I have been asked many times to write this thesis, and I have always replied that it is very difficult for me to do it. Not because my position is not supported by the Bible; to the contrary, the Bible is full with support of what is called by some “continuationism,” that is, the view of the continuing validity of the spiritual gifts of 1 Cor. 12-14 in our present times. Not because my position is not supported by historical theology; to the contrary, cessationism as a systematic doctrine didn’t appear until long after the Enlightenment hit the church, in the second half of the 19th century. Before that, there were only isolated statements gleaned out of context from isolated names here and there, while the practice and the teaching and the beliefs of the church were in favor of God continuing to lead and guide His people throughout history by all means He has given in the Bible, including miraculous and revelatory gifts.
Contrary to the cessationist claims, the question is not “Where were the Charismatics for the last 19 centuries?” but “Where were the cessationists before the second half of the 19th century?” Not because my professed theological tradition—the theology of the Reformation—doesn’t support the view of the continuing validity and operation of the gifts today. To the contrary, Calvin very clearly rejects the nonsense and ingnorance of cessationism in his commentary on 1 Cor. 13, and a careful reading of 1 Cor. 12-14 shows that he expected specifically the gift of prophecy to be operational in the church today. The practice of the Reformers and their heirs is also on my side, given the multitude of prophecies and miracles performed by Reformed ministers from John Knox to Charles Spurgeon, and reported by many Reformed missionaries.
The reason for this task to be so difficult I expressed in a letter to a friend of mine as follows:
“I will never be able to understand, Don, how grown up men can read what the plain text of Scripture and the Reformers say on this issue, beat themselves in the chest that they are “Reformed” and “sola scriptura,” and then turn around and argue vehemently for exactly the opposite to what Scripture and the Reformers say. This complete inability in so many churchian celebrities—like Wilson and MacArthur—to think clearly on such a simple Biblical issue is beyond my powers to explain or even comprehend. I can’t comprehend how an otherwise very meticulous theologian like Warfield can admit that “there isn’t a single word in Scripture” in support of his theory of the purpose of the gifts, and then in the next sentence claim that he is Biblical in his theory. I can’t comprehend how one can be so completely illogical as to claim to reject experientialism as a valid argument, and then use only experiential arguments to prove his point. I can’t comprehend how one can reject the possibility for any true prophets today (the very essence of cessationism) and then turn around and use an argument that presupposes the existence of true prophets today (Deut. 18). I can’t comprehend how one can criticize dispensationalism for dividing history into separate unrelated economies, and then turn around and use, in other areas, one of dispensationalism’s most established arguments. It seems to me that cessationism must be based on a complete black out of the brain. It is the most irrational and illogical doctrine in our Reformed churches today, and I can’t comprehend why people can’t see it. I mean, if it was some complex theological truth, like the Trinity, I can understand. But how is this possible when very simple, clear, direct Biblical texts are involved, and very simple, clear, direct teachings and practice of the Reformers are involved?”
This is what makes it difficult for me to write an article on it. I just can’t comprehend why something so blatantly obviously Biblical like the spiritual gifts needs to be defended against something so blatantly irrational and illogical and un-Biblical like cessationism. I can’t shake off the thought that it needs not arguments but diagnosis.
But write this thesis I must, I know. Apparently, even the worst possible intellectual schizophrenia, when unopposed, can parade as “sanity.” Even the worst possible deistic rationalism and Enlightenment ideology, when unopposed, can parade as “Biblical theology.” And therefore opposition must be raised, sanity restored, and Biblical arguments pressed so that the enemies of the clear, pure truth of Scripture have no ground to spread their theories.
