Have the Gifts of the Spirit Ceased?
There is a heavy wind of doctrine blowing in these days that needs to be addressed by all believers. Paul warned us of such winds and wrote that it is possible to reach a point in growth where we are no longer “. . . tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). The doctrinal wind that is blowing strongly through the churches is the erroneous idea that the spiritual gifts provided by the Holy Spirit have been rescinded by God and are longer in operation.
This doctrine has the effect of virtually denying anything that has a miraculous or supernatural effect. That includes revelation from God, hearing His voice, praying for the sick, casting out demonic forces, actively praising and worshipping Him, or prophesying what God puts in our hearts. It tends to reduce our faith to dry dogma and unemotional religiosity instead of the powerful, exciting abundant life God intended for us (John 10:10).
People who take this position about the gifts of the Spirit and all things miraculous find it hard to point to an explicit passage of scripture that expresses the view that these gifts have ceased. Arguments for this doctrine called cessationism are easily refuted because they are based on human reasoning and doubt about all things miraculous.
Some theologians attempt to use a passage in 1 Corinthians 13 to show that some gifts will cease:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:9–12).
This passage does say that certain gifts will someday cease. The question is, when will that take place? Ironically this passage, examined objectively, actually proves that these gifts will be with us throughout the church age. Some teachers say that the “perfect” referred to here is the completion of the canon of scripture. When the Bible was completed we would no longer need the gifts, so they argue. There is no clear corroboration of that notion. Nowhere do the writers of the New Testament explicitly tell us these gifts provided by the Holy Spirit will cease until the church age is complete.
Anyone reading this passage with an open mind can see that the “perfect” is the coming of that time at the completion of this age when we see Christ “face to face” and no longer see in a “mirror dimly.” Even with the completed canon we still see in a mirror dimly. John promises that one day “we will see Him just as He is” but that day is not yet here. Then, of course, we will no longer need the gifts of the Spirit because we will know then just as we have been fully known by the Lord. So, the passage proves that the gifts will last for the entire church age.
Those who believe in the ceasing of the gifts make the point that the “sign gifts” were given to verify the coming of Christ and validate the ministry of Paul and the other apostles and the writings they left us. A passage often used by people who try to make this point is Ephesians 2:20–22:
. . . having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
The point that many try to make is that the apostles and prophets laid the foundation of the church and once the foundation was finished the work of the apostles, prophets and all “sign gifts” such as the spiritual gifts were no longer necessary and were eventually rescinded by God. But you will notice that the verb translated “having been built” is past tense and refers to the laying of the foundation which was completed in the past by these apostles and prophets.
However, the other verbs referring to the continuing work of the church are in the present tense — “being fitted together” and “are being built.” The present tense indicates that the work of building the church continues throughout the church age. Clearly the tools necessary for building the foundation, the spiritual gifts, would continue to be needed during the church age to continue the building up of the church that is being constructed on the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets. We do not put away our tools until the building is completed.
There is an interesting twist on this in Ephesians 4:11–16. In those verses we are shown the process of producing the completed church from Christ’s giving of the five equipping gifts of 4:11 for the equipping of the saints for ministry to the point where the whole body is working together in harmony through God’s love. In verse 13 we are told that the process continues “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.”
The word “until” seems to indicate the point where the body will reach its place of completion. So the appointed offices of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher equip the saints for ministry to the building up of the body until the work is done at the end of the age — “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” I believe those who say we no longer need these equippers of the saints commit a grave theological error that drastically limits the work of the Holy Spirit in His church.
They tend to say apostles and prophets are no longer with us and evangelists are merely missionaries, which leaves us with only pastors and teachers to equip the saints for building the church. This is like saying that we have a massive building project but we are going to complete it without the supervisors, the visionaries and the recruiters of the workers. That project will fail and our present efforts are in many ways failing because we are left with only the shepherds and the instructors who are usually the same person. As a result, we have become top heavy with doctrine and ideas but are sorely lacking in power, insight and inspiration in the lives of ordinary believers. Could that be why so many of our church services are devoid of life and lacking in the power and revelation that come through prophecy and the other gifts of the Spirit?
