Are Spiritual Gifts for Today?
By Dr. Craig Keener
Paul declares that we are the body of Christ with many members (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Cor 12:12, 20). He then elaborates on some of the varied gifts God has graciously given us to serve the rest of Christ’s body. Because Paul is simply offering samples, he provides several different lists that include a variety of ministries. These gifts for helping the other members in Christ’s body include such diverse ministries as giving, teaching, prophesying, speaking wisely, healings, worship leading, and evangelism (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:8-10, 28-30; 14:26; Eph 4:11).
Paul nowhere distinguishes between what we might call supernatural and potentially natural gifts. That is, we need God’s grace to teach God’s word just as we need God’s grace to prophesy it. Like the churches that Paul first addressed, we remain the body of Christ in need of all our members and all our gifts; otherwise we will be like a body with important parts (such as hands or eyes) missing (1 Cor 12:14-30).
Nevertheless, some modern Western interpreters have traditionally affirmed so-called natural gifts while denying that supernatural gifts such as prophecy remain. Not only is there no support for this distinction in the biblical text, but Paul’s lists and teaching about gifts undercut it. Indeed, Paul emphasizes the need for various gifts, including prophecy, to bring Christ’s body to maturity and unity in trusting and knowing Christ (Eph 4:11-13)—a need that Christ’s body still has today. (I must pause to note here that Paul presumably uses the term “apostles” here, as he normally does elsewhere, to refer to a group of ministers larger than the Twelve original witnesses for Jesus. Virtually no one suggests that we still have original witnesses of Jesus among us; cf. Rom 16:7; 1 Cor 15:5-7; Gal 1:19; 1 Thess 2:6.)
One gift in nearly all of Paul’s lists, which Paul often ranks toward the top, is the gift of prophecy (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). In the Old Testament, it was the most commonly mentioned ministry for communicating God’s message; it remains prominent in the New Testament as well. Paul not only emphasizes that this gift is particularly valuable for building up Christ’s body (1 Cor 14:3-4), he urges believers to seek it (14:1, 39; cf. 12:31). Thus, even if we did not know of true prophecies today, obeying biblical teaching would lead us to pray for God to give this gift to the body of Christ. Prophesying sometimes includes exposing the secrets of unbelievers’ hearts by God’s Spirit (14:24-25); at least in principle, the gift is widely available (14:5, 24, 31), though not all have it (12:29) and not all have it in the same degree (Rom 12:6).
Those who object to gifts such as prophecy continuing today often argue that allowing for contemporary prophecy would diminish the unique authority of Scripture. But this argument itself is an extrabiblical approach that differs from what we find in Scripture. Both in the Old and New Testaments, we read of many prophets whose prophecies were not recorded in Scripture (e.g., 1 Kgs 18:13; 1 Cor 14:29, 31). Scripture does not include all true prophecies; Scripture moreover includes history and other genres that are not prophecies.
I am not suggesting that God is revealing new doctrines—new doctrine is quite different from saying that God speaks to us at times to guide and nurture us. We already have in Christ’s first coming the fullest revelation of God that we will receive until his return (Heb 1:1-2), although the Spirit continues to teach us (John 14:26; 16:12-14; 1 John 2:27). One reason people object to gifts like prophecy continuing is that they fear that this opens the door for unbiblical doctrines. True prophecy need not do this. Yet the doctrine that the gifts have ceased is itself a postbiblical doctrine, without genuine biblical support.
Gifts like prophecy are pervasive in Scripture, and nowhere does Scripture suggest that they will become obsolete before the Lord’s return. Some cite 1 Cor 13:8-10 against continuing gifts, but the text in fact teaches the opposite. Paul provides three examples of gifts: prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. Given how “knowledge” is used elsewhere in 1 Corinthians (versus some modern ideas about what it means; cf. 1:5; 8:1; 14:6), “knowledge” here probably means knowledge about God of the limited sort presently available, often through teaching. Both this sort of knowledge and prophetic messages are limited, as opposed to the full knowledge we will have when we see the Lord face to face (13:11). This expression cannot simply refer to the close of the canon at the end of the first century. Knowledge has not passed away, nor have we yet seen Jesus face to face, without limitation.
