Standing up against Pharismania (my initial thoughts on Cessationism)
One of the topics I am very interested in is the status of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the church today: whether the gifts have ceased or whether they continue to exist. The body of Christ is divided on this subject; there are cessationists who believe the gifts have ceased since the death of the apostles in the New Testament and continuationists who believe that believers can still operate in the gifts even today. The gifts here specifically refer to the charismatic gifts: prophecy, speaking and interpreting tongues, healing, working miracles, word of knowledge etc. The term “charismatic” comes from the Greek word “charisma,” which means “gift of grace” or “gift of God’s grace”. I am a firm believer that these gifts continue to exist in the body of Christ today for a number of reasons. I won’t go into much details today. This is a topic that I wish to take my time to address extensively as time goes on, so you can call this my initial thoughts on the topic and not a conclusive one.
Admittedly, it is very appalling to see how these gifts have been abused and used to exploit people in the church. Charlatans have crept into the church, distorted the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and led many astray because they parade themselves as prophets, healers and deliverance ministers. It is understandable and actually necessary for us to be alarmed about how the gifts of the Holy Spirit are abused in the church today. I have often said that there is not a single good gift, that the Lord gives, that human beings haven’t abused. I believe, as the scripture says, that all good and perfect gifts come from above (James 1:17). In my study of the bible, I see how human beings or the children of God (both in the old and the new testaments) have abused every good gift God gives. Kings and judges have abused the authority and power given to them; prophets have abused the anointing God gave them etc. It is almost as if the abuse of good gifts is inevitable. However, I think our attitude towards the abuse of God’s gifts should align with God’s. So long as the LORD hasn’t ceased giving gifts to men, we dare not cease believing there are genuinely and divinely gifted people out there who have a specific assignment in this generation. In any case, the bone of contention regarding this topic is if the LORD still gives charismatic gifts, isn’t it? I will tackle this question from one angle: the universality and timelessness of the words spoken by Jesus and confirmed by his apostles.
The opening verses of the book of John tell us that Jesus is the Word of God and this same Jesus is God. This idea presupposes that Jesus in himself is the eternal Word of God and is at the same time the message God wants to communicate to this world and especially to believers. In fact, nothing was created without the Word of God, hence our entire existence and experience on this earth is made possible by the eternal Word of God. For this reason, I am very particular about Jesus’ words dotted all over the New Testament. I believe he came to live a life that is exemplary and compelling for all Christians in whatever stage in human history to emulate. I also believe his message is a universal and timeless one, which means he came to speak to all people and for all time. Did Christ ever deliver a message to a specific group of people that was ONLY relevant to them in that time in human history? Certainly! However, even those statements have existential and eternal value for all people and for all time. Let’s take a close look at what Jesus said in Matthew 11:21 to understand this issue, he said:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes
In this story, Jesus was addressing the unrepentant people in the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida who had been witnesses to many mighty miracles he had done. Despite the fact that Jesus wrought mighty works amongst them, they still didn’t believe in him. Therefore, he rebuked them and stated that people living in other cities (Tyre and Sidon) would have repented if they had been witnesses of those mighty works. Here, we can clearly say that Jesus was speaking to a specific people at a specific time in human history. The people of Chorazin and Bethsaida being the primary recipients are also the main subject of this message: their unrepentant hearts was the reason Jesus said what he said. However, what Jesus said has some serious value and application even in our world today on a collective level and on an individual level as well. Meaning, this portion of scripture can be applied to individuals and groups of people who have witnessed many mighty works of Christ yet refuse to repent.
On the other hand, there are statements that Jesus made that are for all people and for all time. We will look at one of such statements recorded in Mark 16:17-18:
And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.
Coincidentally, prior to this passage, Jesus had rebuked the apostles for their unbelief and the hardness of their heart. Similar to what he told the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida.
Although the primary recipients of this message are the apostles, Jesus opens this message up for all people and for all time by using the phrase “those who believe”. “Those who believe” are not a specific group of people trapped in a specific time in human history. These are individuals who believe in Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world and have accepted him as their LORD regardless of what point in human history they exist in. These individuals are the target group of God’s rescue mission executed by Jesus on the cross and finalized in his resurrection. The statement of Jesus in the passage under discussion is a portion of what Christians call the Great Commission which is Jesus’ instructions to his disciples, after his resurrection and before his ascension, to propagate the gospel globally. The apostles are dead and gone, however, the Great Commission is still being carried out today. Although the apostles were the primary recipients of the message, Jesus was saying these things to the hearing of all people and for all time. Therefore, we need to take the words of Jesus seriously even in this day and age – as seriously as the apostles did.
