What are we supposed to do with miracles? Sigh. We could write them off as pre-scientific descriptions of very natural phenomena or we could look at them as mythological tales designed to communicate theological truth. Both of these options allow us to breathe a sigh of relief as we neatly sidestep the awkwardness of actually taking them at face value. After all, you and I have no context to believe in the miraculous save for children’s stories, so it makes us feel uncomfortable when someone suggests that these miracles are real, historical events. Pass the tinfoil hat on over, right?
Yet if we want to take the Bible seriously (and offer it the respect we would wish for ourselves), we can’t write miracles off at all! Thus, we have before us three questions that demand answers. First, what is a miracle, precisely? Second, how valid is it to believe the miraculous could actually happen? Third, why do miracles happen? With his latest release, The Wonder-Working God, Jared Wilson seeks to examine these questions head-on.
Moving Beyond “Just Because He Could”
Wilson has gained a reputation in my eyes as a thoughtful, reflective, and exultant pastor/author who knows how to craft exquisite prose that keeps the gospel primary. I was hesitant to pick up this book, thinking that it might focus inordinately on the second question raised above. Apologetic works defending the validity of miracles are valuable, but in my opinion the third question above is far and away the most important question to ask and answer. We need to know what purpose miracles serve.
Here’s why I think so: if we prove that Jesus could turn water into wine or feed 5,000 people with a lunchbox, we still haven’t justified his actions as meaningful or even sane. I’m an evangelical through and through, by which I mean that I see the gospel (the evangel) as central to the Christian faith along with its saving power. Yet if we believe that Jesus came chiefly to save sinners, then what role do miracles play? Enabling the blind to see is nice, but it doesn’t deal with sin, right? If we say, “Why, they prove Jesus to be the Son of God!” then we have to struggle with the fact that Jesus was often urging people to keep his miracles on the down-low. I cured your leprosy to prove that I’m God, but don’t tell anyone!
Wilson seems to sense the great importance of the Why question. In exploring the water-into-wine miracle, he says this: “Jesus is not performing a neat trick. He isn’t just supplying a need. He is signaling the immediate presence of the ancient promise” (ch. 2). When he explains the purpose of miracles within the grander scheme of scripture, Wilson draws from CS Lewis and NT Wright: “The glory these miracles reveal is that of the Creator God come to bend creation back to order” (ch. 4). In other words, Wilson firmly plants his interpretation of the miraculous in the arch of redemptive history.
There is nothing in the created order that wasn’t created by Jesus, and he has come back to straighten out what we have bent and broken. Here we have our answer to question one, about what miracles are: “Then comes Jesus Christ, bending, it seems, the very laws of nature. In fact, he is straightening them out” (ch. 1). Miracles, according to Wilson, are not aberrations of natural law, but corrections to natural law. Jesus says, You bend to my will, not the other way around.
He does not spend an inordinate amount of time on question two about the historical validity of miracles, but if you start with his definition above, the question becomes far less of an irritant. If we have the humility to accept that we could be the ones who are wrong, who are broken and bent, then our natural law begins to look like an unnatural law and we become receptive of the True King who has come to set things right. We who are living in a land of death yearn for the impossible, namely, the conquering of death. No wonder the allure of the Harry Potter series! No wonder that I see articles pop up in my news feed all the time about the latest scientist claiming that he’s figured out how to help people live forever! If you’ve ever been to a funeral then you know how foreign and unjust death is, like the intrusion of an unwelcome visitor who has set up camp in the world that was meant to be. Well, that’s precisely what Wilson’s thesis is–Jesus the Wonder-Working God is coming and cleaning house in a very real, non-metaphorical way. “My death,” he says, “will not be symbolic. It will be real. Therefore, a metaphorical resurrection is no hope to me. I am looking forward to those rekindled amino acids” (ch. 10).
Wilson has no use for a Jesus who is anything less than God himself. Jesus works wonders because he is God. His miracles are real and historical because he is God, and we are not. One of the great things about Wilson’s writing is how big and central Jesus is–lots of us claim to have a high view of the scripture and the gospel, but when it comes down to brass tacks we spend a lot of our time talking about anything and everything else. Wonder-Working God reads like a running stream-of-consciousness devotional commentary on the miracles of the gospels, and for the most part it works well. Wilson’s prose is less exquisite and precise than something like Gospel Deeps, but is nevertheless still clear and comprehensible.
I hesitate to mentions this concern, for it is only tangentially related, but I worry for Wilson as a human being because over the past few years he has seemed to grow more grim in his writing. I don’t know him in person at all, but I have noticed him subtly growing more polemical over time. I’m thankful that he takes a hard line on things like the prosperity gospel and the “leadership industrial complex” of middle class mega church evangelicalism, but the value I find in sitting under Wilson is how authentically and beautifully he exults in the gospel, not in how angrily he castigates his nemeses. Such angry rants are present in this book, but are thankfully not dominant. My hope for Jared Wilson is that he never becomes a crotchety old cynic, but instead sets an example of how to stay centered on the gospel throughout one’s life without letting the threats to the gospel take the spotlight.
All in all, I would recommend The Wonder-Working God to you if you’re looking for some help in understanding the place of Jesus’ miracles in the greater flow of redemptive history.
DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of this review.