Signs and Wonders

Justin Holcomb
Kim Riddlebarger
Tuesday, May 1st 2018
May/Jun 2018

a WHI roundtable with Michael Horton, Rod Rosenbladt, Kim Riddlebarger, and Justin Holcomb

The first time our associate editor heard someone talk about the Holy Ghost, she immediately thought of the Spirit of Christmas Past—a looming, spectral figure. As it turns out, she wasn’t alone. Maybe not everyone associates the Third Person of the Trinity with a story by Charles Dickens, but they may associate him with a higher spiritual state or spiritual gifts (such as healing or speaking in tongues), or any mystical experience. Other people don’t know what to think about him. Both reactions are understandable. In post-Great-Awakening North America, we’ve inherited a lot of peculiar ideas about who the Spirit is, and the scriptural account of who he is and what he does in redemptive history is a bit more obscure than those passages that concentrate on the Father or the Son. So where does biblical truth end and spiritual experience start?

Our friends at the White Horse Inn—Michael Horton, Kim Riddlebarger, Rod Rosenbladt, and Justin Holcomb—sat down to discuss who the Holy Spirit is, what he does, and even why biblical miracles are not like mayonnaise on a ham sandwich or what Kim’s wife would do if he began jumping off chairs at home.

MH: I think many of us still remember the “Holy Ghost” from the King James Version, which brings Halloween to mind more than Pentecost—he’s the spooky member of the Trinity, the one we don’t really understand since he has more of a “supporting role” (or so it seems). How important is it for us to recognize the Holy Spirit’s divinity with the Father and the Son and, therefore, that he’s involved with the Father and the Son in every work of creation, redemption, and consummation?

KR: The degree to which we deny the deity of the Holy Spirit is the degree to which we deny the Trinity. It’s pretty fundamental: the Holy Spirit possesses the same divine attributes as the Father and the Son and eternally proceeds from both; he is one with the Father and with the Son, one from all eternity.

MH: There’s this wonderful recovery of interest in the Holy Spirit, but also a kind of polarization, so that whenever you bring up the topic of the Spirit’s person and work, people tend to gravitate toward different aspects of the discussion. Do you think part of this is because the Holy Spirit today is usually identified in people’s minds with whatever is extraordinary and mysterious, with things that go bump in the night—again, the ghost thing?

JH: I’ve noticed that as people talk about the Holy Spirit, they talk about him through two rather strange categories: either the powerful mysterious things that happen, or the things that people refer to as feminine characteristics or actions—such as compassion, nurturing, soft, nice, and gentle. They somehow separate those two aspects of his energies, and as a result many people gravitate toward one or the other and miss what the Scriptures actually say about the Holy Spirit. Of course, I’m not trying to create division and say that Jesus accomplished redemption and the Holy Spirit applies redemption and there’s no overlap in any way. But by holding that distinction (not separation) between those two persons of the Trinity—by understanding that the Holy Spirit is the one who applies the work of Christ to us—the role of each is clarified and our comprehension is improved. Jesus himself spoke of the Spirit as glorifying him, taking what is his and making it known to us (John 16:14). Talking about the weird, mysterious things or the nice sentimental feelings isn’t as helpful, because it gets us off course. The result is that people inadvertently end up saying that the Spirit points to lots of things—but not Christ or the work that he has done.

KR: Isn’t it also unfortunate that in trying to be theologically Christocentric—preaching Christ from all the Scriptures and making a concerted effort to make his life, death, and resurrection the central emphasis in all we say—reformational and Lutheran Christians tend to forget that the work of Christ saves no one unless it is applied by the Holy Spirit. Some of it is our own nomenclature: We’re trying to say that we’re not man-centered; we’re Christ-centered; we don’t look for subjective application in every text. When we say that, we have to be careful not to push the Holy Spirit off the page. It’s a rhetorical point we have to make, but we also have to add that qualification. We’re not eliminating the Spirit from the work of Christ; the work of Christ wouldn’t save anyone apart from the work of the Spirit.

