Cessationists & Charismatics: What I Wish Everyone Knew About the Debate

One of the most controversial topics in Christian theology revolves around spiritual gifts. Specifically, are the more overtly supernatural gifts like prophecy, tongues, and healing still operative today?

Those who say they are no longer active are known as cessationists (because they maintain that some of the gifts have ceased, either when the apostles died or when the canon of Scripture was closed). Those who maintain that all of the gifts continue to be present and active just as they were in the first century are called continuationists or charismatics (after the Greek word Paul uses for spiritual gifts, charismata).

This issue is one that frequently divides Christians in ways I believe are unfortunate and oftentimes unnecessary. In the interest of fostering more patient and loving dialogue on both sides of the aisle, here are five things I wish everyone would keep in mind when debating about spiritual gifts:

#1) Everyone brings their experiences to the table.

One of the reasons this debate often gets quite heated is because of how prominently one’s personal experience tends to factor into it.

On the one side you have people who’ve never experienced the miraculous. Or maybe they’ve seen too many prayers for healing go unanswered. And they clash up against their brothers and sisters who have had supernatural experiences — experiences they believe match up with what we see depicted in the New Testament.

Now, mature believers on both sides are quick to point out that Scripture is the highest authority for the church; our experiences are not. But none of us approaches Scripture as a blank slate, and our experiences (or lack thereof) are a very important factor. They can potentially serve to verify whether our (fallible) interpretations of Scripture are correct.

The reverse is also true — our reading of Scripture should make us reexamine whether we’ve correctly interpreted our experiences. Cessationists frequently argue that what charismatics may see as a spiritual gift might not be the same thing the New Testament was describing. Experience must never be ignored or downplayed in the discussion, but instead should be constantly evaluated in light of Scripture.

All of that to say, people on both sides are affected by their personal experience, whether consciously or not. Be careful before throwing out accusations that people are just being guided by their experience. Maybe you need to spend some time talking about how they’re interpreting those experiences.

#2) We have more in common than we have differences.

This doesn’t get stressed as often as I’d like to see. Many times the debate gets overly polarized. You don’t have to look far to find someone claiming that all charismatics are being deceived by Satan, or that cessationists are blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

The reality is that we can find examples of people on both sides who are teaching heretical ideas or living ungodly lifestyles, but that doesn’t mean that everyone on that side is therefore antichrist! It also does not necessarily prove either position wrong. It simply means there are human beings on both sides. 

But we also find Jesus-worshiping, Bible-believing, Spirit-filled Christians on both sides of this theological aisle. (Yes, even cessationists have the Holy Spirit! And yes, charismatics do trust the Bible as God’s authoritative word!)

Just because there are weeds on a particular side doesn’t mean there is not also wheat on that side. In this case, we need to focus on the Scriptures and what they call us to, more than we focus on pointing fingers at others.

#3) Just because someone is charismatic does NOT mean they promote “Prosperity Gospel” teaching.

Quite sadly, it’s become common to see cessationists smearing all their charismatic brothers and sisters as pursuing a “health-and-wealth,” “name-and-claim-it” Prosperity Gospel. This is a very serious and tragic mischaracterization (dare I say slander?) of many continuationists.

It’s also a false dichotomy. The truth is that you can affirm the continuance of the miraculous gifts without ever affirming that God wants you to seek material prosperity.  Those of us continuationists who seek to be faithful to Scripture are quick to affirm that gifts like prophecy, tongues, and healing are never to be sought for their own sake (much less for profit!), but are signs that point to Jesus’ reign and the truth of the gospel, and are ways God spreads his grace and builds people’s faith.

We also acknowledge that the gospel includes the call to take up our crosses and endure suffering for the sake of King Jesus (Mark 8:34-35). None of us is assured total health or material comfort this side of eternity — indeed, in this world we followers of Jesus are guaranteed to encounter trials (see John 16:33; James 1:2-4).

Obviously I cannot claim to speak for all charismatics, and I am deeply grieved by the continued spread of prosperity teaching. But such teaching is not a de facto component of charismatic belief — you do not have to affirm health-and-wealth or “Word of Faith” ideas to affirm that the sign-gifts are still present. Also, we do well to acknowledge prominent continuationist scholars who are actively opposing prosperity teaching with their platforms.

#4) Just because someone is cessationist does NOT mean they don’t believe in spiritual gifts.

Now I must point the finger at many in my own camp: We’re often quick to conclude that to be a cessationist is to deny the reality of spiritual gifts in general. Such is simply not the case. Nor is it the case that a cessationist can’t be filled with the Holy Spirit.

After all, while I was attending a cessationist seminary (DTS), I had the pleasure of getting to know numerous professors and students who were exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in their lives and were using their spiritual gifts quite effectively! More importantly, the preponderance of New Testament teaching assures us that all who acknowledge Christ Jesus as their Lord and Savior receive his Holy Spirit at the time they put their faith in him (see Acts 2:38; Romans 8:8-17; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 1:13-14)! [1]

Along with that indwelling presence of the Spirit comes a spiritual gift (or gifts) to the individual believer. But if we all acknowledge that, then why all the debate? It primarily comes down to how we’re understanding/defining those gifts. And that’s my fifth and final point:

#5) How we understand and explain the gifts makes all the difference.

Have you ever considered that the gift of prophecy some claim to see today might in fact be something different than biblical prophecy? This is what Tom Schreiner argues in his essay, Why I Am a Cessationist:

“What some people today call ‘prophecies’ are actually impressions from God. He can use impressions to guide and lead us, but they aren’t infallible and must always be tested by Scripture. We should also consult with wise counselors before acting on such impressions. I love my charismatic brothers and sisters, but what they call ‘prophecy’ today isn’t actually the biblical gift of prophecy. God-given impressions aren’t the same thing as prophecies.”

Then again, continuationists like Craig Keener aren’t convinced. They counter that even in New Testament times the gift of prophecy was a complex phenomenon, and the apostles even commanded that prophecies in the church be tested to discern if they were really from God or not! (See Keener’s discussion here.) So maybe there is more continuity than cessationists are willing to see. Hence the disagreement.

The gift of “tongues” is similarly difficult to define. Were “tongues” in Scripture always foreign human languages, or could they include spontaneous vocalization (what many refer to as a “personal prayer language”; the technical term is glossolalia)? Does Scripture depict both? How one answers this question could potentially determine whether they see the biblical gift of tongues as continuing or ceased.

Do Not Grieve the Spirit

In Ephesians 4:30, Paul warns believers not to “grieve God’s Holy Spirit.” He gives that warning in a context of commands to treat other Christians with kindness and compassion, especially in the way we talk to one another (see Eph 4:25-32)!

As we dialogue about the nature and role of spiritual gifts, I ask that you speak to and about others as you would have them speak to and about you. Take the time to give the other side a fair hearing, and remember that for now we all “know in part,” and are to seek first the greatest gift — love (1 Corinthians 13:12-13).

See you down the path.


Want to Go Deeper?

Check out the informative (and charitably-argued) collection of essays in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views

 

 

 


[1] The only potential exceptions (Acts 8:14-17 and 19:1-7), while hotly debated, are best understood as just that — exceptions that don’t disprove the more general rule. See Sam Storms’ article here for more details.



Categories: Personal, Theology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: