Is the gospel message really enough? Can we seriously expect people to respond in faith and repentance to words – spoken or written – and so be saved? Do we not need miracles, signs, wonders, healings, exorcisms? Look at the growth experienced by churches who major on such things, and then look at the number of conversions experienced throughout our entire denomination. Are we not getting something seriously wrong? Are we trapped in a past when people were more word-centred, when they didn’t have TVs, computers and all the trappings of the visual culture that shapes the minds of people today? Do people not need to see God acting in dramatic, visible ways before they will respond to Jesus? Are we doomed to paddle along as a tiny minority in a Christian world that is rapidly leaving us behind? Are word-centred, sermon-preaching churches a relic of the past, only fit to be visited by those who want to see how things used to be?
We could respond in various ways to these questions, though not, I trust, with an ‘amen’ to the objections they pose. We might, for example, unpick the ‘successes’ of the wonder-workers with some hard questions of our own. The challenge issued by a medical doctor some years ago to one of the most prominent of these miracle peddlers to produce several of his best successes in healing for medical examination remains unanswered. You can’t believe all you hear, or indeed all you think you see. We have, however, all too often thought that pointing out the failures of others somehow lessened the significance of our failures, so we need a better response.
Surely if we wanted to justify a focus on the miraculous in mission we could turn to the Book of Acts. Isn’t it full of healings, exorcism, and all the other miraculous phenomena, even raising the dead? Case proven! Or is it? Look a bit more carefully, and you will see a very different picture. Try the conversion of Sergius Paulus, the Roman governor on Cyprus, recorded in Acts 13. Wasn’t he converted as a result of the miraculous blinding of Elymas by the Apostle Paul? Luke does write, ‘When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed’ (v12). The lesson seems clear. But read the rest of the verse: ‘for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord’. The crucial factor in his conversion was the content of the gospel message, the words spoken by the apostle. That was the means of his conversion. The miracle was no more than a visual reinforcement of what Paul had to say about the Lord. The lesson of Acts 13 is not the one we might initially have expected. The word of the gospel is sufficient.
None of this is to overlook the role of the Holy Spirit in bringing the gospel home to the sinner’s heart with saving power. As others make much of the Spirit giving miraculous gifts, we need to highlight constantly the miracle which, according to Scripture, the Spirit will perform in all ages, namely the giving of new life to those who are dead in sin. It is as Jesus said to Nicodemus: ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God’ (John 3:5). To know that this is the case keeps all who speak the gospel humble. It is not our eloquence, cleverness or persuasiveness that bring anyone to saving faith: it is the work of the Spirit of God. If the Lord had not opened Lydia’s heart (Acts 16:14), Paul could have preached to her for the rest of his life and she would not have been saved.
A focus on the ministry of the Word of God in evangelism is essential and in no way detracts (or it should not) from the miraculous working of the Spirit in granting new life to the spiritually dead. Nothing else can act as a substitute, however impressive it may seem on the surface. God has promised that his word will not return to him empty but will infallibly accomplish his purpose (Isaiah 55:11). We should not be intimidated by claims of miraculous phenomena or assertions of their necessity for evangelistic success. Having been born again, every Christian has experienced the greatest miracle performed by the Spirit in human life, and the Lord has promised that miracle in connection with the proclamation of his word, and in no other connection. Our confidence in the gospel is confidence in the Spirit who gives life, and we must never lose sight of that precious truth.