One of the most confusing and hotly debated subjects among Christians/churches today is in regard to the gifts of the Spirit, namely, the miracle gifts. In association, this would include dreams, visions, and prophecies.
Cessationists believe that the miracle gifts ceased with the completion of the New Testament and the full establishment of the Church at the end of the Apostolic period. Continuationists (Pentecostals and Charismatics) believe that all the gifts are still operational today. This is an area where I personally have gone back and forth over the years. The reason why this is such a confusing subject is because there are good people and good arguments on both sides. However, a thorough study of this subject – on my part – has revealed a consistency and harmony of Scriptures that I believe finally and forever settles this issue for me.
One of the most important determining factors, is recognizing and understanding the different times and different ways in which God has worked in the world and among His people.
Understanding the Times
OT – Old Testament
NT – New Testament
I’m now a settled cessationist, and one of the reasons is because of the realization that God does not do all the same things at every point in history. Different times call for different ways. Many Christians have the idea that if they see something in the Bible, if they see it practiced in the Bible – especially in the NT – then it must be for all time till the return of Christ. However, that’s a point of view that completely disregards the unique times at various points in history — especially as it pertains to the early years of the Church, as written about in the book of Acts. It completely disregards the transition that occurred between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, from God’s dealing with Israel to dealing with His Church. What the early years of the Church experienced was a unique situation that will never be seen again. This fact must not be minimized. It’s a mistake to believe that that time in history is irrelevant to the operation of the gifts of the Spirit today.
What we must understand is that the Apostles of Christ were an extension of Christ Himself. He called them to be the leaders, the ones through whom He would establish His Church. Jesus preached the NT message, performing great miracles in order to validate who He said He was and the message He proclaimed. The Apostles were called to continue what He started. They preached the Christian message that He started. God performed miracles through them to confirm the truthfulness of that message. All of this was a continuation of what Jesus started in order to establish His Church and His message.
The idea that all the signs and wonders that we read about in the book of Acts continues to this day, is an idea that fails to recognize that these were events that were transitional in nature, and served as a vehicle to get from one point to the other, namely, from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. That transition had to be confirmed as being from God, and that’s what the “signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor 12:12) of those days accomplished. That time of transition will never be seen again.
Just as God dealt with His people differently in OT times than He does in NT times, so does He deal with us differently today than He did during the days of the Apostles and the beginning years of the Church. We have to be able to distinguish and understand how God deals with His people during different times of history, because if we don’t, we will come to wrong conclusions about what the Bible teaches. Everything must be viewed and interpreted according to those times of history, within the context of what the Scriptures reveal about those times.
Therefore, what we see in the book of Acts (and discussed in 1 Cor 12-14) was foundational in nature, and not to be viewed as perpetual. Once a foundation has been laid, you don’t continue building the foundation. Once it’s done, it’s done. From that point on, the focus transitions from the foundation to the structure of the building. Ever since the Apostolic period ended, when the Apostles and prophets accomplished their mission of establishing the Church and writing the NT Scriptures, we’ve been building upon the foundation that they laid. The confusion regarding the miracle gifts is due, in large part, to not recognizing that they were intended to be building materials for the foundation, rather than building materials to be used for the structure.
Accordingly, in order to understand the gifts of the Spirit for today, we must understand the purpose that God had for the Apostles and prophets of the early years of the Church. If we misinterpret what was going on during that time, and apply what we see during that time to our own time, then our understanding of the gifts of the Spirit will be wrong.
Only Three Periods in History
Both God’s Word and history reveals that God has not always used miracles extensively. There have only been three periods in history where God has performed miracles in an unusual way, where miracles in abundance was a regular occurrence:
(1) Moses and Joshua
(2) Elijah and Elisha
(3) Christ and the Apostles
These three periods were the exception, not the rule. These periods of miracles served a specific purpose, and once that purpose was accomplished, the miracles that characterized those time periods ceased. This does not mean that God did not perform miracles at other times, because He surely did. This also does not mean that God does not perform miracles today, because He surely does. But today, miracles are obviously not the regular occurrence that they were in the days of the Apostles. God still performs miracles today, but the frequency and magnitude of those miracles is not what it was in the early Church. Nor do they have the same impact as they did then. That should be obvious to everyone. Furthermore, while God still performs miracles today, it’s normally in answer to prayer and not through those who supposedly have the miracle gifts to do so.
Jesus Himself only performed miracles for three years out of His thirty-three. Think about that! That’s a fact of particular importance, one that I think goes unnoticed by most Christians. Once the miracles had served their purpose in His life, they ceased upon His death. Upon His resurrection and ascension, His miracles continued through His Apostles, but again only for a relatively short period of time, until the Church was fully established and the NT Scriptures completed.
Confirmed By the Old Testament Pattern
The Church was built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets (Eph 2:19-22; 3:1-6). When they spoke the Word of God, it was primarily the teachings of the Christian faith until the NT Scriptures were completed. The miracles that the Apostles performed, validated the message they proclaimed (Acts 14:3-4; 2 Cor 12:12; He 2:3-4). Once the Scriptures and the foundation of the Church was completed, there was no longer a need for the miracle gifts. This is the shadow that is cast by the OT. The prophets spoke the Word of God and the message was validated by the miracles of such prophets as Moses, Elijah and Elisha. Once the OT Scriptures were completed, the miracles ceased. From that point on, the Jews (and Gentiles who embraced their religion) had the written Word of God to instruct them.
That pattern continued in the NT. The miracles didn’t begin again until Christ began His ministry, which, again, confirmed the message He preached (Jn 10:25,38: Acts 2:22). The Apostles continued this as an extension of Christ and His ministry until the NT Scriptures were finished. Once the Apostolic period ended, the miracles ceased. God still performs miracles today, but not in the likeness of those performed in the foundational years of the Church, and is normally in answer to prayer.
The type of miracles that typified the ministry of Christ and the Apostles ened with them. There are no groups of people or individuals today that are characterized by such a ministry. The Apostles and prophets had a special calling for a special time that required special gifting that will never be seen again. Transitional periods of time in the plan of God, are necessarily, characterized by unusual activity.
We can conclude, that the OT pattern can be seen in the NT, which confirms the cessation of the miracle gifts.
Spiritual gifts and the Local Church Today
God is sovereign, and He will provide the gifts of the Spirit in every faithful church as He sees fit. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether a church believes all the gifts are operational today or not. That’s a completely false notion. God will bless any church that is faithfully serving Him, and that includes providing them with all the gifts necessary to carry out the work He’s called them to do. Who can sensibly believe that God would not equip a church for the work He’s called them to?
If the Holy Spirit gifted His people today with the same gifts that He distributed to believers in the early Church, we would all know it. Every faithful church would experience it. If those gifts have truly continued since those early days, the miraculous would be abundant and irrefutable to the Church world-wide. Just as in the beginning years of the Church, no one would have to wonder if the miracles being performed were real or not. It would be unmistakable, and we would all be in awe. The fact that we don’t have such a situation in the Church today, provides all the evidence we need to conclude that what’s being experienced among the Pentecostal and charismatic churches today, is not what the churches experienced in the days of the Apostles — which reveals that there’s something very unbiblical going on at the very foundation of that whole movement.
Continuationist Mindset, Practice
This type of mindset views everything in the Bible to be in the realm of possibility for them, both personally and as a corporate assembly…….even beyond what we see practiced or taught in the Bible. Because of the belief that miracles can and should be a normal part of the Christian life and of the local assembly, they believe anything goes. This opens one up to deception, which can also lead to unfulfilled expectations and disillusionment. To avoid these things, we have to realize that we’re living in post-apostolic times, that we’re post-apostolic Christians, and that God deals with us differently than He did with believers who were living during the days of the Apostles, during that transitional period from Old Covenant to New Covenant.
I think the tendency is to think that if we don’t regard all the gifts of the Spirit as being operational today, that it’s somehow a lack of faith in God and His power and His faithfulness. I think the tendency is to think that it’s a position that limits God. However, that’s an idea that’s based on a lack of understanding of the plan of God. This plan can be seen if one has the overall picture in view. That comes from considering all the individual parts of the whole of what both the OT and NT reveals.
In regard to practice, there’s a lot of confusion and bizarre things that go on in many churches that believe and seek and emphasize the “manifestations of the Spirit,” things that cannot be of God. A lot of far out ideas and practices occur within this group (do your own online searching), but have absolutely no biblical support. Christians believe it because of the false ideas they have about the gifts of the Spirit, and because of a lack of understanding of how God deals with His people in different times. The type of things that go on in some of these churches dishonor the name of Christ. It’s a poor testimony to the world. Yet, Christians continue to believe in these things. Why? Because that’s what they’ve been led to believe. Many of these pastors and teachers are likely false believers, leading true believers astray. They’ve been taught by people who don’t understand God’s Word. They’re false teachers. The Apostle Peter addresses this type of situation in his second letter, and serves as a warning to us today.
Christians who are in churches who believe that all the gifts are still active today – but where there’s generally good teaching and good, sensible order (Calvary Chapel and Assembly of God, for example) – are fond of saying that we shouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Meaning, we can’t judge the whole according to the few crazies. Meaning, we can’t assume that the charismatic teaching that connects all these churches is false. Nonetheless, from my perspective, the fact that there is so much chaos and far out stuff that goes on in so many of these types of churches, is symptomatic of a theology that is wrong at the core of its teaching regarding the gifts of the Spirit.
Let’s be honest, we just don’t hear of any of the same type of bizarre activity in cessationist churches. I believe that’s evidence of a theology that is sound at the core of its teaching regarding the gifs of the Spirit.
The confusion regarding the miracle gifts (also dreams, visions and prophecies), is due to the fact we’re trying to understand something that was intended only for the first century Church. I believe that’s why we don’t have any explanation or instruction regarding the more difficult to understand gifts, such as tongues and interpretation of tongues of 1 Corinthians 14. It’s evident that they weren’t meant for anyone except for the churches during that transitional period of time while Christianity was being established.
Churches and individual Christians trying to live out a purpose that was meant for a different time, can lead to major deception, which leads to practices that dishonor the name of Christ. Taking ourselves out of that belief system and out of that environment, can be very liberating and life-changing. It allows us to live the sensible and responsible life that we’ve been called to as representatives of Christ in this present age.