Ceased no more - why I believe in the continuation of all the gifts of the Spirit
By Paul Witter, 01 Nov 2018
"My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power." (1 Corinthians 2:4)
"Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Acts 4:30)
I had long felt that people should spend less time talking about signs and wonders and more about the good news of Jesus. That was until I came to preach on Acts 4 and read verse 30. I should have realised it when I read 1 Corinthians 2:4 as well. It would seem that the early church was by no means so keen to separate out the preaching of the gospel from God demonstrating it through miraculous things like healing and showing people things that they thought only they knew about (words of knowledge).
I was converted in a church that, as far as I can tell, was largely cessationist in relation to certain of the gifts of the Spirit. That word, perhaps, requires some explanation. A "cessationist" is someone who believes either that (i) all the so-called "sign-gifts" (miracles, healing, prophecy, speaking in other tongues or languages, words of knowledge [a supernatural insight into a situation of a person or persons]) were meant to either authenticate Jesus or his apostles, and thus died out when the last of the apostles did, or, (ii) those gifts were only needed to authenticate the message until it could be finally recorded in what we now know as the New Testament. And this was what I thought too. I probably did so through a combination of both reasons, though, in truth, I held it because that was what I had been taught.
So, how does a man who held to that view change his mind?
The short answer is that the Bible taught me out of it. And, in addition, I experienced first hand the reality of the gifts and of the power of God when he encounters a person.
Here are the Scriptural reasons for my change:
- When I actually checked, I could find no scripture anywhere that clearly said either that the gifts had ceased or that they would do so in a very short while. That is problematic if you want to insist that they have.
- I began to wonder why, if the gifts of healings, tongues, prophecy etc., were to cease, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote three chapters on the subject. This is especially noteworthy given that the Corinthian church to whom they are addressed was clearly misusing them. If they were to cease soon then Paul or the Holy Spirit or both would know that. All that would need to be said was "Corinthian believers, you know that these gifts, wonderful though they are, will soon pass away. Since you do not know how to use them well, the best thing to do is stop using them at all." Why write three chapters on how to use these gifts if they were to be of no practical use after the first century?
- Whilst chapter 13 does speak of the gifts ceasing, it says they will do so "when completeness comes" (NIV) or "the perfect" (ESV). Most commentators now agree that it is stretching things to suggest that the perfect or complete is when the New Testament is completed. This especially so given that the complete/perfect is clearly the "then" of verse 15; "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 known fully." I doubt that many would claim, even with completed Bible in hand and memorised, that they see face to face or fully know. It is evident that the complete is when Jesus returns and brings with him the end of this age and the beginning of the renewed heavens and earth.
- In Acts 2, when the disciples speak in other languages and people wonder what is happening, Peter using Joel 2, says that what they are seeing is what was predicted for "the last days". This is when the Spirit will be poured out and people will prophecy and see visions and have God inspired dreams. None of this is said to be time limited. The last days, biblically, began when Jesus rose from the dead and will end when he returns.
- In the gospels, Jesus' ministry was summed up in Matthew 4:23 in this manner, "Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and illness among the people."
- Then, in chapter 9 and 10 of Luke, we see first the twelve apostles and later seventy two unnamed disciples, being told to go and do the same thing; proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick, cast out demons. They are commanded to do it. The at the end of his time on earth, Jesus says, in Matthew 28:18-20; "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." The disciples were to tell every new disciple to, amongst other things, proclaim the kingdom, heal the sick and cast out demons. Jesus doesn't say "But only get them to do that until the New Testament is completed. After that they have to stop." There is meant to be an unbroken line of disciples making other disciples right down to today and beyond. And each was to tell the next ones to do what Jesus has told the apostles and the seventy two to do.
- Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, tells his disciples that if they have seen him they have seen the Father. This is because the Father is in him and he in the Father. And then he says, effectively, "If you can't believe this on my say so alone, believe it on account of the works." The works and his words are two different things (albeit they go together). Then he says something truly astonishing: "very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing..." Notice that "whoever". It is unlimited. He doesn't say, "Whoever of the twelve apostles" or "Whoever in the first century." He means anyone can do it. Not all the time (the gifts are, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:11, at the sovereign will of the Spirit) but at least some of the time. Of course, if you refuse to believe those words or that they say what they appear to say, then you are not likely to do the works. Now, I am aware, because I used to believe this myself, that it is said that the greater works really means that we can reach more people with the gospel than Jesus did when he was on earth, because he was tied to one location. But now that the Spirit has come we can take the gospel all over the world. I have two problems with that view. First, Jesus says "whoever believes" (which means each individual) not "the church that believes". Each individual is as limited in time and space as Jesus was. Secondly, Jesus clearly makes a distinction between his words and his works. I have a number of John commentaries and most of them agree that the works are the miraculous signs that Jesus did.
These, taken together, show that the Bible does not indicate the cessation of any of the spiritual gifts. They are all still available to us today.
And why wouldn't they be? If the apostles who were able to say, "We walked with Jesus. We saw what he did and heard what he taught", still asked for and needed signs and wonders to accompany the gospel, how much more do we who do not have the benefit of having walked with Jesus?
If anyone wants to read more into this subject I recommend two great books (both by people who had their minds changed on this subject). The first is Jack Deere, "Surprised the Power of the Spirit" and the second is by Sam Storms, "Convergence: Spiritual Journeys of a Charismatic Calvinist."