3. The third argument for cessationism pertains to the alleged negative assessment given by many to the nature, purpose and impact of signs, wonders and miracles in the NT. I had been taught and believed that it was an indication of spiritual immaturity to seek signs in any sense, that it was a weak faith, born of theological ignorance, that prayed for healing or a demonstration of divine power. Some are even more pointed in their opinion. James Boice, in his contribution to the recent book Power Religion, quotes with approval the sentiment of John Woodhouse, to the effect that “a desire for further signs and wonders is sinful and unbelieving.”
But consider, for example, Acts 4:29-31, which records this prayer of the church in Jerusalem:
“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bondservants may speak Thy word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders takes place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.”
This text is important for at least two reasons: it shows that it is good to pray for signs and wonders, that it is not evil or a sign of emotional and mental imbalance to petition God for demonstrations of his power; and, secondly, it shows that there is no necessary or inherent conflict between miracles and the message, between wonders and the word of the cross. Let me take each of these points in turn.
First, it is good and helpful and honoring to the Lord Jesus Christ to seek and pray for the demonstration of his power in healing, signs and wonders.
But what about Mt. 12:39 and Mt. 16:4? Doesn’t Jesus denounce as wicked and adulterous those who “crave” and “seek” after signs (cf. 1 Cor. 1:22)? Yes, but note well whom he is addressing and why they are denounced. These are unbelieving scribes and Pharisees, not children of God. These who made such demands of Christ had no intention of following him. “Seeking signs from God is ‘wicked and adulterous’ when the demand for more and more evidence comes from a resistant heart and simply covers up an unwillingness to believe” (John Piper). Seeking signs as a pretext for criticizing Jesus or from a hankering to see the sensational is rightly rebuked. But that certainly wasn’t the motivation of the early church, nor need it be ours. Perhaps an illustration will help. John Piper explains:
“If we are carrying on a love affair with the world, and our husband, Jesus, after a long separation comes to us and says, ‘I love you and I want you back,’ one of the best ways to protect our adulterous relationship with the world is to say, ‘You’re not really my husband; you don’t really love me. Prove it. Give me some sign.’ If that’s the way we demand a sign, we are a wicked and adulterous generation. But if we come to God with a heart aching with longing for vindication of his glory and the salvation of sinners, then we are not wicked and adulterous. We are a faithful wife, only wanting to honor our husband.”
Do you come to God insistent on a miracle, being prompted by an unbelieving heart that demands He put on a show before you will obey him? Or do you come humbly, in prayer, with a desire to glorify God in the display of his power and an equal desire to minister his mercy and compassion and love to those in need? The former, God condemns. The latter, he commends.
Second, the power of signs and wonders does not dilute the power of the gospel nor is there any inherent inconsistency or conflict between wonders and the word.
Still, there are those who appeal to Rom. 1:16 and 1 Cor. 1:18,22-23, texts that assert the centrality of the cross and the power of the gospel to save (theological truths to which all of us, I am sure, wholeheartedly subscribe). But who wrote these passages? Was it not Paul, the same man who described his evangelistic ministry as one characterized by the “power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:19)? Was it not Paul, the same man who wrote 1 Cor. 12-14 and about whom most of Acts, with all its miraculous phenomena, is concerned? Was it not Paul, the same man whose message and preaching came “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4)? Was it not Paul, the same man who reminded the Thessalonians that the gospel did not come to them “in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”?
And here I speak reverently when I say that if there is an inherent inconsistency or conflict between miracles and the message then someone forgot to inform God, for it was He, according to Acts 14:3, “who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands.” If signs and wonders dilute the word of God’s grace, if signs and wonders detract from the centrality of the cross, if signs and wonders reflect a loss of confidence in the power of the gospel, someone should have told the Almighty about it for He seems to have thought differently on the matter. If there is a conflict between wonders and the word, it is in our minds that the problem exists. It isn’t in Paul’s mind. And it certainly isn’t in God’s.
Signs and wonders and miraculous phenomena could not save a soul then nor can they now. The power unto salvation is in the Holy Spirit working through the gospel of the cross of Christ. But such miraculous phenomena “can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest; they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion. Like every other good witness to the word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines" (Piper; cf. Acts 9).
Furthermore, be it noted that if any generation was least in need of supernatural authentication, it was that of the early church. Yet they prayed earnestly for signs and wonders. Remember:
“This was the generation whose preaching (of Peter and Stephen and Phillip and Paul) was more anointed than the preaching of any generation following. If any preaching was the power of God unto salvation and did not need accompanying signs and wonders, it was this preaching. Moreover, this was the generation with more immediate and compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection than any generation since. Hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Lord were alive in Jerusalem. If any generation in the history of the church knew the power of preaching and the authentication of the gospel from first-hand evidence of the resurrection, it was this one. Yet it was they who prayed passionately for God to stretch forth His hand in signs and wonders” (Piper).
Others have argued that signs, wonders and miracles breed a spirit of triumphalism inconsistent with the call to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Those who desire and pray for the miraculous, so goes the charge, do not take seriously the painful realities of living in a fallen world. Weakness, afflictions, persecution and suffering are an inevitable part of living in the “not-yet” of the kingdom.
But when I read the NT, I see no inherent conflict between signs and suffering. And be it known that it is the NT, not the posturing or glitz of certain TV evangelists, that must be allowed to decide the issue. Paul certainly sensed no incompatibility between the two, for they were both characteristic of his life and ministry. As C. K. Barrett put it, “Miracles were no contradiction of the theologia crucis he proclaimed and practised, since they were performed not in a context of triumphant success and prosperity, but in the midst of the distress and vilification he was obliged to endure.”
As John Piper has said, “Paul’s ‘thorn’ [in the flesh] no doubt pressed deeper with every healing he performed.” His own personal trials and afflictions did not lead him to renounce the miraculous in his ministry. Nor did the supernatural displays of God’s power lead him into a naive, “Pollyanna” outlook on the human condition. Again, if signs and suffering are incompatible, one must look somewhere other than in the Bible to prove it.
4. A fourth argument pertains to the closing, completion, and sufficiency of the canon of Scripture. Signs, wonders and miraculous gifts accompanied and attested to the truth of the gospel until such time as the last word of canonical Scripture was written. The need for such manifestations of divine power therein ceased. The Bible itself has replaced miraculous phenomena in the life of the church.
There are several problems with this argument.
In the first place, the Bible itself never says any such thing. No biblical author of whom I am aware ever claims that written Scripture has replaced or in some sense supplanted the need for signs, wonders and the like.
Secondly, why would the presence of the completed canon preclude the need for miraculous phenomena? If signs, wonders and the power of the Holy Spirit were essential in bearing witness to the truth of the gospel then, why not now? In other words, it seems reasonable to assume that the miracles which confirmed the gospel in the first century, wherever it was preached, would serve no less to confirm the gospel in subsequent centuries, even our own.
Thirdly, which is greater: Jesus or the written word? Which is greater: the Son of God or the Bible? Jesus, of course! But if signs, wonders and miracles were essential in the physical presence of the Son of God, how much more so now in his absence! Surely we are not prepared to suggest that the Bible, for all its glory, is sufficient to do what Jesus couldn’t. Jesus thought it necessary to utilize the miraculous phenomena of the Holy Spirit to attest and confirm his ministry. If it was essential for him, how much more so for us. In other words, if the glorious presence of the Son of God himself did not preclude the need for miraculous phenomena, how dare we suggest that our possession of the Bible does?
5. Yet another argument is from church history: “If the so-called miracle or sign gifts of the Holy Spirit are valid for Christians beyond the death of the apostles, why were they absent from church history until their alleged reappearance in the twentieth century?”
To argue that all such gifts were utterly non-existent is to ignore a significant body of evidence. After studying the documentation for claims to the presence of these gifts, D. A. Carson’s conclusion is that “there is enough evidence that some form of ‘charismatic’ gifts continued sporadically across the centuries of church history that it is futile to insist on doctrinaire grounds that every report is spurious or the fruit of demonic activity or psychological aberration” (Showing the Spirit, 166).
If the gifts were sporadic, there may be an explanation other than the theory that they were restricted to the first century.
· Limited access to the Scriptures
· Theological ignorance
· Spiritual lethargy
I don't think it at all unlikely that numerous churches which advocated cessationism experienced these gifts but dismissed them as something less than the miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The ministry of Charles Spurgeon is a case in point. Consider the following account taken from his autobiography:
“While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’ A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man, ‘I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul’” (The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon [London: Curts & Jennings, 1899], 2:226-27).
Spurgeon then adds this comment:
“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (ibid., 227).
My opinion is that this is a not uncommon example of what the Apostle Paul described in 1 Cor. 14:24-25. Spurgeon exercised the gift of prophecy (or some might say the word of knowledge, 1 Cor. 12:8). He did not label it as such, but that does not alter the reality of what the Holy Spirit accomplished through him. If one were to examine Spurgeon’s theology and ministry, as well as recorded accounts of it by his contemporaries as well as subsequent biographers, most would conclude from the absence of explicit reference to miraculous charismata such as prophecy and the word of knowledge that such gifts had been withdrawn from church life. But Spurgeon’s own testimony inadvertently says otherwise!
