Miraculous Gifts: If They Ceased, Why?

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).

Conclusion

In this series, we have attempted to simplify the contemporary controversy regarding the charismatic gifts by reducing it down to three basic questions.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?”)

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There are 14 Comments

JRMyers's picture

I like it...it's near perfect and true...but does answering all the questions before they're asked really generate discussion?  

Richard Pajak's picture

Sigh! A house of straw/

Richard Pajak

Larry's picture

Moderator

So Richard, how do you resolve the dilemma other than calling it a straw man?

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.

Richard Pajak's picture

I take the simple view that the early disciples believed and operated in the demonstration of the spiritual gifts and they also believed in the inspiration of Scripture(irrespective that the new testament was not written yet)

They saw no conflict (as far as we know) with Scripture as they had it and the operation of revelatory gifts. They believed God was working miraculously among them.  God spoke to them through the Spirit. That did not negate God's word in any way.

They saw no conflict. The only danger was that there may be false manifestations but they were advised to test or discern the authenticity of these manifestations which could have been of the flesh or the devil or the genuine thing.

 God revealing Himself today, to me, does not at all impinge on the authority of Scripture.

I don't see it as an issue of sufficiency or insufficiency, the thing that is important is Scriptural authority, and Scriptural authority  tells us that the gifts were meant for the church. I don't see any Scriptural backing for their cessation after the demise of the apostles.

To me the problem for the church is to know the answer to the question of why  the gifts are so infrequently manifested in the life of the church. There are probably multiple possible suggestions that could be given.

I tend to think that the church by and large, me included, can't be trusted by God to use them correctly.

 

 

 

 

Richard Pajak

dan's picture

It's a false dilemma.

Acts 21:10-13 is an example of prophecy. Such prophecy could continue today without negating the sufficiency of scripture, nor the complete closure of the canon. Nothing about it adds to or subtracts from anything in scripture.

There would also be no damage done to the canon if the biblical gift of tongues enabled a missionary to present the gospel to a previously isolated tribe, as has been reported occasionally, even within fundamentalist circles. 

It would be possible to believe such things can occur today without also believing the canon is open. To believe that the canon is still open is to believe that God continues to provide new and different revelations.

 

As for Ephesians 2:20, that has to be one of the weakest arguments for cessation I recall reading. The context has nothing to do with spiritual gifts at all. The prophets in view are the OT prophets (Luke 24:37) and there never was such a thing as the "spiritual gift of apostleship."

Apostles were chosen and appointed to that office and apparently received many (perhaps all) spiritual gifts, but "apostleship" is not a gift of the Spirit. With the exception of Paul, the apostles were appointed before the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost, before there were any spiritual gifts. Paul was appointed before he was even saved. 

The belief that the office of apostle was limited to the beginning of the church does not require one to believe that any spiritual gift ceased.

 

 

"Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."
G.K. Chesterton

Greg Long's picture

Dan, Paul says just a few verses later that apostles and prophets ARE gifts given to the NT church, so clearly the reference in 2:20 is to NT apostles and prophets upon which the foundation of the church was built. 

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Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

Larry's picture

Moderator

They saw no conflict (as far as we know) with Scripture as they had it and the operation of revelatory gifts. They believed God was working miraculously among them.  God spoke to them through the Spirit. That did not negate God's word in any way.

Isn't this because the revelatory gifts were still in operation? So this is no argument at all because God speaking to them was God's word, so of course there would be no conflict. Whether you are right or not, this doesn't prove your point because it refers to a time when everyone agrees that the revelatory gifts were in operation.

To me the problem for the church is to know the answer to the question of why  the gifts are so infrequently manifested in the life of the church.

Because they ceased.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Not sure what the false dilemma is. It seems that either Scripture is sufficient or it's not, right? It seems that tongues and prophecy are either revelatory and authoritative or they aren't, right?

Citing Agabus does not seem helpful since there are a number of legitimate views about that, and regardless, everyone agrees that Agabus was prior to the close of the canon, and thus during the sign gift period. So whatever his case, it wouldn't seem to have much impact

Likewise citing some modern day phenomenon of tongues for missionaries isn't particularly helpful since no one (to my knowledge) claims that is revelatory, even if it is real. The tongues there, if they exist, are known languages, and they are used to communicate revelation from Scripture, not to communicate revelation from outside of Scripture.

As for Eph 2:20, not sure why you think that is weak. The "foundation" seems pretty strongly connected to apostles and prophets, and whatever we might say about the identity of the prophets, the foundation was clearly laid in the first century, not now. So whether the prophets were OT or NT, they were for the foundation, not for now.

As for apostles not being a gift, I can only assume you forgot about Eph 4:11 pr 1 Cor 12:28 where apostles are designated as gifts to the church.

Richard Pajak's picture

[quote=Larry]

They saw no conflict (as far as we know) with Scripture as they had it and the operation of revelatory gifts. They believed God was working miraculously among them.  God spoke to them through the Spirit. That did not negate God's word in any way.

"Isn't this because the revelatory gifts were still in operation? So this is no argument at all because God speaking to them was God's word, so of course there would be no conflict. Whether you are right or not, this doesn't prove your point because it refers to a time when everyone agrees that the revelatory gifts were in operation.."

But I and many contend that the gifts of the Spirit are still available, i.e. in operation, also that there was not a time past in which they were made void by the Lord, so the point I am making is that if the gifts were operational then and are operational now and they found no conflict between Scripture and the operation of those gifts then how can we (speaking of course from a continuationist position) contend that belief in the operation of those gifts today somehow DOES conflict.

I think simply saying "they ceased" is too simplistic an answer and without warrant from Scripture.

 

Richard Pajak

Larry's picture

Moderator

But I and many contend that the gifts of the Spirit are still available,

I understand, but making a contention doesn't help. And many others making a contention doesn't increase something that was no help to begin with.

The point is that Scripture teaches some very specific things about revelatory and sign gifts. And I think the burden of proof is on you, at least partly, to show why your understanding overrules the arguments that have been made, both scripturally and historically, for the cessation of those revelatory gifts. You have to show why the gifts with a purpose continue when the purpose for the gifts has ended. Why have a gift with no purpose?

... if the gifts were operational then and are operational now and they found no conflict between Scripture and the operation of those gifts then how can we (speaking of course from a continuationist position) contend that belief in the operation of those gifts today somehow DOES conflict.

If all that is true, then you can't argue that it conflicts. But the question is whether your second proposition (that they are operational now) is true. There is a strong case, both scripturally and historically, to say that it isn't. You assume your conclusion. I think you have to present a reasonable scriptural alternative that explains (among other things) how the Scripture is sufficient if we still receive revelation from God through revelatory gifts, or if those gifts aren't revelatory why use the names (prophecy and tongues) that had specific revelatory meaning in Scripture to describe something different.

So look at this way. Today, what most people call "prophecy" is not revelatory or equal to Scripture. But in the Bible "prophecy" was revelatory and equal to Scripture (and in fact became Scripture in some cases). So why do you use a name with scriptural meaning to describe something different? Why not use a different name?

I think simply saying "they ceased" is too simplistic an answer and without warrant from Scripture.

At least we agree on this. If you know of someone doing this, then I will stand with you to say that they need scriptural warrant. But I think Nate has given us much scriptural warrant that is not simplistic in the least. In fact, it may be a bit technical for some.

 

Richard Pajak's picture

Greetings Larry,

You said my contention doesn't help but I take my contention from Scripture's teaching.

It is your contention that the purpose for the gifts has ended.

I think the purpose still remains.

I think the gifts are available, as the Spirit gives, until the Lord comes again.

And I fail to see any Scriptural argument against that.

You say I assume the conclusion however I base my conclusion on Scripture, not my own fancy. Scripture is as sufficient now as it was then when the gifts were originally given. As I said I don't see how you could argue that the gifts didn't affect the sufficiency of Scripture in the early church but that it does so now.

I personally don't see the gifts as different. It doesn't make sense to me that they should be different.

If something is from God then it is the Spirit who is revealing that something whether 2000 years ago or today.

But Scripture will always be Scripture and must be our guide, however we have a real living God who can intervene into the affairs of any one of us anytime He so chooses. Who am I to Him that He can only speak to me through Scripture?

Having said all this I am not one prone to receiving messages extra-scripturally so I have to rely on Scripture for my guidance. However the old cliche that God works in mysterious ways is undoubtedly far truer than we realise.  Just imagine little Samuel arguing with Eli. "Why are telling me to say 'speak Lord your servant hears' if I hear the voice again. God doesn't speak to people these days Eli, He's given us the Scriptures"

I believe God is sovereign and He'll speak any way He wants.

Richard Pajak

Larry's picture

Moderator

You said my contention doesn't help but I take my contention from Scripture's teaching.

My point was that contending something doesn't help .Anyone can make a contention, and that's fine, But only being true helps. And the topic is whether or not your position is Scripture's teaching. The contention has to be demonstrated. I think Nate has done an admirable job of demonstrating the support for his contention. You haven't.

I think the purpose still remains.

So your contention is that we cannot know whether or not someone is delivering the message that they received from the Lord Jesus without sign gifts? Don't we determine that by Scripture?

Scripture is as sufficient now as it was then when the gifts were originally given. As I said I don't see how you could argue that the gifts didn't affect the sufficiency of Scripture in the early church but that it does so now.

Scripture wasn't complete then, so by definition, it wasn't sufficient.

I personally don't see the gifts as different. It doesn't make sense to me that they should be different.

So you believe today that someone could give a word from God that is as binding, inerrant, and authoritative as Scripture? Or you believe that prophecy in the Scripture are merely impressions that may be right or wrong, depending on how they comport with a higher authority?

But Scripture will always be Scripture and must be our guide, however we have a real living God who can intervene into the affairs of any one of us anytime He so chooses.

This is the crux of the problem. Scripture cannot "must be our guide" (pardon the awkwardness) if the NT revelatory gifts are still in action, because now, like then, the revelatory gifts would be on an equal par with Scripture, thus giving us a second guide. It seems that the only way that Scripture can "must be our guide" is if modern "prophecy" is of a completely different character than NT prophecy was.

Who am I to Him that He can only speak to me through Scripture?

This is a misleading question. The question is not, "What can God only do?" The question is "What does God do?" It is true that God can speak apart from Scriptures. But what has God said in Scripture he will do? In order to answer that, we have to look at why God was doing what he was doing, and then determine if that reason still continues.

Having said all this I am not one prone to receiving messages extra-scripturally so I have to rely on Scripture for my guidance.

Here again, I think you undermine your position because when God speaks through revelation, your "proneness" to receive it is irrelevant. You are bound by it. To "rely on Scripture for your guidance" is to cede the issue or to redefine prophecy as less than what it was in the NT.

Just imagine little Samuel arguing with Eli. "Why are telling me to say 'speak Lord your servant hears' if I hear the voice again. God doesn't speak to people these days Eli, He's given us the Scriptures"

Ironic you should bring this up. First, it was in an age of revelation, but one where the word of the Lord and visions were infrequent. Second, it was prior to the close of the canon. I think the close of the canon changes everything about this, and I don't think you are recognizing the impact of that.

I believe God is sovereign and He'll speak any way He wants.

I agree, but that's not really the issue.

I think I'll try to bow out here. I have other things that I am currently neglecting that I need to turn to.

christian cerna's picture

Many of us have had dreams, in which we see things that eventually come to pass. Would that be considered a prophetic gift? Maybe it is God's way of showing us that we must complete the works for which we have been predestined. 

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