In Spirit & In Truth: Cessationism and Prophecy
In Spirit & In Truth: For the past year or so, I’ve been working through the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and specifically the practice of the spiritual gifts. I want to invite you to think through this with us. This is one of the most important aspects of our lives as believers. The gift of the Holy Spirit is one of the fundamental changes that takes place in us when we become believers. Most of us live like nothing ever changed. The Bible calls us to something more than that. See part 1 and part 2 of this series.
This week we’re covering cessationism, which is the belief that the miraculous or sign gifts, usually prophecy, tongues, and healing, have ceased and are no longer operative in the church. My goal in this post is to give the strongest version of cessationism, looking at the standard arguments and texts for this position. We’ll evaluate all of the different viewpoints later in the series.
Unless you’re a charismatic, you know who you are, you probably go to a church that is functionally cessationist. The vast majority of American evangelical churches outside of the Pentecostal movement do not employ the gifts in worship. In the worst cases, some evangelical churches function in such a way that it isn’t evident that the Holy Spirit is present at all - and this isn’t just because he hasn’t been welcomed! As we begin discussing cessationism, here’s something important to keep in mind; spiritual gifts are only a small piece of the Holy Spirit’s role in the life of believers and in the local church. In fact, no matter what we believe about the gifts, we should strive to grow in our knowledge of the Holy Spirit.
The New Testament gives us several roles the Holy Spirit plays that have nothing to do with the cessationist/charismatic divide including comfort (John 14:27), conviction of sin (John 15:26), regeneration of our hearts (John 6:63), illumination of the biblical text (1 Corinthians 2:10), putting sin to death (Romans 8:13), help in our weaknesses, and prayer support (Romans 8:26). Cessationists believe in all of these things, and they seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit, but they do not believe that the Spirit gives the sign gifts to the church today.
There are many prominent cessationists: John MacArthur, Dan Wallace, Al Mohler, Tim Challies, Sinclair Ferguson, and R.C. Sproul, and they all come at this issue from slightly different perspectives. There are also people who are cessationists because of bad experiences with charismatics. There certainly have been instances of people doing terrible and unbiblical things in the name of the Holy Spirit, but it is not fair to take those experiences as a reason for dismissing the entirety of charismatic theology. We’ll talk about some of the unfortunate and dangerous parts of the charismatic movement in a few weeks.
Thomas Schreiner, one of the world’s premier New Testament scholars, is also a cessationist, and his book Spiritual Gifts, is an excellent introduction to the best of cessationism. Here’s his bottom line: the gift of prophecy in the NT and the OT requires speaking infallibly with the authority of the Word of God. This is no longer a part of the gifts the Spirit gives because the canon is closed.
The Case For Cessationism
One of the things I love about Schreiner’s approach to the gifts is that unlike MacArthur and some others, he does not view differences over the gifts as first-order issues. Christians can disagree about whether or not Christians speak in tongues. In addition, he is unbelievable gracious in the opening of his book. He writes, “Some of my beloved friends and teachers disagree with me on this issue, including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Sam Storms. I have enormous respect and love for each of these men, and I have dedicated this book to them to register my respect and admiration for each one… Even though I disagree with them on the matter before us, I would happily be a member of the churches they attend and pastor” (3-4). This is a model attitude, on a topic that is seldom handled this gently.
Here’s Schreiner’s argument for cessationism:
The Bible is God’s inerrant, authoritative Word to His people.
This may seem like an obvious point, but it strikes right at the heart of the debate over prophecy and tongues. In fact, Schreiner argues that these are the two genuinely contentious issues between charismatics and cessationists. The Bible is the most authoritative word to believers now and forever, and nothing else can supersede or take away from that authority.
The Biblical gift of prophecy is receiving revelation from God.
In the Old Testament, the defining mark of a prophet was the ability to say, “Thus says the Lord.” If you open up to Isaiah, you’ll see this phrase over and over. In 1 and 2 Kings, the prophets come out of nowhere and speak with the authority of God to the kings of Israel and Judah. In the New Testament, prophecy is no different.