If we concede that certain spiritual gifts were less prevalent than others in the history of the church, their absence may well be due to unbelief, apostasy, and other sins that serve only to quench and grieve the Holy Spirit. Both theological ignorance of certain biblical truths and a loss of experiential blessings provided by spiritual gifts can be, and should be, attributed to factors other than the suggestion that God intended such knowledge and power only for believers in the early church.
Finally, what has or has not occurred in church history is not the ultimate standard by which to judge what we should pursue, pray for, and expect in the life of our churches today. The final criterion for deciding whether God wants to bestow certain spiritual gifts on his people today is the Word of God. It is unwise to cite the alleged absence of a particular experience in the life of an admired saint from the church’s past as reason for doubting its present validity. Neither the failure nor success of Christians in days past is the ultimate standard by which we determine what God wants for us today. We can learn from their mistakes as well as their achievements. But the only question of ultimate relevance for us and for this issue is: “What saith the Scripture?”
6. Sixth, and finally, there is another reason why I remained for years committed to the doctrine of cessationism. It isn’t based on any particular text or theological principle and yet it probably exercised more of an influence on my life and mind than all of the other arguments combined.
I’m talking about fear: the fear of emotionalism, the fear of fanaticism, the fear of the unfamiliar, the fear of rejection by those whose respect I cherished and whose friendship I did not want to forfeit, the fear of what might occur were I fully to relinquish control of my life and mind and emotions to the Holy Spirit, the fear of losing what little status in the evangelical community that I had worked so hard to attain.
I’m talking about the kind of fear that energized a personal agenda to distance myself from anything that had the potential to link me with people who I believed were an embarrassment to the cause of Christ. I was faithful to the eleventh commandment of Bible-church evangelicalism: “Thou shalt not do at all what others do poorly.” In my conceit and pride I had unconsciously allowed certain extremists to exercise more of an influence on the shape of my ministry than I did the text of Scripture. Fear of being labeled or linked or in some way associated with the “unlearned” and “unattractive” elements in contemporary Christendom exercised an insidious power on my ability and willingness to be objective in the reading of Holy Scripture.
I’ve learned an important lesson, far beyond the point at issue in this study. I’ve learned, in the words of J. I. Packer, that “the reaction of man worketh not the righteousness of God.” Packer explains it this way:
“If you are walking backward away from something you think is a mistake, you may be right in supposing it is a mistake, but for you to be walking backward is never right. Sooner or later people who walk backward in the physical sense stumble over some obstacle behind them which they never saw, because their minds and their eyes were fixed on what they were trying to get away from, and then they fall. We are meant to walk forward, not backward. Reaction is always a matter of walking backward, and thus it brings its own nemesis.”
I believe all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are valid for the contemporary church for these reasons.
First, there is the absence of any biblical evidence indicating they are not valid. This is not, however, a mere argument from silence, because the NT is anything but silent concerning the presence of the charismata in the church. If certain gifts of a special class have ceased, the burden of proof is on the cessationist to prove it.
Second, the ultimate purpose of each gift is to build up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:3,26). Nothing that I read in the NT nor see in the condition of the church in any age, past or present, leads me to believe we have progressed beyond the need for edification and therefore beyond the need for the contribution of the charismata. I freely admit that spiritual gifts were essential for the birth of the church, but why would they be any less important or needful for its continued growth and maturation?
Third, four texts come to mind. 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 implies that the gifts of the Spirit are operative until “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). Ephesians 4:11-13 explicitly dates the duration of the gifts. They are required “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ” (v. 13). In 1 Corinthians 14:39 Paul commands “the brethren,” among whom I include myself, “desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.” And despite the controversy that still surrounds it, I remain convinced that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 dates the cessation of the charismata at the perfection of the eternal state, consequent upon Christ’s return.
Fourth, I believe that the charismata are designed by God to characterize the life of the church today for much the same reason I believe in church discipline for today and in rule by a plurality of elders for today and in the observance of the Lord’s Supper for today and in a host of other biblical practices and patterns explicitly ordained in the NT and nowhere explicitly designated as temporary or restricted to the first century.
Fifth, and finally, I do not believe the Holy Spirit simply inaugurates the new age and then disappears. He, together with His gifts and fruit, characterizes the new age. As D. A. Carson has said, “the coming of the Spirit is not associated merely with the dawning of the new age but with its presence, not merely with Pentecost but with the entire period from Pentecost to the return of Jesus the Messiah.” Spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and related revelatory phenomena such as dreams and visions, are explicitly said by Peter to be the fruit of the outpouring of the Spirit, the latter being the evidence for the advent and presence of the "last days" (Acts 2:17ff.).