This morning is a continuation (pun fully intended) of the three-part lesson I began last week. If you remember, last week I tried to lay out a case for the cessation of the gifts and then answer it. That is, I tried to lay out what are the most consistent arguments given by individuals who believe that the gifts (e.g., those listed in 1 Cor. 12:8-10) have ceased (most likely shortly after the apostles’ death), and then answer that argument. This morning, though, I want to do something more than just show that I don’t find the arguments that the gifts have ceased convincing; I want to argue (in addition to that) why I think the gifts continue to the present day.
Arguments for the Continuation of the Gifts
I’m not setting out to list these arguments in terms of strength from greatest to least, but I will say that I think the first argument I will mention is the strongest. My first argument is that:
Now, I looked last week at the argument that the “perfect” in 1 Cor. 13:10 was the canon of Scripture and argued that it wasn’t. Rather, I argued that the “perfect” refers to that situation which will be brought about by the return of Christ. This understanding fits best with verse 12, where Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Again, as highly as we view Scripture, I don’t think any of us would say that we know fully, as we have been known and see (truth? the Lord?) face to face. In fact, if we were to view the “perfect” as the completion of Scripture then Lloyd-Jones is right when he says,
It means that you and I, who have the Scriptures open before us, know much more than the apostle Paul of God’s truth. . . . It means that we are altogether superior . . . even to the apostles themselves, including the apostle Paul! It means that we are now in a position in which . . . “we know, even as also we are known” by God . . . indeed, there is only one word to describe such a view, it is nonsense.1
However, if we view it as the situation brought about at the return of Christ, then we have a text that tells us when the gifts will cease (or at least the gifts mentioned in vv. 8-9). The gifts of the Spirit (including, but not limited to the gift of knowledge, tongues, and prophecy) will cease at the point of the return of Christ (and not before). And the reason why they will cease is because a situation of perfection will have arrived. It is like the illustration I referenced last week. When you take a candle and stand in darkness, it is extremely helpful and necessary if you want to see. However, if you turn on all the lights in the room or let the sun fully shine into the room, then the candle is no longer necessary.
That’s the same kind of example Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13:11. He notes that a child thinks like a child and reasons like a child. And that is appropriate. But when one becomes a man, childish talking and reasoning is no longer needed. It is good and appropriate for its time in life (i.e. childhood), but it is no longer needed when one becomes an adult. In the same way, spiritual gifts are good, appropriate, and necessary in this age, but when Christ comes and we see him face to face and know as we are known, then spiritual gifts that give us partial knowledge (like a candle gives us a little light) will no longer be necessary and will pass away.
Therefore, this text tells us when and why the Spiritual gifts will pass away. They will pass away when Christ returns, bringing about a time of perfect and complete knowledge and of seeing the Lord face to face, and they will pass away then because imperfect things (as helpful as they are in this time) will no longer be necessary when the perfect comes.
Now, some cessationists will say that this text doesn’t demand that gifts cease at the return of Christ so that they might possibly cease sometime before the return of Christ.2 However, I think that suggestion misses the argument of the text. Not only does the text tell us that these gifts will pass away “when the perfect comes” but tells us why – because the imperfect will no longer be necessary. Prior to the coming of the perfect, however, the gifts are indeed helpful and necessary, which is a point I will turn to in a bit. First, let me mention another reason why I think the gifts continue until the present.
Not only do we have a text that explicitly tells us that the gifts will cease at the return of Christ, but there simply is no text that teaches or suggests the gifts will cease before then. That is to say, continuationists and cessationists aren’t debating some complex text in the Scripture that seems to suggest the gifts will cease. There isn’t one.
Therefore, if you have a text in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 that tells us the gifts will cease at the return of Christ and no text that teaches or suggests they will cease prior to this, then we must be people committed to the teaching of the Bible and not simply our experience or understanding of things.
Now, some cessationists have suggested that the purpose of the gifts was simply to attest to the genuineness or validity of the apostles. I’ve already debated that. But even if that was one partial function of the gifts, it cannot be argued that a main function of the gifts was for the building up and edification of the church. We see this in multiple texts in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Just listen to the purpose of the gifts (or manifestations) of the Spirit in the lives of believers and the church in these verses:
The reason the Spirit gave (and gives) these gifts in the first place is for the good of the church, so that we might be built up, encouraged, and consoled. This is the reason Paul was so upset with the Corinthians in the first place. It wasn’t because they had spiritual gifts. He thanked God they weren’t lacking in any spiritual gift (1 Cor. 1:5-7). It was because they weren’t seeking to employ their gifts in building up the church, which is the very reason the Spirit had given the gifts to the church in the first place.
Now, obviously, our situation hasn’t changed. We are still in need of being built up, encouraged, and consoled. So, if the reason for the gifts is building up the church (as it most certainly is), and if the church is still in need of being built up (which it most certainly is), then it is odd to think that the gifts of the Spirit would be removed prior to the return of Christ (when the church will no longer need to be built up). Moreover, Paul’s assumption in 1 Cor. 1:7 seems to be that he expects the spiritual gifts to be with the Lord’s people until the Lord returns, as he writes in 1:7, “You are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Just in case we read some of the references above thinking that Paul was saying, “Well, if you’re going to desire spiritual gifts – which you shouldn’t – then at least desire them for the building up of the church,” Paul makes clear multiple times that he wants the Corinthians to desire spiritual gifts. Note the following verses:
So, it’s clear that Paul wants the Corinthians earnestly to desire spiritual gifts. Now, someone could well say (and a cessationist no doubt would say) that Paul gave them that command, though he knew the gifts wouldn’t be around soon, and therefore it’s not a binding command on us. However, I think John Piper when he says, “I would ask all of us: are we so sure of our hermeneutical procedure for diminishing the gifts that we would risk walking in disobedience to a plain command of Scripture?”3
In other words, when you read Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, as he notes this is the fulfillment of the New Covenant promise, his teaching isn’t that the Spirit would inaugurate the new age with his work and gifts and then leave but characterize the new age.
