Review of “Practicing the Power” by Sam Storms (Grand Raids: Zondervan, 2017)
Having come from a general evangelical background into Reformed thought, I had the same kind of hangover that most do. I was dispensational and charismatic… two things I was being told were unacceptable for a Reformed man. It was Sam Storms’ book Kingdom Come which helped me to see the logic of Amillennialism. My move toward cessationism was instinctual, and it wasn’t until later that I had exegesis to undergird that move.
Matt Chandler was also instrumental in my move to Reformed theology, so when I saw his endorsement of Sam Storms’ recent book Practicing the Power I jumped at the opportunity to review it. I eagerly awaited the arrival of my copy, and when it arrived I was dismayed to see that a book which purported to be full of “practical steps to understanding and exercising spiritual gifts in a way that remains grounded in the Word and centered in the gospel” was also endorsed by the cultish huckster Mike Bickle.
However, I trust Dr. Storms so I jumped into the text.
Storms opens the book by lamenting how often he has been told that the goal of a local church which is committed to both the authority of Scripture and the operation of all the spiritual gifts is a dream. He proceeds to set the stage for who his target audience is. To be blunt, I’m not the target audience. Storms is up front about the fact that he is not intending to mount a positive argument for the continuation of the charismatic gifts, and points to previous works in which he does to fill that need. Instead, this book is for those who already affirm the ongoing operation of these gifts and are looking for guidance on how to implement them in the context of their local congregation. Since my audience is probably not described by that, a word of warning. This book will frustrate you. I will go into the details further on, but it is difficult to step back on this subject and suspend belief.
However, it isn’t fair to critique a book for what it was never intended to be. Tim Challies offered a review of this book which does delve into some critique on this level, to which Storms offered a rejoinder.
In the first chapter, which I found to be the most frustrating, Storms continues to set the stage. He presents a typical email that he states he receives on “almost a daily basis.” (Storms 2017, 19) The email is a request for practical advice on how to implement the gifts in his local congregation. He then describes who this book is for. He lists several characteristics, and while most of them simply felt like descriptions of average Christians, a few were almost hyper-specific. Most frustrating of all was the final description.
You are weary of the weekly, often monotonous and traditional routine in church life that rarely challenges your daily existence and puts teenagers to sleep and offends the non-Christian who dares to visit your services. Put simply, there is no real power to speak of in what occurs on a Sunday morning, and you dread the lifeless ritual that passes for worship. (Storms 2017, 23)
Storms sets up a drastic straw man and winds up for the swing. While I’m sure there are some congregations which fit this description, the clear majority of cessationist churches I know do not. God has given us a divinely inspired rhythm and commanded us to worship him in a routine and orderly fashion. But beyond that, by way of critique, all that Dr. Storms is doing here in any of these descriptions is setting up an emotional argument. We shouldn’t make theological decisions regarding how we are to worship based on our desires and feelings, but based on the Word of God and what it commands. This is hardly something that I think Dr. Storms would disagree with, yet this blatant emotional appeal exists. He moves on to describe the difficult cost one must pay to accomplish this, which involves being on the receiving end of personal attacks (both human and probably demonic), people leaving your church, and being willing to set aside preconceived notions and experiences regarding the charismatic. He closes by discussing the manipulation factor. He speaks both against the manipulation of people that is a plague in the charismatic movement, but he also speaks against the idea that we can manipulate God.
The next two chapters serve as an exhortation to desire the gifts and to ask for them. I really appreciate that prayer is made central in the preparatory phase, however when he begins to discuss the role of faith he goes off the rails. The central abuse of the charismatic movement is that it often takes the person who is desperately seeking a miracle and makes them the reason why the miracle does not occur. Usually taking the form of questioning if they have enough faith, they are either explicitly told… or simply conclude on their own… that their current state is a result of their sin, and the fact that God is not fixing it is a result of their lack of faith. While It is true that Storms softens this, his answer is not that God’s sovereignty determines this (exclusively). He leaves the door open that it might be the faith of the person suffering which causes the miracle to fail. I appreciate what he is trying to do, but the central abuse of the charismatic system is left essentially unchecked here.
I won’t detail the remaining chapters, but I found them to be shallow and although there are scriptural citations throughout, there was a relative lack of depth of exegesis which was disappointing. I understand that this is a popular level book, but it left the impression that most of what he was saying was not derived from Scripture, but instead, Scripture was being used as a supporting edifice. One common theme in addition to the superficial use of Scripture was the mechanical nature of his proposal. He describes concrete steps, which gives a formulaic impression. This seems to be at odds with his desire for non-monotonous worship.
He closes with a story, again with the emotional appeals. The story contains the account of not-her-real-name-Julie. The letter was written by Julie’s husband who tells her medical history. Julie had been having severe back pain which was revealed to be an annular disk tear by MRI (ie something that doesn’t just get better on its own). After praying after a Sunday morning service the back pain went away. Oh, and Julie’s husband is a physician so you know it must be true. I am not claiming that this account is made up. However, this is the emotional appeal that Dr. Storms makes as the coup de grâce of his book. What I immediately noticed was missing, as it is in every account of miraculous healing I have ever encountered… medical evidence. A person with lower back pain who has a diagnosed and radiologically verified injury… who suddenly stops feeling pain… in some cases that is a sign that the problem has become worse. Her healing should have prompted a repeat MRI. I’m not expecting this woman’s medical records to be published in the book, but if we are going to claim that she is healed, and there would have been routine verification from a medical perspective, then to not include it is to simply leave the door open for skeptics, myself included. I know that this book isn’t written for skeptics, but it was still frustrating.
Finally, he offers an appendix at the end of the book which is an argument against cessationism. This was an ongoing frustration throughout the book. In his introduction, he is clear that this book is not a positive case for continuationism. But he takes what amount to rabbit punches at the cessationist position. He references arguments, serious exegetical and published arguments, against the continuation of the gifts, and often swats them away like they are annoying gnats. I can fully appreciate that the subject of his book is not a positive argument for continuationism and not a negative argument against cessationism… but to bring up an argument and then treat it as silly is simply bad writing. It uses the fact that you rhetorically dismiss the position to imply that the position is weak and not worth your time.
At the end of the day, with all due respect to Dr. Storms, this book simply falls short of all its stated goals. Although he claims he doesn’t want to support the idea of manipulating God, his book is full of step by step instructions that should lead to a robust operation of the Holy Spirit in your church. Although he claims he wants to curb the abuses of the more extreme charismatics, and I completely believe he does, he still roots the lack of miracles in the lack of faith of the one needing a miracle.