Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?
Series: Controversial Issues
In this study and the one to follow I want to identify and then respond to the six most
frequently used arguments in defense of cessationism. If you are not familiar with that word
it refers to the doctrine that certain spiritual gifts, typically (and mistakenly) those referred
to as “miraculous” in nature (such as healing, prophecy, tongues, miracles, word of
knowledge, etc.) ceased or were withdrawn by God from the church at the close of the first
century or in conjunction with the death of the original apostles. I was a cessationist until
1988. Among the various arguments cessationists employ, the following six were those I
most often heard and preached. I now find them wholly inadequate, indeed wholly
misleading and false. Here is why.
1. An argument frequently cited in defense of cessationism is that signs, wonders and
miracles were not customary phenomena even in biblical times. Rather, they were clustered or
concentrated at critical moments of revelatory activity in redemptive history. John
MacArthur (in his book Charismatic Chaos) writes:
“Most biblical miracles happened in three relatively brief periods of Bible history: in
the days of Moses and Joshua, during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, and in the
time of Christ and the apostles. None of those periods lasted much more than a
hundred years. Each of them saw a proliferation of miracles unheard of in other eras.
. . . Aside from those three intervals, the only supernatural events recorded in
Scripture were isolated incidents.”
Several things may be said in response to this argument.
First, at most this proves that in three periods of redemptive history miraculous phenomena
were more prevalent than in other times. It does not prove that miraculous phenomena in
other times were non-existent. Nor does it prove that an increase in the frequency of
miraculous phenomena could not appear in yet a fourth era of redemptive history, perhaps
Second, for this to be a substantive argument one must explain not only why miraculous
phenomena were prevalent in these three periods but also why they were, allegedly,
infrequent or, to use MacArthur’s terms, “isolated,” in all other periods. If miraculous
phenomena were infrequent in other periods, a point I concede here only for the sake of
argument, one would need to ascertain why. Was it because God is by nature stingy with
miracles? Is he skeptical of their effectiveness? Or could it be that the alleged relative
infrequency of the miraculous was due to the rebellion, unbelief, and apostasy rampant in
Israel throughout much of her history? Let us not forget that even Jesus “could do no
miracle there [in Nazareth] except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed
them” (Mark 6:5), all because of their unbelief (at which, we are told, Jesus “wondered”, v.
The point is that the comparative “isolation” of the miraculous in certain periods of OT
history could be due more to the recalcitrance of God’s people than to any supposed
theological principle that dictates as normative a paucity of supernatural manifestations.
Third, there were no cessationists in the Old Testament! No one is ever found to argue that
since miraculous phenomena were “clustered” at selected points in redemptive history we
should not expect God to display his power in some other day. In other words, at no point in
OT history did miracles cease. That they may have subsided is possible. But what does that
prove? Simply that in some periods God is pleased to work miraculously with greater
frequency than he is in others.
The fact that miracles do appear throughout the course of redemptive history, whether
sporadically or otherwise, proves that miracles never ceased. How, then, can the prevalence
of miracles in three periods of history be an argument for cessationism? In other words, how
does the existence of miracles in every age of redemptive history serve to argue against the
existence of miracles in our age? It is a strange logic indeed which contends that the
occurrence of miraculous phenomena in biblical times, however infrequent and isolated,
proves the non-occurrence of miraculous phenomena in post-biblical times. The continuation
of miraculous phenomena then is not an argument for the cessation of miraculous
phenomena now! The fact that in certain periods of redemptive history few miracles are
recorded proves only two things: first, that miracles did occur and, second, that few of them
were recorded. It does not prove that only a few actually occurred.
Fourth, MacArthur’s assertion that miraculous phenomena outside these three special
periods were “isolated” is simply false. He is able to make this argument only by defining the
miraculous so narrowly as to eliminate a vast number of recorded supernatural phenomena
that otherwise might qualify. I suppose the point is this: If miracles (using MacArthur’s
arbitrary and restrictive definition of what constitutes a miraculous occurrence) were
infrequent “then”, why should we expect them to be any more frequent “now”?
