The Apostolic Teaching of Spiritual Gifts for the Church Today — Part 2

Part 1 https://wordpress.com/post/grace-messenger.com/564

In this article I begin to examine the idea of the cessation of the spiritual gifts after the Apostolic era held by many Christians and present an opposing argument that is solely based on the Scriptures. This series of articles, beginning with Part 1, advocates for the continuationist position. Cessationists claim that the Bible teaches the spiritual gifts taught in 1 Cor 12 were intended to be active only in the time of the apostles during the first century to establish Christianity and the canon of the New Testament. They connect this to the miraculous gifts that were associated with the apostles, called the sign gifts, involving events such as extraordinary healings and raising people from the dead, but also includes the supernatural aspect of spiritual gifts of 1 Cor 12, such as healing, prophesy, and speaking in tongues. They often point to how the practice and exercise of spiritual gifts almost completely disappeared during the history of the Church as well. The purpose of the sign gifts was to authenticate the message of the apostles who were Christ’s specially appointed messengers to carry the Gospel to the world (Matt 10:1 – 8, 28:19f; Acts 4:10, 16). The Bible describes how God also used miracles to authenticate His messengers in the OT, such as Moses and Aaron before Israel and Egypt (Exod 4:30f; 6:1,6; 7:3) and Elijah before Ahab, Israel, and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 17:1, 14 – 16; 18:1, 20 – 46). But according to the Bible, the gifts covered in 1 Cor 12 are meant for ministry of the members of the body of Christ in general, not for sign gifts. Another cessationist argument is the opposition to the gift of prophecy on the grounds that all prophesies given by God’s people must be treated as on the same level as the Scriptures. This would be adding to the Word of God of the Bible, but I previously addressed this problem in Part 1. Although I will circle back to these arguments later on, my first refutation in Part 2 of this series will be from 1 Corinthians 13, which is often used as the crux of the cessationist’s argument in the NT.

1 Corinthians 13 is a parenthetical passage in between chapters 12 through 14 dealing with the spiritual gifts. It is important to understand it within that context. Whereas Paul is treating the spiritual gifts with respect to the ministry of the Spirit in the Body of Christ in chapter 12 and the correct praxis of the speaking gifts in the context of worship gatherings (church services) in chapter 14, he changes his literary method in Chapter 13 to contrast them with a deeper spiritual principle. Paul begins to frame this argument in the last verse of chapter 12 – “31 But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (ESV) – with reference to the whole body of teaching about the gifts in that chapter. The apostle opens chapter 13 with a poetic litany describing the exercise of various gifts in the absence of love (verses 1 – 3). After each example given of a gift nobly exercised, he concludes that nothing has been gained or achieved if it was done without love. The argument is not that love should be exercised instead of the gifts, but that the gifts are bankrupt if not exercised in love. Keep in mind that this is the divine estimation of these things, not just Paul’s opinions.

Next, he begins to define love in terms of its superior virtues in verses 4 – 8: it is patient and kind, it is not envious or arrogant or rude; it does not insist on its own way, etc. In verse 8 there is a transition based on the last characteristic of love, that it never fails the “all things” of verse 7. This is then used to further contrast love with the spiritual gifts; whereas love never fails, even the chief speaking gifts (knowledge could be associated with prophesy and tongues, as in verse 2) will each cease or eventually be done away with. It is important to mark that no cause or time frame is given at this point–the context still holds that the gifts are part of the ordinary ministry of the Body of Christ when Paul is writing his letter. It is just a contrast that love is enduring and the gifts are temporary. In verses 9 and 10 there is a shift in contrast that finally gives us a cause for the cessation of the gifts. The contrast becomes that of the partial versus the perfect (or complete): “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.” Here, “in part” equates to partial or imperfect regarding the way the gifts are executed. It could be referring to the operations of the Spirit acting through weak and imperfect humans, but it cannot include divine inspiration in the sense of 2 Tim 3:16 that speaks of God breathing out His words through human agents that are captured in the Scriptures. Now there actually are two factors active in this verse–the partial vs. the perfect and the temporary vs. the lasting. The perfect here eliminates the partial when it comes sometime in the distant future, otherwise Paul is wasting his time teaching extensively about the spiritual gifts, which has been inscribed as part of the divine canon for the Church in perpetuity. It is probably too soon to conclude what “the perfect” may be referring to at this point, but it cannot be love since love itself has always been present in God and the virtue that should characterize all followers of Christ (Jn 13:34).

