Despite the longevity and vibrancy of the charismatic movement, when CHRISTIANITY TODAY surveyed readers about the questions most on their minds, Is the charismatic renewal from God? made the top-ten list. Responses to the movement have been diverse. Some Christian leaders have called it “demonic,” while others have belittled it as mere emotionalism. At the other extreme are those who view it as the sole answer to the apathy and institutionalism that often plague the church.

We asked J. I. Packer, author of Keep in Step with the Spirit (Revell), to give us a brief but careful look at this movement that provokes such strong reactions. This essay is just one of the ten collected in Tough Questions Christians Ask (Christianity Today/Victor Books).

To ask whether or not the charismatic movement is from God is like asking whether today’s motor vehicles are efficient. In each case the true answer doubtless is: In some respects yes, in others no. But both questions are too broad and unfocused for that answer to get us very far. If all we want to know is whether God ordinarily blesses where the charismatic renewal movement takes root, a simple yes will suffice, for that is in truth the fact. But if our goal is to assess how mature and God-honoring charismatic patterns of godliness are as compared with other forms, past and present, some discussion is needed.

There are two extremes of opinion. Some Christians pan the renewal as Ralph Nader used to pan American cars (remember Unsafe at Any Speed?). These critics dismiss charismatic distinctives as either self-induced or demonically inspired, and they tell us that embracing these distinctives is always spiritually stultifying and retrograde. Others applaud the renewal in what might be called Star Wars terms, seeing it as God’s final triumphant move for preserving the church and spreading the gospel in today’s anti-Christian world. Mediating assessments fan out between these two extremes. Where does biblical wisdom lead us to position ourselves on this spectrum? That is what we must try to see.

A Growing Phenomenon

First, let us make sure we know what we are talking about. The charismatic movement, also called the renewal movement and the charismatic renewal, is a worldwide phenomenon some 30 years old. Some refer to it as the second Pentecostal wave, in distinction from the first wave that produced the Pentecostal denominations at the start of this century. It emerged in California, as did its predecessor, and has touched most Christian bodies, including the Roman Catholic community. Pentecostals are relatively unaffected, but that is natural since, from their standpoint, charismatic renewal is just the rest of the church catching up with what they themselves have known for two generations.

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If all we want to know is whether God ordinarily blesses where the charismatic renewal movement takes root, a simple yes will suffice, for that is in truth the fact.

The movement has spread far and fast. An educated guess is that something like 25 million Christians outside the Pentecostal churches have adopted a recognizably charismatic approach to Christian and church life.

What is that approach? It is a matter of embracing some, if not all, of the following items:

1. A hermeneutical claim that all elements of New Testament ministry and experience may with propriety be hoped for, sought, and expected today, none of them having permanently ceased when the apostolic age ended.

2. An empirical claim that among the elements of New Testament ministry and experience now enjoyed within the renewal are (a) experiential postconversion Spirit-baptism, as seen in Acts 2:1–4; 8:14–17; 10:44–46 with 11:15–17; 19:1–6; (b) tongues, understood as glossolalia (uttering language-like sounds) rather than xenolalia (speaking languages one never learned) and as given primarily for private devotional use; (c) interpretation of tongues, when spoken in public; (d) prophecy, understood as receiving and relaying messages directly from God; (e) miraculous healing through prayer; (f) deliverance from demonic influences through exorcism; and (g) words of knowledge, understood as supernatural disclosings of information about individuals to those who seek to minister to their needs.

3. A high valuation of one’s own glossolalia as a personal prayer language, and deliberate, frequent use of it.

4. Emphasis on the church as the body of Christ, upheld and led on to maturity by the Holy Spirit through the mutual love and supernaturally empowered service of its members.

5. A concern to identify and harness each Christian’s spiritual gift or gifts for body ministry.

6. Insistence that worship is central in the church’s common life, and that the heart and climax of true worship is united praise as distinct from preaching and Eucharist (which have been the historic focal centers of Protestant and Roman Catholic worship respectively).

7. The cultivation of a relaxed, leisurely, intimate, informal style of corporate worship, aimed at evoking feelings of awe and joy before the Lord and at expressing love and loyalty to him for his saving grace.

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8. The use for this purpose of simple, repetitive choruses and “renewal songs,” often consisting of biblical texts set to music in a modern folk idiom for performance with guitar accompaniment. Guitars may be reinforced by melody instruments and also by tambourines, bongos, and jazz drums, as in a dance band’s rhythm section.

9. The congregational practice of “singing in the Spirit”—that is, sustaining ad lib, and moving within, the full-close chord with which a hymn or song ends, vocalizing extemporarily and sometimes glossolalically in the process.

