The Cessation of “Sign Gifts”
A Biblical Consideration of the Cessation of the Sign Gifts in the Church
by Pastor Gary Freel
One of the most troubling trends today is the acceptance in many quarters of the church of the continuation of the first century “sign-gifts” (i.e., those miraculous gifts such as tongues, miracles, healings, etc., given by Christ to the early church for the purpose of communicating His Word and authenticating His message and work through the church, a “new man” formed by believing Jews and Gentiles). A number of ministries teach or are open to the possibility that the sign-gifts performed by the Lord and the apostles, authenticating their ministries and claims, are still to be found in the church today. In other words, they believe that part of the normal Christian life is that the believer may be able to speak in tongues, to prophesy or to have the gift of healing or the gift of divinely bestowed knowledge and understanding (1 Cor. 13:8-11). Others, while they may not believe the miraculous sign-gifts have continued, are willing to cooperate with, and even promote, those who do. What is being passed off today as the miraculous sign-gifts is simply one of the biggest deceptions to come along in all of church history. It is sad to witness countless numbers of people being manipulated and controlled to perform some of the most ridiculous and in some cases downright blasphemous actions imaginable, under the guise that “the Lord is leading us.”
At the outset, let us be clear that we certainly believe the miracles in the Bible happened just as they are described. The universe was created out of nothing (Gen. 1:1; Heb. 11:3). Moses led Israel across the Red Sea “upon the dry ground” (Ex. 14:22). Elisha recovered the axe head when “the iron did swim” (2 Kgs. 6:5-7). The Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary (Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1; Lk. 1-2) and performed many miracles during the “days of His ﬂesh” (Heb. 5:7 cf. 2:3-4), healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind and even raising the dead (Lk. 7:11-17; Jn. 21:25). Of course, the greatest of His miracles was His own resurrection on the third day after His cruciﬁxion.
Further, we believe that the future age of earth’s history will see a renewal of this miracle working on the part of God and His servants (Joel 2:28-31 cf. Heb. 6:5). Joel’s prophecy will be fulﬁlled literally at the time designated by Joel the prophet, and not a moment before, at the beginning of the millennial kingdom.
What are the possible motives of proponents who claim the miraculous sign-gifts are for today? First, some desire to “experience God”—by the tangible demonstration of His help in times of need and distress. Second, some believe sign-gifts serve as a witness to others of God’s graciousness and goodness by fulfilling their need to “experience” something; in a doubting world, sign-gifts might be the one thing that turns the skeptic from doubt to faith in Christ. Third, most simply misunderstand and misapply Scripture. We do not discount that many professing believers are going through or have endured some difﬁcult, stressful and heart-wrenching trials and situations. Their need to truly know God is real and their desire to experience God is understandable but misplaced. Seeking an experience only serves to intensify the problem because the “experience” diverts one’s focus onto the experience itself or on oneself rather than where attention needs to remain: the Word of God and the steadfast promises found therein.
The belief that the sign-gifts continue into the present era of the church age is actually an assault on the Word of God. What proponents are insinuating is that the Bible alone is inadequate to meet the true needs of humanity, namely salvation and sanctiﬁcation from sin (2 Tim. 3:15-17). The sufﬁciency of Scripture for the believer is also undermined (2 Pet. 1:3). The ultimate result is an assault on the authority of Scripture when pseudo-prophecies, pseudo-tongues and pseudo-words of knowledge contradict the revealed Word. The modern charismatic and signs-and-wonders movements have had a debilitating impact on the church and Christians in general, even causing some to abandon solid fundamentalist churches and ministries.
As we begin our study, it is important to deﬁne certain terms. First, what is a miracle? “A miracle has been deﬁned as ‘an effect in nature not attributable to any of the recognized operations of nature, nor to the act of man, but indicative of superhuman power, and serving as a sign or witness thereof; a wonderful work manifesting a power superior to the ordinary forces of nature’” (Charles Woodbridge and Harold Lindsell, A Handbook of Christian Truth, p. 149). A miracle takes place when supernatural power is utilized, when normal, natural laws are suspended or altered. It is something contrary to the observed laws of nature. Some of the biblical miracles include the events of Jesus walking on the water (Mk. 6:48), turning water to wine (Jn. 2) and raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn. 11) and Paul in Lystra healing the crippled man (Acts 14:8-11). Other terms to know include:
1. Continuationist—One who believes some or all of the gifts of the Spirit, speciﬁcally the miraculous sign-gifts found listed in 1 Corinthians 12-14, are in existence today, available to the church to be utilized in ministry either by a select, gifted few or by nearly everyone in the church.
