Cessationists are not saying God has ceased working supernaturally, but that the primary means of God working supernaturally through gifted individuals is no longer happening in today’s Church. Holy Scripture records for us that God used the means of supernaturally gifted individuals like prophets and apostles to demonstrate displays of the supernatural like divine healing. When those individuals completed their ministry, it is accurate to say God “ceased” working supernaturally.
The last major group of supernaturally gifted individuals ministered during the era of the NT Church in the first century. Thus supernatural signs and wonders ended, or ceased, when the ministry of the NT apostles closed near the end of the first century with the completion of the New Testament documents. Signs and wonders were the blue ribbon indicators that the Gospel message of salvation through the person and work of Jesus Christ and proclaimed by the NT apostles was authentic.
So that we are on the same page let me back up and offer some definitions.
Remember that continuationists are Christians who believe supernatural signs and wonders gifts are normative for the Christian experience in our modern day. Continuationists are also known as “charismatics” from the Greek word charismata, which is translated as “spiritual gifts” or “grace gifts”.
Continuationists come in all sorts of varieties of denominational and non-denominational expressions. They range from the absurd (and I would add, “false”), like Benny Hinn and other similar TV “Health-N-Wealth” personalities, to those in the middle like Pentecostal and Assemblies of God attending Christians, to the more “sound-minded” like C.J. Mahaney and John Piper.
Those on the “sound-minded” end of the spectrum consider themselves “open but cautious” continuationists, meaning that they recognize wacky charismatics/continuationists exist and are a problem, but their “wackiness” should not invalidate the validity of supernatural gifts being present in today’s church. So they are cautious in that they want to stay away from affirming the wacky ones, but open to genuine manifestations of God’s supernatural workings.
Continuationists would argue that cessationists who believe supernatural gifts have ended go way too far with their view because it places God in a box. It is a view that denies God the freedom to work any way He may see fit. In fact, a number of contiuationists will claim supernatural gifts on the level that Jesus and the apostles performed should be expected in our world today and will cite testimonials of such occurrences happening all over the world. [See for example Craig Keener’s two volume work on Miracles who “documents” those testimonials]. To claim such events never happen is considered quenching the Spirit or denying the power of God.
Continuationists will typically argue against cessationists along two lines:
First, it is said the cessationist has no direct teaching from Scripture that such supernatural gifts have ceased. They are making deductions about spiritual gifts from silence. First Corinthians 13:10 says specifically that tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, will only pass away and end when the “perfect” comes, and that perfect who comes is Jesus Christ at His Second Coming.
Then secondly, cessationists merely argue from their lack of experience. In other words, because they have never witnessed a supernatural move of God healing someone, or perhaps are only familiar with the circus side-show parlor tricks of TV preachers, cessationists erroneously conclude no one is genuinely being healed supernaturally.
If I may, let me address the second objection contiuationists make toward cessationists. I have addressed the first objection in a post from a few years ago, but I’ll try to come back later and address that point at another time.
Let me begin by laying aside those folks in the absurd category, because the so-called sound-minded continuationists will whole-heartedly agree with cessationists that they are heretical cranks. We all agree they do not represent the true working of the Holy Spirit that produces genuine works of signs and wonders.
But with that stated, the reason why the cessationists’ “experience” argument, or “lack of experience” argument if we may call it that, is so effective is because it is so damning as an indictment against the real work of signs and wonders.
Continuationists are arguing that real signs and wonders recorded in the NT documents still exist today among God’s people. Specifically that means the miraculous healing of people with severe physical health problems and handicaps. Considering the NT documents, it would be individuals with spinal cord injuries and paralysis (Mark 2), those with crippling deformities (Matthew 12:9ff.), those with incurable blindness (Mark 8:22ff), and those who had even died being raised to life again (John 11).
When cessationists raise the “experience” argument, they stand on fairly solid ground because it is just a fact that people with that severity of sickness, disease, and physical malady are not being healed supernaturally as the continuationists claim they are.
