Sunday, June 10, 2012

Exercising Discernment regarding the Supernatural Gifts

[This is the paper I presented at the Kenilworth Baptist Church, 6/10/12]

Are the supernatural gifts of the Spirit operating today? Have they permanently ceased?  Cessation doesn’t seem to be Biblically supportable. For one thing, it seems that the gifts of the Spirit will be revived in the Last Days:

  • "And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-30)

Although the supernatural gifts of the Spirit haven’t ceased, caution regarding their operation is advisable. After all, our adversary is on the prowl, seeking to deceive (1 Peter 5:8; 2 Cor. 11:14). Besides, sin also exercises a tremendous power of deception (Rom. 7:11). Therefore, there are reasons for concern. Here are several:

1. Often, the church has rejected critical discernment in regards to the gifts. However, we are required to exercise discernment:

·        Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully (“judge”; NKJV) what is said. (1 Cor. 14:29)

·        Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. (1 Thes. 5:19-21)

While many revivalists claim that we quench the Spirit by exercising discernment, Paul shows that “testing” the operation of spiritual gifts is not opposed to their practice. They go together. Testing therefore doesn’t undermine the work of the Spirit. Instead, testing is important, because our feelings can mislead us:

·        There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death. (Proverbs 14:12)

We tend to be spiritually blind (Matthew 7:1-5), and so Scripture tells us that everything must be confirmed by at least two forms of evidence or witnesses:

·        One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deut. 19:15)

There is no reason to suspect that prophecy and other spiritual gifts are exempt from this requirement. The Bereans were commended because they didn’t simply accept everything that Paul had preached, but “with great eagerness … examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).

In contrast, the false revivalists warn us to stop using our minds because this will impede the work of the Spirit. Pastor John Arnott of the Vineyard Toronto Blessing fame warned his congregation that if they wanted to receive any spiritual blessings, they had to set aside their thinking and just jump in:

·        “If you play it safe with this thing, the Holy Spirit, you know what? You’re never going to get anywhere.” (Hank Hanegraaff, Counterfeit Revival, 52)

However, even Jesus had warned against neglecting confirmatory evidences, even in regards to His own teaching:

·        "If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid.” (John 5:31)

However, harkening back to the principle that everything had to be established by two or three witnesses, Jesus reminded His followers that there were compelling evidences to corroborate His identity – His miracles, Scripture, His Father, and John the Baptist!

If Jesus insisted that we must seek more than one testimony, then we shouldn’t merely believe a preacher because of an alleged divine manifestation or a “word of knowledge.” We need to seek further corroborating evidences. Besides, Israel’s God had provided criteria for discerning the truth from the lie. Firstly, any new revelation had to accord with what had already been revealed - Scripture:

·        "If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, 'Let us go after other gods'--which you have not known--'and let us serve them,' you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the LORD your God is testing you to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut. 13:1-3)

Loving God was a matter of holding fast to what He had revealed. This was so central to the entire life and welfare of Israel that He tested His people to see if they really loved Him in this manner. He would even allow miracle workers to come among them with a false message. If Israel didn’t exercise discernment and neglected His Word, they failed the test.

Prophets also had to prove that their messages came from God. The Word of God was just too precious to allow people to add or subtract from it at will. Therefore, God gave Israel another means of testing the prophets:

·        But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death." You may say to yourselves, "How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?" If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him. (Deut. 18:20-22)

If a prophecy didn’t come to pass, this meant that it didn’t come from the Lord. If it didn’t come from the Lord, the prophet would have to be put to death. This criterion assumed that someone who presumed to be a prophet had to convincingly prove that he spoke for God, and that the people had to exercise discernment.

These criteria do not absolutely rule out the possibility that the Lord would raise up other prophets – and He did – but these tests would discourage any would-be imposters and dreamers. And they should also caution the church.

2. Often, the church has promoted the practice of prophecy, without acknowledging that speaking in God’s name is dangerous. God had been angry with Job’s three friends because they claimed to speak God’s truth, but didn’t:

  • After the Lord had said these things to Job, he said to Eliphaz the Temanite, "I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. (Job 42:7)

Speaking wrongly about God is a serious thing. This is also true for claiming to have a prophetic message from God, when God hasn’t spoken! Nevertheless, many churches encourage prophesying at the chance that it might be from God. This shouldn’t be. Even a “prophecy” that didn’t contradict Scripture constituted a violation of God’s commands if the prophet claimed that it came from God, when it really didn’t:

  • They keep saying to those who despise me, “The Lord says: ‘You will have peace.'”   And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, “No harm will come to you”…I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. (Jeremiah 23:17-21)

The church requires God’s truth. Some pastors have mistakenly taught their parishioners to practice or experiment with prophecy, even when they weren’t sure that it came from God. However, God has never given us such liberty with His Word!

