Posted by: stpowen | September 28, 2012

Cessationism. Have the Sign Gifts Ceased?

Isaiah 8:20.  ‘To the law and to the testimony!  If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.’

First of all, I’d like to explain what I mean by the word, Cessationism.
1. I do not believe that all miracles have ceased today.  Every time someone is saved it is a miracle of God’s power and grace, and He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.  However, I do not believe that there are ‘workers of miracles’ (1 Cor. 12:10) today.

2. I believe that God sometimes heals today according to His will.  I have some experience of this which I am happy to relate if anyone is interested.  I think many people have testimonies of God healing in answer to prayer.  However, I do not believe that there are miraculous ‘gifts of healing’ (1 Cor. 12:9) today.

3. I believe in prophetic ministry today.  I believe that preaching is prophetic in that it ‘tells forth’ the words of God.  What I do not believe remains today is the gift of ‘foretelling’- seeing the future.  I do not believe that anyone can bind the conscience of a Christian by anything outside the Bible.

What I understand as Cessationism is the belief that certain gifts which were given to the church were never intended to be continued indefinitely but were for the infancy of the Church.  A parallel to this is God’s dealings with Israel in the wilderness.  They received miraculous supplies of manna, water and quail; their feet did not swell and their shoes did not wear out.  The day they crossed into Canaan, the manna ceased (Joshua 5:12) and the other items are not mentioned again, so I assume they did as well.  I believe that the same principle applies in the N.T.  Certain gifts were supplied to the infant church which were discontinued when it reached maturity.

If we look at the list of gifts listed in Eph 4:11, we see that the first gift is Apostles.  I believe that there are no Apostles today.  If you agree with me then you are a Cessationist because you agree that at least one of the gifts has now ceased.  The qualifications for an apostle are listed in Acts 1:22- he must have seen the risen Christ.  Therefore Paul asks, “Am I not an apostle?  Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1 Cor 9:1).  Later he describes himself as the last apostle (1 Cor 15:8).  Therefore we conclude that there are no apostles today- not even C. J. Mahaney.

Having established the principle of Cessationism- that not all the gifts were intended to be permanent- we can move on to the second gift, that of prophets. We need to consider Ephesians 2:20 where Paul describes Christians as, ‘having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets….’  How many foundations does a building need?  Surely only one?  And when is the foundation put in place?  At the very beginning, of course.  The foundation of God’s Church is in place, in the doctrine of the apostles and prophets found in the Holy Scriptures.  We need no prophets now, for we have ‘The prophetic word confirmed’ (2 Peter 1:19) in the Bible. 

We might also consider Hebrews 1:1, where prophecy is clearly placed in the past.  As Calvin wrote about this text, “God will not speak again as He has before.”  Or we might consider Jude 3, where we are exhorted to, ‘Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all (Gk. hapax) delivered to the saints.’   If it has been delivered once for all, then there is no more to come.  And this is not something sad, disappointing or dreary; it is exciting and wonderful!  When I hold a Bible in my hands, I have it all- the whole counsel of God.  I need not fear that someone will impose something else upon my conscience, because if it’s not in the Bible, I’m not buying it.  I’m free!  Free from the tyranny of someone coming to me and saying, “Brother, I have a word from the Lord for you,” or “The Lord has told me that you should do so-and-so.”  I am delivered from that kind of nonsense by the word of God.  ‘That you may learn…..not to think beyond what is written’ (1 Cor. 4:6).

‘Tongues’ is the next subject that must concern us.  The first thing we need to note is that the Geek word that almost every translation renders as ‘tongues’ is glotta, which means either the organ that resides immediately behind our teeth, or a foreign language.  It is unfortunate that our translators, by transliterating the word have turned it into a sort of technical term.  There is no doubt that the N.T. writers had a foreign language in mind when they used the word.

‘Tongues’ were a form of prophecy.  That is clear from 1 Cor. 14:5, where Paul writes, ‘For he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification.’  The implication of that is that if there was an interpretation then ‘tongues’ were equal to prophecy because there was edification.  But if  ‘tongues’ were, at their best, a form of prophecy, then why did the Lord think them worth introducing to the Church?  Why not cut to the chase and just have prophecy?  The reason is that ‘tongues’- speaking was, in itself a prophecy.  In 1 Cor. 14:20, Paul tells the Corinthians to grow up and understand about ‘tongues.’ Then (v.21) he quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12.  ‘With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me.’   What this is saying is that almost all God’s words up to New Testament time had been in Hebrew, the language of the Jews.  But the time was coming when God’s word would come in other languages, and the Jews needed to hear it, but wouldn’t do so.  When the apostles and others began to speak in other languages, it was a sign to unbelieving (v.22) Jews that judgement was at hand.  As Isaiah has predicted the warning went unheeded and judgement came upon Israel in AD 70.  At that point, ‘tongues’ had fulfilled their purpose and could, and did, die away.

Miraculous healings in the N.T. were very much the domain of the apostles, and maybe one or two of the Apostolic Band.  Notice how Luke separates the apostles from the other Christians in regard to miracles.  Acts 2:43. ‘Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.’   Acts 4:32-33. ‘Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul…….and with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection.’  Act s 5:12.  ‘And through the hands of the Apostles, many signs and wonders were done among the people.  And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch.’  Paul wrote (2 Cor. 12:12), ‘Truly the signs of an apostle were accomplished among you with all perseverance, in signs, wonders and mighty deeds.’  If people other than apostles could do miraculous healings, then Paul’s words are meaningless.  We deduce, therefore, that miracles were restricted to the apostles (and possibly to one or two of those associated with them) and that they therefore passed away with them.  This does not mean that God does not heal today.  James 5:14-15, properly understood, still applies today, but there are no ‘anointed healers’ today.