MH: We’re saying that Christ is the one who leads us to the Father, the Father is the one who says “This is my beloved Son; listen to him,” and the Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to listen to Jesus and to embrace him as Savior.

KR: Exactly.

MH: A lot of the church fathers used a formula that I’ve found helpful, even in praying: “All things proceed from the Father, through the Spirit.” The Reformers talked about this as well: The Father is the origin of all things, the Son is the mediator of all things, and the Spirit is the one who brings every work of God to completion. I grew up thinking that the Holy Spirit comes in during the last scene in the movie—at Pentecost, when people are speaking in different languages and there are tongues of fire, that’s when we meet the Holy Spirit. It’s been revolutionary to see the Holy Spirit from the very beginning—Genesis 1:2—as the one who brings to completion everything the Trinity does.

RR: In some ways, the language has made it difficult for us. I remember starting to go off the tracks a bit when my Old Testament professor told me that the basic word could be translated as “breath” or “wind” or “spirit.” I would wonder about each of the passages, but I shouldn’t have. There are many passages that could have been helpful in enabling me to see the Spirit’s work from the creation of everything in Genesis to the end of Revelation.

MH: It helps us to see that the Holy Spirit is not set over against creation and matter, but actually the one at work within creaturely reality in order to bring it to where the Father has worded it or declared it to be in the Son.

KR: That’s the way we have to look at it.

JH: When we get past that dualistic Gnostic picture of the world, we see the deficiencies of thinking of the Holy Spirit in that way—the idea that God is somehow over or above the vulgar, mundane realities we live. The fact is that he is involved with the miraculous and supernatural, but he’s also involved with resurrection, creation, and the incarnation—all these earthy real-life things. Many Christians who focus on this wrong-headed view of the Spirit inadvertently (sometimes intentionally) decry the sacraments and decry the real-life relationship and community in the church while they search for some otherworldly spiritual experience, which is unfortunate, because Scripture gives us a different picture. The Spirit is involved with breaking in the not-yet into the now—breaking into the kingdom here, not out there somewhere.

MH: Great point. Let’s start with creation as a backdrop to our discussion of the Spirit’s person and work, and then sum up with the incarnation and Pentecost. We’ve mentioned that he “hovers” in Genesis 1:2, separating the waters from the dry land for communion between God and man. He then comes in judgment to Adam and Eve after their transgression of the covenant. Our modern translations of Genesis 3:8 sort of obscure this: “He comes in the cool of the day,” which doesn’t make much sense. God comes in the Spirit, the ruach of the day: specifically, the Spirit of judgment. The Holy Spirit is associated here in Genesis 3 with judgment, which is important because in everything we see in the history of Israel—such as the pillar of fire in the wilderness that separated them from the nations—there’s a kind of judgment where God is justifying or judging his people in the cloud. In John 16, when Jesus says, “I will send the helper and he will convict the world of sin and of judgment and of righteousness,” he’s foretelling the day of Pentecost. The Spirit comes, and the people are cut to the quick to hear the gospel and receive Jesus Christ. We don’t usually associate the Holy Spirit with the forensic, the judicial—that’s Jesus; he died on the cross for our sins and was raised for our justification. But the Holy Spirit is just as much identified with this courtroom drama.

KR: When we hear “clouds,” we think of rain and dark sky. But these are clouds of glory. God is present through his Spirit, which means this is a heavenly manifestation of an otherworldly glory. When we hear “clouds of glory,” we have to be careful not to trivialize that to weather or some atmospheric phenomenon. The Spirit of God inhabits this cloud.

MH: We see the Spirit dividing the waters of the Red Sea, just as he divided the waters in creation—delivering his people while burying his enemies in watery judgment. He’s associated with circumcision—the rite of cutting off a portion of the flesh so the whole person won’t be cut off or excommunicated—which is a material, creaturely thing. We also see the prophets associate the Holy Spirit with the last days: “In the last days I will pour out my Spirit” (Joel 2:28–32). We know it’s the last days by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all flesh. This is a new thing—the Holy Spirit dwelt among Israel, but he never dwelt in them, as it were.