10. Encouragement of physical expression of the spirit of praise and prayer by raising hands, swinging the body, dancing, prostrating oneself, and other such gestures. Bodily movements of this kind are held to deepen worship by intensifying the mood being expressed, and thus to glorify God.

11. Expectation of prophecy in worship gatherings, either as an immediate on-the-spot message from God or as the remembered fruit of a vision or a dream, and the provision of opportunity to utter it to the congregation.

12. The typical perception of people both outside and inside the community of faith less as guilty sinners than as moral, spiritual, and emotional cripples, scarred, soured, and desperately needing deliverance from bondages in their inner lives; and the structuring of counseling and prayer ministries to meet their need, thus viewed.

13. The practice of prayer with laying on of hands, for all who desire it, as a regular conclusion to worship gatherings. Those who are sick, disabled, and troubled in mind are particularly urged to receive this ministry, and to expect benefit through it.

14. A counseling technique of leading pained, grieved, inhibited, and embittered souls to visualize Christ and involve him therapeutically in the reliving of their traumatic hurts, as a means to inner healing.

15. A confident assumption that it is not ordinarily God’s will that any of his children should continue in pain, or in any mental and emotional state other than joy, and a consequent downplaying of the older Christian stress on the spiritual benefit of humbly accepted suffering.

16. An insistent claim that miraculous-looking “signs and wonders” (especially “healings”) have evidential value that will convince modern Westerners of the truth and power of the gospel, and that “signs and wonders” should therefore be sought from God by prayer in each congregation.

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17. A firm belief that some, if not all, disturbed people with addictive enslavements (bondages) are under the influence of demons who must be detected and exorcised.

18. A commitment to aggressive evangelism, aimed at inducing the self-willed to repent and open their lives to Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit.

19. Emphasis on the benefit of communal and community living; of prayerfully sharing all one’s concerns with “the body,” normally in small groups, and of accepting discipline and guidance from other Christians in authoritative mentor relationships.

20. Insistence that established patterns of personal and church life must always be open to change so that Holy Spirit life may find freer expression, and expectation that all Christians, fellowships, and congregations will need to make such change over and over again.

21. Expectant openness to divine guidance by prophecy, vision, and dreams.

22. Confidence that a shared charismatic experience and lifestyle unifies Protestants and Roman Catholics at a deeper level than that at which doctrine divides them.

23. A devotional temper of exuberant euphoria, expressing a sense of loving intimacy with the Father and the Son that has in it little self-assessment and self-criticism, but is affectionate and adoring in a happily childlike way.

From All Angles

How should we bring this kaleidoscopic phenomenon into focus? Evaluation needs to be made from a number of angles.

Sociologically, the charismatic movement is a restrained, white, middle-class reinvention of original working-class, black-style, “holy roller” Pentecostalism, from which it has borrowed much of its theology. Its relative uninhibitedness frequently approaches, but it rarely transgresses, the bounds of educated good taste.

Spiritually, it is a recognizable mutation of the Bible-based conversionist piety fostered in seventeenth-century Puritanism, in New England’s Great Awakening, and in the nineteenth-century Protestant missionary movement—the type of piety that is nowadays labeled “evangelical.” Original Pentecostalism was an adaptation of this piety in its Wesleyan form, but Calvinistic charismatics are currently found in some strength.

Doctrinally, the renewal is in the mainstream of historic evangelical orthodoxy on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the objectivity of Christ’s atonement and the historicity of his resurrection, the need of regeneration by the Holy Spirit, personal fellowship with the Father and the Son as central to the life of faith, and the divine truth of the Bible. There is nothing eccentric about its basic teaching.

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Culturally, the charismatic movement appears as a child of our time in its antitraditionalism, its anti-intellectualism, its romantic emotionalism, its desire for thrills and emotional highs, its narcissistic preoccupation with physical health and ease of mind, its preference for folk-type music with poetically uncouth lyrics, and its cultivated informality. In all these respects, the renewal reflects the late twentieth-century Western world back at itself.

Theologically, charismaticism is a mixed bag, as witnesses this perceptive vignette by Richard Lovelace:

The charismatic renewal continues to express the mystical spirituality of the Puritan and awakening eras, but often without the rational and theological checks against error and credulity maintained by evangelicals. As a consequence, charismatics have some of the problems of the radical spiritualists in the anabaptist and Puritan left wing. Gifts of the Spirit are more prominent than the call to sanctification. The charismatic garden has a luxuriant overgrowth of theological weeds, including the health-and-wealth gospel, the most virulent form of the American heresy that Christianity guarantees worldly success. A fuzzy and unstructured ecumenism lives side by side with rampant sectarianism (“Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31, no. 1 [March 1988], p. 33).

