The Holy Spirit: Deconstructing Cessationism

Today I will address the cessationist view of the Holy Spirit–the claim that the miraculous signs of the Holy Spirit ceased with the death of the apostles and the canonization of the New Testament.

First, we must understand that cessationists, like most other groups, aren’t completely unified. This website and others outline four basic types of cessationists according to their theology. However, the overall cessationist view can be summed up as thus: The signs of the Holy Spirit were needed to validate the gospel of Christ and establish the Early Church. Now that Christianity is well established, such signs are not needed.

To be fair, nearly all cessationists stress the vital role of the Holy Spirit today in leading others to Christ and empowering believers to live as good examples of the faith. They accept that the Holy Spirit still moves among us, just not in miraculous signs performed by individuals. A few radical cessationists, however, go as far as to claim that any signs manifesting today are demonic and should be rejected at all costs. It’s this latter view that I wish to counter most strongly.

Criteria for Evaluation 

The first question most people would ask in this instance is, “How can we tell what the Bible really says about something?” Here’s the criteria I use in my personal studies:

1. Clear, emphatic scripture trumps scripture that is vague or merely suggestive.

2. If three or more scriptures clearly address a topic, we can express some surety on the Bible’s position.

3. An interpretation of scripture must adhere to the context of the gospel and the Bible as a whole.

So let’s get started.

Cessationist Scriptures

Cessationist doctrine rests mainly on four scriptures: 2 Corinthians 12:12, Ephesians 2:20, Hebrews 2:3-4 and 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. The first three scriptures are used to support the assertion that the gifts of the Spirit were given only to the apostles and, therefore, ceased with them. Only the last scripture mentions cessation explicitly. Let’s examine these more closely. The first scripture comes from Paul’s pen:

I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles (2 Corinthians 12:12).

Cessationists claim this scripture establishes the signs of the Spirit as the sole indicator of an apostle–therefore, common believers could not perform them. Before we delve into the Greek, some logic is called for: If Jesus knew that the signs would cease with the apostles, then why does He not say that future believers can identify false prophets by miraculous signs alone? In Matthew 24, Jesus says false prophets will perform wondrous signs similar to those of the apostles (by another spirit), but in Matthew 7 He says believers can recognize these false prophets by their fruit (i.e., bad character and teachings), not by these signs. In fact, Jesus makes it clear that the false signs will lead people astray.

Logically, it would have been easier for Jesus to say, “Hey, the gifts of the Spirit aren’t going to hang around for long. So if some guys come after you doing the same thing, you know to avoid them.” So why didn’t He?

Second, consider the way the scripture is worded. The word “including” means “in addition to.” So Paul is literally saying, “I demonstrated the signs of the apostle in addition to wonders and miracles.”

The original Greek translation backs up this interpretation. According to Strong’s, the Greek version of “marks” and “signs” in this case means “to indicate or signify.” It does not have the same “miraculous faculty” definition of the word “gifts” used in 1 Corinthians 1:7. “Signs” in this instance could be referring to the fruit of the Spirit, humble servanthood, or the “surpassing great revelations” Paul says he has in verse 7. However, Paul does make it clear that he performed wonders and miracles. It’s possible that the first apostles performed special wonders to establish their credibility. Or it’s possible that since Jesus said the signs would follow His believers, Paul is mentioning these wonders as evidence of his faith.

Next, let’s examine Ephesians 2:20:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.

Cessationists use this scripture to continue their argument that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer in operation today. The apostles laid the foundation of Christ’s church. Since the foundation has been laid, the signs that were used to establish it have gone with those who wielded them. In a metaphorical sense, the most powerful tools are used to lay the foundation of any building. Once the foundation is complete, such tools are put away.

There’s no doubt that the original 12 apostles played special, significant roles in establishing the church. They provided the foundation, and that foundation is complete. However, there is nothing in this scripture that even hints at the cessation of the gifts outlined in 1 Corinthians 12, or even of the apostolic ministry. (Read here about the function of apostles in the church). There were several other apostles mentioned in scripture besides the twelve, and they also exercised the gifts. (Cornelius and his household weren’t even apostles, yet they still spoke in tongues when the Spirit came on them in Acts 10!) According to Strong’s, “apostle” in the general sense means “ambassador of the gospel,” much like a missionary. Do we still need missionaries today? Yes, we do!

Furthermore, we need to consider what comes after verse 20:

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (verses 21-22).