2. Cessationist—One who believes only some of the gifts of the Spirit (speciﬁcally those for service) found listed in 1 Corinthians 12-14 presently exist to be utilized by the church today. However, none of the miraculous sign-gifts are for the church today; they ceased operation with the passing of the apostles in the ﬁrst century.
3. Tongues—“The gift of tongues is the power of speaking supernaturally in a language never learned by the speaker, that language being made intelligible to the listeners by means of the equally supernatural gift of interpretation” (Myer Pearlman, Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible, p. 326). In other words, the gift of tongues is simply the ability to communicate in a foreign language the speaker has never previously learned or known. God enabled believers in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost to communicate His message to the many thousands of foreign travelers who happened to be in the city on that particular day (Acts 2). It is not gibberish, or some “heavenly language,” to be used by the speaker to build up self or to “prove” he is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
4. Prophecy is deﬁned by one Pentecostal as “a gift that is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit; granted to individuals for purposes of ediﬁcation, exhortation, and comfort; and intended to communicate the mind of God” (C.M. Robeck, Jr., Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, p. 738). Richard Gafﬁn, a cessationist, deﬁnes it similarly as “a revelatory gift; that is, it brings to the church the words of God in the primary and original sense. Prophecy is not, at least primarily or as one of its necessary marks, the interpretation of an already existing inspired text or oral tradition but is itself the inspired, nonderivative word of God” (Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 59). Prophecy served to reveal the mind and will of God.
5. Knowledge—Based on 1 Corinthians 12:8, the gift of knowledge, it would seem, is something beyond ordinary knowledge. It is something divinely bestowed to individuals along with prophecy and tongues. In other words, it is a revelational gift (i.e., like tongues, the one who receives this gift is receiving personal revelation from God).
6. Apostle—Literally, the word means a “sent one”—an emissary, an ambassador, one having the power and authority to act on behalf of the one who sent him to accomplish the task. This is a critically important ofﬁce to understand. Three requirements that qualified one as an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ are as follows: ﬁrst, the man had to have seen Christ and been an eyewitness to His bodily resurrection from the dead (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:3-9); second, he had to have been called to the apostolic ministry either by Christ Himself or by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 10:1-4); ﬁnally, he was invested with the miraculous sign-gifts, possessing the ability to work miracles (Acts 5:15-16; Heb. 2:3-4) (Ryrie Study Bible, p. 1433). Based on these criteria, no one today could possibly be eligible to be an apostle as no one today has any of these three qualiﬁcations, let alone the third one which requires miracles to be an integral aspect of the apostolic ofﬁce. In fact, 2 Corinthians 12:12 states that miracles were the “signs of an apostle,” not signs of a Christian or signs of a pastor or signs of an elder or signs of an evangelist. Paul speciﬁcally says they belonged, uniquely, to the apostles.
Don’t All Believers Agree?
What has caused this debate regarding sign-gifts to emerge? First, well-respected men are redefining sign-gifts, explaining them in terms that seem more palatable and thus making the practices more plausible than in previous decades. Second, these respected leaders often give biblical texts new interpretations and applications. For example, Wayne Grudem, a continuationist, recategorizes the terms prophets and prophecy in terms of “fallible” and “infallible” and has challenged the aforementioned deﬁnition of prophecy in his books The Gift of Prophecy and Systematic Theology. In both these works he explains Ephesians 2:20 and Paul’s use of the designation “apostles and prophets” as “apostles who are prophets” from just “prophets.” Thus, he distinguishes between those who give infallible prophecy (apostolic prophets) from those who are permitted to give fallible prophecy (other prophets).
