Sun, Sep 09, 2018
An Argument the Gifts Have Ceased - and a Response
by Lee Tankersley
Series: Holy Spirit, Church, and Last Things (Systematic Theology 4)

This morning I want to start looking at spiritual gifts.  Now, in saying that I’m admittedly not spending time focusing on the person of the Holy Spirit but his work.  And there is a reason why that’s the case. The Scripture tell us that the Spirit’s role is to glorify the Son. In fact, Jesus says explicitly in John 16:14, “He will glorify me.”  J. I. Packer has compared the ministry of the Holy Spirit to floodlights that shine on a house. His role is to shine light on and magnify the Son.1


Therefore, we could go the route of saying, “Let’s focus on the work of the Spirit, and that way we’ll learn who he is by learning what he has done and is doing.”  That, in fact, has been the way that theologians have typically approached the doctrine of the Holy Spirit by talking about the doctrine of salvation.  Therefore, we talk about regeneration, sanctification, and the like, and that teaches us what the Holy Spirit does. And I think that would indeed be appropriate, but we have a class that focuses on the doctrine of salvation.  Therefore, I want to us these next few weeks speaking of something we don’t focus on in our other classes, namely, the gifts of the spirit.


So, the next three weeks of this class could perhaps be looked at as one three-part lesson because these three lessons were conceived in my mind as one argument.  In looking at this issue, what I don’t want is for there to be division concerning this topic of spiritual gifts. But I know that there may perhaps be disagreement particularly on the issue of whether or not certain gifts like those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 were still around.  There are many men whom I admire, respect, and have learned from who argue that those gifts (such as prophecy, a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, etc.) ceased sometime toward the end of the apostles’ lifetime or shortly thereafter in the church so that commands like 1 Corinthians 14:1, which says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” are not binding commands on us today because these gifts have gone away.  This camp is typically referred to as “cessationists” because they argue the gifts have ceased.


On the other hand, I know that there were others, like myself, who believe that the gifts have not ceased, continue to this day, and that we are bound therefore to obey commands like 1 Corinthians 14:1.  This group is typically referred to as “continuationists” because they argue that the gifts continue to the present day.


So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to try to convince everyone to join me in becoming a continuationist.  I'm going to do that by taking one Sunday to try to answer arguments that the gifts have ceased (I’m going to do that today).  Then, I’m going to take another Sunday to make some arguments that the gifts continue (I’ll do that next Sunday). Finally, in case I haven’t convinced everyone to become continuationists (which will be perfectly fine if I haven’t), I’m going to take another Sunday to show what I think both groups (continuationists and cessationists) can agree on, how we can walk forward together, and why I think both groups need to give care to how we might obey a text like 1 Corinthians 14:1.  


Therefore, this Sunday is phase one of my three-week plan.  So, I’m going to spend our time together today trying to lay out why people argue that the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 have ceased and then trying to answer those arguments.  


A Case for the Cessation of the Gifts


Though there might be several variations of arguments saying that the gifts have ceased, I will simply mention two that I have come across.  Both of these arguments claim that the more miraculous gifts were given as signs to attest to the revelation received by and communicated through the apostles.  Thus, when Paul wrote to the Corinthians to defend his apostleship, he referenced the miraculous signs done through him, writing, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Corinthians 12:12).  


Therefore, as the apostles were writing down Scripture, God attested to them through signs and wonders and mighty works even as he attested to his Son with miracles.  We will look into this a bit more, but let me press on a bit from there for a second because the first of these arguments then tries to base this claim in a section of Scripture that I want to investigate before we come the second of these arguments in which we will look more at the claim that the more miraculous works were to testify to the apostles.


The First Argument for Cessationism  


The first of these arguments for the cessation of the more miraculous gifts claims that the gifts ceased with the closing of the canon as the Scriptures were completed.  This argument is drawn from 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. In this text Paul writes: “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.  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.”


Therefore, the argument goes as follows:  Paul, showing the enduring nature of love, contrasts it with some of the more miraculous gifts which were not to endure through time.  Rather, they were meant to authenticate the apostles who were writing Scripture. Therefore he writes, “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” giving us not an exhaustive list of the more miraculous gifts but a sample that represents the whole (e.g., he could have also included the working of miracles and gifts of healings).  Then Paul notes that these things will pass away “when the perfect comes.”


So, knowing that the miraculous gifts attested to the fact that one was an apostle so that the church would recognize their authority in writing down Scripture, we should understand the perfect to be the canon of Scripture, when it is closed to be opened no more.  In fact, Paul confirms this, pointing out that now we only understand “part” of the picture, but once we have the perfect (i.e., the totality of the Scripture) we will see clearly God’s truth and know fully. Therefore, when the Scripture was finally completed and the canon closed, these miraculous gifts passed away since God no longer needed to attest to anyone writing his inspired and inerrant Word.  


Answering the First Argument


Though the argument makes logical sense, the problem is in the text itself.  The issue we must look at more closely is whether or not “the perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 really is the closing of the canon, the completion of Scripture.  First, we must acknowledge that Paul does indeed say that there will be a time when prophecies and tongues (and we’ll assume the other gifts as well) will cease. They clearly are not meant to last forever, and they will most definitely pass away “when the perfect comes.”  And if it is true that the “perfect” is something that has already come, then this is a clear statement that the gifts have ceased and the argument is settled. However, if we can show that the “perfect” is something that has not yet occurred, then the argument for the cessation of the gifts (at least in as much as it is rooted in this text) must be ignored.  So, what then is the “perfect”?


There are basically three reasons why I believe we must argue that the “perfect” is not the completion of the canon but is rather the return of Christ.  The first of these is that Paul writes that when the perfect comes he will see [the Lord] face to face and will know fully, “even as I have been fully known.”  Though the Scripture is a great blessing, these claims are more than we can make with the completion of the canon. Surely no one could right now claim to see the Lord “face to face” or to know fully even as we are “fully known” by God.  Rather, these are realities that will only come with the return of Christ.


The second reason we must dismiss the notion that the perfect is the completion of the canon and rather see it as the return of Christ is that Paul’s argument is that love lasts forever.  It is believed that the final words of Scripture were written sometime around A.D. 95. And Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around A.D. 55. Consequently, for Paul to use such an example would be shooting himself in the foot in establishing his thesis that loves lasts forever.  He would then state his argument as follows, “Love lasts forever. In fact it lasts longer than forty years.” Such would be like a man bragging about his intellect by saying he has gained more knowledge than a child in kindergarten. It is a weak argument to say the least.  However, if he is speaking of the return of Christ then his argument would be that love lasts even beyond that which will bring an end to this present age.


Finally, we must dismiss the notion that the perfect means the closing of Scripture because it is simply hard to imagine Paul’s readers would have understood that.  It might make sense to us, but it is hard to imagine that Paul’s readers would have had an understanding of the completion of the writing of Scripture by Paul’s use of “perfect.”  What they would have easily understood, however, is the return of Christ, when all things are made perfect. Therefore, I think we must dismiss the first argument for the cessation of the gifts rooted in 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, and, frankly, most present-day cessationists now agree that this is a weak argument and poor understanding of the text.  But there is another multi-part argument that is made, and I will now turn to it.


A Second Argument


The second argument I will mention claiming that the more miraculous gifts or manifestations of the Spirit ceased with the apostles comes from Sinclair Ferguson.2  Ferguson’s first point is that throughout a greater part of the church’s history the more miraculous gifts or manifestations of the Spirit disappeared, and there is “no good theological argument” for their disappearance.  Thus, he claims that the weight of proof is not on those who say they ceased but rather on those who in the face of evidence that they ceased claim they have continued.


Second, Ferguson notes that those who assume that the gifts would continue after the apostolic age seem to think that such miraculous gifts are normative in Scripture, while they are not.  That is, if the argument is made, “We should assume the gifts should continue because this is the way that God worked in the church in the Bible” then the individual should note that this is a way that God worked quite sparingly in the Bible.  In fact, it appears he worked this way when bringing about revelation, whether through the prophets or the apostles. Therefore, seeing that God sparingly worked this way and did so when revelation was given, we should assume that without continuing revelation (which is not needed with the closing of the canon of Scripture) we should assume their cessation.  


