, above all, the Gospel was preached to the poor (Matt. 11:5; Isa. 35:5–6).
When I am asked to explain particular passages of Scripture that, according to some people, teach that the sign gifts of the apostolic era have not ceased, I usually respond with this question: “Do you believe that Scripture is the final Word of God?” Thankfully, every answer has been in the affirmative; still, the inquirer usually presses me with another question, such as, “What Biblical evidence is there to support your view that the sign gifts have ceased?” I often respond similarly: “What Biblical evidence is there to support your view that the sign gifts have continued?” At that point, the discussion usually dives to the ground in a tailspin of emotions and fanciful maneuvering. My opponent usually relates experience after experience, with great intensity, then levels his most disparaging attack: “Are you telling me you don’t believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work?”
This type of remark is quite typical, and it is perhaps the most untenable conclusion that many charismatics have made. Although we do not affirm the continuation of the sign gifts, by no means do we disavow the genuine work of the Spirit of the living God. On the contrary, through the exercise of the non-revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit still displayed in the church—preaching, teaching, exhortation (Rom. 12:6–8)—we, who were enemies of God, dead in our trespasses, have become living sons of the living God. Indeed, the Holy Spirit has worked great wonders in our hearts, and He who established His redemptive plan before the foundation of the world has carried out His plan with great signs and wonders, and has sealed us in the Holy Spirit for our day of redemption (Eph. 4:30).