The Miraculous Gifts of the Spirit - Continuation, Restoration or Cessation?
by Andrew J. Webb
I. Extraordinary Spiritual Gifts and Their Purpose
The Gifts: 1 Cor. 12:4-10; Romans 12:6
Their Purpose: Eph. 4:8-16, esp. 4:12 & 4:16
Three things should be remembered about these gifts:
i) The presence of the gifts amongst members of the visible church is not a sure sign of salvation (Matt. 7:22) and therefore they are tied to the grace of God and not the condition of the one exercising them
ii) The gifts are not intended for the one to whom they are granted but are intended for the edification and blessing of others.
iii) Not all genuine believers in the Apostolic church (members of the "body") exercised these gifts (1 Cor. 12:30)
III. Which Gift is Really Important
Revelation i.e. instruction in the revealed word of God - 1 Cor. 12:28. The ministry of the Apostles and Prophets is foundational to the church. (Eph. 2:20). Things like healing (i.e. signs) are inevitably placed last. Therefore an emphasis on signs over revelation is surely misguided.
Speaking in tongues is only mentioned in four places in the New Testament:
Pentecost - Acts 2:4 & 11
The House of Cornelius: Acts 10:46
John's disciples in Ephesus Acts 19:6
Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12:14ff)
What are these tongues? The Greek word is glossa which always means a language. Are they always human (foreign) languages however? At Pentecost the disciples where clearly empowered by the Holy Spirit to speak in foreign languages previously unknown to them. (Acts 2:8) The only place in the scripture that seems to indicate that tongues might be other than a foreign language is in 1 Cor. 13:1. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels…" this however could be hyperbole on the part of the Apostle. His primary emphasis is on the importance of love, so he could be saying "even though I speak in the tongues of men or even the tongues of Angels (not that I have) these signs are meaningless without love"
What is clearly evident is that these tongues must be understandable. In order for tongues to be a gift of the spirit that brings blessing (see 1.2) they must understood or interpreted (1 Cor. 14:26-28). In addressing the state of the church in Corinth, Paul says that a profusion of uninterpreted tongues is a sign of confusion and disorder (1 Cor. 14:33) which is contrary to the right way of doing things in the church (1 Cor. 14:40).
Tongues, when uninterpreted do not edify the church, however when they are interpreted they clearly are to be held on the same level as prophecy (1 Cor. 14:5, Acts 2:17-18)
True Prophecy throughout the Old and New testaments is nothing less than the speaking forth of the very words of the Lord. Thus the prophet could earnestly say "Thus says the Lord…" when he delivered his message (Heb. 1:1). The mark of a true prophet was that his words invariably came to pass, and were thus authenticated - the success rate of the true prophets of the Lord was 100% percent. By contrast the mark of the false prophets was that they said was not sent by the Lord and did not come to pass as they said it would (Eze 22:28, Jer. 14:14). Moses instructed the people in how to recognize a false prophet and decreed that false prophets should be put to death:
Deut 18:20 'But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.'
21 "And if you say in your heart, 'How shall we know the word which the LORD has not spoken?' --
22 "when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him."
Peter also gives us another way of distinguishing false prophets - they bring in heresies (2 Peter 2:1) The teaching of the false prophets will contradict the teaching of the Word of God.
False Prophets have always afflicted the church in both the Old and New Testaments, and there are frequent warnings given by Jesus and the Apostles that they will continue to do so until Christ's return (Matt. 7:15, Matt. 24:11, Matt. 24:24, Mark 13:22, 2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 4:1)
It is important to remember two things in relation to these false prophets:
They will deceive many (Matt. 24:11)
They will perform lying (false) signs and wonders (Matt. 24:24)
While all true prophecy was given by the Lord, and was therefore his inerrant revelation to His people, it was sometimes interpreted poorly. Thus Agabus was right to tell Paul he would be taken captive if he went to Jerusalem (Acts 21:11) but the people were wrong to plead with Paul not to go as a result (Acts 21:12) Paul knew he had to go in any event (Acts 20:22-23).
Miraculous Healings can and should be separated into two groups.
Healing in response to prayer (James 5:14-15)
Healings directly performed by individuals (i.e. the Healings of Christ, Peter, etc.)
Even those who do not believe in the continuation or restoration of miraculous gifts accept the continuing validity of #1 (that God sometimes responds to prayer by healing in spite of or against means). Therefore only #2 is in question.
The Healings performed by Christ and His Apostles that we read of in the New Testament had several characteristics worthy of our note:
The Healings were complete and immediate
The Healings could not be doubted - the lame walked, the blind saw, leprosy was instantly cured
There were no failures or relapses
Large numbers of Healings were performed
VI. The Purpose of these Miraculous Signs in the New Testament
Again and again the Bible tells us what the underlying purpose of these miraculous signs was: to attest to or authenticate the message of Christ and his Apostles.
Acts 2:22 "Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst"
Heb. 2:2 "For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward,
3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him,
4 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?"
Acts 14:3 "Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands."
2 Cor. 12:12 "Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs and wonders and mighty deeds."
John 3:2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."
John 20:30 And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
[Note: Stephen and Phillip also performed signs and wonders in the course of performing evangelistic activity - they however were functioning with Apostolic authority and did not have the ability to impart ability to do miracles to others as the Apostles did]
VII. ARE THESE SIGNS FOR TODAY?
Restoration or Continuation?
The historical problem with continuation. The signs ceased soon after the close of the Apostolic era. They did not continue. Rather these miraculous sign gifts, with the exception of a few fits and spurts in fringe groups were not to be found in the mainstream of the church in between the time of the Apostles and the rise of Pentecostalism in the early 20th century.