Paul, speaking of the gift of prophecy, wrote “. . . if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Cor. 14:24, 25). Prophecy is God speaking through a receptive person His life-changing word. “. . . the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). In these meetings in Corinth there were no Bibles to read. God spoke through others His life changing word and it reached their hearts with power.
Having the Bible is a wonderful gift but it is still simply words on paper without the revelation of the Holy Spirit. The scriptures were breathed out by God but they must be received with the revelatory power of the Holy Spirit. Many cults and false religions have Bibles but lack the revelation that causes the words to come to life.
The spiritual gifts are powerful ministry tools that release the life-changing word of God into a person’s heart. We are not speaking here of new revelation that goes beyond the Bible but revelation that causes the words of the Bible to come to life. Paul prayed for the Ephesians that “. . . the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (Eph. 1:17, 18). We have not stopped needing that revelation where the Bible becomes alive to us and we realize what we possess in God. Real revelation is always “in the knowledge of Him” helping us to know Him more deeply.
We still need the gift of discerning of spirits because the demonic spirits are alive and still try to impede the will of God. Our warfare is not against flesh and blood but against the forces of evil in the spirit realm (Eph. 6:12). God has provided us with this gift so we can identify the enemy and defeat his strategy (1 Cor. 12:10).
We still need the gifts of word of wisdom and word of knowledge because our human knowledge only goes so far. We need the Holy Spirit to touch our words with His wisdom and knowledge for peoples’ lives. Like Paul “. . . we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. (1 Cor. 2:12, 13).
We still need gifts of healings because there are times when God desires to set us free from disease or illness to do His will. This is not the singular “gift of healing” as some presume but the plural “gifts of healings” that come to us as the Spirit directs. We have not ceased needing this manifestation of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:9).
We still need miracles because there are times when God wants to penetrate our dead, lifeless situation with the reality of heaven (1 Cor. 12:10).
We still need prophecy for the reasons I summarized earlier. It is the gift of utterance from the Holy Spirit that is needed in some situations we face. We cannot know everything or be eloquent like some preachers but we can speak what the Spirit puts in our hearts for “edification and exhortation and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). So that we don’t think of this as a gift for the elite, Paul wrote we “can all prophesy one by one” (1 Cor. 14:31).
We still need the gift of speaking in tongues because there are times when we need a language we have not learned or we need the ability to pray when we don’t know how to pray as we should (Rom. 8:26). And of course if a message comes forth in such a language in a gathering of the saints we would need the gift of interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10).
I am aware that these gifts are abused by people who don’t understand. There are extreme elements of the charismatic or Pentecostal movement that go far beyond the word of God and operate in extremism that is not biblical or godly. Many use godliness as a means of gain (1Tim. 6:5) and distort the Gospel into a fleshly hodgepodge of new age nonsense. So we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater but endeavor to clean up the water so all can be refreshed.
But, I observe what I believe to be the most atrocious and extreme abuse of a spiritual gift. That is the gift of pastor to the body of Christ. The whole idea of the one-man pastor system is unscriptural and not conducive to the building up of the church. I wrote a book years ago exposing this system (The Heresy of Diotrephes).
We have pastors building megachurches that build up ministries but do little to equip the saints. We have pastors involved in scandals and controlling leaders who misuse their authority for the sake of a “ministry.” We have groups that have succumbed to extreme emotionalism at the expense of the Gospel message. All of this abuse including the “strange fire” that John MacArthur and others speak of will dissipate as we return to the Bible instead of tradition and marketing programs as our source of truth.
The body of Christ needs to abandon its divisiveness and carnal behavior as it returns to an honest, objective, open search for truth and the courage to live by that truth. It is clear that the present ecclesiastical structures are not attracting the truth seekers in the world but shutting doors to many who want to find the real Jesus apart from religiosity.
Jesus did not come the first time to fit into man’s tomb-like renditions of God’s will. He came free from all the pronouncements of the religious powers that existed and shared His freedom with others. We need that freedom and it does not come by rejecting the Spirit’s gifts to us but by receiving them and walking in the liberty the Spirit provides (2 Cor. 3:17).