In Spirit & In Truth: What Are the Issues?
In Spirit & In Truth: For the past year or so, I’ve been working through the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and specifically the practice of the spiritual gifts. I want to invite you to think through this with us. This is one of the most important aspects of our lives as believers. The gift of the Holy Spirit is one of the fundamental changes that takes place in us when we become believers. Most of us live like nothing ever changed. The Bible calls us to something more than that.
Yesterday, I shared a little bit of my story on the topic of spiritual gifts and today I want to get into some core principles. Through this study, we’ll look at key passages of Scripture, prominent resources on the Holy Spirit (continue to send us things you’ve found helpful!), and common experiences in the cessationist and charismatic camps. Here’s an overview of where we're headed.
Cessationism: This is the belief that the sign gifts, primarily prophecy, speaking in tongues, and miraculous healings, have ceased. There are hard cessationists who believe that these gifts are not operative in the church at all today, and there are soft cessationists who believe that these gifts are very rare, mostly confined to the front lines of mission work.
Continuationist: This is the belief that all of the gifts have continued to this day. Of course, there is a lot of variety in this camp as well. The most conservative branch of this group has adopted the description, open but cautious, when it comes to the gifts. These groups and churches typically believe in the individual exercise of the gifts, but do not practice them in church services. Charismatic is a term used to describe any number of groups or practices where the sign gifts are prominent.
First, the gifts are a defined within two larger biblical spheres: pneumatology and ecclesiology. To talk about the gifts, we need to answer two other questions. First, what is the nature and role of the Holy Spirit? Second, how does he manifest himself in the lives of individual believers and the church as a community? While many discussions of the gifts begin by looking at the meaning of Greek words, practices of the early church, and practices of the modern church, it’s impossible to think biblically about the gifts if we don’t start with biblical categories. The gifts are only a sub-point within these other two doctrines.
Second, the Bible is a sufficient guide for teaching us about spiritual gifts. Experience is significant, and it will be necessary to think through. The majority of charismatic resources lean toward practice over theology. However, if the Bible is sufficient for all of life and godliness, that would include the role of the Spirit in the believer and in the church. The Bible has to be the final word, and anything we do has to operate within the bounds of the principles and definitions the Bible provides.
Third, there are extremes on both sides. I have pointed out a few extreme examples of charismatic behavior, but I don’t want to make light of the fact that people have been hurt on both sides of this issue. Some people have been told that if they don’t speak in tongues, or if they aren’t slain in the Spirit, they aren’t saved. That can be traumatizing for a young believer. Other have been told the miraculous things they’ve seen or experienced aren’t of God. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with this question. Throughout this study, we will be very sensitive to that, and try to show respect to all of the authors and experiences we consider.
Fourth, the role of the Spirit is a crucial doctrine to get right. Of course, we won’t answer every question in this series, but I’m going to attempt to give a substantial treatment of the issues. In the opening of Sam Storms’ book, Practicing the Power, which we will look at in a few weeks, he reminds us that Paul commands believers to pursue the higher gifts, specifically prophecy. It is a command that we use the gifts God has given us. On the other side, in the introduction of John Macarthur’s book, Strange Fire, he argues that if the charismatics are wrong, they may be guilty of blaspheming the Holy Spirit. To attribute the work of something or someone else to the Holy Spirit, to speak in God’s name, and to put God to the test are serious Biblical offenses. We may not be able to come to an agreement on every detail, but we’ll take the weight of this study seriously.
Key Passages, Stories, and Biblical Themes
1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4
These are the main lists of spiritual gifts in the New Testament. They do not all list the same gifts and there is disagreement over whether or not they are comprehensive. We will spend a lot of time looking at these passages (and others) to understand what God has to say about the gifts he has given.
The Story of Agabus
Agabus was a prophet in the first century. He appears in Acts 11 and Acts 21. The story in Acts 21 is important for us because it presents an interesting wrinkle in New Testament prophecy. Agabus binds himself with his belt and prophesies that Paul will be arrested by the Gentiles. Everyone urges Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Paul tells them he is bound by the Holy Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and he goes anyway. The interesting thing about this story is that is shows several layers of the prophecy playing out. First, Agabus speaks on behalf of the Holy Spirit. Second, his prophecy is a warning, or the people interpret it that way, not to go to Jerusalem because of the imprisonment that awaits. Third, Paul decides to go anyway. Fourth, he does end up getting arrested! We’ll come back to this story in each of the resources we survey. It is crucial to thinking through whether or not NT prophecy is fallible, how prophecies should be interpreted, and the process of being prophesied over. Agabus is a key player. Read Acts 21 this week!
The Doctrine of Scripture
Scripture should shape and define every issue in our lives, and the role of the Holy Spirit is no different. When it comes to the charismatic movement, the doctrine of Scripture and the authority of the Word have been hotly contested. Popular charismatic and word-of-faith preachers have often been accused of superseding the authority of the Word through prophesying, claiming new inspiration, or bringing new meanings out of isolated verses. As with anything else, this has been accurate in many cases and a misunderstanding in others. Sorting through the way our doctrine affects our practice will require keeping Scripture as the first and final authority.
The Meaning of Prophecy
One of the most difficult issues we’ll deal with is the nature of prophecy. Is it possible to prophesy today? Are NT prophets fallible? What is the relationship between prophesying and predicting the future? The strongest arguments on the cessationist side concern the fallibility of prophecy. Starting next week, we’ll see why many cessationists believe this is the core issue in this debate. On the other hand, we’ll read several resources that view prophecy as the highest and most important of all the gifts. Prophecy truly is the watershed moment when it comes to the spiritual gifts.
The Nature of Tongues
The most common gift associated with the charismatic movement is speaking in tongues. Some have even gone as far as saying tongues is a necessary sign for every believer. Among the different groups, the nature of speaking in tongues is anything but settled. First, what is speaking in tongues? Is it speaking in one language and being heard by the audience in their native language? Is it the ability to speak a new language that you did not previously know? Is it speaking in a nonsensical language and having it translated to others? Is it a private ecstatic prayer language? This is just the tip of the iceberg with speaking in tongues. There is more biblical discussion about the gift of tongues than any of the others because of Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14. It’s also interesting that Paul doesn’t discuss it anywhere else. Tongues will prove to be one of the most contentious topics in this entire discussion.
This is not comprehensive, but hopefully it’s enough to get us started thinking. Take some time this week to read through the key passages; 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4, and Acts 2-4 and 21. If you have resources that have been helpful to you, feel free to post them in the comments.
Next week, we will frame up cessationism and work through Tom Schreiner’s book, Spiritual Gifts.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
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