- Authority and Legitimacy of Authority
In order to understand this function of the gifts, let’s take an imaginary example: An ordinary member of an officially cessationist Presbyterian Church stands up during church service and prophesies to the church. The content of his prophecy doesn’t matter for the moment; whether it is an admonishment, or an encouragement, or some condemnation against practices of individual elders or of the whole session; we will exclude the case of prediction of future events here, because, as we saw before, contrary to the fantasies of cessationists, New Testament prophecy has very little to do with clairvoyance. What matters is that the man stands up during church service and starts with, “Thus says the Lord. . . .” and continues with a prophecy that is strictly Biblical according to the standards of 1 Cor. 12-14, and applies Scripture to specific circumstances, as Calvin points out.
What would the session do, if they are consistent and faithful to their theory of cessationism? There is no prediction of a future event, so Deuteronomy 18:20-22 can’t be applied. On the other hand, as I pointed out before, even if there was a prediction of a future event, a consistent cessationist shouldn’t have to wait to see if the event happens or not; the very meaning of cessationism is that no one can say “Thus says the Lord” after the death of the last apostle. So no matter what the prophet says in the church, whether it is true or not, whether it is Biblical or not, he is a false prophet, or else cessationism is proven to be a false doctrine. And therefore, a church that claims to be cessationist and is consistent, would excommunicate anyone who starts a public speech in the church with “Thus says the Lord.” After all, according to the theory (and contrary to Calvin and Reformed theology and practice), every “Thus says the Lord” is a challenge against the authority of Scripture, and no such challenge can be tolerated in any true church.
So the session should move and excommunicate the prophet. But let’s stop for a moment and think what exactly is happening in the process of excommunication.
The man may be a false prophet, or he may be a true prophet. He may speak his own words, but he may speak the words of God. Either way, none of what he says has any judicial consequences for anyone in the church. New Testament prophecy, according to 1 Cor. 14:29, can and must be “judged” by the rest of the church. What if the theory is wrong? What if God actually can and does speak today through prophets in the way Calvin explains it? There is still a very real probability that the words uttered by that man are the words of God, in that special revelation of applying Scripture to present use. What if the excommunication is actually a rebellion against a man who does speak with authority from God, even if that authority is not mediated through an institutional church? Don’t we know quite a few examples in history when the institutional church was wrong and individuals who rebelled against it were right?
Well, the reply to these questions should be that the church elders are acting with authority from God. Or, are they? Are they really speaking in the name of God? 1 Peter 4:11 commands everyone who speaks to do so as one who is speaking the words of God. But are the elders of an officially cessationist church speaking as if they are speaking the words of God? Can they say, “Thus says the Lord,” and base their excommunication on that?
They can’t. Their own theory forbids that they make such a claim. While there is some probability that the prophet’s claim is true and he is speaking the words of God, we know for sure, from the testimony of the elders’ own theory, that their actions and words are, at best, a hopeful guess of what God says or wants in the particular circumstances. Since direct revelation in applying Scripture to life (as per Calvin) is forbidden, the session openly claims, through their theology, that everything they do as elders—including the excommunication of a prophet—is their human decisions, with little to no proof that they have the authority or the approval of God to act in His name. God’s Word doesn’t speak directly and specifically to the particular circumstances of the day, and God is banned from speaking directly to people today, therefore it is man’s word and man’s agenda that control the church.
And therefore, it is man’s word and man’s agenda that control the judicial decisions of the church. Man, or a group of men, who openly say they have no direct connection nor knowledge of God’s will for the particular circumstances, make decisions as to who gets to participate in a family which, by definition, is not theirs, but God’s. And if God wants to bring a positive correction to their decision, He can’t do it directly, for by their own theory He can’t speak directly. They won’t listen to another prophet who says, “Thus says the Lord.” They will only listen, if at all, to another man who also claims to be guessing the will of God at best.
