An Analysis of True and False Charismatic Gifts
It was the semester break, and Peter was headed home for the holidays. He was excited about coming home this time, because his Catholic mother, who for years had rejected his own biblical Christianity, had recently joined a prayer group. The experience seemed to have changed her somehow, and Peter keenly anticipated the possibility of Christian fellowship that would at last bury the differences between them.
When Peter arrived at his front door, his mother's hearty ''Praise the Lord!" broke like waves of healing around his tired ears. Never had a greeting sounded so sweet! That night even though he was fatigued nothing could have kept him from accompanying her to the meeting.
Peter watched and listened spellbound as his mother and her fellow worshippers alternately sang and shared their testimonies with one another. There were spontaneous homilies on faith and surrender, and confessions of sin and emotional prayers were propelled poignantly heavenward on a sea of uplifted hands. Many of these things Peter recognized as biblical, but what followed caused him deep consternation. Tongues were spoken with the interpretation being given, "Thus saith Mary the mother of God..."
The Supernatural vs. the Divine
Peter's experience graphically illustrates the problem faced by many Christians today: they sincerely believe in the validity of spiritual gifts and therefore are not willing merely to write off all supernatural occurrences, be they tongues, prophecies or healings, as false. Yet they also know they cannot accept every manifestation being called a spiritual gift as coming from heaven. A nicely wrapped package may contain a gift or nothing at all. At worst, it could be booby-trapped. Is there a way to discern what lies behind the emotional appeal of such phenomena without getting burned?
In searching for an answer to this very important question, it is essential for us to remember that all of the genuine gifts, or charismata, are administered "by the self same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will" (1 Corinthians12:11). Christians do not choose which way they will use the Holy Spirit; rather the Holy Spirit chooses the best way to use each individual Christian in the work of the gospel.
Not All Have the Same Gifts
The apostle Paul asked rhetorically, "Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret ?" (v. 29,30). The obvious answer is no. Consequently, never should any apparent gift be made a test or evidence of special favor to a Christian. Jesus said ''by their fruits ye shall know them'' (Matthew 7:20), and the fruits of the Spirit are "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance " (Galatians5:22,23). Yet how often do individuals as well as entire churches judge one another on the basis of what specific gifts may or may not be perceived by the onlooker!
The Problem of Glossolalia or "Tongues"
Perhaps no issue demonstrates this tendency more often or more divisively than glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. The irony of this situation is even greater when one realizes that spiritual gifts were placed in the church for, among other reasons, ''the unity of the faith" (Ephesians 4:13). Yet today we find some charismatic Christians belittling the faith of those who do not speak in tongues, and many other sincere Christians condemning with one broad sweep all who do.
It is plainly wrong to deny that there is a legitimate gift of tongues. Before His ascension Jesus promised that "new tongues'' would be one of the signs that would ''follow them which believe, " and this charism was the single most effective gift given to the early church at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit did something for the disciples in one moment which they could not have accomplished for themselves in a lifetime. From that day forth they were enabled to preach the gospel abroad, speaking plainly in the languages of the people for whom they were laboring. This miraculous gift was a strong evidence to the world that their commission came from heaven.
The Spiritual Gifts are Essential
Nowhere do the Scriptures imply that the gift of tongues is to be invalidated in the last days. On the contrary, we are to ''come behind in no gift, waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ " (1 Corinthians 1:7). All the spiritual gifts are to work in the church until it is perfectly mature ''unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ " (Ephesians4:13). In fact, if Christ's parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) has any meaning at all, we should expect these gifts to be multiplied with use.
Beware of Counterfeits!
There is one thing, however, that every Christian must never forget when analyzing and exercising spiritual gifts. The Bible makes it very clear that in the last days, Satan will seek to counterfeit the work of the Holy Spirit in order to confuse and deceive those who are not firmly anchored in the truth. His working will be marked " with all power and signs and lying wonders " (2 Thessalonians 2:9). There will be ''false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel, for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light " (2 Corinthians 11:13,14).
This will be no ordinary sleight-of-hand fakery. Satan's ''spiritual gifts" will so closely resemble the real thing that Jesus repeatedly warned, "Take heed that no man deceive you " (Matthew 24:4). " For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect " (v. 24). The very elect, it should be noted, are not ordinary people. Christians will be the primary target of Satan's deceptive designs.
Sincere but Mistaken People
Some people think only demons in disguise will perform the "great signs and wonders" that Jesus foretold, but such is not the case. More than a few of these supernatural works will be wrought by people who believe themselves to be Christians, but are in fact false apostles. "Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity" (Matthew 7:22,23).
