The Miraculous Gifts of the Holy Spirit: The Pentecostal basis

The Pentecostal emphasis on power can be dated back to the Keswick movement and earlier, when in Great Britain Dwight L. Moody began emphasising the need for the Spirit's empowerment for Christian service and the idea of Spirit baptism as a second blessing of the Spirit's power (1874). In America the Holiness movement began to developed. “Restoration theology” emerged, teaching that “Spirit baptism fully restored the spiritual relationship that Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden of Eden” [1] and that a sign of the end of the church age would be a restoration of the New Testament sign gifts to the church. (As early as 1830 Edward Irving had taught that the “extraordinary” gifts would be given again by the Spirit to the church in the period just prior to the Second Coming of Christ). Since Spirit baptism brought a restoration of the relationship intended by God in the Garden of Eden, “the higher life in Christ could also reverse the physical effects of the Fall, enabling believers to take authority over sickness.” [1] A. B. Simpson and A. J. Gordon were among those who began teaching healing in the atonement.

The basis for the Pentecostal position on miracles

Pentecostals argue the point that miraculous gifts such as healing, tongues, prophecy and exorcisim are promised to Christians. Pentecostalism relies heavily upon four passages for its position: Mark 16:9-20, in which Jesus is described as saying ‘signs will accompany those who believe;’ James 5:14-16 in which James states, 'Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church... And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well;' 1 Corinthians 14:1 that instructs Christians, 'eagerly desire spiritual gifts' within the context of the miraculous (1 Cor 12:8-10); and Isaiah 53:4-5 where it is taught that Christ on the cross became our “sickness-bearer” as well as our “sin-bearer.” However a careful reading of each of these passages disqualifies them as a basis for an expectation of the miraculous activity of God within the church.

Mark 16:9-20, A promise of the miraculous to Christians?

In Mark 16:17-18 Jesus is described as saying, "these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well." Diligent readers of Scripture will see that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts do not contain this section of Mark's gospel. This is not of the least significance. The fact that the early manuscripts of Mark do not contain Mark 16:9-20 undeniably means that this section was added later by a different author to a copy of the gospel, probably to give the work a more 'natural' ending. It may be apparent to careful readers that the flow of Mark 16:9-20 does not fit Mark’s characteristic style. It should be clear to Pentecostals that these quotes were added at a later stage to manuscripts by someone other than Mark himself. The unavoidable conclusion of this logic is that Mark 16:9-20 is not apostolic and therefore is not a part of the cannon; these statements are not a part of Scripture. They should not therefore be used as a basis for any theology.

James 5:14-16, A promise of physical healing for Christians?

In support of an expectation of healing, Pentecostals quote James 5:14-15, in which James writes, "Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well...” This seemingly straightforward passage may seem to indicate that any sick Christian may be healed by the faith-filled prayer of church elders. However this passage cannot be read as an absolute promise of healing for sick Christians, for otherwise there would be no need for any Christian to ever be sick, as was the Apostle Paul, (Gal 4:14, 2 Cor 12:7-9) [2] Timothy, (1 Tim 5:23), Epaphroditus, (Php 2:26-27) and Trophimus. (2 Tim 4:20) The Pentecostal reading of this passage should also make it possible for someone to avoid death altogether. If all that were needed to stay well was the prayer of believing elders, why should anyone need to die at all, as did the Apostles themselves who initially demonstrated the use of these gifts. James 5:14-16 is not as straightforward as Pentecostalism makes out.

In the first place, the passage should be read in the entirety of it's context: “Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (James 5:14-20)

Firstly the context of this passage prohibits any comparison with the spiritual gifts of healings and miracles, for it neither promises nor describes anything immediate or direct or even miraculous. Secondly, the language of ‘healing’ as being ‘raised’ is quite ambiguous, and could refer to an experience in this life or to the perfect healing after this life.

Thirdly, the repeated emphasis of the passage is salvation from the consequences of sin. The topic is brought up four times. The first mentions forgiveness from sin, (v. 15) the second, healing, (v. 16) the third, 'salvation from death' and the fourth, 'covering' sins. (v. 20). The language of ‘raising’ and ‘saving’ may refer to physical healing from sickness that are a result of God’s judgement on Christians for certain sins. The context does relate the healing of the sickness to the forgiveness of specific sin (vs. 15-16). This view offers a likely explanation for why elders are involved.

Examples within Scripture of this sort of sickness can be found in 1 Corinthians 11:29-30 and Revelation 2:22-23. The prayer ‘offered in faith’ indicates reliance on God’s grace. To ‘have faith’ is not to have a power to bring about healing despite the will of God, but to place ones trust in God himself who alone is gracious to heal. In this case the 'prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well' because God’s revealed purpose for his judgement on Christians is not an act of final condemnation, but of Fatherly discipline (1 Cor 11:32). Clearly, James 5:14-16 cannot be used as a basis for an expectation of the miraculous healing as the usual and continuous activity of God within churches.