Nevertheless, this is not simply a treatise against cessationism. Cessationism is dying as a theory anyway, together with the two ideologies that gave it birth, the Enlightenment and Dispensationalism. The gradual decline of Presbyterianism—expressed both in the loss of covenant theology and the loss of cultural and missionary impetus—is obvious to all. The rise of Charismatic churches and groups, and the “conversion” of so many formerly cessationist believers and whole churches to a Biblical view of the gifts is obvious. Even if we leave cessationism alone, it will die on its own accord, without outside help. Or, rather, it has been dead from the very beginning, not having any knowledge of the power of God (Mark 12:24). An attack against cessationism would be good, for it is a false ideology; but way more important is a positive restoration of the truly Biblical, covenantal, Reformed view of the gifts of the Spirit; one that is neither mystical nor rationalistic, but covenantal, related to the restoration of all things in the Gospel, and to the work of God in the Church and in the world. In the dying Presbyterian circles, both rationalism and mysticism (especially liturgical mysticism) are opposed to the work of the Spirit today; the view of that work is humanistic, focused on man and his ability to please God (liturgy) or to know God’s will through his own mental efforts (rationalism).
And this article is not a defense of the practices in many modern Charismatic churches. Yes, of course, much of what is happening there is fake, a blind imitation of what the Charismatic celebrities are doing. Having said that, we need to acknowledge one fact: The Reformed theologians and pastors are just as guilty as their Charismatic counterparts, and they are fools to hurl accusations, when the only thing they can offer is a rejection of the gifts of the Spirit which is just as unbiblical, and just as offensive to God as are the false prophets in many Charismatic churches today. This is a classical example of beating something with nothing; and the nothing of modern Presbyterianism has been expectedly retreating before the something—even if false and unbiblical—of the Charismatic movement.
A covenantal view of the gifts is necessary exactly because there have been many abuses of the concept of spiritual gifts in so many churches in the world today. Contrary to the cessationist argument, such abuses do not constitute a proof that the gifts have ceased—not more than the abuses of pulpit and church discipline in the Presbyterian churches constitute a proof that preaching and church discipline have ceased. The argument from abuses shows the weakness of cessationism to produce anything more than a sensationalist argument—while at the same time criticizing sensationalism. But such abuses do tell us that a systematic Biblical doctrine of the gifts is necessary. I am also familiar with the several treatments by theologians and pastors, like Wayne Grudem (Reformed Baptist) or Ulf Ekman (“radical” Charismatic, turned more traditional Protestant and even a little Roman Catholic). While many of them contain good Biblical evidence for the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in guiding the church and the individual believers, as well as in establishing the saints in the faith, through signs, wonders, and miraculous and revelatory gifts, I am afraid, a systematic, comprehensive, covenantal treatment of the purpose of the spiritual gifts is still lacking.
The cessationist argument for the purpose of the gifts—only as “sign gifts” to “prove” that the apostles’ message was from God, not necessary today because “we have the canon”—is not supported by the Bible — not even a little bit. All the attempts to defend such a ridiculous idea from the Bible are in vain, given the fact that the theologian who first made it popular, B.B. Warfield, himself admitted the following:
“But whence can we learn this to have been the end the miracles of the Apostolic age were intended to serve? Certainly not from the New Testament. In it, not one word is ever dropped to this effect. Certain of the gifts (as, for example, the gift of tongues) are no doubt spoken of as “signs to those that are without.” It is required of all of them that they be exercised for the edification of the church; and a distinction is drawn between them in value, in proportion as they were for edification.1
So much for Warfield’s “sola scriptura.” Of course, eager to defend his own theory, Warfield forgets what he had just written, and continues to babble that “the immediate end for which they were given [as Warfield sees it] is not left doubtful.” (An example that even the brightest Reformed minds have their moments of lunacy.) But still, his admission that the New Testament doesn’t support his theory of the purpose of the gifts is important. To it we must add the fact that the New Testament declares not just the gifts but all the miracles as signs (e.g. 2 Cor. 12:12); thus, if the cessationist argument is extended, God must have ceased from working miracles today, not just through personal gifts, but altogether. No cessationist argues for such a thing, thus exposing cessationism as an inconsistent theory at best. Inconsistent it is, of course, for the Bible doesn’t say that the only purpose of the gifts is to testify of the Apostles’ ministry and that’s all. To the contrary, the New Testament has a comprehensive, covenantal purpose for the spiritual gifts, and not a single iota of that covenantal purpose has passed away or ceased in the church today. And this article is an attempt to offer a short but systematic treatment of that covenantal purpose; both to shut the mouths of the rationalist/mysticist alliance in the Reformed circles against the work of the Spirit, and to correct the abuses of those who imagine work of the Spirit where there isn’t.
This comprehensive covenantal purpose of the gifts has the following elements: (1) knowledge and worship; (2) authority and legitimacy of authority; (3) ethics, sanctification, and establishment in the faith; (4) pronouncing judgment; and (5) vision, purpose, and strategy for the future. Unlike the unbiblical fantasies of Warfield (and of all other cessationists), all these purposes of the gifts and especially of the gift of prophecy are revealed in the Bible. We don’t need to make conjectures about them as Warfield does about his theory; the New Testament is very clear about those purposes, and it presents examples of their applications in practice. In addition to it, we have very clear examples in the history of the Reformed churches of men of God applying these gifts in practice, to those same purposes we listed above.
We will now take a look at each one of these points separately. Our focus, of course, will be on the revelatory gifts (prophecy, tongues/interpretation, knowledge) as they are the “greater” gifts; but the Biblical argumentation offered here applies in different degrees to all spiritual gifts.
- Gifts as an Instrument for Knowledge and Worship
Before we look at that first and most important purpose of the spiritual gifts, we need to deal with the most illogical, schizophrenic, and Biblically illiterate argument against the prophetic gift in the New Testament raised by cessationists: the knee-jerk reaction of “I will accept the validity of gifts when Deuteronomy 18:20-22 begins to be applied.” It is even raised, ironically, by those churchian celebrities (like John MacArthur) who in everything else are strictly anti-Theonomic, and attack and criticize the idea of the continuing validity of the Law of God today. (No civil application of the Law of God, except when MacArthur needs it for his specific agenda, you see.) But those cessationists who profess to be Theonomists and still use that argument are no more consistent and logical than MacArthur; they are still picking and choosing bits and pieces of the Law to apply, avoiding mentioning other provisions in the Law, and avoiding mentioning the practical applications of the Law in the rest of the Old Testament, and also avoiding the specific case of “judging prophecies” in the New Testament.
The first thing that is obvious is that in a cessationist framework, Deuteronomy 18:20-22 can’t be applied at all. It is part of larger context, vv. 15-22, and that larger context presupposes that there are two kinds of prophets: true and false prophets. Verses 20-22 tell us how we tell a false prophet from . . . a true prophet. But cessationists don’t believe in true prophets to start with! If the gift of prophecy has ceased, then a cessationist doesn’t have to wait until the prophesied event comes to pass or not; if he is consistent with his theory, he must declare every prophet a false prophet! A cessationist who waits for a prophecy to come true or not to apply Deut. 18:20-22 has already violated the tenets of cessationism, for he has assumed the possibility that the prophecy may be true, and therefore the prophet may be a true prophet. If he has assumed such a thing, he has assumed that cessationism is a false doctrine, and that there is a possibility for the gift of prophecy to be valid today. Yes, such is the schizophrenia of cessationism, that its most cherished argument is the one that destroys the theory from the very beginning.
Even if we ignore that obvious logical problem, we still have to deal with the New Testament commandment concerning judging the prophets. Paul specifically says in the chapter that deals with prophecy in the greatest detail (and therefore the chapter avoided by cessationist “theologians” like the plague), 1 Cor. 14, that when prophets speak, the others must judge (v. 29). All this is happening in the church service. There is no mention of the church waiting for a future event to happen in order to judge. The others are judging right there, on the spot. Obviously, there is something very wrong with the cessationist’s view of prophecy, and with his use of Deut. 18 as an argument.
Not to mention that applied directly, the argument is not valid even in the Old Testament. For example, applied to Jonah, it would condemn Jonah to death. Jonah delivered a prophecy that had no conditions attached to it, and the prophecy didn’t come true. Cessationists try to avoid this problem by claiming that the prophecy actually came true in a different way, but the text is very clear:
When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it (Jonah 3:10).
The problem for cessationists, of course, is that if Jonah got a free pass, they should give such free pass to every Charismatic prophet, and cease babbling about Deut. 18. Obviously, there is a problem with their interpretation of Deut. 18.
