Have you had a prophecy over your life that you’re not too sure about? Did a prophet say you should take a certain course that you don’t really want to? Are you in a church where prophecies are common, but create anxiety not peace because of the added pressure on believers?
What does the Bible say about the gift of prophecy and other “miraculous” spiritual gifts?
The two main views on spiritual gifts are cessationism and continuationism (non-cessationism). Continuationists believe that all the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament continue today and should be promoted and practised. Cessationists believe that some of the New Testament spiritual gifts have ceased, namely the “sign” or so-called “miraculous”1 gifts, which include the gifts of healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues.
Cessationists are often accused of limiting or stifling the Spirit in our church services. I would rather suggest that we want to honour the Spirit’s will as revealed in the Scripture He inspired.2 (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:40) The Spirit as Third Person of the Trinity may do as He pleases. However, the Holy Spirit chooses to act in a way consistent with the Scriptures which were written by men “carried along by the [same] Sprit” (2 Peter 1:21).
Often people, including Christians, want to see real and visible demonstrations of the Spirit’s power. At times there seems to be a hankering for the “supernatural” and the “miraculous” especially in church services to validate one’s belief and to confirm God’s presence. We must never lose sight of the fact that the most powerful and “supernatural” work of the Spirit is the regeneration of spiritual corpses, namely conversion; and then transforming those once-spiritually-dead-corpses into the image of Christ, namely sanctification (Ephesians 1:19-20, 2:1 etc.). Conversions and sanctification are what we should be praying and yearning for.
The spiritual pendulum
It seems the emergence of the “miraculous” spiritual gift phenomena was largely in reaction to the stale, dry western philosophy and rationalistic worldview stemming from the Enlightenment. In seeking a more personal, authentic worship the spiritual pendulum has swung too far and many have presented biblical arguments for renewed discernment in the Christian world (cf. John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference).
Pentecost is unique
One of the arguments for the continuationist view held by Pentecostals and Charismatic Movement is that the Pentecost experience (Acts 2) should be the norm for the entire church age. The Charismatic Movement no longer argues for a subsequent post-conversion experience when the believer is baptized in and receives the Holy Spirit (as they have no doubt come to see that it is impossible to be a Christian without the Holy Spirit), but they do argue that Pentecost in Acts 2 is parallel to a post-conversion experience where the believer is anointed or empowered by the Spirit for works of service. This “second blessing” is usually accompanied by “supernatural” gifts like tongues or prophecy. Cessationists believe that this is a confusion of the history of salvation and the order of salvation.
Salvation (or Redemption) History is the history of God’s saving acts in the world (Creation, Fall, Exodus, Davidic kingdom, Exile) culminating in the Lord Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension and future return.
The Order of Salvation the application of salvation in the believer’s life and experience, and includes repentance, faith, forgiveness of sins, gift of the Spirit etc. Pentecost forms part of Salvation History and demonstrated to the original eye-witnesses (and us, through Scripture) that the promised “last days” (Acts 2:14-17) are upon us and now the Davidic King is reigning and ruling from heaven (Acts 2:29-33). To put it crassly, we don’t expect another Pentecost just as we don’t expect Jesus to be crucified again. However, we apply the ongoing benefits of Jesus’ death and Pentecost to us today. But, you may argue, that there were more than one “Pentecost” experience in Acts and so we can expect a similar experience. Yes, there were echoes of Pentecost in Acts 8, 10 and 19 but they were precisely that! The Spirit needed to be seen not just coming on Jews (Acts 2), but also on believing Samaritans (8), believing Gentiles (10) and old-covenant believers coming to faith in Christ (19). The echoes of Pentecost and the structure of Acts follow the strategy set out by Jesus in Acts 1:8 – by the end of Acts the gospel has spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Rome). The narratives in the book of Acts are therefore not the norm for Christians, but demonstrate that the time of fulfilment of God’s promises has come.
Acts 2:38 ministries
The norm for Christians is Peter’s words in Acts 2:38. Every believer at conversion receives the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is a person you cannot receive varying portions of him, either you receive him or you don’t. Added to that, the Bible does not separate the Spirit’s regeneration work and his empowering the work. The same Spirit does both. We don’t experience the Spirit’s regeneration work at conversion and then possibly his empowering work at subsequent anointing. To think so separates what God has joined together.3
Your son and daughters will prophecy
In the Old Testament one of the main evidences of being filled/ having the Spirit was prophecy (cf. Num. 11:25, 1 Sam. 10:10). When Joel spoke of a time when all would prophecy he was pointing to the coming of the Kingdom of God when all God’s people would possess the Spirit (the so-called “democratization of the Spirit”, cf. Acts 2:17-18), not just a select few. 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 confirms this when it says not all will have the gift of prophecy or tongues; clearly not even the Apostle Paul thought every single believer would prophecy.
The spanner in the works
If you believe the continuationist view, how do you treat the gift of prophecy today? Continuationists believe that prophecy is indeed revelatory as it contains information that God reveals. However, they believe that it is not as authoritative as Scripture, but should be judged by scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 14:29, example Wayne Grudem). Most continuationists believe that this is because the inspired truth revealed by God to the modern-day prophet can be distorted by the prophets own fallenness. This raises some important questions:
(1) Are there two levels of inspiration? Canonical (contained in Scripture) and non-canonical? Remember that the prophecies/ books in the Scripture are in the canon precisely because they were confirmed as inspired by God. If there is more God-inspired speech then we must add to the Scripture! We must realise, contrary to continuationist argument, that there is only one level of inspiration by God and those inspired words are authoritative and binding (2 Tim. 3:16). When the New Testament speaks of weighing/ judging the prophecies it does not mean taking the bad out of the prophecy and leaving the good, it means applying biblical criteria to decide if the prophet is a true prophet or a false prophet (Deut. 18:20-22). If the prophet was deemed a true prophet his words were authoritative and binding (Eph. 2:20, 3:5).
(2) How can we judge very personal predictions? One of the hallmarks of recent day “prophets” is that they make predictions for people or speak powerful “words” over their lives. How do we judge the prophecies? These “prophecies” do not blatantly contradict scripture, nor do they advocate ungodly behaviour – most often quite the opposite. Following the continuationist argument there is no way for us to judge the prophecies. Cessationists argue, as we will see below, that the gift of prophecy does not function anymore and that these prophecies “go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6; Gen. 3:1-3) and place unnecessary and often confusing burdens on Christian people.
Laying the solid foundation
On what basis do I say that the gift of prophecy is not in operation today? Simply this: the New Testament apostles and prophets, in God’s master plan for the church, laid the rock-solid foundation of the church (Eph 2:20; Eph 3:5) with Christ as the cornerstone. Now that the foundation is laid, we no longer need or require or have apostles and prophets. The foundation was laid and complete by the time the New Testament was assembled. The primary purpose of the “sign” gifts (e.g. gift of healing, gift of working miracles) was to act signs or authenticators that the messengers were indeed sent by God and they spoke with God’s approval. Note these biblical examples:
And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do. (Exodus 4:28)
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22)
The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works. (2 Corinthians 12:12)
It (the message of salvation/ the gospel) was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:3-4)
In New Testament times God was once again acting savingly in world history in the coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Spirit. The “signs and wonders and might works” done by Jesus and the apostles (and some associated with the apostles) signalled that they spoke from God and thus another epoch in salvation history was upon us. The normal life of a believer in the OT and NT did not consist of continuing signs and wonders, but rather living by faith in what God had said and done through his authorized spokespeople. For example, after the Exodus event the Israelites lived for hundreds of years not by sight, but by faith and we are called to do the same (2 Corinthians 5:7); this is the normal Christian life.4
God of wonders
This is not to say that God cannot or does not “miraculously” heal or cause “supernatural” events to happen today. God can and will do what he wants. I’m simply saying that the spiritual gifts or abilities bestowed on people to do these things are not in operation today. We can pray that if it is God’s will he would graciously heal a disabled person, but we can no longer command that person to walk (Acts 3:6). It is interesting to note that even when the Apostle Paul hears that Timothy is sick he does not command God to heal him, but tells Timothy to take his medicine (1 Timothy 5:23). When Epaphroditus was extremely ill, Paul did not miraculously heal him and was grateful he didn’t die (Philippians 2:27). The instruction to elders is to pray for the sick, not call for someone with the gift of healing (James 5:14). The sign gifts authenticated Jesus and the apostles’ ministry. These gifts were used to lay the foundation for future generations of believers who now rely on that rock-solid foundation.
The gift of languages
The gifts of tongues as described in Acts 2 is clearly the “miraculous” ability given by God to declare His mighty works in known foreign languages (Acts 2:6). Pentecost is thus a reversal of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11). At Babel God confused the languages and scattered the nations as judgement; now in Jerusalem, as a result of the finished work of Christ and the dawn of the promised Kingdom, God is uniting people from all the nations under Christ. What could be a better signal of this reality than representatives of the nations hearing the gospel in their own language? In 1 Corinthians 12-14 Paul rebukes a worldly church for abusing the gift of tongues and many of his sarcastic, ironic comments are now wrongly read as positive, affirming instructions. (cf. 13:1, 14:2, 4-6, 10-12, 14 etc.)
Sola Scriptura, not Prima Scriptura
Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) is one of the five solas summing up the five theological pillars of the Protestant Reformation. One of the best definitions I’ve read of “Sola Scriptura” is Heinrich Heppe’s: “The only source and norm of all Christian knowledge is the Holy Scripture.” (Italics mine)
The Bible is not the main or primary way God speaks to us, it is the only way. We speak to God in prayer and God speak to us through the Bible; not through prophecy, words of knowledge, visions, dreams, impressions, visiting heaven or any other means. One of the great dangers of believing the church’s foundational gifts as still in operation today is opening yourself and your church to, at best, fallible human opinions, and at worst, Satan’s deceptions. You should be a cessationist too.
1. It is hard to define the term “miraculous” because the Bible does not distinguish between “miraculous” and “natural” as all of life, including the so-called “miraculous” and “natural”, is initiated and decreed by God. We simply call something miraculous because God has chosen to act in an unusual or less common way to which he normally chooses to act.
2. I am often accused by well-meaning “spirit-filled” Christians of being too analytical and well-prepared in our church services and thereby not leaving the Spirit enough room to “move”. Besides taking the above criticism as a compliment, I view a well-prepared and well thought-through “liturgical” service as very (and even more) spiritual as the Spirit has helped me throughout the week to prepare for the service.
3. According to 1 Corinthians 12:7 every believer experiences the Spirit’s empowering work whether “anointed” or not.
4. Logically, because the apostles and prophets are closely linked, if there were still to be the gift of prophecy today we would also expect to have the gift of apostle (Eph. 4:11, 1 Cor. 12:28; it is artificial to distinguish between “gift” and “office”). As there are no more apostles particularly since no-one qualifies anymore to be an apostle (Acts 1:21-22), it is more evidence that the gift of prophecy has also passed its foundational purpose.