Spiritual Gifts - are they for the church today?

Bible Issues

There are many sincere believers in the body of Christ who believe that certain gifts of the Spirit are no longer required for the church today. According to them, the "sign gifts" were only for the apostolic age when Christianity was in its infanthood. Now that the faith has already been established, and the canon of scripture closed (all the books of the Bible gathered in one Book), they are no longer needed. The gifts in question are tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophesy, healing and miracles. The term cessationist is used to describe such believers – they believe the gifts have ceased operation.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the Pentecostal movement was born which saw an increasing number of people questioning the beliefs of cessationists. They believe that the gifts of the Spirit are still for the church today and have never ceased (or should never have ceased). I refer to these as charismatics.

Let it be said that there are no scriptures that explicitly teach cessationism. Jack Deere (former cessationist) has rightly said that “No one ever just picked up the Bible, started reading, and then came to the conclusion that God was not doing signs and wonders anymore and that the gifts of the Holy Spirit had passed away ... If you were to lock a brand new Christian in a room with a Bible and tell him to study what the Scriptures have to say about healing and miracles, he would never come out of the room a cessationist ... The doctrine of cessationism did not originate from a careful study of the scriptures ... [but] ... originated in experience.”[Jack Deere, Surprised by the Spirit of God]

In this article we will examine the claims made by cessationists that the gifts have ceased, and compare these claims with scripture.

The Experience of Church History

A cessationist may say something like this: "The fact that at some point in history the church stopped speaking in tongues, is testament that the gifts were not meant to be permanent."

I believe this is a weak argument. There were many doctrines that went dormant during certain periods. Even the doctrine of justification by grace was dormant for the period prior to the Reformation. It is far more important what the Bible says than what the church did or did not do. The church, throughout the ages, has consisted of individuals who may or may not have been sincere. The practice of the apostles and church fathers (or apostolic tradition) is important in that it helps us ascertain how they interpreted certain scriptures, but we have to be careful we do not take that too far. The bible is the infallible word of God, and that alone is our source of doctrine.

Were Miracles Only for the Apostolic Age?

2 Cor. 12:12 teaches that signs and wonders followed the apostles. Eph. 2:20 teaches that the apostles were necessary for the foundation of the church, and thus are no longer needed today. Combining these two scriptures leads to the argument that since signs and wonders were characteristic of apostles, and since apostles were only necessary for the foundation period of the church, signs have ceased together with the office of the apostle.

I would readily agree that Eph. 2:20 teaches the temporal nature of apostles and prophets. I would also agree that certain miraculous signs were characteristic of all who were apostles. I would not, however, say that any of the above mentioned signs or gifts was limited to the apostles. In 2 Cor. 12:12 Paul was drawing a contrast between true apostles and fake ones, not between apostles and ordinary believers. People other than apostles worked signs and wonders e.g. Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Philip (Acts 8:6, 13). In addition, ordinary believers spoke in tongues, interpreted and prophesied. These signs marked an apostle, but not only apostles displayed them i.e. authentic apostleship required the miraculous, but miracles did not imply apostleship.

So because there are no longer any genuine apostles today, that does not mean the gifts have ceased. See my article on apostles and prophets for a more detailed discussion on whether apostles and prophets are for the church today.

Were Signs and Wonders Solely for Verification of the Gospel?

Cessationists claim that signs and wonders were solely for the verification of the gospel. An obvious response to this is that the gospel message is supposed to go out till the end of the age. They then claim that the gifts were only necessary while the canon of scripture was not yet completed. They claim that the miraculous was needed then because Christianity was in a transition stage. The problem with this argument is that it lacks biblical support. Heb. 2:1-4 does associate signs and wonders with the apostles’ message. But every time the gospel is preached to a new group of people, there is a transition from their old religion into Christianity. In our modern age, signs and wonders are more prevalent during missionary work than anything else.

These verses teach that tongues and prophesy will cease. It also says when – when the perfect is come (1 Cor 13:8). Cessationists say that the perfect means the close of the canon when God's written revelation is complete (perfect). Then we will no longer need prophesy and tongues, we will have the complete revelation of God – the Bible. There are numerous difficulties with this view.

1)      Tongues and prophesy, although revelations from God, were never on the same par with scripture. So it is bogus to say that since the early church did not have a bible, they had to depend on tongues and prophesy. They depended on the apostles teachings for doctrine. Tongues and prophesies were for non-doctrinal edification. Consider the fact that Paul chose not to heed the words of one of Agabus's prophesies (Acts 21:10-14). If prophesy was on the same par as scripture, Paul could not do that.

2)      Even now that we have the Bible (the completed canon), do we know fully even as we are known? Do we see face to face as the Bible declared (1 Cor 13:9-12)? Or do we still have to wait for that? According to 1 John 3:2, this is yet future. It will never happen until we are in heaven. The perfect comes when we are glorified, not when we are on earth.

3)      The close of the canon was the last thing on Paul’s mind since he lived with expectation that Jesus would return anytime. He never anticipated an event called the close of the canon. As it turned out, Jesus delayed his return, and the canon of scripture was closed, but that could not have possibly been the meaning Paul intended in 1 Cor. 13. Cessationists may wish to suggest that since the close of the canon was not predicted, the gifts will also cease without prediction. But that would be pure speculation. They cannot quote 1 Cor. 13 for support.

4)      Was the epistle that Paul wrote to the Corinthians any less scripture than what we have? Sure they did not have all the books, but what they had was still scripture – fully inspired by God. 2 Tim. 3:16, 17 testify to the sufficiency of even an incomplete canon [4]. There was nothing imperfect about God’s revelation at anytime in history. It was always sufficient for his people. Although they did not have the complete Bible of the New Testament, they had the complete gospel of the New Testament. So their situation concerning God's revealed word was not much different from ours. So how does this suggest that tongues and prophesy have ceased?

In 1 Cor. 13, Paul was merely contrasting the temporal nature of gifts (only needed for this life) with the eternal nature of love. The most natural reading of 1 Cor. 13 is that tongues and prophesy would be with us until the end of this age.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter quoted Joel to support what was being manifested in the last days (the entire time period from Pentecost to Christ’s return). Verses 38, 39 teach that the Holy Spirit is for believers of all generations. Cessationists say that this promise referred to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit associated with salvation. Was Peter speaking only of salvation, or also of the manifestations of the Spirit that the people were witnessing right in front of them? The strong likelihood is that he was promising the people they would receive exactly what they saw before them that day – ALL that pertained to the Holy Spirit. And this is for the entire period called the last days.

Jesus teaches that believers in Him will do the same works and even greater works. Cessationists pass off this verse by claiming that the greater works refer to salvation, for there is no greater miracle than salvation. I applaud the high esteem they have for the gospel, but I question the flaky manner in which they interpret the Bible. Even if it were granted that the greater works refer to salvation, Jesus also said we would do the same works. Jesus was speaking of miracles, as the context would verify. The reason greater works can be done is that He was going to his father. Now that the Holy Spirit is here, more than one person can do these great works, in fact all who believe. Greater in quantity not quality.

Who are these believers that do these great works? Apostles only? The exact same Greek phrase ho pisteuon eis eme (whoever believes in me) is used in 5 times in the Gospel of John (6:35; 7:38; 11:25, 26; 12:44-46 as well as in 14:12). In none of the other John passages is it referring to a limited group of people or for a temporal application.

There is a dispute over the authenticity of these verses, many scholars believing that they were later additions to the gospel of Mark. As a result it would be wise to build one’s case independent of this verse, as I have done. However if this passage is authentic, then that would virtually settle the debate. Cessationists have a hard time dealing with it.  Some people think that "new tongues" mean you don't curse anymore. "Hey look everyone, I'm speaking in new tongues. I'm saying heck and gosh." Just to answer a fool according to his folly, in Acts 2 the disciples spoke in foreign languages. Mark 16 could only have meant unknown languages.

Some say that verse Mark 16:20 proves that the signs were for the purpose of confirming the word and since the apostles have passed away, there is no longer any need for the signs. I do not see how these verses ever say that. Who are the ones performing the signs? Verse 20 does include the “disciples” (as opposed to apostles) in that group. Verse 16 identifies “those who believe” as those who hear the message and respond positively. It is this same group, in verse 17, that the signs follow.

Others say that in Matt. 28:20, Jesus included the phrase “the end of the age” but did not use it in Mark 16, therefore those signs are not expected until the end of the age. Needless to say that neither Matthew nor Mark gave any great commission, but only recorded parts of it. Jesus gave one great commission that included many different sayings. No gospel writer included every single detail. The end of the age time limit applies to all of the great commission that Jesus gave.

Healing and Miracles

It is wrongly believed that the sole purpose for miracles was for the verifying of the message of the gospel or the authenticity of apostles. Cessationists constantly use the term “sign-gifts” when there really is no such thing. There are signs, wonders and gifts. If we were to look at the English words, signs point people to the message, wonders cause people to marvel, and gifts are given for some ministry enabling purpose. According to 1 Cor. 12:7 that purpose is the common good of the body of Christ. Healing and miracles, although by nature signs and wonders, are gifts of the Spirit. They are given to help people and minister to their needs.

Cessationists ask some very valid questions though. Why was Paul unable to heal on some occasions (Phil 2:26, 27; 1 Tim 5:23; 2 Tim 4:20)? Why does James call for elders and not those with the gifts of healing (5:14-16)? Why don’t miracles occur today?

The first 2 questions are not by any means difficult. The gifts of 1 Cor. 12 are called manifestations (vs. 7)  and they are manifested by the Spirit as He determines (vs. 11). God does not give them to anyone permanently and unconditionally. They are manifested from time to time as God wills. No human has control over them. Even Samson in the OT could only manifest his power when the Spirit came on Him. God did not always manifest the gifts of healing in Paul’s life. He alone knows why.

Miracles do happen today. Admittedly not as much as in the book of Acts. But they do occur especially in missionary endeavors. And even if they did not, that does not change the message of the Bible. Cessationists have no problem with James 5 which tells us to call for the elders - and the prayer of faith will save the sick. Well I am sure their experience will testify that the sick don't always get healed when the elders pray for them. Does that mean James 5 has passed away too? Our doctrines do not originate from our experiences.

What we need to do is desire the best gifts and pray for them. What we need is compassion for people in times of sickness. Who knows, maybe it is the agape love of 1 Cor. 13 that is needed to activate the gifts of 1 Cor. 12 & 14.

Tongues, Interpretation and Prophesy

These are congregational gifts. Through them God sends his message of edification, encouragement and comfort (1 Cor. 14:3). Tongues and interpretation are almost equivalent to prophesy.

Prophesy must be tested to determine whether it is of God or not (14:29). True prophesy is always doctrinally accurate though not canonical. 2 examples of NT prophesy are given, both by Agabus (Acts 11:28; 21:10, 11). Both were exhortations based on future predictions. Both were accurate, and came to pass. However it was not demanding on believers in the same way that scripture is demanding on them. Paul chose not to heed one of Agabus’ prophesies (Acts 21:13).

The Bible also teaches a devotional use of tongues. Tongues without interpretation edifies the speaker (14:4). Paul spoke regularly in tongues (vs.18), but in church only did so sparingly (vs. 19). He even discourages others from doing so if they cannot interpret (vs. 28). So there is an aspect of tongues that benefits the congregation (interpretation), and another aspect that edifies the individual (devotional). Putting two and two together, we see that there is a devotional tongues that believers can use to build up themselves in their personal prayer lives.


Finally I distance myself from the practices of many charismatic churches, who abuse tongues and prophesy. I agree that there are discrepancies between the tongues practiced today and tongues in the Bible. I also agree that we do not see as many miracles today as in the Bible. I also believe that “prophesy” is abused for the purpose of manipulating others. But the gifts were also abused in the Corinthian church. That did not invalidate them. Paul urged the Corinthians not to be ignorant about them (1 Cor. 12:1), but rather to be informed. The important question is not whether charismatic practices are right, but what the Bible really teaches. Charismatics prove to be a very poor example, but cessationists have a very weak Biblical case.

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© 2001 Denver Cheddie

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