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

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

(2) Steve Lawson, you said that the miraculous gifts of the Spirit disappear or are no longer in evidence beyond the time that 1 Corinthians was written (which would be sometime between 53 and 55 a.d.). If that were truly the case, then what do you make of 2 Corinthians 12:12 which speaks of “signs and wonders”? What do you make of Romans 15 where Paul speaks of the power of the Spirit in signs and wonders? And how can you say that such gifts were not mentioned or in operation after 1 Corinthians when Paul himself, according to Acts 28, toward the close of his ministry, apparently healed all on the island of Malta (Acts 28:8-10).

And how do you account for Paul’s exhortation to Timothy that he draw strength from the prophecies spoken to him as described in 1 Timothy 1:18?

I’m sure you are quite well aware of the dangers of an argument from silence. If your reasoning were correct, I suppose we should minimize the importance of the Lord’s Supper since it is not explicitly mentioned beyond 1 Corinthians 11. Needless to say, once Paul had spoken clearly on the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts, he hardly needed to repeat himself every time he wrote to a particular local church, especially given the fact that most of his epistles were uniquely designed to address issues, heresies, and other problems in the respective local churches.

(3) All of you mentioned the argument that since certain miraculous gifts functioned to authenticate the apostolic message, we should not expect them to be operative in today’s church. But there is no reason to think that these gifts in the 21st century church couldn’t function in the same way when we proclaim the gospel. To say that this work of authentication or attestation is no longer needed since we now have the completed canon of inspired Scripture is an argument absent from the NT. Nowhere in the Bible are we told that because we now have the Bible we no longer need or might profit from what miraculous gifts of the Spirit can achieve.

I would simply ask, if signs, wonders and the power of the Holy Spirit were essential in bearing witness to the truth of the gospel then, why not now? It seems reasonable to assume that the miracles which confirmed the gospel in the first century, wherever it was preached, would serve no less to confirm the gospel in subsequent centuries, even our own. And if signs, wonders and miracles were essential in the physical presence of the Son of God, how much more so now in his absence. Surely, we are not prepared to suggest that the Bible, for all its glory, is sufficient to do what Jesus couldn’t. Jesus thought it necessary to utilize the miraculous phenomena of the Holy Spirit to attest and confirm his ministry. If it was essential for him, how much more so for us. If the glorious presence of the Son of God himself did not preclude the need for miraculous phenomena, how can we suggest that our possession of the Bible does?

We must also resist the tendency toward reductionism. What I mean by this is thinking that simply because spiritual gift “A” serves us well in one particular capacity that it cannot serve us well in yet another. Why should the purpose of attestation be a reason why such gifts cannot function in a multitude of other capacities beyond the time of the first century and even into the 21st? In fact, Paul makes it quite clear that the primary task of all spiritual gifts, both the so-called more miraculous as well as the more so-called mundane gifts is to build up and strengthen the body of Christ. This is especially clear from 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 where we find what are typically called “miraculous” or “supernatural” gifts of the Spirit. There Paul explicitly declares that these gifts are given by the Spirit “for the common good” (v. 7).

Thus, for the cessationist argument to persuade, one must demonstrate that authentication or attestation was the sole and exclusive purpose of such displays of divine power. However, nowhere in the NT is the purpose or function of the miraculous or the charismata reduced to that of attestation. The miraculous, in whatever form in which it appeared, served several other distinct purposes. For example, the miraculous served to glorify God and to draw attention to his power and compassion. This was the primary reason for the resurrection of Lazarus, as Jesus himself makes clear in John 11:4 (cf. 11:40). The doxological purpose of the miraculous is also found in John 2:11; 9:3; and Matthew 15:29-31. Miracles also served an evangelistic purpose (see Acts 9:32-43). Much of our Lord’s miraculous ministry was an expression of his compassion and love for the hurting multitudes. He healed the sick and even fed the 5,000 principally because he felt compassion for the people (Matt. 14:14; Mark 1:40-41).

There are several texts which indicate that one primary purpose of miraculous phenomena was to edify and build up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7; 14:3, 4, 5, 26). Simply stated, all the gifts of the Spirit, whether tongues or teaching, whether prophecy or mercy, whether healing or helps, were given, among other reasons, for the edification and building up and encouraging and instructing and consoling and sanctifying of the body of Christ. Therefore, even if the ministry of the miraculous gifts to attest and authenticate has ceased, a point I concede only for the sake of argument, such gifts would continue to function in the church for the other reasons cited.

Yet another text that tells us about the sanctifying effect of spiritual gifts is Ephesians 4:11-13. Here is what Paul said:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).

Paul speaks of the operation of spiritual gifts (together with the office of apostle), and in particular the gifts of prophecy, evangelism, pastor, and teacher, as functioning in the building up of the church “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13). That word “until” is crucial. Until what time or when will we no longer need the operation of these gifts? Not “until” the body of Christ attains to mature manhood and measures up to the stature of the fullness of Christ. Since the latter most assuredly has not yet been attained by the Church, and won’t until Jesus comes back, we can confidently anticipate the presence and power of such gifts until that day arrives.

There may well be additional support for continuationism in something Paul wrote in the first chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthians. There we read this:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge — even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you — so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:4-9).

The significance of this text is not merely Paul’s affirmation that the Corinthians “are not lacking in any gift,” but the eschatological time frame within which he envisions their experience of these gifts. We must remember that Paul believed he might well live until the second coming of Christ, and this would appear to be the basis on which he makes this assertion concerning the Corinthian believers. The gifts (charismata) they had received from the Lord are envisioned as lasting until such time as Jesus is revealed from heaven at his Parousia. As Gardner explains it, “the gifts are given to help the church live appropriately until the time when they shall see ‘face to face’ (13:12)” (62). It “as you wait” for his return that you enjoy the presence and power of these gifts. Paul says nothing, hints at nothing, that would suggest he believed these gifts would be withdrawn prior to “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” something he later reaffirms in even more explicit detail (see 1 Cor. 13:8-12).

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