In the verses immediately before and after this passage, we find that these unfortunate souls did not do the will of the Lord. ''Many wonderful works" will be no substitute for obedience in the day of judgment, and Jesus clearly implied that the works themselves would impart a false sense of security to those practicing them.
How will such a great number (for Jesus said there would be many) of professing Christians end up being so misled that they will at last find themselves actually working along with Satan to deceive others? This is a disturbing question that should cause deep soul-searching for every follower of Christ today. In order to answer it we must examine two concepts, truth and experience, whose relationship to each other is vital for every Christian to understand.
Truth Before Experience
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life'' (John 14:6). The whole truth as it is in Jesus will always lead to a validating experience, and such an experience will always confirm the truth. But truth and experience are not equal, and when they are removed from their proper places they often become mutually destructive.
Why is this so? Because truth defines reality. Truth is by nature authoritative and not subject to contradiction; consequently it is the judge of experience. Moreover, truth is eternal and unchanging for Jesus, who is Truth in the flesh, is "the same yesterday, today, and for ever'' (Hebrews 13:8). "For I am the Lord, I change not" (Malachi 3:6).
Mere human experiences, on the other hand, define nothing. We say that people learn by experience, but in fact experiences only have meaning in the context of knowledge. That is why two different people can both observe the same event and yet each experience it in a completely unique way. Furthermore, our understanding of any given experience will be imperfect unless we have ample facts at hand by which to evaluate it, and even then it will be colored by our preconceived ideas, personalities and prejudices.
Perhaps the most relevant criticism leveled at the charismatic movement is that many of its enthusiasts seem to reason from experience to truth, rather than from truth to experience. The process goes something like this: a.) I have had this wonderful experience; b.) I find experiences similar to mine recorded in the New Testament; c.) therefore my experience is true.
The problem with this is that no person can know on the basis of the experience alone just what significance it has. Apparent similarities with the experiences of the early Christian church are, of themselves, no guarantee of authenticity. Remember that Satan has the power both to counterfeit the work of the Holy Spirit and to manipulate human emotions. For this reason, people to whom "experience" means everything are the very ones to whom ''truth'' may eventually mean nothing. Paul spoke about those who "received not the love of the truth'' saying, "for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie" (2 Thessalonians 2:10,11).
Charismatic Christian Churches
There are many churches that now gather under the banner of charismatic Christianity. More than once Jesus was heard to say, "Many are called, but few are chosen" (Matthew 20:16, 22:14), and Paul noted that there are ''many which corrupt the word of God'' (2 Corinthians 2:17). Does this mean that all charismatic churches should be categorically shunned? By no means. Rather, we must test every church, every religious experience and every spiritual manifestation by the word of God. ''Prove all things," wrote Paul, ''hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). If a church and its teachings conform in every particular to the truths of Scripture, we may rest our confidence in its authenticity and have no fear of being deceived. If, on the other hand, a group is so deeply enmeshed in spiritual manifestations and emotional experiences that it measures the validity of Scripture by what ''the spirit'' says, beware. God's word is truth (John 17:17), and we may be sure that any spirit which would contradict His word does not come from God.
Adhering to the Spirit of Truth
Jesus repeatedly referred to the Comforter which was to come as "the Spirit of truth" (John 14:16,17;15:26; 16:13). One of its express purposes was to guide the church "into all truth'' (ch. 16:13); in other words, into all of God's word. "All scripture is given by inspiration of God''(2 Timothy 3:16).
Isaiah also admonished God's people to judge every spirit by the word of God: " To the law and to the testimony [the then-existing Scriptures]: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them'' (Isaiah 8:20). John added a further criterion to this - that the spirit confesses Christ (1 John 4:1-3). It is highly significant that God's remnant, the true church of the end-time, is twice identified in Revelation by the exact same criteria: they ''keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ'' (Revelation 12:17; 14:12).
Charismatics vs. the Law of God
Strangely, many charismatic Christians believe that the law of God was abolished at Calvary. Love seems to be the universal replacement for commandment-keeping in most churches today. Yet Jesus prefaced His promise of the Holy Spirit with a condition that bound love and obedience inextricably together: "If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter . . . Even the Spirit of truth" (John 14:15-17). Peter understood Jesus well; he clearly preached that the Holy Ghost is "given to them that obey him'' (Acts 5:32). Jesus' most beloved disciple wrote, "He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him" (1 John 2:4).
