March 12, 2012

God in a Box: Limiting Miracles is not Limiting God, Pt 1

by Clint Archer

I believe God can and does do miracles. I also believe the gift of miracles (i.e. a person with the ability to perform miracles at will) is no longer operative in the church. One of the most common objections to this view I hear is, “You can’t put God in a box.”


Ever heard that soundbite? The thinking is that God can do what He wants, but the Cessationist position limits God’s abilities. So I want to go on record as saying I believe God can do whatever He wants, but He never wants to do something against what His word says.

For example, God said in His word, “Tongues will cease,” (1 Cor 13:8) and He used a Greek tense for “cease” which means “to stop and not start again.” Then the gift of tongues (miraculously speaking in an unlearned foreign language according to Acts 2) did cease. And for over 1900 years no credible Christian claimed otherwise. If you want to scratch this itch some more, check out Nate Busenitz’s excellent articles Two Types of Tongues and What Cessationism is Not.

Then in the 1914 Azusa Street debacle it was publicized that the gift had started again, only this time it was an unheard-of, personalized, unintelligible babbling. Is it putting God in a box when one holds a view that the gift of tongues has ceased and that the new version is a sham?

It’s not that systematic theology is more important than God’s freedom. It’s that God’s word is more important than God’s freedom.

No one has a problem with Titus 1:2 saying that God cannot lie. That is putting God in a box– a box of holiness.

Ps 138:2  … you have exalted above all things your name and your word. 

God’s reputation and His word is more important to Him than our scheduled healing service.

Let’s define ‘miracle.’ A miracle is not when a baby is born, nor when you pass an exam you didn’t study enough for. A miracle is when God breaks the laws of nature and accomplishes His will by doing that which is physically, scientifically impossible. E.g. making a heavy metal axehead float on the water to save a seminoid from going into debt, turning H2O into fine wine to spare a host embarrassment, or by parting the sea to keep his people safe from Egyptian hordes.

Sometimes God uses miracles, as when he destroyed 185,000 Assyrians by sending an angel of death; at other times God uses the implements of providence and concurrence just as deftly, like when he employed the Babylonians and a well-timed flood to again wipe out the Assyrians (Nahum 2).

Both are His handiwork, both are equally amazing. One type of work occurs all the time, but the other is exceedingly uncommon.

God is able to perform any miracle He wants, but that does not mean we should expect to see them as a part of the normative Christian walk.

Tomorrow we’ll explore how God uses Providence and Concurrence as His other tools in “God’s toolbox: Limiting Miracles is not Limiting God, Pt 2.”

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • SAinOZ

    Good points. Minor correction. Cessassionist is spelt cessationist.

    • Thanks. I obviously don’t have the gift of spellcheck.

  • Truth unites… And divides

    Pastor Clint, what’s the Scripture verse that says tongues will cease?

    • 1 Cor 13:8. Thanks, I forgot to include it, but I’ve added the reference in the post now, so if you hover your mouse-pointer over it, the verse will appear.

  • Larry

    Excellent post. However, I do believe God “grants” miraculous acts, such as a mom (That I know personally) being encouraged to abort a fetus that proved to be born a preemie, (Literally fit in the palm of an adult man’s hand) was supposed to be a hydrocelaphic, with an undeveloped brain, which was supposed to die before school age. Well, the parents, grandparents and others prayed and decided not to abort the fetus. Child was born, now, 22 years later has enjoyed a healthy life, is a college graduate and works in the biology department of the NIH. So…………….

    • Noah Hartmetz

      Larry, great story. I enjoy hearing about God’s mercy. But I’m confused. Where does Clint disagree with your story based on his opening line, which says, “I believe God can and does do miracles”?

      • Larry

        Noah, Clint has not responded yet, but based on what I “think” he is saying, he agrees that God still provides miraculous, tangible results in the earth realm. Although not “normative,” they do occur.

        • Noah Hartmetz

          So you don’t disagree with the premise of his article? My confusion is based on the “however” in your initial comment. Forgive me for any misunderstanding.

    • Hey Larry, thanks for that inspiring testimony. Yes I certainly agree that God can and does do miracles. A miracle is when God breaks the laws of nature, and just as he did that in the Bible, I believe He still does today in visible ways (though rarely). I believe God acts in this way as a response to prayer. Just to be clear, this is different than the ‘gift of healing’ that was one of the ‘signs of the apostles’ where Peter, for example, could heal people at will, regardless of their faith. Even handkerchiefs were being taken from him to a patient for a remote healing! This was a unique gift, which some present-day preachers fallaciously claim (e.g. Benny Hinn). When I aver that this gift has ceased, I am sometimes confronted with the response: “You are putting God in a box.” I hope this clear things up. Thanks for your input.

