Does God still give the sign gifts to believers today? (A Cessationist View)
In recent years, charismatic theology has grown in prevalence in modern American Evangelicalism. Christians, today, are exposed to charismatic teachings on a regular basis. If you watch televangelists, you will quickly see these teachers promise their congregations that with enough faith they can exercise the gifts of tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and healings. If you grew up in a charismatic church, you may have been taught how to speak in tongues and if you didn’t practice this that you weren’t saved. You may have even had someone come up to you and tell you that, “God told me…” and then proceed to give insight on what was going on at the time.
These are some of the more extreme views in charismatic theology. However, many people who embrace the five points of Calvinism have adopted a more conservative view of the sign gifts. “Reformed Charismatics,” as they call themselves, embrace the gifts of tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and healing. However, they are careful to be faithful to the teachings of Scripture on the gifts and they would stand with Cessationists in disagreement with the more extreme side of the Charismatic movement. For example, they believe that speaking in tongues is not necessary to be saved since they affirm the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Romans 3:28, Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 2:16). They understand that not everyone is given the gift of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:29-30) and furthermore that tongues are not an ecstatic heavenly language, but rather spoken foreign languages not previously studied or heard by the individual who is speaking (Acts 2:4-11). They understand that Scripture tells us that the gift of tongues should only be used where an interpreter is present (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).
Reformed Charismatics are careful not to recklessly accept one hundred percent of what people claim to be prophecies. Prophecies in Scripture are revelations about a future event or particular insight meant for encouragement, not something that supplants Scripture. This is something that further examines the one who claims a prophetic word with elders of the church (1 Corinthians 14:29). Reformed Charismatics would never be so cruel to tell someone that they are dying of cancer because they don’t have enough faith in God, whereas more extreme charismatics who hold to prosperity gospel/Word of Faith theology would say that lack of healing is a result of lack of faith.
However, there are others who disagree with the advocates of Continuationism. In this article, I will defend the Cessationist perspective on the sign gifts. Cessationism teaches that the sign gifts have ceased after the Apostolic Age, which is the time that the apostles conducted their ministry. The gifts of tongues, prophecy, knowledge, and healing served a specific purpose in redemptive history, which was to authenticate the fact that the Apostles were truly sent by God, and ought not to be pursued in the church today. However, Cessationism does not believe that all miracles have ceased. Cessationists do believe that God still does miracles to the pleasure of His will. However, miracles are not normative, and God does not anoint church members with gifts to perform them.
It is a common misconception among Continuationists that Cessationists rely solely upon their experience in the church in defense of their position. If this was true, then that would be an invalid argument. Theological belief should not be determined by experiences. Cessationists claim that since the church has not experienced the use of the sign gifts for centuries, then the gifts must have ceased once the Apostolic Age ended. To be clear, Cessationists do make that argument; however, they use it only as circumstantial evidence and while also using Scriptural support. Cessationists ask questions such as, “What is the biblical precedent for the reemergence of spiritual gifts in the church?” In this article, I will discuss three arguments for Cessationism from a Biblical perspective: sign gifts were given to authenticate the Apostles, gifts of the Holy Spirit are to be regularly used in the church, and Scripture is authoritative and sufficient for piety and practice in the church.
Throughout biblical history, God has authenticated His message through signs and wonders. In Exodus 3, God revealed Himself to Moses as Yahweh (v. 14), the God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Jacob (v. 16), who declared that He would redeem His people from the bondage of the Egyptians (v. 17). However, Moses feared that the Israelites would not listen to him or believe that Yahweh had revealed Himself to him (4:1). Therefore, God told Moses to throw his staff on the ground so that it may become a snake (v. 3). Then, God told Moses to pick it back up again so that it may turn back into a staff (v. 4). The purpose of this miracle was so “that they may believe that the LORD… has appeared to you” (v. 5). God also had two more signs, Moses’ hand turning from leprous to healed and water poured onto the ground that became blood, just in case the Israelites did not believe Him (vv. 6-9). These signs were used to authenticate Moses as one who was sent from God to save His people.
Whenever prophets confronted wicked kings, they were accompanied with signs. When a prophet confronted Jeroboam for his idolatry, 1 Kings 13 states, “And he gave a sign that the LORD has spoken, saying, ‘This is the sign that the LORD has spoken: “Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall poured out’” (v. 3). This sign was given in verse 5. The king then begged for mercy to the prophet (v. 6). To authentic his ministry before Ahab and the people of Israel, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Both Elijah and the prophets of Baal were given a bull and cut it into pieces to lay on a piece of wood (v. 23). After that the prophets of Baal would call their god to bring fire to it and then Elijah would call on Yahweh to bring fire to it and whichever God brought the fire would obviously be the true God (v. 24). The prophets of Baal prayed first yet they received no answer (v. 26). Elijah stepped up and prepared his burnt offering by pouring four water jars on the offering three different times before he called on Yahweh. Once he did, the LORD consumed the burnt offering with fire (v. 38). Afterwards all the people confessed that Yahweh was God (v. 39).
In the New Testament, the ministry of Christ was authenticated with signs. When Christ was baptized, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). This was direct authentication from God that Jesus is the Christ who came to fulfill His mission as the Savior of the world. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist sent his disciples to ensure that Jesus is the Messiah. To authenticate His ministry, Jesus told John’s disciples, “‘Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them’” (Matthew 11:4-5). When Jesus overturned tables in the temple, the Jews asked “‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’” (John 2:18). What sign authority did Jesus have for barging into the temple and disrupting the commerce? Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’” (v. 19). The verses following tell us that Jesus was referring to the temple of His body, and therefore the sign to verify His authority was that He would die on the cross and rise from the grave on the third day. The resurrection is the ultimate authentication of Christ’s messianic identity, and seeing that ultimate authenticating sign led the Apostles and the early Christians to attempt to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth at all costs.
Once the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). In this case the Holy Spirit had given the Apostles the ability to speak in different languages with the purpose to witness to the different ethnicities who were visiting Jerusalem (v. 5-11). The text follows, “And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (v. 12). Peter gives them the reason why this is happening in verses 17-21 in which he quotes the prophet Joel, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The gift of tongues was given to demonstrate that the New Covenant had been inaugurated. In the New Covenant, God’s people not only included believing Jews but also believing Gentiles. The different languages being spoken was the sign to the Jews that Messiah had come to offer salvation to all nations. The gift of tongues was to be a sign that salvation has come to the Gentiles. The gift of healing also authenticated the Apostles’ ministry. In Acts 3, Peter healed a lame man from birth in the name of Christ (v. 6-7). This caused “wonder and amazement” in the crowds (v. 10). Peter continued to use the gift of healing, especially in Acts 5:12-16, when sick and afflicted people “from the towns around Jerusalem” came to him and “were all healed” (v. 16). Verse 12 even says that “many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles.” Healing and speaking in tongues was normative for the apostles at this point in their ministry.
After the beautiful declaration that Jesus is the Christ in Hebrews 1, Hebrews 2:1-4 goes on to say,
Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
The writer of Hebrews urges his audience to trust in Christ for their salvation. He makes a “Lesser to the Greater” argument about the message that the angels declared on Mount Sinai in the giving of the law (Deuteronomy 33:2, Galatians 3:19) and to the message of the Gospel that is now present. That salvation was declared by Christ and the Apostles, while God further authenticated their message by providing these signs, wonders, miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit. The text indicates that the message has been fully authenticated (note the past tense verbs). Also note that Hebrews was written in the late 60s A.D. when most of the apostles had already died, according to tradition. The writer to the Hebrews now wants to encourage the second-generation of Christians. We do not need, as 21st century Christians, to do signs, wonders, miracles, and exercise sign gifts to preach Christ to unbelievers. John the Baptist made a tremendous impact in his preaching ministry while never recorded to have performed a single miracle. All he needed and all we need is the Word of God. The response to what God has done to authenticate His Word is to repent and believe the Gospel. To clarify, not all gifts of the Holy Spirit were used to authenticate the message of the Gospel. As we saw in Acts, the gifts that were used were the gifts of tongues, healing, prophecy, and knowledge. We can definitively say that they have ceased because we must take the list in verse 4 as a unit. It would be inconsistent to say that modern-day messengers of the Gospel do not perform signs, wonders, or miracles as the apostles did and to say that the Holy Spirit still continues to distribute the sign gifts.
As I mentioned above from the text in Acts 5:12-16, healing and speaking in tongues were the norm for the apostles. If they were the norm, why aren’t we seeing these gifts exercised regularly? Why aren’t those who have such gifts exercise them for the “common good” as Paul intends these gifts to be (1 Corinthians 12:7)? One might counter with verse 11 that states that the Spirit “apportions to each one individually as he will.” The argument is that the sign gifts are sovereignly given to believers so we should not project our own expectations upon the work of the Spirit. However, would we say the same thing about the gifts of teaching, serving, exhortation, generosity, leadership, zeal, and mercy (Romans 12:6-8)? What would we say if a church did not have pastors or teachers (Ephesians 4:11-12)? We should absolutely expect a church to have members with these gifts and for them to be exercising them regularly. The sign gifts were the norm for the church in the Apostolic Age as Paul devotes three chapters in 1 Corinthians for their proper usage.
Near the end of Paul’s life (early 60s A.D.), he wrote to a young, budding pastor named Timothy, who was his beloved son in the faith. He commanded Timothy, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 1:13-14). Paul’s ministry had been authenticated and now he commands Timothy to follow him in teaching sound doctrine and in defending the Church’s greatest gift—the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:11, 1 Timothy 6:20). He also commanded Timothy to entrust the Gospel and the Word of God to other faithful men (2 Timothy 2:2). They are to teach the Word of God in order to build up the body of Christ as Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Scripture was written by men who “spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Their message was authenticated (2 Peter 1:19a). Now, we are commanded to “do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises” in our hearts (v. 19b). We don’t need to chase after the gifts of speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, or knowledge to make the Word of God “more real” to us. We should not envy some “encounter” with God that the Scriptures might seem to indicate. Our job is to believe the Scriptures while the Holy Spirit bears witness in our hearts (1 Corinthians 2:10-12). The Scriptures provide everything we need for life and godliness in the church (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The sign gifts have served their purpose. Now, we live in the privileged time in history as we have a 30,000 foot view of what God did in history to authenticate His Word and how the church over the last two millennia has trusted in God’s Word to advance the Gospel and grow in maturity (Colossians 1:28).
Photo by Jake Maddox