Mr. K. W. H. Howard
March 31st, 1973
The purpose of this lecture is not to consider any particular miracle or group of miracles, but to call attention to the principle of miracles, what they are, how they are denied, and how they may be rightly defended.
Scripture does not give us an actual definition of a miracle, although the word itself occurs some thirty-five times in the A.V. The New Testament uses three terms; terata, meaning ‘wonders’;
dunamis, meaning ‘powers or mighty works’; and semia, meaning ‘signs’. Occasionally all three terms are linked together, as in Acts 2,22. As in some other matters, we have to deduce the Scripture definition of a miracle from the nature and character of the miracles which Scripture records. I think that Alexander Cruden is right when, in his Concordance, he says, ‘A miracle is an event beyond the power of any known physical laws to produce, a supernatural occurrence produced by the power of God’. More briefly, it may be put like this, ‘A Miracle is a supernatural act of God in a natural setting or context’.
At the outset I must say that it is vital to approach this subject in a right manner and spirit. There are two opposite extremes in this matter, both common today, and both to be avoided if we are to have a God-honouring understanding of the subject. We must avoid the spirit that begins with; MiraclesÂ—can they happen?Â—can science allow them?Â—can ‘man come of age’ believe them? This frankly unbelieving approach begs every question by the way it asks it. Equally to be avoided is the over-credulous, undiscerning disposition to regard anything that is referred to by men as a miracle as being authentic religious and even truly Christian experience. If, on the one hand, we must reject the sceptical spirit, so, on the other hand, we must be warned against the over-credulous disposition toward miracles so characteristic of present-day spiritualism, witchcraft, and pentecostalism. I should like to consider the dangers of both these extremes.
Bearing in mind, first, the unbelieving, sceptical spirit with regard to miracles, I approach the subject in this way. The sphere or realm in which a true miracle occurs is Christianity. And Christianity is a revealed religion, not something thought-up or invented by man. It is revealed. And Holy Scripture is the record of that revelation. And God is Author of all threeÂ—revelation. record, and religion. This being the case, a miracle is an effect of which God is the Cause. The feasibility of the miraculous therefore rests wholly and entirely on the Godhood of God, and no view of miracles is adequate or valid unless it reckons with the Person from whom they proceed. I shall lay down three propositions in answer to the denial of miracles:Â—
1. Holy Scripture, as History, is pervaded by Miracles.
Wherever you look in Scripture you find it, from Genesis to Revelation. Creation was miraculous. The burning bush. The birth of Isaac. The plagues of Egypt. The Red Sea crossing. The Jordan crossing. Aaron’s Rod that budded. Elijah’s ministry. Elisha’s ministry. The axe-head floats. The shadow on a sundial turns backwards. Daniel and the lions, and much more in the Old Testament. The New Testament is dominated by the Virgin Birth and Incarnation of the Son of God, His Resurrection and Ascension and promised Return. There are the miracles of His ministry, and those of His apostles’ministries.
I lay it down as a simple fact of observation that the Christian scriptures are pervaded by the miraculous; by God acting in a way that transcends nature. If you take that element away from Scripture/you will have very little left. If you deny that element in Scripture, you are left without the entire source-material of our knowledge of Christianity, and therefore without Christianity itself. ScriptureÂ—MiracleÂ—Christianity stand or fall together;
denial of one is denial of all.
2. Christianity viewed as a system of Divine Truth, or Doctrine, rests upon Miracles. Doctrinally considered, Christianity begins with the Person of Almighty God and with His character. God is a supernatural, divine, infinite, eternal, omnipotent, all-wise Being; the only living and true God. From that point of departure Christianity then constructs its ‘world-view’, its understanding of life and being, of man and of the entire universe. And this Christian ‘world-view’ is that God, having created the universe by the word of His power, thereafter ordinarily governs it according to laws which He Himself instituted at the Creation. The laws of nature and of physics; are ordained by God; they are His tools, His servants, and by them He ordinarily governs the natural universe. In the Christian view of things, natural law is a part of God’s general providence. Thus, although the natural universe and all within it, is subject to the laws of nature, the laws of nature are subject to their great Originator, the Law-Giver, the only true and living God. This is the pith of the Christian view of the natural universe; in the last analysis, it is governed, not simply by laws, but by the Law-Giver.
How, then, can these divinely given natural laws be altered? Just as in a well-regulated family the head of the family may vary the general rules by which he orders his family; and just as the legislature of a nation may legitimately amend the laws it has made for its people; just so may the great Head of the whole universe choose to work within, or without the laws He has made for His universe. And it is at the point where God makes exceptions and alterations to His own divinely instituted natural law that a miracle occurs. A passage common to the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), the Savoy Declaration (1658), and the Particular Baptist Confession (1689), aptly summarises the
Scripture teaching thus; ‘God, in His ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them at His pleasure’. (Ch. V, para 3, in each case).*
From the doctrinal standpoint, a distinction must be drawn between general providence where God’s will is brought about by means within His natural law; and extraordinary or special providence (or miracle), where God works His will in a particular matter by superseding or transcending His natural law. It is quite wrong to think or speak of God ‘violating’ or ‘suspending’ His natural law; this He never does. He does, however, sometimes bring into operation higher laws within His control but which He has not revealed to men, in order to accomplish His will in a given case;
and such an event is an extraordinary providence, or miracle.
Many will ask, but why does natural law need to be supplemented or superseded at all? The Christian answer to this is, because nature is in a state of disorder due to the fall of man and the entrance of sin. God is therefore working out, within the history of the natural universe, an eternally conceived purpose of salvation which will bring not only His elect to glory, but the whole universe to its divinely ordained end. ‘The times of the restitution of all things’ shall come, but natural law is not enough to bring it about because of the abnormality of sin which affects not only man but the entire universe. The whole earth is cursed; natural law alone is inadequate to effect the correction; something more is needed. ,
And thus extraordinary providence, or the miraculous is not unnecessary but necessary, not haphazard but a clearly designed part of God’s programme for the undoing of sin’s abnormality. From this necessity arise the great miraculous facts of the Gospel; the Virgin Birth, the Vicarious Death, the bodily Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
I lay it down, therefore, as my second proposition, that Christianity viewed as a system of doctrine or divine truth, rests on the miraculous. It does not rest on philosophical theory, nor on rational hypothesis, but on facts of history; and those facts are, without exception, miraculousÂ—the facts concerning ‘God manifest in the flesh’. If you take away those facts, you take away Christianity with them. If you deny either God’s institution of natural law, or God’s variation of His natural law by His supernatural law, you deny Christianity as such; there is nothing left. You cannot deny the miraculous facts upon which Christianity rests and retain either the form or the spirit of true Christianity.
3. Christianity as gracious experience in the life of sinful man involves the miraculous. It is a fact that men do not and
cannot by nature (i.e. under the laws of nature) ‘know God’ in terms of personal experience. Yet it is another fact of history, observation, and experience, that some men do ‘know God’ in an intensely personal and spiritual way. The question is, How does this come about? The point at which this experiential knowledge of God begins is the point at which natural and supernatural meet. The natural in its inability and utter helplessness comes face to face with the supernatural in its ability and grace. This is truly, a ‘supernatural act of God in a natural setting’. Natural faculties and powers are at a stand; God intervenes, and a miracle is the result. No matter which of the elements of salvation you consider, nor in which order you take them, it is impossible to evade ‘an action of God which transcends natural laws’, i.e. a miracle.
(i) Effectual Calling; when the call of the Gospel that leaves one man cold and untouched and unmoved, sweetly and irresistibly moves and melts and draws another to the sinner’s Saviour. Here is a miracle!
(ii) Regeneration or the New Birth; when the ‘seed of God’ planted in a dead soul fructifies and brings forth a new life. This is ‘an act of God that transcends nature’!
(iii) Faith and Repentance; by which man appropriates the blessings of the gospel; which no man possesses under natural law, but same men receive by the grace and the goodness of God intervening to supply the lack! Here, again, nature and grace meet and the result is a miracle!
(iv) Justification; that proceeding of the divine law-court whereby the guilty is declared just, something that under natural law is both unjust and even preposterous. Yet, by a divine interposition, ‘God justifieth the ungodly’. Here is another miracle!
(v) Adoption; whereby a child of the devil is taken into the family of God and made a child of God. Such a change of status demands, and is a miracle!
(vi) Sanctification: whereby a child of God is made holy in Christ; ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. Nothing is less likely under the law of nature; yet man subject to the law of nature is ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’. This is ‘an act of God transcending natural law; a miracle indeed!
(vii) Perseverance; persisting in grace; in spite of sins and failures and falls; ‘Kept by the power of God . . .’, a power that must transcend natural law and faculty. Here is a daily miracle in the life of a child of God; a supernatural intervention!
(viii) Union with Christ. How can a finite being be joined in union with an Infinite? But God says, ‘I have espoused you to Christ’Â—joined you to Christ; ‘joint-heirs with Christ’; but only by His special providence, a supernatural act of God; a miracle!
(ix) Glorification; the final resurrection and the perfect restoration of the image of God in man in the last day. ‘We shall be like him’; we shall, ‘see him as he is’. Such things, which are inconceivable and impossible in terms of natural law, are covenanted to God’s Church by way of His supernatural operations of grace.
So it is a firm principle, that Christianity as a gracious experience in the life of man, is essentially miraculous. If you deny that you deny Christianity as a living experience. The man who knows God in respect of these things is simply stating fact when he says. ‘I’m a miracle of grace’. Grace is a miraculous principle in itself, and if there is no salvation without grace there is no salvation without Miracle. The covenant of grace involves the miraculous. Just as the great facts of redemption history are miraculous, so are all the aspects of the application of redemption to the soul by the Holy Ghost. All is accounted for only in terms of the supernatural act of God in a natural setting or context.
Here, then, is the way in which to meet the sceptical, unbelieving approach to miracles. Never begin with philosophical questionsÂ—Can they happen?Â—Does science leave room for them? If you start there you are thinking rationalistically to begin with, and that itself denies ‘the faith once delivered to the saints’. The Christian approach is to begin with the sphere in which the miraculous operates. Consider your Scripture and its historical content; draw from Scripture its doctrines and see how they flow together from the great fountain head of the living God Himself; consider your own experience of God in the light of Scripture; thus you will be thinking in Christian terms at once, and the validity and reality of miracles will become self-evident.
We must remember that the overall sphere of Christianity is both nature and grace, both natural and supernatural, because God is Creator and Lord of both. By way of contrast, we must also remember that the sphere of science is nature only. The function of the scientist is to investigate natural law and natural phenomena as he finds it; beyond that he cannot go. And the fact of the matter, historically, is that the scientist (as also the philosopher) has tended to regard ‘natural law’ as his ‘god’; has ‘deified’ natural law; and has not grasped the point that God instituted natural law and made it His servant. The scientist has never grasped that a miracle is the point at which natural and supernatural meet, and that natural law is neither suspended nor violated by the particular application of supernatural law in the hand of the Law-Giver. This is the crux of the matter; it means that any attack on the miraculous is an attack on Christianity as such; and any idea that a ‘Christianity’ denuded of the miraculous is still authentic Christianity is sheer delusion.
There is now the other side of the matter. By contrast with the denial of miracles there is in some quarters an over-credulous eagerness and fascination with the miraculous for its own sake. This is as great a danger at the present time as is the denial. We must learn to distinguish between true and false miracles; between supernatural acts of God, and supernatural acts of Satan and his
angels and spirits. Scripture uses the terms ‘signs and wonders’ of both categories, but it speaks of the supernatural acts of Satan as ‘lying wonders’;Â—’lying’, because they profess to be what they are not, and because their object is to promote error, and heresy, and confusion. That Scripture attributes real ‘wonders’, and truly ‘supernatural acts’ to Satan and his hosts is to be seen in the acts of the Egyptian magicians, in the case of the witch of Endor, and in the predicted ‘signs and wonders’ of the coming anti-christ, to say the least. Are we to regard these demonic wonders as ‘miracles’? Both categories are truly supernatural. However, Scripture distinguishes between the supernatural acts of God and the supernatural acts of Satan, both as to their character and as to the attitude and disposition of God’s people toward them. It therefore seems wise to limit the term ‘miracle’ to the supernatural acts of God. I shall give some examples of the supernatural acts of Satan, and draw out some guidelines which may help to distinguish true from false miracles.
1. Supernatural acts of Satan, demons, and evil spirits.
(i) Deuteronomy 13, 1-3. God says through Moses, ‘If there arise among you a prophet . . . and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods . . . Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet’. Here we are taught that a false prophet is able to make an accurate predictionÂ—a supernatural actÂ—but we are not to believe him nor to follow him because of that ability. We are to test his whole ministry, and if we do, we shall find that his objective, often subtly hidden, is to lead us away from the One God, and the only Gospel of His grace. Here is no true miracle, but a ‘lying wonder’.
(ii) Matthew 7, 22-23. Our Lord says, ‘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 will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity’. Here we are taught that preaching and prophesying in the name of Christ does not, of itself, authenticate the message given. Much that is said today in pulpits and on platforms in His name is in fact a denial of Him. Thus, in the case before us, exorcismÂ—the casting out of devils, which is a truly supernatural actÂ—is possible to a false prophet. But the fact that a deceiver’s ministry is attended by such ‘wonders’ does not mean that we are to listen to him or follow him.
(iii) Matthew 24, 24. ‘There shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect’. Deception is their business; that they can go about it with a display of ‘supernatural acts’ is no argument that they are to be followed. A ministry of deception often hides under the fascinating cloke of ‘lying wonders’.
(iv) 2 Thessalonians 2, 9-12. ‘.. . Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders . . .’. The apostle teaches us that the coming of the ‘man of sin’ will be accompanied by supernatural acts, but we are not to follow him because of them!