There are other ways that we sometimes speak wrongly about God and bring harm upon the church. Some prosperity or name-it-and-claim-it preachers insist that we have been given a God-like power through what we speak. They often cite Romans 4:17:

  • He [Abraham] is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed--the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.

From this verse, some wrongly assume that we have the same powers as God who can call things into existence. However, this verse specifically attributes this power to God and not to us. Likewise, signs-and-wonders preachers cite Proverbs 18:21:

  • The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.

While it is clear that the tongue is powerful for the building up of the body of Christ – or even tearing it down – there is nothing here to suggest that our tongue is endowed with God-like, supernatural powers.

However, some prosperity ministers teach that we have to take authority and make positive faith confessions. Sadly, these often represent a denial of reality – God’s reality. For example, they might claim that they don’t have cancer when, in truth, they have it. This can become a source of great confusion and bring scorn upon the church. Also, by not remaining in the light of truth, we deny the teaching of our God of truth who “desires truth in our innermost being” (Psalm 51:6).

Others teach that we have certain rights, and we have to claim these from God, as if our God is withholding them from us. However, Scripture informs us that we have no claim over Him whatsoever:

  • Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? (Romans 11:35)

Instead, we are taught to regard ourselves as “unworthy” servants (Luke 17:10) who deserve nothing more than death (Romans 6:23) from our holy God. Instead, everything is a gift - purely a matter of His grace (James 1:17; 1 Cor. 4.6-7)

The Bible never gives us permission to play fast-and-loose with the truth. In contrast to claiming things that we have no right to claim, James gives us a model to guide our speaking:

  • Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16)

Truth is not something that we can manipulate to suit our desires. All truth is God’s truth, and we are not free to remake it according to our specifications.

3. However, some insist that unless our churches have the miraculous, supernatural manifestations of the Spirit, they are not spiritually alive. In Untamed Christian Unleashed Church, Terry Wardle, professor of spiritual formation at Ashland Theological Seminary, confesses, “I am bored in church.” Although many of us feel the same way, he tries to justify his boredom by pointing to the deficiencies in the church – that most churches do not manifest the dynamic presence of the Spirit:

·        We must have his Presence. We are little more than a tame imitation without his [miraculous] Presence…I am desperate because I have tasted…and the power of the experience is beyond words. (17)

·        There is something wrong when the church gathers and there is little [supernatural] evidence of the Spirit’s presence. (125)

We should all have Wardle’s thirst for the Lord. However, according to Wardle, the church must be “unleashed” and “untamed” if it is going to be alive and open to the gifts of the Spirit. He confesses that this might look “messy” at times, but that this is what the Spirit’s manifestations are all about.

In contrast, Paul argued that those who speak have a responsibility to tame their spiritual inclinations. Instead of a “messy,” disordered church, Paul argued that it had to be characterized by “peace” and order. A “messy” church fails to give accurate witness to the Master of the church – Jesus. Consequently, Paul argued that the church must be conducted in an orderly manner:

  • The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints. (1 Cor. 14:32-33)

  • So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and some who do not understand or some unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? (1 Cor. 14:23)

If a visitor sees chaos – rolling in the aisles, holy barking or laughing, or a cacophony of incomprehensible words – she will not be impressed by what she sees. Therefore, this is something to guard against, according to Paul.

Is there really something lacking if we walk by faith and not by the sight of the miraculous (2 Cor. 5:7)?  Or should our lives in Christ be characterized by a steady diet of the excitement of the miraculous – just like the 1st century church? Instead, there is more to suggest that the typical Christian life is more accurately characterized by “groaning” (2 Cor. 5; Romans 8:23) than by unrestrained laughing:

  • Now faith [not miracles] is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

The faith walk should characterize our lives as we continue to hope and wait for things unseen. We have to be willing to deal with the absence of immediate gratification and the “valley of the shadow of death.” Doubting Thomas had demanded a miracle, but Jesus corrected him for making such a demand:

  • "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:29)

Thomas had been seeking the wrong thing. Although we can ask for miraculous encounters, it is wrong to demand or depend upon them:

  • He [Jesus] answered [the Pharisees], "A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign!” (Matthew 12:39)

We tend to place too much emphasis on signs and wonders. For one thing, Satan can also produce signs, wonders, and counterfeit gifts:

  • The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders. (2 Thes. 2:9)

Instead, the Christian life tends to be miracle-lean and trial-rich:

  • You have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 1:6-7)
Miracles and ecstatic encounters might even prove counter-productive. Thirty-five years ago I had an ecstatic encounter with God in the midst of a life-threatening chainsaw injury. I laid dying in a pool of blood, when suddenly I realized, without any doubt, that God was with me. I was flooded with His love, joy and peace and nothing mattered anymore – not even death – because of His glorious presence. I knew that I was protected and loved and that even death couldn’t separate me from Him.

As I convalesced in the hospital, the surgeon warned that I would have to exercise my hand or I’d loose mobility. Instead, I was convinced that the God I had met was all-powerful. As He rescued me from death, He would also rescue my hand. So I didn’t flex my hand.

Sadly, my theology – my understanding of God – did not match my experience of God. I didn’t exercise my hand and lost mobility. I didn’t have the theological maturity to take away the right lessons from my encounter with God.

Unable to calculate the hidden costs, perhaps we are asking for the wrong thing when we demand a mountain-top experience.

I never again had an encounter like that one. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t ask for them. I craved them! Nor was it because I displeased God! At that point, I wasn’t yet a believer. I didn’t even know who God was! (However, the encounter worked itself out to change all of that!) I trust that today, as a believer and God’s friend, I’m far more pleasing to Him now than I had been then (Romans 5:8-10).

Well, what went wrong? Nothing! I believe that my God can produce any miracle at any moment. However, I now trust that He knows what’s best for me. He knows my needs even before I ask. Nevertheless, as Wardle advises, I always ask Him for more, while I trust that He is giving just what I need. Although I would like to have miraculous evidence of His presence at every turn, I am now willing to wait and hope without it:

  • For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? (Romans 8:24)
If we require miracles, it means that we want to walk according to what is seen and not hope!

Although it is true for some of us that “we receive not because we ask not” (James 4:3), as Wardle suggests, is would be wrong to blame the church today for the lack of supernatural gifts. God works differently as different times. When the children of Israel wandered in the desert, they were miraculously fed by manna. We aren’t today, but this doesn’t mean that God is at fault or even that we are at fault.

When the Holy Spirit was given (Acts 2), tongues of fire rested on the heads of the disciples and they spoke in tongues. This doesn’t mean that we are today at fault because this is not happening.

Instead, I think that our expectation to find fulfillment in this life through miraculous visitations lead to disappointment. Rather, we should be preparing ourselves for tribulation, as Peter cautioned:

  • Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)
Peter reasoned that if we are too fulfilled, we will not “be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” – the last thing the Lord wants. Of course, God wants to give us everything and will withhold no good thing from those who love him (Psalm 84:11). However, for now, we can’t handle the blessings. Paul wouldn’t have been able to handle the “great revelations” he had received without his “thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment” him (2 Cor. 12:7).

It is interesting that Wardle admits that the manifestations of the gifts have a down-side, perhaps even many:

  • Some Christians, desperate to appear powerful, try to fake it…Others are reckless, failing to discern the difference between what is from God, what is of the flesh, and what is of the evil one. (126)  
  • I have experienced Christians moving in gifts in the absence of love. It can be a real mess. Spiritual pride, showing off, self-righteousness, a critical spirit – it all shows up, and when it does, it’s nasty…In the end, far more people are hurt than helped. (142)
  • What starts out as a fresh move of the Spirit ends in a confusing and unproductive free-for-all of unbiblical spiritual excess…There has also been more than a little immaturity evident in these movements, which has not always ended well for the people or congregations involved…Not all people or congregations who have “caught the fire” [of the Spirit] have survived the experience. Individual believers, and in some cases local churches…experience division and in some cases destruction. (152-53)
This should raise the question: “Are these manifestations from the Holy Spirit or not?” If they are not, then this points to the need for the church to exercise more discernment. However, if they are of the Spirit, perhaps the Spirit is teaching us that we have been asking amiss, as James had warned (James 4:3).

If these manifestations are according to the Spirit, then we should expect to see the unmistakable fruit of brokenness and repentance:
  • But if an unbeliever or someone who does not understand comes in while everybody is prophesying, he will be convinced by all that he is a sinner and will be judged by all, and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, "God is really among you!" (1 Cor. 14:24-25)
We need revival, but not a revival characterized by barking and laughing, but one of contrition and repentance – one that will result in a whole-hearted commitment to our Lord and Savior and contentment with our daily bread. Here’s how one person described the impact of the revival in Wales (1904):

  • Judges were presented with white gloves: they had no cases to try. No rapes, no robberies, no murders, no burglaries, no embezzlements, nothing. The District Consuls held emergency meetings to discuss what to do with the police, now that they were unemployed. Drunkenness was cut in half. The illegitimate birth rate dropped 44 percent in two counties within a year of the beginning of the revival. (The Rebirth of America, The Arthur S, DeMoss Foundation, 64)   
I certainly don’t want to miss out on any of God’s grace and whatever gifts He might have for me, and so I pray in the manner of my Lord: “Not my will but thy will be done.” I don’t want my will anymore. I just want what He has for me. That’s the safe way, and the Holy Spirit promises to compensate for my failures to pray correctly:

  • The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (Romans 8:26-27)
I’m therefore confident that I’m not missing out, as the signs-and-wonders preachers would suggest! Our God promises as much!

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