Book Review: Practicing the Power, by Sam Storms

Review
08.16.2018

Sam Storms will not remember the first time I met him. I was a fly-on-the-wall local church pastor invited to join an evening discussion between Storms, John Piper, and Wayne Grudem after a long day of meetings at the Evangelical Theological Society in Toronto. I was struck by two things that night about Storms: his earnest desire for truth and his marked humility. He was glad to sit on the floor as the packed room ran out of chairs.

Although it was not the topic of discussion that night, one common denominator between those three men is their commitment to a Reformed soteriology and continuationist pneumatology. All three have written extensively on these topics, and as the dedication of a recent book by Tom Schreiner indicates, all three hold a leading place in the Reformed continuationist corner of Christianity.

Storms’ recent book, however, is not a defense of continuationism. He’s already written much on this topic (here and here). This book is better classified as a field manual on how to actually do what Reformed continuationists say they believe. It’s a book written to help Christians implement the practice of all the gifts, especially the sign gifts, of the Holy Spirit in their local church. Hence the title: Practicing the Power.

As an interested outsider, I was curious to see what a local church would look like if it implemented things like Wayne Grudem’s view of prophecy, or Storms’ own view of healings and deliverance ministries. It’s one thing to talk about these doctrines in the abstract, but quite another to see what they actually look like when practiced. And in this regard, the book did not disappoint.

So, in an effort to review the book, I’ll begin with a brief overview, followed by a few points of observation.

SUMMARY

Introduction

Storms writes: “I have written this book for those of you who, like me, are of the mind that the power of the miraculous charismata is still available for those who believe, pray for, and humbly pursue it.”

He defines these gifts in this way: The gifts are God himself working in and through us. They are concrete, often tangible, visible, and vocal disclosures of divine power showcased through human activity. A charisma or gift of the Spirit is the Holy Spirit himself coming to clear and sometimes dramatic expression in the lives of God’s people as they minister one to another.

This is Storms’ foundational statement. The gifts of the Spirit, as he understands them, are the Spirit himself. Again, he writes:

[W]hen we affirm and welcome the operation of the charismata (spiritual gifts, pl.) in our lives, we are affirming and welcoming God himself. . . . Spiritual gifts are the concrete, tangible manifestations of divine energy in and through followers of Jesus. . . . God’s power comes to us in a variety of forms, but spiritual gifts are the primary expression of God’s work in our midst.

There is a lot in this statement, but notice two things. First, he emphasizes the demonstrable nature of the gifts. These gifts prove something. Second, he makes them “primary” testimonies—“the primary expression of God’s work.” According to Storms’ definition, our Christian life is in some way lacking if we’re not practicing the gifts as he defines them. Hence, we need to put them into practice.

Storms repeatedly states that his goal is not to convince cessationists to become continuationists. Yet he does argue against cessationism throughout the book, as well as offer a 24-point case in an appendix. Storms also accuses cessationists of promoting poor spiritual health—indicting both formal cessationists and open-but-not-practicing continuationists—which, in his defense, is consistent with his beliefs about the gifts.

Before offering some critique, let me give you a more detailed summary of the work.

Chapter 1: Welcome to the World of the Spirit

Storms insists he needed to write this book for the large number of pastors who contact him with this problem: I’m Reformed and a continuationist, but I don’t understand how to put the gifts into practice. Again, this book isn’t a defense of charismatic theology; it’s a manual for implementation. It’s a field guide for Reformed churches to introduce charismatic practices into the life of the assembly.

Chapter 2: Earnestly Desire Spiritual Gifts

From 1 Corinthians 14 and other passages, Storms argues that none of the gifts of the Spirit will come to the believer unless we ask specifically for them. He suggests identifying the exact gift you would like to have and to start praying for it: “Paul believed the reception of the spiritual gift is dependent on one’s prayer for it. Ask and you shall receive. Don’t ask, and you shouldn’t expect to receive.”

Therefore, the first step in moving any church toward a full manifestation of the Spirit is to start praying for specific gifts.

Chapter Three: The Non-Negotiable Necessity of Praying

The prayer described in chapter two needs further definition, which comes from understanding the three different forms of faith: converting faith, continuing faith (our general daily confidence in God), and charismatic faith. Storms writes,

[Charismatic faith] is that sudden, supernatural surge of confident assurance that God is going to do something right now, right here. . . . This expression of faith is a unique gift that is not universal for all believers, but given sovereignly by the Lord to specific individuals on particular occasions.

This is what some mean when they use the expression, “I just don’t have faith for that yet.” They don’t sense the internal confidence to trust God for a certain act or outcome.

Chapter Four: Fasting for Power

Close on the heels of prayer and charismatic faith comes fasting: “Fasting is pursuit. Fasting is spiritual seeking. Fasting is asking with an extraordinary intensity and passion. . . . We gain real power from fasting.”

