Cessationism and Continuationism: Two Views of Spiritual Gifts

Christian Life & Theology, Podcast Episodes

Do the revelatory spiritual gifts – tongues, healing, and prophecy – continue to modern day? If not, why are they so prevalent in Acts? If they do, why do we see them practiced in strange and chaotic ways? And what does the Bible say?

All these questions are answered in this episode of Verity podcast! We discuss the two primary views on these spiritual gifts and how their defenders arrive at their conclusions.

More on Spiritual Gifts:

Hearing God by Nathan Finochio

More by Alan Kraft

Why I am a Continuationist by Sam Storms

Why I am a Cessationist by Thomas Schreiner

This interview on the NAR and prophecy that I did with Mike Winger

Listen Now

Transcription

Hey, friends. So, today was Ask Anything Monday on Instagram, and I answered a lot of great questions, today, from questions about freewill and hell to questions about our rabbits. Yes, we got some new rabbits and I am pretty excited about it. But that is not why you listen to this podcast.

Today, we’re going to be talking about 1 Corinthians 13, and two major theological views that spring out of this passage. This and other passages, because both views look at all the passages in Scripture surrounding Spiritual gifts to come to their conclusion about whether or not Spiritual gifts such as healing, prophecy, and tongues continue today or whether they cease. Yes, we are going to be talking about cessationism and continuationism.

When I was planning out my notes for this episode, I had some ideas for how to begin, but then I thought, you know what, let’s just read 1 Corinthians 13, because we’re going to really be looking at this as we discussed the two sides of this conversation, and I think it’s great to begin with the text. So, that’s what we’re going to do. If you want to follow along 1 Corinthians 13, we’re going to read the whole thing. If you’ve been to a wedding recently, maybe you already heard it. It’s a popular love passage. So, believe it or not, it talks a lot about Spiritual gifts too. 

It says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way, it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away. As for tongues, they will cease. As for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, and reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.” 

Okay, that is where we’re beginning. We’re going to start by looking at the cessationist argument. But before we do that, let me just define a few terms here. Cessationism comes from the root word ‘to cease,’ to believe that the Spiritual gifts have ceased or stopped that they are no longer gifts that we are to practice today. We see these gifts in the book of Acts, and there are some specific reasons why cessationist scholars and Christians believe that those gifts were only to be used during that period of time and not today. Then, there are continuationists, which common sense tells us this has to do with Spiritual gifts continuing until today.

Now, there are actually quite a few passages that talk about the Spiritual gifts. If we were to continue into 1 Corinthians 14, that is one of them talking about tongues and how they are to be used in the church, talking about orderly worship and the point of Spiritual gifts in tongues, that they’re for building up, they’re not for distraction or for sensationalism. We can look at other passages, I believe Romans 12 is another example that lists out different gifts and practices that we will see in the church. So, clearly, if you’ve ever taken a Spiritual gifts test, you know that there are gifts other than healing tongues in prophecy. But we see these three gifts particularly practiced in the book of Acts, right around the launch of the early church. These are things the apostles were practicing publicly, the church was practicing publicly, right from Pentecost on.

So, between cessationist and continuationist Christians, there can be some very heated arguments, because both of them hold Scripture in such high regard. Both of them look to Scripture as the basis for their view. The cessationist would say Scripture has such great value, we’ll get into the history of this in a minute, that there should be no revelation added to it. They think that Spiritual gifts would add revelation to Scripture. Therefore, we are not to pursue these Spiritual gifts because that period of time has ended. Whereas a continuationist would say, Scripture is of such high value that we should honor what it says to do, which is to pursue these Spiritual gifts and to not despise prophecy, to not quench the Spirit. So, you have two people who two Christian groups that are coming at the exact same text but arriving at different conclusions, which perhaps sounds familiar from our Calvinism and Arminianism episode. If you haven’t listened to that, you can go back and listen. 