In addition, another passage in the Law, Deut. 13:1-5, actually condemns to death a prophet whose prediction did come to pass! This places an additional burden on the cessationist argument: What if the prophecy did come to pass, but the prophet is still a false prophet? And how can we tell? Jonah is free of guilt, but a prophet who predicts correctly may be guilty. How is this possible? Cessationism has no answer.
It has no answer because from the very beginning the cessationist argument is anti-covenantal. It looks at the prophetic gift as if the only purpose of prophecy is to be clairvoyance, a crystal ball to peek into the future (hence the undue focus on Deut. 18); such view of prophecy is based on a basically pagan, metaphysical view of reality. A covenantal view of reality will look at every gift from God in a covenantal, that is, judicial way; it will therefore look at the gift of prophecy first and foremost as a tool for establishing the covenantal relationship of men to God; of drawing them near to God and making them conform to the image of His Son.
Thus, New Testament prophecy has nothing to do with the cessationist’s essentially pagan expectations of clairvoyance; it has to do, first and foremost, with the knowledge of God and His will. And the specific purpose of prophecy is beautifully expressed by no other but John Calvin in his commentary on that very chapter which cessationists are avoiding like the plague, 1 Cor. 14:
“Revelation and prophesying I put in one class, and I am of opinion that the latter is the administration of the former. I am of the same opinion as to knowledge and doctrine. What, therefore, any one has obtained by revelation, he dispenses by prophesying. Doctrine is the way of communicating knowledge. Thus a Prophet will be — one who interprets and administers revelation.” This is rather in favor of the definition that I have given above, than at variance with it. For we have said that prophesying does not consist of a simple and bare interpretation of Scripture, but includes also knowledge for applying it to present use — which is obtained only by revelation, and the special inspiration of God.
This, of course, needs to be put in the context of Calvin’s view of cessationism from his commentary on the only chapter in the Bible that talks about the “cessation” of gifts and therefore gives the very name of that theory, 1 Cor. 13:
But when will that perfection come? It begins, indeed, at death, for then we put off, along with the body, many infirmities; but it will not be completely manifested until the day of judgment, as we shall hear presently. Hence we infer, that the whole of this discussion is ignorantly applied to the time that is intermediate. (Emphasis mine—B.M.)
Here are the conclusions from Calvin’s view:
- Cessationism is “ignorant.” The “perfect” will come at death, and will be completely manifested only in the Day of Judgment.
- Prophecy doesn’t compete with Scripture, as cessationists claim. It appliesScripture to present use.
- Prophecy itself is not simply bare interpretation, as some cessationists claim (calling simple preaching “prophecy”). It is a supernatural gift.
- Prophecy is revelation itself. And the fact that it is revelation doesn’t mean that it competes with the revelation of Scripture, as cessationists claim.
Obviously, there are two kinds of revelation, Scriptural and prophetic, and even Paul mentions the possibility of additional, non-Scriptural revelation which confirms and applies Scriptural revelation, when he tells the Philippians that God will reveal (apokalypton) to them if they have a “different attitude.” (Paul didn’t think the Philippians would write Scripture, did he?)
But the most important part of Calvin’s exposition is the point that prophecy applies Scripture to present use. Scripture, canonic revelation, needs to be applied in practice. The knowledge for that application, according to cessationism, must come from the human mind, which is a humanistic proposition. According to Calvin, it is revelation from God, which is the covenantal view. God gives both His canonical revelation as the general rule for life and salvation, and His specific guidance of how to apply this rule to our specific circumstances. How does John MacArthur know he is supposed to be a pastor and not a janitor? His own theory tells him that he figured it out by his own mind because there is no way that the Holy Spirit can reveal it to Him directly. (Any revelation today would “undermine the authority of Scripture,” remember?) In this particular point, therefore, MacArthur is not covenantal, he is a secular humanist, for he can’t have taken the knowledge of what his own specific vocation is from the Bible. But according to Calvin, God is who gives all knowledge through revelation, both Scriptural and direct, and thus guides His people.
In other words, prophecy relates to Scripture in the same way engineering relates to science: It applies it to practical, everyday, present use. Given this covenantal view of the purpose of prophecy, then, the cessationist argument that “if there is prophecy today it would undermine the authority of Scripture” is ridiculous at best. It is just as logical and meaningful as to say that “engineering undermines the authority of science.”
This view answers the questions cessationism can’t: Why was Jonah not guilty according to Deut. 18:20-22? Why could a prophet be condemned to death if the prophesied event happened? Why the New Testament judgment of prophets and prophecies is happening in the church, at the very moment the prophet is prophesying, and not after some future time waiting for the prophesied event to happen or not?
The answer is obvious: The nature of prophecy is not clairvoyance but applying Scripture to present use. The judgment of a prophet is not based on the physical happening of a future event but on whether the prophecy is a faithful application of Scripture to life. This is what defines whether the prophet speaks in the name of God, or whether he speaks in his own name or in the name of other gods. The covenantal issue here is, In whose name is the prophet speaking? (Deut. 13:2, 5; 18:18, 20) Not whether he has a better crystal ball than other prophets.
But Paul reveals to us still another use of the gifts related to knowledge and revelation: worship.
Of course, it is indicative of the unbiblical nature of cessationism that while cessationists babble about “regulative principle of worship” and about “sola scriptura,” they self-consciously avoid the only chapter in the Bible that actually reveals in detail what the worship services of the early church looked like: that same chapter 14 of 1 Corinthians. The argument is that the New Testament instructions about the worship service apply only to a very limited period of time, AD 1st century. The worship service has changed after that, and the new principles for worship service are not given directly in the Bible, for the Bible doesn’t speak directly to the period after the Last Apostle passed away. There goes “sola scriptura,” again, and there goes the “regulative principle of worship based on the Bible.” One reason they avoid it is that 1 Cor. 14 shows clearly that the gifts—and specifically the gift of tongues—have a very specific function in the worship of God.
In order to understand it, we need to go back to the first manifestation of the gift of tongues, Acts 2. The tongues, as well as the miraculous gifts of healing, of course, were prophesied in that other, less well-known version of the Great Commission given by Jesus in Mark 16:15-18. (And they were not limited to the Apostles but were promised to “those who have believed.”) But Mark 16:15-18 only says that the signs will “accompany” the believers, without giving the specific purpose for the signs. We still need to look in other places for the specific purpose of the sign mentioned in Mark 16, and specifically for the sign of tongues.
The very first manifestation of these promised signs, Acts 2, is severely misinterpreted by cessationists. The cessationist argument is that the purpose of the tongues in that specific circumstance was to “testify” for the truthfulness of the word of the Apostles. While it is true that the tongues did serve to this end, it is also true that many did not believe even while listening to the tongues. We can say that such purpose was, at best, secondary. There was a higher purpose present.
That purpose is pointed to by Jesus in His promise ten days before Pentecost: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8). Now, what does that mean? Or, rather, what did that mean to a Jew?
The meaning of “power,” as a Jew would understand it, was not physical strength, neither was it magical powers for performing miracles. “Power” had a covenantal meaning, and that covenantal meaning was “the ability to praise and worship God.” The whole Old Testament is filled with instructions to worship God as the means to being powerful over Israel’s enemies. Samson is one good picture of that covenantal truth. Jehoshaphat’s battle against Moab and Ammon in 2 Chr. 20 is another example. The best expression of this truth in the New Testament is Jesus’s decision to quote Ps. 8:2 not from the Aramean text (and He spoke Aramean) but from the Greek Septuagint, replacing “strength against your enemies” with “praise” (Matt. 21:16). Power meant praise and glory to God, not magic nor intellectual abilities. The examples can be multiplied, but what is important here is the very message the Apostles were speaking in tongues on that Day of Pentecost:
. . . we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God (Acts 2:11).
Pentecost was not meant to be a magic séance where the Apostles were supposed to impress their listeners with magically acquired supernatural powers and thus convince them to believe. It was meant to be a praise and worship service, open to all nations and all languages. The tongues were given not to impress but to praise; they added a special, new “power” to the worship service, power that had been denied before to the people of God.
While this may be accepted by some cessationists (contra the mainstream cessationist argument that the only purpose of the gifts was to “prove” the Apostles right and that’s it), they then claim that this one single instance shows that if there are tongues, they must be understandable to some among the listeners, in order to be valid. Like all other cessationist arguments, this one relies on logical induction (making general conclusions from one particular instance) and rejects the total message of the Bible.
In 1 Cor. 13 Paul specifically says that the tongues don’t have to be human, they can be “angelic,” that is, not intelligible to his earthly listeners. He repeats the same in 1 Cor. 14:2. The continuing discussion in 1 Cor. 14 clearly shows that tongues have an additional function that is not public, but is limited to the person who is speaking in a tongue: “One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” Neither is the use of tongues limited to the cases where there is interpretation; Paul says that “Let the one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” The statement clearly shows that interpretation is a desirable but not necessary condition for exercising the gift of tongues. Nothing in the text presupposes any limitation on speaking in tongues, except as far as the general order of the meeting is concerned. To the contrary, Paul ends the discussion in v. 39 with; “do not forbid to speak in tongues,” a commandment modern cessationists clearly violate, and therefore are hypocritical in their claim to “sola scriptura.”
But what is then the purpose of tongues, when exercised without interpretation? Paul tells us: worship:
What is the outcome then? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also (vv. 15-16).
He doesn’t say we should stop praying in the spirit, which in the context means praying in tongues (see v. 14). He doesn’t say we should stop singing in the spirit. Paul says that there has to be a healthy balance between praying in tongues and praying with the mind, and singing in tongues and singing in the mind. Modern cessationists have it all wrong when they claim that a modern Charismatic service is necessarily wrong because people are praying in tongues or singing in tongues. To the contrary, the only chapter in the New Testament which gives the details of a church gathering of the early church, gives us clear instructions concerning the balanced use of tongues and mind, in worship. Contrary to liturgists, New Testament worship doesn’t consist in collectivist activities organized by an oligarchy of priests. Contrary to rationalists, it doesn’t consist in formal repetition of hymns and creeds and dry sermons. New Testament worship is a healthy balance of individual and congregational, and a healthy balance of man’s participation and the Spirit’s guidance, for the individual and for the congregation alike. Praying and singing in tongues plays a major role in that worship. Tongues are for praising God, first and foremost, and only secondarily for signs or for prophesying (with interpretation). Anyone who excludes tongues from worship excludes the Holy Spirit from worship. Paul is very clear: “Do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
The only question that needs to be answered, then, is this: Why use tongues? Why not always only pray with the mind? Isn’t it more productive for everyone always to only pray with the mind? Paul, of course, gives part of the answer in 1 Cor. 14:4, “One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself.” But there is more. Letting the Holy Spirit pray through you is a training in humility, an admission that no matter how “proficient” we are in prayer, we are always inadequate to the task of praying aright. Romans 8:26 tells us that we don’t know how to pray as we should, and the Spirit intercedes for us with “unutterable groanings.” Commenting on Rom. 8:26, Calvin says that this verse indicates that the Spirit may choose for us a manner of praying that is beyond our intellectual capabilities (something that is anathema to cessationists):
Hence the manner of praying aright must be suggested by the Spirit: and he calls those groaning unutterable, into which we break forth by the impulse of the Spirit, for this reason — because they far exceed the capability of our own minds.
Where in the New Testament do we see a second witness to this verse, and a detailed explanation how these “unutterable groanings” may look like? Well, 1 Cor. 14, for one.
Modern cessationism, therefore, being a dualistic mixture of Enlightenment rationalism and mysticism, has developed services that are either deeply mysticist, based on pageants designed by men (liturgy), or deeply rationalist, based on what Calvin calls “bare interpretation of Scripture,” devoid of the prophetic word applying Scripture to present use. Both types of church services are just as far from the true service described in 1 Cor. 14 as is the Charismatic craze that cessationists just love to criticize.
So far such criticism is nothing more than the pot calling the kettle black.
End of Part One