The only option that God has to correct the decision of that church, then, is to bring destruction to it. Indeed, even if these elders claim to not hear directly from God nor speak God’s words (because prophecy has ceased), they still act as if they hear directly from God and speak God’s words (in excommunicating a person from God’s church). Rejecting direct authority from God in theory, they still assume it in practice. What is left for us to wonder about is, if these people are so serious about judgment against a false prophet, are they equally serious about judgment against false pastors? If a prophecy is Biblically correct but condemned because of a theory, how much greater condemnation will be there against pastors who openly say they were acting on their accord, because there is no way that they could hear directly from God?
The only objection to the above argument can be this: “The elders act with a delegated authority from God, as elders of the church, and therefore whatever they do, must be the will of God.”
There are many problems with this objection, especially the assumption that once a group of persons is declared to be a “session,” they are in no need of direct instruction from God for applying His Word to present use. But the biggest problem is this: How do they know they are legitimate elders, with legitimate authority to make decisions for God and His Church? What is the mechanism that establishes that legitimate authority?
Since they are cessationists, one factor is excluded from the answer: God’s direct revelation. Since the Bible doesn’t mention their names specifically, another factor is excluded: Scriptural revelation. Yes, their assumption of elder’s authority may not formally violate the Biblical requirements. But how do we know that these specific people, and not someone else, are supposed to be elders? How do we know that these specific people, and not the prophet they are excommunicating, are empowered to speak for God? We can’t know it. All we know is that a group of people assembled together decided they are going to start a church and be its elders: by human decision. Maybe they felt they were called by God to be elders: a human feeling. Maybe they saw the need for having a church with elders in their community: human reasoning. Maybe they were recognized by another group of elders who are also cessationist and therefore do not speak for God, not having any direct word from God; again, a human decision. No matter what process of establishing themselves as “church elders” these men have been chosen. If they are consistent cessationists, they can only claim human authority, and nothing more than that. So, at the very best, in their encounter with a man who claims to be a prophet, we have man’s word vs. man’s word, or man’s agenda vs. man’s agenda. The only difference is that, by the nature of his testimony, the prophet may really be a prophet and may speak for God. No cessationist elder or session can truly say they derived their personal authority from God; if they say such a thing, they are declaring their cessationism a dead doctrine.
Thus, on the basis of cessationism, there can be no true church, no true authority, no true church discipline, and therefore no testimony to the world. It isn’t surprising that the emergence of cessationism as a systematic doctrine coincided with the decline of the influence of Reformed churches in the world today. If all we can offer is one man-made authority vs. another man-made authority, we are no better than the unregenerate out there.
This leads us to another covenantal purpose for the gifts, and specifically for the prophetic gift: legitimization of authority. Truly, in a sense the gifts are signs, as cessationists claim. But it is a false claim that prophecy in the New Testament was a sign for the authority of the word the Apostles were speaking. The Apostles were not expecting signs and wonders to prove them right; it was their authority in the church, not the truthfulness of their doctrine that needed legitimization. Such legitimization of authority was needed not only for the Apostles, it was needed for others as well, so the principle remains.
The best example of such “legitimization of authority” are Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Tim. 1:18:
This command I entrust to you, Timothy, my son, in accordance with the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you fight the good fight. . . .
The Greek text has two possible meanings here: (1) The prophecies “went forth before” Timothy, which means his ministry was predicted by them; or (2) the prophecies were “made before” towards Timothy so that he was instructed by them in his ministry. Either way, given that Paul himself is an Apostle, and the office of an Apostle is higher than that of a prophet, it sounds quite strange that Paul would rely on the authority of prophecies to give a command and admonishment to Timothy. There was no doubt in Timothy’s mind that Paul was an Apostle; there was no doubt that Paul was writing from God. And there was no doubt concerning the position of authority Paul had in the church. So why is Paul referring to prophecies if all he needs to do is to refer to his own already established authority of an Apostle, and give admonishment to Timothy based on that authority?
