Fewer questions are more important for genuine Christian spirituality than the question we consider this week: how does God reveal himself today?
All Bible-believing Christians believe that God reveals certain general things about himself in creation. David writes in the Psalms, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork,” (Ps. 19:1). The Apostle Paul writes in Romans that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made,” (Rom. 1:20). Theologians speak of these things as general revelation.
Yet when it comes to the question of special revelation – that revelation of God and of his will which is necessary for human beings to be reconciled to God – many sincere Christians disagree sharply. Some claim that God reveals himself not only in the Bible, but also by extraordinary means such as prophecies, tongues, and healings. Others are more cautious, yet still believe that God may reveal himself in visions, dreams, or strong feelings of “being led” to certain courses of action. A third group believes that God has ceased using extraordinary means and reveals himself today only in the Bible.
For the remainder of this article, we will refer to these groups using two terms. For the third group we will use the name cessationists, because they believe that all extraordinary revelation has ceased. For the first two groups we will use the term non-cessationists, since they both agree (in different degrees) that extraordinary revelation has not ceased.
Logically, the cessationist and non-cessationist positions are mutually exclusive. They cannot both be correct. One or the other must be an error, however well-intentioned. So which is it? Before answering the question directly, we might rightly raise another: Does this question matter?
The answer is yes: it matters tremendously. Why? Because it affects how we live our daily lives. For example, take the following thoughts: How can I tell whether God is angry or happy with me? How can I tell if a course of action I’m considering is God’s leading or simply my own fancy? The answers to both hinge on how we answer the bigger question: how does God reveal himself today?
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church believes that the Bible teaches cessationism. Though we believe that the early church in the first century enjoyed a full measure of extraordinary gifts, we believe that these former ways of God revealing himself to his people have now ceased. We believe that God still reveals himself today, but only in the Bible. Why do we believe this?
To answer this question, we must begin by exploring the purpose of the extraordinary gifts in the early church. Why did God pour out such gifts when the church was young? The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians that God gave the extraordinary gifts for “building up,” (1 Cor. 14:26). Paul says in Ephesians that the church is the “household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,” (Eph. 2:19-20). Like a house built to last, the church needed to be established on a solid foundation. This was the purpose of the extraordinary gifts.
Secondly, how were extraordinary gifts imparted? The book of Acts shows us that after the first initial outpouring of spiritual gifts on Jews (2:1-4) and Gentiles (10:44-46), all subsequent gifts were imparted only by the laying on the apostles’ hands (Acts 8:14-20, 19:6). Paul alludes to this in Romans when he says that he longs to visit the church in Rome, “that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you,” (Rom. 1:11). This point must be underlined: though many non-apostles exercised extraordinary spiritual gifts, extraordinary spiritual gifts could only be imparted by the apostles personally.
The third point to consider is, does the office of apostle continue in the church today? The biblical answer is no. Although Judas the traitor was replaced, James the martyr was not (Acts 12:1-2) – and Paul explicitly states that he was the last and least of the apostles: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God,” (1 Cor. 15:8-9).
If we put these three considerations together, a definite picture emerges: for the sake of laying a solid foundation in the early church, God granted the apostles, who could not be in every congregation at once, the ability to impart extraordinary spiritual gifts. These extraordinary gifts attested to the authority of the gospel (Rom. 15:18-19, 2 Cor. 12:12, Heb. 2:3-4). But as the apostles disappeared from history – often by martyrdom – so too did the ability to impart extraordinary spiritual gifts. Thus these gifts must necessarily have ceased within a generation of the apostles’ passing.
But we must not miss a fourth point: what else was happening during the apostolic period of the early church? During the same period in which the extraordinary gifts were being exercised, the New Testament was being written. The Lord Jesus Christ had promised his apostles that the Holy Spirit would help them remember what he had taught them (Jn. 14:26), and for the sake of the church this revelation was committed wholly to writing (Jn. 20:30-31). Indeed, Paul writes that the essence of his job as an apostle was to reveal “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit,” (Eph. 3:4-5).
Why is this significant? The completion of the New Testament was significant because it was always intended to be the permanent replacement for the extraordinary gifts. The writer to the Hebrews says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,” (Heb. 1:1-2).
In his last letter as he awaits death, Paul too speaks of the “last days” – but points his protégé Timothy not to continuing prophecy, but to Scripture: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work,” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word,” (4:1-2). Several verses later, Paul informs Timothy that he had to leave a sick friend behind on his travels (4:20). How had Paul, who once raised a dead man (Acts 20:9-12), become unable to heal a mere illness? The reason is that the extraordinary gifts were ceasing – even during the apostles’ lifetimes.
Likewise the apostle Peter, who personally witnessed the Transfiguration and preached at Pentecost, at the close of his life points the church toward something “more sure, the prophetic word,” which “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,” (2 Pet. 1:19-21). At the end of this same letter, Peter commends the letters of Paul to his readers, calling them “Scriptures,” (3:14-17).
But if the extraordinary gifts attested to the authority of the gospel, and these gifts have now ceased, what attests to the authority of the gospel – or the Bible – today?
The Apostle John answers this question in his first letter: “the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth,” (1 Jn. 5:6). God the Holy Spirit testifies to the authority of the Bible – the authority of the Words which he himself “breathed out,” (2 Tim. 3:16).
But doesn’t this limit God?
If God himself chose to replace extraordinary spiritual gifts with a permanent written revelation, how does that limit him? In fact, the only person limited in this case is me: I am constrained to follow God’s inerrant Word, rather than my own feelings. But even this is not true limitation. To the contrary, it is spiritual liberation!
How is it spiritually liberating to be limited to the Bible?
Cessationism brings freedom by bringing stability to spiritual life. Because we know that God reveals himself only in his Word, we don’t have to worry whether a nightmare is really an ominous prophecy. I don’t have to wonder whether my “feeling led” is God speaking or simply my desire. In fact, if I ever want to know whether God is angry or happy at me, all I have to do is read the Bible! I never have to wonder what God would say to me; I can open his Word and find out! The Holy Spirit speaks in Scripture. So I open the Bible, ask God to help me understand and apply it, and then pay careful attention to what I read.
If we think about it, the same sort of thing is true in human relationships. If I start reading too much into what I imagine or sense, I might totally misread a person’s intentions. But if I commit to what is objective – what they actually say and do – then I have accurate information on which to evaluate the relationship. If this is true of human relationships, how much more true is it in our relationship to God? So far from bringing limitation to God, this actually liberates man – for it teaches us in daily life to evaluate our spiritual condition not by imagination, but by revelation.
Interested in learning more? Join us for worship at Resurrection OPC this Sunday!