I think that episode actually, now that I’ve mentioned, it would be a helpful listen, before we get into this, because the history of Calvinism and Arminianism actually plays a big role in understanding the controversy we see around Spiritual gifts today. I think it’s safe to say that cessationism, while it definitely can be found in Arminian traditions, such as independent fundamental Baptists, and other Wesleyan or Methodist groups, it is very universal in Calvinistic groups. Now, there are exceptions. I have close friends who are continuationist Calvinist. John Piper is one. I believe Matt Chandler is another one, Sam Storms is another one. By no means am I saying that Calvinists are not continuationist. But many Calvinists are cessationists and the history will show you why that is, when we talk about it. Also, many Arminians or provisionists, non-Calvinists in their salvation theology, are continuationists. If you’re like, “What on earth is an? What’s the Calvinist?”, Go back and listen to that episode. You get a little bit of background on what that is, what those theologies are, because it does impact the working out of that salvation theology when it comes to Spiritual gifts.

That said, let’s start by looking at cessationist theology. Where does this idea come from that the Spiritual gifts particularly– well, really only healing, tongues, and prophecy have ceased. Some call these the revelatory gifts. So, they’re drawing attention to these amazing signs and wonders that God is doing through people. Giving them a totally different language that they don’t understand. Like what happened in Acts 2. At Pentecost, when Peter stood up, and he’s giving the gospel, and people are speaking in all the languages of those who would have been present at Pentecost. They are speaking in their languages so they could hear the gospel. These revelatory gifts are drawing attention to the work of God. A cessationist believes that they accomplish a very specific purpose in the book of Acts, where we see that they were witnessing to people from all around the world where tongues are necessary, they were showing the power of God to people and confirming the power and authority of the apostles. This is a pretty big deal. The apostle role was a person who specifically walked with Jesus and was essentially anointed by Jesus for His role, and in having that role, his signs that were accomplished, were to express their apostolic authority. 

Another characteristic of cessationists is that prophecy is considered for the most part to be the same in the New Testament as it was in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, prophecy had two components, foretelling and in forthtelling. There was a test for a prophet who was prophesying falsely. We see this test in Deuteronomy 18. Turning there, right now. It’s kind of a bit of a serious test, one that we should take pretty seriously too, where it talks about what to do when a prophet does not speak the truth. It says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me,” this is Moses talking, “From among you, from your brother’s, and it is to him you shall listen just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, let me not hear again the voice of my Lord or see this great fire any more or less I die. So, the Lord sends prophets to them.” He says, “The prophet who presumes to speak a word in God’s name that God has not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die, and if you say in your heart, how may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken, when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously, and you need not be afraid of him.” 

This was the test of an Old Testament prophet. They give a short-term prophecy. If it came true, they could know that he was sent from God. If it did not come true, they could know that he was a false prophet, or if he was prophesying in the names of other Gods. This prophet, if he was false, was to be killed, because he was falsely claiming the name of God. He was offending God directly, and he was leading people astray with his words. It was a capital offense in Israel’s theocracy where God was the center of their society. He was their King.

Knowing this, a cessationist looks forward to dimensions of prophecy in the New Testament, and would say or argue, “This is a big deal. Prophecy is a big deal.” In the New Testament, after the gospels were complete, after the epistles were complete, and the New Testament Church was beyond the apostolic age, all revelation from God ceased. The Canon of Scripture was closed with the revelation of John. If you’re like, “What’s the Canon of Scripture?” Go back, listen to the Canon series of this podcast, I have I think 12 episodes talking about how the Bible was compiled, and it will help make sense of that. For the cessationist, a prophet, who was like an Old Testament prophet, after the New Testament era would be adding authoritative Scripture to the closed Canon, and that is a problem. Continuationists and cessationists would agree on that. If you are adding to Scripture, if you are adding on your revelation to a closed Canon, then yes, we are looking at some pretty big problems here.

So, why would the cessationists be so concerned about this? Well, if we look at church history, the cessationist view really strongly increased right around the Reformation and after that. Now, all through church history, both sides have been discussed and held, but the Reformation, what we saw was a correction to the Catholic churches adding on to Scripture. They were abusing church tradition, and elevating it to the level of scriptural authority adding on to Scripture. So, the reformers corrected, and in some cases overcorrected, in their view, to say, “‘Sola scriptura, Scripture alone. We don’t add on to this. We don’t add on traditions and say that they are equal in authority to what we see in the Bible.” So, keeping that in mind, for many cessationist, the dedication to the word and preserving the word makes them very hesitant to be willing to accept the idea of prophecy or healing or tongues today because they believed it served a very specific purpose in that New Testament era.

The text that’s often gone to support this is 1 Corinthians 13, specifically in verse 8 through 10, which talks about, “Knowing in part and prophesying in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” So, what’s the perfect? Well, they would say the perfect is the close of the New Testament Canon. It’s the close of Scripture. The perfect has come, and therefore, that’s why prophecy and tongues have passed away. It’s fulfilled and it’s done. So, we do not add on to that by practicing prophecy or tongues in the modern era. Now, obviously, as I say with every single theological topic that we cover, this is a spectrum. You’ll have people who maybe differ a little bit than the summary that I gave. But this is a pretty basic overview of the cessationist stance, their concerns, their desire to preserve the authority of Scripture.

I think all of us have been at a women’s conference where we were told, “You are a beautiful daughter of the Most High King.” And it’s true. But it’s not the whole truth. The beauty of being God’s daughter has some backstory, and it’s left out in a lot of messages preached to women. So, if you’re tired of hearing the watered-down Christian teaching and you’re hungry for a deeper spiritual life, I have something for you. It is my brand-new book, Stop Calling Me Beautiful: Finding Soul-Deep Strength in a Skin-Deep World. Stop Calling Me Beautiful is a book about going deeper with God. I’m going to talk about pursuing the truth of who God is and who we are in relationship to him, how to study Scripture, how legalism, shallow theology, and false teaching keep us from living boldly as a woman of the word. I’m so excited to put this book in your hands. You can grab your copy on Amazon or for more information, head to my website, phyliciamasonheimer.com, and click the Book tab. 

Now, we’re going to look at the continuationist and their desire to preserve the authority of Scripture. Looking at the same passages, the continuationists looking at Acts, especially looking at Acts 2 where Peter is talking, and he quotes Joel too saying that, “In the last days, your daughters and sons will prophesy.” Saying that it was fulfilled in their hearing. The interesting thing is that the last days is often considered by both scholars and by the apostles themselves to cover all of the days up until the Second Coming, the entire church age. In saying that, in the last days, they will prophesy, a continuationist would argue, this means the entire church age. There was no specific ending to this.

Further, if we look at other mentions of the gifts, we see that their goal in Ephesians 4, for example, was to build up the church. It was not just to give authority to the apostles. It was to be practiced by the church itself by other members, not just the initial 12 disciples, the apostles. The whole church was practicing these things, and it was to build them up and encourage them. We see this again in 1 Thessalonians 5 where Paul is saying, “Do not despise prophecy. Instead of despising it, examine it carefully. Make sure that it lines up with Scripture. We don’t just want to accept things willy-nilly.” He also indicates that it lasts until Christ’s coming, the same as we see an Acts 2. Now, 1 Corinthians 1. if we look there, again, we see a similar statement about not lacking any gift until Christ comes. So, a continuationist looks at this and says again, “We’re looking at the whole church age as far as these gifts are being practiced.” At least that was the assumption of the writer.

