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Cessationists │A Scriptural Review of Cessationism

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Many people today promote various ideas about miracles and the spiritual gifts. Some people argue that the spiritual gift of tongues has ceased entirely. Others argue that all the gifts involving “miracles” have ceased. I will use the term “cessationist” to refer to people who claim that all spiritual gifts producing miracles, like the spiritual gift of works of powers, healings, tongues, and prophecy, have ceased. Furthermore, the term “cessationist” may include people who believe that signs and wonders have also passed away. Various cessationists use different arguments from Scripture to support their positions. Generally, cessationists do not deny that miracles occur today, but they do deny that the spiritual gifts producing works of powers, tongues, healings, prophecy and other “sign” gifts have passed away, as well as the general practice of signs and wonders accompanying the apostles and prophets of the church of the first century. In this article, we will review Scriptures to understand those spiritual gifts and compare the arguments of cessationists.

As a preliminary matter, the Book of Acts chronicles the birth and development of the early church. After Jesus ascended back to heaven, the eleven disciples (Judas Iscariot had betrayed Jesus and died) recognized both a ministry (“διακονίας”) and an apostleship (“ἀποστολῆς”) from which Judas Iscariot “turned aside to go to his own place” (Acts 1:25).  Judas also held the office (“ἐπισκοπὴν”) as an apostle (Acts 1:17). Judas, an unbeliever, never was baptized in the Holy Spirit, because Judas, the son of destruction, died as an unbeliever before Jesus baptized the apostles with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 at Pentecost. Judas Iscariot never had The Spiritual Gift of Apostle, although he held the office of apostle. Therefore, we may discern a very strong difference between the office of apostle and the Spiritual Gift of Apostle. Likewise, before Pentecost in Acts 2, God had not distributed spiritual gifts as described in the New Testament with the filling of the Holy Spirit and the baptism by Jesus with the Holy Spirit. Therefore, be very careful of drawing inferences based upon a particular office (like apostle) and the lack of spiritual gifts in the Old Testament to prove any point about New Testament spiritual gifts. See Spiritual Gifts Manual

The History Argument

All arguments from secular history should be ignored, or given little weight, because history must be interpreted by the Bible, because only the Bible provides an inerrant, inspired guide to truth. History may illustrate truth, but epistemologically, the writing of history and history itself remain different guides to the truth, unless God wrote the history. The history argument, by itself, proves nothing. Furthermore, causation of events often remains beyond the scope of historical analysis alone.

Some people observe that large gaps of time separate miracles and prophetic activity in the Old Testament. Therefore, they extrapolate that those long periods of time end with the New Testament’s completion no later than A.D. 100.  Yet, if the presence of miracles and prophecy proves they are real gifts in operation at that time, then the period beginning A.D. 1900 to present would be proof that miracles and prophecy flourish today, because so many believers claim such experience and the gap in time has finally been closed. Before anyone accepts or denies claims about spiritual gifts and miracles based upon history alone, they should examine the Scriptural evidence and then rethink historical analysis in light of the Scriptures. Historical analysis does not provide an inerrant guide to interpreting the Bible. The Bible provides an inerrant guide to history.

The history argument, by itself, cannot prove or deny the cessation of miracles, prophecies, or certain spiritual gifts.

False miracles (Matthew 24:24) and false prophets will arise and mislead many. The false prophets do supernatural things, but they remain false prophets. Furthermore, some people claim miraculous events happened, but further investigation of some “healings” proves a fraud was perpetrated. Therefore, the history argument, by its very nature, cannot prove cessation or continuation. The evidence must be examined with each purported occurrence of miraculous gifts and prophecies, just as the Lord commanded in 1 Corinthians 14.

