‘Power’ in Paul’s Letters: How Apostolic Miracles Magnify the Gospel Message

powerWhat does Paul think of power? How does he define it? When he speaks of “the working of miracles” (1 Corinthians 12:10), does he have modern charismatic signs in mind or something else? When Paul speaks of power, what is he talking about?

These are just a few questions we need to ask when we consider the word dunamis in Paul’s letters. And fortunatley, it is not too difficult to find what Paul thinks about this word, for he uses it often. However, if we come with preconceived ideas about “power evangelism” or “charismatic gifts” we might be less able to see what he originally meant. So lets consider what he says.

Power in Romans: The Gospel Defines Paul’s Understanding of Power

In Romans Paul begins with the gospel. Romans 1:1–7 defines Paul’s apostleship in terms of the gospel and Romans 1–-11 give us the fullest explanation of the gospel in Scripture. First, in Romans 1:4 Paul speaks of the power of the Holy Spirit to raise Christ from the dead, a reality that will shape Paul’s understanding of the gospel (and its effects) through all his letters. Then second, he defines the gospel as a matter of power in Romans 1:16–17:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

For Paul the gospel is the way in which God’s power brings salvation to sinners. The power of God raises the dead to life, beginning with Christ, and does the unthinkable: it declares the guilty “innocent” and the dead “alive.” Because righteousness and life are related in Paul’s thinking (see e.g., Romans 5:18–19), it is not surprising that justification requires the very power that raised Jesus from the dead.

Throughout the rest of Romans, God’s power is mentioned multiple times (1:20; 9:17, 22; 11:23), but the most relevant to understanding what Paul means by power is found in Romans 15:13–21. First, in a context where Paul is explaining how the gospel goes to the nations (vv. 8–13), he says, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (v. 13). Here, the objective effect the Holy Spirit’s power is hope abounding in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

From this international reach of the gospel, he explains his own ministry. Speaking of the conversion of the Gentiles as his own priestly work (v. 16), he boasts in the power of Christ to “bring Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed” (v. 18). Clearly, such obedience is gospel obedience, i.e., faith in the gospel working itself out in love (see Romans 1:6; 15:26). And this has been brought about by Christ through “word and deed.” Appositionally, verse 19 explains these “deeds.” He says that “by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God,” The Spirit enabled Paul to fulfill his ministry. And verse 20 continues to make the gospel explicit as he reveals his ministerial ambition and his desire to build solely on Christ.

So what do we make of this mention of signs, wonders, and powers of the Spirit? First, as evidenced in Acts, God did confirm Paul’s preaching ministry with miraculous signs and wonders. For instance, at one time Paul’s handkerchiefs brought healing to the sick (Acts 19:12); another time he publicly cast out a demon (Acts 16:18); another time God sent an earthquake to free him from prison (Acts 16:25–26); and another time he raised a young man from the dead (Eutychus in Acts 20:7–12). Therefore, what signified Peter and the other apostles’ ministries—visible signs of power (Acts 4:29–30)—and what previously marked Jesus’ ministry (Acts 10:38), also marked Paul’s ministry. Paul preached the gospel, and God confirmed the word of his mouth with powerful evidences of Christ’s resurrection power.

Power in 1 and 2 Corinthians: Gospel Preaching and Its Effects Demonstrate the Power of God

Arguably, what Paul reveals in his most elongated statement on the gospel is what we also find in 1 and 2 Corinthians and every other letter he writes. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 4 and 2 Corinthians 12, the signs and wonders which accompany his ministry are given to confirm the preached word.

First, in 1 Corinthians 4 Paul is disputing about true and false teachers, and he challenges that some “arrogant people” (presumably ‘the spiritual ones’) are flaunting their spiritual knowledge. But Paul says the kingdom of God is a matter of power, not talk (v. 19­–20). In other words, the proof of true teaching/apostleship is in the power of God manifested in their ministry. Paul says even more explicitly in 2 Corinthians 12:11–12, “For I was not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.”

Once again, three terms are used—signs (σημεῖον), wonders (τέρας), and powers (δύναμις)—and here they are especially possessed by “a true apostle.” Forced to defend himself, Paul distinguishes himself from the “super-apostles” by means of these powers. Thus, it makes most sense to see these works of God’s power as confirming the gospel message.

Indeed, this is exactly how Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians, too. It is striking how much he uses “power” language. But never does Paul use “power” language like the “arrogant” or “super-apostles” to boast in himself or to highlight the gifts or abilities of an individual. Rather, writing to a church coming from a culture impressed with wisdom and power, he stresses his own weakness and the intrinsic power of Christ’s gospel. For Paul, therefore, power is demonstrated in the weakness preaching the cross and bearing its marks in the body (cf. 2 Corinthians 4:7 and 12:9, 11). This message is what has power to to raise the dead, transform sinners, and produce holiness, love, and unity.

Explicitly, Paul stresses the preaching of Christ and his cross (1:18, 24), because he knows that God will raise the dead through the gospel. Then, in 1 Corinthians 2:4–-5, he emphasizes that faith must be dependent on God’s power, not man’s speech. From here he stresses the power of Jesus in their midst, when they gather in his name (5:4–-5). What power does the church have? The power to exercise gospel-defined discipline when a member of their community sins against God. In 1 Corinthians God’s power in the gospel makes his people holy, loving, and unified (6:9­–-11). Hence, in 1 Corinthians 6:14, Paul references God’s resurrection power, which is able to strengthen sinners bought by Christ’s death to now walk in his life. “Power” in 1 Corinthians 12:10 is not an isolated use of the term, therefore, but one that follows an explicit connection to the gospel.

Power in Ephesians: God’s Triune Grace to Raise the Believer to Life

In comparison with other uses in Paul’s letters, we find a regular pattern of Paul speaking of power in terms of the resurrection or the gospel. For instance, in Ephesians the power of God is said to be working in Paul (3:7) and all believers (1:19; 3:16, 20). In Ephesians 1, this power towards believers is directly related to the power that rose Christ from the grave. In other words, the same power that raised Christ is at work in the spiritual life of the believer, who God raised to life in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:4–7).

Likewise, in Ephesians 3, Paul says that the grace and power of God which enabled him to preach the gospel (v. 7) also enabled believers to understand his love (v. 16). But where does this power come from? Paul explains: such power comes from the gospel itself (v. 7) and the and the Spirit of God (v. 16).

Thus, there is in Ephesians a triangulation of power. Power comes from God the Father (3:7), by means of the resurrected Christ (1:19), and through the Holy Spirit (3:16). Not unlike 1 Corinthians 12:4–-6, Paul roots power in the work of the triune God, communicated through the gracious gospel of Jesus Christ which reconciles man to God and raises him to life in Christ (Ephesians 2:4–-7). Thus, power in Ephesians is not an abstract miracle, but a personal resurrection of the inner man to know the love of God.

Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians: Mighty Signs, Wonders, and Miracles Are Given To Confirm the Power of God’s Word

Philippians, Colossians and 1 Thessalonians are just as gospel-centered with respect the power of God. First, Philippians 3:10 defines the power of God in terms of the resurrection. Knowing Christ is personal, not just powerful, thus he writes: “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Next, Colossians 1:28­–29 explain that God’s power works in him as he preaches the gospel: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” Notice the combination of “energy” (ἐνέργημα) and “power” (δύναμις), just like 1 Corinthians 12:10. Importantly, the power God gives Paul is to preach the gospel. Therefore, inwardly he is strengthened by God’s power for gospel service. And outwardly, God confirms the his apostolic ministry through works of power.

Finally, 1 Thessalonians also contributes to the picture, as it speaks of the gospel arriving in Thessalonica with power and the Holy Spirit, which in context means regeneration and faith in spite of affliction. Paul writes,

Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. (1:5–-7)

Here the power of the Spirit is coupled with “full conviction,” that is, confidence in the Word of God and faith in the gospel. While such visible fruit does not fit the miraculous signs and wonders claimed by modern charismatics, it is vital to see that this is the goal of God’s power. In fact, to borrow from Hebrews and to confirm what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 12:12, the mighty works of God are given to confirm the word of God: “It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Hebrews 2:3–4).

One more time, signs (σημεῖον), wonders (τέρας), and powers (δύναμις) are all used. And here the explicit testimony is that the mighty works of God are for the confirmation of the Word, for the whole first section of Hebrews (1:5–2:4) is a call to believe the message of the Son. Answering the kind of prayer issued by the apostles in Acts 4:29–-30, God confirmed his apostle’s witness by sending forth powerful displays of signs, wonders, powers, and gifts. For this reason, because God confirmed the apostle’s words with his mighty works, we take what they wrote as inspired and authoritative. Moreover, because the apostles ceased to continue, but instead laid a solid foundation for the church (Ephesians 2:20), it is best to understand that the works of power—what many have called the miraculous gifts—are best seen as also discontinued.

Understanding and Affirming Apostolic Power: Miracles Are Given to Magnify the Gospel Message

Because the works of power, sometimes rendered “miraculous powers” or “mighty works” were given for the sake of the church’s salvation and edification, it is important to understand that the Spirit must continue to demonstrate his power today. But equally important to see, the Spirit today demonstrates his greatest power through the salvation of sinners, the union of diverse believers in the local church, and the abundant growth of holiness, love, grace cultivated in communities of faith. Importantly, it is the fruit of the Spirit that is and should be most compelling today.

Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another”(John 13:35). To be sure, as the first-century church recognized authoritative teaching—from the apostles and from prophets like Luke, John Mark, and the author Hebrews (non-apostolic men who wrote inspired books)—God needed to confirm the words of their lips with the testimony of signs and wonders. Just as God confirmed the words of Moses and Elijah and Elisha with powerful works. And just as Jesus relied on the works of power to identify him as the true messiah (John 10:38), so the apostles who followed him and spoke as his inspired ambassadors, likewise, needed God’s powerful confirmation.

In this way, Paul could speak of “power” in two ways, but both related to the gospel. For himself and the other apostles, he could speak of miraculous signs and wonders and powers as God-given evidences to confirm their ministries (see Romans 15:19; 2 Corinthians 12:12). These miraculous signs he could not deny in AD 55 when he wrote 1 Corinthians 12, for the canon was still being written, apostles and prophets were still speaking. But neither did he lay hands on anyone and pronounce them inspired to be a second-generation apostle, or a recognized healer. Rather, that gift was distributed by the Spirit himself (1 Corinthians 12:11)and only as it served the expansion of the gospel. Therefore, Paul does speak of the “works of power” (a better translation, in my estimation, than “miraculous gifts”), but only limitedly and only as it became a problem in Corinth. It is important to see that he speaks little of sign gifts in any other book.

Second, Paul speaks predominately of power in relationship to the gospel and the resurrection. Indeed, because the power of God is evidenced in a spoken word, he did all he could to magnify its strength. He gladly endured hardship, suffering, and illness for the sake of elect. In other words, though he had power to heal, he did not use this power on himself—or, apparently, for other gospel ministers like Ephaphroditus (Philippians 2). In this way, he did everything he could for the gospel—and this did not include performing miracles for their own sake. Rather, Paul aimed to stress the power of the resurrection, so that when his disciples followed him they would not imitate his miraculous powers. They would imitate his faith, his hope, and his love—the very fruit of the Spirit he commends in 1 Corinthians 13:8–13–and his unswerving commitment to preaching Christ and him crucified.

Pulling all of this together, my conviction is twofold. First, Paul (and the other apostles and prophets) did perform works of power, what most translations call “miracles” today. Therefore in the midst of this foundational period of the church (i.e., the era of the apostles), he could not deny the miraculous (i.e., signs, wonders, healings, and visible powers).  But second, he put his stress on the power of the gospel and God’s design to grant new creation life in Christ. And thus he called churches to test every prophecy and hold on to the good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Paul could not deny tongues categorically (1 Corinthians 14:39), but neither would he make universal space for its practice (see all the limiting qualifications of 1 Corinthians 14).

Overall, power for Paul was rooted in the triune God and experienced by his people as the resurrection life of Christ was graciously given to God’s elect by means of faith in the gospel. This is why Paul can speak of miraculous signs, but why he also speaks more consistently and more fervently about the spiritual power experienced in salvation. As Paul asks in Galatians 3:5–-6, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?”

For Paul, the miracle of miracles was salvation, faith, and new creation life in Christ, and so it should be for you and I. This power is greater than that of the apostolic gifts, for it is the power of God unto salvation in the gospel which is ushering in a new heavens and new earth by granting new creation life to people now dead in their trespasses and sins.

What could be more powerful than that? Therefore, let us not be ashamed of the gospel and the power that it gives to all who believe.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds