Q: #400. What is cessationism?
By: Steve Shirley
A: In short, cessationism is a teaching which states that some of the spiritual gifts (which God has given to all believers) listed in the Bible are no longer in operation today. You can find a list of these gifts here. These gifts, which are often referred to as "sign gifts" or "miracle gifts," are prophecy, apostles, healing, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.
Cessationists argue that the "sign gifts" were given primarily (or perhaps only) to the "apostles" to authenticate that the words they spoke/wrote, or the actions they took were inspired by God, and that they were acting on His behalf. This is said of Jesus [called an "apostle" in Heb 3:1] (Jn 5:36)(Jn 10:25,37-38)(Acts 2:22)(Jn 3:2), and of the "apostles" (Mk 16:20)(Heb 2:3-4)(Acts 14:3)(Acts 4:9-10). The "sign gifts" were used for "building the foundation for the church" (Eph 2:20)(1 Cor 3:10-15)(Rom 15:20)(Mt 16:18). This included such things as spreading the Gospel (Mt 28:18-20), revealing revelation (Eph 3:3-6), exposing heretics (Gal 1:6-9), and writing Scripture. However, since a foundation need only be built once, and since we now have God's completed Word (the Bible), these gifts are no longer needed (i.e. Heb 1:1-2), and therefore ended with the death of the last apostle (sometimes called the end of the "apostolic age"). (I discuss this issue in more depth in the previous question.)
In addition, it is generally taught that since we don't see these "sign gifts" being used in later books of the Bible (i.e. neither Timothy - 1 Tim 5:23, nor Trophimus - 2 Tim 4:20 were healed by Paul, and no miracles were performed), nor is it recorded that they were used in the early church (after the death of the apostles), they must have ended.
Regarding tongues, it is said of this "sign gift" that it was given to provoke the Jews, who were present each time they were spoken, that God was with these new groups, and that salvation was available to them: (1 Cor 14:21-22)(this correlates to Isa 28:11). (I also hold this position.) After this point was made, and judgment fell upon the Jews (they have been temporarily blinded: Rom 11:25), tongues no longer needed to be spoken. Also, there seems to be no evidence that tongues were spoken in the early church.
Cessationism is primarily taught by Reformed and conservative Baptist churches today. It appears that a majority of historical scholars also held a cessationist viewpoint (i.e. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Matthew Henry, Jonathan Edwards). However, there are also some notable scholars who have held the opposite viewpoint, called continuationism. Continuationism teaches that none of the gifts have ceased, and all are still in operation today. Scholars who have championed this viewpoint include A.W. Tozer, R.A. Torrey, John Wesley, Wayne Grudem, and John Piper. Pentecostal and charismatic churches strongly uphold the continuationist viewpoint.
Continuationists argue that the Bible never explicitly states that the gifts have ended. Also, just because the Bible does not show the "sign gifts" being used in later books, and the early church does not speak of them, this is not proof that they simply ended (it is making an "argument of silence"). Continuationists will admit that there have been abuses of the "sign gifts" in recent times, but this does not invalidate that they are for today. Continuationists also have Biblical reasons for their beliefs.
Here are a few verses they use to defend their position.
(Rom 11:29)(NASB) says, "for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."
(1 Cor 12:31) says to "earnestly desire the greater gifts," which follows a list of spiritual gifts, including the "sign gifts." (Also see: 1 Cor 14:1)
(Jn 14:12)(NASB) Jesus said, "he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do." These works included supernatural healing and miracles.
(Acts 2:17-18)(Joel 2:28) speak about many people prophesying in last days.
(Eph 4:11-16) says spiritual gifts, including the "sign gifts" of apostle and prophet, are given "for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; UNTIL we ALL attain to the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God." Have we reached this point yet?
(1 Cor 1:7) Paul told the Corinthians that they did not "lack ANY spiritual gift," as they eagerly waited for Jesus Christ to be revealed.
**(Caps emphasis mine)
Interestingly, both cessationists and continuationists use (1 Cor 13:8-10) to prove their point.
(1 Cor 13:8-12) says, "Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. (9) For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. (10) But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. (11) When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (12) For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Both agree this says that prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will cease "when the perfect comes," but disagree on what the "perfect" is. Most cessationists believe that the "perfect" is the Canon of Scripture, therefore, when it was completed, the "sign gifts" ended. Most continuationists argue that if you look at verse 12, "see... face to face," this does not point to the Canon, but instead to a person (i.e. God was seen "face to face" [Gen 32:30] [Ex 33:11] [Deut 5:4] [Judg 6:22]). This "person" is referring either to Jesus Christ at His Second Coming, or God when we see Him in the eternal state (see: Rev 22:4). Therefore, the "sign gifts" will continue until this future time.
Regarding this issue, I suppose I would be
called a "partial cessationist." I do not believe that any of the
spiritual gifts have ended. However, I do believe that aspects of several of
the gifts may no longer be for today. For example, regarding the gift of
"prophecy," I believe a Biblical case can be
made that prophecy can consist of "foretelling" AND "forthtelling."
Prophecy in the Bible was not only about delivering God-given messages
concerning events that would happen in the future ("foretelling"), but it
was also about teaching, warning, exhorting, encouraging, comforting, and
strengthening people. Today, we can do this using
what is written in the Bible, and therefore it would be called "forthtelling."
In other words, we might say that a prophet today delivers God-given
messages directly from God not because God has given the prophet a NEW
revelation (or previously unknown truth) that has never been heard before,
but rather, the prophet is proclaiming what God has ALREADY said in the
Bible (God's Word). Therefore, taking this into account,
I see the gift of prophecy as still for today. I discuss this in more detail here.
***Note: I do not totally discount the possibility that "foretelling" can occur today, but if it is occurring, it is rare. It also CANNOT contradict anything in the Bible.
SO much more can be said on this topic, but since the question is simply to define "cessationism," we will not go any further. I will add, however, that this is a SECONDARY issue, and not a primary issue. Christians can discuss and debate the cessation or continuation of spiritual gifts, but we should NOT divide over it.