Today Tom Pennington spoke at the Strange Fire conference and provided a case for cessationism. He offered seven biblical arguments for the cessation of the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit. Here is a summary of his session.
The label “Cessationism” is negative, but the real problem is that it has been easily caricatured as believing that the Spirit has ceased his work. But the fact is that we who are cessationists believe the Holy Spirit has continued his work. Nothing eternal happens in a person apart from the Holy Spirit. Temporal things can happen, but nothing eternal. We only believe the Spirit has ceased in one function: the miraculous gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, and healing.
That’s something of a relief, but sometimes I think “Cessationists” have only themselves to blame for being “easily caricatured as believing that the Spirit has ceased his work.” This is especially true when that category or branch of the Church places specific limits on the work of the Spirit but apparently acknowledges that evil spirits have full reign to do as they please.
OK, that’s probably an exaggeration, but not by much.
So Cessationism teaches that the Holy Spirit has ceased only “one function: the miraculous gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, and healing.” Of course, I haven’t been in a church where prayers for healing haven’t been requested, so I wonder why we’re praying for our friends and loved ones who are ill or injured if the Cessationist viewpoint is correct?
To be fair though, and remember, I’m trying to be fair, Pastor Pennington doesn’t say God doesn’t do miracles anymore, just that the Spirit no longer conveys upon believers any miraculous spiritual abilities or gifts as were given to the apostles. According to Pennington and the Cessationist perspective, “The primary purpose of miracles has always been to establish the credibility of one who speaks the word of God—not just any teacher, but those who had been given direct words by God.”
So the only purpose for miracles was to establish the validity of the prophet or apostle and the words he was speaking that were from God. Now that we have no apostles and prophets, I guess the point of miracles is moot…well, specific miracles such as prophecy, supernatural healing, and speaking in “angelic” languages.
I have to admit that I think there’s something to this. A friend of mine came to Christ many years ago at a local church that believed when someone professed faith during an altar call, they would speak in strange languages. Everyone around my friend had their own tutor or helper, a volunteer at the church, who would guide them in this, and my friend heard the others around him making noises that to him, sounded like gibberish. But no matter how hard my friend tried to open himself up to the Spirit, this spontaneous event didn’t happen to him. His helper urged him to try harder, especially as it was getting late and the helper’s wife was waiting for him out in the parking lot.
Now my friend happens to be multi-lingual, so in an act of desperation, he started speaking in the various languages he already knows. Apparently, that’s what this person from the church wanted to hear and the requirement was satisfied…
…except it wasn’t a miracle, my friend just happens to be gifted in this area and he had already learned those human languages (romance languages for the most part) through studying and travel.
I’ve never been to a church where I’ve heard anyone speaking in a non-human language, so if there’s any validity to this practice, it must not be widespread. Also, I’m highly dubious of anyone calling themselves a prophet, since the world is replete with men and women who claim to have made prophesies about the return of Jesus and absolutely none of them were correct (all of the predicted dates have long since passed, and yet Messiah has not returned).
But I can’t say that miracles absolutely don’t occur. True, I think practices such as holy vomiting (I kid you not) and holy laughter seem pretty ridiculous and in the former case, really disgusting, and of course, you don’t see examples of either in the Bible. On the other hand, I do have a copy of Gifts of the Spirit, which was produced by First Fruits of Zion and is a compilation of the presentations made at their Shavuot Conference last spring, which I attended and blogged about extensively (click the “gifts of the spirit” tag to see all related blog posts).
I’ll have to revisit those experiences through my previous blog posts and that book because, as I recall, there’s another side to living a spiritual life besides performing miraculous deeds, and gifts from God can take on many forms, including the ability to write, teach, pray, comfort, and express extraordinary kindness and compassion to others.
I’ve heard Christians, people I respect, say that one of the reasons we don’t experience gifts is because we are not open to the Spirit. I don’t want to reduce God to a formula because I think there are plenty of people who are open to God who do not overtly hear from Him, at least not “on command.” However, Cessationists tend to put God in a box, too. They have made up all of these rules that say what God is and isn’t doing. There is no room for exceptions. Who’s to say that God doesn’t heal miraculously according to His will?
And there are reports, presumably credible reports, that God does do miracles in places and through people when it is necessary to further his work of spreading the Good News. True, I haven’t witnessed any of this myself, but then again, I haven’t witnessed demon possession either, and yet people like John MacArthur say that’s absolutely real.
Cessationists say that certain miracles are done away with, such as healing, and they prove their points by quoting scripture. They say (or some of them do) that demons are real and continue to have influence in our world, and they prove their points by quoting scripture.
We live in a real, physical world, but it intersects with some pretty strange places, places I’m not qualified to discuss in any detail, places that, for the most part, are out of my lived experience. But I can’t put God in a box, either. Sometimes I think He does things, including supernatural things in our world, because He’s a Sovereign God. He doesn’t have to have a reason that we understand. All that said, none of those supernatural events in any way can contradict what we read in the Bible. The problem is, from a human standpoint, correctly understanding what God is saying in scripture. We don’t always get it right.
I think that refuting or bringing to light some of the more outrageous claims of those who say the Spirit of God made them spontaneously vomit is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean God’s hands are tied if He wants to heal someone of cancer. It doesn’t mean He has to heal, but we don’t always understand God and we absolutely don’t get to tell Him what His limits are just because we’ve inferred things from the Bible (and inference of the scriptures is what the Cessationist argument primarily relies upon).
He [the God-fearing person] will not fear evil tidings, his heart being firm in his trust in God.
If we seek an encounter with God, it may not manifest in a dramatic, public event. It may be in the small stillness of the night when your spirit is troubled and you need to be comforted. We don’t get to tell God what to do or how to do it, so neither side of this debate is in full control of God’s truth and His activities. But if we trust in God, then we know that when we need Him, He’ll be with us.