As we work through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the question of spiritual gifts arises. As we have preached through this book, we have been purposeful to preach what the Word says about the gifts, not what conclusions can be drawn about the abiding nature of the gifts. We desire in our preaching to say what God has said- we are bound to the text.
But, in other settings we have addresses the question of spiritual gifts, specially tongues and prophesy. We feel as we enter into chapter 14 this week that it may be wise to offer some thoughts on what we believe about these gifts.
Historically there have been two positions on this question. First there are continuationists who would believe that all the gifts available to the early church (prophesy and tongues included) continue for the church today. Second there are cessationists who believe that certain gifts (specifically more miraculous gifts- such as tongues and prophesy) ceased with the death of the last apostle.
Both sides have many arguments from Scripture, and both sides are brothers in Christ. But, after study of the Scripture, Pastor Kevin and I have come to believe (with no fondness for the term) cessationism. Let’s make a couple observations on this before we defend why we believe this.
Some Important Observations
First, as cessationists, we believe the Spirit of God is very active. He illuminates the Scripture (2 Corinthians 3), He convicts sinners (John 16), He regenerates (John 3), He gives gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14). The Holy Spirit does miraculous things- what could more miraculous than the miracle of conversion!
Second, as cessationists, we believe the Bible is sufficient. We do not claim that many continuationists do not believe this, but this is a foundation for our belief regarding the gifts. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 describes the Scriptures as “God-Breathed” and therefore sufficient to convert and equip. Thus, anything less than God’s very breathe cannot be relied on as a means of conversions or building up.
Third, as cessationists, we affirm that God heals- He answers prayers! James 5:13-18 and many other places encourage us to take our needs, including sickness, before the Lord. God is the Healer. God is sovereign to Heal according to His will. But, a prayer of healing and a gift of healing is an important distinction to consider.
Fourth, as cessationists we believe that definitions are important. In fact, the whole discussion comes down to how we define the gifts. Thus, the Bible becomes foundational to the whole discussion.
Fifth, we reject proof texts. Neither side has a cut and clean verse that reads, “The gifts will continue” or “the gifts will not continue.” We must reject proof-texting and therefore must think systematically about what the whole Bible teaches and what can be deduced from good and necessary consequence.
The Case for Cessationism
It is important to begin by noting that even most continuationists believe that at least one gift ceased- the gift of apostleship. Ephesians 4:7-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:27-29 establish apostleship as a gift of the Spirit. What does it mean to be an apostle? A few points to consider:
1) Apostles served a foundational role in the early church (Ephesians 2:20)
2) Apostles were chosen by Christ Himself (Galatians 1:1, Acts 1:2, 10:41)
3) Apostles were eyewitnesses to the Resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:8-9, Acts 10:39)
4) Apostles spoke on behalf of Christ, with his authority (1 Corinthians 14:37)
Thus, we could conclude that there are no apostles today. Why? First, apostleship is foundational, thus once the foundation is built, the gift would no longer be needed. Second, Paul described himself as the “last of all” to see Christ bodily, thus making him the last apostle. Third, Paul says the highest gift that could be sought was prophesy, not apostleship (1 Corinthians 14:1). Fourth, Paul had to confirm his apostleship through the right hand of fellowship from the other apostles (Galatians 2:7-9), something that could not be done today.
Thus, it is impossible to full embrace all the gifts from the early church.
Many have sought to redefine the gift of apostleship as simply the gift of being a missionary. But, this seems to miss the uniqueness of this gift, especially since the apostles acted as spokesman for Christ himself. We also cannot set aside the unique ministry Jesus gave them (notice the specificity of Mark 3:14-19 and Acts 2:42).
So, we can easily establish that at least one gift have ceased. What does this mean for prophesy and tongues? Lets addressing prophesy first.
What about Prophesy?