He insists that to qualify as a miracle the extraordinary event must occur “through human
agency” and must serve to “authenticate” the messenger through whom God is revealing
some truth. In this way MacArthur is able to exclude as miraculous any supernatural
phenomenon that occurs apart from human agency and any supernatural phenomenon
unrelated to the revelatory activity of God. Thus, if no revelation is occurring in that period
of redemptive history under consideration, no supernatural phenomena recorded in that era
can possibly meet the criteria set forth by MacArthur. On such a narrow definition of miracle
it thus becomes easy to say they were “isolated” or infrequent.
But if “human agency” or a “gifted” individual is required before an event can be called
miraculous, what becomes of the virgin birth of Jesus? On MacArthur’s definition of a
miracle, not even the resurrection of Christ would qualify! What becomes of the resurrection
of the saints mentioned in Matthew 27:52-53? Are we no longer permitted to call Peter’s
deliverance from jail in Acts 12 a miracle simply because no “human” was instrumental in his
escape? Was the instantaneous death of Herod in Acts 12:23 not a miracle because the
agency was “angelic”? Was the earthquake that opened the prison in which Paul and Silas
were housed not a miracle because God did it himself, directly? Was Paul’s deliverance from
the venom of a viper (Acts 28) not a miracle simply because no human agency was utilized in
To define as a miracle only those supernatural phenomena involving human agency is
arbitrary. It is a case of special pleading, conceived principally because it provides a way
of reducing the frequency of the miraculous in the biblical record.
MacArthur also insists that miracles always accompany divine revelation as a means of
attestation. That miracles confirm and authenticate the divine message and messenger is
certainly true. But MacArthur reduces the purpose of miracles to this one function while
ignoring other reasons for which God ordained them. The association of the miraculous with
divine revelation becomes an argument for cessationism only if the Bible restricts the
function of a miracle to attestation. And such the Bible does not do.
My reading of the OT reveals a consistent pattern of supernatural manifestations in the
affairs of humanity. Once the arbitrary restrictions on the definition of a miracle are
removed, a different picture of OT religious life emerges. (See the chart in Jack Deere’s
book, Surprised By The Power of The Spirit.)
Two other factors indicate that miraculous phenomena were not as “isolated” as some
First, there is the assertion of Jeremiah 32:20 in which the prophet speaks of God
who “sets signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and even to this day both in Israel
and among mankind; and Thou hast made a name for Thyself, as at this day.” This
text alerts us to the danger of arguing from silence. The fact that from the time of
the Exodus to the Captivity few instances of signs and wonders are recorded does
not mean they did not occur. Jeremiah insists they did. One might compare this with
the danger of asserting that Jesus did not perform a particular miracle or do so with
any degree of frequency simply because the gospels fail to record it. John tells us
explicitly that Jesus performed “many other signs . . . in the presence of the
disciples” which he did not include in his gospel account” (John 20:30) as well as
“many other things which Jesus did” that were impossible to record in detail (John
Second, MacArthur inists that NT and OT prophecy are the same. He also readily
acknowledges, as do all cessationists, that NT prophecy was a “miracle” gift. If OT
prophecy was of the same nature, then we have an example of a miraculous
phenomenon recurring throughout the course of Israel’s history. In every age of
Israel’s existence in which there was prophetic activity there was miraculous activity.
What then becomes of the assertion that miracles, even on MacArthur’s narrow
definition, were infrequent and “isolated”?
Does any of this prove that God is doing signs, wonders, and miracles in our day? No. It
merely proves that He may. It proves that it would be consistent with how God has acted in
times past. It proves there is nothing in the biblical record concerning the alleged
infrequency of miracles that would lead us to believe God will not do them in our day.
2. A second argument to which the cessationist appeals is this: “Signs, wonders, and
miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit such as tongues, interpretation, healing, and the discerning
of spirits, were designed to confirm, attest, and authenticate the apostolic message." It is only
reasonable to conclude, therefore, as Norman Geisler has said, that "The 'signs of an
apostle' passed away with the times of an apostle."
It is true that signs, wonders, and miracles often attested to the divine origin of the apostolic
message. But this is a persuasive argument against the contemporary validity of such
phenomena only if you can demonstrate two things.
First, you must demonstrate that authentication or attestation was the sole and exclusive
purpose of such displays of divine power. However, there is not so much as a single inspired
syllable of Scripture that does so. Nowhere in the NT is the purpose or function of the
miraculous or the charismata reduced to that of attestation.
The miraculous, in whatever form in which it appeared, served several other distinct
purposes. For example, there was a doxological purpose. Such was the primary reason for
the resurrection of Lazarus, as Jesus himself makes clear in John 11:4 (cf. 11:40). The
doxological purpose of the miraculous is also found in John 2:11; 9:3; and Mt. 15:29-31.
Miracles also served an evangelistic purpose (see Acts 9:32-43). Much of our Lord’s
miraculous ministry was an expression of his compassion and love for the hurting multitudes.
He healed the sick and even fed the 5,000 principally because he felt compassion for the
There are several texts which indicate that one primary purpose of miraculous phenomena
was to edify and build up the body of Christ. At one point in his book MacArthur says that
noncessationists “believe that the spectacular miraculous gifts were given for the edification
of believers. Does God’s Word support such a conclusion? No. In fact, the truth is quite the
What, then, will you do with 1 Cor. 12:7-10, the list of what all agree are miraculous gifts such
as prophecy, tongues, healing, and interpretation of tongues? These charismata, says Paul,
were distributed to the body of Christ “for the common good” (v. 7), i.e., for the edification
and benefit of the church! These are primarily, but not exclusively, the very gifts that serve
as the background against which Paul then encourages (in vv. 14-27) all members of the
body to minister one to another for mutual edification, insisting that no one gift (whether
tongues or prophecy or healing) is any less important than another.
Again, what will you do with 1 Cor. 14:3 in which Paul asserts that prophecy, one of the
miraculous gifts listed in 12:7-10, functions to edify, exhort, and console others in the church?
The one who prophesies, says Paul in 14:4, “edifies the church.” And what will you do with 1
Cor. 14:5 in which Paul says that tongues, when interpreted, also edifies the church? And
what will you do with 1 Cor. 14:26 in which Paul exhorts us to assemble, prepared to minister
with a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation, all of which are designed,
he says, for “edification”?
And if, as MacArthur says, “tongues never were intended to edify believers,” why did God
provide the gift of interpretation so that tongues might be utilized in the gathered assembly
of believers? If “tongues never were intended to edify believers,” why did Paul himself
exercise that gift in the privacy of his own devotions? That he did so is demonstrable from 1
Cor. 14:18-19. There he declares: “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however,
in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also,
rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.” This latter statement is Paul’s somewhat
exaggerated way of saying he almost never speaks in tongues in church. In the absence of
an interpreter, he most definitely won’t. Now listen carefully:
If in church Paul virtually never exercises this gift, yet speaks in tongues more
frequently and fluently and fervently than anyone, even more so than the tongue-
happy Corinthians, where does he do it? Dare I say, in private?
My point is this: all the gifts of the Spirit, whether tongues or teaching, whether prophecy or
mercy, whether healing or helps, were given, among other reasons, for the edification and
building up and encouraging and instructing and consoling and sanctifying of the body of
Christ. Therefore, even if the ministry of the miraculous gifts to attest and authenticate has
ceased, a point I concede only for the sake of argument, such gifts would continue to
function in the church for the other reasons cited.
The second thing that must be demonstrated for this argument to carry weight is that only
the apostles performed signs, wonders, miracles, or exercised so-called “miraculous”
charismata. But this is contrary to the evidence of the NT. Others, aside from the apostles,
who exercised miraculous gifts include
· the 70 who were commissioned in Luke 10:9,19-20;
· at least 108 people among the 120 who were gathered in the upper room on the day of
· Stephen (Acts 6-7);
· Philip (Acts 8);
· Ananias (Acts 9);
· Prophets in Antioch (Acts 13)
· Philip’s daughters / prophetesses (Acts 21:8-9)
· the unnamed brethren of Galatians 3:5
· believers in Rome (Rom. 12:6-8)
· believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5).
Furthermore, when you read 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, does it sound as if Paul is saying that only
apostles are endowed with the charismata? On the contrary, “gifts of healings,” “tongues,”
“miracles,” etc., are given by the sovereign Spirit to ordinary Christians in the church at
Corinth for the daily, routine building up of the body. Farmers, shopkeepers, housewives, as
well as apostles and elders and deacons received the manifestation of the Spirit, all “for the
common good” of the church.
A counter argument is often made to the effect that signs and wonders and miraculous
charismata in Acts were closely connected to the apostles or to those who were themselves
associated with the apostolic company. But remember this:
First, the book of Acts is, after all, the Acts of the APOSTLES! We entitle it this way
because we recognize that the activity of the apostles is the principal focus of the
book. We should hardly be surprised or try to build a theological case on the fact that
a book designed to report the acts of the apostles describes signs and wonders
performed by the apostles!
Second, to say that Stephen and Phillip and Ananias don’t count because they are
closely associated with the apostles proves nothing. Name one person, who figures
to any degree of prominence in the book of Acts, who is not associated with at least
one of the apostles? If we were to apply this argument to other issues in Acts, the
results would be disastrous. For example, church planting is restricted to the apostles
and those closely associated with them. Should we then not plant churches today?
Someone might still wish to object, insisting that there was a remarkable concentration of
miraculous phenomena characteristic of the apostles as special representatives of Christ.
But the prevalence of miracles performed by the apostles in no way proves that no miracles
were performed by/through others.
See 2 Corinthians 12:12. Does not this text refer to the miraculous as “signs” of the apostles?
No, in point of fact, it does not. The NIV contributes to the confusion by translating as
follows: “The things that mark an apostle --- signs, wonders and miracles --- were done
among you with great perseverance.” This rendering leads you to believe that Paul is
identifying the “signs/marks” of an apostle with the miraculous phenomena performed
among the Corinthians. But the “signs/marks” of an apostle is in the nominative case
whereas “signs, wonders and miracles” is in the dative. Contrary to what many have
thought, Paul does not say the insignia of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles.
Rather, as the NASB more accurately translates, he asserts that “the signs of a true apostle
were performed among you with all perseverance, BY signs and wonders and miracles.”
Paul’s point is that miraculous phenomena accompanied his ministry in Corinth. Signs,
wonders and miracles were attendant elements in his apostolic work. But they were not
themselves the “signs of an apostle.” The signs of an apostle, the distinguishing marks of
true apostolic ministry were, among other things:
(1) the fruit of his preaching, i.e., the salvation of the Corinthians themselves (cf. 1
Cor. 9:1b-2, “Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an
apostle, as least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”; cf. 2
(2) his Christ-like life of holiness, humility, etc., (cf. 2 Cor. 1:12; 2:17; 3:4-6; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3-
13; 7:2; 10:13-18; 11:6,23-28); and
(3) his sufferings, hardship, persecution (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; 4:7-15; 5:4-10; and all of chp.
Paul patiently, in perseverance, displayed these “signs” of his apostolic authority. And this
was accompanied by signs, wonders and miracles he performed in their midst.
Let us also remember that Paul does not refer to the “signs” of an apostle nor to the
miraculous phenomena that accompanied his ministry as a way of differentiating himself
from other, non-apostolic Christians, but from the false apostles who were leading the
Corinthians astray (2 Cor. 11:14-15,33). “In short,” writes Wayne Grudem, “the contrast is not
between apostles who could work miracles and ordinary Christians who could not, but
between genuine Christian apostles through whom the Holy Spirit worked and non-Christian
pretenders to the apostolic office, through whom the Holy Spirit did not work at all.”
Nowhere does Paul suggest that signs and wonders were exclusively or uniquely apostolic.
My daughter once took dance lessons and especially enjoyed ballet. Although only 10 years
old at the time, she had incredibly strong and well-developed calf muscles. Indeed, it might
even be said that the “sign” of a ballet dancer is strong calf muscles. But I would never
argue that only ballet dancers display this physical characteristic. I only mean to say that
when taken in conjunction with other factors, her lower leg development helps you identify
her as one who dances on her toes. Likewise, Paul is not saying that signs, wonders and
miracles are performed only through apostles, but that such phenomena, together with
other evidences, should help the Corinthians know that he is a true apostle of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, the fact that miraculous phenomena and certain of the charismata served to
attest and authenticate the message of the gospel in no way proves or even remotely
suggests that such activities are invalid for the church subsequent to the death of the
3. The third argument for cessationism pertains to the alleged negative assessment given
by many to the nature, purpose and impact of signs, wonders and miracles in the NT. I had
been taught and believed that it was an indication of spiritual immaturity to seek signs in
any sense, that it was a weak faith, born of theological ignorance, that prayed for healing or
a demonstration of divine power. Some are even more pointed in their opinion. James
Boice, in his contribution to the recent book Power Religion, quotes with approval the
sentiment of John Woodhouse, to the effect that “a desire for further signs and wonders is
sinful and unbelieving.”
But consider, for example, Acts 4:29-31, which records this prayer of the church in
“And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Thy bondservants may speak Thy
word with all confidence, while Thou dost extend Thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders
takes place through the name of Thy holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the
place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy
Spirit, and began to speak the word of God with boldness.”
This text is important for at least two reasons: it shows that it is good to pray for signs and
wonders, that it is not evil or a sign of emotional and mental imbalance to petition God for
demonstrations of his power; and, secondly, it shows that there is no necessary or inherent
conflict between miracles and the message, between wonders and the word of the cross.
Let me take each of these points in turn.
First, it is good and helpful and honoring to the Lord Jesus Christ to seek and pray for the
demonstration of his power in healing, signs and wonders.
But what about Mt. 12:39 and Mt. 16:4? Doesn’t Jesus denounce as wicked and adulterous
those who “crave” and “seek” after signs (cf. 1 Cor. 1:22)? Yes, but note well whom he is
addressing and why they are denounced. These are unbelieving scribes and Pharisees, not
children of God. These who made such demands of Christ had no intention of following him.
“Seeking signs from God is ‘wicked and adulterous’ when the demand for more and more
evidence comes from a resistant heart and simply covers up an unwillingness to believe”
(John Piper). Seeking signs as a pretext for criticizing Jesus or from a hankering to see the
sensational is rightly rebuked. But that certainly wasn’t the motivation of the early church,
nor need it be ours. Perhaps an illustration will help. John Piper explains:
“If we are carrying on a love affair with the world, and our husband, Jesus, after a long
separation comes to us and says, ‘I love you and I want you back,’ one of the best ways to
protect our adulterous relationship with the world is to say, ‘You’re not really my husband;
you don’t really love me. Prove it. Give me some sign.’ If that’s the way we demand a sign,
we are a wicked and adulterous generation. But if we come to God with a heart aching with
longing for vindication of his glory and the salvation of sinners, then we are not wicked and
adulterous. We are a faithful wife, only wanting to honor our husband.”
Do you come to God insistent on a miracle, being prompted by an unbelieving heart that
demands He put on a show before you will obey him? Or do you come humbly, in prayer,
with a desire to glorify God in the display of his power and an equal desire to minister his
mercy and compassion and love to those in need? The former, God condemns. The latter, he
Second, the power of signs and wonders does not dilute the power of the gospel nor is there
any inherent inconsistency or conflict between wonders and the word.
