Cessationists do not deny the active work of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts. What they claim is that some gifts have ceased. This article looks at three gifts, apostleship, prophecy, and tongues.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2002. 4 pages.

What about Prophecy and Tongues Today?

The Westminster Confession of Faith, insist­ing that Scripture is sufficient in our day, holds that “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people” have “now ceased (1.1). We who adhere to that doctrine thus are often called “cessationists.” That label carries a lot of baggage. By itself it’s negative. In current debates about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, it suggests what one is against. At the outset, then, we need to correct certain miscon­ceptions about “cessationism.”

We do not assert that God’s Spirit is no longer actively working in dynamic and dramat­ic ways. We earnestly believe that he is. What, for instance, can be more powerful and impres­sive – even miraculous! – than the 180-degree reversal in walk that occurs when the Spirit transforms those dead in their sins into those alive for good works? This involves nothing less than a work of resurrection, of (re-) creation (Eph. 2:1-10). This is awesome indeed!

Nor do we believe that all spiritual gifts have ceased and are no longer present in the church. At issue is the cessation of a limited number of such gifts. The continuation of the large re­mainder is not in dispute.

People sometimes tell me, “You’re putting the Holy Spirit in a box.” At least two re­sponses come to mind. First, I do take this charge to heart. It is by no means an imaginary danger that we can unduly limit our expectations of the Spirit’s work by our theologizing. We must ever remember the in­calculability factor Jesus notes in John 3:8 (the Spirit is like an unpredictable wind). A mark of any sound doctrine of the Spirit’s work is that it will be content with an unaccounted for remainder, an area of mystery. Secondly, how­ever, as I will try to show, the Holy Spirit him­self, “speaking in the Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:10) puts His activity “in a box” if you will, a box of his own sovereign making. The Bible knows nothing of a pure whimsy of the Spirit. The Spirit is indeed the Spirit of ardor but He is also, and no less, the Spirit of order (1 Cor. 14:33, 40). It’s striking that Scripture particularly stresses order in a discussion of spiritual gifts! A perennial chal­lenge to the church is that we seek this ordered ardor or, if you prefer, this ardor-in­fused order of the Spirit.

First the foundation, then the superstructure🔗

According to the Nicene Creed, the “one holy catholic” Church is also “apostolic.” What does that mean? What constitutes the apostolicity of the Church? Getting a biblical answer to that question is the important first step toward seeing that God’s Word teaches that certain gifts of the Spirit have in fact fulfilled their purpose, and ceased.

Ephesians 2:11-22 provide as comprehen­sive an outlook on the New Testament church as anywhere in Paul’s writings or, for that matter, the rest of Scripture. Using a favorite biblical metaphor for the church (cf. 1 Pet. 2:4-8), the one church – composed now of Gentiles as well as Jews – is the great house-building project that God, the master architect-builder, is at work on in the period between Christ’s exaltation and return. The church is God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus him­self as the chief cornerstone” (vv. 19-20).

Two closely related considerations are note­worthy in this description. First, notice that the foundation in view is finished. It is a his­torically completed entity. When a builder knows what he’s doing (as we may assume God does!), he lays the foundation once at the beginning of the project. The foundation doesn’t need to be repeatedly re-laid. After he lays the foundation, he builds the superstructure on that foundation. From our vantage point today, we are in the period of superstructure-building. Christ has laid the foundation of His church. Now He is building on it.

Secondly, this conclusion is reinforced when we consider exactly how the apostles and prophets, along with Christ, are the church’s foundation. For Christ, that plainly consists in His saving work, in His crucifixion and resur­rection – “no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11; cf. 15:3-4). But the apostles also belong to the foundation. That is not because the saving work of Christ is somehow in­complete. It is rather because of their witness, a witness – authorized by the exalted Christ himself – which is fully revelatory (e.g., Acts 1:22; Gal. 1:1; 1 Thess. 2:13).

This unique role of the apostles in the God’s historical unfolding of His saving plan comes to light in Ephesians 2:20. We find a cor­relation all through the history of salvation to its consummation in Christ (Heb. 1:1-2a) – God’s Word focuses on God’s deeds. And so the situation is this: to the foundational once­-for-all, finished work of Christ, God joined the foundational once-for-all, finished apostolic witness. God’s Word focuses on God’s deeds. This was the matrix for the eventual emergence of the books of the New Testament. Ephesians 2:20, then, indicates that the apostles had a temporary, non-continuing role in the life of the church. Their place was in the important foun­dation-laying phase of the church’s history. Their function was to provide revelatory, infal­libly authoritative, canonical witness to the con­summation of salvation history in Christ’s finished work. That function was fulfilled. It does not belong to the superstructure-building period to follow. It instead provides the completed solid foundation on which Christ con­tinues to build the superstructure of the church.

