I have a dear friend who loves Jesus who is a Cessationist. That is the technical term for the belief that the gifts of the Holy Spirit recorded in the New Testament have ceased to exist since the completion of the biblical canon.
Now, we are to be guided completely by our understanding of Holy Scripture. My friend is a disciple, and I love his understanding of God’s Word. But I believe that he has a serious misunderstanding of what Scripture teaches on this point.
Once when I was visiting with him, I asked him how a supernatural word of knowledge that I could not have known unless God imparted it to me would detract from Scripture. I was surprised that he answered affirmatively; he sincerely believed that such a manifestation of knowledge would somehow weaken or minimize the authority of Scripture in his life. He believes that he needs nothing else other than Scripture.
Wikipedia describes Cessationism as the “doctrine that spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, prophecy, and healing ceased with the apostolic age. This is generally opposed to Continuationism, which teaches that the Holy Spirit continues to bestow spiritual gifts on persons other than the original twelve apostles.” It is based on the belief that miracles and supernatural signs and wonders were intended, not only for the first century but also for the entire Church age. Cessationism, on the other hand, is based on the belief these gifts were to guide the Church only for that period until the canon of Scripture was complete. Then (according to this view), there would be no need for these things since we now have the Scriptures.
But nowhere in Scripture do we find that the things the Holy Spirit imparted to believers in the first century have ceased. That view is based on two mistaken notions. First, it is the result of faulty exegesis; second, it is the mistaken belief that these gifts were only really for the apostles. Finally, there is the strong case to be made there is just as great a need in the 21st century for these gifts as there was in the first century. Let me discuss each briefly.
First of all, I find the exegesis of certain Scriptures upon which Cessationism is built is at best weak, if not deceptive. For time’s sake, I mention only one—the notion that Paul, when referring to the perfect in I Corinthians 13:10 means the completion of the canon of Scripture:
“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
Since, according to Cessationists, the canon is complete, then, as Paul indicates, tongues and prophecy (and other gifts) have ceased. But what they fail to address is Paul also says that when the perfect has come, knowledge will cease as well (see I Corinthians 13:8). But has knowledge ceased? Not at all; in fact, Cessationists’ entire case is based on the idea that we are to be guided in the present by a growing knowledge of Scripture. If knowledge has not ceased, why then have tongues and prophecy ceased to exist? You can’t say that prophecy and tongues have ceased, while acknowledging that knowledge has not, since the apostle says when the perfect comes they will all be done away with.
What then does Paul mean when he says that these things will be done away with when the perfect comes? He undoubtedly is referring to the Second Coming of our Lord. When Jesus returns, there will be no need any longer for the gifts of the Spirit or knowledge since, as the apostle mentions, we fully will know even as we are known (13:12).
Another mistaken idea Cessationism promotes is that the gifts were mainly for the apostles of the first century. While it is true that the apostles exercised these gifts powerfully, what Cessationists often overlook is that these gifts were given to the entire body of Christ, not just to a few. In fact, the apostle Paul says that “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Corinthians 12:7). Paul then goes into an extended teaching using the analogy of the human body and its various parts to describe the Church. Even as a body to be healthy must have all of its parts working correctly, so also, each member of the body of Christ must exercise their gifts if the body is to be healthy.
Paul is clear in this chapter and so are other apostles that “the body is not one member but many.” These gifts were not given only to the apostles but to the entire body of Christ. Even the first deacons, Stephen and Philip, when they weren’t serving tables, performed miracles such as healing the sick and casting out demons. These gifts, therefore, are for the entire body.
The final case I would make in favor of the view that these spiritual gifts were intended to be exercised through the entire church age is the fact that there is just as much need for them in the 21st century as there was in the first. If someone wants to make the case that there were more visible displays of power in the Apostolic Age due to the fact that Christianity was first being established, I can live with that. But the fact remains, one cannot deny one of the reasons the Gospel has spread so quickly through South America, Africa, and Asia is because there have been immense displays of spiritual power behind it. In places like Africa where medical treatment is not readily available, many people have had to learn to trust God for healing and have seen God work miraculously.
While I would be the first to admit that, at times, these gifts have been abused, that is no reason to deny they genuinely still exist. Some would be quick to quote the Scripture, “But all things should be done decently and in order” (I Corinthians 14:40). Yes, I would heartily agree, but let us first obey the initial part of the verse: ‘Let all things be done!’