Why I Am a Cessationist
January 22, 2014
I am not writing on this topic because I have the final answer on spiritual gifts, for the matter is difficult and Christians who love God and the Bible disagree. Readers should know that Sam Storms and I are friends. We love one another, even though we differ on a secondary or tertiary issue, while at the same time upholding the importance of truth. Over the years I’ve become convinced that some of the so-called charismatic gifts are no longer given and that they aren’t a regular feature of life in the church. I am thinking particularly of the the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, tongues, healing, and miracles (and perhaps discernment of spirits).
Why would anyone think that some of the gifts have been withdrawn? I will argue that such a reading fits best with Scripture and experience. Scripture takes priority over experience, for it is the final authority, but Scripture must also correlate with life, and our experiences should provoke us to re-examine afresh whether we’ve read the Bible rightly. None of us reads the Bible in a vacuum, and hence we must return to the Scriptures repeatedly to ensure we’ve read them faithfully.
Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets
Paul says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets” (Eph. 2:20). I conclude that all we need to know for salvation and sanctification has been given to us through the teaching of the apostles and prophets, and that this teaching is now found in the Scriptures. Now that God has spoken in the last days through his Son (Heb. 1:2), we don’t need further words from him to explain what Jesus Christ has accomplished in his ministry, death, and resurrection. Instead, we are “to contend for the faith that was delivered to the saints once for all” through the apostles and prophets (Jude 3).
To put it another way, we don’t have apostles like Paul and Peter and John anymore. They gave us the authoritative teaching by which the church continues to live to this day, and that is the only teaching we will need until Jesus returns. We know that new apostles won’t appear since Paul specifically says he was the last apostle (1 Cor. 15:8). And when James the brother of John died (Acts 12:2), he wasn’t replaced. Apostles, in the technical sense, are restricted to those who have seen the risen Lord and have been commissioned by him, and no one since apostolic times fits such criteria. The apostles were uniquely appointed for the early days of the church to establish orthodox doctrine. There is no warrant, then, for saying there are still apostles today. Indeed, if anyone claims to be an apostle today we should be concerned, for such a claim opens the door to false teaching and to abuse of authority.
If the gift of apostleship has ended, then other gifts may have ceased as well, since the foundation has been laid by the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). I conclude from this point that the gift of prophecy has ended also, for the prophets identified here are the same sort mentioned elsewhere (cf. 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 3:5; 4:11). The early churches didn’t have the complete canon of Scripture for some time, and hence an authoritative and infallible prophetic ministry was needed to lay the foundation for the church in those early days.
The most significant biblical argument against what I’m saying is the claim that New Testament (NT) prophecy differs from Old Testament (OT) prophecy, for some say OT prophecy is flawless but NT prophecy is mixed with error. But the idea that NT prophets could make mistakes isn’t persuasive for several reasons. 1.) The burden of proof is on those who say prophecy in the NT is of a different nature than prophecy in the OT. Prophets in the OT were only considered prophets of God if they were infallible (Deut. 18:15-22), and the same is almost certainly true in the NT. 2.) The admonition to judge prophecies instead of prophets (1 Cor. 14:29-32; 1 Thess. 5:19-20) is often adduced to show that the gift is different in the NT. But this argument is not convincing, for the only way to judge prophets in both Testaments is by their prophecies. We only know prophets aren’t from God if their prophecies are false or if their words contradict scriptural teaching. 3.) We have no example of a NT prophet who erred. Agabus didn’t make a mistake in prophesying that Paul would be bound by the Jews and handed over to the Romans (Acts 21:10-11). To say he erred demands more precision than prophecies warrant. Furthermore, after Paul was arrested he appealed to the words of Agabus, saying he was handed over to the Romans by the Jews (Acts 28:17), so it’s clear he didn’t think Agabus made a mistake. Agabus spoke the words of the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:28; 21:11), so we have no example in the NT of prophets whose prophecies were mixed with error.
Some object that my view of prophecy is off target since there were hundreds and thousands of prophecies in NT times that never made it into the canon. That objection doesn’t convince, however, for the same was true in the OT. Most of the prophecies of Elijah and Elisha were never written down or inscripturated. Or we can think of the 100 prophets spared by Obadiah (1 Kings 18:4). Apparently none of their prophecies was inscripurated. Nevertheless, the prophecies were all completely true and unmixed with error, for otherwise they wouldn’t have been prophets (Deut. 18:15-22). The same principle applies to the prophecies of NT prophets. Their words aren’t recorded for us, but if they were truly prophets then their words were infallible.
What some people today call “prophecies” are actually impressions from God. He can use impressions to guide and lead us, but they aren’t infallible and must always be tested by Scripture. We should also consult with wise counselors before acting on such impressions. I love my charismatic brothers and sisters, but what they call “prophecy” today isn’t actually the biblical gift of prophecy. God-given impressions aren’t the same thing as prophecies.
What About Tongues?
The gift of tongues is a more difficult issue. In Acts (2:1-4; 10:44-48; 19:1-7) this gift signifies that the age of fulfillment has arrived where God’s covenant promises are being realized. First Corinthians 14:1-5 and Acts 2:17-18 also suggest that interpreted (or understood) tongues are equivalent to prophecy. It seems, then, that prophecy and tongues are closely related. If prophecy has passed away, then tongues have likely ended as well. Further, it’s clear from Acts that the gift involves speaking in foreign languages (Acts 2), and Peter emphasizes in the case of Cornelius and his friends that the Gentiles received the same gift as the Jews (Acts 11:16-17).
Nor is it persuasive to say the gift in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is of a different nature (i.e., ecstatic utterances). The word tongues (glōssa) denotes a linguistic code, a structured language, not random and free vocalization. When Paul says no one understands those speaking in tongues because they utter mysteries (1 Cor. 14:2), he isn’t suggesting that the gift is different from what we find in Acts. Those hearing the tongues in Acts understood what was being said because they knew the languages the apostles were speaking. If no one knows the language, then the tongue speaker utters mysteries. Nor does 1 Corinthians 13:1 (tongues of angels) support the notion that the gift of tongues consists of ecstatic utterances. Paul engages in hyperbole in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. He’s clearly exaggerating when referring to the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 13:2), for no one who prophesies knows “all mysteries and all knowledge.”
I believe what’s happening in charismatic circles today regarding tongues is similar to what we saw with prophecy. The gift is redefined to include free vocalization, and then people claim to have the gift described in Scripture. In doing so they redefine the gift to accommodate contemporary experience. So are contemporary tongues demonic, then? I don’t think so. I agree with J. I. Packer that the experience is more a form of psychological relaxation.
Miracles and Healings
What about miracles and healings? First, I believe God still heals and does miraculous things today, and we should pray for such. Scripture isn’t as clear on this matter, and thus these gifts could exist today. Still, the primary function of these gifts was to accredit the gospel message, confirming that Jesus was both Lord and Christ. I doubt the gift of miracles and healings exists today, for it isn’t evident that men and women in our churches have such gifts. Certainly God can and does heal at times, but where are the people with these gifts? Claims for miracles and healings must be verified, just as the people verified the blind man’s healing in John 9. There is a kind of biblically warranted skepticism.
Now, could God in cutting-edge missionary situations grant miracles and signs and wonders to accredit the gospel as he did in apostolic times? Yes. But that’s not the same thing as having these gifts as a regular feature in the ongoing life of the church. If the signs and wonders of the apostles have returned, we should see the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, and the dead being raised. God heals today (sometimes dramatically), but the healing of colds, the flu, TMJ, stomach, and back problems, and so forth aren’t in the same category as the healings found in the Scriptures. If people truly have the gift of healing and miracles today, they need to demonstrate such by performing the kinds of healings and miracles found in the Bible.
Doesn’t 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 Contradict Your View?
Let’s consider an objection to the notion that some of the gifts have ceased. Doesn’t 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 teach that the gifts last until Jesus comes again? Certainly this text teaches that the gifts could last until Jesus returns. There’s no definitive teaching in the Bible that they’ve ceased. We might even expect them to last until the second coming. But we see hints from Ephesians 2:20 and other texts that the gifts played a foundational role. I conclude, then, that 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 permits but doesn’t require the gifts to continue until the second coming. And the gifts as they are practiced today don’t fit with the biblical description of these gifts.
For reasons like these the Reformers and most of the Protestant tradition until the 20th century believed the gifts had ceased. I conclude that both Scripture and experience verify their judgment on the matter.
Thomas Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison professor of New Testament interpretation and associate dean for Scripture and interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. This was posted on the GOSPEL COALITION website.