When my wife, Trudi, was a college student, a Christian friend invited her to visit a church on the other side of town to hear a well-known preacher. Since Trudi had been raised in churches that were rather tame when it came to overtly miraculous activities, she was surprised to discover an announcement in the church bulletin:
Do you want to learn how to speak in tongues? Show up Wednesday at 7 p.m., and we’ll teach you how.
The notion that someone can teach another how to do miracles is not new, but appears to be spreading. The Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) in Redding, California is representative of a growing number of churches and ministries that claim we can learn—and someone more experienced can teach us—how to do miracles. (For recent TGC articles about Bethel, see here and here.)
But is there a biblical basis for such claims?
Learning how to do miracles is actually one of the “core values” of the BSSM. Here are a few comments on their website:
“The cross of Jesus does not simply make us good people; it creates a new kind of people who walk in his power and are naturally supernatural.”
“Scripture calls us to earnestly desire the gift of prophecy. . . . We practice to discern his voice with confidence.”
“We are responsible to grow and develop our gifts to their full potential by stepping out in faith, taking risks, and partnering with God.”
“. . . this is what should be normal for Christians, and is actually accessible to all of us” (source).
Summary: All Christians have been endowed with miraculous power through the cross. Consequently, Christians should desire, practice, and grow in the exercise of the miraculous.
Is this correct? Can any Christian who desires to do miracles simply learn how, with enough practice? My aim in this post is not to discuss cessationism and continuationism (for more on this, see the recent debate between Andrew Wilson and Tom Schreiner). I am, incidentally, a continuationist, but I share the consternation of both cessationists and many continuationists about the assumption that every Christian can learn—and, further, that God expects them to learn—how to perform miracles.
There are at least two problems with this assumption.
First, the apostle Paul emphasizes that God has given each of us differing ministry roles (Rom. 12:4–8; 1 Cor. 12:8–11). We are not all appointed by God to the same ministries, whether those assigned ministries are more mundane or more manifestational. Note that it is better to view these in the category of ministries—something God has assigned us to do to build up his church—rather than as special abilities, as the English word “gift” makes us think. At the end of 1 Corinthians 12, in a series of questions that require “no” as an answer, Paul makes it clear that God doesn’t appoint everyone to do every ministry. He asks, “Not all are apostles, are they?” (Required answer: “No.”) “Not all are prophets, are they? Not all are teachers, are they? Not all perform miracles, do they? Not all have gifts of healing, do they? Not all speak in tongues, do they? Not all interpret, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:29–30 NET). So how can someone claim that every Christian can and should learn to do something that God hasn’t made available to every Christian?
How can someone claim that every Christian can and should learn to do something that God hasn’t made available to every Christian?
Second, the assumption that all of us can learn to do miracles fails to reckon with New Testament teaching: there is both an already-ness (Luke 17:20–21; Matt. 12:28) and a not-yet-ness (Matt. 25:31–46; Acts 1:6) to the kingdom of God. Ministries like BSSM travel in the already-ness, but seem to allow little space for the not-yet-ness of the kingdom message. Applied to miracles, an appreciation of the not-yet entails that many miracles must await the second coming of Christ.
The question, however, of whether anything at all needs to be learned requires some nuance. It hinges on what’s meant by learn. If we mean that any Christian who doesn’t do miracles can start doing them with a little help from a spiritual coach, then, no, we cannot learn to do miracles. Still, in light of the fact that many resist anything that smacks of the miraculous—usually because of an understandable fear of extremes—some of us may require a bit of softening toward what our sovereign Lord may want to do through us—a bit of learning, if you may. In other words, as a consequence of our built-in patterns of resistance, some of us might benefit from talking through the source of our resistance with someone more experienced in praying for healing or in speaking spontaneous words of “edification and exhortation and consolation” (prophecy, 1 Cor. 14:3, NASB). The counsel of such a person could be viewed as a type of teaching, and the removal of hindrances to whatever the Lord might want to do through us, a type of learning.
So, can we learn to do miracles? No. God does miracles whenever and through whomever he sovereignly pleases. But some of us might need to moderate our resistance—that is, learn in a different sense—just in case God decides to use us in surprising ways.