Nor is Paul alone in expecting continuing gifts. When Jesus poured out his Spirit at Pentecost, Peter explained that this fulfilled Joel’s prophecy: God would pour out his Spirit in the last days, and this outpouring would be characterized by visions, dreams, and prophecy (Acts 2:17-18). God did not pour out his Spirit then pour his Spirit back. Moreover, if it was “the last days” when Peter spoke, it surely remains the last days. Not every individual in Acts exhibited the same gifts or ministries, but Acts does teach us about God’s work in the era between Jesus’s first and second comings.
Educated leaders such as Stephen, Paul and Apollos spread Jesus’s message by debating in public intellectual forums such as synagogues and courts. The most common means of drawing attention for the gospel in Acts, however, is signs, which God performed through both some of the educated and some who were not (e.g., Acts 2:43; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6; 19:11-12). After a dramatic healing in the temple, Jerusalem’s authorities tried to intimidate Peter and John against speaking in Jesus’s name. Instead, believers prayed that the Lord would continue to embolden them, granting further signs and wonders (4:29-30). God gave signs to attest the message about his grace (14:3), which we still preach.
When preaching about God’s reign (his “kingdom”), Jesus also demonstrated God’s reign by authoritatively healing the sick and delivering those oppressed by spirits (e.g., Matt 4:23-24; 9:35; 12:28; Luke 9:11; 11:20). Jesus commissioned disciples to do the same (Matt 10:7-8; Luke 9:2; 10:9); the principles of this mission continue until the end (Matt 10:23). God used dramatic signs especially to draw outsiders’ attention to the gospel (cf. Rom 15:19), but gifts of healings are also provided to help believers (1 Cor 12:9; James 5:14-16). Such healings need not be dramatic to fulfill their purpose; healing through medical means, for example, is no less an answer to prayer. But again there is no indication that healings would stop; they continue, including as a witness to outsiders, as late as the end of Acts (Acts 28:8-9) and other signs appear in Revelation (Rev 11:5-6, interpreted in various ways but rarely applied exclusively to the past).
Why would God work one way throughout Scripture in various times and places and then suddenly stop, without prior warning, at the end of the first century? Is it not more biblical to expect that God continues to work as he did in the Bible, in various times and places as he deems best and his people welcome his work?
In fact, God has continued to work with miracles, prophecies, tongues and other gifts throughout history. (Even most Christians who deny that the gifts are for today do affirm that miracles continue at least sometimes. God is sovereign and certainly able to perform miracles and answer prayers.) Irenaeus in the second century testified to virtually the same range of miracles we read in Acts. Historians have documented that the leading causes of conversion to Christianity in the 300s were healings and exorcisms. Augustine originally believed that miracles had largely died out by his day but ultimately confirmed that many were occurring even in his own circle of churches and among friends. Miracles accompanied many new mission fields as well as some revivals. Wesley and early Methodists reported some. Nineteenth-century Lutheran pastor Johann Christoph Blumhardt reported many. Today some suggest that up to 80 percent of the church’s global growth is connected with signs and wonders.
Of course, discernment is crucial, because not every claimed prophecy or miracle is genuinely from God’s Spirit (cf. 1 John 4:1-6). Even though some are too critical, they rightly remind us that we must not only welcome but also evaluate what claims to be the work of the Spirit (1 Cor 14:29). We should not despise prophecies but we should evaluate them and embrace only what is true (1 Thess 5:19-22). (I pause to mention here that two or three Christian Union staff prophesied to me and they were accurate.) Unfortunately, some who affirm gifts denigrate the intellect; some circulate unsound teachings such as self-centered prosperity; and so on. Then again, unsound teachings also circulate in circles that deny the gifts. We should neither throw out the baby out with the bath water nor let it drown there.