The Work of the Spirit | pt. 6

You can see the previous post in the series here.

There is no exegetical reason for believing the gifts have ceased. Ninth, despite what many believe, there is no convincing exegetical argument for the cessation of the grace gifts.[1] 1 Corinthians 13:10 plays a prominent role in many cessationists’ arguments. It did for me when I was taught as a kid. There is another hermeneutical issue, however. Thomas R. Schreiner says,

To see ‘the perfect’ as referring to the New Testament canon is an example of anachronism…

Instead of referring to spiritual maturity or to the canon of the New Testament, ‘the perfect’ most likely refers to the second coming of Christ, the end of the age. The perfect is equivalent with seeing God face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).[2]

John MacArthur says although many “scholars [e.g. B.B. Warfield, Richard Gaffin, Robert Thomas, Thomas Edgar, Simon J. Kistemaker] disagree on the identification of the ‘perfect,’ they all reach the same conclusion—namely, that the miraculous and revelatory gifts have ceased.”[3] He goes on to say that “we must look elsewhere than 1 Corinthians 13:10, to passages like Ephesians 2:20, where Paul indicated that both the apostolic and prophetic offices were only for the foundational age of the church.”[4] 

Many, such as John MacArthur, Richard B. Gaffin, along with Schreiner, end up making the argument that the gifts of the Spirit have ceased because they claim, otherwise, the canon of Scripture would be in jeopardy.[5] That, however, is rather a different issue than if the gifts of the Spirit continue or not. For one, the canon of Scripture, as well as the very existence of the Church, has been in jeopardy since the outset. The way to defend Scripture, as well as the church, is a more robust understanding of what Scripture teaches, not fear.

We could look at various examples of this. For example, having the Bible in the common language was very unpopular and thought of as wrong for a long time—in fact people were killed—because of all the abuses that would come from having the Bible in the common language, and there have been many heresies, no doubt many partially the result of the Bible being in the common language. Salvation by grace alone is criticized because people often fear it will lead to all sorts of abuses, and sometimes it does, but that does not mean grace is unbiblical. In the same way, just because there are churches and people that do not rightly follow Scripture in regards to the grace gifts does not at all mean that the grace gifts do not continue. That is what we to need consider in the next point.

MacArthur essentially says in light of 1 Corinthian 13:10 that to put the nail in the coffin of his argument he needs to look at Ephesians 2:20 and the passages that are like it.[6] I am not sure what other passages MacArthur is actually referring to.[7] Further, he never makes a clear argument for why Ephesians 2:20 can be used to calibrate his position. [8]

The only thing MacArthur argues is that the Apostles, namely, Paul and the Twelve, had a unique calling and qualification. They saw the Lord Jesus and their writings could be inscripturated. They, and they alone, were the foundation of the Church. As far as that goes, I basically agree with him. The Apostles certainly did have a unique place in the Church. They are the “foundation.”

MacArthur says Ephesians 2:20 “means nothing if it doesn’t decisively limit apostleship to the earliest stages of church history. After all, a foundation is not something that can be rebuilt during every phase of construction.”[9] He goes on to say, “When one considers the writings of the church fathers—those Christian Leaders who lived shortly after the apostles—it quickly becomes evident they regarded the foundational age of the church to be in the past.”[10] Alright, that is all well and good. However, that does nothing to say that the spiritual gifts under question have seized. Actually, two of the church fathers he lists to collaborate his view, Irenaeus (c. 130-202) and Tertullian (c. 155-230), actually bolster the continuationists point[11] (See pages 36-38 below for more on apostles).

The abuse of the gifts does not disprove their continuance. Tenth, the abuse of certain wings of the Church is no argument for the cessation of the gracious gifts of the Spirit. Jonathan Edwards reminds us: 

We have a remarkable instance, in the New Testament, of a people that partook largely of that great effusion of the Spirit in the apostles’ days, among whom there nevertheless abounded imprudences and great irregularities; viz. The church at Corinth. There is scarcely any church more celebrated in the New Testament for being blessed with large measures of the Spirit of God,… yet what manifold imprudences, great and sinful irregularities, and strange confusion did they run into, at the Lord’s supper, and in the exercise of church discipline![12]

Thus, “It is no sign that a work is not from the Spirit of God, that many, who seem to be the subjects of it, are guilty of great imprudences and irregularities in their conduct… A thousand imprudences will not prove a work to be not of the Spirit of God.”[13]

Scripture is the final say on whether or not the gifts of the Spirit continue, not whether or not we understand each of the gifts perfectly or whether or not those who believe the gifts of the Spirit continue to practice everything in a way that builds up the body of Christ in accordance with Scripture. Those other things are distractions (in logical argumentation they are referred to as the red herring fallacy).

