by Henry Vosburgh
– I grant that the opening query is one of rhetoric. Let me explain. Over the last few years, I have either read or heard men in ministry challenge the view of cessation – especially regarding sign gifts – due to a fear that is created from a range of causes, some of which have been:
- Fear of limiting God
- Fear of being too definitive when Scripture (as is supposed) is not definitive
- Fear of disagreeing with high profile speakers / writers / professors / etc.
- Fear of narrowing the field of ecclesiastical fellowship, partnership, cooperation, etc.
Whether I have been having a casual discussion with brothers over lunch, or having more formal interactions in other contexts, it has yet not to amaze me that I have become a theological dinosaur by maintaining a cessationist position in regard to the sign gifts. Yet every time so far, in the midst of discussions with people who are vacillating on a position they have not settled or have since forsaken outright, with honesty I can say that I have not heard a consistent defense that faithfully stands the test of basic hermeneutics that would at least get to me to think, “Ok, now I understand where this openness makes biblical sense.” Biased am I? Yes, let me be honest. But it is not a bias that is unwilling to examine the evidence that would alter my theology; I just need something biblical to make me do it. So far, in all my personal interactions involving this issue, I come away asking that same question: “What am I missing?”
For example, take my latest experience. I have been asked to serve a local church which is currently going through a pastoral search. I have one job and that is to evaluate prospective candidates for their doctrinal tendencies and loyalties; all this church wants is my help to determine doctrinal compatibility, while they handle the rest. In a recent resume, I detected someone who might be a great fit for this church. He is articulate, he seems well-grounded; his statements about purpose and mission reflect a passion I would want in my pastor. At first, he affirmed that he was in agreement with the church’s statement of faith. He even prepared a resume that was not filled with grammatical and spelling mistakes – a common occurrence which, incidentally, is a hang-up of mine. So I was pretty excited, and told the church that this was someone to pursue. An interview online was held which went well, and it seemed that things were moving forward.
But then it appears that the potential candidate reread through the church’s statement of faith more carefully, and it was then that he cited that he agreed with it except in regard to the temporary nature of sign gifts. Here was his reasoning; he was taught by his professor from the widely respected seminary from which he graduated that there is evidence of signs and wonders in missionary environments where the Gospel has yet to be communicated. A missionary meets up with a tribe whose language is not previously known by said missionary; he speaks, and miraculously, the tribal people hear the Gospel. Such stories are cited as evidence that the gift of tongues and / or miracles is / are still operative today; and therefore the cessationist position is too limiting and is no longer to be embraced by the saints individually or corporately. Now, I know I am not writing about something new; this reasoning has been set forth by many people in many contexts. But for me, in the past when it came from someone who was settled in his theology, or wasn’t seeking to engage me for ministry, or was just someone impersonal to discuss over lunch with friends or colleagues, it was a position much like the multitude of errors that could be discussed. It was theoretical and not personal. Not so this time … this candidate seems like a good guy, someone to be reached out to, perhaps someone to be worked with, etc. This time, it got into my craw.
Follow my simple line of thought here, and help me to see what I am missing. First of all, I have heard such stories for many years about these miraculous occurrences in missionary contexts. From fantastic angelic experiences to overcoming language barriers to amazing feats of human empowerments, stories of mind-boggling missions experiences have abounded over the years. It makes me think that in missions, there is an entrance into an alternative universe; that once a believer embarks into a new environment of paganism, it is likened to Alice falling into the rabbit hole where the rules of so-called non-pagan human existence that normally govern us no longer apply. Is that how it works? Does missiology get its own rules? What am I missing?
Second, since when is it that believers are allowed to base theology upon reported experience? No matter how one spins the stories from the mission fields of the world, it still comes back to the reality that experience is to be interpreted through the grid of Scripture, not Scripture interpreted through the grid of experience. What am I missing?