Several other lines of New Testament teach­ing confirm that the office of apostle was temporary. In order for someone to be an apostle, one job prerequisite was to have been an eye and ear witness of Christ before His ascension (Acts 1:21-26). Paul – in 1 Corinth­ians 15:7-9 (cf. 9:1) – saw himself as meeting this requirement by way of an exception. Along with that, he seems clearly to say here that he is the last of the apostles. The Pastoral Epis­tles were largely concerned with making apos­tolic preparation for the future of the church after the time of the apostles. Two of these letters are addressed to Timothy, whom Paul viewed, more than anyone else in the New Tes­tament, as his personal successor. Yet Paul never called him an apostle. In light of the redemptive-historical rationale already noted, “apostolic succession” in a personal sense is a contradiction in terms. The apostolicity of the church is not secured by an unbroken, outward succession of officeholders that can be traced back to the apostles. It rather consists in stead­fast fidelity to the apostles’ teaching or tradition (2 Thess. 2:15) as it is inscripturated in the New Testament.

Many in the charismatic movement agree that apostles – in the sense of those who are “first” among the gifts given to the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11), like the Twelve and Paul – are not present in the church today. In that respect at least – whether or not they re­gard themselves as such – the large majority of today’s charismatics are in fact “ces­sationists.” Anyone who recognizes the temporary nature of the apostolate, then, needs to think through – in the light of other New Testament teaching – what further implications this basic cessationist position may carry.

What about prophecy?🔗

Ephesians 2:20 itself states one such implication – an important one. Along with the apostles, it affirms that the prophets have a foundational role. Who are these prophets? Clearly not the Old Testament prophets. First of all, notice the word order: “apostles and prophets,” not “prophets and apostles.” More importantly, just a few verses later and in almost identical words, the prophets in view are said to belong to the “now” of the new covenant, in contrast to the “other generations” of past covenant history (Eph. 3:5). Some have recently argued that these prophets are identical to the apostles (“the apostles who are also prophets”). This view is hardly plausible in view of Paul’s next reference to apostles and prophets beyond this context (Eph. 4:11: “some to be apostles, some to be prophets”). Ephesians 2:20 clearly implies that prophecy was a temporary gift, given for the foundation-laying period of the church. Therefore, along with the apostles, the New Testament prophets are no longer a present part of the church’s life.

What about tongues?🔗

1 Corinthians 14 deals with prophecy and tongues in far more detail than any other New Testament passage. A quick perusal will show that, like a backbone, a contrast between prophecy and tongues structures the entire chap­ter (beginning in verses 2-3, continuing through­out, and culminating in verse 39). The broad concern of the apostle’s argument is to show the relative superiority or preferability of prophecy to tongues. Prophecy is “greater” because (as speech intelligible to others) it edifies the church, while tongues (unintelligible to others) do not. The immediate proviso, how­ever, is that when tongues are interpreted, they are on a par with prophecy for edifying others (vv. 4-5). Tongues, when uninterpreted, are eclipsed by prophecy. But interpreted tongues are functionally equivalent to prophecy. And so God’s Word draws a close tie between pro­phecy and tongues. We may even say fairly that tongues, as interpretable and to be interpreted (vv. 13, 27), are a mode of prophecy.

What these two gifts have in common, and the reason they can be contrasted in this way, is that both are word gifts. Specifically, both are revelation. Both bring to the church God’s Word in the primary, original, non-derivative sense.

That prophecy is revelation is explicit in verse 30. It is also clear, among other con­siderations, from the only instances of prophecy existing in the New Testament, those of Agabus (see Acts 11:27-28 and 21:10-11) and the book of Revelation (see 1:1-3).

That tongues are revelation is plain from verses 14-19. They are inspired speech of the most immediate – indeed virtually unmediat­ed – kind. In its exercise the gift of tongues completely bypasses the “mind,” in the sense that the intellect of the speaker does not pro­duce what is said. The Holy Spirit so takes over speech capacity and organs that the words spoken are not the speaker’s own words in any sense. Also, “mysteries” (v. 2) as an indi­cation of their content, confirms this fully revelatory understanding of tongues (as well as their link with prophecy, see 13:2). Else­where in the New Testament, at least without any clear exceptions, this word always refers to revelation, more specifically, to the redemp­tive-historical content of revelation (e.g., Matt. 13:11; Rom. 16:25-26; 1 Tim. 3:16).

