A cessationist is someone who believes that at least some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased to be given because of the close of the canon of Scripture. These are known as the “miraculous gifts” (though all of the gifts are miraculous in nature) which include speaking in tongues, prophecy, and apostleship. This article will outline my cessationist argument against the beliefs of the charismatic movement who continue to practice what they believe are speaking in tongues and prophecy.
1. Tongues in Scripture are actual human languages and not ecstatic utterances or free vocalizations:
Acts 2:4-8 says, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?'”
The modern practice of speaking in tongues does not match the New Testament pattern which is the speaking of real human languages that can be understood by someone who is a native speaker of that language (1 Cor 13:1; 14:10-11). In my experience in charismatic circles (which is limited), I have never heard someone speak in a real human language who claimed to be speaking in tongues. I do not know of any evidence which demonstrates that those who claim to speak in tongues today are speaking in true human languages. If they were, it would be easy to demonstrate this by recording them speaking in tongues and then taking that recording to people who speak the language natively and having them translate it. The complete lack of evidence for this demonstrates that modern-day tongue speaking is not the same as tongues in the New Testament. Charismatics have redefined what tongue-speaking is on the basis of their experience with it rather than by defining it the way Scripture does. John MacArthur goes into great detail on this point in his book Strange Fire.
2. There are no more apostles today:
Paul made it clear that he was the last of the apostles in 1 Corinthians 15:8: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Paul was the last person that Christ visited and personally commissioned to be an apostle. Being an apostle is tied to seeing the risen Christ (1 Cor 9:1). An apostle is marked by miraculous gifts, signs, and wonders that only God can do (2 Cor 12:12). They speak on behalf of Christ (1 Cor 14:37; 2 Cor 13:3) and have the ability to exercise authority over all churches (1 Thess 2:6; Phlm 1:8-9). If someone claims to be an apostle today, we have the right to demand of him evidence of miraculous gifts and test his doctrine (Rev 2:2). If there are apostles today, I would like to know who they are.
3. Because the gift of apostleship has ceased, it is possible for there to be other gifts that have also ceased:
Apostleship is one of the gifts the Holy Spirit has given to the church: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor 12:28). The gift and office of apostle are both tied together because all who hold the office also possess the gifts necessary to occupy it (Eph 4:8, 11). The same is true with the other positions of prophet and teacher. Where in the Bible does it ever differentiate between the gift of apostleship and the office of apostle? The offices of apostle and prophet were both foundational in the construction of the early church. As Ephesians 2:20 says, the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Now that the foundation has been laid, it is no longer necessary for there to be apostles and prophets since the church has already been established. With the passing of the apostles, the passing of the prophets and gifts that go along with them has also come about.
The most common objection to the cessationist position is based on 1 Corinthians 13:10 which says, “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” This is interpreted to mean that no gift of the Spirit will cease until the eschaton when the new heavens and new earth arrive. While I agree that “the perfect” is eternity future, it is invalid to argue against cessationism this way since the same argument could be used to argue against the fact that the gift of apostleship has ceased. In such a case, we would need to have apostles today. But since apostles have ceased, this demonstrates that it is possible for at least some of the gifts to have ceased while all gifts will not cease until eternity future. If you accept that apostleship has ceased, then you are a cessationist.
4. The canon of Scripture is closed:
The canon has been closed which means that we are not expecting any further revelation from God. The book of Revelation was the last “revelation” God has revealed and it ends perfectly tying together the rest of Scripture. As Revelation 22:18 says, “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book.” Because there are no more apostles, we can expect no more books of Scripture since it was the apostles who penned the New Testament. Since the apostles are no more, the authors of Scripture are no more. The apostles in the New Testament filled the same role as the prophets in the Old Testament as the authors of the Bible.
5. New Testament prophecy is infallible like Old Testament prophecy:
Many charismatics argue that New Testament prophecy was fallible unlike Old Testament prophecy and therefore they can believe in prophecy today while still holding onto sola Scriptura. Cessationists believe that during the period of inscripturation (the first century church), prophecy coexisted with Scripture as the Word of God. But even then, those who claimed to be prophesying were examined by Scripture to determine whether or not what they were saying was actually prophecy because even one error would invalidate them as a prophet (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:20-21). Their words were not being examined to determine what parts were true and what parts were false, but to determine whether they were prophesying at all (Deut 13:1-5; 18:21-22). The examination of claims to prophecy and tradition by Scripture is known as the primacy of Scripture (Matt 15:1-6; Acts 17:11). Now that prophecy has ceased, the Bible alone is our ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice because God no longer speaks directly and infallibly through human beings (this is the doctrine of sola Scriptura). But was prophecy in the first century infallible? The answer is yes based on the following Scriptures:
Acts 2:17-18: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.” (This is a quotation from Joel 2:28 and everyone agrees that prophecy in Joel’s day was infallible).
Acts 21:11: “And coming to us, he took Paul’s belt and bound his own feet and hands and said, ‘Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is how the Jews at Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles.'” (Agabus uses the formulaic expression “thus says the Lord” just like the infallible Old Testament prophets claiming to be speaking the words of God. Compare this expression to 2 Samuel 23:2; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 4:25; 13:2; 28:25; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 1 Timothy 4:1; Hebrews 3:7; 10:15; 2 Peter 1:21; Revelation 2:7; and 14:13).
1 Corinthians 12:3: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (A person speaking in the Holy Spirit is guarded from speaking error and blasphemy).
And Agabus was not wrong in his prophecy about the binding of Paul. Paul alludes to Agabus’ own words later in Acts 28:17 when he says, “Yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.” If Paul did not believe Agabus got it wrong, why should we? Paul’s hands would have already been bound when they were beating him (Acts 21:32). You tie up the hands of those you are going to beat to prevent them from fighting back. When the soldiers appeared, the Jews relented and did not resist them when handing Paul over to the Romans who made Paul’s restraints more secure so he could not run away. There is probably something wrong with your system of belief when you need to adopt the interpretation of skeptics of the Bible who deny inerrancy to maintain your position.
If New Testament prophecy is not infallible, then we can’t apply Deuteronomy 18:22 to test whether or not a prophet is from God. Why couldn’t Joseph Smith simply say, “Oops, well, New Testament prophecy isn’t infallible so you can’t hold my old predictions against me. Even Agabus got it wrong.” when questioned about his many false prophecies? As Sam Waldron says, “The definition of prophet in Deuteronomy 13 and 18 was never rescinded, and this requires infallibility.” The belief that New Testament prophecy was not infallible is a historically novel viewpoint created to justify preexisting charismatic practices while still claiming to believe in sola Scriptura.
6. Prophecy has ceased because the canon is closed:
The Old Testament is summarized as “the prophetic word” (2 Pet 1:19-21), “the law and the prophets” (Rom 3:21), or “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 16:31), while the New Testament is summarized as the “apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20) because they are its authors. Because the canon has closed and there are no more apostles, there is no one who can give infallible revelation from God. This means that for sola Scriptura to be true, there can be no more prophecy. If there are still prophets alive today, then the canon would not be truly closed since a prophet speaks the very words of God. How can we know that the canon is truly closed if there are still apostles and prophets around?
A common objection to cessationism are the miracles that occurred in the life of Charles Spurgeon where the Spirit supernaturally revealed information to him. To give one example:
“At the Monday evening prayer-meeting at which Mr. Spurgeon related the foregoing incident, he also mentioned the sermon at Exeter Hall, in which he suddenly broke off from his subject, and, pointing in a certain direction, said, ‘Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been paid for; you have stolen them from your employer.’ At the close of the service, a young man, looking very pale and greatly agitated, came to the room which was used as a vestry, and begged for a private interview with Mr. Spurgeon. On being admitted, he placed a pair of gloves upon the table, and tearfully said, ‘It’s the first time I have robbed my master, and I will never do it again. You won’t expose me, sir, will you? It would kill my mother if she heard that I had become a thief.’ The preacher had drawn the bow at a venture, but the arrow struck the target for which God intended it, and the startled hearer was, in that singular way, probably saved from committing a greater crime” (Autobiography, 2:60).
I would describe what we see in this passage as an extraordinary providence of God or divine premonition rather than prophecy. Prophecy in the Bible is speaking the very words of God as we see in the case of Agabus when he says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit” (Acts 21:11). Spurgeon never claimed that his words were the very words of God himself. If Spurgeon’s words were the exact words of the Holy Spirit, then we would no longer have a closed canon because God would still be speaking audibly today. When it came to his own views, Spurgeon was not a charismatic. God’s supernatural revelation of information to a Christian today is not the same as prophecy. The problem with the debate between cessationists and charismatics is that they are defining the terms “prophecy” and “tongues” differently. When cessationists speak about tongues, they are talking about real human languages that a native speaker could understand. When charismatics speak about tongues, they are talking about ecstatic utterances that no human could understand. When cessationists speak about prophecy, they are talking about speaking the very words of God himself. When charismatics speak about prophecy, they are talking about fallible impressions of the Spirit in order to maintain that the canon is still closed. The biggest problem I see with the charismatic position is that its definition of tongues and prophecy does not match that of Scripture.
7. Speaking in tongues has ceased because speaking in tongues is a form of prophecy:
We know this because speaking in tongues and prophecy are equal to each other when someone interprets the tongue. As 1 Corinthians 14:5 says, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”
But the question must be asked, “If tongues have ceased, then why do so many people claim to be speaking in tongues today?” I believe the reason is a desire for assurance of salvation. Speaking in tongues is an objective gift of the Spirit whereas hospitality is not. Anyone can show hospitality, but only a true Christian could possibly speak in tongues. Hence, modern day tongue speaking is motivated by trying to find an objective basis for assurance of salvation in something that can be seen and experienced. The attitude is, “Because I can speak in tongues, I know that I am saved.” A similar manifestation of this desire for objective certainty in salvation is seen in the belief in baptismal regeneration: “Because I have been baptized, I know that I have been regenerated.” Another person might say, “Because I have prayed the sinner’s prayer, I know that I am saved.”
For a short explanation of cessationism, I recommend the book To Be Continued? by Sam Waldron.