The answer is found in another place of Paul’s writings, Galatians 1:13—2:10. A careful reading of the passage shows that Paul contrasts revelation and authority that he received directly from God as superior to knowledge and acknowledgment he received from even the most distinguished among the Apostles. When he defends his authority of Apostle before the Galatians, he cares nothing for human endorsement; in fact he specifically says that when God revealed His Son directly to Paul, Paul did not “consult flesh and blood,” and in case it is still unclear what this means, he added, “nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me” (Gal. 1:16-17). It was apparently very important to Paul to emphasize the truth that authority directly confirmed by God in prophetic word supersedes authority confirmed or delegated by men, even if those men are the best of the Apostles. Neither was there any scriptural necessity for Paul to seek their endorsement; he says in the next chapter that he went to Jerusalem “by revelation,” and the Greek text specifically emphasizes this fact. Paul had worked before as an Apostle without having to ask for ordination and endorsement from men; he was appointed by God. It wasn’t until he had a revelation from God to go and present his case that he did go.
The principle, therefore, is this: prophecy legitimizes authority better than ordination by men does. That’s why Paul found it necessary to speak to Timothy about the prophecies that “went before” him. Not that Paul’s authority was insufficient; but that once God has spoken directly, Timothy had a higher legitimacy for his calling.
(Paul’s words also destroy another one of the cessationists arguments: the false appeal to the Wesminster Confession’s statement in 1:6, that since “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary” is given in Scripture, therefore we don’t need prophecies anymore. Paul says the same thing to Timothy in 2 Tim. 3:16-17; that Scripture is good to make man “complete,” and yet, he still finds it necessary to remind Timothy of the prophecies that “went before” him. Apparently, as far as Timothy is concerned, the completeness offered by Scripture was not threatened by the prophecies concerning him.)
The same principle is seen in action in Acts 1:23-26, in drawing lots for who would fill the “vacated position” of Judas. There was no principle in the Law that would forbid the eleven from choosing another apostle; but God’s direct decision would have a higher authority than all the councils of men. The principle of miraculous gifts confirming authority is also seen in the ministry of Jesus Himself. When John the Baptist lost his faith and started doubting the validity of Jesus’s ministry, Jesus reminded him of the signs accompanying His ministry and how those signs confirmed His authority (Matt. 11:2-6).
Of course, authority in the church doesn’t require supernatural confirmation all the time, and indeed, this is not the meaning of my argument. There is a legitimate place for human decisions (see, for example, Acts 6:1-6; Titus 1:5). But for human authority and decisions to be legitimate, they need to be open to prophetic correction, guidance, and encouragement when necessary. This is obvious from the function of the prophets in the Old Testament where even David, who could hear from God directly, had prophets who would correct him in his human decisions. In the New Testament Paul, with all his apostolic authority and revelatory gifts, still listened to prophetic guidance from another prophet, Agabus (Acts 21:10-11). If even Paul listened to prophetic guidance from others, how much more our modern church sessions should be open to hear prophetic words of correction and guidance?
A last issue needs to be covered under this function of the gifts: The issue of the prophetic office. The argument of cessationism is that the prophetic gift was rigidly connected to the prophetic “office” in the early church; and therefore, since the office has ceased, the gift has ceased too. This, of course, goes against the teachings and the practice of the Reformers. For example, a synthesis of Calvin’s commentaries on 1 Cor. 12-14 and Eph. 4 will show that Calvin believed the office to have ceased but the gift to be still valid and operational; therefore, there is no such rigid connection between gift and office. Such a connection would have made most Old Testament prophets false prophets since very few of them were ordained to office in the institutional church at the time. It would also create a problem with the mention in Acts 21 of the four daughters of Philip who prophesied. If prophetic gift always meant church office, then cessationists must argue for ordination of women. From there, if women can take one of the “offices” of the 5-fold ministry in Eph. 4:11; then women can be ordained to any of the other “offices” as well. The best solution to this problem is that there was no such office of “prophet” in the early church; it has always been a recognized gift without church administrative or judicial authority (hence the commandment for the others to “judge” the prophet in 1 Cor. 14). We don’t have examples of ordination of a prophet in the New Testament, and neither do we have examples of ordination of an apostle.
