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Supernatural Gifts of the Spirit

The doctrine of supernatural gifts is one of the most exciting and pastorally relevant topics in systematic theology. All evangelical theologians agree that these gifts were operative during the period in which the New Testament was written. Luke records several instances of healing, speaking in tongues, and prophecy in the book of Acts.  John the Seer similarly gives some indication of the function and usage of gifts in the cryptic book of Revelation.  Paul’s letters give us a window into the way early churches used the gifts, especially speaking in tongues and prophecy, though we can easily become frustrated by how much the window obscures rather than reveals.  Clearly the supernatural gifts of the Spirit comprise an integral strand of the gospel story.  But the question remaining is what relationship the supernatural gifts have to our contemporary situation, or more accurately, what relationship we have to the supernatural gifts.

In particular, the debate has centered around three main groups of gifts, both derived from the key text of 1 Cor 12.8-10.  The first group is the revelatory (or word) gifts, which include prophecy and speaking in tongues, and often word of wisdom and word of knowledge.  Speaking in tongues is the primary gift associated with the Pentecostal movement.  Some later Pentecostal groups and especially charismatic groups placed a greater emphasis on prophecy.  Among these groups, the word of knowledge functions very similarly to prophecy, where the recipient supernaturally obtains propositional information, and its most common usage is to call out various kinds of healings needed among a particular congregation so that people may come forward for healing.  Similarly, a word of wisdom is viewed as a kind of supernatural revelation, but specifying a course of action rather than prepositional information.  For instance, Solomon exercised the word of wisdom in his judgment between the two harlots (1 Kings 3.16-28).

The second group of gifts are the healing gifts, includes healing and discernment of Spirits.  The focus of the healing gift is to effect physical healing.  The focus of discernment is to effect spiritual healing through casting out demons.  Most pentecostals have a trichotimist view of human constitution – we are made up of body, soul, and spirit.  Within this framework, one may add the gift of teaching or counseling, which effect the healing of the soul.  Because the teaching and counseling gifts are neither supernatural nor particularly contravercial, I will not address them in this post.

A third group, less often discussed, are the power gifts, which include faith and miracles, such as walking on water or raising the dead.  These have received less attention in the relevant literature because they are not as common in Pentecostal, Charismatic, or Third Wave churches, but are gaining more prominence in what are increasingly called New Paradigm churches.

Finally, a closely related topic is whether the apostolic office continues today.


One of the most vocal opponents of contemporary supernatural gifts is Richard Gaffin.  Standing firmly in the reformed tradition of B.B. Warfield and the early twentieth century Princetonian school, his position may be called the Cessationist view.  In his essay, “A Cessationist View,” Gaffin presents eight reasons why supernatural gifts are no longer operative.  Seven focus on the revelatory group of gifts.  Four are related to the cessation of the apostolic office.

  1. The healing and power gifts are specifically related to the apostolic spread of the gospel.  The apostolic period ended in the first century, and therefore, so did the apostolic gifts (2 Cor 12.12, Heb 2.3-4).
  2. The revelatory gifts were likewise only functional during the initial stages of the church age.  Paul says in Ephesians 2.20 that the church has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” and since the foundation has already been laid, the revelatory gifts no longer function (cf. Eph 3.5).
  3. A consistent continuationist position is self refuting, for one must affirm the modern office of apostles, which necessarily means the canon of scripture cannot be closed.  Yet all who deny the modern office of the apostle are no longer consistent, have at least partially affirmed a cessationist position.  Moreover, there is no non-arbitrary reason for affirming supernatural gifts while denying modern apostles.
  4. The revelatory gifts threaten the authority and sufficiency of scripture by effectively adding to the canon.  Several defenders of modern prophecy see no distinction between Old and New Testament prophecy, which essentially affirms an addition to the canon.
  5. Scripture gives no evidence that any New Testament prophecy should have less authority than scripture itself.  A word from God always carries the authority of God. Those who believe in modern prophecy can no longer affirm sola scriptura.
  6. Paul affirms that “when the perfect comes the imperfect [tongues and prophecies] will pass away” (1 Cor 13.8-14).  In light of Ephesians 4.11-13, apostles will also continue until the perfection comes. Regardless of whatever else “perfection” may mean, tongues, prophecy, and the apostolic office must either continue together or end together.  (The idea that the “perfection” of 1 Cor 13 is the canonization of scripture is widely recognized by all sides to be exegetically unsound.)
  7. The eschatological aspects of the church age do not require supernatural gifts to function throughout, but merely in the initial formative years.
  8. Charismatics cannot even affirm that modern charismatic gifts are the same gifts spoken of in scripture.  Contemporary tongues are likely to be different from the New Testament gift of tongues. Similarly, no one is quite sure what a Word of Knowledge or Word of Wisdom even is.

Many evangelicals feel the cessationists overplay their hand by stating that God never gives supernatural gifts any longer. They instead opt for a sort of mediating position between the charismatic and cessationist positions. This view, which I call the Open Agnostic view, has been most cogently articulated by Millard Erickson in his Christian Theology.  Four points of Erickson’s discussion seem particularly relevant:

  1. It is difficult if not impossible to determine whether the contemporary charismatic gifts are the same as the Biblical gifts.  No Biblical passages indicate that gifts would ever cease, and yet the gifts seemed to cease through most of church history.
  2. Scientific studies have shown that at least some of the supernatural manifestations can be explained by other phenomena.
  3. We must be cautious not to attribute the works of God to the devil instead, which amounts to blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3.29).
  4. Because God is Sovereign, He decides who receives gifts.  Therefore, “we are not to set our lives to seeking them.”

