Surprised by God’s Word: What Cessationism Actually Implies

Maverick Witlouw

Reformed Anglican Perspective

“Yeah, I know it’s crazy, Reformed people tend to be quite serious about the Word of God, yet somehow they are missing out on God’s Spirit.” So goes the misguided rant of the “Calvinistic Charismatic,” and most charismatics for that matter. For some reason, the assumption is that a cessationist theology necessarily precludes the modern day occurrence of miracles. Of course, that is an absurd claim. It is not only rooted in poor exegetical ground, but it demonstrates ignorance of a deeper historical theological question. The problem with a theology like cessationism is that, just as charismatic theology it has various forms even though the key premises tend to be the same. There are some more “hyper,” than others. What I am proposing is an historically Reformed hermeneutic, to essentially set the record straight about what Reformed cessationists are actually saying, and not what they are not saying. Sound fair? Some people are led to believe that Reformed theology is essentially rationalistic, and that denies any form of deep intimacy with God. Of course, the opposite can only be true, when one actually considers the works of various Reformers across Reformed traditions, look at the Confessions, what do you see?

A Position About Scripture Primarily

The premise of cessationism is firstly found in our position about the Scriptures. The Scriptures are the God-breathed word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). The Scriptures are a result of the revelation to the prophets, through whom God spoke (Heb 1:1; 2 Peter 1:21), but the ultimate revelation was Christ (Heb 1:2). Of course, the point of Hebrews is precisely that, after God has spoken to Jews by prophets, the fulfillment was speaking “in” the Son. Jesus Christ is “the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 10:4). Jesus is the “substance” of all that the prophets spoke about, and the apostles and prophets have receive that revelation (). Paul beautifully sums this up, “…how that by revelation the mystery was made known to me, as I wrote before in few words, 4. by which, when you read, you can perceive my understanding in the mystery of Christ; 5. which in other generations was not made known to the children of men, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:3-5). You see the apostles and prophets (apostolic associates) received the revelation of the mystery of the gospel, and they inscripturated it in the New Testament canon. Since this “mystery” is the fulfillment of God’s shadows, and God’s ultimate answer, we do not expect more revelation, because God’s revelation is enough. Charismatic theologian Wayne Grudem concedes this point, albeit inconsistently, “The New Testament writings contain the final, authoritative, and sufficient interpretation of Christ’s work of redemption. The apostles and their close companions report Christ’s words and deeds and interpret them with absolute divine authority. When they have finished their writing, there is no more to be added with the same absolute divine authority. Thus, once the writings of the New Testament apostles and their authorized companions are completed, we have in written form the final record of everything that God wants us to know about the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and its meaning for the lives of believers for all time. Since this is God’s greatest revelation for mankind, no more is to be expected once this is complete. In this way, then, Hebrews 1:1–2 shows us why no more writings can be added to the Bible after the time of the New Testament. The canon is now closed.” (1994:44) Furthermore, Paul identifies the offices of the apostle and prophet being foundational, that is, having a specific purpose for a specific time (Ephesians 2:20). We do not go beyond what is written, we should contend for “the faith” (the objective faith), as well as build ourselves up in “the most holy faith” (Jude 3, 20). The central crux of a closed canon is closed revelation, and ultimately the sufficiency of Christ.

The Place of the Spiritual Gifts

The closed canon is closed, because we do not lay a foundation again. The foundation of apostles and prophets has been completed (Ephesians 2:20), the revelation has been codified and given (Ephesians 3:3-5). We do not add more revelation (Rev 22:18-19), because we seek not to go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6). What about the spiritual gifts then? Should we not conclude that the spiritual gifts continue normally? Isn’t differentiating between gifts an unbiblical inference? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are various sources, and I wish I could interact with those, but let’s go a simply route. Remember, it is not so much an issue of the spiritual gifts directly, but the position of the Scriptures.

There are certain gifts that are placed above others, the office of the apostle and prophet are such gifts. 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 speaks of the apostle and prophet as being counted among the spiritual gifts, so I do not in the slightest see the need to differentiate these offices from the gifts. Paul identifies the apostle and the prophet as the “foundation,” and links these two offices to the giving of gospel revelation (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5). This is what the spiritual gifts are primarily for, for authentication. I concede that they do not exhaust the function of the spiritual gifts, but authentication is one major reason these things occur. Hebrews 2:2-4 states, “For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense; 3. how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation–which at the first having been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard; 4. God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders, by various works of power, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will?” The context of these passages deals with the danger of covenantal/ecclesiastical apostasy that is, forsaking the faith that one professes in confession and holy baptism. You must not go against and apostatize against what God has authenticated, that’s the rationale here. You see, the “by signs and wonders, by various works of power, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” serve the function of “testifying,” of authentication. This is the case of Moses, Elijah, and others in biblical history, miracles primarily functioned to show God’s seal of approval. Guess what? A matter is established on the witness of two or three, and the apostles and their message were authenticated in this (Deuteronomy 19:15).

The book of Acts tells us exactly which gifts functioned to authenticate the apostles and their associates. They speak of speaking in various languages (Acts 2:6, 11; 10:46); prophecy is mentioned too with speaking in tongues (Acts 19:6). The gift of healing, which is different from mere healing (something I will spell out afterwards), is also mentioned as happening (Acts 5:16; 8:7; 9:34; 10:38; 28:8, 27). Judging from their purpose as authentication, it seems then conclusive to say, that since they have served that purpose, there is no need for their occurrence outside of this. Tongues and prophecy were revelatory sign gifts, since they have served their purpose which includes revealing divine gospel mysteries (1 Cor 14:2), and authentication, their normative functioning would thereby cease. Furthermore, to put it quite briefly, prophecy is never seen as anything but perfect revealing of God’s truth (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). Less than accurate prophecy is something I cannot find in the New Testament text. However, I will not deal with this here.

Who’s Afraid of Miracles?

Furthermore, no cessationist denies that God still does miracles. What we are however saying is that there are certain kinds of miracles which are unique to the foundational period of the church. The difference between the gift of healing and God healing is that in the first instance, it is God empowering a specific vessel like an apostle or apostolic associate to heal someone directly. Cessationists are saying, that kind of special empowering of people to heal does not happen, however, we are not saying God does not heal in response to prayer. God still does do all of those amazing things, we just do not expect miraculous gifts which are given for revelatory and authentication purposes to continue. This is the Reformed hermeneutic. Baptist theologian MacArthur points out, “Clearly, there has been no parallel in history to the unique healing miracles that occurred at the time of Christ and the apostles. Today is no exception. The apostolic gift of healing has ceased.” (2013:176)

To be fair, the extraordinary is not something any cessationist denies. It is a lot more nuanced than most care to admit. It will not take you long until you find some startling experiences and statements by cessationists, and perhaps you might seem that it is weird. No, cessationists are all for dynamic encounters with God. It is not at all something we shy away from; we simply believe that it must be viewed from the lens of Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Works Cited

Grudem W 1994. Systematic Theology: An Introduction To Bible Doctrine. InterVarsity Press: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA.

MacArthur J 2013. Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending The Holy Spirit With Counterfeit Worship. Nelson Books: Nashville, Tennessee.