Still, there are those who appeal to Rom. 1:16 and 1 Cor. 1:18,22-23, texts that assert the
centrality of the cross and the power of the gospel to save (theological truths to which all of
us, I am sure, wholeheartedly subscribe). But who wrote these passages? Was it not Paul,
the same man who described his evangelistic ministry as one characterized by the “power of
signs and wonders, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:19)? Was it not Paul, the same
man who wrote 1 Cor. 12-14 and about whom most of Acts, with all its miraculous
phenomena, is concerned? Was it not Paul, the same man whose message and preaching
came “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power”
(1 Cor. 2:4)? Was it not Paul, the same man who reminded the Thessalonians that the gospel
did not come to them “in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full
And here I speak reverently when I say that if there is an inherent inconsistency or conflict
between miracles and the message then someone forgot to inform God, for it was He,
according to Acts 14:3, “who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting that
signs and wonders be done by their hands.” If signs and wonders dilute the word of God’s
grace, if signs and wonders detract from the centrality of the cross, if signs and wonders reflect
a loss of confidence in the power of the gospel, someone should have told the Almighty about it
for He seems to have thought differently on the matter. If there is a conflict between wonders
and the word, it is in our minds that the problem exists. It isn’t in Paul’s mind. And it certainly
isn’t in God’s.
Signs and wonders and miraculous phenomena could not save a soul then nor can they now.
The power unto salvation is in the Holy Spirit working through the gospel of the cross of
Christ. But such miraculous phenomena “can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest;
they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion. Like every
other good witness to the word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the
gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines" (Piper; cf. Acts 9).
Furthermore, be it noted that if any generation was least in need of supernatural
authentication, it was that of the early church. Yet they prayed earnestly for signs and
“This was the generation whose preaching (of Peter and Stephen and Phillip and Paul) was
more anointed than the preaching of any generation following. If any preaching was the
power of God unto salvation and did not need accompanying signs and wonders, it was this
preaching. Moreover, this was the generation with more immediate and compelling
evidence of the truth of the resurrection than any generation since. Hundreds of
eyewitnesses to the risen Lord were alive in Jerusalem. If any generation in the history of the
church knew the power of preaching and the authentication of the gospel from first-hand
evidence of the resurrection, it was this one. Yet it was they who prayed passionately for
God to stretch forth His hand in signs and wonders” (Piper).
Others have argued that signs, wonders and miracles breed a spirit of triumphalism
inconsistent with the call to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Those who desire and pray for
the miraculous, so goes the charge, do not take seriously the painful realities of living in a
fallen world. Weakness, afflictions, persecution and suffering are an inevitable part of living
in the “not-yet” of the kingdom.
But when I read the NT, I see no inherent conflict between signs and suffering. And be it
known that it is the NT, not the posturing or glitz of certain TV evangelists, that must be
allowed to decide the issue. Paul certainly sensed no incompatibility between the two, for
they were both characteristic of his life and ministry. As C. K. Barrett put it, “Miracles were
no contradiction of the theologia crucis he proclaimed and practised, since they were
performed not in a context of triumphant success and prosperity, but in the midst of the
distress and vilification he was obliged to endure.”
As John Piper has said, “Paul’s ‘thorn’ [in the flesh] no doubt pressed deeper with every
healing he performed.” His own personal trials and afflictions did not lead him to renounce
the miraculous in his ministry. Nor did the supernatural displays of God’s power lead him into
a naive, “Pollyanna” outlook on the human condition. Again, if signs and suffering are
incompatible, one must look somewhere other than in the Bible to prove it.
4. A fourth argument pertains to the closing, completion, and sufficiency of the canon of
Scripture. Signs, wonders and miraculous gifts accompanied and attested to the truth of the
gospel until such time as the last word of canonical Scripture was written. The need for such
manifestations of divine power therein ceased. The Bible itself has replaced miraculous
phenomena in the life of the church.
There are several problems with this argument.
In the first place, the Bible itself never says any such thing. No biblical author of whom I am
aware ever claims that written Scripture has replaced or in some sense supplanted the need
for signs, wonders and the like.
Secondly, why would the presence of the completed canon preclude the need for
miraculous phenomena? If signs, wonders and the power of the Holy Spirit were essential in
bearing witness to the truth of the gospel then, why not now? In other words, it seems
reasonable to assume that the miracles which confirmed the gospel in the first century,
wherever it was preached, would serve no less to confirm the gospel in subsequent
centuries, even our own.
Thirdly, which is greater: Jesus or the written word? Which is greater: the Son of God or the
Bible? Jesus, of course! But if signs, wonders and miracles were essential in the physical
presence of the Son of God, how much more so now in his absence! Surely we are not
prepared to suggest that the Bible, for all its glory, is sufficient to do what Jesus couldn’t.
Jesus thought it necessary to utilize the miraculous phenomena of the Holy Spirit to attest
and confirm his ministry. If it was essential for him, how much more so for us. In other
words, if the glorious presence of the Son of God himself did not preclude the need for
miraculous phenomena, how dare we suggest that our possession of the Bible does?
5. Yet another argument is from church history: “If the so-called miracle or sign gifts of
the Holy Spirit are valid for Christians beyond the death of the apostles, why were they
absent from church history until their alleged reappearance in the twentieth century?”
To argue that all such gifts were utterly non-existent is to ignore a significant body of
evidence. After studying the documentation for claims to the presence of these gifts, D. A.
Carson’s conclusion is that “there is enough evidence that some form of ‘charismatic’ gifts
continued sporadically across the centuries of church history that it is futile to insist on
doctrinaire grounds that every report is spurious or the fruit of demonic activity or
psychological aberration” (Showing the Spirit, 166).
If the gifts were sporadic, there may be an explanation other than the theory that they were
restricted to the first century.
· Limited access to the Scriptures
· Theological ignorance
· Spiritual lethargy
I don't think it at all unlikely that numerous churches which advocated cessationism
experienced these gifts but dismissed them as something less than the miraculous
manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The ministry of Charles Spurgeon is a case in point. Consider
the following account taken from his autobiography:
“While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of
the crowd, and said, ‘There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop
open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took ninepence, and there was
fourpence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for fourpence!’ A city missionary, when
going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he
asked the question, ‘Do you know Mr. Spurgeon?’ ‘Yes,’ replied the man, ‘I have every
reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and, under his preaching, by God’s grace I have
become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music
Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place; Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew
me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker,
and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but
he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit
out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should
know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul
through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear
him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met
with me, and saved my soul’” (The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon [London: Curts &
Jennings, 1899], 2:226-27).
Spurgeon then adds this comment:
“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall
without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right,
except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my
description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man
that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my
soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known
many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have
sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a
smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, ‘The preacher told us
just what we said to one another when we went in at the door’” (ibid., 227).
My opinion is that this is a not uncommon example of what the Apostle Paul described in 1
Cor. 14:24-25. Spurgeon exercised the gift of prophecy (or some might say the word of
knowledge, 1 Cor. 12:8). He did not label it as such, but that does not alter the reality of what
the Holy Spirit accomplished through him. If one were to examine Spurgeon’s theology and
ministry, as well as recorded accounts of it by his contemporaries as well as subsequent
biographers, most would conclude from the absence of explicit reference to miraculous
charismata such as prophecy and the word of knowledge that such gifts had been
withdrawn from church life. But Spurgeon’s own testimony inadvertently says otherwise!
If we concede that certain spiritual gifts were less prevalent than others in the history of the
church, their absence may well be due to unbelief, apostasy, and other sins that serve only
to quench and grieve the Holy Spirit. Both theological ignorance of certain biblical truths and a
loss of experiential blessings provided by spiritual gifts can be, and should be, attributed to
factors other than the suggestion that God intended such knowledge and power only for
believers in the early church.
Finally, what has or has not occurred in church history is not the ultimate standard by which
to judge what we should pursue, pray for, and expect in the life of our churches today. The
final criterion for deciding whether God wants to bestow certain spiritual gifts on his people
today is the Word of God. It is unwise to cite the alleged absence of a particular experience
in the life of an admired saint from the church’s past as reason for doubting its present
validity. Neither the failure nor success of Christians in days past is the ultimate standard by
which we determine what God wants for us today. We can learn from their mistakes as well
as their achievements. But the only question of ultimate relevance for us and for this issue is:
“What saith the Scripture?”
6. Sixth, and finally, there is another reason why I remained for years committed to the
doctrine of cessationism. It isn’t based on any particular text or theological principle and yet
it probably exercised more of an influence on my life and mind than all of the other
I’m talking about fear: the fear of emotionalism, the fear of fanaticism, the fear of the
unfamiliar, the fear of rejection by those whose respect I cherished and whose friendship I did
not want to forfeit, the fear of what might occur were I fully to relinquish control of my life and
mind and emotions to the Holy Spirit, the fear of losing what little status in the evangelical
community that I had worked so hard to attain.
I’m talking about the kind of fear that energized a personal agenda to distance myself from
anything that had the potential to link me with people who I believed were an
embarrassment to the cause of Christ. I was faithful to the eleventh commandment of Bible-
church evangelicalism: “Thou shalt not do at all what others do poorly.” In my conceit and
pride I had unconsciously allowed certain extremists to exercise more of an influence on the
shape of my ministry than I did the text of Scripture. Fear of being labeled or linked or in
some way associated with the “unlearned” and “unattractive” elements in contemporary
Christendom exercised an insidious power on my ability and willingness to be objective in
the reading of Holy Scripture.
I’ve learned an important lesson, far beyond the point at issue in this study. I’ve learned, in
the words of J. I. Packer, that “the reaction of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”
Packer explains it this way:
“If you are walking backward away from something you think is a mistake, you may be right
in supposing it is a mistake, but for you to be walking backward is never right. Sooner or
later people who walk backward in the physical sense stumble over some obstacle behind
them which they never saw, because their minds and their eyes were fixed on what they
were trying to get away from, and then they fall. We are meant to walk forward, not
backward. Reaction is always a matter of walking backward, and thus it brings its own
I believe all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are valid for the contemporary church for these
First, there is the absence of any biblical evidence indicating they are not valid. This is not,
however, a mere argument from silence, because the NT is anything but silent concerning
the presence of the charismata in the church. If certain gifts of a special class have ceased,
the burden of proof is on the cessationist to prove it.
Second, the ultimate purpose of each gift is to build up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7;
14:3,26). Nothing that I read in the NT nor see in the condition of the church in any age, past
or present, leads me to believe we have progressed beyond the need for edification and
therefore beyond the need for the contribution of the charismata. I freely admit that
spiritual gifts were essential for the birth of the church, but why would they be any less
important or needful for its continued growth and maturation?
Third, four texts come to mind. 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 implies that the gifts of the Spirit are
operative until “the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 7). Ephesians 4:11-13 explicitly
dates the duration of the gifts. They are required “until we all attain to the unity of the faith,
and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature
which belongs to the fulness of Christ” (v. 13). In 1 Corinthians 14:39 Paul commands “the
brethren,” among whom I include myself, “desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid
to speak in tongues.” And despite the controversy that still surrounds it, I remain convinced
that 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 dates the cessation of the charismata at the perfection of the
eternal state, consequent upon Christ’s return.
Fourth, I believe that the charismata are designed by God to characterize the life of the
church today for much the same reason I believe in church discipline for today and in rule by
a plurality of elders for today and in the observance of the Lord’s Supper for today and in a
host of other biblical practices and patterns explicitly ordained in the NT and nowhere
explicitly designated as temporary or restricted to the first century.
Fifth, and finally, I do not believe the Holy Spirit simply inaugurates the new age and then
disappears. He, together with His gifts and fruit, characterizes the new age. As D. A. Carson
has said, “the coming of the Spirit is not associated merely with the dawning of the new age
but with its presence, not merely with Pentecost but with the entire period from Pentecost
to the return of Jesus the Messiah.” Spiritual gifts such as prophecy, tongues, and related
revelatory phenomena such as dreams and visions, are explicitly said by Peter to be the fruit
of the outpouring of the Spirit, the latter being the evidence for the advent and presence of
the "last days" (Acts 2:17ff.).