The Roman Catholics actually questioned the validity of the Protestant Reformation because it did not have miracles accompanying it. The response of Calvin and his fellow Reformers was to point out that the Reformation was a recovery of the central message of the new covenant and that the message of the new covenant had been attested with miracles. The Reformation was preaching nothing new, just the simple message of the Apostles and the Apostolic church, therefore there was no need for a new outpouring of miraculous sign gifts.
The counter argument is that the church quenched the Spirit and that the saints of the time between the end of the Apostolic era and the rise of Pentecostalism in the early 20th Century were less faithful. Therefore what we are talking about here is a restoration of the sign gifts. The problems with this position are many fold but just off the top:
it displays immense spiritual pride ("we are better Christians!") which is contrary to Christ's call for humility
it flies in the face of the historic data that the martyrs and faithful saints of previous days were more faithful than we
it contradicts the concept of the absolute sovereignty of God and His ability to work where and when and how He pleases
A further argument is that the gifts have been restored because these are the end-end times. This presumes of course that this is the very end of time and that the return of Christ is imminent. The problem is of course that the church in every age since Christ's ascension has presumed that the return of Christ is imminent. Also if we should expect an outbreak of the sign-gifts just before the return of Christ and Christ chooses to tarry for another millennia, what would that say about the miraculous signs we are seeing today? It would appear this is an "all or nothing" argument that risks everything on one "toss of the dice"
Arguments in Favor of Sign-Gifts being for Today
You can't argue with Personal Experience: 350,000,000 Christians are involved in Charismatic/Pentecostal churches. The Charismatic movement is on its way to being the majority report amongst evangelical Christians. Can we seriously say that they are all mislead or misguided?
The argument from Silence: The Bible nowhere explicitly says that sign-gifts will cease. Therefore they won't.
Cessation - the argument that the miraculous sign-gifts ceased because they were supposed to at the close of the Apostolic age.
The purpose of the sign gifts was foundational. Once that foundation was laid, there was no longer any need for them.
Their purpose was to:
Authenticate Christ and His Apostles and their message - this was done
Lay down the deposit of revelation that would become the scripture - this too was done
The Pauline Argument (1 Cor. 13:8-12) - when that which is perfect has come, that which is less perfect ceases
1 Cor. 13:8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part.
10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
11 When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.
What Paul is saying is that these things were less perfect than the Scriptures that they were intended to complete - after all Prophecy, Tongues, and so on can be false, scripture cannot be. Scripture is perfect, it is complete, nothing else is necessary (2 Tim. 3:16-17) Therefore now that we have a closed, complete, and perfect canon, there is no longer any need for the sign-gifts to continue. It is perfect, therefore that which is imperfect passes away.
The church had the sign-gifts in its childhood, now that it is grown up, it no longer needs them. We crawl when we are learning to walk, now that we have learned, we no longer return to crawling. To go back to sign-gifts is to return to crawling. We once knew of Christ imperfectly, only in part, but now we have the perfect and complete rule and guide for all of our life, faith, and practice.
Therefore the Reformers in England in the 17th Century were able to confidently confess the following:
"Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased."
[Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 section 1]
These gifts and the offices that exercised them were by the Bibles own declaration foundational (Eph. 2:20) Once a foundation has been laid, does one build, or does one continue to lay more foundation ad infinitum. Does one build multiple floors and then add a new basement?
The Pastoral letters are clearly intended to regulate the affairs of the church after the Apostles have passed away, Paul frequently tells Timothy to safeguard the deposit of faith that has been committed to Him. The assumption is clearly that there will be no new revelation after the Apostles. While many things are discussed in the proper ordering of the church, there are no instructions about how to deal with miraculous sign gifts, the clear implication being because no such instruction will be necessary.
VII. The threat to Sola Scriptura
Many ask what harm could come of embracing the view that the sign-gifts are continuing. Many immediately come to mind, but the most serious threat is the threat to the sufficiency of scripture. The idea that revelation from God is continuing, either via prophecy or tongues, necessarily undermines the sufficiency of scripture. To say that a declaration is the word of God "Thus Sayeth the Lord" and that it is not authoritative revelation is self-contradicting. If these tongues and prophecies really are the Word of God, then Christians should be confident enough to open their Bibles and start writing them down.
Additionally due to the fact that the sign gifts can be and often are faked or used by false prophets (just as Jesus warned) they are an obvious 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. Additionally, when we found our assurance in something less than infallible, we are building on shifting sand rather than the solid rock of Christ. The declarations of Christ and His Apostles that are to be found in the living word of Scripture are all sure and unshakable, the promises of later day Prophets however, are not. Even if we refuse to believe that the sign gifts have ceased, the growing legion of scandals involving the Televangelists should at the very least teach us to be wary of anyone who claims to be a new prophet.
Lastly, let us remember that if we have Scripture, we have all we need. It contains everything that the Christian needs in order to be "complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." 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, and our lives to be God-honoring.
A Brief Bibliography of Good Books on this Subject
Most of these books can be bought online atwww.cvbbs.com
Chantry, Walter Signs of the Apostles, (Banner of Truth, 1973)
Ferguson, Sinclair The Holy Spirit, (IVP, 1996) [Chapter 10 in particular]
Gaffin, Richard B. Perspectives on Pentecost, (P&R 1979)
Marston, George W. Tongues Then and Now, (P&R, 1983) [Out of Print]
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