KR: That raises an interesting point of interpretation. If the Reformed and Lutherans tend to make our theology Christ-centered, then modern Pentecostals and charismatics tend to make their theology Holy Spirit-centered. They’ll start with the event in Acts 2 and extrapolate that this is normative for the church age. They disassociate the earlier work of the Spirit in previous periods of redemptive history to get the dramatic signs and wonders they claim to possess in their own church. We can discuss whether or not speaking in tongues and other Pentecostal gifts are possible for the church age, but we must recover that Trinitarian focus where the Father is working in the Son through the Spirit and recognize that Pentecost is a continuation of the work of the Spirit in the Old Testament. This is a greater manifestation of what was already present, not a do-over. This isn’t tearing out the whole old covenant and all of redemptive history with it, where the Spirit does something completely unrelated and wholly new. This is the Spirit doing now in a greater way—because of Christ’s death and resurrection—what he had already been doing in the Old Testament.

MH: You’ve actually done a series of sermons on this, Kim. Could you summarize them for us?

KR: In Zechariah 6, there’s a vision of the four chariots going forth, and the last line of that particular oracle is that the Holy Spirit brought peace to the nations. Zechariah sees the wrath of God coming forth, and the result is the Spirit of God bringing rest to the nations—the ruach again. The Spirit is all-powerful—as much as the Father—and the prophets see the work of the Spirit as subduing the nations.

MH: He’s not just this still small voice inside of your heart.

KR: Exactly; he’s every bit as active as the Father. There’s a scene in Daniel 7 where the Son of Man is led in to the Ancient of Days, and he comes down in clouds of glory. The Spirit is there, present when Christ is there. There are several other examples of this throughout the Old Testament.

MH: You can say that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit bring peace to the nations, but that they do it differently. Christ does it by becoming incarnate and dying on the cross, and the Holy Spirit is the one who brings that messianic reign to fulfillment, to completion. Justin, you mentioned that the Spirit is attributed with raising Jesus from the dead and will bring life to our mortal bodies in the resurrection. So much for the Spirit being the one who leads us to escape our embodied human existence, right?

JH: I use that frequently as a pastor: The same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is the same Holy Spirit who resides in you. If he can handle a dead Jesus, then he can handle the dead parts of your life that need to be changed and revived. Death doesn’t shock or stump him. When you characterize the Spirit as some mystical mysterious being, you overlook all of the work the Spirit actually does, which results in an anemic picture. He’s the baptizer, the access to God, the gift-giver; he glorifies Christ, he creates, he interprets Scripture, he leads, he liberates—the list is extensive. If we limit him and what he does to the thing that goes “bump in the night” (I love this new category!), then we miss out on so much of the pastoral comfort that applies not only to gifts of the Spirit to the church but to the individual Christian as well.

MH: What are we to make of the comparison of the Holy Spirit hovering over the waters of creation, sanctifying, consecrating, and out of the watery expanse bringing life, and what we find in Luke 1:32 where the Holy Spirit “hovers over the waters” within Mary’s womb, so that the one she bore was the holy Son of God?

KR: It’s remarkable that it is the Holy Spirit who creates, who begins that process in the womb of Mary.

MH: It’s sort of a microcosmic picture of what happened macrocosmically in creation. It has such incredible ramifications for how we understand what it means for the Holy Spirit to indwell us. It’s absolutely spectacular to imagine that the same one who hovered over the waters in creation to make it fruitful hovered over the waters of Mary’s womb microscopically, and now dwells within us, making us new, and living in us as a down payment on the final redemption.

KR: I was just thinking of Paul’s language in Ephesians 1, where he describes the Spirit as a down payment toward the redemption of our bodies. By indwelling us he’s promised that he will raise us from the dead on the last day, in the same kind of remarkable, miraculous way that Christ himself was raised.

