"How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will."
- Hebrews 2:3-4
This passage seems to me to undermine the entire premise of Pentecostal churches and the Charismatic movement. Signs, wonders, miracles, and [some] gifts of the Holy Spirit were given, not to create a superior class of Christians, but rather to confirm the Gospel message. That last part is why I am more accepting of such things in pioneering missionary works, especially in predominantly-Muslim areas. However, that proviso certainly does not apply to the United States!
Paul is usually quoted in favor of the continuing Pentecostal gifts. After all, he claimed to speak in tongues more than the rest of the church (I Corinthians 14:18). But why? Afterall, Paul himself said (verses 2-4) that tongues benefit the speaker alone, not the church. So why does he advocate them?
In a later passage (II Corinthians 12:12), Paul says, "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works." These miraculous gifts were marks of his true apostleship, in contrast to the false apostles of verse 11. This same point is made in Acts 14:3, "So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their [i.e., Paul and Barnabas, who is called an apostle here] hands." Again, the miraculous gifts are God's signs of the authenticity of the apostolic message. This is also why Jesus Himself rebuked those who seek signs (Matthew 12:39); they aren't for you!
That brings us back to the Hebrews passage above: The signs and wonders were the marks of the apostolic message, not of spiritual superiority. Thus, those churches which advocate them in the modern church are actually undermining the biblical message, applying what ended with the apostles to modern Christians, and further creating guilt and despondency in those church members who don't experience them. I am being generous in saying experiencing "them," since I actually believe that their modern expressions are counterfeits.
I will note that a few Pentecostal groups actually acknowledge this difficulty, but then get around it by claiming that their clergy are modern apostles. This especially marks the New Apostolic Church, but is also found in many independent congregations. This is also why the Roman Catholic Church is so welcoming to charismatics: the Catholic hierarchy claims a continuing apostolic authority!
"...[T]he [Catholic] Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the Holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence."
The statement above is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1997), the official doctrinal organ of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. I quote it here as proof from their own words that Scripture, contained in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, is not their ultimate source of authority. They confess that they hold their extra-biblical tradition to be of equal authority. I consider this to be a gross equivocation; I believe that they give their tradition superior authority.
With the Reformers, I hold that such an equation is impossible. That is, I would suggest that the Scriptures forbid any comparable authority outside of themselves. Therefore, to claim that tradition is equal to scripture is actually a roundabout repudiation of the authority of scripture. Jesus addressed this issue Himself in two portions of the New Testament.
First, in Matthew 6:24, He said, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other." He was explicitly addressing the rule of money, but His principle applies to any dual system of authority.
And second, He criticized the Pharisees for this very act of equivocation, in Mark 7:6-8, "And He said to them, 'Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.'" In almost parallel phrasing, our Lord condemns the very act that the Catholic Church officially endorses!
The scriptures testify to their own sufficiency. II Timothy 3:16-17 tells us, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." Not "for some good work," thus needing additional revelation, but "for every good work."
That is why the Westminster Confession of Faith I:10 reads, "The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." Someone might object that the Confession is a tradition. And that is certainly true. The principle of sola scriptura doesn't mean the repudiation of all tradition. That would be impossible. Rather, it means that ultimate authority resides in scripture alone; the confession, and all other traditions, are subordinate to the authority of scripture.
My name is Chris Cole. I have lived in the Charlotte, NC, area for over thirty years, and have been an active Presbyterian during most of that time. I love the Westminster Confession of Faith as a beautiful expression of my own personal beliefs.
You can email me at email@example.com.
I prefer the English Standard Version of the Bible, and all quotations are from the ESV, unless otherwise stated.
I have a number of reviews of Reformed books on Amazon. There is a link to them in the Reformed links below.
"Seeing [that] the Lord of lords, the Lord Jesus, is so ready (never was there king so ready to hear a subject as Jesus is), [even] if thou wert the vilest body that goes, a thief, a harlot, etc., yet if thou wilt say this, 'Lord, remember on me, and give me a part of thy kingdom'; - if thou prayest to him from a penitent heart, with confidence and assurance, I promise unto thee, heaven and earth shall go [fall] together ere thou wantest [lack] thine asking. Seeing [that] our Lord Jesus is so liberal [free-giving], then seek more than enough, more than a kingdom, and thou shalt get more. The only cause why we want [lack] is in us: we have no hearts to seek it." - Rev. Robert Rollock, Scottish Presbyterian minister, about 1590, in a commentary on Luke 23:42-43