True Love and the Commandments
Some charismatics believe that these commandments are not the ten that were spoken by God at Sinai, but rather a new abbreviated law saying only "love one another'' (John13:34). In reality, this commandment of love was always at the very heart of the ten commandments, but the people had failed to understand it. The "new commandment" was not an abrogation of the ten at all; it was given as a light to shine upon them (1 John 2:3-8). Further, James made it clear that to break even one of the ten commandments would be a transgression of the whole law (James 2:10,11) - a law that was still plainly in effect long after Pentecost.
Why is God so careful about bestowing the gifts of the Spirit only on commandment-keepers? Because spiritual gifts give power to a person's witness. Just before His ascension, Jesus told His disciples, ''But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me. . . unto the uttermost parts of the earth'' (Acts 1:8). Why would Jesus want to empower the witness of a sinful life? That is Satan's work, not Christ's. Yet there are many thousands of professing Christians who openly shun those portions of the Scripture which uplift God's law and convict of sin, while presumptuously claiming to exercise the gifts of the Spirit.
When God Withdraws His Spirit
Over and over in the Old Testament we can read of times when prophetic guidance was removed from God's people. In every instance, it was because they had refused to walk in His law. When the law perished from the priests, counsel perished from the ancients (Ezekiel 7:26). God said, "I will not be inquired of by you'' because you "rebelled against me'' and ''polluted my sabbaths" (ch. 20). ''The law is no more, "consequently the ''prophets also find no vision from the Lord" (Lamentations 2:9). If we are willing to believe that "all these things happened unto them for examples, and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come" (1 Corinthians 10:11), then we can easily see that ''He that turneth away His ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination" (Proverbs 28:9).
Action and Profession of Faith
Does God deal any differently with His people today? Listen to James: "Every good gift and every perfect gift [spiritual gift] . . . cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning'' (James1:17). Let us not be deceived. God's requirements are the same as they have always been - loyalty springing forth from love, and bearing fruit in obedience. Jesus could not have made it any plainer when He admonished, "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven"(Matthew 7:21). His words faithfully echoed the Spirit's instruction through Solomon: "Whoso despiseth the word shall be destroyed, but he that feareth the commandment shall be rewarded" (Proverbs13:13).
The Righteousness of Jesus
In all our zeal to ''magnify the law, and make it honourable'' (Isaiah 42:21) however, we must never lose sight of the fact that it is really Jesus Christ and His righteousness that is to be exalted. The Holy Spirit speaks not of itself, but glorifies Christ (John 16:14). Likewise, it is not we who produce our works of obedience, but Christ in us (Colossians 1:27). If we expect to receive the Spirit's power in our own lives, our entire being must be attuned to the glory of Christ. There is no more perfect way to glorify Him than to allow His perfect character to permeate our lives. "For this is the [new] covenant," says the Spirit of truth, " I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people'' (Hebrews 8:10).
When this happens, there will be no more striving to produce something that looks like a gift, lest we be scorned by those who look upon us. ''Whoso boasteth himself of a false gift is like clouds and wind without rain" (Proverbs 25:14). Rather, there will be a diligent use of the resources, however modest, that God has placed within our reach, and a patient confidence that the best gifts will come when they are needed. As we pray for the baptism of the Holy Spirit and its power in our lives, we should not limit its operation by the narrowness of our own understanding. Many people exercising genuine gifts of the Spirit may be doing so unawares. Other gifts may be manifested in obscure places, in situations where the need exists for supernatural help in resolving problems or transcending communication barriers. Miracles will be wrought, but they will be neither common nor sensational, as Satan's will be. They will, if wrought by heavenly power, glorify Jesus Christ and conform to every truth of Scripture.
Deep, Deep Love
Finally, there will be love - deep, spiritual, self-sacrificing love. Indeed, every fruit of the Spirit will be present when the genuine gifts are working in the church. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance will characterize that remnant ''which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Revelation 12:17).
How Do Christians Go Wrong?
Let's look back for a moment at the true story that begins this article. Where did Peter's mother go wrong? It seemed that she had the fruits of the Spirit, and surely her fellow worshippers had the gifts - or did they? Just what was the "spirit" claiming to say? Perhaps the tongues and the interpretation were both only well-intentioned human attempts to ''read the mind of God," from a Catholic perspective. If so, we can at least forgive those who were involved and acknowledge their sincerity. But it should be obvious that such a form of worship invites abuse. If false gifts are introduced by the enemy of souls, who will recognize them, and how?
