Friday, October 18, 2013

Why I'm a semi-cessationist

This past week, there's been a lot of buzz in the reformed community over Grace to You's Strange Fire conference. In short, Strange Fire was started by a number of reformed cessationists who aim to call out a lot of the heresy that takes place in the ongoing Charismatic movement. Before I delve into this any further, let me explain some terms critical to this discussion:

  • Cessionatism is the belief that supernatural spiritual gifts*, signs, wonders, healings, and miracles in the church have ceased and are no longer part of the growth of the church.
  • Continuationism is the belief that supernatural spiritual gifts*, signs, wonders, healings, and miracles are still administered and employed by the Holy Spirit for use within the church.

On both sides of this issue, there are respectable preachers, many of whom have had an impact on my life as a believer.  But as with many dichotomous debates of this nature, there's a lot of gray area about what even constitutes spiritual gifts, whether one can be both cessationist and continuationist, and so on.

It's important to get to the thrust of the conference's purpose and aim, since there are multiple parties seemingly involved here.  Those at Strange Fire, who are generally cessationists, are directing their message toward people in the Charismatic/prosperity gospel movement.  Specific examples include the Toronto Blessing, Vineyard Movement, Word of Faith, Bethel, IHOP, and countless other sub-movements which have promoted certain activities that have branded as spiritual gifts.

These activities, purportedly from the Holy Spirit, include tongues, holy laughter, manifestations of God (i.e., glory clouds), signs and wonders, healings, etc. The central characteristic of these activities is an emphasis on the spiritual experience of the believer rather than any kind of validation of Scripture.  The reason why I have been skeptical about these so-called "gifts" is because they are completely uncharacteristic of the true gifts described in the early apostolic age in Acts.

Fundamentally, the purpose of spiritual gifts is threefold (in a general sense): authenticate, edify, and evangelize:

  1. Prior to the completion of the biblical canon, spiritual gifts were bestowed upon the apostles to authenticate their teachings (i.e., prove that they were from God) since authoritative scripture on Christ's work was not yet available (Acts 4:16).
  2. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul makes clear that edification and building up of the church is the central aim of speaking in tongues, and that without interpretation of such tongues, edification is not possible.  We can apply this to all other spiritual gifts.
  3. Thirdly, the manifestation of wonders, signs, miracles, and gifts were employed to evangelize unbelievers, first Jews and then Gentiles.  This was first evident at Pentecost, when attendees heard the gospel in their own native tongues (Acts 2).

I'm a firm believer that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is a practical one.  But I don't see evidence of that in the Charismatic movements.  People convulsing on the floor, running up and down the aisles, speaking in gibberish, etc. neither authenticate, nor edify, nor evangelize.  Many of these experiences are branded as "personal," a slate of individual feelings and emotions that you can receive through union with the Holy Spirit.  But the Holy Spirit's ministry is anything but just personal**-- it is active and practical, one that seeks to grow the church through empowering believers to fulfill the Great Commission.  

It is also does not help the Charismatic movement that many of these activities are accompanied by very shaky theology.  The prosperity gospel is preached rampantly throughout many Charismatic congregations, delivering a message of worldly rewards in exchange for following God.  There have also been many other questionable doctrines taught, including the insufficiency of scripture, denial of Christ's deity, and modalism.

Heretical doctrine on top of false experiences branded as gifts from the Holy Spirit provide a lot of fodder for those at Strange Fire.  As such, there is a lot to rebuke for cessationists who feel convicted to call out a lot of what is going on in the Charismatic movement.  Unfortunately, some at Strange Fire have been prone to making sweeping generalizations, making it seem like all continuationists have been the target of Strange Fire's rebuke of Charismatics.

But we know that a continutionist is not the same thing as a Charismatic.  In fact, many sound reformed preachers who believe in continuationism would also balk at the heresies prevalent in Charismatic congregations.  Unfortunately, misunderstandings and bitter disputes over this doctrine have led to some thinking that Strange Fire is a battleground between cessationists and continuationists.

I believe that there can be healthy disagreement between the two camps, as there is no explicit decree in Scripture as to which is correct.  In 1 Corinthians 13:8, tongues, prophesy, and knowledge are described as partial things that will cease when the "perfect" comes.  What the "perfect" refers to is up for debate, but some believe that the perfect is referring to Christ or simply the completion of His word.  

To a degree, I hold with cessationists in that many of the spiritual signs, wonders, miracles, gifts that were the hallmark of the apostolic age have passed away.  Narrative and historical evidence support this-- many of the signs/healings were gone by the end of Acts and no such works were recorded by early Church fathers.  We can assume that this is because the threefold ministry of spiritual gifts* was largely replaced by the Bible and its sufficiency.

The reason why I'm a "semi"-cessationist is because I believe that God can wield the full power to employ such signs/wonders/gifts as might be needed through the preaching of the Gospel in the world.  In hard-to-reach places where ministry is difficult, the Holy Spirit may supernaturally work to achieve any one of the three general aims of His ministry.  I have heard of tongues (true tongues, i.e., speaking in another language not originally understood by the speaker) being used where linguistic barriers were present.  Nonetheless, I should add that these occurrences are very rare and only likely to occur where there is little to no provision of Scripture.

At any rate, it is crucial that believers understand and agree that the central tenets of Christian doctrine are not compromised.  It is because that this is happening in some Charismatic movements that I believe folks like John MacArthur and Steve Lawson are compelled to speak out.  But above all, our exaltation of Christ and honoring of Scripture matter more than anything else.

*When using the term "spiritual gifts," I'm almost always referring to the supernatural wonders that were bestowed upon the apostles.  I do believe that non-supernatural gifts, like the gift of preaching, mercy, mentoring, shepherding, etc. are all alive and well (as laid out in Romans 12, 1 Peter 4).

**The Holy Spirit is personal in the sense that each believer has His indwelling and that He works uniquely in each individual.  But the ultimate aim or output of that work is to fulfill the Great Commission.  In that sense, the ministry reaches far beyond each individual person.

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