I have an ugly secret to admit. I used to be a cessationist. Don’t judge me. Back then, many (perhaps most) Baptists were cessationists. I couldn’t help it. I was born that way!
I was a cessationist because that is what I wanted to be. I found charismatics weird and annoying and I wanted the Bible to prove they were all wet. Plus, the school I attended taught cessationism as settled doctrine. And that was fine with me. I accepted cessationism by faith without needing evidence. Then, I began to read and study the Bible and I found out an uncomfortable truth.
The Bible does not support cessationist doctrine.
The cessationism debate has shifted a little bit in the last 25 years. Back in my younger and thinner days, the issue was tongues. Were tongues still valid? Was it God’s will that all believers speak in tongues? But that is no longer the key issue. Even many in the charismatic movement have moved on to other emphases. It’s no longer about tongues, but the whole realm of manifestations of the presence of the Holy Spirit talked about in 1 Corinthians 12. In the Baptist and Evangelical worlds, the issue has an even narrower focus. Does God still talk to us? Does God speak directly to human hearts, or does he only speak through the Word?
When cessationists frame this doctrine, they paint themselves as the defenders of the Bible. They affirm “the sufficiency of Scripture” (as if continuationists don’t) and claim that the Bible is all we need. We just read the Bible and hear its words and that is all the voice of God that any of us should want or expect. Just read the Bible and obey it. That sounds noble and all – a complete reliance on the Bible. I wanted it to be that way. I really did. But something got in the way of me continuing to believe that.
I read that sufficient Bible!
As I began to study the Bible, and especially as I went through a decade or so where I read the Bible through every year, I came to believe that cessationism is simply not a biblical teaching. It is hermeneutical wishful thinking. I tried to find it. I’ve seen rational and theological arguments for it, but the exegetical arguments for cessationism came up empty. We affirm the absolute authority of God’s Word and so passionate appeals to the sufficiency of Scripture or ridicule of the excesses of some who believe the subjective voice of God are not enough. Someone needs to show exegetically that the God who spoke continually throughout Scripture in various forms has stopped doing that today. I share the desire to honor Scripture and the disdain for abuses of this concept, but I had to abandon the cessationist position because I just do not find biblical support for it.
Basically, cessationists teach that the God who spoke personally and directly to people all through the Bible stopped after the Bible was finished. Some have taught that it was at the destruction of the Temple (some obscure verses in 1 Corinthians), others have taught it was at the completion of the canon of Scripture and the end of the Apostolic era. When we had the full Bible, God stopped talking directly to people and spoke only through the Word.
If we have his Word, what more do we need, right? That argument makes some sense, and is noble in its defense of the power of the Word, but it is a change from the way God worked during biblical times.
I think there are two reasons that cessationism gained such widespread popularity. First, we saw that there were things happening regularly in the Bible that were not happening today and we had to explain it. In the Bible, there were miracles. People were healed. The blind saw and the lame walked. Demons came out of people. The OT miracles and the things that happened in the times of Jesus and the Apostles were not happening, so there must be a reason. Voila! Cessationism. And, on the other hand, when people started claiming to be experiencing some of the manifestations of the Spirit that were talked about in 1 Corinthians 12, many of us were suspicious (and rightly so) of the manner and methods of these expressions and the bizarre and unbiblical doctrines that accompanied them. Cessationism was a convenient answer. These manifestations passed away and so when someone has a miraculous manifestation you know it is false and when someone claims to have heard God’s voice you can know for certain they are either deceived or a deceiver.
Let me lay out some of what I have come to believe and why I rejected cessationism.
1) God talked to people from Adam to Revelation
There is something that just about every story in the Bible has in common. God talked to someone. He revealed great truths to them – his ways, his character and his purposes. But he would then give them specific details about what he wanted them to do in the light of what he was doing.
When God spoke to Noah, he revealed his purpose – to judge the world with a flood. Then, he spoke the details. Noah was to build a boat according to the exact dimensions and specifications God gave. Revelation first, then details.
Moses – well that was pretty much a running conversation, wasn’t it? But think of the Burning Bush. God revealed his purposes (to save the Israelites) and then he revealed his specific plan to Moses (to go to Israel).
The Tabernacle and later, the Temple, were built to fulfill God’s purposes, and according to very detailed plans that he revealed directly to human beings.
