Spiritual Gifts – The Cessationist Debate

Even among evangelical Christians there is disagreement on whether all the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament are for use today. Some say that they are, and others argue that the more miraculous gifts were just given to the early church as signs to authenticate the gospel and are no longer needed; the latter are referred to as “cessationists.” My family and I have just finished reading in our family after-breakfast Bible reading time parts of Wayne Grudem’s comprehensive discussion of the issue in Chapter 52, “Gifts of the Holy Spirit (1): General Questions,” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). Here I’ll share from the parts that we read.

A key passage is 1 Corinthians 13:8-13.

8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 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. 12 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. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

The passage is important because it describes prophecy as being “in part” and says that “when the perfect comes” what is “partial” will “pass away.” Cessationists generally take prophecy as representative of all the miraculous spiritual gifts and identify “when the perfect comes” with Scripture’s becoming complete upon the death of the apostles. Thus they claim that gifts ended with the apostle John’s death around A.D. 95. Because of “prophecies” and “tongues” being connected in verse 8, I agree with cessationists that prophecy in verse 9 is representative of all the miraculous spiritual gifts. However I think that “when the perfect comes” refers to the return of Jesus rather than to the completion of Scripture.

Paul’s purpose in the passage is to show that love is superior to the gifts and thus that it is more important to show love than it is to possess the gifts. To show that love is superior to the gifts, Paul argues that it (and faith and hope) are permanent but the gifts are temporary, their ending when “the perfect” comes. According to verse 12, that will be when we will see “face to face” and shall know “even as I have been fully known.” Revelation 22:4, “They will see his face,” indicates that those things will occur in Heaven after the return of Jesus. Thus I understand 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 to imply that God intends for the gifts, including the more miraculous ones, to be used in the church until Jesus returns to take the church to be with him (and the Father).

Some cessationists argue that miraculous gifts actually ceased when the apostles died. However there is increasing historical evidence that healings and prophecies have occurred throughout church history in greater or lesser degree. In commenting on 1 Corinthians 14:32, Calvin refers to the abundance of spiritual gifts in the church in Paul’s day and then observes:

Today we see our own slender resources, our poverty in fact; but this is undoubtedly the punishment we deserve, as the reward for our ingratitude. For God’s riches are not exhausted, nor has his liberality grown less; but we are not worthy of His largess, or capable of receiving all that He generously gives. (The First Epistle of Paul The Apostle to the Corinthians, translated by John W. Fraser, Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1960, page 305).

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6 thoughts on “Spiritual Gifts – The Cessationist Debate

  1. Rose Spillenaar Harmer

    I agree that gifts will end when Christ returns. There was an interesting article out that speaking in the “heavenly language” in our personal prayer life enhanced our immune system. It was by Peterson.

    Reply

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