The Function of Miracles, Part 1

I’ve been reading The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind, by Bill Johnson. Johnson leads a large charismatic church in Redding, California. His book is an attempt to explain Pentecostal Christianity—particularly its emphasis on supernatural healing, words of knowledge, and exorcisms—in biblical and theological terms. It’s a book for lay people, meant to convince them to change their way of life.

Over my lifetime I’ve been exposed to a lot of charismatic Christianity. My first job out of college was with a charismatic publisher. Later, in Kenya, nearly all my best friends were Pentecostal. Back in the US, I interviewed John Wimber several times during his heyday and got exposed to the euphoria of his movement. Years later I spent a week at Jack Hayford’s school for pastors.

All along, I’ve found a lot to admire in those Pentecostals. They definitely get me to examine my own life! I always wonder whether I could live as they do, and I sometimes pray that I might. I feel the tension, the pull and push, and I’ve tried to pray boldly. But in my own life Pentecostalism never happened. No tongues. No miracles. No voices from heaven.

Today the attitudes between charismatics and non-charismatic evangelicals are as positive as they have ever been, I think. Nevertheless, some very odd emotional currents still swirl beneath the surface. Pentecostals feel that they get little respect, and they resent it. They hate being told, by word or attitude, that they are emotionally unbalanced and have no theology. They really want to be appreciated! But they rarely seem to understand that what they teach and believe–that only those who share their experience are truly and fully yielded to Christ—is inevitably irritating and condescending toward other Christians.

I doubt we will ever disperse these latent hostilities, short of heaven. What interests me in Bill Johnson’s book is how clearly we share a basic understanding of the Kingdom of God. I’ll get into some more detail in days to come, but let me simply say that the primary point of divergence seems to be the “already/not yet” duality of the kingdom. Johnson is sure the only thing holding back the kingdom is human unbelief. Whoever has the right kind of faith will see “your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” The only “not yet” seems to be (I haven’t finished the book yet) the “not yet” of our total abandonment to faith.

People like me, on the other hand, think there is a “not yet” that comes from God’s side. He has not yet brought in the fullness of the kingdom. And we can’t do it for him. “We walk by faith, not by sight,” means that we continue to believe in God’s purpose and ultimate triumph without necessarily seeing it happen in our time.

That’s a simple statement of the differences, but I want to delve into them more. In the next week or two I plan to work through some of the key points of the book. Johnson definitely has a point when he suggests that most Christians live as though the kingdom has no sway on earth. He’s part of a growing tribe, worldwide: the church is increasingly Pentecostal in its belief and practice. I want to look at that a little more carefully over the next week or more.

But for now: what’s been your experience? If you are charismatic/Pentecostal, do you feel respected by other Christians? If you’re non-charismatic, does the charismatic message bug you or compel you? Without trying to settle the score, deciding who is right and who is wrong, I’d love to hear about experiences.

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7 Responses to “The Function of Miracles, Part 1”

  1. mindy Says:

    non-charismatic…but their message doesn’t bug me, particularly.

    I do appreciate this post as I’m thinking about my response to a (charismatic) friend’s email. Her comments on my statements are probably intended as instructional, but I suspect I’m aware that I’m inclined to want to justify my own opinions. The fault is likely with me in this case!

  2. Micah Says:

    Would love your thoughts on Moreland’s /Kingdom Triangle/. I’m a big fan of middle ways, and Moreland’s approach (it’s not about gifts, it’s about the power of the Kingdom) seems like an effective one.

  3. Alan Milnes Says:

    I think you need to be clear about your terminology if you are going to engage with us – people lump Pentecostals and Charismatics together as if we were one group, we’re not and even within the Charismatic movement there are many differences.

    Certainly Charismatics like myself, and folks in Wimber’s Vineyard movement, would say a loud AMEN to your statement that:-

    “there is a “not yet” that comes from God’s side. He has not yet brought in the fullness of the kingdom.”

    • timstafford Says:

      Thanks, Alan…. You’re absolutely right. I will attempt to be more careful as I go. Can you help me out? Is there a useful term to distinguish your kind of charismatic?

      • Alan Milnes Says:

        There’s not really a specific term for my stream, although many use the term “Third Wave” it hasn’t really caught on. (1st Wave = Pentecostalism; 2nd the Charismatic renewal of the 70s, 3rd the later Charismatic movement which combined the best of the 1st 2 with a deeper desire for a balance between Word and Spirit).

        In general Pentecostals and Charismatics agree on the continuing use of all the gifts today but differ sharply on things such as whether or not all Christians should speak in tongues, whether there is one experience of the Spirit or many, the role of Scripture in regulating gifts etc.

        So the main thing I would aks is you not simply lump Pentecostals and Charismatics together unless you are addressinf something we actually agree on 🙂

  4. Kent Philpott Says:

    Hello Tim, have read you often in CT. Appreciated your article, and as a former charismatic/pentecostal, not a cessationist however, I recall that I did not concern myself with those who we considered not filled with the Spirit and therefore probably not even Christians. It was spiritual conceit and twice I was questioned about my position but ignored what turned out to have been loving and wise counsel.

    Please delete this paragraph if I am overstepping my bounds by suggesting that at are some articles on this very topic.

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