Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit has given gifts for ministry to His people, and the English word “gifts” is a translation of the Greek word charismata. Therefore, the charismatic movement, which is the result of the influence of Pentecostal Christianity, refers to a movement in the Christian church that has a unique emphasis on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “Unique emphasis” is key here because in one sense, all churches are charismatic. After all, every Christian denomination believes that at least some gifts of the Holy Spirit continue to operate today in our post-Apostolic age. What sets the charismatic movement and Pentecostalism apart is their belief that the so-called charismatic gifts continue as well. Today, we usually use the term “charismatic gifts” to refer specifically to those spiritual gifts practiced by Pentecostal Christians and believers in the charismatic movement but not practiced in historic Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. These gifts include tongues, prophecy, and healing or miracles.
The Specific Charismatic Gifts
Speaking in tongues, sometimes referred to as glossolalia, is the gift of speaking another language not known to the speaker. Some who advocate the continuation of tongues today say that tongues are actual, known human languages. For instance, a native English speaker who suddenly speaks Spanish under the influence of the Holy Spirit—even though he does not know Spanish—would be speaking in tongues. More commonly today, however, people view the gift of tongues as referring to speaking a language that has not been documented among human beings, perhaps a language spoken by the angels. Tongues are used as a private prayer language but also in corporate worship when many people speak in tongues all at once or when an individual says something in tongues and then an interpreter, under the influence of the Spirit, translates it for the benefit of the congregation.
In prophecy, an individual is believed to speak for God directly. The Lord reveals a message for that person or for others, and then the prophet delivers it. These modern prophets are believed to be much like the prophets we read about in Scripture, men or women chosen to give others a word from the Lord directly by way of special inspiration. Sometimes gifts such as a “word of wisdom” are a type of prophecy. Some people who affirm that this gift continues believe that it is identical to the gift given to the biblical prophets and that the message is infallible. Others believe that modern prophets speak messages that include truth from God but may be mixed with error and thus are to be judged by Scripture.
Finally, some believers are said to possess the gift of healing or miracles. Here we are not talking about praying for the sick, which all Christians do, nor about God miraculously healing people or protecting them in accordance with the prayers of His people. Rather, we are talking about individuals who claim to have a special talent for bringing about healing or working miracles. Pentecostal and charismatic Christians believe that somebody with the gift of healing is employed directly by God and used as His agent to restore health to others.
Do Charismatic Gifts Continue?
As we consider the claim that the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing continue today, we should first commend Pentecostal and charismatic Christians for their interest in the work of the Holy Spirit. All believers should want to know more about the person of the Holy Spirit and desire to see Him work in the world. He is the third person of the Holy Trinity, after all.
The question before us is not whether we should believe that the Holy Spirit is at work today. All Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is working today. Reformed Christians in particular believe that the work of the Holy Spirit is discerned especially in regeneration, when He gives us hearts to believe the gospel (John 3:1–8), and in sanctification, when He enables us to more and more die unto sin and live unto holiness (Rom. 8). We also believe that God, by His Holy Spirit, sometimes heals people in extraordinary ways when we pray for them (James 5:14–15).
That the Holy Spirit is working today, however, does not have to mean that He continues to grant the charismatic gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing today. These gifts are associated with the giving of special revelation. As we look throughout the history of redemption in Scripture, we see that miracles, prophecy, and ecstatic utterances such as tongues were not everyday occurrences but rather were associated with particular epochs. The era of Moses when the law was being given, the era of the old covenant prophets as instituted in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and the era of Jesus and the early Apostles that inaugurated the new covenant—these are the periods in biblical history when we see what we call the charismatic gifts manifested. In each of these eras, new special revelation was being given and the supernatural signs accompanied the deliverance of this revelation in order to authenticate it as from God. However, we know now that special revelation has ceased. God has spoken decisively in His Son, and we will not have new revelation from Him until Christ returns (Heb. 1:1–4; 12:25–29). Because of that, there is no need for the charismatic gifts to authenticate the revelation. There is no new revelation being given today, so we should not expect to see the gifts of tongues, prophecy, or miracles. The foundation of the church has been laid in the work of the Apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:19–21). Apostles and prophets are the means of special revelation, and once the foundation of the church was laid, these offices and any signs that authenticate them passed away.
In addition to this core biblical argument that the charismatic gifts do not continue today, note that historically, the mainstream Christian church has said that these gifts ended with the death of the last Apostles. Occasionally, orthodox Christian writers in earlier eras spoke of prophecy as continuing, but by this they usually meant what we call preaching—the exposition of Scripture—and not the delivery of new revelation. Groups that have claimed that the charismatic gifts continue, such as the Montanists in the early church, usually have also held to aberrant theology. Not all modern Pentecostal and charismatic Christians have heterodox or heretical beliefs to the degree that groups from the past had, but the historical association of aberrant theology and the continuation of charismatic gifts should give one pause before accepting that these gifts continue.
Yes, the Holy Spirit works today. But there are compelling biblical and historical reasons to believe that the gifts He gives to the church in our era do not include the gifts of tongues, prophecy, or healing and miracles. Other gifts of the Spirit listed in Scripture are still present. These gifts, along with the faithful teaching of the Word, prayer, administration of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline, are the means through which the Holy Spirit ministers to His people today.