Why Is there Such a Debate?
If the case is really as clear as I think it is, I don't blame anyone for asking the logical question: "Why is there such a debate on this if the Scriptural evidence is so clear? How can those who disagree with you be so wrong?" I think they are wrong because they look at these same passages with different assumptions, leading them to wrong conclusions.
1. They see the purpose of supernatural gifts differently.
The New Testament mentions the operation of many different supernatural gifts or manifestations of the Holy Spirit among believers (miracles, gifts of healings, speaking in tongues, prophecy, and so forth).
Most cessationists believe the purpose of these supernatural gifts was to authenticate the message and/or messenger of God. Therefore, once the foundational apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20) died and the New Testament completed God’s perfectly authoritative revelation, there was and is no more need for these gifts.
This is inaccurate and incomplete. Certainly one reason for supernatural happenings in Bible times was to authenticate the message and the messenger. For example, look at Hebrews 2:1-4, which says that God bore witness with signs and wonders and various miracles by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, 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, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?
There is no doubt that one reason for supernatural gifts and miracles was to authenticate God's revelation, but those who believe those gifts and miracles ended take that idea much further than was ever intended. Their idea is that there were three main eras of revelation (the times of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and New Testament times), and that for the most part, miracles only happened in those eras because God needed to authenticate revelation.
There are some significant problems that show this thinking doesn't work.
• If miracles only happened around certain times of revelation, then there is a substantial amount of written revelation that is unaccounted for by miracles - everything from Judges through Song of Solomon.
• If miracles authenticate revelation, there is a problem because false prophets can and do perform authenticating miracles. (Exodus 7:11-12, Deuteronomy 13:1-3, and 2 Thessalonians 2:9-10)
• Matthew 12:38-40 tells us Jesus condemned those who sought to authenticate revelation by miraculous signs; He offered them no other sign other than His own resurrection.
• In John 2:18-19 Jesus provided one miraculous sign to the seeking: His resurrection. In John 6:29-36 Jesus rebuked the multitude for their refusal to believe in Him and to see what Jesus had already done.
• Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 1:22 that the Jews request a sign, and he didn't mean it in a positive sense.
Miracles are an insufficient evidence of authentic revelation. The unbelieving heart can always explain them away, and the unbelieving heart will always be asking for more miracles as proof. John 12:37 explained this: But although He had done so many signs before them, they did not believe in Him.
The primary purpose of miracles, especially as they are seen in the New Testament, was not to authenticate God's messengers (though that is a secondary purpose). The primary purpose of miracles was to humbly meet the needs of people; to build up, strengthen, and to edify the people of God (1 Corinthians 12:7, 14:12). If I believed the only purpose for these supernatural events was to authenticate the message, I might agree with my cessationist brothers – but I don’t, and I don’t think the Bible does either.
2. They see the nature of supernatural gifts differently.
Many cessationists believe that if the supernatural power described in the Book of Acts was still given by the Holy Spirit today, then gifted individuals would be able to heal and perform miracles at will. They could clear out hospitals with their healing powers, and do mind-blowing miracles whenever they wanted to. Since no one can do these things today, they believe it proves that the supernatural things in the New Testament don’t happen and can’t happen today.
This is inaccurate and incomplete. The gifted men in the Book of Acts and in the early church did not ever have power to do healings or miracles as they willed or on their own initiative. There were remarkable occasions when everyone in a given group was healed or when miraculous things happened in strange ways. In Acts 19:11 Luke described some of these with the curious phrase, “unusual miracles.”
Yet normally, neither Jesus (such as the Pool of Bethesda or the man at the Beautiful Gate) nor His followers in the Book of Acts cleared out hospitals or could do miracles at the exercise of their own will. Even Jesus insisted that He did nothing except what the Father told Him to do (John 5:19, 5:30, and 8:28), and Paul told us that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are distributed as He wills (1 Corinthians 12:11), not according to the will of the human instrument. It would be unbiblical to expect the Holy Spirit to work differently today.
Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit works today. It’s helpful to remember that the Book of Acts covers some 35 years. When we read it, we feel as though an amazing miracle happened every day, yet it gives highlights of a 35-year (or more) period. If one were to write the history of the Calvary Chapel movement over a 35-year period, it would read something like the Book of Acts. The same is true of many other wonderful movements of God’s Spirit in our day and over the generations.
3. They see the purpose and the nature of the gift of tongues differently.
Much of the criticism against the modern exercise of what is claimed to be the gift of tongues focuses on the idea that they are not real languages being spoken with clear structure and grammar and so forth. Claimed tongues speakers are derided as speaking gibberish or nonsense, not real languages.
Much of this is based on the wrong premise that the gift of tongues was meant to miraculously communicate the gospel or Biblical truth from one person to another, giving the ability to preach or share the gospel in an unknown language. Yet the Bible clearly says that the purpose of the gift of tongues is for people to speak to God, not for people to speak to people (1 Corinthians 14:2). When the disciples spoke on Pentecost, they did not preach to the crowd – Peter did that in the language they all understood (common Greek). Instead, they heard the Spirit-filled disciples “speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11); this means they heard them praising God for His wonderful works.