JH: When you look at the location and presence of God throughout all of Scripture—when the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters, when he’s in the garden, in the wilderness with God’s people, in the tabernacle, then in the temple, then in Jesus, then in us—you see this narrowing down of where the presence of God resides. It’s fascinating to focus on the presence of God from creation all the way down to individual believers. God is not annoyed or irritated by us; he is not rolling his eyes in frustration; he actually resides in us. This intimacy should get our attention and blow our minds.

MH: There’s a line from Calvin where he says that one of the big differences between the medieval church and the Reformers was that, in medieval piety, union with Christ meant that you followed the spiritual Martha Stewart guide on how to get ready for the guest: sweep the floor, wash the dishes, and make your heart presentable for the Holy Spirit. Calvin says that the Holy Spirit basically finds the house condemned, that there is no safe landing for him. He then comes in and turns a house into a home—and that should encourage us.

JH: One of my friends likes to emphasize the presence of the Holy Spirit as not just some personal benefit—“Oh, the Holy Spirit is in me”—but (as Acts 1:8 shows us) as an indication that the gospel is going out to the entire world. God doesn’t continually focus his presence on us so we can feel better about him and ourselves—although we certainly do, and that shouldn’t be denigrated—but also for the expansion of the work of Christ to the entire world.

MH: You bring up an important point: We not only associate the Holy Spirit with the extraordinary rather than the ordinary, and the escape from creation rather than the renewal within creation, but also with the individual rather than with the great cosmic world epochal events that form the narrative of creation-fall-redemption-consummation. The Holy Spirit is painting on a wide canvas.

KR: We trivialize this work when we speak of the Holy Spirit as simply giving us some sort of subjective experience that will allow us or cause us to do something in public we would never even think to do in private. The Spirit doesn’t bring out unnatural things in us; he restores us to the “natural” state for which we were created. There can be an unhelpful stress on the extraordinary rather than the re-creative work of the Spirit that brings all things back to where they’re supposed to be at the consummation.

MH: We seem to view the Spirit as working immediately—that is, independently of any means—in individuals internally, secretly, subjectively. It’s disorderly, spontaneous, and sudden. It is living and alive versus a dead letter. It is obvious, measurable results versus promised long-term results that are often imperceptibly recognized by us. Contrast this to the way in which Scripture describes the Spirit working through means in the human heart, corporately as well as individually, externally and publicly, objectively and subjectively within us, and in an orderly way, gradually rather than a loud, spectacular flash. If the Holy Spirit is associated only with the extras, then you’re going to have some people who want only the extras. Some will be fine without the extras, but their understanding of who God is and how he acts is based on a false view of the Holy Spirit’s work.

KR: It took me a long time to get over that.

RR: We find in the New Testament that the Lord speaks about demanding signs and wonders usually in a negative way. Americans especially forget the depth of the effect of Pentecostalism, which tapped into the human desire for signs and wonders. There’s a way in which that piques our interest, and we do well to face it honestly rather than pretending we don’t care. We do care. We want contact with the divine and the transcendent.

MH: Thanks for the perfect segue, Rod. You’ve brought us to the focal point of our discussion: What are signs and wonders in the Bible?

KR: They’re signs of new creation. They take place in the natural and cosmic way. They take place in particular ways: healing of particular individuals, Jesus’ seven signs in John’s Gospel, for example. They’re everything from turning water into wine at a wedding to show his glory, to healing a man who hadn’t walked for his whole adult life. The Spirit does all kinds of things throughout redemptive history, and they all point to the fact that God is going to overturn the curse, so that by the time we reach the end of all things, all of creation is redeemed and restored.

MH: Let’s discuss some of these signs, such as the rainbow in Genesis 9. After cataclysmic judgment, God says, “I’ll put the rainbow in the clouds, in the skies, and every time I look upon that rainbow, I will remember not to judge you again the way that I have with this flood.”

KR: He was talking about water. He didn’t say anything about fire.

MH: Or how about in Genesis 15 with the smoking firepot, with God as a theophany passing through the pieces as a blood oath. If this promise isn’t fulfilled, then God will bring judgment down on himself. After Abraham had asked “How will I know?” God gave him a vision. Isn’t God always saying “Let me bend down into my creation and take something I made,” not just as an illustration but actually as confirmation, as testimony, to what he has said in his word?