Granted, the renewal has an enviable track record of enlivening the spiritually dead and energizing the spiritually paralyzed, but whether it commands the resources to lead them on to full-orbed Christian maturity is another matter. When the liturgical and pastoral innovations that initially channel the new life become routines as stylized as those they replaced, and the limitations listed by Lovelace are accepted as normal, is not some writing beginning to appear on the wall? And the question, How may the renewal be renewed? does not seem to have been faced as yet, let alone answered.

Not from God?

But even if the charismatic movement has no more to give to the church than it has given already, it is surely strange that it should ever be dismissed as not “from God”—that is, as manifesting throughout something other than God’s grace, so that every element of it should be explained as merely human or actually demonic. Yet that verdict has on occasion been voiced. How should we respond?

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Our first comment must be that such thinking is largely emotional and irrational. The human mind has an unhappy tendency to jump from specifics we dislike to blanket condemnations of the larger reality of which the specifics are part. Someone misbehaves once, so we tag him as a no-good forever. We think a store cheated us over one purchase, so we resolve never to shop there again. Our car gives trouble, so we henceforth refuse all cars of that make. So, too, if charismatic phenomena offend our sense of social, liturgical, or theological propriety, and charismatic individuals embarrass us and make us feel threatened, we are very apt to respond by abusing the whole movement and denying that there is anything of God in it at all. But how silly! And how nasty! This is a reaction of wounded pride and willful prejudice, and as such is bad thinking in every way.

Our second comment must be that by biblical standards the negative verdict is impossible. This can be seen from an argument classically set out by Jonathan Edwards in the aftermath of the much-criticized Great Awakening, of which he became the prime defender. In The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Edwards reasons as follows: Any movement that (1) exalts Jesus Christ as Son of God and Savior, leading people to honor him as such; (2) opposes Satan’s kingdom by weaning people from sin and worldliness; (3) teaches people to revere and trust the Bible as the Word of God; (4) makes people feel the urgency of eternal issues and the depth of their own lostness without Christ; and (5) stirs up in people new love of Christ and of others, must be a divine work at its heart, whatever disfigurements may appear on its surface, since these are effects that Satan and fallen humankind have no wish to induce, and in fact try to avoid. But the Great Awakening had these distinguishing marks; therefore, it was a work of God.

That the charismatic renewal has had the same fivefold effect is beyond dispute; therefore, it too must be adjudged a work of God. No doubt human folly breaks surface in it, as happens in all movements involving human excitement; no doubt Satan, whose nature and purpose is always to spoil any good God produces, keeps pace with God in it, engineering lunatic fanaticism within its ranks as he did in the Great Awakening. But to diagnose human and satanic disfigurements of this contemporary work of God is altogether different from seeing it as intrinsically the fruit of psychological freakiness or satanic malice.

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Our third comment must be that aspects of the renewal raise real theological problems that should not be ignored or glossed over, even if the movement as a whole is given a relatively clean bill of health. We need to reflect on some of these:

1. Charismatics sometimes claim that their distinctive doctrines are proved true by the blessing that God gives through the teaching of them and the ministry based on them. This, however, is a mistake. Because God is gracious, those who seek him with their whole hearts find his blessing even if their thoughts about that blessing are, and remain, askew. The deadening effect of views that keep people from seeking blessings that are there for them (for instance, medieval teaching on faith, which by telling folk to trust themselves to the church stopped them from seeking assured forgiveness from Christ’s own hand) is obvious; but that is not the problem here. If charismatics err, they err only by expecting to receive from God, whose face they seek, more than he has actually promised. Whether the expectations of charismatics are biblically realistic and whether they really receive what they expect are open questions, but the certainty that God meets and blesses all who seek him in honest and hearty prayer is beyond all question. Scripture is explicit on that (see 2 Chron. 7:14; 15:2, 12–15; Ps. 9:10; 24:3–6; 27:7–14; 70:4; 119:2, 58; Prov. 8:17; Jer. 29:13; Matt. 6:33; 7:7–11). Striking answers to humble prayers do not, however, guarantee that one’s understanding of God’s promises is correct, or that God means these striking answers to become the rule rather than remain the exception.

