Are We ‘Accidental' Continuationists? (Part II)

This is part 2 of a blog series on continuationism, spiritual gifts, and true spirituality. To read the first post, click here.

The Evidence of True Spirituality

I was converted into a church that cherished charismatic practice. We were continuationist way back in the early 80’s, back when it was called ‘charismatic’ and was very uncool. There are things I treasure from those days; memories of moments when spiritual gifts edified God’s people. But as wonderful as spiritual gifts can be, they are not as spectacular as a patient mom with small kids, for love is patient. As inspiring and awe-striking as it may be to see a miracle, it's not as excellent as a kind teenager, because love is kind. When the Spirit truly works upon a man or woman, the best evidence is the fruit produced (Galatians 5:22-25). How do we respond when we don’t get our way? What do we say when we feel sinned against? How do people experience us when we are disappointed? These are the marks of true spirituality.

As inspiring and awe-striking as it may be to see a miracle, it’s not as excellent as a kind teenager, because love is kind.

The other day I became angry with my daughter. Rather than loving her, I pasted her with hasty words. God visited me with sweet conviction and we got things patched up. But the exchange revealed that I was not only unloving in the way I spoke, but unspiritual.

@@Only Corinthians find the highest spirituality in gifts.@@ With God, true spirituality is evidenced by love. And the best spirituality uses gifts to love and serve others. True spirituality doesn’t use tongues or healing or prophetic words to boost a bank account; it uses gifts to boost the joy and encouragement of God’s people.

The Expectation of True Spirituality

Having a robust understanding of God’s empowering presence should result in a believer encountering God in ways defined and evaluated by Scripture. And I want this, both for me and for the people I lead. Once while I was under the diverting spell of a particular preoccupying problem, I opened a letter from an acquaintance in another city.Though written two weeks earlier, the letter described some startlingly specific details of my days’ conundrum, along with some glorious promises from God’s Word that would comfort me. I sat dumbstruck, as the words spoke ‘peace’ to the wind and waves cascading over my soul.  

I want the “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3) that comes from biblically governed, elder-led, truly-gifted, prophetic ministry. I want spiritual experiences where I am enjoying the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18). I want biblically-defined spiritual encounters of the same variety that, according to Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen expected: “Owen is not against subjective experience of divine power, but, he argues, on a scriptural and theological basis, that experience should be the fruit of faith, and faith rooted and grounded in the spiritual realities to which Scripture bears testimony” (John Owen and The Christian Life, p. 130).

We shouldn’t throw spiritual gifts out with the trash, as though they’re the old-school models of the Christian experience of God’s power. But spiritual experiences, even when extraordinary, are not more important than the Giver’s work in conversion. This is unquestionably the greatest spiritual experience that happens to the believer. In our appeals that God empower us, we must always remember that the most decisive and permanent act of his power has already happened in our conversion.

Spiritual experiences are also not superior to Christ conforming us to his character.

Spiritual experiences are also not superior to Christ conforming us to his character. If given a choice between a leader who can speak in tongues and a leader who knows how to love, I’ll take the loving leader every time (…but, then I’ll exhort him to “earnestly desire spiritual gifts” — more on that in a moment!). Paul understood this. It’s why he never boasted about the whole Third Heaven thing. He knew how quickly Christians would assign authority and leadership credibility to his spiritual experiences. So Paul started with “I know a man…” (2 Corinthians 12:2). Was this some kind of false modesty at work? On the contrary, Paul’s goal was, “…that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (2 Corinthians 12:6).

You know biblical love is at work when you are more worried that people think too much of you rather than too little. That’s why Paul diverted attention to the gospel (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) and never sought to impress others with his spiritual experiences. After all, love does not boast.

The Eagerness of True Spirituality

Biblical love becomes the motivation for spiritual gifts. Love becomes the tracks upon which the gifts move forward. Biblical love pursues the activity of the Spirit. This is why Paul returns to the discussion of gifts in 1 Corinthians 14. He urges us to diligently and passionately pursue these gifts, “Eagerly desire the greater gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31). "Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts" (1 Corinthians 14:1). “Since you are eager to have spiritual gifts, try to excel in gifts that build up the church" (1 Corinthians 14:12). “Be eager to prophecy" (1 Corinthians 14:39).

True spirituality — the kind that experiences and enjoys love-fueled gifts of the Spirit – never happens accidentally. Spiritual gifts that edify are linked to biblical leadership that initiates. This is precisely what Paul is doing with the Corinthians.

True spirituality — the kind that experiences and enjoys love-fueled gifts of the Spirit – never happens accidentally.

Let’s not become so analytical, so preoccupied with detecting incipient errors or imbalances, that we fail to pursue and practice spiritual gifts. Nothing neutralizes the pursuit and use of gifts more than the misguided notion that they can somehow be employed perfectly. The gifts we receive may come from a divine source, but we will never, ever be able to use them with divine reliability. Not in a fallen world; not through fallen people. Each spiritual gift comes from God, but they are given to us — to sinners. Face it: To use spiritual gifts, there will be risks; things will get messy. But we must be willing to make mistakes. We need to accept that, right now, so that we can seek to exercise spiritual gifts. This teaches us to learn dependence, not upon the gifts, but upon the Giver who gave them.

God doesn't want us to be preoccupied with results. He wants us to be faithful with our gifts, and to trust him with the refining process. Who knows, maybe one day we will find ourselves using our gifts to encourage a young Charles Spurgeon. Mr. Knill did not know that this child would one day be the Prince of Preachers. He was just taking a risk and looking to serve. He was less concerned about his own perfection or others’ perception, and was more concerned with serving and encouraging a young man.

May God inspire us by Knill’s example. And may he grant us many spiritual gifts, that we may boast less, love more, and learn to be truly spiritual!

This post was written by Dave Harvey, Pastor of Preaching at Four Oaks Church, and the Executive Director of Sojourn Network. Follow him @RevDaveHarvey.