Coming from a strong cessationist background, I assumed that the sign gifts in the early church had died out soon after the apostolic age. But in my college years I had some occasions where I observed a vitality of faith in those claiming to have a charismatic experience. Their lives showed that Jesus Christ was very real to them. I began to be troubled with 1 Corinthians 14:39, “Therefore, brothers, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues.” A straightforward, literal interpretation of the verse would indicate that even today we should not discourage people from using the gift of tongues.
The Perfect Text
The controversy regarding tongues involves the interpretation of the word “perfect” in 1Cor. 13: 10, “but when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away.” There are several interpretations of this term. One of the main views is eschatological, a view that sees the “perfect” as referring to the second coming of Jesus Christ or to His Kingdom. Another view states that the word “perfect” refers to the completion of the biblical canon. The first view is held by many, if not most, cessationists as well as continuationists. The completed canon view is very recent and seems to be held exclusively by cessationists. The earliest source I could find advocating this view was W.E. Vine in 1951. (W.E. Vine, 1 Corinthians [London: Oliphants, 1951], 184)”
A Case for Continuationism
Though many arguments support the term “perfect” as referring to the revelation of Jesus Christ at the end of the age or to His Kingdom, the brevity of this article causes me to limit it to a few of the considerations that could receive more attention in this debate.
One consideration is the idea that miracles do not run uniformly through all of Scripture. While we find occasional miracles, such as the great fish with Jonah and the angel with Sennacherib’s troops, most miracles occur in three separate time periods. The first is the period of Moses and Aaron; the second is with Elijah and Elisha, and the final period is that of Christ and the apostles. Each wave of miracles denoted a major turning point in biblical history. The signs of Moses and Aaron marked the time of the transition from the pre-Law era to the time of the Law. The signs of Elijah and Elisha perhaps designated the time when God was going to leave Israel to face judgment. The signs of Christ and the apostles signify the turning point from the time of the Mosaic law to the time of the church. (We might note that those who most strongly resisted Christ’s miracles were the Pharisees, the most ardent students of the Old Testament.)
We have intimations that with the second coming of Christ we will have a new season of miraculous signs. This will include the raising of the two witnesses from the dead in the book of Revelation and the resurgence of prophecy according to Joel 2:28-32.. Therefore, it should not be surprising to discover a new round of signs anticipating Christ’s return. Many use an historical argument that sign gifts died out at the end of the apostolic era, but the fading away would be consistent with the way miracles have come and gone in the rest of the Bible.
Another consideration is the order of the three gifts mentioned in verse 10: prophecy, tongues and knowledge. The text states that prophecy and knowledge will be brought to an end and tongues will cease for themselves. Since the gift of tongues comes between prophecy and knowledge, it would seem that these three gifts all end at the same time. If the cessation of the gift of tongues occurred before the others, then it should be first. The change in wording seems to be purely stylistic.
A third consideration is the idea that the function of prophecy and knowledge, as well as tongues, seems to be different from that of canonical Scripture. The Bible was given as truth to benefit the entire body of Christ. Since the close of the canon, we have no normative material essential for every one. The prophetic and the knowledge gifts seem to be designed to minster to individuals and to groups, but not the whole church. They encourage, rebuke and give specific guidance, while never contradicting the standard of the Word. We find God speaking all the way through the Scripture.
Tongues serve a different purpose. They do not communicate to man. Paul specifically says that they are addressed to God. “For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God…” (I Cor. 14:2). “For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14). The reason that tongues is assigned a lesser role to knowledge and prophecy may be that the knowledge and prophecy gifts are communications from God to man, whereas tongues are a Spirit-prompted response from man in worship and praise to God.
Just reading Bible will not fulfill the specific functions of prophecy, knowledge and tongues. If God has become mute since the Scripture is complete, then all we have is a recording. It is the difference between getting a letter and talking with someone face to face. When Christ returns, we will have direct access to Him and the intermediary gifts will not be needed. The function of the spiritual gifts is only temporary and partial compared to what it will be to have that full experience of being in the presence of God. This is expressed in the phrase “face-to-face” in 1 Cor. 13:12. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.” This verse uses the explanatory sense of “for” to link the “then” back to the term “perfect.” This “then” anticipates something much more than the imperfect knowledge in the “now.” Our communion with God lacks completeness until we are in His presence, when the Perfect comes.
A godly Lutheran lady ran a retreat center in the community where I pastored. On different occasions when she hosted charismatic groups, she would say, “There is something about their experience that makes Jesus so real.” We may know about Him, but it is another thing to know Him in His dynamic power working in our lives.