2. Sharing charismatic experience is often declared, as we noted earlier, to unify Protestants and Roman Catholics at a deeper level than that at which their doctrine divides them. This, if so, gives charismaticism great ecumenical significance, but for some the mere making of such a claim destroys the credibility of the renewal as a work of God. I am, myself, a Protestant who finds the official papacy and its trappings grotesque, and official Roman Catholic teaching on the church’s infallible authority, on the Mass, and on Mary grossly and grievously mistaken, and therefore I sympathize with those for whom this charismatic claim demonstrates that at its heart the renewal is unspiritual and blind. But I do not accept the critics’ assumption that if the love and reverence for Scripture that charismatic experience evokes was truly from God it would lead Romanists to question these doctrines and the system that maintains them in the way that Protestants do.

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Everyone observes that Protestant charismatics are concerned for the church not as a confessing and theologizing institution, but as a worshiping and serving fellowship. And we also observe that the renewal among Protestants is a pietistic phenomenon, interdenominational because undenominational, concerned, first, with the spiritual life that flows from a living relationship to each person of the godhead in saving grace, and, second, with fruitful fellowship and outreach on the part of those who have thus come to life.

Unsurprisingly, the same is true of Roman Catholics. They had their reasons for being Roman before they met the renewal, and part of the Catholic package is that the institutional church has the last and decisive word in biblical interpretation, so that using Scripture to challenge church teaching is off limits. So one should not treat the failure of renewed Roman Catholics to mount such a challenge as evidence that their experience, and the movement that midwifed it, are somehow spiritually phony.

The truth is that charismatic ecumenism, if we are to call it that (and many do), is a limited and truncated thing, just because charismatics put all their energy into transdenominational concerns and leave questions of official church teaching and structures on one side. I personally believe that developing a shared spirituality is far and away the most constructive and necessary form of ecumenical action that can be taken in the world church today. But that does not mean that charismatic renewal constitutes a full-orbed ecumenism just because it majors in spirituality. Someday in the future, divergences of belief between and within churches will have to be discussed again; they are the present issues that cannot be shelved indefinitely. In the meantime, however, the fact that the professedly Bible-based renewal shelves church questions should not be held to destroy its claim to be a genuine work of God, embodying and projecting for popular consumption a significant form of ecumenical piety. That claim must be decided on other grounds.

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3. The charismatic insistence that what are sometimes called “sign-gifts” (tongues and interpretation, healing gifts, prophecy, words of wisdom and knowledge) are still given, with its corollary that those who do not seek them miss something important, raises problems. Paul speaks of “signs, wonders and miracles” as “things that mark an apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12). Hebrews 2:3–4 speaks of them as confirming the apostles’ testimony, and the Book of Acts knows them only in connection with the apostles’ personal ministry. The common assumption that God withdrew the “sign-gifts” after the apostolic age cannot, perhaps, be proved, but it cannot be disproved, either.

It is gratuitous to take for granted that every form of God’s working in New Testament times is meant to be reproduced today: Who among us nowadays raises the dead? And comparisons of contemporary charismatic phenomena with their alleged New Testament prototypes is inconclusive. New Testament tongues were used in public, and there is no single unambiguous statement that they were ever used any other way. But charismatics value their tongues as a private prayer language. Can they, then, be an identical manifestation?

Again, it cannot be made plausible that New Testament interpretation of tongues and prophecy corresponded exactly to the phenomena that go by those names today, nor is it at all likely that the “word” (“message,” NIV) of wisdom and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 12:8 corresponded to the (apparently) sanctified telepathy that goes by those names today. And the immediate, organic, large-scale, and uniformly successful healings ascribed to Christ and the apostles in the New Testament are certainly not matched by the frequently abortive efforts of present-day healing ministries. The claim that the apostolic “sign-gifts” continue is thus more than can be proved, and the verdict that charismatic manifestations are from God can only be reached by first acknowledging that they have no exact New Testament precedent and then judging them on the basis of their effect on people’s moral and spiritual lives. Charismatics need to recognize this. (I have been here applying the principle insisted on by Edwards in his Thoughts on the Revival. I have discussed “sign-gifts” more fully in Keep in Step with the Spirit, pp. 200–34.)

4. Charismatics view Spirit baptism as a necessary postconversion experience, which God always models on the apostles’ experience recorded in Acts 2:1–4 and identifies to its latter-day recipients by the gift of glossolalia. This thesis, borrowed from mainstream Pentecostalism, also raises problems.

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If charismatics err, they err only by expecting to receive from God, whose face they seek, more than he has actually promised.

What is at issue is not whether the Holy Spirit initiates and sustains states of mind in believers in which the love of the Father and the Son, the power of the Spirit himself, and the reality of spiritual evil are vividly grasped. Not only Pentecostal-charismatic accounts of Spirit baptism, but all mainstream Christian accounts of “infused” communion with God are given in these terms, and believers of all traditions follow the lead of the Psalms in asking God to grant and deepen this kind of experience. Nor is the issue whether the Spirit ever bestows mountain-peak moments of assurance, or ever induces glossolalia by his loving pressure upon us; we know, or should know, that on occasion he does both, and sometimes (not always) simultaneously.