 

The Authentication Arguments

Cessationists often cite Moses (Exodus 4:1-8), Elijah (1 Kings 17:1; 18-24), and the apostles (Acts 4:10, 16) to prove that signs, wonders, and miracles attended their ministries for the purpose of authenticating their ministry. So, the authentication argument goes: once authenticated, then no further miracles, prophecies, signs, or wonders are required because the purpose of authentication has been achieved. Before anyone accepts such an argument, it must analyzed carefully.

At best, this argument only proves that God used signs and wonders repeatedly over many centuries to authenticate His messengers. Furthermore, people were not baptized with the Holy Spirit before Pentecost in  Acts 2, so that evidence from the Old Testament has little or no application to the new age of spiritual gifts bestowed upon believers in the New Testament. If you limit that evidence to miracles, signs and wonders apart from spiritual gifts, then it has very limited value because we would need direct Scriptural support for the claim that all miracles, not associated with spiritual gifts, have ceased.

 

The Signs Argument

Cessationists often claim that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues has ceased. They often cite 1 Corinthians 14:22, which indicates that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues is a sign to unbelievers, not believers. Some cessationists then mistakenly claim that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues was never intended to edify the church, apparently overlooking the verses that explicitly indicate that all the spiritual gifts were given for the common good of the church.

Consider 1 Corinthians 12:7. All the spiritual gifts were given for the “common good.” 1Paul wrote: “ἑκάστῳ δὲ δίδοται ἡ φανέρωσις τοῦ πνεύματος πρὸς τὸ συμφέρον“(1 Corinthians 12:7). The term “common good” (“συμφέρον“) occurs in 2 Corinthians 12:1, which indicates it was not profitable to boast, meaning that all believers should not boast about themselves. The bigger point there is that Paul proclaimed that his vision and revelation from God were for the “common good” (“συμφέρον“). Furthermore, in Hebrews 12:10, God disciplines his children for the “common good” (“συμφέρον“), so that all believers may share in His holiness.

Therefore, based upon the usage of the term “common good” (“συμφέρον“) elsewhere, it certainly means that God gave all the spiritual gifts for the common good of the Body of Christ. Therefore, the purpose of all the “miraculous gifts” was to edify the church. This fact significantly weakens all arguments that those gifts only attended the apostles and the prophets, because, by nature all the spiritual gifts were intended by God for the common good of the church, and not just for authentication.

Furthermore, based upon 1 Corinthians 12-14, all of the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 were active at Corinth, without the presence of the twelve apostles. Thus, any claim about the signs being used only to authenticate the ministry of just the twelve apostles and prophets cannot stand. The sign gifts seemed in full bloom in Corinth, but were not used to the glory of God at times. If the cessationists claim the sign gifts ceased with the foundation of the church being laid by the apostles and prophets in Ephesians 2:20, they must also account for the continued activity of all the spiritual gifts, including sign gifts, at Corinth after the foundation of the church was laid in Ephesians 2:20.  They must also explain Ephesians 2:21-22, where the Ephesians were part of the dynamic building resting upon the very foundation at issue in Ephesians 2:20. Nothing in that passage suggests that the apostles and prophets did not continue to live and use their spiritual gifts after the foundation was laid. In fact, the entire building is composed of believers growing into a holy temple in the Lord. Therefore, the Ephesians 2:20 argument cannot stand for any cessation of spiritual gifts, because those gifts continued in use after the foundation was laid, by the foundational apostles and prophets, and the Ephesian believers, and other New Testament believers.

Paul wrote that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues will cease (1 Corinthians 13:8). Notice that Paul did not say when The Spiritual Gift of Tongues will cease, but he linked the cessation to when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away with (1 Corinthians 13: 9-10). 2Paul wrote: “8 Ἡ ἀγάπη οὐδέποτε πίπτει· εἴτε δὲ προφητεῖαι, καταργηθήσονται· εἴτε γλῶσσαι, παύσονται· εἴτε γνῶσις, καταργηθήσεται. 9 ἐκ μέρους γὰρ γινώσκομεν καὶ ἐκ μέρους προφητεύομεν· 10 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ τὸ τέλειον, τὸ ἐκ μέρους καταργηθήσεται” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10). In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul linked the coming of the “perfect” with seeing Jesus face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12). Therefore, that face-to-face time occurs no sooner than the Clouds Resurrection when believers meet Jesus in the air and receive bodily resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). So, any claim that we know when the spiritual gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge cease cannot be predicated upon 1 Corinthians 13:8-10. 