God told Israel he was giving them the Land, then he gave Joshua specific battles plans (such as for Jericho).
This pattern continues on. He didn’t just tell Israel to follow his law and go wherever they felt was best. He gave them a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night to give them specific guidance.
Israel’s leaders and kings would go to God and ask whether they should go to battle and often received specific plans in return. Again, this pattern might not have been universal, but it was consistent enough to be important. God revealed his purposes and ways, but then would also reveal details about an individual’s personal participation in those purposes.
You say that this was an Old Testament pattern? Let’s check it out in Acts. Did a pattern similar to this continue? It did.
Of course, the “Apostle’s teaching” about God, Christ and the gospel was the basis of all things in the church. But God spoke and revealed individual details of his work on a regular basis. There was Acts 13, when God spoke to the church in Antioch to tell them to begin God’s program of worldwide missions. But he did not just give them a reminder of Acts 1:8 and tell them to figure it out. He said, “Set apart Barnabas and Saul.” Details. Specifics. Two people. And he led them on their trips from place to place.
Perhaps Acts 16 is the clearest example of this process. Paul headed through Phrygia and Galatia because he had been “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to go to Asia and preach the gospel. Here, Paul was told not to go to Ephesus and preach. There was no teaching of Scripture that could have indicated that Asia Minor was not yet ready for the gospel. The Spirit revealed it directly to him. So, Paul thought he might go to Bithynia, but the Spirit also said no to that. In the middle of the night, the Spirit gave him a vision telling him to go to Macedonia and preach the gospel.
You can read the Bible all day long and not get those kinds of details. Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Go here instead. The truth came from God’s revelation, but the Spirit gave the details.
No pattern is universal, but this one seems consistent, at the least.
God revealed himself, his purposes, his ways and his will in the Word of God. All that we know about God is found there. Every truth, every doctrine must be drawn from it. It is our sufficient guide and standard of truth.
But God also gave us his Spirit to indwell us and to communicate to us the specifics of his will . Go here, not there. Do this, not that. He speaks to us, leading and guiding us in the details of life that are not covered in the doctrine and teaching of God’s Word.
We should not look to that subjective and inner work of the Spirit for truth or doctrine, but for details.
2) There is NO clear indication anywhere in Scripture that the pattern would change.
If God was planning, when the biblical canon was completed, to stop the various manifestations of the Spirit that we might call the “subjective voice of God,” shouldn’t he have warned us? Isn’t that kind of a big thing? If God is going to change the way he relates to human beings, shouldn’t he reveal that pretty clearly in that sufficient revelation? I’d expect a verse that said something like this:
Whithersoever cometh the full revelation of scripture, thou shalt expect that never again cometh the voice of the Spirit unto us. Only the scripture shalt thou have to guide thee.
Of course, arguments from silence are regarded as weak. But this is not just an argument of silence. It is an argument from the entirety of the Bible in which God speaks. If there is a biblical pattern there is a natural assumption that such pattern will continue until it is contravened clearly by the teachings of God’s Word. The question is why the Bible doesn’t tell us clearly that the pattern of God’s revelation and guidance would drastically change at some point in the future.
3) Why does the Bible give us so many warnings about discerning “false spirits” if the true Spirit is no longer speaking?
Why not just say that it is all fake? If someone says they have a message from God, don’t believe them. God doesn’t speak. Just read the parchments Paul sent you and the OT scrolls. Ignore those who say they have a word from God. It isn’t real (or, won’t be after the Apostles are gone).
But that is not what the Bible does. It gives guidance (in 1 Corinthians 12, in 1 John 4 and other places) on how to distinguish a true message from God from a false one.
Look at the manifestations of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10.
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
There are nine specific manifestations listed here. At least five of these nine are specifically related to the Spirit speaking outside of the revelation or inspiration that attaches to scripture. God’s Spirit would give a word of wisdom. Wisdom is practical knowledge to make good decisions. God would give wisdom to us through the Spirit. God gives knowledge – an understanding of what is goingM on in the world. Prophecy - a message from God. Tongues – a message from God in a language I haven’t learned. Interpretation – the ability to understand someone else’s message of tongues. The God of 1 Corinthians 12 was a talking God!
And, of course, there is a “discernment of spirits” manifestation that helps us realize when something isof God or is of the devil. Again, why would that one even be necessary if all you needed were some sound hermeneutical principles to discern truth?
4) There is a difference between OT prophecy and NT manifestation of the Spirit and guidance.
The OT prophets revealed God’s Word authoritatively and were to be obeyed. Thus, God placed a heavy burden on them. One mistake and they were through! But the subjective voice of the Spirit is not the same as the “Thus saith the Lord revelation of the Prophets. I have sensed, at times, what is sometimes called a “word from the Lord” (small w). But when I sense something is such a “word” I do not announce it as the authoritative Word of God or expect others to obey just because I said it.
In the OT, the only response to prophecy was to obey. Today, the proper response to a subjective message from God is to test and approve it. Check it by Scripture. Test it biblically and spiritually to make sure it is from God.
5) Just because the subjective voice of the Spirit is abused is no reason it should be abandoned.
There is little question that the subjective voice of the Spirit is badly abused. God is blamed for a lot of things that we know he really did not say. This is one of the cessationist’s primary arguments, to “condemnation by the extreme.” Show a clip of Benny Hinn or some other televangelist or relate a story of some misguided soul who heard God tell them to wear macaroni in their hair or sell everything and move to the mountains to await the Apocalypse.
But does the extreme disprove the doctrine? This is all too common a tactic when we deal with charismania. We examine the most extreme elements and use them to cast aspersions on the whole movement. It is an unfair tactic. The doctrine of God’s salvation by grace can be abused. Paul dealt with those abuses in Romans 6 and 7. But the abuses of grace do not negate grace. Eternal security can be twisted, but its abuse does not negate its truth.
The condemnation of the extreme is lazy argument and unworthy in a scriptural debate. The abuse of the practice does not negate its truth.
Undoubtedly, the subjective voice of God is open to abuse. That is why there are warnings about testing and approving and discerning spirits and such things. But just because it is abused doesn’t mean that a truth must be abandoned. It must be safe-guarded from extremes and abuses, but the subjective voice of the Spirit, properly governed, is a wonderful blessing to be cherished.
Do not be afraid of the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, God gave us his Word and it is powerful and it is perfect and our duty is to proclaim its truth. But he also gave us his Spirit to help us understand that word, to empower us to walk in righteousness, and also to lead us specifically and personally.
Rejoice! The Living God speaks through his Word and by his Holy Spirit to his children.
Here’s a few thoughts I couldn’t work into the post, but I didn’t want to let them go.
1) I think Mark Driscoll put it best. Many (especially, as he pointed out, in the Reformed community), are uncomfortable with the workings of the Holy Spirit. He said, jokingly, that some have replaced the biblical Trinity with a new one, “Father, Son and Holy Bible.” Obviously, cessationists don’t really deny the Trinity, but I think sometimes that this is not far from the truth in effect if not in intent. The Spirit is a wind – unseen, wild, uncontrollable. And uncontrollable sometimes makes us uncomfortable.
2) I think that some in the cessationist movement have adopted what I call biblical deism. Deism believed in an impersonal God, one who created the world then stood back and let it operate according to certain principles. Biblical deism creates a somewhat impersonal God today. He does not walk with me and talk with me. He gave me his word and stands back while I read and determine the details on my own. Our God is personal. He speaks and listens and enters into relationship with us.
3) I knew some folks who were uncomfortable with Henry Blackaby’s formula, “a personal love relationship with Christ.” I simply cannot imagine why that would bother anyone. Look at the metaphors used in the NT for salvation. Adopted as sons. My dad and I talk (not as much as we should, but we talk!). We are described as the Bride of Christ – how could that be any more personal, intimate or loving. I know this teaching, too, is abused, but Christianity really is a personal love relationship with Christ!
4) It would seem that the cessationist’s challenge is two-fold. Either they have to argue that the “speaking” of God directly to humans to give details of the outworking of his will is not really a biblical pattern. God spoke by dreams, visions, direct voices, through prophets, and in various ways to humans. But the cessationist needs to show that this was unique even among the times of the Bible.
Or, their other option is to show somehow that God stopped talking. They need to do that exegetically. Appeals to “the sufficiency of Scripture” are not enough. They need to show that the Bible teaches that doctrine. Where does the Bible give us reason to believe that the manifestations of 1 Corinthians 12 were only temporary?
5) I hope you cessationists out there take my ribbing in the spirit it was intended. It was intended playfully, not in a belittling way. I just look forward to the rapture when your theological errors will be corrected.