The Nature of Miracles, part 1

Christian Education, Providence Church

February, 8th, 2009.

The Nature of Miracles

Problems with Definition:

One of the great problems we have with the theology of miracles is that we do not know how to define it. In the history of theology there have been many definitions given in an attempt to satisfy the Biblical use of the term.

Let me give you three definitions of miracles:

a)      Miracle is a direct intervention of God in the world.[1] This definition assumes a God that is rather deistic. It assumes that God does not relate to the world, except for creating it, and then He chooses not to intervene. The problem with this definition is that it does not explain the clear biblical passages that teach us that God is constantly intervening in creation. In Matthew 5:45, God causes the rain to fall and Hebrews 1:3 teaches us that He is upholding or carrying along all things by the word of His power. God is directly involved in everything that happens.[2]

b)      A miracle is God’s working in the world without using means to bring about the results He wishes. If a miracle is defined by something that God does without using means, then we have very few miracles in the Bible. God uses “means” or what the Westminster Confession of Faith calls “secondary causes,” to perform miracles. For instance, when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes, He did not simply create loaves and fishes out of thin air or ex nihilo (out of nothing), rather He used the “original five loaves and two fishes that were there. When He changed water into wine in John 2, He used water and made it become wine.”[3]

c)      A miracle is when God acts contrary to the laws of nature. The problem with this definition is that when you think of the laws of nature,[4] you get the impression that they operate independently of God, so that God has to intervene or break these laws in order to perform a miracle.[5] Again there is a similar problem here. The Bible assumes a God that is sovereign over everything. He doesn’t have to break any law, because all the laws of nature are under His direct control.  As John Frame says: “God is free to work either through or outside these natural laws.”[6]

There are also different definitions within our Reformed tradition,[7] but the definition that seems to be most Biblical is: “Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of God’s covenant Lordship.”[8] Miracles take place to draw our attention to three ideas: a) God’s control over all things, b) God’s authority over all things and c) God’s presence.

Let me explain these three terms:[9]

a)      When we say that miracles draw our attention to God’s control, I am speaking about his power and mighty acts. This goes back to the idea of God’s omnipotence. Throughout the Bible we find examples of people speaking of this great power, even in song. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, they sang: “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power, your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy.[10] The people of Israel saw God do great and mighty things and they were confident that these mighty works would terrify their enemies. So when you see the people of God singing about something He has done in the Psalms or anywhere else in the Bible that is a miracle. That miracle attests to God’s control over all things. The first thing to consider when speaking of miracles is that miracles testify to God’s mighty works.

b)      When we say that miracles draw our attention to God’s authority, I am speaking about signs. Signs are a revelation. When God manifests His Covenant Lordship, this is a miracle. For instance, in Deuteronomy 3:24 we read: “O Lord God, you have only begun to show your servant your greatness and your mighty hand. For what god is there in heaven or on earth who can do such works and mighty acts as yours?”[11] So, miracles not only accomplish great things, but also display God to us.[12] Miracles are signs or a revelation of who God is. God is interested in revealing Himself to us. When God says in Joel 2 that “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster,” He revealing something about Himself to us, and that is a miracle according to the Scriptures. In the gospel of John, we see that Jesus does many miraculous signs. What does that teach us about Him? It teaches us that by believing in Him we will have eternal life.[13] So miracles are much more than spectacular works like dividing the Red Sea, they are also refer to God’s revelation of Himself. In essence, they reveal His character.

c)      When we say that miracles draw our attention to God’s presence, I am speaking about arousing people’s awe and wonder of God. When people respond to God’s presence in awe and wonder that is also a miracle. There are two types of responses to God’s presence or work: a) There is the Biblical response, which is a religious response. We see this in the Bible when people stand in the presence of God and they bow down and worship or when they take off their sandals because the presence of God is all over that location. But there is another response, b) some attribute God’s attributes to Satan (Matthew 12:24-28), but this is not considered a miracle. A miracle is only a miracle in this third sense when it inspires awe and worship from covenant members. The unbeliever cannot see a miracle and attribute it to God. If they see something supernatural take place, they usually respond by: “there is a scientific explanation for this.” They will always excuse themselves as Romans 1 says they will. Many years ago Dr. Greg Bahnsen debated an atheist named Eddie Tabash. Tabash’s main argument against the Christian faith was that if God really existed He would perform a miracle or He would show up right here and reveal Himself. Tabash is the perfect model of Paul’s argument in Romans. The unbeliever cannot truly see God’s miracles because they do not worship Him as God.

But the covenant believer sees God’s presence and responds in religious/Biblical adoration. The presence of God among us leads us to worship. The Exodus leads to a hymn of praise in Exodus 15. God’s mighty acts motivate the Psalmist: How wonderful are your works, O Lord. A miracle happens when the people respond in wonder and celebrate His presence among us. Here is one example of this in Isaiah 6. When Isaiah sees the glory of the Lord, how does He respond? He says: “Woe is me! I am undone! Isaiah responds to the miracle of God’s presence with humility and worship.

The purpose of miracles is to draw attention to God’s power, the revelation of Himself, and lead us to awe and worship.[14]

[1] The point here is to distinguish miracles from other events, as Frame says. Hence, not all events can be considered miracle, otherwise it would lose its meaning.

[2] John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pg. 250.

[3] Most of the thoughts of this study come from my former Professor John Frame from RTS ( see The Doctrine of God, chapter 13) and his former student Wayne Grudem. Grudem’s Systematic Theology, pg. 355-356.

[4] This idea of natural law cannot be properly defined. According to Frame, “science, whether ancient or modern, has not reached a final, incorrigible formulation of all the laws that govern the universe.

[5] Grudem, 356.

[6] Frame, John, The Doctrine of God. pg. 248.

[7] Abraham Kuyper believed that Jesus performed his miracles through his unfallen human nature, just as Adam performed these miracles in the garden. Frame, 257.

[8] Frame’s definition.

[9] This is part of Frame’s tri-perspectivalism.

[10] Exodus 15:6.

[11] All quotations from the ESV.

[12] Frame, 259.

[13] My paraphrase of John 20:30-31.

[14] Frame does not think that miracles and providence can be sharply distinguished (see Psalm 107:23-43 refer to providence). Providence is among God’s wondrous works.

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
This entry was posted in Miracles. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s