Did the Gifts of the Spirit Die Away? A brief response to Cessationism  

The reformers of the sixteenth century sought to restore many points of Christian doctrine. In doing so, they clashed with the Catholic church to the point where they were excommunicated, and even put to death. One of the arguments that the Catholic church used in its attempt to disprove the entire reformation movement was that the reformers lacked the miracles that had accompanied both the original twelve apostles in the New Testament, as well as those that the church claimed had taken place throughout their line of Catholic apostolic succession in the centuries that followed. Because the reformers lacked miracles, the Catholic church was saying that this was proof that the movement was not of God.

In response, the Reformers, like John Calvin, helped formalized the notion of cessationism—a view that claims that the miracles/gifts of the Spirit as seen in the New Testament (divine healings, prophesy, speaking in tongues, etc.) ceased when the original apostles died. Armed with cessationism, the reformers like John Calvin were able to respond to the Catholic church saying that they didn’t need to produce miracles to validate their message—those sorts of things don’t, or only very rarely happen anymore. Thus, with the miracles and gifts of the Spirit declared dead, the reformers were free from having to back up their message via miraculous signs of authenticity. They could just preach their reformed message and that was good enough for validation.

Although the doctrine of cessationism has been tweaked over the centuries, most denominations that still hold this belief (which are in reality not that many) affirm these points:

–  the purpose behind the first-century miracles was to give proof to mankind that what the apostles were preaching and testifying to was divine and true.

– the revelation of Christ via the New Testament had not yet been written; therefore the early church needed a temporary guide into truth until the Biblical canon was complete. In response to the lack of a completed canon, God gave supernatural spiritual gifts to help the church get started and stay on track.

– once the New Testament had been written by the apostles, the charismatic gifts were no longer needed because the full revelation of Christ was now available via new scripture. Thereafter, God ceased from giving out these gifts, and now no longer distributes them because we have a perfected canon.

Volumes of materials have been written in response against cessationism. Without going into my own elaborate academic polemic, or sharing my own charismatic personal experiences as proof, I will offer up five simple points that refute this doctrine:

#1: The gifts never died out with the apostles. It’s quite common knowledge that many of the early church fathers up through the 3rd and 4th centuries (including Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, etc.) affirmed that the gifts were still present during their own time—and it doesn’t stop there. If we move beyond the 4th century, when the Catholic church first took over as the state religion, there are countless other groups of Christians up through the 20th century that are documented with having spiritual gifts present among their ranks. 2000 Years of Charismatic Christianity by Eddie L Hyatt is a great book that details the rich history of spiritual gifts the the church has experienced post first-century Christianity.

Why then is the abundant presence of spiritual gifts throughout our Christian history not more widely known?

Recall to mind that anything between the 4th century up through the time of the reformers into the 16th century that didn’t fit within the confines of the Catholic church was viewed as heresy. Many of these non-Catholic charismatic believers were heavily persecuted, left on the outskirts, or recorded in a negative light. Therefore much of the history of charismaticism was recorded as heretical and downplayed just because these groups were not operating under the banner of the Catholic church.

Furthermore, the sixteenth-century reformation movement was not focused on a restoration of spiritual gifts or charismania. It was focused on putting the Bible as the ultimate authority ahead of church tradition. Thus, the movement was not even trying to revive the charismatic aspects of the early church, and, as one would expect, the gifts were not a major point of reform. The charismatic reformation wouldn’t happen until the early 1900’s with folks such as William Seymore and Charles Fox Parham leading the charge.

#2: There is absolutely nothing in scripture that indicates that the charismatic gifts would ever cease or die out. If someone were to ask, “where exactly in the Bible does it say that miracles and the gifts of the Spirit would eventually end?”, it would be impossible to find such a reference. Such passages simply don’t exist.

When Jesus spoke about the gifts, as recorded in Mark 16, and when the apostles ministered the gifts in the New Testament, those passages give no implications that the gifts would ever cease.

However, those who affirm cessation theory will usually cite one particular passage from the New Testament epistles that they believe supports their position:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I Corinthians 13:8-13 – NIV

I agree, this passage DOES say that one day the gifts of the Spirit (prophecy, tongues, gifts of knowledge, and so on) will eventually become obsolete and die away. I totally agree.

The question to us is WHEN this will happen.

In this passage, Paul says that at the moment the gifts of the Spirit crease we will also see something “face to face“.

What is this something we will see face to face?

Here Paul is referring to is the time of Jesus’s second coming. The apostle John echoes the same hope when he says, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.“( I John 3:2).