Schreiner defines prophecy as “the reception of spontaneous revelations from God, and such words instruct, encourage, and warn the people of God” (99). He sees this in passages like 1 Corinthians 14:6, “Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?” and in 14:29-30, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent.” There is a difference between prophecy and teaching, and the revelations are spontaneously coming to the prophets from the Lord, not study of the Scriptures.
This fits with the picture of prophecy we get in the OT. Why would prophecy in the NT be any different than prophecy in the OT? The burden of proof is on charismatics who want to argue that NT prophecy does not mean speaking with the authority of God. Many charismatics define prophecy to be fallible and carrying less authority than Scripture. We’ll talk about these arguments in a few weeks.
Prophecy in the NT is not mixed with error.
This builds on the last point. OT prophets are judged on the truthfulness of their prophecies. Deuteronomy 18:21-22 commands the Israelites to see whether a prophet's words come true. If not, then they are not a prophet of the Lord, and they were to be put to death. The NT never gives an example where prophecy is portrayed any differently.
The story of Agabus is one of the most critical passages in the Bible on the topic of NT prophecy. In Acts 21, Agabus claims to speak with the authority of the Holy Spirit and prophecies that Paul will be arrested by the Jews in Jerusalem and handed over to the Gentiles. The people urge him not to go, but Paul tells them that he is going anyway, and they say in return, “Let the will of the Lord be done.” Schreiner views this as a paradigmatic instance of NT prophecy. The Spirit spoke to Agabus, and the message was true. The people misinterpreted a true message and asked Paul not to go. Paul interpreted the message correctly, knowing it was the Lord’s will that he be arrested, he went to Jerusalem, and the prophecy was fulfilled when he was arrested.
The gifts of apostleship and prophecy ended in the early era of the church.
In the final portion of the book, Schreiner brings the argument together, and the decisive verse is Ephesians 2:20, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” This might seem like an unusual place to build a case for cessationism. But this is the summary point for everything Schreiner has explained so far. In the passage, Paul is discussing the future of the church, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. These are both being used a technical sense, prophets as discussed above and apostles as those in the first century like the twelve disciples, Paul, Barnabas, and James who had seen the Lord and who had been given the gift of apostleship.
Schreiner points out that even many charismatics are cessationists when it comes to the gift of apostleship today. Few will argue that the gift of apostleship today is the same as when it was used to describe Peter and Paul in the NT.
This passage links the two gifts of prophecy and apostleship together in a way that appears to mean they were part of the beginning of the church. They were part of the foundation, and they stayed with the foundation. Here’s the bottom line for Schreiner on prophecy, “The sole and final authority of Scripture is threatened if so-called prophets today give revelations which have the same authority as Scripture” (160).
Prophecy and Impressions
What Schreiner does allow for are impressions. These do not carry the weight of the Word of God and can be fallible. This is what he argues is happening when you see people today claiming to have the gift of prophecy. He makes a good point, “The difference between cessationists and continuationists is in some ways insignificant at the practical level when it comes to prophecy, for what continuationists call prophecy, cessationists call impressions. As a cessationist, I affirm that God may speak to his people through impressions. And there are occasions where impressions are startlingly accurate.” From a pragmatic level, this is a helpful point. Many charismatics will refrain from speaking in the name of the Lord. The difference comes in whether or not you call that the gift of prophecy.
Whether you agree with Schreiner or not, this gets to the heart of the cessationist argument as it applies to the prophetic gifts. Prophecy is not something to take lightly, and neither is the authority of Scripture. At the same time, it’s important to remember that outside of a few instances, everybody agrees that the Holy Spirit is a vital part of the church and everyday life. All Christians can grow by walking in the Spirit.
Next week we’ll look at the second half of the cessationist position, the gifts of tongues and interpretation.
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
Like the content? Support the site and get more at patreon.com/sowespeak!