Now, if we’re honest, as cessationists or continuationists, we would all say that our experience plays into our thinking about these issues. It should never be our deciding factor. Scripture is our deciding factor, and Scripture interprets our experience. But in light of what the Scripture says, I think I’ve experienced on occasions even the more miraculous gifts. I’ll share one of them.
Back in the year 2000 I was pastoring here at Cornerstone, and there was one other elder, named Jonathan Douglas. Jonathan has since moved to North Carolina, serving with us as an elder until he moved. But back in 2000 there was a time in his life where I was really burdened for him. He was working a great number of hours at Proctor and Gamble, was married, and was trying to raise two little girls (along with him ministry at the church and elsewhere). He was worn a lot. It was obvious to a lot of us at the time, I think.
Well, anyway, one afternoon, Jonathan came by the church, and I was sitting in the main office on the computer, getting online. Now, for those of you who are under thirty maybe, internet used to be something that you needed a phone line for, and you actually dialed through the phone line to access the internet with it making a terrible screeching sound. In hindsight, it was a bit terrible. So, when Jonathan walked in that afternoon, I was on the internet, we chatted for a bit, and after a bit of probing, he confessed that he was once again a bit worn, trying to figure out how to spend more time with his family.
That night, after dinner, I told Lili that I was really burdened for Jonathan, and I prayed for him. But later that night, as I was going to bed, I couldn’t shake the burden. I was deeply burdened. In fact, I was so burdened for him, I couldn’t sleep (which is extremely rare). So I got out of bed, started reading my Bible, and started praying for him. And the more I prayed the more the burdened seemed to grow until finally a thought came into my head. With this thought, I felt peace, and went back to bed and went to sleep.
The next morning, early in the morning, Jonathan was coming over to my apartment to pray. We would set times to pray for one another, discuss church matters, and hold each other accountable, and at the time, early morning was the best. So, when he walked in, I said, “I’ve got something crazy to tell you.” Then, I went on to share how I’d been burdened for him, prayed for him, and finally a thought came into my head that gave me peace.
He, of course, wanted to know what the thought was, but I was a bit hesitant. After all, it seemed a bit weird. But nonetheless, I said, “Well, take this for what it’s worth. It may not mean anything to you, but after the thought came into my head, I felt peace and was able to go to sleep.” So then I told him the thought that came into my head. I said to him, “I think you need to make a mission statement for your family.”
Now, just to let you know how convicted I am that every husband or father needs to make a mission statement for his family, I’ve never done that myself. There is no Tankersley family mission statement. This had seemed to me a crazy thought when it came into my head, but when it had, I had peace and was able to go to sleep, so I thought it was worth sharing.
You can imagine my surprise then when Jonathan started to tear up. This, of course, made me more than a little curious about why such an odd thought had moved him to tears. And Jonathan went on to ask me, “Did you wonder why I stopped by the church yesterday.” Now, I hadn’t. But when he mentioned it, it was a bit odd. After all, he was coming home from work a bit early so he could spend time with his family and stopped by the church to have a two-minute shoot-the-breeze kind of conversation with me. That was odd. Then he told me why.
He had been driving home, praying that God would give him wisdom about how to think about ministering well to his family. Then, the thought came into his mind that he should put together a mission statement for his family, and this was something that he’d heard a guy talk about on American Family Radio one day. Therefore, he was stopping by the church to see if he could get online to try to look up that guy’s talk and order the cassette. But once he saw me on the computer, occupying the internet, he just decided to go home. And now, here I was, telling him that he should make a mission statement for his family.
He told me that it felt confirming and encouraging to him that that the Lord was walking with him, hearing his prayers, and directing him. And I told him that I was greatly encouraged because I felt that the Lord had used me to encourage and edify my brother. I honestly doubt either one of us will forget that morning’s conversation as long as we live.
Now, I don’t doubt that my cessationist brothers would acknowledge that that thought that came into my head that night that was in perfect confirmation with the wisdom Jonathan thought the Lord had given him the day before was of the Spirit. They would simply call it a prompting of the Spirit or impression from the Spirit. But I don’t think we have to result to calling them promptings or impressions when the Scripture has given us categories like prophecy, or a word of knowledge, or a word of wisdom.
For these reasons, I am a continuationist, and my prayer for myself and all of us right now is that we would be so driven in our love for one another to want to serve and minister to one another that we would be earnestly desiring the Spirit to gift us for service and that he would do so. And just in case you haven’t yet been convinced that you should pray that way, I hope to provide for us a proposal for how cessationists and continuationists can walk forward together in a united way as a church seeking to glorify the Lord. Amen.
2 Tom Schreiner, for example, writes simply that this text teaches that “the gifts could last until Jesus returns” (emphasis added) but believes that arguments throughout the rest of the Bible leads us to conclude otherwise. See http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/why-i-am-a-cessationist/.