Storms argues that fasting is the way to experience the “fullness of the divine blessing secured for us in Christ.” He asserts, “The gentle words of the Spirit are more readily heard during times of fasting.”

According to Storms, there’s a definite causal relationship between fasting and power, between fasting and experiential closeness to God.

Chapter Five: Practicing the Power of Healing

While not necessary, there’s often a relationship between physical healing and someone’s faith. Faith carries no power, but it is oftentimes instrumental in a healing.

Storms examines the phrase in 1 Corinthians 12:9—“gifts of healing by the one Spirit”—and subsequently argues that, since “healings” and “gifts” are in the plural, there must be many different kinds of healers. Some believers can heal migraines, some can heal backs, and some can heal all types of maladies. That said, people with healing gifts often find their gift is occasional and subject to divine sovereignty.

To assist local churches to perform healings, Storms gives three necessary steps:

  1. Interview the hurting person, and ask the Spirit to help.
  2. Diagnose the patient. Figure out if the cause is real, emotional, demonic, etc.
  3. Pray while laying on hands (and sometimes anointing with oil). Ask the Spirit to heal the person and to apply his healing power directly on or into a portion of the person’s body.

He continues with even more specificity when he tells us what to say: “In the name of Jesus, be healed” or “I command every demonic spirit to leave this child of God.”

At this point, we should watch for trembling, deep breathing, or tears—and then to bless what we see. We should look for tingling, spasms, or warmth in the area of sickness.

Finally, we must be patient because healing often comes gradually, not suddenly.

The next three chapters are devoted to the subject of prophecy.

Chapter 6: Identifying Prophecy in the Local Church

Storms asserts, “The most important (and most challenging) spiritual gift to practice and employ in the local church today for the edification of all in the body is prophecy.” And a few pages later: “The body of Christ today urgently needs prophetic ministry.”

What the New Testament means by prophecy has been notoriously difficult to define. Storms defines prophecy this way: “the human report of a divine revelation.” In other words, it’s the speaking forth in human words what God has spontaneously brought to mind.

It’s a revelatory work of the Spirit that coincides with but goes beyond Scripture in order to provide a specific application to a specific individual. It involves new information, facts, or insights not otherwise available by the natural avenues of knowledge.

According to Storms, these prophecies come in all forms: “dreams, visions, impressions, internal audible voice, symbols, sympathetic pains, providential occurrences.”

Chapter 7: A Paradigm for Prophetic Practice

Storms suggests that New Testament prophecy includes three parts:

  • Revelation – God speaks to someone
  • Interpretation – we might get this wrong
  • Application – we might mess this up, too

Storms writes, “Simply because you have great clarity in the revelation doesn’t mean God intends to enlighten you as to its application.” Later on he adds, “It is extremely difficult for a prophetically gifted person to communicate the revelation and stop.” Still later: “Revelatory gifts are inescapably subjective, and the people through whom they operate are unavoidably prone to error.”

Chapter 8: Principles for Prophecy Today

In the local church, Storms says the best place to begin introducing the prophetic is in small groups. We should tell everyone this is a “safe” place and let them try, while leaving lots of room for failure. This is based on Storms’ view that the early churches were small in number—rarely growing to over 100 members.

Storms offers examples of what small group leaders should ask to coax out individual prophecies: “Did anyone have a dream recently or feel burdened or impressed in some way?”

And then he adds more advice: “If someone shares a revelation from God, give time for the others to ponder its content, to pray, perhaps even to search the Scriptures to see if what was said is true.” And later:

If someone did hear from God and the word bore special importance for a particular individual, take time to pray this truth into their life. Either gather around that person or, better still, have them sit in the chair in the middle of the room while others lay hands on them and ask the Spirit to bring insight into the full meaning of the prophetic word and how the person in view might properly respond to what was said.

Storms reiterates that “prophetic words may be highly symbolic and require extensive prayer and investigation.” That said, participants will know questionable prophetic words from genuine ones. How? Through both biblical witness and an internal check in their heart. He writes,

On occasion you will experience an immediate check or hesitation in your heart regarding the authenticity of an utterance that purports to be from God. This does not mean you are by nature a cynic or that you doubt the validity of the gift of prophecy. It more likely indicates that your knowledge of Scripture, together with common sense, has detected something amiss in what was said.

As for the person with the prophetic gift, he writes, “The experience [of prophesying] brings feelings of nearness to God and a heightened sense of spiritual intimacy that isn’t often the case with other of the charismata.”

Chapter 9: User-Friendly Deliverance

Storms has written elsewhere (Tough Topics, Crossway) that Christians can be demonized. What he tackles in this chapter (in line with the aim of the book) is how demonized Christians should be delivered. Those familiar with the John Wimber and Neil Anderson material on demon possession and deliverance will find significant overlap here, albeit with some distinctions.