Then, going back to 1 Corinthians 13, in this question of the perfect, what is the perfect? Well, if we look a little further down in the passage, we read the verse. It says, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” It says in verse 12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face-to-face. Now we know in part, and then we shall know fully even as I have been fully known.” This verse is referencing a face-to-face encounter with Christ. This phrase is consistent across the Canon, where face-to-face, again, even calling back to Exodus and Moses being face-to-face with God, here, Paul is indicating that, we know Christ partially, but we will know Him fully and face-to-face when the perfect comes. Who is the perfect? Christ. Cross-referencing this with the other passages that talk about the Spiritual gifts and practicing them up until Christ coming, we can see that 1 Corinthians 13 for a continuationist is presenting a perfect, that is Christ. So, prophecy would continue until Christ. Healing tongues would continue until Christ.

You might say, “All right, I get that. But what does prophecy look like then?” Because we cannot add on to Scripture, we can add on to the existing revelation. You are correct. And no solid continuationist should ever support the idea that modern prophecy would be on the level with authoritative Scripture. Prophecy in the New Testament has changed. It’s not the same as Ezekiel, and Isaiah, and Joel. Based on what we see and how we see it described in the New Testament, that’s pretty consistent. It’s talked about as an encouragement and as a building up. We’re told again, don’t despise prophecy, but examine it and check it against the word. So, clearly, this prophecy was being measured against the existing work of the Old Testament prophets, who would be the work they had at the time Paul was writing. They had the Old Testament, not the New. 

We’re comparing anything we hear, any prophetic word or word from the Lord, any upbuilding that someone says, “Hey, I was praying for you, and I sense that the Lord said this about you,” we would say, if you’re a continuationist, “Thank you, I will pray about that and check it against Scripture.” We’re not just accepting it, and we’re certainly not writing it down, and adding it as an extra book in the Bible. It’s a means of upbuilding and the application of Spirit-led encouragement to a specific person’s life. That’s what modern day prophecy is to the continuationist.

What about tongues and healing? Most people would agree that healing can happen still today. Most Christians would agree on that. Just that it might not happen on the level that we see it in the New Testament days. What about tongues? This question comes up a lot on Ask Anything Monday. So, it’s perfect for this Ask Anything theology series. Tongues get a little more tricky, because some continuationists would hold to the idea that tongues are an actual language given to you, when you’re ministering, when you don’t know that language, and the people you’re ministering to need to hear the gospel with those words. Other continuationists hold to the idea that there’s actually different types of tongues. There’s the tongues like in Acts 2 at Pentecost. Then, there is what’s called a prayer language. This idea is primarily taken from Romans 8:26, which says, “In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Other verses that are used are 1 Corinthians 14, which talk about speaking in a tongue to God, but not to men, so you’re speaking a mystery. The takeaway here is that when you don’t have the words to pray, the Lord gives you a specific language of prayer. Some say it’s angelic tongue, that it doesn’t make sense to other people, but the Spirit is interceding with basically the words for you that you can’t express. So, they call this a prayer language. Other references are Jude 1:20 and Ephesians 6:18. 

Now, here’s the thing with these Spiritual gifts and continuationists. Most people who have hesitancies with the practice of these things have had bad experiences with them. So, it’s no question that if you had a strange, sensationalistic, odd experience with the practice of these gifts, that you would be hesitant and nervous about how they could possibly be grounded in Scripture. To be honest, there are a lot of churches that abuse these concepts. They don’t understand them biblically, they don’t practice them biblically like 1 Corinthians 14 says, “To practice with orderly worship.” Instead, it is a free for all. It’s often silly or out of order, and almost disrespectful, and to the observer, it doesn’t look like worship of God. It looks like utter and complete chaos. It’s understandable why people would be uncomfortable with that. We should be thinking about the practice of these Spiritual gifts in a way that lines up with the rest of Scripture and how these gifts are portrayed in Scripture itself. These extremes that we see things like holy laughter, or doing really extreme things to incite the Holy Spirit, or to drum Him up in a way, we have to be cautious and we have to check these things against Scripture and say, “Where do we see these?” or these things taking continuationism way beyond the bounds that Scripture expresses? Any true continuationist would be uncomfortable with those kinds of extremes.

