The Christian Walk: Lesson 14: Walk in the Spirit, part 3 – The Permanence of Spiritual Gifts
Theologians and Christians of all stripes differ in their opinions on the permanence of the sign gifts. Without doubt, the sign gifts were miraculous by their very purpose (cf. Heb 2:4, “gifts” is literally “powerful deeds, works of power.” These are classed with miracles, signs, and wonders.). We cannot deny that these miraculous gifts existed among the apostles and within the early church. But were the miraculous gifts were designed to be permanent?
- Essentially, there are only two sides of the debate: either the miraculous sign gifts persist into the present as practiced in the early church or they do not. A “cessationist” says that the sign gifts have ceased or are no longer practiced as the NT describes them. A “continuationist” asserts that the miraculous gifts have persisted and will continue throughout the church age. There is no middle ground.
- Most of the argument revolves around whether God is still directly communicating with man today outside of Scripture. Are the miraculous revelatory gifts still operational? Either God is speaking today apart from His Word or He is not.
- If so, then the Scriptures are not a sufficient guide for Christian life, and the church must comply with additional prophecy as it’s revealed.
- If not, then the church must reject and expose the fraudulent claims of modern so-called prophets, especially when they contradict Scripture.
- Various views
- Pentecostal/Charismatic/Thirdwave: All miraculous gifts exist today, including the gift of prophecy (and possibly the office of apostle). God speaks through prophets and to His people both audibly (through dreams, visions, words of knowledge), and inwardly (inaudibly in the mind or heart). Anything is possible; one should not “put God in a box.” E.g., Jack Deere, John Wimber, the Kansas City Prophets, the Assemblies of God and the Word of Faith movement.
- Mysticism/Spiritual Formation: By employing various disciplines and spiritual exercises, God will speak to us both audibly and inaudibly. The maturing Christian should expect to hear the voice of God on a regular basis, independent from Scripture, and that voice will reveal God’s individual, specific will for his life. E.g., Henry Blackaby, Beth Moore, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mark Driscoll and C. J. Mahaney. Some of these might be considered “open but cautious.”
- Cessationist: All miraculous gifts, including prophecy and tongues, have ceased by God’s intentional design. The sign gifts were given specifically to the apostles (and some associates) for the founding of the NT church but did not persist after the apostolic era. E.g., Jonathan Edwards, BB Warfield, John MacArthur, Charles Ryrie, RC Sproul.
Charismatic influence permeates most of the evangelical world today, as well as most of the main line denominations. Estimates suggests that almost 600 million professing Christians endorse charismatic practices (i.e., they are continuationists to some degree). By comparison, only about 285 million believers identify themselves as Evangelical (and many of these would be charismatic). About 35% of Americans claim to be either Pentecostal or charismatic. Although just 8% of the population is evangelical, half of evangelical adults (49%) fit the charismatic definition. A slight majority of all “born again” Christians (51%) is charismatic. Nearly half of all adults who attend a Protestant church (46%) are charismatic. One out of every four Protestant churches in the United States (23%) is a charismatic congregation. Four out of every ten non-denominational churches are charismatic. So the continuationist perspective is much more common today than the cessationist position is. However, numbers do not necessarily indicate faithfulness to truth (e.g., the RCC has about 1B members, more are Muslims).
- Biblical rationale for cessationism
- Revelatory gifts (prophecy, tongues, interpretation of tongues, etc.) were necessary during the founding of the church. Once the apostolic era ended, those gifts were no longer needed. The principle that determined which gifts remained in the church and which ones ceased is that of miracle. Once the transition from Law to Grace was made (John 1:17) and the NT was completed, the miraculous gifts were no longer necessary.
- Apostles and prophets were foundational in the church (Eph 2:20); they served at the beginning of the church. Once the foundation was laid, there was no longer any need for miracles to validate the message of the apostles.
- The word “apostle” refers to a particular set of people who had abilities to perform miracles (2 Cor 12:12). The only NT apostles were the Twelve, Paul, and perhaps Barnabas and James. The sign and revelatory gifts are mostly associated with the apostles or with the apostolic age (Acts 2:43; 5:12).
- The office of apostle has not continued; it did not pass to the next generation. Paul claims that he was the last of the class of those who had seen Jesus, a requirement for apostles (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor 15:8). In fact, Paul’s apostleship did not fit the pattern in some ways (e.g., he was not a companion with Jesus during His earthly ministry).
- In the years following the founding of the church, miracle-working power did not seem to be associated with particular individuals. For example, Paul, who had done miracles, did not exercise that power all the time (see Phil 2:26-27; 1 Tim 5:23; 2 Tim 4:20). In James 5:14, the instruction is to call the elders of the church to pray for healing, not to call a miracle-working apostle. This suggests that miracle-working ability slowly ceased.
- As the NT canon nears its close, the divinely inspired authors unite in pointing their readers to the apostles as the inspired human source of truth. They did not point their readers to new or fresh revelation but to the words spoken previously by the prophets and apostles. See 2 Tim 4:1-5; 2 Pet 3:2; Jude 17; Rev 22:18-19.
- The nature of miracles
- A miracle is an event in nature, so extraordinary in itself, and so coinciding with a prophecy or a command of a religious teacher or leader, as to convince those who witness it that God has done it, thereby certifying that this teacher or leader has been commissioned by Him. A sign points to something or certifies something, namely, that a teacher is speaking for God. Miraculous sign gifts authenticated the apostles as official spokesmen for Jesus Christ. See 1 Kings 17:20-24; John 3:2, 20:30; Acts 2:22; 14:3; Heb 2:2-4.
- God can certainly still do miracles (Mt 19:26). But most claims of the miraculous today don’t fit the biblical pattern. Jesus and the Apostles instantly and completely healed people who were blind, paralyzed, deformed, or dead. Biblical miracles are usually immediate and permanent, unlike much of what passes for “signs and wonders” today.
- Most miracles happened in one of three relatively brief periods of biblical history: in the days of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the time of Christ and the Apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a hundred years. But even during those three eras, miracles were not normal occurrences that happened to average people. Miracles were uncommon and isolated events; that’s what made them special.
- Miracles are usually associated with giving of revelation. Since the Bible is complete and the apostles are gone, God’s revelation is finished. Through many signs and wonders, God has authenticated the truth of the Bible. Do we need ongoing miracles to substantiate the Bible? No. The Scripture has been attested; the foundation has been adequately laid. The need for such miracles no longer exists.
Note the Quote: There are no miracle-workers performing miraculous signs to attest the redemptive revelation they bring from God…. The progress of redemptive revelation attested by miraculous signs done by miracle-workers has been brought to a conclusion in the revelation embodied in our New Testaments.
- Other Considerations
- The key theological epistles of the NT (Romans, Galatians, Ephesians), along with the Pastoral Epistles (Timothy and Titus) mention nothing about employing miraculous sign gifts. If these gifts persisted and were normal, one would think the epistles would say something about their use.
- If genuine, biblically legitimate miracles were continuing today as a normal pattern among God’s people, no believer would deny it. But such is manifestly not happening. We do not see the same kind of sign-gift activities in the church after the death of the apostles. The contemporary experience of continuationists is clearly not the same as we find in the NT.
- An emphasis on the miraculous often leads to an obsession with sensational experiences, which in turn almost inevitably lead to fraud and abuse. Sign gifts can be and often are faked or used by false prophets (just as Jesus warned in Mt 7:22). They are a means by which confusion, disorder, and heresy can enter into the church. False prophecies undermine confidence in the truth of God and in His declarations to His people in Scripture. We see many evidences of such fraud and abuse within the charismatic movement. Many practices in that movement fail to pass the “decent and in order” test (1 Cor 14:40).
- Signs and wonders are not the true test of God’s presence or power. The only true test of whether a person or a movement is from God is teaching and behavior that conforms to the Word of God. The highest expression of God’s power in the world today is not some spectacular, unusual sign or wonder but the transformation of a soul from darkness to light, from death to life. Regeneration, sanctification, and the presences of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) mark genuine believers, not miraculous signs.
- Historically speaking, the signs ceased soon after the close of the apostolic era. Other than a few fringe groups, Christians did not practice or expect the sign gifts between the time of the apostles and the rise of Pentecostalism in the early 20th century.
- God is perfectly capable of doing anything, including miracles, according to his purpose and will. God can work sovereignly and supernaturally in any way he chooses. But God’s intent and purpose for the miraculous sign gifts seems to have been limited to the founding of the church and not the entire church age.
Note the Quote: Scripture contains everything that the Christian needs in order to be “complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17). Therefore, let us not be shaken by the claims of those who state we must experience the miraculous sign-gifts in order for our Christianity to be whole, our Gospel to be full, or our lives to be God-honoring.