Third, let’s allow for the moment that such miraculous occurrences potentially are happening in missionary contexts today. I confess that I am skeptical; but I allow that I wasn’t there, and that I cannot prove that the experience is false, no more than the reports prove that it is true. So, again, let’s grant that it happened. Can such an event not be ranked as a miracle of God done by his choosing in that circumstance without it being a cessationist issue? I believe it can; for I am persuaded by Scripture that God can do miraculous things at any time, regardless of geography or time period. If God desires to remove the cancer from a terminally ill patient, he can — and has done so — for his glory. It follows that if God wants to overcome the natural barrier of language that exists for the offer of life through the Gospel to be faithfully conveyed and understood, I believe that he can. I believe this because God indeed can do whatever he desires to do, even if it takes a miracle to do so. But when I evaluate such a testimony, I fail to see how this demands that I deny the position that sign gifts were temporary. This is not a testimony about giftedness; it’s a testimony about the power of God within a given situation. What am I missing?
A spiritual gift is something that is determined by the Holy Spirit and granted to members within the Body of Christ. It is something that is vested upon an individual for ministry and service. The gifts of teaching, helps, mercy, etc., are all examples of empowerments by the Spirit that are worked out through believers. Furthermore, I do not see spiritual gifts as uniquely empowered within believers for a “one-and-done” circumstance. Teachers are designed to continue teaching; helpers are designed to continue helping. If it is a true empowerment of the Spirit, it is meant to be constantly outworked by the believers so gifted. If this understanding is accurate scripturally speaking, then the allowed experience above falls short of these defining points on numerous levels.
If the above scenario is an example of the gift of tongues for today, then why does such an experience only happen in missions? Why does it not occur right here in Midwestern USA where I work to advance the Gospel through planting churches? I have personally walked down streets of metro Chicago and encountered the languages of the world being spoken within my own ears. I have endeavored to communicate with Hispanics, with eastern Europeans, with Arabic-speaking people, and with people speaking African languages. I would greatly benefit from having the gift of tongues today, simply because my potential in regularly encountering non-English speaking individuals is fairly high.
If the above scenario is true, then why is not so that these stories are normative in experience? Why does not the story tell of a missionary landing on one shore speaking an unknown tongue unto the rescue of tribal souls, then packing up and moving on to the next shore of an entirely different tribal location with an entirely different language but having the same impact? How about the third, the fourth, or the fifth location and people / language group with the same outcome? If the experience above is an example of a normative gift in operation, then why are not these things the testimonies?
If the above scenario is true, then language training in missions must rank as the highest missiological stewardship failure in the modern era. Imagine all of the time, energy, and finance that has been a total waste in the sincere training of missionaries to speak foreign languages when all we needed to do was identify the normatively gifted individuals who need no training whatsoever because they are energized by the greatest Teacher of all. Anointed with him at salvation, and being filled with him as believers yielding their lives’ control unto him, the Holy Spirit would razor-cut through our entire process of language preparation and send those people to do what he gifted them to do.
If the gift of tongues is not to be defined as a temporary sign gift which is no longer operative today, then would it not follow that these things would be so? I ask again, “What am I missing?”
What I see here is a number of problems. I see a professor who was irresponsible, conjecturing for the sake of a discussion about reinterpreting an experience into a non-cessation theological position. I see a lack of precision on the clear teachings of scripture regarding the nature of spiritual giftedness, which is but one part of a larger lack of precision in those areas where Pneumatology and Ecclesiology intersect. I see a student / disciple who adopted a mentor’s postulations as his position; and by default, now he is advancing such a position perhaps without even considering the flaws that accompany it. I also see a church that might have been able to entertain a viable candidate for ministry who must continue a search process and work through the void of leadership that characterizes its circumstance. Unless I am missing something, this entire scenario has occurred because someone took an unverifiable story, spun it into a reality, built an alternative theological posture upon it, and passed it on to others.
I confess that “I don’t know it all.” I also confess that like anyone, my biases can risk the clouding of my judgment. Frankly, I have gone through some of my earliest sermons and lessons and wondered how much I owe those dear saints a huge apology for the stupid things I said and taught “back then.” I have watched people under my teaching ministry be forced to shed their life-long held belief systems to embrace the truth, and at times, it was with great cost and turmoil; so I too cannot be exempt from being taught the truth, even if it means that I must run counter to my training and the present understanding I have derived from my own study of the Scriptures. But … not yet on this issue! I confess that on this matter, I am befuddled. How someone can deny that sign gifts were a temporary manifestation of the Spirit’s work based on this particular line of reasoning has me stumped. What am I missing?
