I’ve never really liked the term “cessationist”, but it seems to be too commonly used to ignore it. It isn’t a word we see in Scripture (though “cease” is), and different people use it to mean different things, which adds to confusion.
Broadly speaking, “cessationism” is the belief that some spiritual gifts have ceased. There are differing views on which gifts have ceased, when, and why. One key verse for the cessationist point of view is I Corinthians 13:8:
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.
This clearly indicates there will be a time when certain spiritual gifts, at least, will cease. It doesn’t say when, although the context gives us some clues.
I’ve heard a cessationist argue that all spiritual gifts have ceased. I’ve heard others argue that only the gift of tongues has ceased. Some believe that some of these things have ceased as a permanent spiritual gift, but that God may still work in miraculous ways in specific circumstances for a specific purpose. There are many different views that go under the title “cessationism”, which is one of the drawbacks of the term.
On the other side of the stream are “continuationists”. Of course, the spiritual gifts all continue. “Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Hebrews 13:8). How dare those crazy cessationists teach that Jesus has changed! They are “putting God in a box”. “The promise is to you, and to your children” (Acts 2:39), so of course the gifts continue. Those seem to be the three most commonly used continuationist arguments, but they have to be three of the weakest.
Jesus Christ was the same in the past as He is today and always will be, but no one (as far as I know) believes the spiritual gift of tongues was given before Pentecost. Did Jesus change on the Day of Pentecost when the gift was given? If not, then the starting (or ceasing) of a spiritual gift says nothing about whether the nature of our Saviour has changed, and the constancy of His nature says nothing about whether God will change in the manner of His dealings with us.
In fact, we are all “cessationists”, in some ways. To my “continuationist” readers, I have a few questions:
- When someone gives a prophecy, do you consider whether it should be written down and included in the Bible, with new Bibles distributed around the world? Has God ceased doing something He did in the past — giving Scripture by inspiration (I Timothy 3:16)? Which new Scriptures do you believe He has given in the last 1900 years? Which Scriptures were written between 400 BC and 50 AD? Doesn’t the Bible you hold in your hand demonstrate that God stops working in some ways, often for extended periods of time?
- If someone in your church gives a prophecy and it doesn’t come true, do you stone the prophet? If not, you believe there have been some changes involving prophecy (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).
- Where do you go to make an animal sacrifice when you sin? To the tabernacle at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1), or to the temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 8:1)? Do you believe the right place to offer sacrifices has changed?
- You do go to Jerusalem every year for the feasts of Passover/Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, don’t you (Exodus 23:14-17)? While you are there for Pentecost, which believers in your travelling party miraculously speak Parthian, Mede, or Elamite (Acts 2:9-11)? Do your believing children speak Arabian while they are there (verse 39)?
- Do you gather enough manna for each day every morning except Friday? On Friday, do you gather enough to last through the Sabbath the next day also (Exodus 16:15-23)?
OK, some of this is kind of silly. I recognise that — but it isn’t pointless.
It isn’t “putting God in a box” to say that He doesn’t send manna now (Joshua 5:12). Manna was given for a specific time and purpose (Deuteronomy 8:3, 16). You aren’t “limiting God” if you didn’t go out to look for bread on the ground this morning.
It isn’t denying the immutability (unchanging nature) of Christ to say that God has given us the complete Scriptures, and so is no longer inspiring new texts. Sure, He gave us Scripture in the past, but that doesn’t mean He has to keep doing so now. It isn’t wrong to say that God doesn’t expect us to keep the Jewish feasts (Colossians 2:16). God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit to all believers, including our believing children (Acts 2:39). It isn’t denying that fact to say that we don’t expect our children to speak Phrygian (or Arabic, or Russian, or whatever) on the Day of Pentecost.
The question is not whether Jesus has changed, or whether God is being put in a box. We are all “cessationists” in the sense that we all believe God’s working, including His miraculous/supernatural working, has changed over time. God doesn’t change, but through the centuries, as He has revealed more and more of His nature to mankind, the ways He has worked and revealed Himself have changed (Hebrews 1:1-2). That is something all believers accept.
The cessationist/continuationist question, then, is not whether God will work in different ways in different times for different purposes. He does, and we all believe that. Nor is it whether or not God could work in the same way He did in the past. Everyone believes God could still send manna every day. The question is whether He chose to change the way He works in regard to spiritual gifts. Were some spiritual gifts given only for a specific time and purpose, which has now been fulfilled?
For the answer, we would have to look, not at Scriptures that teach the unchanging nature of God (that is indisputable), but at Scriptures that tell us about the spiritual gifts. Perhaps I’ll post further on that question at some point in the future.
We are all “cessationists”. The only question is what the Scriptures teach about exactly what has ceased. But that’s all I’m going to say on the topic for now. Since I have to provide for my family and there isn’t manna on the ground outside, I need to get to work.
Update: Follow-up thoughts.