The writer of Ephesians describes an on-going process of new believers being constructed into a unified body of Christ. The foundation has been laid, but the house is still being built. If this work is still continuing today, why wouldn’t the gifts of the Spirit be continuing as well? Some cessationists would answer by citing 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

They reason that if scripture is sufficient for “every good work,” then the gifts of the Spirit haven’t been needed since the Biblical cannon closed. But a few problems arise with this argument:

1. This scripture was penned by the Apostle Paul, which means the gifts were still in use at the time. If scripture was “sufficient” as of that writing, then the apostles didn’t need the gifts, either.

2. Context. In verses 14-15, Paul speaks to Timothy about growing in knowledge of the scriptures because of all the false doctrines that are leading people astray. Therefore, his statement in verses 16-17 has to do with avoiding outside teachings, not rejecting the operation of the gifts.

3. Scripture itself speaks of the gifts, outlines their place and purpose, and says they will be bestowed on all those who believe in Christ.

Now for Hebrews 2:3-4:

[H]ow shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

Cessationists point to this scripture as evidence of the confirming function of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and zero in on the past tense of the word “testified.” In other words, the scripture suggests that the Holy Spirit confirmed the gospel at one time through signs, but that time has passed.

This assumes that the gifts of the Spirit had only one function: confirming the gospel. But it’s clear from Paul’s writings that the gifts have other functions as well (see The Purpose of the Gifts in Part 2). The cessation of one function doesn’t automatically render a thing null and void. Also, there’s the same problem of this scripture being penned before the deaths of all the foundational apostles, which calls into question the past tense used in this verse.

And finally, 1 Corinthians 13:8-13:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass awayFor we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

The cessationist view hinges on what Paul meant by “completeness” (or “perfection” in some translations). Many cessationists say it refers to the completeness of scripture–the closing of the Biblical canon. But as one scholar pointed out, that would require Paul to have knowledge of an incomplete New Testament canon. Paul may not have even been aware that he was writing part of that canon. Some scholars date Paul’s writings as some of the earliest NT documents; the testimonies of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John hadn’t even been set to paper yet–their stories were being spread word-of-mouth. So how could Paul have possibly known about a canon?

Other questions:

1. Now that we have the completed New Testament canon, do we know God and His will fully? If so, why do we still have to debate doctrine?

2. If Paul doesn’t have the complete revelation of scripture yet, doesn’t that mean he’s talking and reasoning like a child while writing this passage? If so, how does childish reasoning help complete the scriptures, since this became part of the canon?

3. Has anyone else in history ever referred to reading a text as seeing it face to face?

It makes much more sense to think of “completeness” as the return of Christ. Here’s how I (and many other believers) read this scripture:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when Jesus comes, what is in part will disappear. When I was a child (or new believer) in Christ, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When the mysteries of God were revealed to me upon Christ’s return, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection of Christ through the scriptures as in a mirror; at His coming we shall see Him face to face. Now I know Him in part; then I shall know Him fully, even as I am fully known by Him.

In 1 John 4:8, the Bible says that God is love. In His presence (i.e., love), believers will have no need for prophecies or tongues. The knowledge we have will be perfected. We won’t need any further instruction, empowerment or revelation. We will fully understand the scriptures as God intended. All debate concerning what was really said and meant by the apostles and prophets will end! I think this is exactly what Paul was trying to communicate–illustrating the superiority and desirability of love over the gifts of the Spirit.

The Conclusion 

– Only one of the cessationist’s scriptures mentions cessation explicitly, and the cessationist interpretation of it is not the most logical one.

– The cessationist interpretation of the other three scriptures leaves lots of room for questions.

– Jesus and the apostles never warn believers in scripture that the gifts will cease. Seeing as how they didn’t want believers to be deceived about anything, this seems like something they would have done.

One writer is quoted as saying, “If you were to lock a brand-new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a cessationist.” I think that’s true!

If, then, the gifts of the Spirit are still manifesting today, it is impertinent for anyone to label all such signs and miracles as demonic. First of all, it limits what God can do in that believer’s life. Second, it verges on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit–the only unforgivable sin (Matthew 12:30-32)! The Bible says, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20). I’m concerned that these radical cessationists may be speaking themselves into God’s wrath. Do I believe my cessationist brothers and sisters in Christ will go to heaven? Yes. But I think all believers should exercise caution in what they call demonic, lest they commit a grave error.

However, I will say that some cessationist criticism of how charismatics are using (or abusing) the gifts today is relevant and true. I will address that in a future post. Stay tuned.

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One response to “The Holy Spirit: Deconstructing Cessationism

  1. Pingback: Deconstructing Cessationism: Part 2 | Revolutionary Faith