A third position holds that supernatural gifts are not only operative today, but they should be the normative experience of contemporary believers.  I call this the Charismatic view, though Pentecostals and “Third Wave” churches would be included in this category.  In his Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem gives eight reasons for the validity of this view (pp. 1031-46):

  1. Prophecy and tongues will continue through the church age because “the perfect” which will eliminate them in 1 Cor 13 refers to the second coming of Christ
  2. New Testament Prophecy is qualitatively different from Old Testament prophecy.  It is neither infallible nor absolutely authoritative, and therefore does not constitute an addition to the canon.
  3. Scripture does not limit supernatural gifts were not limited to the time of the Apostles.
  4. Supernatural gifts are just as necessary in the present as the past: authenticating the gospel, demonstrating God’s mercy, equip people for ministry, glorify God.
  5. Contrary to many cessationist arguments, miraculous gifts have been operative throughout church history.
  6. The level of power of a gift is irrelevant to whether that gift is from God.  Even if contemporaneous miraculous gifts are not operating as powerfully as in scriptural times, they are no less gifts from God.
  7. Many charismatic churches are stronger in evangelism, purity of life, and love for the word, than their non-charismatic counterparts.
  8. Non-charismatics need charismatics (and vice versa).  Each part of the body has strengths that others can (and must) learn from.


In theology, as in so many other disciplines, where one starts determines where one ends up.  I propose that the gospel is the best starting place from which to examine the arguments concerning supernatural gifts.  Contrary to popular presentations, the gospel, or good news, of the New Testament is not a system for ‘going to heaven when you die,’ but rather the proclamation that Jesus is Lord.  In theological terms, the gospel is about Christology rather than soteriology.  Of course there are soteriological implications from the gospel, but there are just as important implications for all other areas of theology as well. Most striking is the way the Jesus’ lordship impacts eschatology, so that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry but waits for a future consummation.  In the current age we live “between the times”, experiencing tension between aspects of the Kingdom which are “already” and those aspects which are “not yet.”

Scripture is univocal in ascribing supernatural ministry to the “already” of the Kingdom tension.  Jesus declares, “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt 12.28). When John the Baptizer sent messangers to Jesus to question whether He was really the Messianic King he had been expecting, Jesus implies (to the reader at least) that His Sovereign Rule is part of the “not yet,” and instead pointed to His supernatural works as the “already” (Matt 11.4-6).  In His ministry commission to the disciples He directed His disciples that, “as you go, preach, saying, ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matt 10.7-8; cf. Mark 3.14-15, Luke 9.2) His instructions to heal and preach the inauguration of the Kingdom were not limited to the twelve, but applied to the seventy also (Luke 10.9).  On the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes the prophecy from Joel to explicitly link the revelatory gifts to the last days, the period of the inaugurated kingdom (Acts 2.17-21).
In view of the gospel, the good news that Jesus is Lord and that His kingdom has been inaugurated in this age, the supernatural gifts must be operational today. Despite Gaffin’s protests to the contrary, his rejection of supernatural gifts amounts to neutering of the gospel and of the Kingdom.  Even Erickson’s more open stance towards the gifts clearly does not go far enough.  By way of analogy, it would be simply absurd to a similar Open Agnosticism to soteriology: “It is not possible to determine with any certainty whether the contemporary salvation of the lost is indeed a work of the Holy Spirit.”  The gospel simply cannot be separated from the supernatural gifts.

Revelatory gifts are clearly not on the same level with biblical authority.  The primary reason for this is that scripture is a covenant document.  In ancient times covenants were made between suzerains and their vassals to establish a governing relationship.  Under this model it is quite plausible that the suzerain may wish to communicate with his vassals after the covenant is made.  Such communication would not be equal in authority to the original covenant document, though it would still carry the authority of the suzerain himself.

What of the contention that we cannot know if modern gifts are the same as those which functioned during biblical times?  This boils down to an argument from experience.  Charismatics seek to conform their praxis to their exegesis.  We are simply doing our best to live in accordance with what the texts themselves say.

Arguments for Cessation or Open Agnosticism may seem more plausible when all is going well. But for the millions of believers in the pews who daily live with the pain of living in a fallen world the supernatural gifts are a pastoral necessity. Jack Deere, in his book Suprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit, explains the attitude he once held as a cessationist: “I didn’t need any healing miracles from God. My family and I had always enjoyed good health, and on those rare occasions when we needed a few stitches or a little medicine, our family doctors were more than adequate… I certainly didn’t need God to speak to me with any of those subjective methods he used with the people of the Bible. After all, I had the Bible now…”(15).

In light of the evidence, not only do Charismatics have warrant for their beliefs, but all Christians have an obligation to pursue supernatural gifts within the context of local churches (1 Cor 12-14).

Categories: Charismatic Theology
  1. August 12, 2009 at 11:37 pm

    Thanks for sharing the information on supernatural gifts of the spirit. It was nice going through it.

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