As believers in Jesus we have one hope: that Jesus will soon return, bring about the resurrection of the dead, and then remain among us as king. He will bring peace, social and moral justice, order, and a restore the earth to a state that is not locked under the confines and constraints of the kingdom of darkness and it’s death. It is at HIS appearance and return that we realize our final hope. No longer will we need to encourage each other via prophesy, or share a word in tongues to edify each other, or lay hands on each other to bring forth a mircaouls healing. At Jesus’s return, we will be one and together with Him. He will restore all things to the goodness and glory that He originally intended His creatures to have. He will encourage us, He will edify us, He will know all things, and He will heal us. 

It is Jesus’s second coming to which Paul is referring when he describes us being able to see completeness/perfection “face to face“. When we see Christ in His fullness at His second coming it will mark the end of the cosmic battle between death and life, good and evil, and God and Satan. This will be the time when God’s perfected rule will fill the earth and the heavens. Jesus will hand the kingdom to the Father (I Cor. 15:24), and our great struggle with evil and entropy will be over.   

If that doesn’t blow cessationist doctrine out of the water, this will.  Lets read the apostle Paul’s words from I Corinthians 1:4-8 where we can see exactly how long the charismatic gifts were intended to last up until:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”   

The Corinthian church lacked no spiritual gift, and Paul was thankful to God for that. He says it is good for them to have all these gifts, and not be lacking anything, while they wait.

What were they waiting for? As this passage says, “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

When would this revealing come? As this passage goes on to say, “who[Jesus] will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ

Paul spoke of this day in many place in his writings (Philippians 1:3-6, I Cor. 5:5, 2 Thess 1:10, 2:2, 2 Tim 1:12, to name a few). When reading these passage there clearly can be no other interpretation than the apostle Paul is referring to the day when the Lord Jesus returns to the earth for final judgement. This, then, is the “day” that Paul is referring in I Corinthians 1:4-8. Paul is thankful that the Corinthians have an abundance of spiritual gifts to encourage and edify them until they are no longer needed at Christ’s return.

So then, how long did Paul expect the gifts to last? According to I Corinthians 1:4-8 that we just looked at, all the way until the Lord’s second cominguntil the “day” of the Lord.  

Looking back at the cessationist proof text of I Corinthians 13, when I think about prophecies ceasing, tongues ceasing, and supernatural knowledge ceasing, it is undeniable that this is specifically talking about Christ’s second coming. However, cessationists continue to claim that I Corinthians 13:8-13 is not referring to Jesus’ return, but must be referring to the completion of the Biblical canon. They say that the perfection/completeness that the apostle Paul cites is not the second coming of the messiah, but is the closing of the New Testament writings—the finishing of the New Testament. Could this be what the apostle Paul was referring to? Was the completion of the New Testament what everyone was waiting for? Hardly. 

Waiting for a complete New Testament canon goes against the very preaching that the apostles did. The apostles had no problem with proclaiming the message of Jesus, the full message, by using the Old Testament scriptures alone.

The Old Testament was the foundation the apostle Paul balanced his gospel upon (Acts 17:11, 18:28). Jesus had fulfilled the scriptures, not added to them. The apostles did not need a New Testament to enable them to more fully preach Christ to the nations. They were already doing that! The apostle Paul said that, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Act2 20:27 NIV). Paul had been able to fully preach Christ without a New Testament. And apparently it wasn’t that hard for him to do so either. He had unmatched success.  

Instead of pointing people to a new/additional book(s) that need to be followed/revered, the apostles became living epistles who were bearing out the testimony of Jesus in themselves (II Corinthians 3:2-3). thereby compelling people to follow a person, not a book. God’s message of love, restoration, life, and casting out the kingdom of darkness was not something that needed to be validated and recorded on paper so that it could be something from the past that we should now believe in. The gospel was a tangible message of real-life, right-now transformation that was to be lived and carried out as a continual witness to the goodness and faithfulness of God. The New Testament we have collected is just a composite of books that best documents what the fullness of the gospel looked like among our early predecessors. And thank God we have it as a reference, because we have many times over history strayed away from its full gospel of miracles, signs, wonders, and gifts of the Spirit. 

For the apostles, all of the fullness of the Biblical canon of scripture was complete in their Tanakh (what we call our Old Testament). Jesus fulfilled the prophecies concerning the Messiah in the Tanakh, and the apostles successfully went out preaching Jesus of Nazareth using both signs and wonders, and the sacred texts, with immense success. They weren’t waiting for any other additional texts to complete the process. The only thing they were waiting for was the promised return of Jesus.       

