This topic is a big one, Controversial with a capital 'C' barely even covers it and it is also a topic that can stir up strong emotions because it is at heart an issue of identity. There are many Christians today who identify themselves as 'charismatic' and therefore take any critique of charismatic theology very personally. This is to be expected and I too react with great fervour against those who claim that reformed theology isn't correct. Therefore, it is my prayer for the grace to write with love and that this message be received with love. For love, as I will go onto to explain, is the greatest of all spiritual gifts!
I believe that writing this series of posts on the subject of charismatic gifts is both necessary and desirable because for many Christians no opposing viewpoint is ever presented to them. In modern Christian circles then it is often an accepted fact that charismatic gifts of the spirit are both biblical in essence and are directly connected with the New Testament church. This is not a viewpoint I accept.
But let's start simple: this first post is just to define the charismatic gifts of the Spirit and to outline their importance (or lack thereof) in Christian living
What are the charismatic gifts?
For good reason the title for this post is not: 'Spiritual gifts' and that is because no one denies that every Christian will manifest spiritual gifts of various types for Paul writes: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ." (Ephesians 1v3).
All Christians are good at different things: some are great teachers, some are great evangelists, some are very hospitable, some are great encouragers, some are very generous, etc. These are all gifts of the Spirit to us as individuals for the building up of the church. All Christians believe in spiritual gifts; the disagreement comes over what these gifts are today.
The gifts under debate are the ones commonly referred to as the charismatic gifts, namely: gift of healing, tongues and prophecy and it is on those that I will focus.
Why do I say that they are not of prime importance?
The first reason for this is that the charismatic gifts are not something that we are told to strive for (the closest we get is Paul saying: "Now eagerly desire the greater gifts." (1 Corinthians 12v31) but he goes onto explain that those greater gifts are love, hope and faith) For example, charismatic gifts are not in Paul's list of qualities for elders and deacons (i.e. church leaders) in 1 Timothy 3 nor are they in the requirements for spiritual battle found in Ephesians 6. As such, it seems clear that these gifts are not seen by the Apostles as important for the daily spiritual grind of life.
Without prayer a Christian shall surely stumble, without reading the Word a Christian will be miserable and stagnate, without church no Christian will properly grow, without communion the cross will become a neglected thought - for these are the regular means of grace God has given us to become more like him and we are told in Scripture to be disciplined in these means. But for those without charismatic gifts then no warning is given and no command to seek them made.
Nor are they found in any of the great calls to be holy - we are told instead to love one another, not to grumble, to pray often, to meet together, to be hospitable, not to steal, to be humble, to control our speech, to be pure, not to be greedy. We repeatedly commanded to model the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self control) with not a word said on the charismatic gifts of the Spirit.
There is no command in Scripture to perform a miracle. Yes, Jesus tells his disciples to perform acts and wonders in his name but that command fell only on his disciples shoulders and is not echoed anywhere for believers in general.
The Superior Gifts are the Ordinary Gifts
"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."
1 Corinthians 13 v 1 - 3
Here Paul clearly teaches that love is the most important spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit. Jonathan Edwards categories love as an ordinary gift of the Holy Spirit (ordinary in the sense that it is how the Spirit usually operates) and couples it with the saving work of the Spirit in a man's heart. And he refers to the charismatic gifts as the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit (because it not how the Spirit usually operates).
If a man were to have all the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit but lack the ordinary ones then he is nothing and gains nothing. Love is the central key to the Christian faith not miracles. Our greatest desire then, as Christians, should be to overflow with love for God and man.
Non-Christians have been given Charismatic Gifts; only Christians have ordinary gifts
This is one of Edwards main points and he bases this teaching on both the saying of Jesus: "Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7v22-23) and on the example of Judas, Saul, Balaam and others whom did miracles or prophesied or threw out demons yet they were also all condemned for their wickedness. True, the general rule was that extraordinary gifts went to Christians but this was not always the case.
Thus, it is easy to see that the ordinary gift of love, the pinnacle of the Christian faith, is superior to the extraordinary ability to perform miracles or prophecy for God will surely give his greatest gift to his own people! Another conclusion to be drawn is that exhibiting charismatic gifts is not a sign of conversion for Judas, Saul and Balaam all did such things yet were not converted.
I started here to draw the boundaries of my discussion and to show that this matter, while important, is also not important. Charismatic gifts are not to be valued as highly as love, hope and faith. This can be hard, for as humans we concentrate on the outwardly impressive more than the inner self. We look to the outside but God looks to the heart and he would rather there was love in our hearts towards him and our fellow man than any number of extraordinary spiritual gifts.
For instance, I've been reading through Acts and have felt quite envious over the miracles, signs and wonders recorded there of people being healed, raised to life and prophesying. But my envy is wrong and misplaced, for I, as a Christian, have the greatest of all possible gifts: the gift of love. Rather than envying miracles of old I should instead seek to display love in all its fullness!
Likewise, I have heard some say that if only their friend were to see a miracle then they would become converted. This, I doubt to be true, not just because of what Jesus has to say on the matter (“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” John 16v31) but because the greatest evidence anyone can see for the gospel being true is the outworking of the greatest gift of the Holy Spirit: love. As Jesus said: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples: if you love one another.” (John13v35)
The next question: have charismatic gifts started again?
There have been around 1900 years of absence of the charismatic gifts. It is only within the last sixty years that they have come to prominence. Some argue otherwise, but if we allow that God has always answered prayers for healing (which he does) then the majority of counter examples fall by the way side. Certainly, the church over the past 1900 years has not been like the church at the time of the Apostles as described in Acts and Corinthians where miracles, if not commonplace, were fairly regular. Indeed, many charismatic theologians agree that church history shows a lack of charismatic gifts until of late. This in itself places the burden of proof on the charismatic movement.
In fact, this question is actually two questions. First, are the charismatic gifts today found in the New Testament? And second, have the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit returned?
These questions I will answer, God-willing, another time.
This has been a very brief overview and if you want to know more there is a lot of material out there. For a free collection of articles on the matter please click here. Or read chapter 2 of "Charity and its Fruits" by Jonathan Edwards for a full discussion on this post's topic.