Defending the existence of the gift of deliverance, Storms writes:

There is no explicit reference in the New Testament to a spiritual gift of deliverance. I just say, however, that I have known several individuals who have demonstrated a powerful, extraordinarily authoritative, and undeniably effective ministry in helping others find freedom from demonic oppression.

Storms proceeds to define this deliverance gift: “To resist Satan or his demons thus means to employ the authority and power given us by God to restrict his/their activities, to restrain his/their efforts, to thwart his/their plans.”

He then describes the gift of discerning of spirits: “Nowhere in the New Testament is this gift defined.” But a few pages later, he offers his own definition:

[it is] a unique ability that is fundamentally intuitive or subjective in nature, a Spirit-energized ability that is only given to some in the body of Christ, not all. . . a supernaturally enabled sense of feeling concerning the nature and source of any particular spirit under consideration.

When a person with this gift encounters a Christian being demonized, they should:

  1. Tell the demonized person what they are going to do.
  2. Verbalize their authority over the demon in Christ.
  3. Explore other possible causes to the manifestations, like generational sins.
  4. Pray a prayer of command over the demon. This may need to be repeated because demons are tricky.
  5. Pray again.

Chapters 10 and 11—“Do Not Quench the Spirit!” and “Manipulation or Ministry?”—have little new information for the purpose of this review.

Chapter 12: The Importance of Worship in the Spirit

Storms argues that singing is vital to being ready to practice the power: “But worship that is fueled, sustained, and carried along, as it were, by the Spirit not only honors Christ but also awakens and prepares the human heart to be ever more receptive and vulnerable to the work and voice of the Spirit.”

Moreover, room should be created in our corporate worship services for “unrehearsed and improvised, perhaps short melodies or choruses extolling the beauty of Christ. They aren’t prepared in advance but are prompted by the Spirit.” This encouragement reflects Storms’ opinion of what the “spiritual songs” of Colossians 3:16 must be. 

EVALUATION

I’m glad Storms wrote this book because it makes very clear at least one view of how Reformed continuationists should practice the spiritual gifts in their local church. And yet, it’s these very suggestions that leave me with several significant concerns.

Steve Timmis has already written about what he feels are insertions of non-biblical ideas into the biblical data. (Storms responded here.) Tim Challies has also noted his apprehension over omitted texts. (Storms responded here.)

For what it’s worth, I will offer four concerns of my own.

Concern #1: The book builds practice on shaky ground.

In several places, Storms tells us certain things are not defined in the Bible, but almost invariably, he follows that up with a definition.

Here’s an example. In chapter six he writes, “Prophecy is difficult to define because the New Testament never gives us a straightforward definition.” And then a bit later, he writes, “But [prophecy] is the human report of a divine revelation. . . . This definition is found in several places in the New Testament.” Building on that definition, he then provides a detailed implementation plan for a local church. This is where my concern lies.

When we build practice on the foundation of assumed definitions, and then prescribe adherence to that practice, we begin to tread on dangerous ground. I understand Storms’ aim is to help his charismatic brothers by providing practical guidance on how to practice the gifts, but is it wise to prescribe a practice when the Bible does not? If the best we can do is arrive at a definition by implication, then it seems to me we ought to hold on to that definition loosely and engage its practice with extreme caution and open-handedness.

Some of my charismatic pastor friends seem to follow this more cautious model, ensuring that words of prophecy are mediated through the elders of that church and other such means. While Storms insists that every prophecy must be tested in some measure, my own opinion is that his suggested form of implementation doesn’t do as good a job of that. For instance, unless every small group is led by elders, the very place he suggests the gift should be exercised is outside of the oversight of those charged with guarding the sheep from error.

This is related to my second concern.

Concern #2: The book elevates experience over revelation.

There are many instances where Storms tells his audience to take risks, to not be judgmental, and to give a wide berth to members as they try their hand at the gifts: “If we stumble along the way, perhaps falling flat on our faces at times, he’s not disappointed, angry, or embarrassed by our failure.” This kind of counsel can sound kind and empathetic. And yet, allowing unbridled experimentation in such a subjective realm of Christian experience seems to be off track.

For example, we all agree that the Holy Spirit has gifted some to be teachers. But this doesn’t mean we tell everyone to try and teach, even if that person feels they have a gift for it. In most of our churches, we would proceed to give opportunity, for sure, but I doubt we would suggest there would be no consequences to what was spoken. This would be a failure to guard the good deposit and to ignore James’ warning: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” (James 3:1)

As a counter-example, here’s how Storms encourages his readers to start prophesying: “Don’t be afraid to step out in faith and give expression to what you believe God has revealed to you. If you don’t get things perfectly, you need not fear that anyone will judge you.”