KR: Absolutely. In Genesis 15, the animals were cut in half because folks in that age were used to the ritual cutting in preparation for sacrificial meals. Things were butchered and there was blood everywhere. That carries over to the temple. Think of the implements in the temple. Think of what it would take to hold an ox still and cut its throat; think of all the work that goes into that and of all the blood. The priest wears an apron because blood splatters on him. In the new covenant, we go to church and we don’t kill anything. There is no blood anywhere, because the Spirit has moved us from the types and shadows to the realities, where the Spirit is not just in the Holy of Holies, approachable only by the ordained High Priest, but in the heart of every Christian. I don’t have to come to church and slaughter something, pull out its entrails, cook part of it, and offer up the rest. All I offer is a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

MH: Because God himself has provided the sacrifice: Christ on the cross.

KR: That’s the work of the Spirit in the new covenant.

JH: Those are all signs of the covenant: the rainbow in the sky, the mark of circumcision, the role of Passover, the throne and temple for David, and the sign of the new covenant—the Lord’s Supper. It’s interesting to note that the signs are always pointing to God breaking in on time and space. It’s a helpful foundation to understand the whole conversation of signs and wonders and miracles. The covenants are the bond in blood of God’s sovereign initiative with us—I think it was O. Palmer Robertson who came up with that definition—and the signs are indicators of God’s agreement with his rebellious people whom he pursues, not something that dazzles us with shock and awe. When we confuse those two, we become distracted and go off track.

MH: It really is, especially when in a lot of the examples you brought up it’s God who is remembering. The sign is basically for us to know and to be assured—to know that God is binding himself to fulfill his promise through this sign. “When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh” (Gen. 9:13). “When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you” (Exod. 12:13).

KR: This is my body, and this is my blood given for you.

MH: What then about the burning bush? The angel of the Lord appears to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush. It burned but wasn’t consumed. God calls out to him and Moses says, “Here I am.” God says, “Do not come near. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” How is the burning bush a sign and wonder?

KR: This is another instance where the Spirit is present and we see a miraculous appearance of God’s glory in a bush. It looks like fire, but the bush isn’t being consumed. Heaven has come down to that spot for that moment, and it’s really hard for Moses to understand what it is he’s seeing. It’s the presence of the Spirit and it looks like fire.

MH: The Spirit is associated with fire, isn’t he?

KR: Yes. We read about tongues of fire in Acts 2, and there’s the scene of the heavenly glory and the chariots of fire in 2 Kings. All of those are typological of the Spirit.

MH: What about Moses in Exodus 4 when he answers God, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, the Lord did not appear to you.” Then the Lord says to him, “What is that in your hand?” I love that—“What do you have on you right now? I can use that. I can use a stick.”

The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”—so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand—“that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” (Exod. 4:2–5)

What is the role of a sign and wonder? What is it a sign of?

KR: It’s a sign of God’s faithfulness to his people that they will be able to go out in the desert and worship him and Pharaoh’s power can’t and won’t stop them.

MH: Then there are the ten plagues, which are signs of God’s judgment against Egypt and the deliverance of his people.

KR: And which are replicated in the book of Revelation. The same signs that appeared in Egypt will appear throughout the course of the age—the Spirit will be at work again bringing things to that final point of consummation.

MH: It sounds like you’re saying that the signs are never arbitrary. From Genesis to Revelation, there is a running thread that the signs and wonders are specifically attached to something that is promised.

KR: One of the things we see in the Gospels that relates to exactly this point are the kinds of things Jesus heals. He doesn’t heal male-pattern baldness or fill cavities; he restores sight to the blind. Why is that? Because that miracle shows us that God can enable us to see his work. Why is hearing restored to the deaf? So they can hear the words of God. Those who were lame are healed so they can walk in the right way. People are healed from congenital diseases that made them ceremonially unclean (for example, the woman with the issue of blood, and the ten lepers) so that by these signs and wonders, in that healing, they point to the great work of God in redemption. They’re not only proofs of Christ’s deity, but they’re also signs that point to the things that will happen by his death and resurrection.

RR: All of this points to the fact that we have a basis for trusting his particular word of promise, which is a promise to rescue. Basically, God says, “I’m going to rescue you, and I’m going to give you a pledge of that promise, so you can trust my word.”

MH: It’s amazing how he condescends to us, how he stoops as a Father who loves his children and says, “I’m going to make this so clear and easy for you to understand that a child could get it.”

RR: I think of Thomas, who said that unless he could put his hand into Jesus’ side and wrists, he wouldn’t believe. The Lord was under no obligation whatever to Thomas, and yet he gave him the sign he asked for.

JH: Many of these signs are miraculous demonstrations of God’s sovereign power over creation, which show his good commitment to his people. But a lot of them also confirm the authenticity of God’s messengers who bring his revelation to humanity. It’s something we see throughout Scripture: the testing of God’s authority, and the authority given to his prophets.

KR: And that fits perfectly with Paul’s language of Scripture being “God-breathed.” This same Holy Spirit who confirms the messengers also gives the messengers God’s word so that when they’re speaking, they’re speaking forth the very words of God. It’s not their ruminations; it’s the word they’ve received from the heavenly throne, from the Spirit who gives and breathes forth those words. The Spirit not only confirms these spokespeople, these prophets, but he gives them the words that have become our Scriptures.

RR: In many cases, I think it’s the same sort of thing because of the broad spread of Pentecostal thinking. If the culture now thinks in terms of signs and wonders and you asked a question of law or gospel, to them it’s always going to be law. The linkage to that word of God is going to be law.

MH: That’s a great point. If Christ is the terrifying judge of the last judgment—and not the suffering servant who gives his life for his people—then of course you’re going to look to the Holy Spirit as the kinder, gentler person of the Trinity, the way a lot of medieval people—and a lot of people today—look to Mary. We’ve made the point that God condescends, but isn’t it striking that God doesn’t give signs grudgingly? The sign goes with the word. I’m especially thinking of Isaiah 7:14, where King Ahaz is judged by God precisely because he’s so proud that he refuses a sign. God says, “I’m going to give you one anyway: a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and his name will be Emmanuel, God with us.” God basically says, “I will give you a sign even if you don’t want it.” How do we square that with Jesus saying in Matthew 16:4, “A wicked generation looks for signs”?

KR: In that case, they were looking for signs they associated with magic, with natural things, things tied to fertility, to a bountiful harvest. In a sense, they reflected the pagan religions, Baal worship, the kinds of signs the Romans were looking for. (“Let’s go through the chicken bones. Do something really dramatic, Jesus. Entertain us!”) Illness was common, mortality rates were high (compared to today), life expectancy was much shorter, and they saw Jesus as a walking emergency room. To them, he was a healer, a medicine man. There were pagans who wanted to know if their wives were going to bear children the next year or if they would have bountiful crops; and there were the zealots who wanted to see Jesus do miracles of power in anticipation of his raising up an army to defeat the Romans. People were looking for signs, but they were the wrong signs, and they asked for them for the wrong reasons—not the kind that could forgive them of their sins but the kind that could give them satisfaction.

MH: Does this underscore the point that signs that are not signs of the word of promise are not the Holy Spirit’s work?

RR: They’re not to be followed, believed, or trusted.

MH: There are always going to be signs of the gospel.

RR: Yes, those are the ones you pay attention to.

KR: I grew up in an age where we had a signs and wonders movement, and I once went to the Vineyard Church to see what it was about. People were jumping off the chairs, trying to touch the Shekinah glory as it “came down.” If I had gone home and started jumping off chairs, my wife would have killed me. But there, people were being told to do that because the Spirit was coming down. In seeking some extraordinary experience, they forgot that if the Shekinah glory were actually to come down and be touched, they would be instantly consumed.

MH: That’s why we have to be raised with a glorified form.