The New Testament isn’t the completeness/perfection that Paul was telling people to set their hopes on in I Corinthians 13. It was the glory of the second coming of the Messiah. The time when all things on earth and in heaven will be restored. This is what Paul was encouraging the Corinthians to remember.

Since spiritual gifts were eventually going to cease at the second coming, all Paul was trying to do in I Corinthians 13 was to remind them that there is no reason to over glorify the gifts of the Spirit. And to keep in mind that unlike the charismatic gifts, the love that the Lord has for us will never cease.

#3: The low literacy rate and unavailability of scripture (okay, this may not be the strongest point in include in this post, but considering it still makes me scratch my head, so I’m going to include it)

If the closing of the canon/scripture was to signify the end of the necessity of the gifts of the Spirit, then we have a problem. Folks in the New Testament church could not even read.

First, someone would have had to manually transcribe an apostolic letter by hand. Then, it would need to be sent to the next church. After, once it got to it’s destination, the unfortunate fact was that as much as 90-95 percent of the population was illiterate and wouldn’t be able to even read it.

What good was having a fully perfected canon if no one could read it regularly? Is this the kind of perfection that would merit God repealing the gifts of the Spirit? Certainly not. Surely the church would have continued to need the presence of the gifts as they wouldn’t have been able to read the perfected scripture anyways.

Second, as the openness of first-century church waned, and the church became more hierarchal and divided between clergy and laity, the Bible became almost totally inaccessible to the ordinary people. Eventually it became that only the priests had access to the Bible. On top of that, their copies were written in the Latin. So, even if an ordinary person would somehow be able get their hands on a copy of the perfected New Testament there would be no way to even read it.

Getting the Bible into people’s hands was another mission that the sixteenth century Reformers took up and carried out. Along with the Reformers came many new Bible translations into the native languages of the people. And those translations were finally given to the people. But up until them, the Bible was hands-off to the laity.

What good would it be to have a fully perfected canon if only the priest and elite had access to it? Is this the kind of perfection that would merit God repealing the gifts of the Spirit? Certainly not. Surely the church would have continued to need the presence of the gifts considering that they didn’t even start getting access to the perfected scriptures in their native languages until 1400 years later in the reformation!

#4: Cessationists still affirm the gifts. If anyone is going to deny that the gifts the Spirit have ceased, then they can’t cherry-pick which gifts have died out.

Notice how the apostle lists some of these gifts in I Corinthians 12:27-30:

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each of you is a member of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, and those with gifts of healing, helping, administration, and various tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” 

The cessationists who claim that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit died out with the apostles seem to forget that among the Apostle Pauls’ listings of the gifts of the Spirit, along side workings of miracles and speaking in tongues, comes the same supernatural giftings as teachers. If we are going to say that miracles and healings have passed then certainly teachers who have been given to the body of Christ have passed as well. But yet we see people people from the cessationist rank affirming that they have multitudes of supernaturally gifted teachers and pastors operating in their churches. If cessationists are going say that the gifts have died out, then gifted teachers to the body of Christ have also died out as well. But you won’t find someone who uphold cessationist doctrine saying that!

#5: Cessationism misses the purpose behind the gifts of the Spirit. Cessationism reasons that the presence of miracles and gifts of the Spirit in the early church was an indication of confirmationto confirm that the apostles message was sent by God and undeniably true. Cessationists see the gifts merely as acts of validation for the gospel.

But we in the charismatic faith see the gifts of the Spirit quite differently. We see them as the gospel naturally working itself out in real life. The gifts are the tangible expression of the gospel, not a means by which the gospel is proved.

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is love—that God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son to free it from bondage to Satan and sin in order to reconcile the world back to Himself.

When Jesus began His ministry He announced it with the statement, “…the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15 ESV). Jesus’s kingdom was at hand, meaning that the kingdom was happening right before their eyes. It was being manifested in the here and now as it organically worked through the everyday life of Jesus: blind eyes were being opened, the deaf were made able to hear, the lame made able to walk, demons were cast out, and people were set free from the this present evil age. Jesus’s gospel of love was not only something to look forward to at the resurrection, but it was a tangible reality that was being experienced in the present (Galatians 1:3-4). Yes, the kingdom of God would come on a global scale later in the future. But when Jesus walked the earth, the kingdom of God was fully on local display in the daily acts that he did. 