The important thing to consider with prophesy is our definitions. Many would argue that prophesy is a prompting from the Lord and that this prompting is not infallible. But, this seems to be far from what the Bible says about prophets. Consider the Old Testament expectation:
“But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” – Deut. 18:20-22
This is also met with the New Testament example, no prophesy is ever fallible:
Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul. – Acts 11:27-30
To argue that New Testament prophesy is fallible and that God can speak to you through someone with the possibility of error is foreign to the definitions set forward by the Bible. Prophesy was revelation from God. To speak as a prophet was to speak for God. Thus, we are to judge prophets by what they say (Deut. 13:1-5, 1 Corinthians 14:29).
Other things to consider:
1) Prophesy was foundational (Ephesians 2:20, 3:5). Paul seemed to include prophet, both Old and New, as foundational for the church, and thus not a gift to be pursued.
2) If we believe the Bible to be sufficient, then we cannot believe that God’s Word is insufficient or lacking in some important contents. If God’s Word is sufficient than that is the last Word!
3) Paul himself seems to connect apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20, 3:5).
What about tongues?
Again, this is a question of definitions. First, we know that tongues were languages which people were able to understand (Acts 2:8). Second, Acts 2 also describes tongues as a form of prophesy. In fact, Peter says that the gift of tongues is a fulfillment of the prophesy from Joel 2 (Acts 2:16-17) which says,
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy…”
Also, 1 Corinthians 14:5 tells us that tongues and prophesy are equivalent, if the tongue is interpreted.
So, if prophesy has ceased then so has the gift of tongues.
The Purpose of the Gifts
Before we consider some applications and suggest some additional resources, let’s consider the purpose of the gifts of prophesy and tongues in addition to what has already been said. Along with the way they serve as signs (1 Corinthians 14:20-25), they were also a means of confirming the apostolic witness. In fact, all “signs and wonders” served this purpose:
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
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. – 2 Corinthians 12:12
Notice, it was a confirmation to those who had first heard it from the Lord (the apostles). We were able to distinguish between true and false apostles because of the works they did.
So, what should we do with this? We have seen a biblical case for the cessation of certain gifts (gifts which were revelatory in nature) were for the purpose of confirming apostolic testimony. They were revelatory and thus when special revelation ceased, the gifts cease. Since the Bible is finished, so is the gifts that confirmed it’s authors.
There are three applications I can see from this reality:
1) It encourages our preaching. The Word has been fully confirmed for us- the power is in the Word of God. We don’t need miracles to draw a crowd, the Word is powerful to convert sinners.
2) It encourages our apologetic. We have a gauge by which to test servants of the Lord. We have guidelines to weigh supposed “apostles” in the 21st century. In fact, there are many major groups which claim apostleship- yet none meet the biblical expectations. We are truly able to weigh prophesy and to “test all things” with this perspective on prophesy and apostleship (1 Thess. 5:20-21). It helps us to draw a line in the sand and “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”
3) It encourages our worship. The working of the Spirit in the past, and the working of the Spirit in the present should all do one thing: point us to Jesus. Isn’t that the Spirit’s job (John 15:26)? If we walk away not seeing Jesus then we have missed the point.
My hope and prayer is that this has offered some perspective to the readers on our position on this issue and encouraged them on toward love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:25).
There is much more that could be read/watched on this topic. A recommendation of these resources does not mean a full endorsement of the authors or their positions. Here are some additional resources from both perspectives:
This sermon from Tom Pennington called, “A Case for Cessationism” offers several additional and extended arguments to consider.
The guys over at Doctrine and Devotion put together a great podcast on the subject (with many more resources) here.
“Why I am a Cessationist” by Thomas Schreiner
This sermon from Matt Chandler on 1 Corinthians 13:8-14:5 is helpful to understand the continuationist position
John Piper and Desiring God have put together some helpful resources for their perspective on the issue.
“Why I am a Continuationists” by Sam Storms
Authentic Fire: A Response to John MacArthur’s Strange Fire by Dr. Michael Brown
Sam Storms has written three books on the topic.