The reason why I have stressed this point is that two of the signs that Jesus mentioned will follow “those who believe…” are spiritual gifts: speaking in tongues and healing the sick. If this is so, then how did our brothers and sisters come to the conclusion that the gifts of the Spirit were for a specific group of people for a specific time in the ancient world? “Those who believe…” as a universal and timeless statement reminds me of the “whosoever…” in John 3:16. This verse in John is arguably the most popular bible verse. I doubt the right interpretation of the verse is “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son. That whosoever believes in him in the ancient world, will not perish but have everlasting life”. It is erroneous to read John 3:16 with this understanding. Jesus spoke to all people and for all time in both John 3:16 and Mark 16:17-18. Jesus stated categorically in the latter passage that two of the signs that shall follow all who believe in him are speaking in tongues and healing. For this reason I do not subscribe to the cessationist doctrine. I believe strongly in what Jesus said and its implications to the world and the body of Christ today.
On the day of Pentecost, Peter addressed all who had gathered after hearing the 120 in the upper room speaking in tongues. The bulk of Peter’s message was a prophecy recorded in Joel 2. In fact, he didn’t just quote the passage but he explained to his audience that the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost is actually a fulfilment of what the Prophet Joel prophesied:
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.
God has said he will pour out his Spirit on all flesh. “All flesh” here signifies that the outpouring of the Spirit of God will not be the reserve of any special group of people, for God does not discriminate. The outpouring of the Spirit of God will not be limited to a specific gender, age bracket, race, social class etc. What we do know is that the prophecy was expected to be fulfilled within a specific time in human history called “the last days”. The last days, span from the day of Pentecost until Christ comes. It is a term that is widely used in scripture. Often in the New Testament, a lot of signs and global events are stated that will characterize these last days. This is the conclusion I drew from Peter’s address: if Peter claims the day of Pentecost is a fulfilment or the beginning of the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, then since we are still in the last days, we should expect that the same manifestations of the Spirit will be seen in the body of Christ. Since the outpouring of the Spirit is characterised by prophecy, then it isn’t consistent with the timelines of Joel’s prophecy when we say the gift of prophecy ceased at some earlier point in human history. So long as the last days remain, we will still see the outpouring of the Holy Spirit characterised by the signs prophesied by Joel, which includes spiritual gifts.
The Apostle Paul also made a lot of statements that communicated at least the universality of spiritual gifts to a certain degree. “Universality” here refers to the fact that the gifts are not reserved for a special group of people: which is exactly what Joel prophesied and Peter confirmed on the day of Pentecost. In writing to the church of Corinth, Paul said in 1st Corinthians 14:5 that “now I want you ALL to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy…”. Paul expresses his desire for every single member of a church, regardless of their background, to speak in tongues, better yet, to prophesy as well. “ALL” means all; no one left behind and no one excluded. Paul expected the entire church of Corinth to manifest the gifts of the Spirit, especially speaking in tongues and prophecy. Later in the same chapter, while instructing the church of Corinth on the need for orderly worship, Paul again stated in verse 31 that “For you can ALL prophesy one by one…”. Again, “ALL” means all. Everybody in a single church can prophesy and it shouldn’t be described as “charismania” but it should be seen as the fulfilment of biblical prophecy and the practising of sound doctrine.
Cessationists have coined the term “charismania” to describe individuals, movements and denominations that emphasize the widespread use of the gifts of the Spirit. I have also coined the term “Pharismania” to describe the excessive scepticism of those who constantly deny, disapprove, misjduge, doubt and question the existence and use of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ today. This is because their actions remind me of the Pharisees in John 9 when Jesus healed a man who was born blind.The Pharisees, instead of rejoicing at the news of this miracle, rather commenced an investigation to be sure, not for good reasons, that the man was indeed born blind. They interviewed his friends, family and the man himself in the process. All that mattered that day was that a blind man was healed. But the sceptics concerned themselves more with the non-issue of the day than the miracle. This is the level of scepticism that cessationism brings to the table. It is sad to say that cessationism is adorned with the same level of hyper-scepticism that the Pharisees opposed Jesus’ ministry with. Hyper-scepticism is not a sign of maturity. Hyper-scepticism is not discernment. Hyper-scepticism is a sign that you lack faith in the word of God and the person of Jesus.