What is in question is precisely this: whether Luke’s narrative of Pentecost is teaching us that Christians who lack one such momentary experience, marked by tongues, are second-rate and not fully filled with the Holy Spirit, whatever else they may have experienced and done; or, putting it differently, whether Acts 2:1–4 is a revealed experiential norm for us all, as official Pentecostalism affirms. Against the claim that it is, I bring the following arguments:

(a) This is nowhere stated or implied in Acts, nor anywhere else in Scripture.

(b) The claim is inconsistently made by those who make it. If the apostles spoke known languages at their Pentecost, why is not the same expected of us at ours? On what basis is glossolalia, which is not the speaking of known languages, accepted as a substitute? And why is not hearing a tornado sound and seeing fiery tongues, as the apostles did, required as part of the prescribed experience? If Acts 2:1–4 is to be taken strictly as the norm of Spirit baptism, no one today experiences Spirit baptism at all. If, however, the postconversion experience of God’s integrating and empowering love through Christ is to be called Spirit baptism, as being somewhat like the apostles’ experience on Pentecost morning, then Acts 2:1–4 is not strictly a norm—only a case of partial similarity. But if that is so, it would be better not to label this particular Christian experience “Spirit baptism” at all. Used thus unbiblically, the label can only confuse.

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(c) The reason why the apostles’ experience of the new covenant ministry of the Spirit began at Pentecost, well after they came to faith, was not personal but dispensational. It had nothing to do with the quality or specific acts of their previous discipleship, but with the dawning of a new era of human enjoyment of God’s grace here on Earth. Nowhere in the world was the Spirit’s new covenant ministry operative till nine o’clock on Pentecost morning. The apostles’ two-stage experience was thus unique to themselves and is not a norm for us. The New Testament norm is stated in Peter’s Pentecost sermon: All who believe and repent receive the Holy Spirit in the fullness of his enhanced ministry right at the outset (Acts 2:38). In line with this, Paul refers to Spirit baptism as one aspect of our initiation into Christ at conversion (1 Cor. 12:13) and insists that all who are Christ’s have the Spirit from the start (Rom. 8:9).

(d) Acts 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9, and 52 all speak of persons being filled with, or full of, the Spirit, with no reference to tongues as accompanying that fullness. But if some were Spirit-filled without glossolalia then, some may also be now.

(e) Luke records four cases of “Pentecostal” manifestations—one involving Jesus’ disciples (Acts 2:1–4), one involving Samaritans (8:14–17), one involving Gentile “God-fearers” (10:44–47), and one involving Ephesian followers of John the Baptist (19:1–7). The design of Acts makes it natural to think that he does this to exhibit God’s acceptance on equal footing in the church of four different groups whose togetherness in Christ might otherwise have been doubted. Nothing suggests that his purpose is to establish norms of complete Christian experience for all; the impression left, rather, is that these manifestations were exceptional signs from God, not matched in the experience of other believers. Certainly, the burden of proof rests on anyone who would argue the contrary.

While believing, then, that through the Spirit many Christians experience intense moments of joyful assurance, and glossolalia becomes for some an authentic mode of praise and prayer, I reject the opinion that Acts 2:1–4 exhibits an experience that every Christian needs, and that God calls every Christian to seek, promising that those who seek will find. By the same token I reject the view that those who cannot testify to this experience necessarily live on a lower plane than those who can.

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Test Everything

Now we must draw the threads together.

The charismatic renewal has brought millions of Christians, including many clergy, to a deeper, more exuberant faith in Christ than they had before. It has quickened thousands of congregations, invigorating their worship, making love and fellowship blossom among them, increasing their expectancy and enterprise, and giving a stimulus to their evangelism. Charismatic insistence on openness to God has transformed countless lives that previously were not open to him. Is this from God? The question answers itself.

The pride and folly of triumphalism and the schismatic temper threaten the movement constantly, however, and need to be watched against unceasingly. Some things in the renewal are magnificent, but others are not right yet, and the liveliest Christian movements are naturally the objects of Satan’s most diligent attention.

Some attitudes to the renewal, however, among Christians not involved in it, are not right either, and Satan loves to lure Christians into opposing the work of God. So the word to Christians both inside and outside the charismatic movement would seem to be: “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire.… Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.… The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Thess. 5:19–22, 28, NIV). Let all the people say, Amen!

J. I. Packer is professor of historical and systematic theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and a senior editor for Christianity Today.

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