Grudem uses Acts 21:11 to illustrate the possibility of a fallible prophet, Agabus, claiming that Agabus was “mistaken” in terms of who it was that would bind Paul and hand him over to the Gentiles. Actually, the Gentiles take Paul by force from the Jews; therefore, according to Grudem, this proves the possibility of “fallible prophecy.” However, two critically important points refute this teaching. ﬁrst, carefully note Agabus’ own claim as to the source of his prophecy when he states, “Thus saith the Holy Ghost….” Clearly, this indicates divine revelation on the matter, not just a man’s opinion about what might take place. However, Grudem has an answer for this. He claims that because Agabus did not use the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord…,” it means this cannot be divine revelation of the same authority given by apostolic prophets. His explanation is neither convincing nor adequate. The fact is, Agabus’ statement is a way to express divine authority and should be regarded as such. Second, according to Acts 28:17, Paul’s own testimony of this event, it is precisely the actions of the Jews that led the Gentiles to imprison the apostle, conﬁrming that this was indeed a message given by the Holy Spirit to Agabus in Acts 21:11. Thus, Agabus’ prophecy was not in error. He did not make a mistake.
Reasons for Adhering to the Belief in Cessationism
1. The Duration of the Apostles’ Ministries
An important indication that the miraculous sign-gifts have passed from the scene today is that the ministries of the apostles and prophets were foundational in nature. Ephesians 2:20 uses the imagery of a temple, with the apostles and New Testament prophets serving as the foundation. Once the foundation has been laid down, the work is to continue on the superstructure. The foundation is steadfast, secure and stable. The apostles and prophets have completed their ministry. Their work is now done, and there is no need for their work to be continued by anyone else. As we are well into the twenty-ﬁrst century, it is clear that the church is now far beyond the foundational stage of building. We are into the superstructure and growing.
We also note that even in the ministry of Paul, the access to miraculous “signs and wonders” was something that apparently faded in his own ministry. By the time he penned the ﬁrst epistle to Timothy, the ability to heal had possibly ceased (1 Tim. 5:23). Otherwise, why instruct his beloved son in the faith to use wine for medicinal purposes when he knew they would see each other again? Why did he not instruct Timothy to simply be patient and wait for their meeting so that Paul could lay hands on him and heal him? The sign-gifts were beginning to pass from the scene as they were no longer necessary.
2. The Nature of the Prophets’ Ministries
Both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly use terms and phrases that identified the prophets and their messages as being directly from the Lord, indicating a continuity from the Old Testament prophets to those in the New Testament. Two Old Testament texts spell out the requirements of the prophets and the steps God’s people were to take when a prophet promoted idolatry or even spoke presumptuously, that is, using himself as the source rather than the Lord (Deut. 13:1-13; 18:20-22). Sometimes the false prophet’s message could even be demonic in nature (1 Kgs. 22:20-22; 2 Chron. 18:19-22).
The messages preached by both the Old and New Testament prophets had the same requirements and stipulations. For example, the Old Testament required that a prophecy had to “come to pass”; if it did not, the speaker was a false prophet and was to be executed. Not even the smallest detail could be ignored in terms of the prophecy being fulﬁlled. Nothing in the New Testament indicates any change in these requirements for the first-century prophets. The divine standards for prophecy remained unaltered.
Why should those in the first century listen to the New Testament prophets regarding their claims about Christ cruciﬁed, raised and coming again? Because they were proclaiming the truth, God’s message. How would people know they spoke the truth? By the miracles they were performing. This is one reason why it is absolutely nonsensical for Grudem and others to promote the idea of “fallible prophets.” To claim that anything a New Testament prophet prophesied could possibly be in error would instantly repudiate his message and mission.
Some might object and say that the New Testament does not deal with requirements for prophetic ofﬁces in so strict a manner as does the Old Testament, so it is possible that it would be less stringent in its expectations. However, the Lord and His apostles warned believers to beware of false prophets, to watch out for them and, when they were found, not to ignore them or dismiss them as irrelevant but to refute them (Matt. 7:15; 24:24; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 Jn. 4:1). What standard did the hearers/readers possess in order to identify false prophets? The standard that was already established in the Old Testament Scriptures—no error was allowed! Even today, God has given us all that is necessary to combat false teaching and false teachers. We possess the complete canon of Scripture and we must use it to contend for the truth and against those who, like the false prophets of old, are propagating the error that God is speaking to us through sign gifts in addition to His finished Word.
