I’m generally not much of a commenter on blogs (other than my own), but today I crawled out from my social media cave and left a note on Christian Super-Blogger Tim Challies‘ website. What piqued my interest was a short review of a book (which I haven’t read) called The Insanity of God. The review itself was everything you’d expect from Tim’s excellent site: informative, balanced, and pithy- worthy attributes all. But it wasn’t so much the review of the book itself which I found interesting, rather it was the way Pastor Challies wrote in that review about his understanding of miracles. It seems to me that he is falling into an extremely common yet ultimately unhelpful definition of “miracle” which I want to briefly interact with in this post.
Let me first affirm most of what Challies does in the review. Other than a few passing mentions of healing and visions he basically lets the author of the book speak for himself, and then points in his own comments to the surpassing glory of the work of regeneration over and against physical and external signs. His point is that while tales of physical resurrection, healing, and special visions may be compelling in their own right (or not so much depending on your views of charismata), these all pale in comparison so the work of spiritual resurrection God performs when he gives sight to the blind and saves a soul from sin. Tim enthusiastically titles his post God Performs Miracles Today! and concludes
If the Lord chooses to revive a heart that has stopped beating and to restore a brain that has stopped functioning, that is a testament to his grace. If he chooses to heal cancer through anointing with oil and prayer, that is a beautiful display of his power. But these miracles pale in comparison to what he does when he brings the spiritually dead to life, when he takes a rebel and transforms him in the deepest way possible. This is the one miracle that, unmistakably, gives glory to God alone.
I have seen this miracle again and again and it amazes me every time. I can barely hear an account of this miracle without my eyes filling with tears. It is the only miracle I truly long to see and the only miracle God has promised. It is more than enough.
And to that sentiment I say Amen and Amen! This is good writing being used to exalt the Lord and focus on the conversion of the lost. But is this really a Biblical way to talk about miracles? Is regeneration a miracle? Is God performing miracles today?
Even in strict cessationist camps it is very common to hear this sort of talk about miracles. Use of the term varies, but it is often utilized when something either unexpected, uncommon, outstanding, or unexplainable occurs. This can be something as small as finding correct fare for the bus on a city bench, or as large as a loved one who appeared to be losing the battle with cancer, yet who then makes a sudden and unexpected recovery.
Before offering any correctives, I want to strongly affirm the heart behind these comments. It is wonderful to hear the saints giving credit and glory to God for things they are thankful for in their lives. Wrapped up in all this talk about miracles is a firmly held belief that God is powerful and in control of His world. Again, I say Amen.
But let’s look at this Biblically. The word miracle actually isn’t a biblical word. It’s a sort of catch all we use to express the biblical terminology of “works, wonders, signs and/or powers.” That isn’t a knock on the word in and of itself, but it is helpful to look at the Biblical use of those terms. Unless I’m missing something, they aren’t ever used of conversion. Actually, they aren’t ever used of anything invisible, let alone internal. Dr. Sam Waldron defines a miracle as an extraordinary, redemptive, external manifestation of the power of God which producing astonishment in men is redemptively revelatory (lecture notes on the Doctrine of the Word of God, p. 57).
Miracles (signs, works, wonder and/or powers) were not a constant in the Bible. Rather, they are generally clustered around major moments of revelation. For instance, there are many miracles grouped around Moses, who in turn is the writer of the first five books of the canon. The same goes for the Apostles and their inner circle, who had ministries marked by many miraculous signs, even as the Holy Spirit was inspiring them to write the New Testament.
In the Bible, miracles are inseparable from special (or redemptive) revelation. As Dr. Waldron again develops in his notes, miracles embody, attest, and typify redemptive revelation (see Acts 4:29-31 as an especially potent example). That’s why their cessation is a canon issue. If our Bible is truly sufficient for our faith and life as Christians then what ongoing purpose would miracles serve?
Now, does that mean that I don’t believe God works mightily in His world, and specifically, in the lives of His people? By no means!
God is sovereign. He governs history by his providence down to the most minor detail, especially as it relates to his adopted sons and daughters in Christ. How wonderful it is that he is living and active, and how right it is to acknowledge Him always, and to always give Him thanks for the circumstances of our lives.
Yet much of the contemporary talk Christians offer about miracles actually reveals a misunderstanding about how God runs His world. We tend to say that anytime something happens differently than the so called “laws of nature” would seem to dictate, then we have just been a party to a miracle. But behind that mindset is a Deistic worldview that sees the natural order operating in some mechanical way divorced from the Lord’s constant upholding and direction. When God orders events so as to cause His people blessing, be it ever so mundane as making a bus you were late for, or so overwhelming as cancer cells seeming to vanish before the doctor’s eyes, he has not acted against some set of rules. Rather, he has revealed His love and care for His people in the manner He has guided this world through his providence. We can recognize his hand at work and thank him accordingly without utilizing the terminology of “miracle.” To do so may be a relatively minor error (and not one I generally speak up about, lest I be the jerk in the room correcting small theological missteps when people are rejoicing and giving thanks to God), but it is an error none the less. Let’s try to give God all the glory for his kindness and grace without using misleading terminology which has the potential to undermine certain precious truths concerning His Word and its sufficiency.
As is specifically relates to the Challies post, I would say that conversion is an awe inspiring work of the Lord. I join Tim in his longing to see it again and again. May God do that work millions of times more! But is it a miracle? Biblically, I’m not sure why we would be warranted to call it that. And if I have been understood at all, you will see that I am in no may diminishing it or reducing it by saying that. I think rather the opposite.
(by: Nicolas Alford)