We also have to be careful on the cessationist side not to build a theology reactively. Don’t look at these extreme examples of continuationism decide that that reflects the whole and build your argument against that. That’s a very, very poor hermeneutic and it would be like building an argument against Calvinism based on high Calvinism. The idea that God created an authored sin, no one would be okay with that. Don’t build a reactive theology. Look at the actual biblical argument for both cessationism and continuationism, and go from there, which is more consistent. We need to think about that. 

Now remember, Spiritual gifts and the practice of them as a secondary issue. I touched on this in my discernment episode, I’ve talked about it in my discernment webinars that I host. This is a secondary issue. You could even be in the same church and have different views on the practice of these gifts. But the important thing to keep in mind as we navigate this is, of course, the biblical basis for our view, but also the very passage that talks about Spiritual gifts also talks about the importance of love, that love is patient and kind. It is not envious, it is not boastful, it is not arrogant or rude. If we are arrogant and rude in our defense of our view and Spiritual gifts, we’ve totally missed the point. We’ve actually undercut our own argument and made ourselves hypocrites. We don’t want to do that. So, let’s make sure that as we talk about these things, we keep them grounded in the context of graciousness, because that is what God expects from us.

A few last things on this. When it comes to continuationism and the extremes that we see, one of the dangers for those who are in a charismatic or Pentecostal type context, which I’m very familiar with having grown up in it, one of the dangers is to systemize the Spirit’s gifts, to create a system of practicing them or trying to achieve them as if His gifts are something that we can work for, which is not what Scripture teaches. The Holy Spirit’s gifts are to be practiced as the Holy Spirit leads. The Bible does not say that healing, tongues, and prophecy would be practiced all the time, everywhere. The Holy Spirit provided those gifts at specific times for a really specific reason. That’s what we see in the book of Acts. And remember, they’re writing select instances. I am sure there were so many instances of people getting saved and we don’t know if people spoke in tongues in those instances. We just have certain examples in the book of Acts. It is so vital that we not systemize what the Bible does not systemize. So, deciding that we need to have training to learn how to prophesy or we need to have classes on dream interpretation, that is getting into some dangerous ground because we don’t see that in Scripture. We don’t see this need to train people in the pursuit of a Spiritual gift. We see that the gift is a gift. It’s given to someone as needed, as the Lord equips them, and it also says that people who are teachers, and people who are pastors, and people who are speaking for the building of the body, there are many different ways that they will be practicing their gifts. 

Now, the response often is, “Well, a teacher needs to practice teaching. So, why wouldn’t a prophet need to practice prophesying? Why shouldn’t we be training these people?” The difference, I think, is this. The teacher is specifically teaching a text from Scripture, and that is something that should be practiced. The prophet, if they’re getting a word from the Lord from a continuationist stance that is to up build the body not to add on to Scripture, the prophet does not need to be practicing getting words from the Lord because the Lord will give those words when he chooses to. But he should be practicing being in the Word of God itself. Practice being in prayer, practice seeking His face, so that you know that what you’re speaking lines up with the truth. That would be the thing to practice instead of these extra, more sensational-sounding pursuits. Is it not as exciting? Probably not. But the beauty of what God does is that it’s God’s work. Not ours. We don’t work for a gift. It’s something that He grants to us.

So, hopefully this little summary of the two different views, cessationism and continuationism, is a little bit helpful. As always, these are just jumping off points for further study. Once this is up on the blog, I will include some different links of the different perspectives so you can dive into them and dig in a little bit. I do recommend looking at these passages. Look at the book of Acts. Read 1 Corinthians 12 through 14. Look at 1 Thessalonians 5 and Ephesians 4. Just remember that we want to talk about these things in the light of love that is patient and kind, that is not envious or boastful, that is not arrogant or rude. Instead, we bear all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endure all things, even when we disagree.