When discussing the gifts of the Spirit as found in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, or what some might identify as ‘sign gifts’ (i.e. healings, miracles, prophecy, tongues), the continuationist claims that all of these gifts are to continue through until Christ’s return. Whatever the label for these gifts, Christ meant for them to continue until He returns to make all things new. On the other hand, the cessationist might either say the necessity of these gifts have ceased or that they could still possibly be used, but they are not normative or regular for the church today.
The arguments from the cessationist side are usually centred around four passages of Scripture, as listed below:
- 1 Corinthians 13:8-12
- 2 Corinthians 12:12
- Hebrews 1:1-2
- Hebrews 2:3-4
Though there are definitely other passages of Scripture that might arise in the discussions about such gifts as miracles, healings, prophecy, tongues, etc, we might say these are the focus of much discussion. Again, it doesn’t all boil down to debating four passages from the Biblical text, as it is more about developing a holistic theology on the topic. Still, these four passages are very worth the consideration as one approaches the discussion of the work of the Spirit today.
So, let’s consider carefully what these passages say and, even more, what they are communicating.
1 Corinthians 13:8-12
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
To be honest, in the present-day, most cessationists will now agree that this passage in Corinthians is found lacking in support of their view.
Still, some cessationists use this passage to claim that the ‘perfect’ in these verses is the New Testament canon that would be completed by the end of the first century. And, since we have this perfect revelation of God as now complete in the entire Bible, we no longer need such gifts of the Spirit, since they were given to confirm the gospel message in the first century. When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. That gospel is now firmly and solidly found in the Bible.
Yet, though I definitely believe that the New Testament canon is God-breathed and from the Spirit, we must realise that the ‘perfect’ of this passage is by no means speaking of the New Testament. We must read the passage carefully, the key being found in vs12:
Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Though vs10 states, ‘but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away,’ again, this is not speaking of the completion of the New Testament canon. Vs12 shows that it is speaking of the final eschaton when Christ comes and completes all, making all things new.
Who will we see face to face? Christ. Paul goes on to say that he would know fully, even as he had been fully known. Known by whom? Christ.
‘When the perfect comes’ is in reference to the final consummation at Christ’s return. Therefore, this passage teaches that we will no longer need such signs and gifts of the Spirit once Christ returns. We still have a lot to accomplish, and all of God’s gifts (healings, miracles, teaching, giving, leading, etc) are needed to advance God’s kingdom.
2 Corinthians 12:12
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.
Some cessationists would claim this verse is proof that signs and wonders were only performed through apostles. Not only that, but because apostles no longer exist, signs and wonders no longer exist. But, what we must first do is distinguish between the two uses of the word ‘signs’ in this passage, for it is used in two different manners. Go back and read the verse and you will see this.
The first time the word signs is used, it does not refer to miraculous signs. Rather, it is in reference to the phrase ‘signs of a true apostle’. What does this phrase mean? What are the signs of a true apostle?
Paul uses this phrase to contrast his work as a true apostle with the selfish ways of the false ‘super-apostles’ (see 2 Corinthians 12:11). Paul had just spent chapters 10-11 defending his apostleship and in doing so he tells of all the things he has been through for the Corinthians, mainly his suffering on their behalf. This is how the word, signs, is first used. Paul had come with the signs of a true apostle – having a servant heart for them, even willing to suffer for them.
He, then, goes on to say that he was also used in ‘signs, wonders and mighty works’. The second use of the word is in reference to miraculous signs.
This verse does not teach that signs, wonders and miraculous works are only limited to apostles. And, thus, we cannot bring forth that argument that says such has ceased because apostles no longer exist. The phrase, ‘signs of a true apostle’, is about having a servant heart for the people with whom an apostle works, willing to lay down their lives for the people. And, as Paul came with those true signs with utmost patience, he was also being utilised in things like miracles, healings, etc. That’s the biblical context of this verse.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
From this passage, it can sometimes be argued that, in the past, God spoke through prophets. But now, in these last days, He only speaks through His Son. And it is the New Testament canon which faithfully, finally and fully testifies of the Son. Thus, prophecy is no longer needed.
Well, there is no doubt that the ‘last days’ are the entire time between Christ’s first and second advent (I even write about this more here). But, an interesting fact to consider is that, while the writer to the Hebrews was penning these words, prophets and prophecy were alive and well. The last days had come, the Son had spoken, but prophets and prophecy were continuing to function amongst God’s people.
So, why was prophecy still active in people like Agabus, Philip’s four daughters, the Corinthian church, the Thessalonian church, the leaders who prayed for Timothy, etc? Because it was still needed and it was never there to contradict or replace the God-breathed Scripture.
By no means can this verse be used to say that prophecy has ceased because we now have a New Testament canon. I believe that, to claim such, we would have to bring a specific viewpoint and read it back into this passage. That is called eisegesis, which is opposed to the proper study of Scripture through exegesis.