The audience for the gift of tongues is God and not man, and the scriptures say of use of tongues “no one understands him; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries” (1 Corinthians 14:2). When a one person overhears another person speaking to God in tongues, it might very well sound like gibberish or nonsense – that’s exactly what Paul described. Of course, it is possible for someone to imitate or fake the gift of tongues, and sadly, unwise and over-zealous people sometimes encourage this. Yet because tongues are to God and not to man, and because Paul himself told us that it could very well sound like nonsense to another, the legitimate gift of tongues cannot be dismissed because it does indeed sound like nonsense.
4. They don’t see the difference between the gift of prophecy and God’s eternal, authoritative revelation.
When I read cessationists make their point, I admire their high regard for the Bible (though I disagree with some of their approaches to the text). Zealous to protect the authority and unique character of Biblical revelation, they think it important to say that if God did give someone the gift of prophecy today, it would threaten the truth that the Bible is uniquely authoritative and sufficient.
I’m happy there are people who fight for the Bible’s unique authority and sufficiency, and there are some – perhaps many – in the Charismatic world who need to hear that important message. There are some – perhaps many – who regard “prophetic words” as more important or interesting than God’s eternal truth. This is wrong and needs to be spoken against.
Yet it is possible to make a clear distinction between what God uniquely, authoritatively gave through the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2:20) and spontaneous prophetic words that may be meaningful and important to individuals or particular congregations, but not universal. We don’t need to add more pages to our Bible when someone speaks with the gift of prophecy, and it would be foolish and sinful to do so.
Among the Corinthian Christians, prophecy was present (1 Corinthians 14:3, 14:24, 14:29-33). Yet there was no authoritative, universal revelation given to us from these Corinthian prophets – there is no “Letter of the Corinthians Prophets” in our New Testament. The Corinthian Christians and the Apostle Paul and seemingly everyone else was able to make the distinction between God’s speaking to and through Paul and the other inspired writers of Scripture, and God’s speaking through the spontaneous and immediate gift of prophecy. It was important and meaningful for the Corinthians at that moment, but not beyond that. Paul also told Christians to judge each prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:29), something he never told anyone to do regarding God’s inspired word. It was understood that the exercise of the gift of prophecy worked in a different way than the authoritative revelation which came to us through the inspired apostles and prophets mentioned in Ephesians 2:20.
5. They have a wrong understanding of 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which says that tongues will cease.
Not all of our cessationist brothers follow this line of thinking, but many of them do. They look at 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which says:
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. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.
The main message of the passage is that the gifts of the Spirit are appropriate for the present time, but they are not permanent; they are imperfect gifts for an imperfect time. Many cessationists focus on the phrase, "That which is perfect." Paul wrote that when that which is perfect has come, then the gifts will be “discontinued.” But what is that which is perfect? Though some who believe the miraculous gifts ceased with the apostles say it refers to the completion of the New Testament, they are wrong.
The ancient Greek word for perfect is telos. There are other places in 1 Corinthians where this ancient word clearly means the coming of Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:8 and 15:24). Virtually all commentators are agreed that which is perfect is when we are in the eternal presence of the Perfect One, when we are with the Lord forever either through the return of Jesus or our graduation to the eternal.
Many who believe the miraculous gifts ended with the apostles (such as John MacArthur) claim since the verb will cease is not in the passive voice but in the middle voice, it could be translated: tongues will stop by themselves. Their analysis sounds scholarly, but is disregarded by most all scholars of ancient Greek.
Yet even if this curious translation were correct, it does nothing to suggest when tongues will cease. John MacArthur claimed, “tongues ceased in the apostolic age and that when they stopped, they stopped for good.” But 1 Corinthians 13 doesn’t tell us “tongues will stop by themselves,” and it tells us tongues will cease only when that which is perfect has come.
In his use of the three different phrases will fail and will cease and will vanish away, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was not trying to say that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge all have different fates. He was simply writing well, saying the same thing in three different ways. As Kistemaker wrote, "The difference is only a stylistic change and nothing more.” They will end, but love never fails.
When I read someone I disagree with, to the best of my ability, I like to put myself in their place and think through the matter they way they do. In regard to the continuation of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit for the church today, if I thought that . . .
• That the gifts were only or mostly given to authenticate God’s message or messenger
• That in the New Testament those who exercised supernatural, miraculous gifts could do so at will, in any way or time they wanted
• That the purpose of the gift of tongues was to communicate from person to person, and therefore had to be identifiable languages
• That the practice of the gift of prophecy means that the Bible is not authoritative or sufficient
• That 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 says that tongues will cease after the apostolic age
If I believed all those things, I would probably agree with my cessationist brethren. Since I strongly believe that none of those things are Biblically true, I am happy and at peace to understand that the Holy Spirit continues to give miraculous and supernatural gifts to His church as He wills. I am also happy and at peace to understand that the pursuit of these miraculous and supernatural gifts should not be the center of church life, but instead worship, God’s word, and love among God’s people.
Yet what of you? Some know the truth about the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit but they keep it as theoretical knowledge, not life knowledge.
In the same way that someone can be a "practical atheist" someone can be a "practical cessationist" - they believe the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit are for today, but they really only believe this in theory, not in life experience. It's not up to us to manufacture the miraculous or the supernatural; that is the work of the Holy Spirit, distributing His gifts as He wills. Yet rooted in His Word, growing in discipleship, we must by faith receive everything that God wants to do among us.