Taking all of his cautions into consideration (for listeners to evaluate the prophecy, for prophesiers to avoid making public predictions or ethical requirements not listed in Scripture, etc) I remain unsure how to jive this encouraged “freedom” with the decency and orderliness called for in 1 Corinthians 14. I don’t want to give the impression that Storms is arguing for chaos. Nonetheless, his implementation plan doesn’t seem to adequately protect against the danger of elevating human experience to a place of functional authority.

How can something be held to high scrutiny while vulnerable sheep are being urged to just “give it a try” without fear of judgment?

There seems to me to be something in the human condition that is prone to elevate mysterious impressions over the revealed truth of God’s Word. This is particularly true in new and/or immature believers. Therefore, Storms’ invitation to try out prophecy in a small group, for instance, seems pastorally unwise. He also coaches leaders to teach on these things. Over time, I fear Storms’ approach could lead to a functional shift from the authority of the Word to what merely amounts to inexact and subjective human impressions.

Therefore, when he urges members to attempt healings, he writes: “Regardless of the outcome, don’t ever think you have failed! The degree of healing or relief is not the measure of success: obedience is.”

This kind of church culture concerns me. Trying and experiencing things without fear should not be upheld as a kind of highest good in congregational life. Lloyd-Jones once wrote, “A pre-occupation with the subjective is not to be regarded as evidence of advanced spirituality.”[1]

Concern #3: He seems to say elevated experiences are only available to those who practice the sign gifts.

According to Storms, fasting is the way to experience the “fullness of the divine blessing secured for us in Christ.” I admit to being confused by this. If he means we need to fast in order to experience the spiritual blessings of Ephesians 1, then he’s dead wrong. Those are all given to believers in their salvation from sin. But I have no idea what else he could be talking about.

Elsewhere, he writes, “The gentle words of the Spirit are more readily heard during times of fasting.” This argument is experiential at best. The Bible does not directly teach this. Does the Spirit not speak through the Word with even greater clarity? I’m nervous of anyone who elevates experience over revelation. Storms insists he’s not doing this, but at this juncture he is.

In another place, Storms writes of the Spirit, “We don’t want to be a part of the bucket brigade that stands ready to douse his activity with the water of legalism and fear and extra-biblical rules. Obviously, one of the ways we do this is a with a flawed theology that claims that his gifts have ceased and been withdrawn.”

And in another: “Cessationism as a theology quenches the Spirit”; “Cessationists tend to fear excessive familiarity with God.”

While I appreciate Storms stating things in a way that leaves no doubt as to his conclusions, the result is an implied message that charismatics are the only ones who really care about and have access to intimacy with God. I’m quite sure that is not what he believes, but it’s certainly what comes across in my reading of the book.

Concern #4: What he describes as miracles aren’t really miracles.

At one point in the book, Storms offers an example of a healing:

The Lord impressed on my heart this morning that there is a woman present who visited her doctor about ten days ago. The prognosis given was not encouraging. The initials ‘SJ’ have some connection to this doctor. I’d like to pray for you today. You also have a young son who suffers from asthma. I would like to pray for him also if you will come forward.

A woman came forward claiming this must be her. She offered these facts:

  • SJ were the initials of the doctor on one of her prescription bottles.
  • She lived in constant pain (unspecified source).
  • The pain left her entirely by time she got to the church parking lot.
  • Her son was healed of asthma (at some unspecified time).

Storms writes, “That isn’t to say that every time prophecy functions in the local church that it will be as specific and accurate as this one was.”

I fail to find examples like this convincing. The miracles in the Bible are so remarkably different in tenor and fulfillment. Jesus healed people of blindness, paralysis, leprosy, and death. The apostles did the same. While I’m in no position to argue the experiences of the folks involved in the event he described, I’m not convinced it falls into the same category of biblical miracles. Nor do I find it a compelling example of accuracy and specificity.

CONCLUSION

As thankful as I am for Storms’ work in many areas, I find this book to be unhelpful. Its emphasis on subjective feelings and impressions alone is enough to raise significant red flags. But combined with the other concerns, wise pastors—continuationist or not—should get familiar with its contents and prepare to shepherd their sheep away from its recommended practices. Our primary responsibility is to help our people ground their lives in the Word of God. Experiences, impressions, voices, pains—all must be subject to that Word. While I know Storms would agree with that statement, I believe his field manual for spiritual gift implementation will lead churches in the opposite direction.

For other reading on this topic that would be theologically sympathetic to Storms, try; Showing the Spirit, by D. A. Carson; The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, by Max Turner; Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem; God’s Empowering Presence, Gordon Fee on 1 Corinthians.

*****

[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as quoted by Iain Murray in Lloyd-Jones — Messenger of Grace, 51.