Have the Gifts Ceased? (1 Corinthians 13:8)

Have the gifts of the Spirit ceased? Has the Holy Spirit ceased His work and manifestation? Let’s take a look at this dividing doctrine.

Few doctrines have divided the church more than cessationism, the theological position that the sign gifts/miracles have ceased today. The main verse used to support the view that the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not in work today is in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10, which states,

 “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

So what is Paul telling us?

It is most important to note that the context of the passage extorts love above the charismatic gifts. Verse 8 speaks of love being eternal (i.e. never failing) and the gifts being temporal. Tongues will one day cease, along with prophecy and knowledge, but love will remain. The point of disagreement is when the gifts cease. Some view they were meant solely for the apostolic age, some of the Jews alone, and others believe it will cease after the second coming. To find some ground on the issue it would be wise to note the views of some scholars.

Craig Keener in his commentary on the social background of the NT says,

“Some OT prophets predicted the outpouring [of the] Spirit in the final time, accompanied by the ability to speak under the Spirit’s inspiration (Joel 2:28); but other prophecies noted that all of God’s people in the world to come would know God, hence there would be no reason for exhortation (Jer 31:33-34). Paul believes that the time of the Spirit’s gifts, including limited human knowledge, is the current time, between Jesus’ first and second comings (cf. 13:10,12).”

On the other side, the non-charismatics note that the completion of the Biblical canon is enough, so the gifts aren’t needed now. Sites such as the Modern Reformation emphasize the argument that anyone who holds a non-cessationist view believes the Bible isn’t enough. Verse ten is used to support this by claiming the “that which is perfect” is the Biblical canon itself.

There is one point correct with this, that is the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture is a fundamental truth. However, it assumes knowledge that Paul most likely would not have had. Did Paul know his letters would complete the NT canon, or that John would eventually write Revelation? Even if he somehow did, such a statement would make absolutely no sense to his audience. How could the Corinthians, who were receiving Paul’s letters, possibly understand that the “perfect” is the Biblical canon? I believe 1 Corinthians 14:26 is an important window into what Paul actually meant,

“What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”

Most who hold to cessationism hold that the canonization of Scripture is the only revelation that can be given. But with the verse above in mind, it becomes clear there are different kinds of revelation: that which is canonized and that which is personal and purposed for edification. It is a revelation that is specifically for us today that is not recorded in Scripture. This, of course, is not equal to Scripture or should be used as if it were Scripture (a word of edification that contradicts Scripture cannot be given authority). This kind of revelation is not for canonization, but for personal edification and encouragement. This might be why Paul commanded the Corinthians to “Pursue love, and earnestly desire spiritual gifts” in 1 Corinthians 14:1. They’re essential to the purpose of edifying the body of Christ. Author Jon Bloom of Desiring God, states in regards to spiritual gifts,

Pursuing love and desiring spiritual gifts are not disconnected. These gifts are given to the church to help us love one another. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains that each Christian is a unique member of Christ’s body and therefore each has a unique function and receives unique gifts that benefits the “common good” of the body (1 Corinthians 12:7, 12, 29–30)……

But it’s also true that if we neglect any particular spiritual gift, if we don’t earnestly desire and pursue them, we will neglect some aspect of love and so fail to glorify Christ. Some kind of edification will not happen.

A further problem I see with the cessationist view is in the Corinthian passage itself. Verse 12 of chapter 13 says,

“For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.”

One must make clear what Paul is eluding to with the phrase “face to face” if the perfect here is the completed canon. The same language Paul uses is used throughout the Bible. Gen 32:30, Ex 31:11, and Deut 5:4, for example, use the phrase in the context of a physical “face to face” interaction. The same context is used in the NT in verses such as 2 Cor 10:1 and 3 John 14. It seems reasonable to conclude Paul is using the same context here, that is a physical face to face interaction with Christ Himself. Also, the phrase “then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known,” seems to allude to our condition at the final resurrection where those in the body of Christ are roused up to the celestials. None of us fully know Christ until He comes.

Another argument I’ve encountered is the misuse of the gifts. Since there has been so much misuse of the gifts throughout history, it is doubtful they are still present. However, the abuse of something doesn’t negate its existence. This falls back into the context of 1 Corinthians, where the Corinthians were using the gifts immaturely and so needed correction.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2)

Without love, our use of the gifts is meaningless. This does lead to an interesting point, that the perfect Paul was alluding to is not the Biblical canon but love. Compare the passage with 1 John 4:12, “No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us.” The is come could also refer to 1 John 5:20, which says, “Yet we are aware that the Son of God is arriving, and has given us a comprehension, that we know the True One, and we are in the True One, in His Son, Jesus Christ. This One is the true God and life eonian.”

The comparison in John’s Gospel, as well as his epistle, in reference to the unity of believers is also interesting. John 17:23 says, “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” And 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.”

If this is correct then our use of the gifts should cease at the perfecting of love within the body of Christ, where edification and physical evidence of God’s grace is no longer required to “get us through this life,” so to speak. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately at this time), the church is much too divided for this to be true for the present time. Additionally, it has placed its attention and hope in things apart from Christ. The gifts of the Spirit, and a demonstration of His power, will be exactly what people need when the efforts of man fail. This is why Paul instructs Timothy to “….not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you.” (1 Timothy 4:14)

But in many ways, we reflect the immaturity of the Corinthian church in our flippant or self-gratifying use of the gifts today. We view the gifts as if they are ours to use whenever we please rather than something the Spirit does within us and through us for His glory. The Christian church is much too concerned with the appearance of godliness and overt spirituality, thereby stealing the glory that is rightly the Lord’s. When we abide in perfect love then it is possible that the gifts will cease, but during this present wicked era I cannot see a time where edification will not be needed.

In response to this, honest adherents of cessationism may argue along the lines of, “God can perform miracles today, but it would be an exception to the rule.” This vague argument falls right back into the trap of salvation by works, which is the opposite of edification (think of salvation by works as the carrot on the stick analogy, always seemingly in reach but never acquired). What then qualifies the granting of an exception to the rule? Good works, enough faith, or perhaps a circumstance where the Spirit cannot do anything but perform a miracle and violate His own rule? I will take a consistent position over one without a solid foundation.

In the end, I believe it is most reasonable that the gifts will cease at the second coming where the body becomes complete and we see Christ face to face.

References:

Keener, C. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. p 487.

This article is excellent reading on the subject if one wishes to dive deeper.

Link to part two further exploring this subject.