The gifts are given for the upbuilding of the Church. The eleventh reason for believing that all of the grace gifts continue to be given is that they are for the upbuilding of the church.[14] John F. MacArthur himself says,

Spiritual gifts are valuable. In fact, they are absolutely necessary to the life and function of the church. Anything that important is fair game for Satan’s lies and trickery, and he makes it his business to counterfeit spiritual gifts whenever he can. Like any good counterfeiter, Satan can make the phony look almost real. A lot of counterfeit gifts are passing for the real thing today, and the end result will not be the building of the church but the tearing down and the weakening of the body of Christ.[15]

Of course, MacArthur does not believe that certain gifts continue to function. But what if they too are “absolutely necessary”? The Apostle Paul certainly had a lot of good things to say about all of the gifts.

Paul in a sense wrote a sort of physic or fitness manual for the optimal functioning of the Church body. And the core of his teaching on bodily health is: Edification! It’s woven throughout his whole manual. It is the backbone of his teaching (1 Cor 12:7; 14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17, 26 cf. Rom 14:19) but the other main part of his teaching is the necessity of the different members of the body, the different gifts, all functioning.

But is not MacArthur, and those who hold a similar position to him, saying that certain gifts should not function?[16] That is nowhere near the conclusion that Paul himself came to. Paul argued that all the members and all the gifts should function properly. I believe, however, that MacArthur (and those who hold a similar view) are guilty of doing one of the very things Paul is saying should not be done. He is wanting to keep members of the body from functioning, he is wanting to block one of the Lord’s good gifts to His church.

The gifts are good. If we are thinking otherwise then we do not understand rightly and we are coming at the text with a skewed and biased pre-understanding. The gifts of the Spirit are for the construction of the corporate church. When we suppress them it will result in the stunting of the body. We do not want to suppress them, though neither do we want to exalt in them. We do not want to merely exalt in the gifts but in Christ, because through Him our names are written in heaven (Luke 10:17-20). The gifts are good but the Giver is better.

The gifts are good and serve a purpose, but that purpose should not be ours alone. It should be in the Lord’s Name, according to His purpose (cf. Mark 16:17; John 14:13; 16:23). Grudem says, “There is nothing inappropriate in seeking miracles for the proper purposes for which they are given by God: to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel message, to bring help to those in need, to remove hindrances to people’s ministries, and to bring glory to God.”[17]

The manifestation of the Spirit is not bad, as many would have us think; rather, Paul says it is given for the common good (1 Cor 12:7). He even says we should earnestly desire spiritual gifts (14:1 cf. 39; 12:31). Paul explains how there are “varieties of gifts but the same Spirit” (12:4).  In fact, “the body is not one member, but many” (v. 14). God has given the body all sorts of helpful, even necessary, parts. He has appointed for the Church apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helps, administrators, and kinds of tongues (v. 28). So the Church is not just filled with one member. Because if the body was made of just arms, for instance, where would the body be (cf. v. 19)? Or if the body was made of just teachers, where would the body be? However, that is not the way it is. There are many members—hands, arms, toes and teachers, prophets, administrators—yet one body (cf. 12:20, 28-30). And these different parts work together in their different and God-given ways for the common good of the body (cf. vv. 7-11).

All the gifts are vital for the upbuilding and mission of the church. What if God so composed the body that He gave different gifts to it to build it up and encourage it? I believe He did! Because that’s exactly what it says in 1 Corinthians 12. Many believe that but they leave out the first part of that chapter. I believe they fail to understand the passage in context and are thus guilty of exactly what Paul says not to do: looking down on other parts of the body.

Paul lists a whole lot of good things about the gifts of the Spirit. He says “everyone who prophesies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3). Paul says, all these things must be done for the building up of the church (cf. 14:12, 26). He says that the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good (12:7). If the gifts are good and for the upbuilding of the body then would they not be helpful until the end of the age?

Of course, there are certain ways in which a body is to operate. When people walk, for instance, most of the time, they walk on their feet, not on their hands. This is for good reason. So it is with the Church body; there are certain ways that it is supposed to operate. So, let us now briefly look at some of the ways we are told that the Church is supposed to function with its various parts.


[1] Thus, Robert J. Banks says, “The charismata are not temporary in character but ongoing features of the community’s life. They are not given merely to help the churches get started but are intended as the main constituents of their gatherings so long as they continue to meet. According to Paul it is only when ‘what which is perfect is come’ ([1 Cor] 13:10), when all communications of an intermediary character between God and humanity are abolished, that these gifts will come to an end” (Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in their Cultural Setting [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009], 92-93).

[2] Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 369. See also Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1579ff, Carson, Showing the Spirit, 67-72, and John Calvin’s commentary on 1 Cor. 13:10. Calvin says, “the whole of this discussion is ignorantly applied to the time that is intermediate.”  Simon J. Kistemaker confuses me when he says both “revelatory prophecy… came to an end with the close of the canon” (1 Corinthians, 466) and also that “one of the objections to this view is that we cannot expect the Corinthians in A.D. 55 to link perfection to the closing of the canon in the last decade of the first century” (Ibid., 467). I do not understand the logic that says the gifts of the Spirit do not continue because there are no longer Apostolic Apostles that write Scripture and knew Jesus. That argument is not a scriptural one.

[3] MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 148.

[4] Ibid., 149. This is clearly true when other cessantionist, such as Gaffin, say that 1 Corinthians 13:10 cannot be used to prove their position (cf. e.g. Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 109-110).

[5] Schreiner says, this “would compromise the unique authority of Scripture, and the potential for spiritual abuse and a cultic type of authoritarianism would be great” (Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1678). Bringing up potential errors of a teaching is not at all the same things as should that a teaching is wrong or unbiblical (remember the examples of grace and the priesthood of all believers). Schreiner goes on to say, “Perhaps the gift of prophecy existed for a few hundred years in the early church… and gradually faded away” (Ibid.). If there was infallible prophecy then, even before the closing of the canon when things that should not be included would be more likely be included, why would there not be able to be prophecy now when the canon is clearly closed? It seems the canon was in more danger then. Regardless, danger should never be the measure of what is theologically true.

[6] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 149.

[7] Partly because MacArthur’s whole book against continuationists only ever references Ephesians 2:20 five times (the Scripture Index in Strange Fire only lists four but there is a fifth reference on page 96). For a book that rests its ultimate argument on an interpretation of a single text you would think it would show up more in his book of 261 pages.

[8] Ferguson, likewise, has said, “The cessationist view would imply that there are two distinct, or at least distinguishable, dispensations in the new age which Jesus inaugurated through his death, resurrection and the gift of the Spirit, namely the apostolic age and the post-apostolic age.” Does the Bible speak about the last days in such a way, however? That seems to be what the issue really comes down to. Ferguson goes on to say, “the New Testament itself divides the last days into apostolic and post-apostolic dimensions or periods” (Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, 229). The only warrant he gives for this, however, is reference to Ephesians 2:20. How does Ephesians 2:20 point us to the existence of a dual last days in which there is a bifurcation, an apostolic age and a no certain grace gifts of the Spirit age? In a similar way, Horton says, the NT “itself makes a distinction between the foundation-laying era of the apostles and the era of building the church on their completed foundation (1Co 3:10-11)” (The Christian Faith, 884). The verse that Horton references, however, does not refer two different eras. In fact, 1 Corinthians assumes the ongoing place of the gifts of the Spirit. I do agree though that the “ministry of the apostles is different from the ‘upbuilding’ ministry of their successors” (Ibid., 885).

[9] MacArthur, Strange Fire, 96-97. “We must be careful not to push the metaphor beyond what Paul intended by it” (C. Samuel Storms, in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today?, 78).

[10] Ibid., 97. This is no wonder, because it was. But that is not the same as showing that the gifts do not continue.

[11] Irenaeus “Wrote a book entitled Against Heresies at some point between 182 and 188 AD. One of his most telling contentions against the heretics was that they were not able to accomplish the miracles of healing which the Christians were able to perform. They did not have access to the power of God and so could not heal. Irenaeus gave examples of almost the same range of healings that are found in the Gospels and Acts taking place in the Churches that he knew. All kinds of bodily infirmity and many different diseases had been cured. He had seen the damage done from external accidents repaired and even described the raising of the dead” (Nigel, “Signs and Wonders,” 159). Here’s another example: “For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ” (Irenaeus Haer. 2.32.4 (ANF 1.409 as quoted in Gary Steven Shogren, “Christian Prophecy and Canon in the Second Century: A Response to B. B. Warfield,” 623 in JETS 40/4 (December 1997), 609-626, italics his). Tertullian “explicitly identified people he personally knew of in the late third century who had been healed. He testified to their great number and the wide range of physical and mental illnesses he had seen cured. Elsewhere he stated that ‘the Lord could, and sometimes did, recall men’s souls to their bodies’ meaning that some individuals were raised from the dead” (Nigel, “Signs and Wonders,” 159).

[12] Edward, “Distinguishing Marks of a work of the Spirit of God,” 264.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Contra what Schreiner says: “Now that the church has the authoritative guidance for faith and practice in the Scriptures, the gifts and miracles which were needed to build up the early church are no longer needed, and they are not common” (Spiritual Gifts, loc. 1755.). Schreiner, however, is just making a statement. He is not proving it biblically. The Bible says that the gifts are given for the up building of the body. It does not even hint at the gifts being unnecessary down the road except until the return of Christ. If anything, the great commission as given in Acts points us to our need for the Spirit’s mighty empowering until the end.

[15] John F. MacArthur, Jr., The Charismatics: A Doctrine Perspective (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 106.

[16] I realize they say it based upon their understanding that certain gifts do not continue but that is part of my point. The Bible never makes that case. The Bible makes a case for the proper functioning of the gifts, not the cessation of the gifts.

[17] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 371. Grudem points out that “Jesus only rebukes hostile unbelievers who seek miracles” (Ibid., 370n34).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: