28th February 2019
This is the third and final instalment of a three-part series based on my new book, Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship. This section is focused on the call to be “charismatic.”
The pages of the New Testament reveal a charismatic church, characterized by an experience both of the person of the Holy Spirit—one that could be described in very tangible ways, including drenching, filling, drinking, crying out “Abba!” and so forth—and of angels and demons, languages and interpretation, prophecy and teaching, healing and miracles. Biblical Christianity was charismatic Christianity.
The claim I am making here, however, is not just that the miraculous gifts were given throughout the New Testament period. I am also arguing that they continue to be given today—prophecy, languages, interpretation, teaching, miracles, healing, and the rest—and that, like every good gift that our Father gives us, they should be pursued as a result. Put differently, I am arguing that Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:31, and 14:1 still apply: believers are urged to use, to be zealous for, to earnestly desire, and to strive for spiritual gifts. This much is highly controversial, of course, as a few minutes on the internet will quickly reveal. Even so, I say it for three main reasons.
The first, perhaps surprisingly, is historical. That is, one of the best reasons to think the miraculous gifts continued is the fact that, according to many of the church fathers, they did. In the context of contemporary debates, this point is often lost, not least because the gift that has proved the most divisive in the last hundred years or so, namely the gift of languages, is the one over which the patristic evidence is least clear. Charismatics are also, to generalize for a moment, less interested in the fathers than many more conservative branches of Christianity, in part because our narrative is so often presented (unhelpfully) as a bold rediscovery of something the church had lost for nineteen centuries. As a result, cessationists have leaned into the historical evidence, and charismatics have leaned away from it, even though much of it indicates that the gifts continued (a position often called “continuationism”).
The second reason for pursuing the gifts today is hermeneutical. Put simply, this is the principle that explicit New Testament instructions to Christians should be followed, unless there is a clear reason from the context why they should not be. This presumption of obedience, it seems to me, should be a fairly uncontroversial rule of thumb for anyone who follows Jesus; we are under the same covenant as our first-century brothers and sisters, and as such, we should assume that what the apostles taught them, they would also teach us. In other words, the burden of proof should always be on the person who says we don’t have to obey an apostolic instruction, rather than on the person who says we do. If we flip that round, we quickly end up in pick-and-choose territory.
This has big implications when it comes to the pursuit of the gifts. “Zealously desire spiritual gifts,” Paul says (1 Cor 14:1). Or, fourteen verses earlier, “Zealously desire the greater gifts” (1 Cor 12:31). Or, later in the same discussion, “Zealously desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39). Or, as part of his exhortation to humility in Romans, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith” (Rom 12:6). Or, in his conclusion to 1 Thessalonians, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess 5:19-21). Sometimes the debate over the pursuit of the gifts can look like a no-score-draw, with continuationists pointing out that the New Testament never says the gifts will cease, and cessationists responding that it never says they won’t, either. But in light of the hermeneutical principle we would normally use—and I tend to call it the Presumption Of Obedience, although I am not wild about the acronym—the reality is different. Our default setting, if you like, should be one of obeying these passages, and eagerly desiring spiritual gifts, unless a clear case to the contrary can be made from the text.
And the third reason is eschatological. The gifts of the Spirit, and prophecy in particular, are seen by the apostles as characterizing the entire era between Pentecost and Parousia, the coming of the Spirit and the return of Christ. The kingdom of God is currently spreading throughout the earth like the little stone of Daniel’s vision, dethroning kings and crushing empires before it, but it has not yet fully arrived. As long as we still live between the inauguration and the consummation of the kingdom—between D-day and VE-day, in one analogy—we should continue to expect, and pursue, all the spiritual gifts.
This expectation is clear on the day of Pentecost itself. These people aren’t drunk, explains Peter; they’re doing exactly what the prophet Joel predicted: “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18). It is interesting that here, right at the start of the first sermon ever preached by a Christian, Peter so explicitly connects the last days, the pouring out of the Spirit on all nations, and the gift of prophecy. The “last days,” between the ascension of Jesus and his return, are described in the New Testament as a period of sinfulness in the world and difficulty for the church. But they are also, according to Peter, a period both in which the Spirit is poured out on all flesh and in which male and female, slave and free, will prophesy, see visions, and dream dreams. The latter, in fact, will be a clear sign of the former. So the Pentecost story itself leads us to expect that as long as we are still in “the last days,” we should expect the pouring out of the Spirit, accompanied by prophecy.
You can find out more at spiritandsacrament.com.
Andrew Wilson is the Teaching Pastor at King's and is responsible for much of the preaching and teaching. Andrew has a PhD in theology, has written numerous books and regularly blogs at thinktheology.co.uk.
Posted by Andrew Wilson
Steve Tibbert leads King’s Church London, with sites in Catford, Downham, Lee and Beckenham. The church has seen continued growth since the mid-1990s, both in terms of size and diversity.
As well as leading King’s, Steve hosts and leads Newfrontiers, a fellowship of apostolic leaders with hundreds of churches around the world.
Steve is married to Deb. They have three grown up sons and one grandson.