It is a true statement that it is the last days, and it has been for almost 2000 years. And God has chosen to speak through His Son. But such continues to be accomplished through the Spirit of Christ acting amongst the body of Christ. Remember, we are called to be Christ in the earth today. No prophecy will contradict the teaching of Scripture and we have such as our helpful measuring standard for what we proclaim and prophesy today. But Hebrews 1:1-2 cannot be utilised to say that prophecy has somehow ceased with the completion of a New Testament canon. The passage never states such.
How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
Finally, as with 2 Corinthians 12:12, some cessationists will use this verse to show that the apostles and the apostles alone were the ones who had their message attested to and confirmed by signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. But, with the completion of the New Testament canon, which recorded the apostolic gospel message, there would no longer be a need for such things to attest to the gospel message. We now have the revelation of God’s finalised canon of Scripture, so what else do we need, right?
But, as we have seen with the other passages above, we need to carefully reflect on the words of Hebrews 2:3-4, for they might not say what we initially thought they said.
To understand the context more clearly, we need to closely consider the details of vs3: ‘How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard.’
The first thing we note is that the ‘it’ of vs3 (referred to twice) is our ‘great salvation’. Therefore, vs3 declares that the Lord Jesus Himself first proclaimed this great salvation message. And, then, those who heard Him, presumably the first apostles, were also able to attest to that salvation message.
Therefore, the ‘attesting’ in vs3 refers back to the actual salvation message first proclaimed by Jesus. This is not speaking about attesting to the message through signs and wonders, etc. Rather, it was about proclaiming (attesting to) the message that they heard from Jesus Himself. It was truly reassuring that those first apostles could affirm and attest to the truth of the salvation message. That was one of their great callings. They had heard it first hand. They were the starting point for this gospel message!
But, on top of that, vs4 tells us that God also bore witness to their message by signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit. The attesting was to the salvation message. And, with that, God was also bearing witness to that message through signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Spirit.
‘Ah,’ one might say. ‘There you have that these signs and wonders were given to attest to and bear witness to the truth of the message. That is why they were given.’
Well, hold on a minute. Let’s think this through.
Of course, the first apostles were used in signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit in confirming the gospel message. All one has to do is read the book of Acts to see such. Yet, we must be willing to admit that the Holy Spirit also used others in signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Spirit. Here are a few people who were used in such:
We must also remember that tongues and prophecy are gifts of the Spirit, and it does mention ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ in Hebrews 2:3-4. We can see that the Scripture records that many others were used with gifts of the Spirit (including miracles and other similar things) besides the first apostles.
- The 120 believers at Pentecost (Acts 2:4)
- Cornelius and his household (Acts 10:46)
- Agabus (Acts 11:37-38; 21:10-11)
- Prophets in Antioch (Acts 13:1-4)
- The Ephesian disciples (Acts 19:6)
- The Galatians who were seeing miracles in their midst (Galatians 3:5)
- The Corinthians believers (1 Corinthians 14)
- The Thessalonian believers, who were encouraged not to despise prophecy (1 Thessalonians 5:20)
- Prophecies made to Timothy, probably when leaders laid hands on him (1 Timothy 1:18-19; 1 Timothy 4:14)
Thus, the wider church has always been used in all gifts of the Spirit. Some are not solely related to apostles or solely to a particular time period pre-canon formation. Such is not supported in Scripture, nor in the subsequent 1900 years of the activity of God’s Spirit amongst His people.
As a side comment, one of the first major cessationist works that looked to build the case that miracles were only performed by Jesus and the first apostles, and would subsequently cease with the completion of canon, was B.B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. Yet, Max Turner handles such a cessationist argument well in his book, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: Then and Now (which I also review here). Here we quote a few words:
That miracles were thought to attest God’s messengers need not be doubted; but that that was their prime, if not exclusive, purpose was in no way demonstrated by Warfield (nor by his cessationist successors). As we have seen, within Jesus’ proclamation, healings and exorcisms were regarded as expressions of the salvation announced. Similarly, the prophecy and tongues of the apostolic church were not related to the preparation of Scripture, nor understood as ‘sign gifts’ in an evidentialist sense. They performed a wide range of beneficial functions within the church, and in individual discipleship, and were not in any way rendered significantly less ‘needed’ (nor less desirable) by the completion of the canon (as cessationists claim).
Later on, Turner declares:
As we have seen…, nothing in the New Testament suggests that healings would cease, and Warfield’s attempt to restrict their function to apostolic accreditation is baseless and reductionist. For the New Testament writers, the healings were not [solely] externally attesting signs, but part of the scope of the salvation announced, which reached beyond the merely spiritual to the psychological and physical.
Therefore, we must guard against making a hard-lined connection between apostles and miracles, healings, etc. While many have been used in such, there is no formula here of solely tying the two together.
Therefore, I am fervently convinced that none of these four passages can be quoted in support of a cessationist position. And, even with a passage like 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, the continuationist is convinced that Scripture itself points to the need and utilisation of these gifts until the return of Christ Himself. What a blessing to continue to see these gifts enacted by the Spirit of God. What an opportunity to see the Spirit-empowered saints moved by God’s Spirit, all with a desire to not contradict Scripture, but that we might edify the body and tough lives for Christ.