Now let us consider 1 Cor. 13:8.  ‘Love never fails.  But whether there are prophesies, they will fail (Gk. katargethesontai. Literally, ‘Be rendered useless’ or ‘be abolished’); whether there are tongues, they will cease.’  This seems rather clear to me, and those who would make the text mean that prophecies will not fail and ‘tongues’ will not cease have the burden of evidence on them.  It is suggested that prophecies and tongues will indeed disappear, but not until our Lord’s second coming.  What then of faith and hope, which are said to ‘abide’ along with love?  ‘Hope that is seen is not hope’ (Rom. 8:24) and ‘Faith is…..the evidence of things not seen’ (Heb. 11:1).  When the Lord Jesus returns, ‘every eye shall see Him’ (Rev. 1:7) and we shall have no need of faith or hope, so they will ‘abide’ only until then.  Therefore prophecy and tongues must pass away before the Second Coming.  When were they to end?  The answer is in verse 10.  ‘But when that which is “perfect” has come, then that which is in part will pass away.’  The Greek word teleios, translated ‘perfect,’ can also mean ‘complete’ or ‘mature’ (as it does in 1 Cor. 14:20).  ‘Mature’ seems to be the best translation as Paul goes on to talk about childhood and adulthood.  What he is saying is that the sign gifts were given in the infancy of the Church, but in its maturity they would not be needed and the Corinthians should prepare to leave them behind as they had the things of childhood.

There are several evidences that this is the correct interpretation.  Firstly, the number of miraculous signs recorded in Acts begins to fall away after Chapter 19.  Secondly, Hebrews 2:3-4 places ‘miracles and gifts’ in the past.  Thirdly, 2 Peter 2:1 speaks of false prophecy in the past and false teaching in the future, suggesting that there would be no future prophecy.  Fourthly, while Paul speaks of the sign gifts as being current in his letters to the Galatians, Thessalonians and Corinthians (all dated before AD 60), the references in his later epistles are all in the past (e.g. Eph 2:20; 1 Tim 1:18; 4:14).  We might expect detailed instructions concerning the recognition and appointment of prophets in the pastoral letters, but we find none.  The same is true of the letters of James, Peter, John and Jude.  Where are the apostolic commands governing prophecy and ‘tongues’ down the ages?  There are none because they fulfilled their prrpose and passed away in the First Century.  Moreover, there are numerous N.T. passages that warn against false prophecy (e.g.. Matt. 7:15-23; 24:24; 1 Tim. 4:1; 6:20; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1; Rev. 19:20) and none which tell us to obey true ones.  Why?  Because there never will be any.  We are also told that, ‘the time will come when [men] will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned to fables’ (2 Tim. 4:3f).  What are we to do about that?  ‘Preach the word!…..Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching’ (v.2).  Not a word about prophesying.

According to Deut 13:1 & 18:20, there are two ways to spot a false prophet- deviation from the word of God and accuracy of prediction.  The track record of modern ‘prophets’ for fulfilment of their prophesies is roughly on par with Mystic Meg.  Paul Cain, one of the ‘Kansas City Prophets,’ predicted revival in Britain in 1991 and Gerald Coates prophesied that in 1995 that Westminster Chapel under R. T. Kendall would have huge influence in the U.K. including on the government.  Well, Kendall is long gone from the Chapel and nothing of the sort has happened, yet those who make such prophetic blunders do not apologize for them (not that I’ve heard, anyway) and their churches do not discipline them (death is prescribed in Deut. 13!).  Instead, a new sort of prophecy has been invented- a “word from God” rather than the word of God- as though there could be a difference.  “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”   If God has spoken then it is for us to obey, not to ask if it is a Grade A or Grade B word.  Yet Wayne Grudem, in his book The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians suggests that this new ‘prophecy’ is of a lower order than Old Testament prophecy and may be less accurate.  How very interesting!  How much less accurate?  Let us suppose 25%, and let us suppose that someone in my church stands up and gives the following prophetic word:  ‘God loves this church.’ Now if this four-word prophecy can be 25% wrong then one word might be false, so the true message might be:-
‘Satan loves this church’ or
‘God hates this church’ or
‘God loves another church’ or
‘God loves this town.’

What possible benefit is there in such a ‘prophecy’?  What conceivable attraction is there save in an unhealthy love of novelty and excitement?  And what does God think about it?  Well, as it happens, I have a ‘word from the Lord’ on the subject.  ‘”Behold, I am against the prophets,” says the LORD, “who use their tongues and says, ‘He says.’  Behold, I am against those who prophesy false dreams,” says the LORD, “and tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their recklessness.  Yet I did not send them; therefore they shall not profit this people at all,” says the LORD’ (Jer. 23:32).

What is the matter with these modern ‘prophets’?  Do they find the Bible a trifle passé?  have they mastered it from beginning to end, so that they now need something more challenging?  Is the Bible so thin and unsatisfying that, like Oliver twist, they need to ask for more?  God forbid!  Does not God’s word tell us not to think beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6)?  The Bible has a deepness so vast and a richness so great that a lifetime is far too short to comprehend fully even a part of it.  ‘”What is the chaff to the wheat?” says the LORD.  “Is not My word like a fire….and like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?”’   (Jer. 23:28f).


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