The Spiritual Gift of Tongues

Some cessationists claim The Spiritual Gift of Tongues has passed away for various reasons. We can evaluate some of the more popular arguments offered by cessationists that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues has passed away. All Christians should recall the explicit command: “do not forbid to speak in tongues” (1 Corinthians 14:39). Those words from God provide strong proof that some people will try to forbid believers from speaking in tongues. Therefore, anyone claiming that believers should not speak in tongues because The Spiritual Gift of Tongues has passed away must have clear exegetical evidence to support that claim. Lacking such Scriptural evidence, believers must be open to The Spiritual Gift of Tongues still being active today, and then evaluate each instance of purported tongues to see if it matches the Scriptural description of The Spiritual Gift of Tongues and its use among believers. The Spiritual Gift of Tongues always involved the mysteries (1 Corinthians 14:2–see the New Testament Mysteries), and rests upon revelation from God, like The Spiritual Gift of the Word of Wisdom and The Spiritual Gift of the Word of Knowledge. All were revelatory gifts.

First, some cessationists claim that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues was a sign to unbelieving Israel which passed away (1 Corinthians 13:8; 14:21-22; Isaiah 28:11-12). No doubt The Spiritual Gift of Tongues was a sign to unbelievers. Yet, that simple fact proves nothing by itself.

Because this argument rests upon the sign argument described above, it suffers from all the same infirmities and bears no further discussion here. To the extent it relies upon 1 Corinthians 13:8, then 1 Corinthians 13:10 proves that those gifts will cease when the perfect comes, and the perfect comes when believers see Jesus face to face in the future, at the Clouds Resurrection of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

Second, some cessationists mistakenly claim that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues does not edify the church. They overlook 1 Corinthians 14:4-6. Truly The Spiritual Gift of Tongues edifies the gifted Christian exercising The Spiritual Gift of Tongues, and The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy edified the entire church.

Yet, the passage does not end there. If another Christian interprets the utterance provided by The Spiritual Gift of Tongues, then the whole church is edified. The Spiritual Gift of Tongues works in tandem with The Spiritual Gift of Interpretation of Tongues. When both are active, then the entire congregation is edified.

Third, some cessationists claim that if The Spiritual Gift of Tongues were still active today, then no missionary would need to attend language school before leaving for the foreign field. This argument overlooks 1 Corinthians 12:30, indicating that not all believers possess The Spiritual Gift of Tongues, and so the missionaries seeking to minister in a foreign land without The Spiritual Gift of Tongues would still need to attend missionary school. Furthermore, the missionary school argument rests upon poor human logic and not exegesis of Scripture.

In Paul’s day, did no one need to learn any foreign languages because everyone spoke in tongues? No, because not everyone spoke in tongues, nor did everyone have The Spiritual Gift of Tongues. The New Testament only mentions The Spiritual Gift of Tongues in three places in Acts, and then it served as a sign to both believers and unbelievers. The believers understood that new groups joined the church by faith in Christ alone, as witnessed by their speaking in tongues and filling with the Holy Spirit.

Fourth, some cessationists claim that The Spiritual Gift of Tongues ceased when the foundation of the church was laid in Ephesians 2:20. As discussed above, the Ephesians 2:20 argument for cessation of any gift cannot stand because the spiritual gifts were active after the foundation of the church was laid. The following verses describe a building standing upon that foundation, and growing into the temple of the Lord, with the Ephesians an active part of that dynamic building. The New Testament evidence shows that the spiritual gifts were active after the foundation was laid, and so the Ephesians 2:20 argument for cessationism rests upon ignoring the following verses in that context and the rest of the New Testament evidence concerning spiritual gifts.