Jesus didn’t physically and mentally heal people during His ministry only to prove that His message was from God. He did them because healing people is the exact manifestation of God’s love and good will toward man. The miracles were the tangible outflow of the gospel. Jesus ministered out of compassion and love (Matthew 9:35-36, 14:13-14, 15:32-38, 20:29-34), not out of a duty to prove His message of the kingdom of heaven was valid. This is precisely why Jesus didn’t give the people a sign when they asked for one (Matthew 12:38-41). He didn’t need to. His day-to-day works testified to the goodness of God (John 5:36, 10:22-25).

Jesus’s miracles, the apostles great works, and those who have come to believe in Him in our age who exhibit the gifts of the Spirit, aren’t a flashpoint to confirm God’s message of salvation—they are the tangible manifestation of God’s message of love and forgiveness.

When we stop seeing the gifts of the Spirit as proofs, or confirmations for the gospel, and instead start to see them as natural organic acts of the gospel, we can see the true purpose of the gifts of the Spirit—to equip every believer with the intimacy and power of God so that God’s abundant love can overflow and flood the earth to all. This is why Mark 16:17-18 says that “these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” People who were to come to believe in Jesus wouldn’t be just sitting on their butts waiting for Jesus to return. They would be going out into the world manifesting God’s love in real tangible ways to all people of the earth.    

It’s no wonder that the early church saw such immense growth and dedication to God. Who could resist a message of love that being tangibility manifested in ones personal or community life. Who could resist a gospel that didn’t just say that God loved you, but actually loved you to where you could put your hands on it and discern it with your five senses.

SUMMARY

When cessationists reduce the gifts of the Spirit and miracles to serving only as proof to Christ’s authenticity, or only as a stop-gap measure that helped float the people till a book was completed, it robs the gospel of its main point—God’s love for His people. The gifts were not intended to cease and die away. If anything, they were expected to grow to where God’s people would accomplish even more than what Jesus had done (John 14:12).

*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comment section below! 

2 comments

  1. Hi Vinnie, Great post! I agree with what you are saying. Just got a few additional things to add.

    In the book of Acts, we see that Paul wanted to go to Jerusalem, but he was bound in the Spirit about going to Jerusalem (Acts 20:22-23). On his way there, certain disciples told Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem (Acts 21:4). Philip the evangelist had 4 daughters who gave prophesy (Acts 21:9). While we do not know what they prophesied, based on the context, it’s a good guess that it was about Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Then Agabus, the prophet came and told Paul that he would be delivered to the Gentiles (Acts 21:11). Did Paul go to Jerusalem? He sure did! Did he get into trouble? He sure did! Paul made a mistake!

    We see in 2 Timothy, Paul saying about leaders, who had followed Paul, had turned away. Church history teaches that the church went through a period of time where heretics were filtered out, and a purified church came about. This version of history cannot be true. If it were true, then society would have advanced with prosperity, science, arts and all categories. What happened instead? We had what history knows as the “dark ages”.

    What I see what really happened is the early church turned away from the revelation of Jesus Christ, taught by Paul. This turning away accounts for the cause of the “dark ages”. The reformation is simply the rediscovery of the teachings of Paul. What doctrine remained the longest after Paul, was the first to be rediscovered. The rediscovery is happening in reversed order. What was lost first, will be rediscovered last. Example: speaking in tongues is not the last to be lost, so it took a number of years to be rediscovered, until someone studied the scripture and believed (around 1915). It’s very possible that some things Paul taught has not been rediscovered.

    What I tell people who say speaking in tongues went away with the apostilles. I tell them they are right! From a history perception, it did go away, but it has been rediscovered. The people who teach this teach about getting born-again. I remind them that this was also went away with the apostilles, but rediscovered with the reformation. How can you teach speaking in tongues went away with apostilles, but maintain that getting born-again did not?

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    • Totally John. I’ve thought the same thing about Paul’s trip to Jerusalem. I wonder if his love for Israel, and to share the gospel with them, was so strong that He ignored the warnings of the Spirit brought forth by the community. Jesus had told Him that his ministry was specifically to the gentiles (Acts 22:21). Although, it seems Paul felt the Spirit was telling him TO go to Jerusalem as well ( Acts 20:22-24). Paul might have had a personal calling of God to go to Jerusalem, but certainly the rest of the body was not excited about it.

      Great point about rediscovering becoming born-again and how that concept also applies to rediscovering speaking in tongues. Although from a Calvinistic perspective, God would be having everyone speak in tongues right now if God wanted them to. Therefore, operating under that theology (whom many that argue against tongues are from that Calvinist camp), you can literally explain away anything by divine providence. Calvinism to me seems like such convenient theology.

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