1 Corinthians 14:1, A command to desire the miraculous gifts?

Pentecostals maintain that since 1 Corinthians 14:1 teaches Christians to 'eagerly desire spiritual gifts' within the context of the miraculous, (1 Cor 12:8-10) therefore the sign gifts such as healing, prophecy and tongues should be ever present in healthy churches. But once again due consideration must be given to the wider context, for Pentecostalism uses 1 Corinthians 14:1 to teach the exact opposite of what Paul is actually saying.

In the first place, the Greek word ‘gifts’ does not appear in the original text in this passage, nor does it in 1 Corinthians 12:1! A Greek reading of this verse (and others like it in the section) would not suggest the topic of ‘gifts’ at all [3]. In the wider context of the book Paul is addressing what it means to be ‘spiritual’ in general. A more accurate way of understanding the intended meaning of this verse might be 'desire earnestly [to be] spiritual' or 'desire earnestly spiritual [things], but especially that you may prophecy'. Similarly, verse 12 might read something like: 'since you are zealous of spiritual [things], seek to abound for the edification of the church'.

The Corinthians thought they were spiritual because of their abounding manifestations of the Spirit. Instead, in his entire letter, Paul corrects them by explaining that a spiritual person is one who understands God’s wisdom in the gospel through the revelation of the Spirit (1 Cor 1-2); spirituality is to regard the Apostle’s message and ministry itself as supremely spiritual (1 Cor 3-4); it is to honour the Holy Spirit by being holy in ones physical body and in the church (1 Cor 5-7); it is to use ones freedom and knowledge in Christ to serve one another in love by building up one another with prophecy and it is conversely not to indulge in idolatry or the self-centred use of ones knowledge or the self-centred use of gifts like tongues to building up only oneself (1 Cor 8-14); being spiritual is to stand firm on the gospel of the resurrection (1 Cor 15-16).

No verse in the book of 1 Corinthians can be justly cited to form a basis for an emphasis on desiring and seeking spiritual gifts themselves. In fact, this is the very problem in thinking that Paul is seeking to correct: we should rather desire and seek to be spiritual people, which is not the same thing as having the manifestation of the Spirit in our midst. For the Corinthians had plenty of the Spirit's gifts and yet Paul rebukes them for being unspiritual and worldly.

Isaiah 53:4-5, Teaching on healing in the atonement?

In Isaiah's famous suffering servant song (Isaiah 53) he prophecies about the Christ, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isa 53:4-5). Then in Matthew 8:16-17, Matthew writes of Jesus, “many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases."”

Pentecostalism has long concluded from upon these texts that healing was achieved for Christians by Christ's work at the cross. They conclude that Isaiah 53:4-5 promises healing by Jesus for Christians as a result of his work of atonement. Kenneth Copeland and Kenneth Hagan are contemporary American teachers who advocate this line of thinking.

However the use of Isaiah 53:4-5 as a basis for the belief that healing is as readily available to Christians as is forgiveness of sins is a false logic. Firstly, Matthew 8:16-17 is not a reference to Christ's work of atonement but to his healing ministry which preceded it. The Apostle Matthew has unavoidably taught that Isaiah's prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus activity of healing “all the sick” before his death on the cross. Secondly, the Apostle Peter's quotation of Isaiah 53:4 in 1 Peter 2:24 shows that this prophecy applies to Christians as a reference to the forgiveness of sins. Isaiah's words themselves occur in the wider context of a passage all about justification from transgression (Isaiah 53:5-12). The Apostle Peter interprets, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” [4]

Therefore, the commonly quoted texts used in support of the Pentecostal position on the miraculous gifts - Mark 16:17-18, James 5:14-16; 1 Corinthians 14:1; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; Isaiah 53:4-5 - are not fit as basis for an expectation of the usual and continual activity of these signs gifts in the life of churches.

More on this topic

Gifts of the Spirit: What Pentecostals believe

The miraculous gifts: what the Scriptures promise

The gift of tongues: What the Scriptures describe

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[1] Gary B. McGee (Ph.D., Professor of Church History, Chair, Bible and Theology Department at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary), Systematic Theology, Chapter 1 “Historical Background”, Logion Press, 1995, p. 12.

[2] In 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, the Greek translated ‘weakness’ is the same word translated ‘sickness’ in James 5:14.

[3] The New American Standard Version indicates this by placing the word 'gifts' in italics.

[4] Stott, John. The Cross of Christ, IVP, 1986, p. 224-245. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.