Excellent article! I run into this same thing with the same conclusion you came to here. Just because God chooses to do something, somewhere, it does not make it normative as the gifts are. Well said.
Good work, Henry. You and Daniel, and the rest of us dinosaurs must stick together. That way we can become extinct together. I’ve lost count of how many of these discussions I’ve had.
I, too, have lost count on this identical discussion with various folks. I’ve found 2 Cor. 12:12 & Eph. 2:20 to be helpful in my discussions.
“Sign gifts, huh?” “Signs of what?” 2 Cor. 12:12 says they are the signs of an apostle. Given that the Apostles ministry was foundational (Eph. 2:20), why would they still be around and why would their signs still be exhibited?
Let me say at the outset that I am a cessationist. If I am in a church and someone is speaking in tongues I am looking for the door. Brothers or sisters who start relating their conversations with God make me tense. I get my skeptical on when I start hearing of miracle healings. Scripture leaves me no alternative but to adopt a cessationist view. Yet, I don’t think the Trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Bible. Nietzsche may have thought we had murdered God but last I looked Nietzsche is dead but God is alive Father, Son, and Spirit. This brings me to my point. I suggest that what you are missing is that our cessationist arguments are not satisfying to the soul or mind. In my view, this is true for three reasons.
First, behind the question about the gifts of the Spirit is a hungering for a deeper, more immediate and more intimate assurance that God’s cares. There is a hunger to know experientially that God is active and caring for His people in specific, personal ways. I volunteer as a pastoral counselor at a local hospital and the desire for intimacy with God is at the forefront when sickness and death show up. Our cessationist answers typically don’t do much to help the wife who has lost her husband of 30 years, or the parent grieving over the serious illness or loss of a child. They often have the theology down, but in their pain they are looking for the comforter.
Second, for those who pay attention to the larger evangelical community, they are hearing a lot of serious pastors and scholars who are advocating a continuation of the charismata. John Piper, Sam Storms, D.A. Carson, Wayne Grudem, Gordon Fee, and Craig Keener can hardly be dismissed as wide-eyed, check your brain at the door, liver-quiver pursuing, emotion hungry charismatics and Pentecostals. When people like this are encouraging blog-reading, pod-cast listening, book-reading evangelicals to pursue all the gifts is it any surprise that they are doing it?
Pentecostal and charismatic churches are the fastest growing sector of Christendom. As I understand it God desires to set His people apart by the truth in His word. So, from this I conclude that God is not the problem, we are. Cessationist churches are being emptied because of the lack of a compelling spiritual and intellectual alternative. You may feel that you are becoming a dinosaur but what you may actually be feeling is a growing lack of relevance. I suggest that we need to develop a more robust pneumatology which explains that the charismata have died but not the Holy Spirit. Next we need to show dependence upon the living Spirit in our own life and ministry. Finally, we need to communicate a clearer theology of how God, through His Spirit, is alive and active in the mundane, the joys, and the sufferings of each and every believer.
Happy New Year, Brother Starcevich!
Thanks for your observations made in response to my post. Your points are well-said and well-taken; if my observations were pointed at all believers instead of leadership in the form of teachers and those being taught to be teachers, then perhaps I would have added my own remarks similar to those you address. So, to that point ….
Truth and the proper presentation of truth to those we have opportunity to influence is a vital issue; whether we are presenting lost people with the Gospel itself or “found” people with a point of discipleship and learning, properly delivering truth with grace, joy, and passion is the responsibility of every Bible-believing servant. If “cessationist arguments are not satisfying to the soul or mind” because the deliverer of such points has not been gracious, joyful, and passionate about the truth, then I say “shame” on the bearer of that truth. Thus, the problem is not the position but the vehicle. Of course, my post was not addressing this important issue itself.
I think we can all understand and agree that the “cessationist arguments” are not the problem. By virtue of them being the truth, they are “quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword” – we know the rest. This reality tells me that our points of biblical truth, no matter the doctrine or the subject, are always relevant in nature and need to be properly applied. In my ministry, I have been given the opportunity to help many people, as you have in your own. Perhaps it goes without saying, but in reference to your own example, I don’t ever recall ministering to a newly widowed individual or a grieving parent by teaching or defending cessationism. I will cry with them, plead to the Lord with them, seek to comfort and help them cope with the crisis, and attempt to steer them through that dark valley toward the hope that is found in knowing our Savior Jesus Christ.
I agree with you whole-heartedly that there is a quest in people’s hearts to experientially know that “God is active and caring for his people.” We must help others see that seeking an active and caring experience of God’s work in the life is not going to be satisfied in seeking for experiences that are not in alignment with the truth of Scripture. If it is not in alignment with the Scripture, it is not in alignment with the God of Scripture. The crowds in John 6 on the day following the miracle feeding wanted to experience a repeat performance; and in seeking this found the Lord Jesus confronting them for seeking the wrong thing. My goal as a cessationist is not to secure the defeat of the non-cessationist by winning the debate; to me, this constitutes the lack of relevance you cite. The blue ribbon of ministry is not awarded to the debate winner, but to the one who leads another to a life-changing experience which aligns faith and life to the truth which sets them free. Seeking signs, experiences, or any touch with the supernatural beyond that which is aligned to truth is doing what the Lord instructed those people not to do; it is laboring “for meat which perishes.”
Case in point: some time ago in my pastoral ministry, I met a lady through Bible studies that I was leading. She was excited about learning, and really took off in her spiritual walk. She relayed that she was learning so much more under our ministry than she ever did at her former church, which was non-cessationist. In time, we happened on those issues; and when she learned what amounted to biblical cessationism, she became very animated about gaining this understanding. On the one hand, she rejoiced; her testimony was that she never could find peace seeking for a tongues experience she could not muster. This led her to feel second-rate and even unspiritual because “others got it, why not me?” She then understood that she didn’t have to have such an experience to have a vibrant spiritual life. On the other hand, she grew angry; she was prepared to go and confront the non-cessationist for deceiving her and making her feel second-rate and unspiritual! (I convinced her not to do it.) The point is this … she was set free by the truth, because in her experience, being misled enslaved her to seek for something that was false. When I am blessed to help someone like this lady, I certainly do not feel “a growing lack of relevance.”
I trust that readers will perceive the point of my post. My use of the dinosaur reference was in light of the stereotype of the “hot, fresh, vibrant, hip, etc.” non-cessationist teachers and theologians against the stereotype of the “cold, stale, lifeless, uncool, etc.” cessationist teachers and theologians. It was certainly not with a personal sense of inadequacy; it was tongue-in-cheek. My point is simple, and if I failed to convey it, let me take this opportunity to be clear. In the light of the present slate of the well-known significant teachers, and those trained to become teachers who adopt their positions, I just want those people to answer my stated question because I have yet to get a satisfactorily biblical one.
Blessings, my brother!
Thanks Henry for the courtesy of your long, thoughtful, and well written reply. I appreciate the clarity of your original post and the reply. I am in complete agreement that our task is help others to ” a life-changing experience which aligns faith and life to the truth which sets them free”. You and I are allies in the battle to guide the hunger for intimacy with God into channels of Biblical truth. It is only in this way that soul-satisfying, empowering, and comforting intimacy with God can be had.
You are of course right that truth is never irrelevant. Our task is to do our best (2 Tim 2:15) and be prepared (2 Tim 4:2) to present that truth with patience and care. Through interactions such as this you bless me with the opportunity to reflect on His truth and get ready to be an effective advocate for it.
God Bless and Happy New Year!
In one way I get tired of this discussion in another way it is intriguing. Because one of the sides has to be wrong and I want to be on the right side. I get tired of the name it, claim it christianity, money gospel. But on the other hand no cessationist can supernaturally proof that it all stopped. 😉
I was praying and I believe this is the best prayer to honestly fix this problem.
“God, if it is no longer needed, I am happy serve you without. But if it is still for today, I don’t want to go without.”
I believe if we are honestly willing to pray this prayer to God, we will get to the truth. The key for a cessationist is to pray the second half honestly and upright. The key for a crazy charismatic is the pray the first half honestly and upright.