JH: I grew up in central Florida, where Benny Hinn used to have a church. I went there as an eighteen-year-old with my youth group. Back then, he was talking a lot about the double anointing of the Holy Spirit—it was all about me getting stuff and affirming my spiritual vitality. I went up for my double-anointing, and everyone who was up there fell down on the ground, except for me. I looked at Benny Hinn, and he looked at me kind of quizzically as if to say, “Uh, kid, you’re supposed to fall over.” I turned around in disgust, handed the vehicle keys to one of the other youth leaders, walked back to the van, and sat there for the two-hour ride home. I thought that the Holy Spirit was avoiding me either because I had hidden sin in my life I hadn’t found yet or because this was wrong. It took hours of agonizing. The foundation of how I viewed spirituality crumbled, and I had nothing to put in its place. Thankfully, I did have a good pastor who met with me after that. I’m not saying that everyone who wants to see a miracle is just looking for some sense of self-affirmation or satisfaction—the desire to feel spiritually fulfilled is a natural one—but there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it. In my own experience, I needed some confirmation that I was doing it right; if I fell over, that was going to be it. But that didn’t work out, so I needed assurance somewhere else, and that’s where my pastor was such a help. He said, “You have assurance, Justin. It’s called the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

MH: Isn’t it true that when we look for signs and wonders to confirm the gospel, we turn to the Scriptures; but when we look for signs and wonders as ends in themselves, we look away from Christ and the gospel? That’s what your story suggests.

RR: It takes a wise pastor to be able to draw someone back to what’s solid, when the whole thing has collapsed underneath them.

KR: And the best news of all is that if you’re looking for the Spirit to work through the ordinary, he’s working in powerful ways when you don’t feel a thing.

MH: That is so important for people to realize. He is objectively indwelling you; he is objectively the deposit.

RR: There is objectively peace between you and God.

KR: I may not feel it—I may be thinking about the drive home or who knows what—but the Spirit still works.

MH: And he will continue to work. We’re not saying that the Holy Spirit doesn’t create subjective feelings of joy and exultation, but it’s always because of the external word he links us to and opens our hearts to understand and embrace.

One last question: When we open our Bibles and walk through Genesis to Revelation, is it easy for us to miss the fact that the miracles or the signs we’ve been talking about here cluster around fresh stages of redemption and revelation of that redemption rather than as continuous?

RR: They are, and it’s really important for Christians to know that. In biblical revelation, signs cluster; they’re easily distinguishable. It’s not like mayo on a ham sandwich evenly spread through the whole history of redemption. They’re clustered around specific points in redemptive history, such as the Exodus, the time of the prophets, and the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.

MH: In fact, there are sections of Scripture that explicitly identify these periods as unique. In 1 Samuel, when Samuel is called by God, we see that this isn’t something that happens every Thursday. He goes to Eli and says, “You called?” And Eli says, “No, I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.” Then Samuel hears the voice again. He was hearing God when he never expected to hear God. It wasn’t a still small voice; it was an external voice, and the text says that in those days, God didn’t speak frequently to people. There were no prophets. Now he was calling Samuel. During the exile, Israel was given a promise that God would free them; but while they were in the exile—even though the Holy Spirit is with them—we’re told that there were no prophets and that they weren’t hearing the word of God. A whole generation passes, and then they return to Israel. Everybody weeps when they discover what they have of the Old Testament. They read it and preach it—a whole generation who had never heard these words before, much less new words of revelation. And then along came John the Baptist with revelation after revelation, and signs and miracles.

KR: After four hundred years of silence from the prophet Malachi to the apostle John.

MH: The Holy Spirit is here, not to point to himself but to Christ as the promise, the one in whom all of God’s promises are yes and amen. If we look for the Holy Spirit where he highlights Jesus’ person and work, then we can’t go wrong.

Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

Rod Rosenbladt now retired, served as professor of theology at Concordia University in Irvine, California, and as an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Kim Riddlebarger is pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, California. He is visiting professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California and a frequent contributor to Modern Reformation.

Justin Holcomb serves as Canon for Vocations in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. He also teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Tuesday, May 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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