Confessions of a Soft Cessationist
Recently, I had a conversation with a Muslim-background Christian. He shared the story of his childhood in a Muslim village in a North African country. There were no Christians, there were no Bibles, there was no testimony to the gospel, and there had been no missionaries. He had a dream in which Jesus spoke to him and told him that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The dream did not lead to an immediate salvation response, but it led him to acquire a New Testament, and he began a journey that eventually led to his conversion and transformation. What would you say to this man? Here’s a Christian brother standing in front of you with a sweet testimony of a changed gospel-centered life, a brother in Christ who since his conversion received significant theological training, a servant of God now engaged as a leader in Muslim evangelism, and one who has paid a high price for betraying his ancestral religion and dishonoring his family. Of course, I had several questions for him. I suppose I was probing to better understand something that didn’t sit well with me and doesn’t fit into some of my theological boxes. There remains something of the cynic and skeptic in me. What I discovered was that the dream was a one-time occurrence, an event this man could not rationally explain and something he did not propose as normative in his evangelistic strategies. What do you make of his dream? You can deny it and say it never happened—which doesn’t mean it didn’t. Or can you thank the Lord that this man who was once lost is now found without needing to pontificate on why dreams and visions are no longer a valid mode in God’s outworking of His plan?
A reading of the book of Acts provides a stark reminder of the distance between the first-century world of the apostles in the early church and our own. The preaching of the gospel was often accompanied by apostolic “signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor. 12:12 ESV). There were instances of healings, of speaking in tongues, and even of raising people from the dead. The arrival of gospel-bearing messengers was also occasionally preceded by dreams and visions, most notably with Cornelius in Acts 10 and the Macedonian call in Acts 16:6-10 or by other supernatural interventions. One example is the earthquake in Philippi followed by the conversion of the jailer and his family (Acts 16:25ff). Surely some of these amazing events were programmatic in the progress of the gospel, in movement from the initial Jewish emphasis in order for the gospel to finally break out among the Gentiles in crossing ethnic, cultural, and religious barriers. The gospel went from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria, and then to the outermost reaches of the Roman Empire (Acts 1:8). With each new breakthrough there were miraculous accompaniments to the gospel as confirmation testimony, perhaps mostly to skeptical Jews, of the inclusive invitation and nature of the good news and the exclusive message of salvation in Christ alone (Acts 4:12).
Keep in mind that Jewish apostles and early Jewish believers experienced considerable difficulty in accepting the inclusion of Gentiles into the new community. God used a vision to enlarge Peter’s understandably truncated perspective in order that he might begin to envision the wideness of God’s gracious offer of salvation that included those outside the historical redemptive stream. Peter was familiar with the centripetal emphasis of the Old Testament where outsiders were brought into the national entity of Israel as the center of God’s redemptive plan. God had now directed a radical centrifugal movement where Jewish believers would move out from their nation and take the good news to Gentiles who would not need to embrace Judaism, and apart from certain proscriptions (Acts 15), Gentile believers did not need to submit themselves to Jewish practices and cultural scruples.
At certain times there were manifestations of tongues and the Holy Spirit descent, which were reminiscent of Pentecost. This is most clearly seen when the gospel arrived to the ethnically mixed Samaritans (Acts eight), God-fearing Gentiles (Acts 10), and disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19). Interspersed between these unique events are miracles that convincingly demonstrated the arrival of a new era, the inauguration of the reign of God in an already/not yet fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Truly a new age had dawned with evidential signs and wonders to herald the incipient arrival of new covenant realities. Thus, the discontinuity we observe between the age of Acts and the age in which we live may require little explanation. We further consider the paucity of similar events recorded in church history and conclude that dreams, visions, and other phenomenological wonders were limited to a few first-century decades. A number of reasons support this assertion.
We are told that the apostolic age was one of transition, a time when the New Testament writings were not yet complete. Now that we have the complete Word of God, we should no longer expect to see manifestations analogical to what took place in the book of Acts. Support for this view is found in several places. An appeal is made to “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Cor. 13:10) as a proof text for the cessation of Acts-type phenomena. Some would argue, and correctly so, for the scarcity and apparent diminution of supernatural activities as the first century ran its course. After all, Jesus performed His first miracle at Cana in transforming water into wine after thirty years of earthly existence. His miracle activity was concentrated in the three or so years of His public ministry. At the end of his ministry, Paul speaks about leaving Trophimus ill at Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20). The assumption is that Paul must have lost his gift of healing; otherwise he would have healed his co-worker. However perhaps it simply was not God’s will for Trophimus to be healed, and perhaps his condition had nothing to do with whether Paul had lost his God-given ability to heal.