Many cessationists argue that just the miraculous gifts ended with the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, but that exegesis does not appear in Ephesians 2:20. Those apostles and prophets were incorporated into the building as the foundation, and the Ephesians were part of that building resting upon the foundation. The apostles and prophets still used their spiritual gifts after the foundation was completed, and the spiritual gifts were active at Ephesus and elsewhere. Therefore, the Ephesians 2:20 arguments for cessationism rests upon claims not supported by Ephesians 2:20-22.

The Spiritual Gifts of Healings

Some Cessationists claim that The Spiritual Gifts of Healings (notice the plurals in 1 Corinthians 12:9) ceased with the end of the apostles and prophets. We can evaluate those arguments below. 

First, some cessationists argue that Paul did not heal Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-27), Trophimus (2 Timothy 4:20) Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23), or even himself (2 Corinthians 12:7). Then, they claim that The Spiritual Gifts of Healings were not active in Paul’s later life because he did not heal his companions. 

When cessationists claim that Paul did not heal all his companions as proof that The Spiritual Gifts of Healings were not active in Paul’s later life, they apparently overlook that Jesus did not heal everyone either (Mark 6:5). Therefore, the lack of healing does not prove in itself that everyone will always be healed through The Spiritual Gifts of Healings, as Jesus Himself showed. God may be glorified through physical problems (John 9:3).

Second, some cessationists employ different forms of the history argument, but those arguments when applied to miraculous healings suffer from all the impediments of the history argument described above.

 

The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy

The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy concerns inspired prophetic utterance. The revelatory gifts, The Spiritual Gift of Tongues, The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy, the Spiritual Gift of the Word of Wisdom, and The Spiritual Gift of the Word of Knowledge, all played a role in New Testament publication by God. 

Some cessationists claim that The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy provided the canon of the New Testament, and once it was finished, then no further revelation was required. This argument overstates the New Testament evidence. The Book of Revelation contains many prophecies, and it was written after most or all of the other New Testament books. Therefore, prophecy, or The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy, was still active late into the first century.  Furthermore, the New Testament epistles show that prophecy was still active in providing revelation for the churches. In addition, because many people at Corinth used certain revelatory gifts, we know that those revelatory gifts were not confined to the apostles and prophets of Ephesians 2:20.  The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy was in use at Corinth by the Corinthians, and they were not the people writing the New Testament.

Therefore, the distribution by time and geography in the New Testament undermines the argument that once the canon was completed, The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy would no longer be needed. In fact, the canon was not completed all at once, but piece by piece as each inspired author contributed to the canon. Judging from the Corinthians, the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy continued after parts of the New Testament were written. Therefore, the New Testament itself did not end The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy in steps. Therefore, any argument that upon completion no further revelation was needed, conflicts with the Corinthians using revelatory gifts after parts of the New Testament were completed.

Some cessationists oppose the view that the New Testament reveals two kinds of prophecy: (a) high-level prophecy includes only completely inerrant and fully authoritative words; and (b) low-level prophecy which includes both truth from God plus human error. In their zeal to defend high-level prophecy against the claims of low-level prophecy, some cessationists say that the inerrant New Testament does not require any additions, especially not from prophets speaking a mixture of truth and error. Therefore, let us consider the claim that some New Testament prophecy contains a mixture of truth and error. I will borrow some material from The Spiritual Gift of Prophecy

Some people claim that the New Testament prophet Agabus was wrong about his prophecy, and so use his prophecy as an example of lower-level prophecy that contains some errors and some truth. This view contains no truth and all error concerning the claim of non-authoritative prophecy. In contrast, Agabus himself specifically said he was quoting the Holy Spirit: “This is what the Holy Spirit says:” (Acts 21:11). So, let us examine their claim further that Agabus prophesied with some errors.

First, the opponents of true prophecy claim that Agabus erred in prophesying that the Jews would bind Paul. What did Paul himself testify to about the incident leading to his binding? Paul himself actually testified that the Jews “laid hands on him” (Acts 21:27). So, you can believe the Holy Spirit, Agabus, Paul, and Luke or those opponents of prophecy who claim prophetic error.

Second, some opponents of true prophecy claim that Agabus further erred in prophesying that the Jews would deliver Paul into the hands of the Romans. Should you believe the opponents of true prophecy or Luke, the author of Acts, writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit? Luke stated that the Jews “rushed together, and and taking hold of Paul, they dragged him out of the temple . . . .” (Acts 21:30). Having seized Paul and dragged Paul out of the temple, with an intent to kill Paul outside the temple, those same Jews relinquished their custody of Paul to the Romans who came to take Paul into their custody (Acts 21:31-35). So, you can believe the Holy Spirit, Agabus, Paul, and Luke or those opponents of prophecy who claim prophetic error.

Third, in answering those two claims of prophetic error, we must note that those humans are now calling God a liar for putting such accounts in the Bible and presenting them as true revelations from the Holy Spirit. Of course, in the alternative, first we must observe that the Bible contains no indication that Luke or any other human author of the Bible considered the prophecy incorrect in any way. Should you believe Paul or the humans who charge Agabus and God with error? Agabus specifically said he was quoting the Holy Spirit: “This is what the Holy Spirit says:” (Acts 21:11). Now regarding the false claim that Agabus erred regarding the fact that the Jews delivered Paul to the Romans, consider the words of Paul himself: “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered (“παραδώσουσιν”–same Greek word Agabus used for delivered (“παραδώσουσιν”) (Acts 21:11) as a prisoner into the hands of the Romans” (Acts 28:17).

Fourth, in 1 Thessalonians 5:20, Paul wrote to the Thessalonians not to despise prophetic utterances. We must be very careful to obey this command and examine the doctrine of prophets and prophecy in the Bible.

 

The Spiritual Gift of Apostle

As described above, the office of apostle held by Judas Iscariot and the other eleven apostles differs from The Spiritual Gift of Apostle. No doubt the office of apostle has ceased, because no one alive today can meet the qualifications described in Acts 1:22-23. In contrast, no qualifications are needed for The Spiritual Gift of Apostle, because God distributes all spiritual gifts as He desires. So, at the outset, some cessationists argue that no one can fulfill the qualifications of the office of apostle, as if that proves something about The Spiritual Gift of Apostle.  The office of Apostle must be distinguished from The Spiritual Gift of Apostle. Paul also recognized apostles were present at Antioch (Acts 13:1) and Corinth (1 Corinthians 12:29-31).

The Spiritual Gift of Apostle differed from the office of apostle. Apparently many people claimed to be apostles, but were not. Therefore, Paul provided guidance on identifying true apostles, which must have numbered more than twelve. The Spiritual Gift of Apostle was bestowed upon many people, judging from the instructions about identifying a true apostle. Because one spiritual gift, like The Spiritual Gift of Apostle, may produce a variety of ministries and variety of effects, different New Testament ministries of apostles may be identified. For example, the New Testament identifies church-planting apostles and church messenger apostles, as well as the twelve apostles. Notice also that Paul himself was a called apostle, but not one of the twelve. He did not consider himself inferior in knowledge to the most eminent apostles. Different ministries produced by The Spiritual Gift of Apostle continued after the foundation of the church was laid by prophets and apostles. Therefore, taking all the New Testament evidence concerning the variety of ministries associated with The Spiritual Gift of Apostle, the various ministries of apostle continued, but the office of apostle ceased with the death of the last of the twelve apostles. Please recall that Paul himself was an apostle by calling, but also by spiritual gift. Therefore, the arguments that The Spiritual Gift of Apostle has ceased does not match the New Testament evidence that church planting apostles and church messenger apostles used The Spiritual Gift of Apostle in ways that may have included miraculous ministries associated with their various travels and activities. Frequently, cessationists overlook that the office of apostle has ended with the death of the Twelve, but The Spiritual Gift of Apostle may continue. Further, please take notice that false apostles also caused problems in the New Testament churches. Therefore, Paul provided rules for identifying true apostles. To some degree, that warning indicates that The Spiritual Gift of Apostle had not ceased during New Testament times and the test would be needed later. Furthermore, the ministry of some apostles included proclaiming the mysteries of God and proclaiming the commandments of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior. See a fuller discussion in the Spiritual Gifts Manual. Therefore, The New Testament does not contain Scriptural proof that the The Spiritual Gift of Apostle has ceased.