These, and other such passages, show that events that truly transcend natural law may be brought about by beings higher than man but lower than God, that is, by the whole company of fallen angels or spirits, with Satan at their head. However, we are not to believe a liar because his lying is sensational; nor to follow a deceiver because his deception is spectacular! ‘Lying wonders’ are to be abhorred and rejected. This is a point of relevance at the present time. While one extreme errs in unbeliefÂ— denying miracles, another extreme errs in putting false miracles and lying wonders in place of the authentic miracles of orthodox, biblical Christianity. You see this in Spiritualism and in Christian Science; you see it in Witchcraft and in Magic, both ‘Black’ and ‘White’; and I feel there is real ground for saying that a great deal of what passes for spiritual gifts in the form of ecstatic experience and supernatural acts among Pentecostalists has the same diabolical origin. So we must be warned that in fleeing from unbelief with respect to miracles, we must not become over-credulous and pay regard to all which claims that name.
2. How, then, may we distinguish authentic miracles from ‘lying wonders’? Some guidelines may be drawn from the Scripture teaching.
(i) A true miracle will show God’s character as its author. It will be good in itself. It will honour God and bring glory to His blessed Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why we must ‘try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.’ (1 John 4, 1-3). A ‘lying spirit’, whatever it may produce in terms of religious elevation and excitement, never tends to the sole glory of God, and as such stands self-condemned.
(ii) A true miracle will be consistent with the plainly established truths of Holy Scripture. It will not contradict God’s Word. It will not go beyond the Word. It will harmonize with what Scripture teaches. It is at this point that ‘lying wonders’ fail. I have sometimes had to deal with people who come and report the most highly elevated and ecstatic and sensational religious experiencesÂ—truly supernatural happenings, unless they were downright liars in their accounts, and for this I see no reason. But on more than one occasion I have had to point out to such persons that what they so rejoiced in telling me is plainly condemned by Scripture statements and principles, even by the ten commandments. A true miracle testifies to the Word; but if a ‘wonder’ is worked that contradicts the plain teachings of the Bible, it is a ‘lying wonder’ regardless of the ‘blessing’ its recipient may claim from it. We are to beware what the apostle refers to as ‘the spirits of devils, working miracles’ (Rev. 16, 14).
(iii) A true miracle will always have a proper and special and unusual occasion. It will not be performed for the sake of sensation or curiosity. On this very principle our Lord resisted the threefold temptation of the devil in the wilderness. He declined to work miracles for sensation’s sake. By contrast with this, Spiritualism and Pentecostalism (among other such movements) are avowedly sensation-seeking. There is, after all, something psychologically in common between the ‘seance’ and the ‘tarrying meeting’, and the common factor is the craze for experiences for their own sake. Scripture shows that a miracle is reserved for special, critical, and crucial occasions in the life and history of God’s people. Hence the periodicity that surrounds the miracles recorded in Scripture. Although the miracles pervade the whole, they are grouped in four main periodsÂ—the Exodus from Egypt;
the struggle against heathenism in the reign of Ahab; the Baby-Ionian exile and the ministry of Daniel; and then the introduction of the Gospel dispensation by the attestation of the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus miracles are reserved to occasions that justify them and require them. God does not do supernaturally what He ordinarily does on natural principles.
(iv) A true miracle is established not by the number of the witnesses, but by their characters and their godly qualifications.
‘Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost’ when they reported the miracles recorded in Scripture. They were ‘Holy men’; though not numerous. The witnesses of the Resurrection were men whose lives had already been transformed by the Risen Christ. So the authenticating factor in personal religion, in terms of miraculous experience, is not the height of ecstasy felt but the godliness of life that flows from it. You can get ‘ecstasy’ in all sorts of ways; it is often psychologically induced; but truly Christian experience is documented, authenticated, and proved by the fact that a man lives ‘soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world’ (Titus 3, 11-14). It is a fact much to be lamented, though not to be obscured, that in the world of religion ‘lying wonders’ often go hand in hand with licentiousness and practical antinomianism.
In conclusion, then, there are two extremes to be avoided. Against the inroads of unbelief we hold that Christianity is frankly and unashamedly miraculous, in its history, its doctrine, and its experience. Yet, over against this, we must beware of and disown the lying, deceptive. God-dishonouring wonders and signs with which false religions abound. Things are not necessarily ‘Christian’ because they happen to be ‘supernatural’; there are counterfeit miracles, just as there are counterfeits in other areas of true religion. We must ‘Try the spirits whether they be of God’, and in whatever honours God, His Son, and His Word, we must rejoice. Anything less than that we must reject, and pray for the deliverance of those who have been brought under the power of such things.
*Scripture instances illustrating this summary may be found as follows:
‘with means’Â—Acts 27, 31; 44
‘without means’Â—Hosea 1, 7
‘above means’Â—Romans 4, 19-21
‘against means’Â—Daniel 3, 27