A Lesson from Ancient Troy
The inhabitants of Troy rejoiced at the gift of peace that was left at their gates. It was only after the huge wooden horse had been taken within the city walls that the Greek soldiers poured out of it and took the city by storm. The Trojans had received gifts before, and on the basis of appearances they welcomed this handsome new gift as a great blessing. Unfortunately, they had underestimated the cunning of their enemy and were destroyed by their gift as a result.
Unlike the Trojans, we have not been left without ample warning. ''Three unclean spirits like frogs,'' we are told, will issue forth" out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty" (Revelation16:13,14). Why out of the mouth, and why frogs? It is hard to imagine any other reason than the frog's mode of catching prey - by its tongue.
Babylon and the Confusion of Tongues
A confusion of tongues gave Babylon both its name and its spiritual legacy, which remains with us to the present day. This confusion of tongues resulted from the rebellion of God's people in attempting to build a monument unto themselves (Genesis 11:4-9). Their rebellion still bears fruit today in a profusion of erroneous doctrines including, not surprisingly, a confusion of tongues. "Babylon is fallen, is fallen,'' sounds the warning cry, "and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and the cage of every unclean and hateful bird. . . . Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues" (Revelation 18:2,4). In this day will God's people hear? Will they heed the warning?
How Should I Relate to my Charismatic Christian Friends?
Most charismatic churches today teach that ecstatic (unknown) tongues were one of the original gifts of the Spirit to the early Christian church, and cite 1 Corinthians 14 as evidence that, though they were abused in Corinth, there is a legitimate place for them in the church of today. There has been much discussion between churches over the years as to just whether or not this view is correct (see A Question of Tongues).
Though we may never really know everything that took place in Corinth, the general scenario is clear. These newborn Christians had received remarkable spiritual gifts, commensurate with the needs of the time. They were but a handful of men and women against the world, and God equipped them with powerful tools of communication for the work of spreading the gospel far and wide. Yet in their childish enthusiasm to make the most of their newfound linguistic capabilities, these not-yet-mature Christians may have tried to impress the pagans around them with a display that would appeal to them, steeped as they were in the mystery religions of the day.
Today we have some Christian fellowships that teach people how to speak in tongues - one meaningless syllable at a time. When the learner is finally able to freely vocalize with a minimum of conscious effort, the ''gift" has been realized. Such an initiate will find himself or herself at home at almost any modern charismatic gathering. When the worship service reaches a peak of emotional intensity, the tongue has been conditioned to respond spontaneously.
In both situations, we can see a basic misunderstanding of what spiritual gifts are all about. Perhaps Paul was tempted to throw up his hands and call the whole Corinthian church a loss to Satan, but he did not. Patiently, kindly and clearly he instructed them and labored with them - and they matured. Likewise, it is the responsibility of the mature Christian to love, nurture and instruct the growing one into all the truths of Scripture.
To say that all modern tongues are of Satan is both incorrect and counter-productive in Christian witness. Though Satan is fully able to inspire and commandeer the unguided speech that often passes for tongues today, God knows those who are earnestly seeking Him and will safeguard them. Modern day apostles are needed who will patiently seek out such souls and, as Paul did with the Corinthians, patiently help them along. Many of these individuals are only babes in Christ, and He holds His followers accountable for the way they are treated. "Whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea" (Mark 9:42).
Examine your own life. Does it manifest the fruits of the Spirit? Has your witness been anointed with the Spirit's power? Unless these things are realized, there is work to be done in your own house. "How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?" (Matthew 7:4). For as surely as the Spirit leads into truth, the Spirit's presence must actuate the truth. "But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23,24).
Did You Know?
The use of ecstatic language in religious worship has its historical roots in paganism, centuries before the formation of the Christian church. Plato revealed knowledge of ecstatic religious utterances in both the Phaedrus and the Ion. In the Aenid, Virgil described the Sybilline priestess on the isle of Delos, whose ecstatic speech originated in a haunted cave. Heraclitus wrote that the oracles of the ''lord" of the Shrine of Delphi were revelations of the gods' will through ecstasy, not through sensible words. Priests and priestesses were seized by sudden trances of the spirit and uttered mystic sayings which were held to be all the more divine as they were less rational or articulate.
Ecstatic utterances have survived the ages and are still a staple in such diverse religions as Hinduism, Buddhism and a variety of spiritualistic cults. The repetitious chanting of meaningless syllables often induces in the speaker a trancelike, pre-hypnotic state in which he or she becomes highly suggestible and vulnerable to mental manipulation.
Is it any wonder that the wise man wrote, "Whoso keepeth his mouth and his tongue keepeth his soul from troubles"(Proverbs 21:23)?
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The titles of the various sections of this article have been added -- Ed.
This page was created on 9 October 1998
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