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A Response to Stephen Nichols, Steve Lawson, and Burk Parsons on the Continuation of Spiritual Gifts (Part Three)


This is the third installment of my response to the Ligonier panel on spiritual gifts.

(4) Steven L, you made an argument for cessationism based on the idea of the sufficiency of Scripture. I certainly agree with you that the sufficiency of Scripture means that the Bible contains every theological truth and every ethical norm that is required for living a Christ-exalting and God-glorifying life. What the Bible contains and teaches is “enough” to enable us to lead godly lives in this present age.

Among the many things that the all-sufficient Scriptures say God has done and provided is the blessing of the many spiritual gifts, those in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 in particular. The “all-sufficient” Word of God explicitly commands us to earnestly desire “the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31a), which Paul goes on to identify primarily as prophecy. He again commands us to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1). Again, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:5a). And if there is any doubt about Paul’s meaning, he closes this chapter with the exhortation, “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39).

To say that the Bible is sufficient means we believe it tells us what to embrace and what to avoid, that it provides us with every command we need to obey and every warning that we need to heed. Do we believe the Bible warns us about those misguided beliefs and practices that may well threaten its own sufficiency? Yes.

What then does the Bible say about both miraculous and more mundane gifts of the Spirit? It says we need them because they serve “the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). It says prophecy is given to God’s people “for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). It says that when we come into the corporate gathering of God’s people “each one has a hymn, a lesson [or teaching], a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation,” and that all things should “be done for building up” (1 Cor. 14:26). And yet nowhere does it ever remotely suggest that the on-going validity of the very gifts it endorses are a dangerous threat to the reality of Scripture’s own sufficiency.

It is the all-sufficient Scriptures that teach us to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that we might prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1), that teach us that such gifts are not merely given to authenticate the apostolic message but also to build up God’s people (1 Cor. 12:7; and all of 1 Corinthians 14), that tell us to “earnestly desire to prophesy, and” not to “forbid speaking in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:39). It is the all-sufficient Scriptures that tell us that in the New Covenant age, inaugurated at Pentecost God’s people, young and old, male and female, will experience revelatory dreams and visions and will prophesy (Acts 2), and that nowhere tell us that these gifts will only last for about 50 or 60 years and then disappear.

It would appear that the cessationist appeals to the notion of the Bible’s sufficiency in order to deny the Bible’s functional authority. They say they believe the Bible is inerrant and sufficient to tell us all we need to know to live godly lives, but then they deny the Bible’s teaching concerning the operation of spiritual gifts to build up and edify God’s people. If they truly believe in the Bible’s sufficiency, then explain where in the Bible it teaches that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were designed only for the few decades of the first century.

If, as cessationists undoubtedly believe, the Bible is sufficient for all instruction and sufficient to provide inerrant guidance for whatever we might need to grow in godliness, why does the all-sufficient Bible not say what they continually assert? Wouldn’t it have been prudent for the apostles to have told us that their teaching on miraculous spiritual gifts was only intended by God to operate for a mere 50 or 60 years of church life? The fact of the matter is that the Bible fails to provide us with a single text in which we are told that the many gifts it encourages us to pursue and practice were temporary or were characterized by some inherent obsolescence.

If the cessationist is correct, why doesn’t the Bible tell us to ignore the exhortations to earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, or tell us that we should forbid speaking in tongues, or tell us that the gifts which were given to edify and encourage the people of God were not meant for any generation of Christians beyond those of the first century? Why does the written word only tell us to make good use of such gifts for the edification of the body and not tell us that such was only meant for the early church?

So, I contend that if you believe in the sufficiency and the functional authority of Scripture, you must necessarily believe in the on-going validity and edifying power of miraculous gifts of the Spirit.

(5) Another argument made (I can’t recall who made it) is the so-called “cluster” argument. I think it was Burk who said that there are specific redemptive epochs in which supernatural phenomena are clustered or concentrated (typically, the time of Moses and the Exodus, the time of Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Jesus and the apostles). This is an argument that John MacArthur has often used. Since I know that all of you hold John in high regard, as I do, I’ll respond to the way he articulated this argument.

What does the continuationist say in response to the “cluster” argument? First, at most this might suggest 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 subsequent phases of redemptive history.

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 term, “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. Could it be that the relative infrequency of the miraculous was due to the rebellion, unbelief, and apostasy rampant in Israel throughout much of her history (cf. Pss. 74:9-11; 77:7-14)? Let us not forget that even Jesus “could do no mighty work there [in Nazareth] except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them” (Mark 6:5), all because of their unbelief (at which, we are told, Jesus “wondered”, v. 6). 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 this proves only 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? The occurrence of miraculous phenomena throughout biblical history, however infrequent and isolated, cannot prove 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, the assertion that miraculous phenomena outside these three special periods were isolated is not altogether accurate. One can make this argument only by defining the miraculous so narrowly as to eliminate a vast number of recorded supernatural phenomena that otherwise might qualify. MacArthur 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 one 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 for what constitutes a miracle. On such a narrow definition of a 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 and resurrection of Jesus? What about the resurrection of the saints mentioned in Matthew 27:52-53 or Peter’s deliverance from jail in Acts 12? 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 his preservation? 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.

Is it the case that miracles always accompany divine revelation as a means of attestation? That miracles confirm and authenticate the divine message is certainly true. But to reduce the purpose of miracles to this one function is to ignore 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.

The OT reveals a consistent pattern of supernatural manifestations in the affairs of humanity. In addition to the multitude of miracles during the lifetime of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha, we see numerous instances of angelic activity, supernatural visitations and revelatory activity, healings, dreams, visions and the like. Once the arbitrary restrictions on the definition of a miracle are removed, a different picture of OT religious life emerges. See especially Jack Deere’s treatment of miraculous phenomena in the OT in Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 255-61. One also thinks of Daniel who ministered well beyond the time of Elijah and Elisha. Yet “proportionately Daniel’s book contains more supernatural events than the books of Exodus through Joshua (the books dealing with the ministries of Moses and Joshua) and 1 Kings through 2 Kings 13 (the books dealing with the ministries of Elijah and Elisha)” (Deere, 263).

Two other factors indicate that miraculous phenomena were not as isolated and infrequent as some allege.

First, there is the assertion of Jeremiah 32:20 in which the prophet speaks of God who has “shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and have made a name for yourself, 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 fewer 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 that Jesus did” that were impossible to record in detail (John 21:25).

Second, most cessationists insist that NT and OT prophecy are the same. They also readily acknowledge 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 the narrow definition, were infrequent and isolated?

It would appear, then, that the argument for cesssationism which appeals to the notion of miraculous phenomena as clustered, and therefore isolated, in redemptive history, is neither biblically defensible nor logically persuasive.


I noticed my typo “God festers” instead of God fearers in my comment. I suppose that could be somehow Providential but it would probably be best to correct it. Thank you.
I am currently doing some research for a chapter in a volume that deals with tongues and prophecy. I need some direction on finding a source that deals with a specific aspect of the continuationist argument, and I am striking out. Could someone put me in touch with Dr. Storms, or a research assistant?

I have learned so much from Ligonier Ministries and am grateful for the gift of teaching that is well represented. But, the stand on cessation causes me to scratch my head in wonder. It truly has been my prayer this last year that the Holly Spirit would reveal and prove otherwise to this dedicated group of God festers. That He work in each of their lives in an undeniable way, and they all are blessed with a greater move of God that to deny His giftings would be to deny what only He has shown them in their own personal lives. Thank you for your response and attempt to show the Holy Spirit has not quit working in the lives of individual believers no matter how grossly He can be represented at times in the Charismatic groups.

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