  The Spiritual Gift of Works of Powers

The Spiritual Gift of Works of Powers (“ἐνεργήματα δυνάμεων“–notice the plurals) displayed the power of God in miraculous and other ways. Of course, all spiritual gifts are miracles in themselves and produce miraculous results. But in this case, many cessationists use the term “miraculous” to describe physical healings and other things outside the normal realm of daily activity. See The Spiritual Gift of Works of Powers.

Because signs and wonders were associated with The Spiritual Gift of Works of Powers, the same limitations above on the cessationist arguments based upon signs apply here. Similar arguments would apply about wonders. Philip displayed a variety of works of powers after the ascension of Jesus: healing, exorcism, signs and wonders (Acts 8:6-13), as did many New Testament people over considerable periods of time.  Those spiritual activities were diverse as to geography and time. Some cessationists argue from their own and others’ personal experience today that they have not seen many signs and wonders, so The Spiritual Gift of Works of Powers has ceased. This argument from personal experience suffers from all the impediments of the history argument above, plus adds experience as a basis for interpreting the Bible, which is clearly erroneous as a basis for exegesis. We should never let experience guide our exegesis, but our exegesis must guide and interpret our experience. Some cessationists argue as time progressed toward A.D. 100, fewer and fewer miracles occurred in Scripture. Yet, this argument assumes that all the miracles were memorialized in Scripture, but we know that not even all the acts of Jesus were recorded in the New Testament (John 21:25). As above, at Corinth, we see no indication that the directions provided for using the spiritual gifts were ever revoked or no longer used. The cessationists argue from silence and against standard practice at Corinth and Thessalonica. Please take notice that the other Pauline epistles and the general epistles do not devote as much discussion to spiritual gifts as found in 1 Corinthians. Would any cessationist actually argue that no spiritual gifts were active there because of their relative silence? Of course not, so extrapolating from silence only produces more silence, not good exegesis. Finally, the disciples who sought to silence people crying out for Jesus to help them should be a salutary warning for all disciples of all times (Matthew 15:23; see also Matthew 20:31; 1Thessalonians 5:20; 1 Corinthians 14:39). 

Conclusion

In highlighting a few of the flaws of some arguments from cessationists, Christ Assembly does not advocate any position, except to examine everything closely and hold on to that which is good. A common theme runs through many of the arguments offered by cessationists: lack of clear, specific Scriptural references. In contrast, God said: Do not despise prophetic utterances (1 Thessalonians 5:20) and do not forbid to speak in tongues, but desire earnestly to prophesy (1 Corinthians 14:39). Some cessationists turn to historical arguments and personal experience, as if they were of equal value with the Bible. We know from Scripture that evil people in the future will display signs and wonders, and deceive even the elect, if possible. With the rise of many anti-Christs who have already gone out into the world, we know that the devil will use many schemes, including supernatural schemes, to hinder the work of God among men. Even so, we are more than conquerors in Christ and our faith provides the victory. To exceed what has been written in Scripture always means we are in danger of boasting on behalf of one against another. I offer the critiques above to spur further consideration of what Scripture provides, and trust we all strive to live to the glory of God in all we do. 

 

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