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A few years ago, I saw a large banner. It read: 

Miracles of the Holy Spirit here at 6 p.m. Sunday.”

Are miracles of the Holy Spirit performed like some circus act according to a ringmaster’s schedule?

I have also heard teaching that “sign gifts” are no longer operating in our world because we now possess the Bible.

These are two examples of distortion regarding spiritual gifts. One acted as if the Spirit is controlled by human initiative; the other as if the Spirit is no longer allowed to work in certain miraculous ways. In other words, one distortion said, “God, you must do this!”; the other, “God, you cannot do that!”

Both of our examples presume control over what God must do or what God cannot do. 

Of course, there are limitations that God self-discloses of Himself, such as, “God cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). But, in the absence of such clear divine self-disclosure, we are in danger of grave presumption.

Let’s deal with the first presumption.

Are gifts like a circus act?

Some people assert that manifestations of the Holy Spirit will take place at the time and place they have designated. In broad terms, this position infringes on the sovereignty of God. These people act as if they control God’s actions.

Many texts could be cited to refute this position. Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

Here is 12:4-6:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.

And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.

There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.

These sovereign initiatives of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work in complete harmony:

  • the Spirit distributes the grace-gifts (charismata),
  • the Lord Jesus Christ directs the services or ministries,
  • God, the Father, accomplishes the effects or results. 

Verse 7 then confirms that “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Authentic spiritual gifts are activities of the Holy Spirit operating in and through His people for the benefit of others.

Verses 8-10 are a sample of nine gifts, which we will deal with further in a moment. At this point, we should note that each of these gifts is “given” by the Spirit. They are neither chosen nor controlled by those to whom they are given.

All of this is reinforced by verse 11: “But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.”

These gifts are not human initiatives in which God cooperates. Quite the contrary. These gifts are God’s initiative calling humans to cooperate in God’s work.

Have some gifts ceased?

Some devout Christians take the position that the sign gifts have ceased. If you are not in this camp, you might wonder why they ceased and when. You might even wonder what “sign gifts” are.

Although the typical argument for this position is a bit convoluted, I will try to set it out simply and fairly in five steps.

1.     The usual starting point is 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, which says:

For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another [allos] the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit;

to another [heteros] faith by the same Spirit, and to another [allos] gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another [allos] the effecting of miracles, and to another [allos] prophecy, and to another [allos] the distinguishing of spirits,

to another [heteros] various kinds of tongues, and to another [allos] the interpretation of tongues.

Notice that I inserted two different Greek words translating “another.” When these two words appear in the same context, they need to be distinguished. One word is allos, which means another of the same kind. For example, if I show you an apple and an allos (another) fruit, I am showing you another apple.

The other word is heteros, which means another of a different kind. So, if I show you an apple and a heteros (another) fruit, I might be showing you an orange or a banana (not an apple). 

So, heteros divides the nine gifts in 12:8-10 into three groups: the first two, the middle five, and the last two. 

2.     The crux of the cessationist argument is 13:8-10:

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

Note that three of the gifts from the previous list of nine are named: prophecy, tongues, and knowledge. Each of these three gifts represents one of the three groups we mentioned in #1. In this way, the three gifts represent all nine gifts in 12:8-10.

3.     13:10 states that “when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” That is, the partial gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (and by extension, all nine of the gifts in 12:8-10) will be done away when “the perfect” comes. In contrast, “love never fails.”

What is “the perfect” and when does it come? 

4.     The Greek word for “perfect” is teleios, meaning complete, finished, and by extension, perfect. 

So, what is the “complete,” or “finished,” or “perfect”? If we can determine that, then we will know when the partial gifts represented by tongues, prophecy, and knowledge will come to an end.

Paul contrasts the present “partial” gifts with the future “perfect” using two illustrations. The first contrasts childhood with the maturity of adulthood (13:11); the second contrasts the indirect (partial) reflection of a mirror with the directness (perfect) of face-to-face (13:12).

Some propose that the “perfect” is the completed canon of the New Testament. The argument is that when the Bible was finally written, compiled, and recognized as Holy Scripture, then the “perfect” had come. As a result, these various partial gifts ceased because the Bible supplies all the knowledge, all the prophecy, and (I suppose by translation) all the tongues that we need.

Frankly, this line of reasoning is somewhat speculative and unconvincing. One commentator, David Garland, states that this view “is driven more by an intent to limit the validity of tongues to the apostolic age.” 

5.     It is better to conclude that “the perfect” is “the state of affairs brought about by the parousia”—that is, the physical return of the Lord Jesus Christ. This understanding fits the context. The large majority of Bible scholars hold this view.

In addition, this view respects Paul’s instructions elsewhere:

  • Do not quench the Spirit; do not despise prophetic utterances. But examine everything carefully” (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21)
  • “Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.” (1 Corinthians 14:39)

Both these statements insist on wise and discerning tests that govern the valid use of spiritual gifting. We will deal with some of these tests or boundaries in the next post.

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO Some Controversy About Tongues

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