This article (part 6 in the series) posted at Sharper Iron in 2019. Read the series.
We have argued that Scripture-quality revelation has ceased with the completion of the New Testament canon.1 Moreover, we’ve attempted to demonstrate that New Testament prophecy and tongues are forms of Scripture-quality special revelation.2 Consequently, Christians should not expect the revelatory gifts of tongues and prophecy today. This is the essence of the cessationist argument. Before we conclude our study, however, I’d like to respond to four objections that are commonly raised against the cessationist position (see below). Then will examine two or three passages to which those who advocate for the continuation of revelatory gifts frequently appeal.
Objection #1: The Bible Doesn’t Forbid Prophecy
The Bible commands the church neither to despise the prophetic utterance nor to forbid speaking in tongues, which is a form of prophecy (1 Thess. 5:20; 1 Cor. 14:39). Does not the abiding validity of these commands assume that tongues and prophecy will be an ongoing practice in the church?
Not necessarily. Some commands, prohibitions, promises, and institutions are unique to the period of redemptive history in which they occur. For example, God forbids his people to eat pork in Leviticus 11:7. But that prohibition was annulled with the coming of the New Covenant according to Acts 10:13-15. In the OT God commanded His people to circumcise their male children as a sign of the covenant (Gen 17:10). But according to Galatians 5:6 and 6:15, that commandment is no longer binding.
In Matthew 10:5-6 Jesus commissions his disciples to preach the gospel exclusively to the lost sheep of Israel. But the provisional nature of that command is seen in Jesus’ post-resurrection commission to preach the gospel to “all nations” (Matt 28:19). In His Farewell Discourse, Jesus promises the disciples that the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth (John 16:13). I believe a proper interpretation of this passage, however, sees it as a unique promise of inspiration made to His original disciples, which does not apply in the same way to subsequent generations of disciples. According to Ephesians 4:11, Christ gives ministerial gifts to the church, including apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. But, as we have seen in our study, Ephesians 2:20 assigns at least two of those ministerial gifts—the apostles and the prophets—to the foundational period of the Christian church.
Thus, it may be argued that the commands not to despise or forbid prophecy and tongues were specifically intended for the early church period of redemptive history. Of course, this does not mean that these commands no longer have application today (2 Tim. 3:16). The Bible warns us not to despise apostolic instruction (1 Cor. 14:37, 38). We do not infer from this command that there must be living apostles present throughout the entire church age. Yet we still apply that command today in the sense that it teaches us not to despise the Scripture. In the same way, we may use the passages dealing with tongues and prophecy to encourage a proper attitude towards the Scripture. We may also use them in a qualified way to encourage a proper response towards the faithful proclamation of Scripture.3
Objection #2: False Prophets Assume True Ones
The Bible warns us against “false prophets” in the last days (Matt. 7:15ff; 24:11, 24; 1 John 4:1). Do not these warnings assume the ongoing presence of true prophets in the last days?
Once again, these warnings may be unique to the period of redemptive history in which they were given. Furthermore, the presence of false prophets does not demand the ongoing reality of true prophets any more than presence of “false apostles” in the last days (2 Cor. 11:13; Rev. 2:2) necessitates the ongoing presence of true apostles. Indeed, Jesus warns us of “false Christs” and the Apostle John warns us of “antichrists” who will appear in the last days (Matt. 24:24; 1 John 2:18). But the potential threat of false “Messiahs” in our day does not necessitate the ongoing bodily presence of the Lord Jesus in our day! Similarly, warnings against false prophets do not have to assume the ongoing presence of true prophets in our day.
Objection #3: Let’s Not Put God in a Box
By discounting the possibility of ongoing tongues and prophecy, are we not guilty of putting God in a box? Are we not limiting God’s sovereign right and ability?
This charge can be either alarming or insulting to a Calvinist who is committed to the absolute sovereignty of God. We don’t like to be accused of “putting God in a box.” But, in reality, the cessationist is not attempting to put God in a box. On the contrary, the cessation argues that God has placed Himself within a box.4 In other words, God has already revealed some of the things He will and will not do. The Children’s Catechism asks: “Can God do all things?” The answer: “Yes, God does all His holy will.” The implication is that God will not do what falls outside of his holy will. There are certain things God cannot do (Titus 1:2) and other things God simply will not do because He has chosen not to do them.
As a practical example consider the promise of Hebrews 9:29. This text assures us that Jesus Christ will appear a “second time for salvation to those who eagerly await Him.” Would we be putting God in a box by arguing that Jesus will not return until the end of the age and that we should not expect His ongoing bodily presence throughout the church age? Would it be putting God in a box to argue that Jesus cannot have ten bodily “second” comings but only two? Of course not!
We believe on the basis of God’s prior revelation in Scripture that Jesus will not return again until the end of the age. Furthermore, we believe on the basis of Scripture that tongues and prophecy served a vital purpose in the early church but they are no longer necessary for the church today. We don’t believe that’s a box we’ve created. Rather, we believe that is the way God Himself has chosen to work. In that sense, God has placed Himself in a box!5
Objection #4: Beware of Blaspheming the Spirit!
By rejecting all claims of ongoing tongues and prophecy, are we not running the risk of “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,” which is the unpardonable sin (Matt. 12:31, 32)?
Admittedly, this objection causes the sensitive Christian to think twice. No one who loves Jesus Christ and who desires to please God would ever want to attribute a work of God to the devil. Nevertheless, there are two responses to this objection:
1. This objection is a two-edged sword.
It may also be argued that by endorsing and encouraging the modern practice of tongues and prophecy one might be guilty of giving heed to false and seducing spirits (1 Tim. 4:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 16:13-14). And the Bible warns us against adding to God’s word just as strongly as it warns us against subtracting from God’s word (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18-19).
I’m not suggesting that we accuse all continuationists of “adding” to Scripture. Nor am I suggesting that we label all claims of ongoing tongues and prophecy as demonic. We should be as charitable and fair as possible. But I would also encourage non-cessationist brothers to be as charitable as possible with us. Both sides need to be careful how we apply those warnings.
In reality, I find it hard to believe that the cessationist position is displeasing to God when some of the greatest revivals in church history have occurred under the ministry of cessationists. For example, God used the preaching and writing of Jonathan Edwards in the revivals of the Great Awakening.6 Some of Edwards’ contemporaries believed in a restoration of the gifts just prior to the Lord’s return. But Edwards disagreed. In his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, he concludes, “Since the canon of the Scripture has been completed, the Christian Church fully founded and established, these extraordinary gifts have ceased.”7 Elsewhere he writes,
Therefore I do not expect a restoration of these miraculous gifts in the approaching glorious times of the church, nor do I desire it. It appears to me, that it would add nothing to the glory of those times [of future revival], but rather diminish from it. For my part, I had rather enjoy the sweet influences of the Spirit, showing Christ’s spiritual beauty, infinite grace, and dying love, drawing forth the holy exercises of faith, divine love, sweet complacence, and humble joy in God, one quarter hour, than to have prophetical visions and revelations the whole year.8
Few would question the genuineness of Edward’s Christianity or the holiness of his life. It seems clear that God used Edwards the cessationist to be an instrument to bring spiritual revival to the land. While this fact does not prove the validity of the cessationist position, it does caution us against viewing it as equivalent to blasphemy against the Spirit.
2. This objection misinterprets blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
It’s very likely that the “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” refers not to the rejection of modern continuationist claims but to an act of irreversible religious apostasy.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not the act of a sincere Christian who cannot accept the claims of modern Charismatics. Rather, the “blasphemy of the Spirit” is the act of one who has experienced the illumination and power of the Spirit but who nevertheless ends up rejecting these gracious influences. And he turns his back upon the Christian faith in such a high-handed and self-determined manner that he puts himself beyond the state of repentance, and therefore, beyond the possibility of forgiveness (cf. Heb. 6:4-8; 10:26-29; 2 Pet. 2:1-22; 1 John 5:16).9
The common objections to cessationism we’ve examined above may seem weighty at first glance. But on further consideration their cogency is, in this writer’s estimation, tenuous. Nevertheless, there remain some New Testament passages that seem to support the continuationist position. It is to these texts that we will now turn our attention.
2 Specifically, we examined Wayne Grudem’s argument for a distinction between OT and NT prophecy (here), argued for the essential continuity of OT and NT prophecy (here), and critiqued Grudem’s notion of fallible prophecy (here).
3 So Matthew Henry applies the prohibition “despise not prophesyings” (1 Thess 5:20) to “the preaching of the word, the interpreting and applying of the scriptures.” A Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 vols. (Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d.), 790-91. By “prophesyings” I believe Paul was referring to more than mere exposition of Scripture, but I agree with Henry that the passage has some application to non-inspired preaching.
4 In the words of Richard Gaffin, “Scripture as a whole teaches that in his own sovereignty the Spirit has seen fit to circumscribe his activity and to structure it according to the patterns revealed there. Those patterns, not what the Spirit may choose to do beyond them, ought to be the focus and shape the expectations of the church today.” Are Miraculous Gifts For Today? Four Views (Zondervan, 1996), 25.
5 O. Palmer Robertson argues similarly when he refers to Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension and remarks, “It is not so much limiting God by affirming that he will not have Christ crucified, raised and lifted to heaven over and over again. Instead, it is simply acknowledging the once-for-all character of these events in the progress of redemptive history.” The Final Word (Banner of Truth, 1993), 131.
6 In particular, Edwards’ sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and also his books, Some Thoughts concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England and A Treatise concerning Religious Affections, did much to further the revival. For a fuller account of Edwards’ contribution to the Great Awakening, see Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards & Whitefield (1842; reprint, Banner of Truth, 1989), and Iain H. Murray, Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography(Banner of Truth, 1987).
7 Charity and its Fruits (1851; reprint, Banner of Truth, 1969), 30.
8 The Works of Jonathan Edwards (1834; reprint, Banner of Truth), 2.275.
9 I address the blasphemy against the Spirit more fully in my recent post “The Greater Sin: Are There Degrees of Sin?” (Dec 17, 2018). See also Craig Blomberg, Matthew, vol. 22 of The New American Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Broadman & Holman Press, 1992), 203-05; Donald A. Carson, “Matthew,” in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaelelein (Zondervan, 1984), 291-92; William Hendricksen, Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew (Baker, 1977), 527-29.
Dr. Robert Gonzales (BA, MA, PhD, Bob Jones Univ.) has served as a pastor of four Reformed Baptist congregations and has been the Academic Dean and a professor of Reformed Baptist Seminary (Sacramento, CA) since 2005. He is the author of Where Sin Abounds: the Spread of Sin and the Curse in Genesis with Special Focus on the Patriarchal Narratives (Wipf & Stock, 2010) and has contributed to the Reformed Baptist Theological Review, The Founders Journal, and Westminster Theological Journal. He blogs at It is Written.