The continuationists, however, typically respond to that charge two-fold:
First they argue that the miracles Jesus did are in a different category than those miracles that happen today. Then secondly, contrary to the cessationists’ insistence that signs and wonders don’t take place, they have either personally witnessed those signs and wonders happening at their church or know others who have some sort of firsthand experience with them. The cessationist who insists upon actual proof verifying the legitimacy of those healings is guilty of acting like Herod who wanted to see Jesus do a trick (Luke 23:8). Signs and wonders, they argue, should not be considered like the performance of a Las Vegas street magician.
I would certainly agree that Jesus, as the God-Man, second member of the Trinity clothed in humanity, performed miracles that were in an entirely unique category. He demonstrated His deity in that He did miracles of creation (turning water into wine, John 2 and creating food out of thin air, John 6) and sovereign control over nature (walking on a stormy sea, Matthew 14:23-33 and stilling a storm, Matthew 8:23-27). However, Jesus did confer authority upon His 12 apostles to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons” (Matthew 10:8) and He gave the 72 the authority to “heal the sick” (Luke 10:9).
The idea of “healing the sick” is generic, but I think it is only reasonable to deduce that “healing” would include those with serious handicaps, incurable diseases, blindness, and deafness. The apostles were specifically granted the ability to raise the dead. So even if their miracles were not in the same category as Jesus, they were granted by the Lord to perform signs and wonders involving divine healing and raising the dead.
When we come to 1 Corinthians 12-14, the most extensive teaching on spiritual gifts found in the NT, Paul states that some have been given the “gifts of healing” (1 Corinthians 12:9). It is only reasonable to assume the type of healing those gifted individuals could do would have been similar to what Jesus commissioned the apostles and the 72 to do. Nothing would suggest that gift of healing as taught by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 is in a different category from the gift of healing recorded in Matthew 10 and Luke 10.
If continuationists are correct in that signs and wonders like divine healing continue in our modern day, there has to be individuals available for interview who had for example spinal cord injuries, paralysis, crippling deformities, and blindness, who were healed by one with that spiritual gift.
Now continuationists insist there are those people who have been healed, but the problem for the cessationist is that they can never produce them to document and testify to their miraculous healing. If they do produce them, under scrutiny, the person who was “healed” wasn’t necessarily “healed” from a serious aliment, but something marginal.
The continuationist, then, responds by saying just because cessationists never saw the miraculous healing doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or that they could happen. In other words, a lack of experience doesn’t disprove any healing taking place and the cessationists’ complaints are invalid.
But it is not inappropriate to ask for proof. When we turn to the NT, all of the miracles Jesus performed were done openly in view of the public. Everybody could verify their authenticity. For example, in Mark 2, everyone in Capernaum knew the man who was lowered down before Jesus on his bed. He was more than likely a local who everyone knew was genuinely paralyzed. Jesus not only healed the man, but he healed him in front of a gigantic crowd who witnessed the miracle. Those outside who may not have seen the actual miracle did see the man walk out of the house carrying his bed.
When Jesus ministered in the northern parts of Galilee and the region of Tyre and Sidon, Matthew 15:30ff. and Luke 6:17ff, multitudes sought Him out and Jesus healed them of their diseases and infirmities. Matthew specifically says Jesus healed those who had been maimed, meaning those who perhaps lost limbs or were deformed in some crippling fashion. Their legs were straightened and missing arms were replaced. Those were not miracles done in private or in the confines of a tent revival. They were done publicly, in full view of a great multitude of believers and unbelievers alike, and they were so extraordinary they were undeniable. Even the Pharisees recognized they were the real deal and the only explanation they had was the Devil did them.
All of that to say, if contiuationists are correct that signs and wonders are a part of the normal Christian experience and they are happening with regularity among God’s people, then there should be gifted individuals who should do extraordinary signs and wonders with their laying on of hands. Their ministry should be public — I would suggest a children’s cancer hospital or special ministries department at a local church. And their ministry should be witnessed by believers and unbelievers alike and those signs and wonders should be both undeniable and verifiable.