In contrast to love which is eternal, there is faith, which we’ll see shortly, is temporary for this life. Whereas love can be associated with the perfect and lasting quality (but is not the perfect itself), faith is associated with the partial, temporary element, that is, the spiritual gifts (Roms 12:6; 1 Cor 12:9). Verse 11 sets off a triplet to further illustrate the contrast between the partial and the perfect. First, in verse 11 Paul makes the comparison between the state of childhood (temporary, transitional) versus adulthood (final condition). When he became an adult he gave up his childish ways of thinking and speaking. Notice that it says “became a man” which is a permanent change of state of the person. Some commentators relate this to Ephs 4:13 where, through the ministry of gifted individuals placed in the church (apostles, prophets, evangelists, etc.; see verses 7 – 12), all the members of the body of Christ may attain mature adulthood who “may no longer be children” (vs 14) falling into the vicissitudes of childhood. Nevertheless, a preponderance of the classical commentaries ascribe the perfect to the state of life in the hereafter where the saints will be in the presence of the Lord and shall be like him (1 Cor 15:49; Heb 12:23b; 1 Jn 3:2). It involves a change of state of the redeemed when they inhabit spiritual bodies that are absolutely free from sin and imperfection (1 Cor 15:42 – 45). The spiritual gifts will no longer be necessary. Such conditions cannot exist in the present world, including in the Church, while man is still subject to the sin nature in his natural body. That also applies to the means employed for learning and growing in grace, whether the preaching of the Scriptures or the exercise of spiritual gifts. Paul likens it to the manner of speaking and thinking of a small child versus an adult.

The apostle then makes the next contrast in verse 12: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” The seeing in a mirror is contrasted with looking directly at the object. Mirrors in the NT times were polished metals, rather than glass, that reflected a distorted image. Paul says this is the kind of vision we have now. Compare that with the clarity of looking directly at an object (assuming one possesses good vision), which is the kind of vision we will have “then”–when the perfect comes. He then adds that he will know fully, even as he has been fully known. The phrase “fully known” is used of God knowing those whom he has chosen to be among the redeemed (Jn 10:14; Nah 1:7). This is a complete and full knowledge that God has. Paul says that when the perfect comes he will have full and complete knowledge. Thus, he saying that our present understanding of the spiritual things from God, including the Scriptures, is not sharp or in perfect focus, as in a distorted or blurred image from a mirror. That is true, even with the assistance of the Spirit of God (note in 1 Cor 2:9 – 14 Paul is speaking primarily of the ministry of the apostles communicating spiritual truths received from the Spirit). But then, when the perfect comes, our knowledge and understanding will be complete, in clear focus, without any distortion or diminution. That can only be true when we’re in the eternal state in the hereafter, when we have gained the full redemption of our bodies at the resurrection of the just and live in the presence of God and of the Lamb.

“There are some things which we count very precious now, which will soon be of no value to us whatever. There are some things that we know or think we know, and we pride ourselves a good deal upon our knowledge; but when we shall become men we shall set no more value upon that knowledge than a child does upon his toys when he grows up to be a man. Our spiritual manhood in heaven will discard many things which we now count precious, as a full grown man discards the treasures of his childhood. And there are many things that we have been accustomed to see that, after this transient life has passed, we shall see no more. Though we delighted in them, and they pleased our eyes while sojourning on earth, they will pass away as a dream when one awaketh; we shall never see them again, and never want to see them; for our eyes in clearer light, anointed with eye-salve, shall see brighter visions, and we shall never regret what we have lost, in the presence of fairer scenes we shall have found. Other things there are that we know now and shall never forget; we shall know them for ever, only in a higher degree, because no longer with a partial knowledge; and there are some things that we see now that we shall see in eternity, only we shall see them there in a clearer light.” –Charles Hadden Spugeon, “Now and Then” Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 17: 1871

Since the perfect is still in our future (Rom 8:18 – 25), the partial remains that consists of living by faith and conducting ministry through the exercise of spiritual gifts by the Spirit. Thus, in the final verse Paul returns to the present when he begins in verse 13, “And now abide…” Faith, hope, and love have their home and activity in the present age while Christ is building His temple, the Church, through His Spirit. Faith vitally connects us with the unseen God (Rom 4:16; 2 Cor 4:18; 5:6, 7; Eph 2:8; Heb 11:1, 6; 1 Pet 1:5) and His redemption, hope connects us with all of the promises of God to us (Rom 8:24; 1 Thess 5:8; 1 Tim 4:10; Titus 1:2; 2:13; 3:7; Heb 11:1) in this life but especially for the future, and love is the virtue that describes the very nature of God which is eternal. The first two are active and necessary for the present life and walk of the believer, but the third is essential for both the present and eternity.

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