In fact, we can say that the prophetic gift is God’s way to “straighten” the church from above rather than from within; it is a way for God to establish or confirm or reject human authority through a word given outside the institutional framework of the church. A rejection of that function of prophecy is a humanistic endeavor of making the church a man-made institution, not a body of Jesus Christ. Let’s not forget that one of the accusations against the Pharisees was that they killed the prophets, thus rejecting God’s attempts at correcting Israel in her apostasy (Matt. 23:29-39).
- Ethics, Sanctification, Establishment
The folly of cessationism’s obsession with predictive prophecy and Deut. 18:20-22 is obvious also in Elijah’s complaint to God in 1 Ki. 19:10, 14:
I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
Here’s the greatest prophet in the Old Testament; the prophet whose name is the symbol for the prophetic ministry itself; the prophet who only had the privilege of all the prophets to be taken up in clouds, and later meet and talk to Jesus on the Mountain, together with Moses. If there’s a prophet who knows what the prophetic gift should be about, that would be Elijah; if there’s a prophet who knows what the focus and the function of prophetic ministry should be about, that is Elijah. And when he stands before God, Elijah is not concerned with the predictive aspect of his prophecies, but with the ethical sanctification of Israel. He has lost hope, his ministry seems to have been a failure. Why? Is it because of failed predictions? No, Elijah doesn’t have the childish view of prophecy and the foolish obsession with predictive prophecy that modern cessationists hold. He is a covenant theologian, he knows that the function of prophecy is the restoration of a people to the covenant, their obedience to the Law of God, and their establishment in the faith.
And indeed, of all the Old Testament prophets, there are very few that actually gave predictive prophecies, and even with those who did, a very small portion of their writings are predictive prophecies.
So, what are the bulk of their prophecies concerned with?
Ethics and sanctification: Calling Israel back to the Law of God, and in fact, in support of the Theonomic interpretation of the Bible; calling all the nations back to the Law of God. From Moses’s ministry (called prophetic in Deut. 18:15), through David’s Psalms and Solomon’s Proverbs, through the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, through all the prophets from Isaiah to Malachia, the concern is always this: “How do we restore Israel in the Covenant? How do we make the people return to the Law and the Testimony (Is. 8:19-20)?”
This function of prophecy is not limited to the Old Testament. The last promise in the Old Testament concerning the New Covenant states the restoration of the prophetic ministry in the following terms (notice, Elijah is mentioned again):
Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse (Mal. 4:5-6).
The promise is not that the prophetic ministry would be restored as clairvoyance so that cessationists can babble about Deuteronomy 18 all day long, the promise is that it would be restored so that hearts would be restored! The Old Testament truth that “where there is no prophetic vision, the people perish” (Prov. 29:18) is taken seriously in the New Covenant. God promises He won’t let His people perish in sin, and therefore He promises an abundance of prophetic visions (Joel 2-3, Acts 2). The New Covenant starts from sanctification in the heart (Jer. 31:33), and that sanctification in the heart is still a necessity today as it was before the Last Apostle died; therefore, to claim that prophecy has ceased is to miss a very important function of prophecy described in the Bible.
But do we see this function of prophecy really played out in the New Testament?
First, of course, we have the example of Jesus, Who “did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” Knowing “what is in man,” of course, is the first step to helping man with his sanctification. If sanctification begins in the heart, then the process of sanctification must start with a clear, thorough picture of the nature of man, and specifically of the man who is being counseled and helped with his sanctification. It is the promise of the New Covenant that the Law will be written in the hearts of men; there is some kind of inner change, inner transformation that needs to happen in man, in his view of God, himself, Law, judgment, and the future, for man to be sanctified. Calvin starts his Institutes with the claim that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves is mutually connected; and that knowledge is not rationalistic/metaphysical, nor magical/liturgical, but ethical/judicial: The right knowledge of ourselves sets us against the standard of God’s Law, and finds us lacking, so that “Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led by the hand to find Him.”
