I have been recently interested in a series of debates pertaining to the gifts of the Holy Spirit outlined in the New Testament. To give you a bit of back ground on myself; I have been a professing believer in the charismatic gifts for almost ten years now and have operated in these gifts throughout the years. Admittedly, I have felt uncomfortable about these gifts at times but overall maintain that to deny their relevancy in the contemporary church would be to enter the slippery slope of taking too much liberty in interpreting the Word of God, which ironically, is one of the main jabs that modern cessationists take toward the charismatic movement. The reason this debate sparks my interest is a call to maturity that God has been taking me through in many ways. I have been asking myself why I believe what I believe. This journey through Scripture, doctrine, and philosophy is giving me a much more confident perspective to the profession of my faith.
Recently, I listened to a conversation involving Dr. Michael Brown and Phil Johnson, who is an associate of Dr. John MacArthur’s. If you are not familiar with MacArthur, he recently held a conference called the “Strange Fire” conference in October of last year concerning his objections to the charismatic movement as a whole, which is a reflection of his book of the same title. The puzzling aspect of the entire situation is that MacArthur bluntly says during one of his teaching sessions (and I have been told is also reflected in his book) that charismatics are not part of the body of Christ and even compares them to Mormons. From my layperson understanding of salvation I remember something about a belief and confession in the Lordship of Jesus Christ manifested in repentance being the primary means for salvation and not my particular stance on the usage of supernatural gifts but hey John, you’re the doctor my friend, not me. It also seemed, based on the topic discussed, that a large number of MacArthur’s firing points toward charismatic Christians centered on abuses involving popular televangelist preachers and prosperity preachers like Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen. The problem with this, as Dr. Brown refuted, is that although these preachers are generally rapped within the framework of the charismatic movement that does not mean that all Spirit filled Christians believe the same things they do, or are in anyway affiliated with them. In essence, MacArthur paints charismatic Christians with a broad brush believing that all of them are deceived, warped, or just plain false teachers.
The question I have had for a long time, and I’m sure that many of you do as well, is that if there is obvious scriptural evidence for the contemporary function of spiritual gifts in the Church then what scriptural basis do cessationists (like MacArthur) use for its passing away? Well, one of the most popular theories, called the Cascade Theory by Dr. Sam Waldron, uses very little scriptural evidence whatsoever. Despite evidence that the gifts are for all believers (Acts 2:17), the basic theory is that all the gifts died out with the passing of the original Apostles of Christ (with Paul being the last to see Christ). It also explains that the usage of these gifts were primarily revelatory in nature so that the canonical Bible could be preserved infallible. The premise behind the argument is not based on scripture, it is based on a very convenient deduction; the deduction that “we all agree that the Canonical Bible is closed to anything being added, therefore those that say they hear from God in the form of prophecy are saying that the Scriptures are open to adding new elements of what God is saying.” They make this assumption because according to Deuteronomy 18:22 the qualifications of a prophet are that the prophet’s word always come to pass, therefore is infallible, and if this is true then it must hold the same weight as Scripture. This of course is completely ridiculous, the scriptures are clear that we “prophesy in part” and no Christian that I know would equate any contemporary prophecy with the weight of Scripture. The whole principal is based on an assumption; the assumption that if the original Apostles and witnesses to Christ were the first “gift” to the Church and they have “passed away” then it only makes sense that the other gifts have passed away too. What? How did we get here?
Cessationism, it seems, is more of an anxious grasping by the Church. Their worry seems to be that if you tell people God still speaks, He still heals, He still raises the dead, and still casts out demons then you are giving the people a license for heresy. In a sense, they are right, there are a lot of false prophets and teachers that will warp the Scriptures for their own personal gain, but is the Catholic, mainstream Evangelical, or Orthodox Church immune to similar heresy or abuse? I think not. We should never judge any group, system, or people based solely on its abuse. I agree that there is abuse among charismatic Christians and sometimes we take the gifts too far or speak out of our flesh but is this reason enough to disobey Paul’s command to not forbid tongues (1 Corinthians 14:39)? The truth is that Scripture is very clear that the gifts of the spirit are for all believers, will only pass away when the end has come (1 Cor: 8-10), and are for the edification, encouragement, and building of the body of Christ (1 Cor: 14). It would be easier on my flesh if the gifts of the spirit had passed away, but according to scripture they did not. Sometimes speaking in tongues or prophecy makes me uncomfortable, but sometimes I need to be uncomfortable.
This reminds me of the controversy surrounding the Word of God being translated into English. One would think that based on modern efforts at Bible translation that the Church has always had a desire to see the Word of God spread into other languages but until the last few hundred years this was not the case. Many people were martyred or excommunicated by the Catholic Church for their participation in translating the Bible into English. Why were people so afraid of the average man reading the Bible? They said they were afraid because they did not think the average man could understand it properly, and to some degree that is true, but the deeper reason is summed up best in this quote from the translators of the 1611 version of the KJV English Bible, who said “For meddling in any way with a people’s religion is meddling with their customs, with their inalienable rights. And although they may be dissatisfied with what they have, they cannot bear to have it altered.” Are outspoken cessationists like John MacArthur really worried about the integrity of the body or are they more worried about their long standing doctrine falling by the waist side? Makes you think…
Here are links to two debates involving Dr. Michael Brown
Phil Johnson Debate
Sam Waldron Debate