A word of caution is in order. According to Schnabel, “The assertion that the miracle promotes faith and should thus be an integral part of the mission and evangelism of the church is neither confirmed by Paul, by Luke’s narrative of the apostles’ missionary work in the book of Acts, or by the history of the church.” 1 Many have erred in building whole movements on the expectation of the miraculous. The aberrations of the signs and wonders movement and the spiritual warfare movement reinforce opposition to any whiff of the spectacular. The condemnable extremes of experience-driven movements often lead to affirming a rigid cessationism and to relegating the miraculous to another age, no longer needed after a period of transition and the completion of Scriptures.
Can we find middle ground between extreme positions? Personally, if I have to categorize my view on the possibility of God’s supernatural interventions in the progress of the gospel, I would prefer to characterize myself as a “soft” cessationist—that is, open to the possibility that God may in fact use dreams and visions today. I must admit my reticence for many years, both dispositionally and dispensationally, to espouse this position. My theology—or better, my “theological environment”—did not allow for what seemed to be incontrovertible evidence that God freely chose at times to reveal Himself in Cornelius fashion to those who have no access to the gospel. Furthermore, I see no biblical warrant to not remain open to the possibility of God’s using dreams and visions if He so decides. As in the book of Acts, this act might be expected in unique pioneer situations or where there is no access to the gospel or no Scriptures in the vernacular. This does not lead to seeking visions and dreams as integral and common occurrences in mission. After all parsimony was the rule for dreams and visions in that God used them sparingly. Yet neither should the possibility of present-day dreams and visions be categorically and dogmatically denied because we don’t experience them. We should remain cautious and affirm the primacy of the cross and preaching while recognizing that God can break the rules, our rules, that He is not limited to our theological precisions, and that He cannot be manipulated.
It must be granted that our experience, along with tradition and reason, has a part in shaping or informing our theology. On one hand, experience has led me to a greater openness to what God might be doing in the world today. Not my personal experience, mind you, since I have had no visions or dreams that I can with certitude attribute to God and have no expectation of any. When the experience of others from primarily unreached regions does not contradict or violate Scripture, we must proceed cautiously yet proceed nonetheless. My concern is that we not deny that God can do “more abundantly than we could ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). I must admit that there is also the longing that it might be so, that God might be at work among those places and peoples the gospel has not yet reached, in those settings where gospel proclaimers are barred from entry, and where proclamation is prohibited. On the other hand, while experience may lead us to more openness to God using dreams and visions in light of all the accumulated accounts, and there are many, we should not see these experiences as an end in themselves. I do not propose naively and rashly accepting every dream and vision anecdote as genuine. I do not promote infatuation with the spectacular. However, we often wrestle with the tension between what we see, what we want to see, and what is real. In the authoritative Word “we have something more sure, the prophetic word” (2 Pet. 1:19) to which we must give our attention. The possibility of dreams and visions, a very real possibility in my opinion, must not distract us from our task to proclaim Christ and make Him known in every place. Yet we must not be fearful that God might work in ways which surprise us and perplex us at times.
The apostle Paul’s ambition as a pioneer evangelist was to preach “where Christ was not named” (Rom. 15:20), planting churches where the gospel had not previously been preached. Our pressing ambition should be to reach those regions where Christ is not yet named. Until we complete that task, perhaps we might hold in abeyance our refusal to allow God to work in ways we do not personally experience in our gospel-saturated culture. Perhaps we should pray that He would work in supernatural ways in those places where the name of Christ remains unknown, whether the cause of Christ not yet being known is a sluggish church or closed doors. As for me, I rejoice that God is at work, tirelessly accomplishing His purposes. And if He deigns to use dreams and visions, while neither seeking nor needing any for myself, where there is no gospel light, then I will bow and praise Him.
|Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He is also adjunct professor at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania. His views do not necessarily represent the position of Calvary Baptist Ministries.