3. Two Clearly Stated Texts of Scripture
The case for the cessation of the miraculous sign-gifts is more than adequately established in Scripture as well as church history. Certainly other passages can be referenced but we will limit our study to just the following two texts of Scripture:
First Corinthians 13:8-13—much discussion exists surrounding this particular text, both from continuationists as well as cessationists. It is important to understand that these six verses are part of a larger context pertaining speciﬁcally to the issue of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14).First Corinthians 13 delineates the role that “love” must have in the exercise of these gifts. Verses 1-3 teach that when spiritual gifts are exercised, love must be the controlling motivation. Verses 4-7 describe both the nature and character of this love. Finally, verses 8-13 provide the detail of this love’s permanence in contrast to the gifts of prophecy, knowledge and tongues which will “fail,” “vanish away” and “cease” (v. 8). Why are these three sign-gifts singled out? What do they have in common? Aside from the fact that each is miraculous, these gifts are all revelational in character.
To what does “that which is perfect” refer (1 Cor. 13:10)? A number of interpretations exist. Some believe it speaks of the matured church at the end of the apostolic era, while others view it as a reference to one or more end-time, prophetic events. Some interpret this phrase as a reference to the death of the believer, and others see it as the completion of the canon of Scripture. This final view has fallen into disfavor with many interpreters. This rejection is expected from those who teach continuationism, but it has even fallen out of favor with some within the cessationist camp as well. However, several aspects support it as being the correct understanding. First, 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 makes a contrast, not in terms of quality but quantity: “in part” verses “perfect.” Second, the word translated perfect means “having attained the end or purpose, complete, perfect.” Third, even the continuationist Gordon Fee admits Paul’s contrasts deal with the partial nature of the gifts and not the immaturity of believers (God’s Empowering Presence, pp. 207-208). Fourth, the question remains: Is it possible to discover the quality of the partial gifts (prophecy, tongues, knowledge)? Yes, it is; they revealed God’s will and Word. Since this is true, then “that which is perfect” must also be “revelational” in nature. “Thus, when the completed revelation has come, the gifts that communicated partial revelation will be done away, for they are no longer necessary” (Myron J. Houghton, A Re-examination of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 and Temporary Gifts, p. 7).
Hebrews 2:3-4—An important term is found in the last phrase of verse 3: “and was conﬁrmed unto us by them that heard Him.” The verb “was conﬁrmed” is a technical term meaning the subject is “ﬁrm, reliable, steadfast, dependable.” In other words, it is something “made ﬁrm.” It is a legal term indicating stability and security. What was in need of such an important conﬁrmation? In the context, the author writes of the “so great salvation” (v. 3), which was ﬁrst “spoken” by the Lord and then “was conﬁrmed unto us” (the human author includes himself in this category)—to the next generation—“by them that heard Him.” What was the conﬁrmation offered by those who heard the Lord? The author explains this in the next verse: the message was confirmed “with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost.” These “signs and wonders” were miracles designed to forcefully authenticate what was being preached. The author explains that only a select few actually had these sign-gifts, and they were given for a speciﬁc reason, namely, to conﬁrm the message Christ proclaimed: salvation from sin through Him alone. Only one generation had the ability to perform the miracles—those who “heard Him.” Sign-gifts ceased functioning because they were no longer necessary. Now, the message of “so great salvation” is based on the authority of the Word of God, not on human experiences.
What about today? The miraculous sign-gifts that accompanied the apostles are not happening today and are no longer supposed to happen as all such gifts ceased in the ﬁrst century during the apostles’ ministries. The case for this position has been made, adequately and Biblically, throughout church history and particularly in the twentieth century. Books, magazines and journal articles have documented the biblical case that the miraculous sign-gifts ceased functioning in the ﬁrst century. The modern charismatic movement, with its insistence on the continuance of divine revelation through tongues, prophecy, word of knowledge, etc., remains one of the most serious strongholds of error in the church in the twenty-first century. God’s people must continually refute and reject its false doctrines if they are to follow Him in accord with His precious, infallible, inerrant, God-breathed revelation. The charismatic movement must be withstood lovingly, graciously, ﬁrmly and Biblically. The Bible alone is the only revelation He has given us today. Christian friend, stand ﬁrm on this.