      • Larry

        Clint, I’m not sure what comes to mind when people hear “Breaks the laws of nature.” I suppose it’s things like: walking on water water, turning water into wine, etc. However, unstopping deaf ears, opening blinded eyes, unbinding a bound tongue, stopping the uncontrollable flow of blood from a woman’s intimate parts, reversing a trained physicians diagnosis of hydrocelephacy, coupled with a brain that will not develop and a toddler death sentence, arguably moves past the realms of “Breaking the laws of nature.” Hence God, both “breaks” the laws of nature, as well as brings instant or progressive corrective measures to the human body that are past our understanding, which are also miracles. In my opinion having a staid definition to what a miracle is, arguably put God in a box, although the using of that phrase can can skew a persons theology. At the end of the day I’d put an axe-head floating in the water, in the same category as cancer cells drying up without medical intervention. Both produce a response of “No way”! “Are you serious”? Only God………….

  • Mpumelelo Kunene

    Great article Pastor Clint.. but something about that “ceasing” though.. it also goes on to say that “when the perfection comes..”.. Now depending on your definition of “perfection”, you then can either come to the conclusion that it has infact ceased or it hasn’t. So I dont think just mentioning the “cease” part enriches the debate. By the way I’m also more cessationist in my reformed doctrines than I am on the other side, I’m just saying that let’s treat the debate fairly. I also say this because I am one who believes that the “perfection” refers to the eternal state, rather than the completing of the NT canon, however there are other texts that affirm the cessationist position more firmly. But, again, awesome post, dear countryman of mine..

    • Thanks for your participation in the discussion, Mpumelelo. Though this post isn’t intended to delve into the cessationist debate, it is worth pointing out that the gift of tongues (as described in the NT) did in fact cease after the NT. And no credible Christian even claimed otherwise until the 20th Century. Irrespective of when prophecy will be done away with, tongues did cease and it’s not putting God in a box to believe that. That was my main point. Read Nate’s articles, he does a great job with delving! Thanks.

      • Mpumelelo Kunene

        Quite true, Clint. Actually you make a good observation there, “no credible Christian has ever claimed otherwise until the 20th century..”, that kinda makes one ponder on the credibility of those who make such claims in the 20th century, if we are to use church history as an instrument (in addition to Scripture, of course) to test credibility.

  • Uriah Jackson

    You bring up the Azusa Street thing, and it’s funny that out of that “revival”, the only thing that was of any unity was the tongues they claimed to speak. However, after that supposed event, there was an explosion of many different church denominations carrying very different doctrinal standpoints. Church of God, Assemblies of God, Church Of God in Christ, and the Oneness Pentecostals all have were birthed out of the Azusa Street Revival, and claim gifts of healing and miracles, but do not agree on the fundamentals of salvation, baptism, and other essentials of the faith. This is the primary reason why they all split into different sub-denominations. Sure on paper, their doctrinal beliefs look the same, but not in their teaching and practice. If God is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), and unity in the faith is our aim (Eph. 4:3-6) and the reason Christ has given us shepherds (Eph. 4:11-13) then how is can a genuine move of the Spirit be the cause of such vast incongruities in the mortar that holds of faith together? This puzzled me greatly as a baby Christian being brought up as a Pentecostal. I struggled to understand what they practiced and truly believed. They all claimed that the Word of God was the authority, but did not adhere to it, yet began to devise philosophies as they went along. I would see them actually develop from the pulpit as the preacher got a “revelation”. Very sad and confusing.

    • Larry

      Wow Uriah. I NEVER looked at it that way. Really good observation.

    • Great insight and poignant testimony. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Mike

      Yes, good observation, and if someone tries to use that same logic concerning various denominations after the Reformation, I think we could say that we at least have a unity of the essentials. What do you think?

  • Mike

    When I say, “Don’t put God in a box” I mean, in regards to tongues; the gift of tongues, as other languages in the New Testament has ceased on the whole but God may cause a person to speak in a a language they didn’t know here and there for some special purpose such as, 3 pastors in a truck (sounds like the beginning of a joke) driving a Navaho man to the hospital. None of the pastors spoke Navaho and the Navaho man didn’t speak any English. It was an emergency situation and suddenly, one of the pastors could speak and understand Navaho but only for that situation. When it was all over, he couldn’t understand or speak it again. I heard this story on Moody radio one time. I have no problem believing that since, God can do anything and I don’t want to “put Him in a box.” I also don’t see this as a violation of the cessation of these gifts in the way they were administered in the N.T.; both as a sign of impending judgment on unbelieving Israel (book of Joel) and a sign to unbelievers, 1 Cor. 14:22.
    Same goes for healing, I believe.

    • Gabriel Powell

      This is an example of “God can do anything,” and not “the gift of tongues continues.” What’s the difference? The situation you described is not 1) normal, and 2) continual. As you said, that pastor couldn’t do it before or after. So it was a very momentary thing.

      It would be tragic to offer that story as support for the continual gift of tongues, when 99% of the so-called gift is mindless babbling. If anything, this story is even more proof that the gift of tongues (as such) has ceased.

      • Mike

        Gabriel; sounds like you didn’t understand my post; I’m saying that the gift of tongues, as we see in the N.T., has indeed ceased since they were a sign as mentioned. Joel’s prophecies were fulfilled. From then on, I have no problem believing that God may empower a person to speak a different language to serve a specific purpose such as that mentioned in the story.
        What we see today in the Pentacostal and Charismatic movements are merely nonsensical babblings, imo. I told a Pentacostal former friend, that as an experiment one time, I gave myself over to the idea of tongues and was able to babble just like they do—it was pure nonsense. I also have a schizophrenic brother who used to “speak in tongues” at a church with a fairly popular Charismatic pastor. My brother was on very powerful prescription drugs yet, people in the church stood up and “interpreted.” –again, pure nonsense.

    • I love hearing stories like that as they challenge me to re-examine my viewpoint. But after all is said and done, I can’t change my view based on my experience, let alone the experiences of people who report the story to me, who heard it from someone who saw it. But what you describe is how I would understand the gift of tongues to have operated in the NT, not what we see in today’s Charismatic denominations. Thanks for joining the discussion and providing valid insights.

  • Thank you for this article. I was, in spite of and not because of, truly saved within the charismatic movement. However, the time came where i was bleeding to death spiritually (so to speak). I praise the Lord for the historical grammatical and the men who labor and have labored diligently in interpreting the Word of God to the best of their ability!

    • Well put. I know of scores of people who were genuinely and radically saved within the Charismatic movement. One of their great strengths is a zeal for evangelism, and passionate preaching. Praise God for his handiwork in your life.

  • Larry

    Noah, because Clint added, “God is able to perform any miracle He wants, but that does not mean we should expect to see them as a part of the normative Christian walk.”

    I’d agree with that statement. It is not normative. In other words, people do not line up in prayer lines and the lot of them are healed. Also, keep in mind at the end of the day God is sovereign and if he decides to heal in a miraculous manner, that’s his call. It’s just like the man born blind. “All I know is that I was blind, but now I see.” All I know, this 23 yr old female was born a preemie, was to be a hydrocelaphic, have an underdeveloped brain and was to die prior to age 5, But God…………

    • Noah Hartmetz

      I think I understand you now, Larry. Based on this and your previous comment posted to Clint just a few minutes ago, God did an amazing work in that woman’s life. Nobody has denied that. Where the confusion came in was with comparing what Jesus did while physically present on the earth to the deaf, mute, blind, lame, paralyzed, etc. to what happened to the woman you speak of. There is no doubt that God did a work in her life, but there was nobody physically present there to do that for her, which is part of Clint’s point.

      In other words, part of what Clint was saying was that there is nobody alive on earth today who has the gift or a gift of healing(s) and could have walked into whatever room this child was and miraculously healed her at will.

      So there is no doubt that God continues to heal, even miraculously at times, without our being able to understand it (and I should add that sometimes what we call the miraculous is not, so I won’t be surprised to find out that what you speak of to be confirmed as indeed a miraculous work of God, but neither will I be surprised to find out that it wasn’t since mistakes and misdiagnosis’ happen too, but that’s not the point), and at the same time there is no doubt that there is nobody who can claim that he or she has the gift of healings and back it up by going to the local medical center and heal everybody or anybody with only a word at will.

      Thank you for the interaction and your patience with me.

      • Larry

        Noah, I grasp what you’re saying. You expanded it relative to Jesus being physically present. Communication with Jesus, a cry out to Jesus, transcends geography, time, space, etc. Remember, Jesus healed the centurion’s son miraculously without physically “touching” the boy. So……..a consult with Christ 🙂 CAN produce miraculous results. Thing is, the gift, process, occurrence of miraculous healing has been so deceptive and contrived it’s nearly impossible to accept. Personally I spent 5-6 years paralyzed, incapacitated, bound, without speech, etc, as a result of contracting brainstem encephalitis “out of nowhere.” Tested, pretty much for every malady known to man, without a conclusive outcome of what and why. Pumped with every known pill, steroid, globulin, MRI, CT scan, etc known to the medical field. No results. 5-6 yrs a later even after failed therapies of all kinds I gave up and said, “God you’re sovereign” “Whatever you’re doing, please grace me with spiritual patience, endurance and peace, even unto death. My relationship with Christ grew in leaps and bounds. Long story short, all I know is that I could not walk, talk, cough, swallow (properly) see straight, use the bathroom, etc, etc, etc. Now, to look at me you would never know I was wheelchair bound and infantile for 5-6 yrs. Did my body heal itself? did new neurons re-build on their own? (I don’t know) Did I fall in love with Christ, and become totally dependent on his presence and grace? Well….yes! Am I a walking, talking, driving miracle? Well… yes! (Unless one can conclude otherwise) At the end of the day, my circumstance is highly exceptional and I realize as such. At the end of the day I agree with the notion that “miraculous” healing’s are not normative for our time. At the end of the day I believe, the Benny Hinn’s, Oral Roberts’ Kenneth Hagin’s Kathryn Kuhlman’s Todd Bentley’s Reinhart Bonkie’s and whoever else is out there, are largely, if not total frauds.

  • Jonathan Anderson

    Clint, I appreciate that you weren’t trying to put God in a box, but did you realize you were shipping God to Rick’s church on Mission Road in Kansas City?