So far in this study of cessationism (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), we have considered the what question and the when question. Per the what question, cessationists conclude that what took place in the New Testament (with regard to the miraculous gifts) is not happening in the church today—even if charismatics are using biblical terminology to refer to non-biblical practices.
Per the when question, cessationists conclude (on the basis of passages like Ephesians 2:20) that the miraculous and revelatory gifts were intended only for the foundational (apostolic) age of the church. Thus, they should not be expected to continue after the time of the apostles.
But this raises the why question: Why were these gifts given, such that they are no longer necessary after the foundation age ended?
At least three purposes are designated in Scripture.
Purpose 1: a sign.
The miraculous gifts were given as a sign by which God authenticated His messengers during a time of transition from Israel to the church. That purpose was no longer necessary once the transition was complete and the church was firmly established.
A primary purpose of the miracles and healings that Jesus performed was as a sign to authenticate his claims (cf. John 2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:54; 6:2, 14; 7:31; 10:37–38; 12:37; 20:30). As Peter told the Jews at Pentecost: “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22).
The disciples were given power by Christ to perform similar signs (cf. Matt. 10:1, 7; Mark 6:12–13; 16:20). The record of Acts depicts the apostles performing miracles and healings as signs that authenticated their message (cf. Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6, 13; 14:3; 15:12).
Extraordinary experiences were shared by ordinary, Gentile converts (like Cornelius in Acts 10). This was also a sign that God was working through the church. Thus, Paul can tell the Corinthians that their ability to speak in tongues was a sign to the unbelieving world (1 Cor. 14:22). He then quotes from Isaiah 28:11, indicating that it was specifically a sign of God’s judgment against unbelieving Israel.
Paul describes his evangelistic ministry to the Gentiles as being authenticated by “signs and wonders” (Romans 15:19). In 2 Corinthians 12:12, Paul defends his apostleship by noting that his ministry was characterized by the signs of an apostle. He told the Corinthians, “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles.”
Finally, in Hebrews 2:3–4, the link between the sign gifts and God’s authentication is made overtly clear: “How will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.”
At other select times in redemptive history, God used miraculous gifts (such as miracle-working and healing) to authenticate His messengers (e.g. the Exodus and the lifetimes of Elijah and Elisha). This was also true during the time period of the apostolic age. But it has not continued to be true throughout church history.
Purpose 2: revelation.
The revelatory gifts were given in order to give additional revelation to the church. That purpose ceased to be necessary once the canon was completed.
By definition, the written Word of God consists of that which God has revealed through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As Peter wrote in 2 Peter 1:20–21, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation [creation or origination], for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
In the Old Testament, God’s Word was revealed through His prophets. In the New Testament, God’s Word was revealed through His Son (Jesus Christ). The author of Hebrews explains it this way: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Hebrews 1:1–2).
The Lord Jesus promised that He would give additional revelation to His church through His authorized representatives—namely, the apostles (John 14:23–26; 16:12–15). By extension, additional revelation would also come to the church through New Testament prophets who operated under the authority of the Apostles.
The apostles, therefore, rightly recognized their own inspired writings as being part of the biblical canon, on par with the books of the Old Testament (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Peter 3:15–16). New Testament prophecy had to be measured against apostolic teaching (cf. Rom. 12:6 where it is best translated “the faith”; 1 Thess. 5:20–22; compare 1 Cor. 14:29 with Acts 17:11). The danger of false prophets was a constant reality in the first century church.
Now that the New Testament canon is complete, there is no longer a need for prophetic revelation in the church today. Moreover, now that the apostles have passed off the scene, it would be impossible to authenticate modern-day prophecies as actually being from God. As Richard Gaffin explains:
Many continuationists are in fact cessationists, in that they recognize there are no apostles today. That reflects an appreciation of the unique authority of the apostles and the tie between that authority and the authority and (closed) canonicity of the New Testament. That awareness, in turn, implies the legitimacy of distinguishing between an apostolic and postapostolic era of church history, or what parallels it, between an open and closed canon period.
Everyone who accepts this distinction has to think through its ramifications. A flat “all the gifts are for today” will not do (and in fact is not the position of many continuationists). But what is the connection between gifts like prophecy and the presence of apostles? Is it coherent exegetically and theologically to maintain, on the one hand, the cessation of the revelatory word gift of apostleship (for surely it was primarily that, cf. Gal. 1:11 – 12; 1 Thess. 2:13) and, on the other, the continuation of the prophetic gifts? Would not such continuation take us back to the open canon situation of the early church, and do so without the control of a living apostolate? (Richard Gaffin, “A Cessationist View,” Four Views of the Miraculous Gifts, 45).
Purpose 3: edification.
A secondary purpose of both the miraculous and revelatory gifts was that they provided a means by which to edify others in the church. This is still a purpose of the spiritual gifts, but it does not necessitate the continuation of the foundational gifts (e.g. the miraculous sign gifts and revelatory gifts).
The exercise of sign gifts (like healing) and revelatory gifts (like prophecy) naturally brought benefits to other people, even if that was not the only purpose of the gift. It should not surprise us then that, even though a primary purpose of the gifts was to provide both divine authentication and additional revelation for the establishment of the church, these gifts also provided benefit for other believers.
