god in a boxWhen you read the NT you see the demonstration and description of miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Right away on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) the people are speaking in tongues. Not long after we see the dead raised, lame healed, and people transported. It is a powerful outbreaking of the Holy Spirit in an arresting way.

When you read these things (and their corresponding descriptions, instructions, and warnings) a Christian must ask if these so-called miraculous gifts are operative today (i.e. the gifts of tongues, healing, & prophecy). Do we today see the same types of things happening as we did in the early chapters of Acts?

As a pastor I have been asked this question more times than I can count, particularly by people who are visiting and considering joining the church. My answer in short is “no”. I do not believe that the gifts of tongues and healing are present today as we saw in the early church. Much of what today gets passed off as tongues and healing are not what the Bible shows, namely known languages spoken and understood; and people being instantaneously (and fully) healed with a word or a touch. I tell them that my position (cessationist) is based upon observation: I see a tapering off of the miraculous gifts (tongues and healing) in the NT with the close of the Apostolic era and I do not see them consistently displayed in church history. Therefore, I don’t believe they are normative in the life of the church today. (note: prophecy is defined in different ways, but I would say that God is not giving new revelation today either. If you want to take prophecy as preaching, admonishing or exhorting-that’s fine.)

Don’t Put God in a Box

What is the response to this? “Don’t put God in a box.”

What they are saying with this is that my view that these miraculous gifts have ceased means that I only believe that God can work in this way or that way. In other words, God can’t do this and he doesn’t do that. They would say that I have, theologically speaking, accomplished the staggering if not strange feat of confining God’s activity in the world. As they go on they typically say something like, “God can do whatever he wants to do. If he wants to miraculously work in a village in Africa this way—he can. If he wants to communicate with me in a dream—he can. If he wants to miraculously heal someone—he can.”

How Do We See God Working?

Now we see the issue clearly. It is not so much the gifts as the activity of God. We also see something of the reflex of 21st Century, particularly Western Evangelicalism. The thought is that the evidence of God working in the world is the miraculous. God shows up and we all know it. We know God is working when tragedy is averted, disease is healed, life is spared, and the occurrence of personal experiences that cannot be explained.

But, what if God’s work is far more than this? What if his activity in the world is not limited to our perception of the miraculous? What if God’s activity in the world is less like Superman—rushing in to ‘save the day’ and then rushing out before he is spotted—and more like Atlas—holding the weight of the world on his shoulders? What if God is not actor in the story of our life but that we are in his story? What if God is the writer, director, producer, main character, and set designer?

The doctrine of Providence helps us here. Providence is God’s infinite power that upholds and governs all things that come to pass. As the Heidelberg Catechism says,

“God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures and so governs them so that: leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed all things, come to us not by change but by his fatherly hand.”

The main things you need to know about this is that God is not disconnected from what is happening in the world today. God is upholding, governing, and ordering all things as with his very hand.

“Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6)

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” (Hebrews 1:3)

“In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,” (Ephesians 1:11)

“But even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30)

What do You Mean by a “God Thing”?

Those who believe that I have put God “in a box” seem to believe that God only shows up when something miraculous happens. But those in the Reformed tradition would see in God’s providence that he is actively involved in everything. We don’t use words like “That was a God-thing” because everything is a “God-thing” —he upholds, governs, and orders all things as with his very hand. This includes things like miracles and seemingly unexplainable events where God may directly intervene or even used secondary means.

So who is putting God in a box after all? On the one hand you have people who see God only in the so-called miraculous events of life and on the other you have people who see God working in all things. If I’m putting God in a box then it is a pretty big box, and it’s labeled “Divine Providence”. Whereas others, perhaps unwittingly, put God in a much smaller box, and it’s labeled “The Miraculous”. Do you really want to do that?