Does God still give the sign gifts to believers today? (A Continuationist View)
Before I begin to defend my position on the gifts of the Spirit. Let me clarify on where I stand and where my view comes from. Of course, I believe that my view ultimately comes from Scripture, but I grew up in a family that was open to the gifts of the Spirit and all my spiritual mentors were charismatic. In fact, I have been personally edified by the gifts of prophecy and tongues. The primary disagreement at hand concerns the relevance of the gifts for the Church today. Cessationists will refer to these gifts as sign gifts. They will cite two primary passages where spiritual gifts are referenced: Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14. These passages do not make a distinguishment in the classification of the different gifts. In other words, prophecy and generosity don’t seem to be different. The term, sign gifts, comes from the appearance that the manifestation of certain gifts are more special, but I believe that this is the trap that Paul actually warns the church in Corinth of in 1 Corinthians.
To clarify, I know many cessationists personally and I actually have a great deal of appreciation for their perspective because I know it comes from an attempt to defend the Scriptures and the gospel. Regardless I believe that cessationism is more of a reactionary theology rather than a biblical one. In some ways, it is very easy to defend the cessationist case. All you have to do is search “crazy pentecostals” on youtube and there it is point and case. To be honest, I must concede that an incredibly large amount of bad theology has come in the name of the Holy Spirit. For example, prosperity gospel preachers frequently “speak in tongues” and claim that they have the gift of prophecy, but all of this is done with the goal of manipulation. Many pentecostal churches are full of emotion and lack sound doctrine and biblical teaching. There is a tendency for those who are more open to the Spirit to compromise or even hurt the church. I believe that cessationism is responding to bad church practice rather than the biblical text.
However, despite the “crazy pentecostals,” there are many well known, theologically-sound pastors who are charismatic. For example, pastors such as Sam Storms, John Piper, and Matt Chandler have really provided encouragement to me. They serve as examples of men that are both theologically-minded and charismatic. Ironically, all three of these men began their ministry as cessationists and shifted into, what I would argue is, the true biblical view of the spiritual gifts.
It is common for cessationists to build up their argument upon the Old Testament. They will attempt to include the prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. They will say that God providentially gave them the Holy Spirit to work miracles and to be fair this is all true. However, the turning point, or the point of focus, is Pentecost. In the Old Testament, the Israelites did not have the same access to the Spirit. In the Old Testament, the presence of the Lord only dwelt in the temple, but now, according to 1 Corinthians 3:16, we all are living temples. Therefore, I would be cautious when a brother and sister in Christ uses the Old Testament prophets to build their argument. The central Scriptures at hand, which we must focus on, are where Paul addresses the spiritual gifts.
A very basic and proper rule that we all must keep in mind for exegesis comes from Gordon and Fee’s Reading the Bible for All its Worth. The text writes, “a text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his readers.” The passages at hand, those that we will focus on, are those that specifically mention spiritual gifts; and we must try our best to be as faithful to the text as possible. This means that rather than focusing on the Old Testament passages, we must instead focus on the passages that occur after Pentecost and address the spiritual gifts. Typically, this argument finds itself centered around 1 Corinthians 13:10, which states “When the perfect comes, the partial shall pass away.” What does the “perfect” refer to? Cessationists often argue that this is a reference to the completion of the cannon, specifically, the completion of the New Testament. Both, Continuationists and Cessationists, agree that the word “partial” is a reference to the manifestation of the spiritual gifts. Remember the key rule of exegesis? If we follow that rule, then we find that the ”perfect” cannot refer to the completion of the cannon. Why? Because the Corinthian Church was not aware that there was a New Testament or that there would be a cannon. Let’s keep the context of Corinthians in mind. Corinth is a church full of believers with rampant sin who are abusing the spiritual gifts. In fact, their unbiblical practices probably look worse than some of the extreme pentecostal churches today. Continuationists believe that the ”perfect” is not a reference to the cannon, but rather a reference to Christ. We believe that when Christ returns the “partial” will pass away. This view would make much more sense to the people of the church of Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:1). When we approach 1 Corinthians 12-14 and Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthian church to seek after the gifts, a question for my cessationist friends arises. If Paul knew that the gifts would cease when the apostles died, then why would he encourage the church to keep pursuing something that would cease in a few decades? I do not follow the logic and I do not believe that anyone truly can if one follows the rules of exegesis honestly.
You may ask, “How can one know they have the gift of prophecy?” or “Why aren’t people using the gift of healing?” I would argue it does happen but we often view these gifts as taboo and weird and this leads us to avoid them. Teaching is a spiritual gift, and churches tend to give room and space for that gift to be exercised. This often means allowing someone to lead a bible study and continue practicing their gift. Yet for some reason, when it comes to prophecy we just expect people to exercise the gift perfectly with no mistakes. It is not a fair standard. If churches gave space for all gifts to be exercised and gave safe room for mistakes to be made there would be many more churches exercising the gifts properly. I believe that much of this stems from the local church.
Here is the main litmus test. All gifts are meant to build up the church. If the gift of teaching is being abused, then we should question it and criticize it just as much as we would when someone abuses the gift of prophecy or tongues.
Here is a short three-book series by Sam Storms that I would recommend that every believer read before coming to a conclusion on this issue:
Once again, I want to be clear to say that I love all of my cessationist brothers and sisters. They encourage me dearly with the care in which they go about the Scriptures and their valiant effort to preserve the gospel. Nevertheless, as a reformed charismatic, I lament at those who are willingly rejecting an aspect of the Holy Spirit’s ministry.
It is only appropriate to close with 1 Corinthians 13 which is a key passage when it comes to theological debates such as this:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing…Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
Let us walk in love whenever we engage in dialogues such as this and lovingly call one another to pursue after truth until the day Christ (the perfect) returns. Grace and Peace.
Photo by Jake Maddox