The gifts were not to be used selfishly. But they were to contribute to the mutual edification of the body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12:7 Paul states that, “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This is consistent with Ephesians 4:11–12 in which the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are given by Christ so that the body might be edified.
Importantly, the fact that both the miraculous sign gifts (such as healing) and the revelatory gifts (such as prophecy and tongues) were to be used for edification within the local church congregation does not negate the other purposes for which these gifts were given. For example, in the midst of instructing the Corinthians to translate tongues so that the congregation can be edified—Paul states that the overarching purpose of the tongues gift is as a sign to unbelievers (14:22).
Thus, in an age when all the gifts were active, all the gifts were to be used for the edification of others. Today, at a time when only some of the gifts remain, those remaining gifts are still to be used for building up one another in the body of Christ.
At the same time, the church today is still edified through the miraculous and revelatory gifts that characterized the apostolic age. Every time we pick up a Bible, we are benefiting from the prophetic gifts that characterized their apostolic ministries. The fact that God authenticated their message with signs and wonders only increases our confidence in their message.
Thus, continuing edification in the church is not dependent on the continuation of the miraculous sign gifts or the revelatory gifts. The apostolic age has ended and the canon is complete. Yet, through the apostolic witness of Scripture and the leading work of the Holy Spirit, believers continue to build up one another in the church—building on the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets—as they seek to glorify the Head, Jesus Christ.
Finally, it should be noted that when continuationists argue for self-edification in their practice of contemporary gifts (like the gift of tongues), they are actually violating this purpose of the gifts. As Thomas Edgar observes:
Why did God give gifts to his people? The gifts mentioned in Mark 16:17–20 are signs that accompany the preaching of the gospel to the world. Romans 12:6–8 discusses the gifts as ministries to be exercised. First Corinthians 14:22 specifically states that tongues are given for the purpose of a sign to unbelievers. … First Corinthians 12:7 states that “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.” The construction here and in 14:22 (eis with the accusative) indicates the desired end or purpose for giving the gifts. The purpose is for profit. It is evident from the remainder of the chapter [and also 1 Corinthians 13–14] that this profit is to be profit for the others. … Ephesians 4:11–12 states that people with their God-given gifts are to minister to the church in order to build it to maturity. … First Peter 4:10 specifically states that “as every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold gift of God.” This is a specific plea to use the gift to minister to others. To be good stewards of the gift, it must be used to help others as God intended when he gave them to us.
The entire New Testament describes spiritual gifts as being used to minister to others. In no instance does it state that gifts were to be used for personal benefit. The nature of the gifts themselves indicates that they are given to enable the recipient to minister to others. For example, the gift of teacher is given to teach others, and the gift of helps is given to help others. Spiritual gifts are given by God in order to enable the one who has the gift to minister to others. Some gifts focus on ministry to unbelievers, while other gifts focus on ministry to believers. God did not give any gift merely to benefit the recipient of the gift (Thomas Edgar, Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, 39–40).
In this series, we have attempted to simplify the contemporary controversy regarding the charismatic gifts by reducing it down to three basic questions.
- What: What were the gifts in the New Testament? Are those same phenomena occurring in the church today? If one answers no to that second question, he is a de facto cessationist.
- When: If the New Testament gifts are not happening today, when did they cease? Passages like Ephesians 2:20 help us see that the miraculous and revelatory gifts were given specifically for the foundational, apostolic age of the church. Once that era ended those gifts were no longer needed.
- Why: If the miraculous gifts ceased shortly after the apostolic age, why did they cease? When one considers the reason the miraculous sign gifts and revelatory gifts were given, it becomes evident that those purposes were fulfilled during the foundational age of the church.
We close with a helpful quote from Richard Gaffin:
A dilemma confronts noncessationists. If prophecy and tongues (as they function in the New Testament) continue today, then the noncessationist is faced with the quite practical and troublesome implication that Scripture alone is not a sufficient verbal revelation from God. At best, the canon is relatively closed. Alternatively, if—as most noncessationists insist— ‘prophecy’ and ‘tongues’ today are not revelatory or are less than fully revelatory, then these contemporary phenomena are misnamed. They are something other than the gifts of prophecy and tongues that we find in the New Testament.
Noncessationists are caught in a redemptive-historical anachronism. They are seeking within the superstructure-building phase of the church’s history that which belonged to its foundation-laying phase. They are involved in the contradictory effort of trying to maintain that the New Testament canon is complete and closed and yet at the same time that the revelatory gifts for the open canon period—gifts for when the New Testament documents were still being written—continue.
But God’s Word lifts us out of this dilemma. It shows us that by God’s wise and gracious design, prophecy and tongues have completed their task and have ceased. What remains, supremely and solely sufficient and authoritative until Jesus comes, is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture. (Gaffin, “What About Prophecy and Tongues Today?”)
Nathan Busenitz has served in teaching roles at The Master’s College or The Master’s Seminary since 2000. Since 2009, he has served full time as an instructor of theology at the seminary. Prior to ‘09, Nathan served on the staff of Grace Community Church, and as managing editor of Pulpit magazine. He is also the author of The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism.