Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Does God Still Do Miracles?

There are some people who have understood the traditional Reformed teaching that miracles do not continue into our current time to mean that God no longer works supernaturally in the world. This is not the case. There is no contradiction between the teaching that miracles have ceased and that God still heals, preserves life, and works out various things in extraordinary ways through prayer.

As we have seen before, it is very important when listening to or reading theologians that we pay careful attention to how they define their terms. The confusion regarding this matter is, I think, directly related to the way that the word “miracle” is used in a technical sense by theologians. The theological definition of a miracle is “a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular method of providence, by the interposition either of God himself, or of some intelligent agent superior to man, for the proof or evidence of some particular doctrine, or in attestation to the authority of some particular person.” (Samuel Clarke’s definition)

Notice that this is very different from the way we typically use the word miracle. We talk of various things being miracles such as the birth of a child, the conversion of a lost soul, the survival of a person from a major accident, etc. These things may be remarkable in their own right but none of them technically qualify as miracles. A birth of a baby is an amazing thing but it has happened almost every single day in human history and is governed by ordinary physical processes.  The conversion of a sinner does not qualify because it is not a directly observable phenomenon. The verifyable healings and remarkable survival stories I am familiar with also occured according to natural (though improbable) processes. Virtually none of the things that we typically call miracles meet the criteria set forth by the technical definition. In fact, even some of the marvelous incidents recorded in the scripture are properly displays of providence rather than miracle.

The bible uses a number of different words to describe what we refer to as the miracles of Jesus and His disciples. They are called signs (shmeion), wonders (pala), and power (dunamiV). There are many in our day who hope to see similar manifestations in their own lives and there is no shortage of teachers who assure us that with enough faith this is possible. That kind of thinking, however, misses a very important distinction between the true biblical miracles and the kinds of things we sometimes refer to as miraculous answers to prayer. All the technical miracles of Jesus and His prophets and apostles have a particular characteristic in common. They are designed to give attestation to a particular teaching or the authority of a particular person who is being used by God as an agent of revelation.

As Herman Ridderbos explains in his book The Coming of the Kingdom, “Nowhere in the gospels do we see that a miracle has an independent or transcendent function detached from the preaching of the gospel.” He goes on to point out that in the gospel narratives the attempts to get Jesus to do a miracle apart from the attestation of His message and authority come from the devil and those opposed to Christ and are strongly rejected by Him. The miracles themselves apart from the acceptance of the message in faith are of no ultimate value to those who experience them (Luke 17:17-19, Matt 7:22-23). The miracles were intended as a validation of the message of God and to function as an undeniable divine stamp of approval. The miracles of Christ (and the apostles) therefore cannot be separated from the message and the identity of the message giver.

The miracles of the bible therefore are different in at least two ways from what we pray for today. First, they obviously involve a violation of natural or physical laws. Jesus raises the dead, controls the weather, walks on water, and when He uses miraculous healing the results are instantaneous and undeniably dramatic. I have personally witnessed people who have been delivered from sickness and others who survived and recovered from horrible accidents when the probability of them doing so was virtually non-existent. In each case, however, there was a recovery process. I have heard testimony from others who claim that they were sick with disease one day and the next day it was gone. I have no reason to doubt their testimony but in each case the process was possibly the result of physical processes, however unlikely. This is rather different from the miraculous healings of Jesus who instantaneously restored people who had not walked in 38 years, or whose hand was atrophied in an overt demonstration of His power. Second, as I already mentioned, those miracles were always combined with a prophetic proclamation of the Kingdom of God. The miracles were intentionally timed and positioned to validate The Message and were not performed solely as acts of kindness. They are always pointers to something beyond the physical.

God continues to work in magnificent ways in the lives of His people. Although miracles in the technical theological sense are not to be expected today miracles in the more common ordinary usage of the word do indeed continue to happen. The Lord answers prayer, heals the sick, provides for needs, delivers those in peril, and much more. The difference is that He normally chooses to do this according to His divine providence whereby He directs all things rather than through a suspension of natural or physical laws. We are not seeking signs, rather when we pray, having already believed, we are entrusting our needs and desires to Him.

There is one final issue related to this that I would like to address. There are Reformed theologians who teach that it is essentially impossible for a true miracle to occur today since the canon is now closed. The argument is that if a true miracle occurs then it means that God is giving new revelation which would imply that the message of the scriptures is not complete, full, or sufficient. I have to be careful here because I very much believe in the sufficiency of scripture but I do not think that it is necessary to argue from that position that true miracles are impossible.  There could conceivably be circumstances where God may miraculously confirm the Gospel message already given without raising up a new prophet in the full sense. I would be skeptical of any such claim because it is clearly not the way the Lord normally works and He has called us to be discerning of the spirits but I also cannot limit God. If God chooses to He can certainly perform a true miracle. However He chooses to work I praise God that I can approach His throne of grace in prayer and in the confidence that He will answer.

1 comment:

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