Spiritual Gifts: Cessation of the Miraculous

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. (John 3:8)

The Cessationist Position

Doctrine regarding the spiritual gifts is a generally accepted component in the life of the Church. It is recognized that the Holy Spirit empowers redeemed individuals with abilities useful to building up the Body. Individual Christians may be the recipients of one or more of these gifts, evidence of the work of the Spirit in their lives. The precise count of the gifts is variable, dependent upon the system of classification used to enumerate them (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11; Eph 4:11; 1 Pet 4:10-11). Certain gifts-often called the miraculous, prophetic or word gifts-raise a question within the Church as to their continued distribution. These include the gift of tongues, prophecy and healing.

The cessationist position argues that the distribution of the miraculous gifts has ceased in the modern era of the Church. The gifts of tongues, healing and prophecy were limited in their assignment to the first century, useful for building up the early churches in the Apostolic era prior to the completion of the canon.

The arguments for cessation are complex and require a broad understanding of eschatology and the “Church Age”. The miraculous gifts are seen to have been products of necessity for the foundation of the early Church. They functioned as a part of the “canonical” principle for the Church during the time in which it was being founded but prior to the completion of the canonical writings. When the canon was closed, the need for the miraculous gifts was over and they subsequently ceased being given by the Holy Spirit.

This idea may be further divided. The prophetic gifts were no longer needed by the Church in light of the necessary Word of God having been canonized. To have further prophetic words from God would necessitate the reopening of the Scriptures so as to include them, thus giving a “never for sure” status to the Bible. The insufficiency of the revelation of the Scriptures must then be addressed as it challenges their closed nature. In other words, if one is to consider the Bible the final word of God for our days then it is required that we not be constantly wondering if a new word is going to modify the old. The maintenance of the prophetic gifts blurs the difference between being led by the Spirit (Rom 8:14) and being carried along by the Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).

In the same way, the sign gifts (tongues, miracles) were given only during the Apostolic age as necessary support for the foundation of the Church (cf Eph 2:20). With the last of the Apostles came the last distribution of these gifts as it is not necessary to lay and re-lay the foundation of the Church throughout history.

The cessationist refers to 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 as a key text on which their position rests. As the application of the spiritual gifts is only efficacious in love, the first verse in this passage sets the bar; “Love never fails.” (vv 8a). Love, as a strengthener and edifier within the Church, will never pass away but prophecy, tongues and knowledge will (vv 8b). They pass as perfection replaces imperfection (vv 10; cf Heb 2:4).

This passage is read by the cessationist as expressing the less than eschatological significance of prophetic gifts of the Spirit. In the Church era until the moment when Jesus returns, faith, hope and love have eschatological meaning, unlike knowledge and other expressions of personal miracles. Fruits of the Spirit express the reality of the Holy Spirit today, serving the twin purposes of evangelism and edification of the Church.

Grace and peace to you.