Have the gifts of the Spirit ceased? Has the Holy Spirit ceased His work and manifestation? Let’s take a look at this dividing doctrine.
Few doctrines have divided the church more than cessationism. The views held on this doctrine often vary from denomination to denomination, and while I won’t go into the finer details of what each individual believes, I will look at the verse used to support the view that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not in work today.
The key passage in support of the argument is 1 Corinthians 8-10, which say,
“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.“
So what is this verse really saying?
Firstly, it’s important to note it isn’t a completely black and white issue as most would have us believe. Both sides offer their share of reasonable arguments, although I personally find the cessationist view somewhat lacking. There is no definitive reason (given yet) to conclude the gifts have ceased completely or that they are here to stay. However, it is important to note that the context of the passage extorts love above the charismatic gifts. Verse 8 speaks of love being eternal (i.e. never failing) and the gifts being temporal. Tongues will one day cease, along with prophecy and knowledge, but love will remain. The point of disagreement is when the gifts cease. Some view they were meant solely for the apostolic age, others believe it will cease after the second coming. To find some ground on the issue it would be wise to note the views of some scholars.
Craig Keener in his commentary on the social background of the NT says, “Some OT prophets predicted the outpouring [of the] Spirit in the final time, accompanied by the ability to speak under the Spirit’s inspiration (Joel 2:28); but other prophecies noted that all of God’s people in the world to come would know God, hence there would be no reason for exhortation (Jer 31:33-34). Paul believes that the time of the Spirit’s gifts, including limited human knowledge, is the current time, between Jesus’ first and second comings (cf. 13:10,12).”
On the other side, the non-charismatics note that the completion of the Biblical canon is enough, so the gifts aren’t needed now. Sites such as the Modern Reformation emphasize the argument that anyone who holds a non-cessationist view believes the Bible isn’t enough. Verse ten is used to support this by claiming the “that which is perfect” is the Biblical canon itself.
There is one point correct with this. The Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture is a fundamental belief of Christianity. However, I believe 1 Corinthians 14:26 is important to note here,
“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
Most who hold to cessationism hold that the canonization of Scripture is the only revelation that can be given. I would follow up with the fact that the Bible was not written specifically to us. If the book is addressed to the Corinthians, then that was who it was written for. Our job is to look at what Paul taught them and apply that teaching to our own lives today. So with the verse above and this in mind, it becomes clear there are different kinds of revelation. That which is canonized and that which is personal. It is a revelation that is specifically for us today that is not recorded in Scripture. This, of course, is not equal to Scripture or should be used as if it were Scripture. This kind of revelation is not for canonization, but for personal edification.
A further problem I see with the cessationist view is in the same passage itself. Verse 12 says,
“For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.”
One must make clear what Paul is eluding to with the phrase “face to face” if the perfect here is the completed canon. The same language Paul uses is used throughout the Bible. Gen 32:30, Ex 31:11, and Deut 5:4, for example, use the phrase in the context of a physical “face to face,” interaction. The same context is used throughout the NT in verses such as 2 Cor 10:1 and 3 John 14. It seems reasonable to conclude Paul is using the same context here, that is a physical face to face interaction with Christ Himself. Also, the phrase “then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,” seems to allude to our condition at the second coming (the final Resurrection).
Another argument I’ve encountered is the misuse of the gifts. Since there has been so much misuse of the gifts throughout history, it is doubtful they are still present. Despite the obvious contradiction (the misuse of the gifts implies they exist to be misused), it is a faulty argument as the abuse of something doesn’t negate its existence. This falls back into the context of 1 Corinthians, who were using the gifts immaturely and so needed correction.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”
Without love, our use of the gifts is meaningless. This does lead to an interesting point, that the perfect Paul was alluding to is, not the Biblical canon, but love. Compare the passage with 1 John 4:12, “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The is come could also refer to 1 John 5:20, which says, “And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.”
The comparison in John’s Gospel, as well as his epistle, in reference to the unity of believers (the ultimate expression of love) is also interesting. John 17:23 says, “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” And 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”
If this is correct then our use of the gifts (i.e. using the gifts how we please) should cease at the perfecting of love within the body of Christ. Unfortunately, very few of us are even close to reaching this.
In many ways, we reflect the immaturity of the Corinthian church in our use of the gifts today. We view the gifts as if they are ours to use whenever we please rather than allowing the Spirit to move within us. When we reach a certain degree of maturity and abide in perfect love I believe it is this selfish motive that will cease, not necessarily the gifts themselves (as evidenced in chapter 14 where Paul tells them to “follow after charity and desire spiritual gifts….”) This sits quite well with Paul’s maturity metaphor in verse 11.
In the end, I believe it is most reasonable that the gifts will cease at the second coming. However, it must be repeated that this isn’t a definitive end to the discussion and I suspect this will continue for some time. When we do discuss these issues, let us not forget Paul’s final words in his message:
“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
Keener, C. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. p 487.
This article is excellent reading on the subject if one wishes to dive deeper.