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Volume 11, Issue 1: Presbyterion

Signs and Cessation

Douglas Wilson

More than a few pastors have wondered whether they are being theologically dishonest in saying that the "sign gifts" are no longer operative in the church today. True, the charismatic movement gives us great reason to be suspicious, and it is a pleasure to be prejudiced and bigoted sometimes, especially when Benny Hinn is involved, but do we not have to admit that such charismatic goings-on were present in the Church of the New Testament? Well, no.

The question goes far beyond the fact of charismatic excesses. The central issue in all of this is the doctrine of sola Scriptura. The only ultimate and infallible authority in all matters of faith and practice is contained in the sixty-six books of the Bible. If the miraculous gifts are in any way acknowledged, then the doctrine of sola Scriptura must necessarily be abandoned. This does not mean that everyone does abandon it who should, only that logical consistency demands it.
The easiest way to illustrate this is to consider the office of prophet, and the nature of prophecy. What happens when someone stands up in a church service and prophesies? He says, "Thus says the Lord," and then a message follows.
A man who hears these words and believes them is obligated to treat the words he heard as the Word of God. The only way for him to contradict this is by saying that he believes them to be words from God but does not really have to treat them as words from God.
When I have offered this objection in the past, the answer has frequently been an appeal to the lost prophecies of Philip's daughters, or something else in the same category. In other words, the Bible tells us that some prophecies from God did not make it into Scripture, and so therefore not all prophecies from God are to be considered Scripture. But this misses the point of the objection.
Of course, the words of God can be disposed of by God. If He gave a word through one of Philip's daughters which He did not want to be included in Scripture, then He may obviously do what He pleases with His words. The point being made here is that we may not do as we please with His words. A man who has received these words as from God has no basis for treating them different from other words from God (contained in Scripture) unless God sovereignly intervenes.
As long as a man has in his possession words which he believes are inspired by God, then he has a moral responsibility to treat them as though they are inspired by God. He has no consistent basis for treating them any differently from the words of Scripture. Furthermore, on a practical level, he has certain clear inducements to pay closer attention to them than to the words of Scripture. Jeremiah lived a long time ago, he spoke a different language, his culture was very different from what we have to deal with. And now here, in this church service, God has given us a word in English, in our time, and in our surroundings. Which is more relevant?
Charismatics can be divided into two groups, corresponding to two responses to this objection. The first group agrees with the reductio posed here, and runs with it. These are the groups which have a prophecy of the week posted on the bulletin board, and every so often they publish the Bible II, and then the Bible III. These groups are cultic, and we need not concern ourselves with them, except for purposes of evangelism.
But the other group does not like this dilemma when it is presented to them. Because they are genuine Christians, they know that the Bible is unique. However, because of this false and destructive doctrine of continuing revelation, they have no way of consistently maintaining that the Bible is unique. Fortunately, they are better Christians than logicians, and so they just live with the contradiction. This is not hard, because it is rarely pointed out to them. The fact that they are sincere Christians does not remove the danger they have created. A man should fear when his convictions might lead him to abandon the Christian faith.
But a dilemma for the charismatics is insufficient for those who want to ground their theology and practice in the plain teaching of Scripture. Can the cessation of the sign gifts be found in the pages of the Bible?
In brief, the case for the cessation of sign gifts can be made in a summary fashion. In the former days, God spoke to us in various ways through the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us through His Son (Heb. 1:1). This Son was laid as the cornerstone, and alongside Him were the foundation stones of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20-21). No other foundation can be laid other than the one which was laid, namely the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:11). The indicators of this foundational and apostolic authority were signs, wonders, and various miracles, all done according to the Spirit's desire and will (2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:4).
So the issue is not whether we like this gift or that one, or whether we are to duplicate the phenomena of the first-century church. Rather, the issue is whether we understand the nature of blueprints. No real need for doing concrete work while building the attic.

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