This weekend tens of thousands gathered in the LA Coliseum to pray for revival and miraculous healing interspersed with worship and exhortation. The event, Azusa Now, cast as a potential third awakening hoping for nation wide revival. For all the hype and all the bodies gathered Azusa Now had little fan fair in the evangelical world. Not a single article has appeared at Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, Relevant Magazine, or any other major evangelical Christian outlet. This is because the event was limited nearly exclusively to Pentecostals. What little conversation I have heard about Azusa Now has focused on the doctrinal legitimacy of what testimonials tell us took place—specifically healing and a call for revival and renewal. In this blog I want to take some time to consider a few issues such as the miraculous or sign gifts, the sustainable Christian life, and how the reformed can encourage and co-operate with the pentecostal heart behind Azusa Now.
Sign or Miraculous Gifts
I do not know whether you are open to the gifts, practice the gifts, or believe in the cessation of the gifts, but there are a few things we should consider. First, whether the gifts are legitimately at work today or not, they have a purpose. They are indicators, markers, or signs pointing to the legitimacy of the message of the one performing the miraculous. That message, the only message in scripture accompanied by the miraculous is the gospel—the proclamation that Jesus lived a perfect life, died a substitutionary death, and rose victorious of sin, satan, and the grave to offer us new life in him. Without the gospel, the sign gifts are nothing. Without the gospel, the presence of the miraculous gifts should conjure the stories of Jewish exorcists (Acts 19) or Simon the Magician (Acts 8). It is not only the Holy Spirit that gives power, but the demonic, scripture tells us, wields power as well.
Second, the gifts come from the Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of unity, peace, order, and harmony. Thus the witnessing of miraculous should produce these as well in observes with a God-oriented heart. Among the most controversial is order. Many testimonials of Pentecostal events usually describe scenes of chaos and confusion, but these are not of the Spirit.
Third, the miraculous gifts, if in operation today, are just that, miraculous. They are not normal manifestations of the Spirit, nor are they regular manifestations of the Spirit. You should be critical if your church performs a miracle every Sunday. I have friends who are not going to like that sentence, but it is the truth. That said, let me elaborate what I am and am not saying. Again, you should be CRITICAL if your church performs a miracle every or even most Sundays. The key word is critical—I am not saying a church claiming the miraculous every Sunday is lying, it might be that the Spirit is at work in a special manner in that church, but you should be critical of the legitimacy of that claim as the miraculous by definition and biblical testimony is not a regular occurrence. The Christian life and the life of the local church ought to be sustained by the gospel in taken through the word read and prayer (for the individual Christian) and the word preached, administered, and sung (for the local church). The miraculous is not the lifeblood of the church (I will modify this statement later), the word of God is.
A Sustainable Faith
This leads to my next point, which is helpfully articulated in Dr. Michael Horton’s book Ordinary: A Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World. Dr. Horton articulates how he and other Christians experienced burn out as they bounced like pinball from one Christian fad to the next, until he ultimately realized that Jesus’s call is to the ordinary miraculous (my words not his). Consider this: the most miraculous thing a Christian will ever experience is their own salvation. I have heard crazy stories from friends who were engaged in overseas missions, in the early Vineyard movement, in various charismatic and Pentecostal groups, but ultimately the most amazing thing God has done is breathe new life into a dead spirit. Once that is on the table, once we understand that, we can reorient our understanding of the miraculous. Salvation and sanctification are absurd miracles—that a sinner like me (and like you) would be saved by God and fashioned into the likeness and character of his son Jesus is insane—and yet we are told that these are not brought about by cataclysmic events, or the defying of the laws of physics. God in his wisdom has decided to use the ordinary (which are still pretty extraordinary) means of the word of God, the fellowship of believers, and the act of prayer to bring about these miracles. If I have two concerns about the charismatic movement it is the dismissal of the ordinary and ordained means of transformation for the extraordinary and unclear means of the miraculous, and the infatuation with leaders. Both of these are antithetical to the gospel and unfounded in scripture. It is not an accident that there aren’t Pentecostal systematic theologies or Bible commentaries.
The Reformed Response
I classify myself as a theologically reformed, evangelical Christian. I had no clue what Azusa Now was (even though I live near and work in LA), but I was counting down the days till T4G2016 (live stream tomorrow, FYI). The standard reformed position, which is I adopt, is usually classified as “open, but cautious.” Meaning, I had little to know reason to believe that God cannot use the miraculous today, but I have little reason to believe he would need to in the first world. If you take this position, your standard, reformed issue heresy sensor might have been going off when you heard about Azusa Now. The gifts, revival, AHHH! But let us not over react. Consider the heart of Azusa Now. It was to gather and pray for revival. Now we can import the conversation of America as a Christian nation and over-realized eschatology onto this desire, but I see no reason to do that. I am all for revival in America—not because America is a Christian nation, but revival means people are going to be saved and brought from bondage into the freedom and love of God. As a reformed believer I can partner with and love my Pentecostal brethren well by partnering in prayer that God work in the local churches of America, that he see that his word is proclaimed from pulpits, that the church renews its focus on the mission and pursues meaningful discipleship. We too often toss out that which is not doctrinally informed. I will be the first to tell you how important theology is—in fact I want to challenge my Pentecostal friends to read good theology, like Dr. Horton’s book—but I no we can too often be pharisees about such things.
I hope my thoughts on the matter offer some clarity and balance.
Thanks for reading,