Only for a Time

I was interested to see that the cessationism/continuitionism issue is surfacing again--due to Matt Chandler's recent sermon, "A Supernatural Community and a Personal Word." Matt's introductory argument is as follows: Many Christians do not experience the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. tongues, prophecy, knowledge, healings, etc.); therefore, they have wrongly concluded that the extraordinary gifts have ceased and that everything in the book of Acts is merely history. Without wanting to analyze and critique Matt's arguments here in any sort of detailed way, I do want to make a few important observations about the fallacy of that argument in particular, based on the biblical rationale for cessationism.

First, it is unfair and uncharitable for someone to insist that brothers and sisters in Christ have adopted a cessationist understanding of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit simply because they have not experienced them in their lives. In fact, all the cessationists I personally know are convinced by the teaching of Scripture that tongues, prophecy and mediated extraordinary healings have ceased. After all, the word "cease" comes straight out of 1 Corinthians 13:8, where the Apostle Paul said, "As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away." 

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul contrasts three of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. tongues, prophecy and knowledge) with three of the ordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. faith, hope and love). He then says that the extraordinary gifts would cease and pass away, while the ordinary gifts would remain. Finally, Paul teaches that love is the greatest because love endures forever. Elsewhere, Paul teaches that "faith will be turned to sight," and "hope that is seen is not hope." He is clearly intimating that during the New Covenant era of redemptive history, faith, hope and love would continue, while, at some point, tongues, prophecy and knowledge would cease. Then, after the consummation, only love would remain. That's why love is the greatest of the gifts of the Spirit! 

Believers should be far more zealous for a manifestation of the Spirit's power in their lives resulting in the formation of the ordinary gifts of the Spirit (i.e. the fruit of the Spirit) than they should be for temporal and foundational extraordinary gifts. To reverse the order is to fall into the same error as that which the Corinthians had fallen into. In so doing, we may inadvertantly be undermining the force of the argument Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 13. 

Concerning the foundational nature of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, the Apostle Paul employed the word foundation when he says in Ephesians 2:20, that the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone."1 The Apostles and NT prophets were instrumental in laying the foundation of the New Covenant church. In Ephesians 3:4-5, the Apostle explains that the setting forth of the mystery of Christ in the Scripture was the end goal of the foundational work of the Apostles and prophets. He explained this when he wrote:

"When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit."

Finally, Paul lists the Apostles and prophets among the gift officers that Christ gave His church after ascending to heaven. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul writes, "He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ." In short, if there are no more Apostles (and Paul made it clear that he was the last Apostle - see 1 Cor. 15:8), then there are no more prophets either. The grammatical construct "Apostles and prophets" was used to delineate a special redemptive-historical provision for the foundation of the New Covenant church. Anyone who has ever built a house knows that you only lay a foundation once! 

Second, the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, given in the Apostolic age, were in fact (contra to Chandler's instance) signs of the coming of the Kingdom of God to the nations. The Apostle Paul explicitly highlighted the sign nature of the gifts, as being attached to the Apostolic ministry, when he wrote, "The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works" (2 Cor. 12:12). This is also the reason why we find the Apostles giving the Spirit and the gifts by the laying on of their hands. 

While there has been much debate over whether John Calvin was a cessationist or a continuationist, Calvin's comments on Acts 2:38 should suffice to help settle the question. There, Calvin explained that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit "lasted only for a time:"

"Because Christ meant to set forth the beginning of his kingdom with those miracles, they lasted only for a time; yet because the visible graces which the Lord did distribute to his did shoe, as it were in a glass, that Christ was the giver of the Spirit, therefore, that which Peter saith doth in some respect appertain unto all the whole Church: ye shall receive the gift of the Spirit. For although we do not receive it, that we may speak with tongues, that we may be prophets, that we may cure the sick, that we may work miracles; yet is it given us for a better use, that we may believe with the heart unto righteousness, that our tongues may be framed unto true confession, (Romans 10:10) that we may pass from death to life, (John 5:24) that we, which are poor and empty, may be made rich, that we may withstand Satan and the world stoutly."

Concerning the laying on of the hands of the Apostles in the imparting of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, Calvin explained, in his comments on Acts 19:6, that it was "a grace which was to last only for a time." He wrote:

"This laying on of hands...was a grace which was to last only for a time, which was showed by that sign, it is a perverse and ridiculous thing to retain the sign since the truth is taken away. There is another respect of baptism and the supper, wherein the Lord doth testify that those gifts are laid open for us, which the Church shall enjoy even until the end of the world. Wherefore we must diligently and wisely distinguish perpetual sacraments from those which last only for a time, lest vain and frivolous visures [semblances] have a place among the sacraments." 

Knowing full well, that I haven't even scratched the surface of this unceasing debate (pun intended), I do hope that what I have written will disabuse anyone of the notion that cessationists, simply on account of a lack of personal experience, have convinced themselves that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit have ceased--and, that they have, therefore, misread the Bible. One could argue by way of sanctified biblical logic that a lack of experiencing the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit is squarely in keeping with the biblical teaching about their cessation! 

1. For a fuller defense of the exegesis of the grammatical construct, see R. Fowler White's article, "Gaffin and Grudem on Ephesians 2:20".