This tells us what the function was of Jesus’s supernatural knowledge of “what is in man”: To help man be conformed to the ethical demands of the Law of God, in his very heart and nature. In confirmation, the very next encounter of Jesus is with Nicodemus, where the same issue is brought up: How does man attain a new, sanctified nature?
The argument that such supernatural knowledge was reserved only for Jesus doesn’t stand the test of Scripture. First, the Old Testament prophets had the gift of discerning the hearts of their listeners (see, for example, 2 Kings 5:25-26). Second, John the Baptist had the gift of discerning hearts (Luke 3:7-8). Third, the gift of supernatural knowledge and the gift of discerning spirits are mentioned among the spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12:8-10. We also know of testimonies of gifts of discerning spirits and hearts in the lives of many of the heirs of the Reformation (Knox and Spurgeon, for example). It is clear that such discernment was given not to impress nor to entertain, but to help the listeners with their sanctification.
In agreement with this, Paul tells the Roman church the purpose of the spiritual gifts:
For I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established. . . . (Rom. 1:11).
That “establishment” is clearly, from the context, an establishment in the faith and in sanctification, in “bearing fruit.” To the Corinthians Paul gives one of the functions of speaking in tongues:
One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself. . . . (1 Cor. 14:4).
And what about prophecy? The function of prophecy, apparently, is to be the greatest gift, for it “edifies the whole church” (v. 4). And in order for the church to be edified, prophecy must be a supernatural gift, revealing the mysteries of the hearts, for Paul adds:
But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you (vv. 24-25).
All these—special knowledge, discerning of spirits, edification, disclosing the secrets of the heart—point to this very important ethical function of the spiritual gifts: sanctification, conviction of sin, and changing the nature of man to be conformed to the requirements of the Law of God.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the modern church has failed in its attempts to produce disciples at the same scale as the early church, or as the churches of the Reformation. If individual and corporate counseling, discipleship, and training are divorced from the direct participation of the Holy Spirit, they will be inevitably built on humanistic foundation. We should expect either that man’s theories and psychologies enter the church, or that counseling and discipleship be based on what Calvin called “bare interpretation of Scripture,” that is, a de-personalized, general, academic presentation of the Law without specific applications to the sanctification of a person or institution. A Christian counselor without the gift of knowledge or discerning spirits would be limited in his abilities to help start his listeners on the road to sanctification. And the issue of producing disciples has been returning with every generation of Christian ministries who have been unable to train their own intellectual and spiritual heirs. Human abilities can get you only so far. The rejection of the direct involvement of the Holy Spirit has its consequences.
And we didn’t even mention here the thoroughly Biblical issue of casting out demons. Cessationists seldom mention this aspect of the practices described in the New Testament; cessationism as a doctrine is not able to explain it nor to recognize it as an issue. If the gifts have ceased—and with them the discerning of spirits—does that mean that demons have ceased too? If they haven’t, what is the process of casting them out without the direct involvement of the Spirit? This alone may take another article to cover. But sanctification sometimes does require casting out demons; and the Bible is very clear that sin and perversion may be the result not just of a person’s sin, but of a person’s direct subjection to personal spiritual forces. (See the example of Mary Magdalene and other women in Luke 8:2.) How does modern counseling deal with such cases, where no sanctification is possible before spiritual deliverance is first administered?
End of Part 2
This article was originally posted by Bojidar Marinov one year ago.
About Bojidar Marinov:
A Reformed missionary to his native Bulgaria for over 10 years, Bojidar preaches and teaches doctrines of the Reformation and a comprehensive Biblical worldview. Having founded Bulgarian Reformation Ministries in 2001, he and his team have translated over 30,000 pages of Christian literature about the application of the Law of God in every area of man’s life and society, and published those translations online for free. He has been active in the formation of the Libertarian movement in Bulgaria, a co-founder of the Bulgarian Society for Individual Liberty and its first chairman. If you would like Bojidar to speak to your church, home-school group or other organization, contact him through his website: http://www.bulgarianreformation.com/