From those passages that are most perti­nent and decisive, then, a basic explanation for the cessation of prophecy and tongues emerges. By God’s wise and gracious design, apostles and prophets played a temporary role in the Church’s history. They did not continue beyond its foundation-laying era. The redemp­tive-historical “specs” of God’s church-house are such that apostles and prophets are not permanent fixtures (Eph. 2:20). Neither are tongues, since they are tied, as we have seen, to prophecy (1 Cor. 14). They, too, passed out of the life of the church along with the passing of the apostles and prophets (and other means of bringing God’s Word).

What about 1 Corinthians 13:8-13?🔗

Many, however, judge that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 clearly teaches that prophecy and tongues will not cease until the Second Coming of Christ. To them, this is a “gotcha” text that by itself settles the issue. But does this Scripture really imply their conclusion?

Look carefully at 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. Notice that its primary thrust is to compare the believer’s present and future knowledge. Present knowledge is partial and obscure (vv. 8-9) in contrast to the full, “face-to-face” know­ledge that will be ours (v. 12) with the arrival of “the perfect” knowledge (v. 10). “The perfect” almost certainly refers to the time when Christ returns in power and glory. Does that mean that these gifts will not cease until the Second Coming? That conclusion goes beyond the aim of this text. The accent of this text is on the character of our present knowledge, in particular, on its partial quality. The particular media of that knowledge are not the point. Paul clearly had a pastoral concern with the proper exercise of prophecy and tongues in the church at Corinth (chapters 12-14). Therefore, it’s un­derstandable that he mentioned them in this context. He was not, however, addressing the issue of when they would cease. Rather, he was stressing the partial, opaque character of all our knowledge until Christ returns. This is true no matter by which revelatory means that knowledge comes (including, by implication, even inscripturation). This is also true no mat­ter when those means may cease.

Ephesians 4:11-13 reinforces this inter­pretation. The exalted Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets ... until we all reach unity in the faith ... and become mature (or, perfect) attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Almost certainly the “unity” and “fullness” of verse 13 is the same state of affairs as “the per­fect” in 1 Corinthians 13:10. Ephesians 4:13 perhaps echoes 1 Corinthians 13:10 as well, by its use of the word “perfect” or “mature.” This is the situation Christ brings by His re­turn. Since that is so, if we read Ephesians 4 as non-cessationists insist we should read 1 Corinthians 13, we are left with the unavoid­able conclusion that there will be apostles, as well as prophecy and tongues, until the Sec­ond Coming of Christ. Even many non-cessationists, however, rightly reject this conclusion.

But how can they consistently do so? In terms of gifts in relation to the ultimate goal in view, how is this passage any different than 1 Corinthians 13:8ff? Non-cessationists who cor­rectly recognize that there are no apostles in the sense of Ephesians 2:20 and 4:11 today can’t have it both ways. If these passages teach that prophecy/prophets and tongues continue until the Second Coming, then they also teach that the apostles do as well. But a more sound understanding is simply to recognize that these passages do not even address the question of whether or not prophecy or tongues (or any other gift) will cease before the Second Coming. They leave it an open ques­tion, to be settled from other passages.

A dilemma confronts non-cessationists. If prophecy and tongues (as they function in the New Testament) continue today, then the non-cessationists are faced with the quite practical and troublesome implication that Scripture alone is not a sufficient verbal revelation from God. At best, the canon is relatively closed. Alternatively, if – as most non-cessationists in­sist –“prophecy” and “tongues” today are not revelatory or are less than fully revelatory, then these contemporary phenomena are misnamed. They are something other than the gifts of prophecy and tongues that we find in the New Testament. Non-cessationists are caught in a redemptive-historical anachronism. They are seeking within the superstructure-building phase of the church’s history that which belonged to its foundation-laying phase. They are involved in the contradictory effort of trying to maintain that the New Testament canon is completed and closed, and yet at the same time that the revelatory gifts for the open canon period – gifts for when the New Testa­ment documents were still being written­ continue.

But God’s Word lifts us out of this dilem­ma. It shows us that by God’s wise and gra­cious design, prophecy and tongues have com­pleted their task and have ceased. What remains, supremely and solely sufficient and authoritative until Jesus comes, is “the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:10).

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