Third, Ferguson points again to the fact that the gifts and manifestations of the Spirit functioned to attest to genuine apostolic ministry.  Paul, in defending his apostleship to the Corinthians wrote, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Corinthians 12:12).  In addition, when Paul writes of how God attested to the message of salvation brought by the apostles, he writes in Hebrews 2:3-4, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? 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.”  Therefore, at least two texts show that some gifts and manifestations of the Spirit were to attest to the apostolic ministry. Consequently, even though we are in the last days, we are in the post-apostolic last days. There are no more men who are eye-witnesses of the resurrected Christ writing Scripture, therefore there is no need for God to attest to them in powerful manifestations of the Spirit. Therefore, we should assume they have ceased.   


Finally, though Ferguson doesn’t argue this specifically (but many other cessationists do), I will add that an argument can be made that if you have something like the gift of prophecy continuing today, then it is a threat to the full and final revelation of God given in Scripture.  That is, if God has spoken clearly in the Bible so that it is sufficient for what we need in pertaining to salvation, life, and godliness, then we should assume that God isn’t speaking or revealing or whatever word you want to use any more because we simply don’t need him to since we have the Scripture.  Moreover, if someone does have a word of prophecy from God, then shouldn’t we write it down in the Bible like God did Isaiah’s words? Obviously we know better than ever to do that, but if this is what a continuing gift of prophecy demands, then we should understand that obviously prophecy has ceased.


Answering the Second Argument


I want to answer each part of this second argument.  So, let me first start by dealing with the claim that the gifts or powerful manifestations of the Spirit have been absent for much of the church’s history.  First, Craig Blomberg points out in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology that the gifts did not begin to diminish until the third century, well past the apostolic period.  So, if someone is pointing to the diminishing of the gifts as part of their argument and the fact that the gifts merely functioned to attest to the apostles as part of their argument, then it seems difficult to hold these two pieces together.


Also, it should be noted that there can be many reasons why negative things take place in church history.  Blomberg mentions one reason, noting that the diminishing of the gifts can be traced to the over-institutionalization of the church overreacting to the presence of the gifts in heretical circles.3  D. A. Carson agrees.  Carson has argued that when certain groups within the church started abusing spiritual gifts, perhaps even claiming that prophetic words they had were binding on the whole church, that would obviously give prophecy a bad name, and many in the church would no doubt want to distance themselves from the gift altogether.4  We’ve seen this same thing happen in many areas in the church.  We’ve seen the church move from common weekly communion so it appears in Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 11 to that being very uncommon, no doubt because of abuses concerning what the Lord Supper is and what it does.  We’ve seen a strong understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation diminish over the years in Baptist churches until it was scarcely found, no doubt due to a spirit of hyper-Calvinism that took root in Baptist churches in centuries prior.  And we could name more, such as church discipline. But suffice it to say that the church has many times rather gone without certain things than risk being associated with those who were abusing those things, even to the point that certain good things were absent in the church altogether.


Therefore, we should recognize that church history does not necessary indicate theological truth.  For the most part the gospel itself was “lost” for years until the Reformation and we as Baptists would argue that though as early as the second or third century infants were being baptized, this was an aberration from the Scripture and has been recovered in the baptism of believers alone only after the Reformation.


Going back to spiritual gifts specifically, Blomberg does note that no age in the church’s history has been without the gifts and manifestations of the Spirit, even if they were sparse.  Indeed, we can assume that much happened in the church that was not recorded. Therefore, though there is no theological argument for why the gifts would cease, history shows that the practice of the church has been able to miss much truth and practice because of a disobedience to the Word and perhaps a reaction to others’ abuses.  


