Where Has the Holy Spirit Promised to Work?

A blog post from the White Horse Inn clarifies the key issue at stake when "charismatic" believers engage "cessationist" believers.   The key issue is not whether the Holy Spirit can do amazing and unusual things today.  Of course He can.  The question is whether He has promised to work through "ordinary" means like the reading of Scripture, prayer, preaching and the administration of the sacraments.  This question is not theoretical.  If you believe that the Holy Spirit works through these ordinary means you will attend to them regularly with faith and expectation.  If you believe that the primary work of the Spirit is to be found in the "extraordinary" happenings that He brings about, then you will be inclined to be waiting for such moments in your own life.  The Reformed position is that an amazing supernatural work of grace takes place through the ordinary means.  Of course, that makes these means hardly "ordinary."  They are only ordinary insofar as God has graciously provided many occasions for us to profit from them, but they are truly extraordinary compared to the paltry substitutes for grace that we are offered elsewhere. The full text to the blog post at the White Horse Inn is below.

I was intrigued by a recent conversation between Doug Wilson and Mark Driscoll (interview video above).

I’d prefer to keep my thoughts to myself, but I think there’s a crucial piece missing from the “debate.”

As I said in an earlier post ( Reformed and Charismatic?), I’m not willing to die on the hill of cessationism. In fact, I’d fit into the category that Doug Wilson describes as “a cessaionist who believes strange things happen.” A sovereign God is free to fulfill his purposes as he pleases. As God, the Holy Spirit is not on a leash.

However, this misses the point. No Calvinist would believe that the Spirit is not free or that he cannot speak directly to people today as he did in the days of the prophets and apostles. Nor are Reformed Christians deists for believing that, as a rule, he doesn’t. In fact, the church was not guided by anti-supernaturalism when it rejected the claims of the Montanists in the late second century. Nor were Luther and Calvin under the spell of the Enlightenment when they challenged the “enthusiasts” for pitting the Word against the Spirit.

The Spirit is not bound by anything, but he freely binds himself to his Word. The question is not where the Spirit may work, but where he has promised to work. If strange things happen—similar to events in the era of the prophets and apostles, praise the Lord! However, one doesn’t have a right to expect the Spirit to work except where he has promised to work and through the means that the Triune God has ordained.

Like older charismatic-cessationist debates in evangelicalism, this newer discussion therefore has the wrong categories. The real issue isn’t whether the sign-gifts have ceased; it’s whether the Spirit works through ordinary means that Christ ordained explicitly or whether he works through extraordinary means that were identified with the extraordinary ministry of the apostles. Even deeper than that, it’s a question of whether we embrace a paradigm in which the Spirit’s work is identified with direct and immediate activity within us apart from ordinary means or through the external Word and sacraments. The history of “enthusiasm” (Protestant or otherwise) trends toward an almost Gnostic dualism between spirit and matter, indirect and inner experience versus mediated and external ministry, the individual heart and the covenant community. This is where the seismic fault is revealed. It’s at this point where the real differences—paradigmatic differences—become evident. And there are plenty of cessationists as well as charismatics who presuppose the “enthusiastic” paradigm.

In this interview, my friend Mark Driscoll expresses his worry that cessationists believe in the “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” That may well be. In fact, one of the things that I’ve emphasized especially in recent years is the richness of the Spirit’s person and work that is actually far more evident in classic Reformed as well as patristic faith and practice than today. The temptation to celebrate the Spirit over the Word in our day is in part a reaction against a conservative tendency to separate the Word from the Spirit. He has also said elsewhere that where Reformed people attribute God’s work to the gospel, charismatics attribute it to the Spirit. We talk past each other, he says. I’m not so sure. Rather, I think we’re operating with quite different paradigms. When we attribute God’s work to the gospel, it’s actually attributing it to the Spirit who works through the gospel.

The choice between Spirit and Word is a false one that has typically been forced by Protestant enthusiasm. We do speak past each other, but because we have different paradigms—not just because of different views of whether the sign-gifts have ceased. For example, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Where does this true faith come from?” Answer: “The Holy Spirit creates it in our hearts by the preaching of the holy gospel and confirms it by the holy sacraments.” Who creates it? The Holy Spirit. How? Through preaching the gospel and by ratifying it through the baptism and the Supper.

When Reformed people (and others) speak of preaching, baptism, Communion, covenantal nurture in the home, church discipline, diaconal ministry and so forth, our charismatic brothers and sisters wonder, “Where is the Holy Spirit?” Why? Because they have come to see the Spirit’s work as separate from—even antithetical to—the external ministry of the church and ordinary means of grace.

Of course, this point doesn’t address the issues, much less pretend to solve them. However, my hope at least is that we could have a better conversation than the usual debate question: “The Sign-Gifts Have Ceased: Pro or Con?”