To the point that the more miraculous gifts and manifestations of the Spirit were not normative in Scripture, that doesn’t seem to be a weighty argument.  First, to make the leap from the fact that miraculous spiritual gifts or manifestations of the Spirit weren’t normative to the idea that they must have ceased is simply too great a leap.  But Ferguson is quite saying that, I don’t think. Rather, he’s stressing that if the gifts were never a part of normal, everyday life in the times when the Bible was being written, then neither are they now.  


And I think that we can perhaps agree that the more miraculous gifts of the Spirit may not have been normative in the sense that in the New Testament we shouldn’t imagine that people were waiting for a brother to have a word of prophecy before they ever made a decision.  Of course not. But, on the other hand, it’s hard to read 1 Corinthians and think that Paul expected the Corinthians to rarely be gifted by the Spirit so that they might edify one another. In fact, it seems that he fully expected it. But in the end, I don’t think the regularity of the gifts have much bearing on whether or not they’ve ceased.  


Next, though indeed powerful gifts and manifestations of the Spirit indeed attested to the apostles, it wasn’t the sign that attested to them as if there was nothing else.  Paul does mention the powerful working of the Spirit as a sign, verifying his apostleship, but that is not all his mentions in 2 Corinthians. Paul mentions many other reasons throughout the epistles to the Corinthians verifying his apostleship.  Surely if miraculous giftings were the sign of apostleship then Paul could have mentioned that one and quit.5  Second, the miraculous workings of signs and wonders came through the hands of many others who were not apostles.  In chapter 6 and 8 of Acts Stephen and Phillip are both mentioned performing miraculous signs, but neither of these are of the twelve.  Also, the seventy were sent out to heal the sick, however, the seventy working miracles were not of the twelve. Then one may consider the Corinthians.  Paul writes of the gifts given to them in chapter 12 and lists such miraculous gifts as gifts of healing, working of miracles, various kinds of tongues, and prophecy; but the Corinthians were definitely not all apostles.  Therefore, though the powerful gifts and manifestations of the Spirit indeed attested to the apostles, they were some of many attestations and, therefore, we should not conclude that since the apostles are not around so neither are any more gifts or manifestations of the Spirit of a more powerful manner.  Again, Paul never suggests that the Corinthians shouldn’t have these gifts because they’re apostles. Rather, he thanks God that the church at Corinth is not lacking any gift (1 Cor. 1:1-9).


With that said, I don’t think there’s any problem noting that the apostles were gifted or experienced God’s blessings in a way that most believers don’t.  Paul raised a man from the dead, and I have no problem saying that that’s an extraordinary gifting. Peter preached and 3,000 believed, and another time he preached and 5,000 believed.  That’s pretty extraordinary. But just as we can’t say that we shouldn’t evangelize today because the nature of our evangelism doesn’t seem as extraordinary as Peter’s so, I’d say that we shouldn’t ignore spiritual gifts simply because they may not be as extraordinary in manner or power as those experienced by the apostles.  


Finally, the idea that suggesting the gift of prophecy is still around does not threaten the full and final revelation given to us in the Bible.  Prophecy as listed in 1 Cor. 12-14 is simply not the kind of prophecy that Isaiah and Jeremiah were operating with. If Isaiah or Jeremiah prophesied, it was equivalent to Scripture.  Surely, if that were the only kind of prophecy around, then Paul wouldn’t be longing for all the Corinthians to prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1). So, there must be a gift of prophecy that is different from that of Isaiah or Jeremiah, and I think there is (as we’ll discuss in a few weeks).  


Therefore, in the end, I do not find the arguments that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased convincing.  I think the objections can be answered. However, I am not a continuationist merely because I do not find cessationists’ arguments convincing.  I also think that the Bible actually gives us plenty of good reason to believe that the gifts were meant to characterize this entire age until the Lord returns.  This is something we’ll look at next week.


1  J. I. Packer, Keeping in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 57.

2  The following argument is made in The Holy Spirit (Downers Grove:  IVP, 1996), 223-237.

3  Craig Bloomber, EDBT, 348-51.

4  D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit, 167-68

5  John Piper suggests that there are eight evidences that Paul uses to verify his apostleship in “Signs and wonders and “the Signs of an Apostle” The Standard, November, 1991.