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stop using sign gifts

Cessationism is the belief that the sign or miracle gifts of the early church have come to an end.

Did you know that the fastest growing segment of Christian population is pentecostalism? Particularly in the southern hemisphere: in South America and Africa. With the resurgence of these teachings we need to be clear on whether or not these amazing gifts are valid for today.

The term “cessationism” is in opposition to the view of continuationism which holds that sign and miracle gifts continue to function today.

I would like to make an argument for cessationism from both a broad view of Scripture over time as well as from a detailed examination of 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

Cessationism as a Rejection of God

It is worth tracing the history of the nation of Israel in light of the question of the cessationism/continuationism debate.

The Jews Seek a Sign

Paul indicates that “the Jews require a sign…” (1 Corinthians 1:22a KJV) and the Jewish leaders during the ministry of our Lord Jesus confirmed this need also (e.g., Matthew 12:28, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you” NKJV).

The Jewish person in Bible times would have understood that the judgment of God was linked to the sound of foreign languages. You can trace the beginning of this understanding to the Tower of Babel, where judgment was clearly linked to a diversity of tongues. Follow this through the history of the nation and you would understand that every time the nation heard other tongues being used, it was because they were being carried into captivity under judgment from God for their waywardness.

It follows, then, that when believers spoke in tongues on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter should explain the meaning of this in terms of judgment. Note firstly his extensive quote from the prophecy of Joel, explaining not only signs but also judgment that would come. Do not miss the clear attribution of guilt to the nation for their crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who Peter points out is “attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst” (Acts 2:22, NKJV). Finally, be sure to observe the call to repentance at the end of his sermon (v.38). Repentance is only necessary in the face of pending judgment.

Thus, the presence of tongues at Pentecost was one final warning to the nation that God was turning away from them to bring His salvation to the Gentiles. Now, hold that thought while we consider the history of the nation in another light.

The Rejection of God by Israel

In the days of Samuel the prophet, the elders of Israel came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like the nations” (1 Samuel 8:5, NKJV). Of course, Samuel was displeased but he takes the matter before the Lord. The Lord’s response is important: He says, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7, NKJV).

It is at this point in their history that they reject Jehovah.

Fast forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ into this world. What happens? The nation of Israel rejects the Son of God.

Jump forward just a little further to Acts 7. What is the penultimate charge of Stephen against the nation? “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51, NKJV). What happens next? They stone Stephen. Now the nation has rejected the Holy Spirit.

They reject Jehovah’s reign, they reject and crucify the Son of God, and now they reject the operation of the Spirit of God.

A careful reading of the book of the Acts following the rejection of the Spirit reveals only two further instances of speaking in tongues. The first, in Acts 10, validates to the Jewish disciples that God is bringing the Gentiles into His plan of salvation (remember: as Jewish people they require a sign). The second, in Acts 19 confirms that the disciples of John also would receive the Spirit and be part of salvation by faith. Connect this back to Acts chapter 2 where the church which is His body is inaugurated at Pentecost and it is easy to understand the function of tongues on these two other occasions. These instances indicate that these two unanticipated groups of people are also legitimately a part of the body of Christ.

There’s a simple point to be made here: tongues served the purpose of warning the nation to turn back to God. Upon their final rejection of the Godhead in Acts 7, no more warnings were necessary. Thus, the sign of tongues has no further purpose in divine plans.

Cessationism in 1 Corinthians

Whereas we can view the cessation of tongues over the broad course of history as God deals with the nation of Israel, in 1 Corinthians we see cessationism taught more specifically. Chapters 12, 13 and 14 deal with the function of spiritual gifts in the local assembly. While it is valuable to examine these passages in their entirety, I would just like to focus in on those parts which are relevant to cessationism.

Three Groups of Sign or Miracle Gifts

The list of gifts given in 1 Corinthians 12 is not exhaustive in that it does not cover all spiritual gifts (Romans 12 adds others, as does Ephesians 4). But in the list given in the first part of the chapter, there is something that is happening in the Greek text which is not apparent in English. Here is the passage in English:

7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: 8 for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12:7–10 (NKJV)

The word “another” is used several times to sequence out the list of gifts here. In the Greek language, there are two different words for our English word, “another”. The first is ἄλλος which means “another of the same kind” and the second is ἕτερος which means “another of a different kind”. In the passage above, I have highlighted in red the use of ἕτερος to show where we are seeing gifts of different kind.

The use of these two different words for “another” serves to break the list up into three groups of gifts, using ἕτερος as the demarcation:

  1. Word of wisdom and word of knowledge
  2. Faith, healings, miracles, prophecy and discerning of spirits
  3. Tongues and interpretation of tongues

We conclude there are three groups of gifts: hold that thought.

The Greatest Gift

Chapter 13 might seem like a random passage about the virtues of love. It appears, at first glance, to be plunked into the Apostle Paul’s discourse on gifts in chapter 12 and chapter 14 as somewhat of a sidebar.

However, there are two key points being made in chapter 13 which are essential to the healthy, biblical functioning of spiritual gifts in a local assembly. The first is that love is absolutely essential to the use of spiritual gifts. This is the singular most important governing factor on the use of these gifts and should help every one of us to use our gifts with the right attitude as we gather.

The second purpose of Chapter 13 is to show that miracle and sign gifts were only ever intended to serve God’s people for a finite period of time. Look closely at verses 8 to 10:

8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. 10 But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. 1 Corinthians 13:8–10 (NKJV)

Note that in verses 8 and 9 there are three gifts listed and they all are coming to an end. I am going to deliberately number them out of order:

  1. Knowledge will vanish (end of verse 8)
  2. Prophecy will fail (start of verse 8)
  3. Tongues will cease (middle of verse 8)

Note that these three gifts are representative of each of the three groups we identified above. Remember that we held that thought about the three groups prior to this section. Let’s proceed to verse 9 and 10 and then come back to this.

In Part?

Verse 9 says that “we know in part and we prophesy in part”. The gifts of knowledge and prophecy were needed in the early church in order for the people of God to know the mind of God. Wisdom and knowledge gifts helped these early saints to know and apply divine wisdom in the function of the local assembly and to chart the waters of their new, undocumented roles and responsibilities of Christian life. Remember that these early believers did not have the New Testament that you and I carry to meeting and open up Sunday by Sunday. Nor would they have it to pour over in their homes, searching for divine truth. Indeed, most of them would not even have had a copy of the Old Testament. How were they to base their lives on the Scriptures if they did not a copy of it? These gifts offered snippets of divine wisdom to be revealed to God’s people as it was needed.

Consider also the sign gifts of the second group from 1 Corinthians 12: faith, healings, miracles, prophecy and discerning of spirits. Again, without a Bible in hand, how would the early believers know if God was truly speaking to them? Well, this would be confirmed by these very visible works of God through these gifts. The intervention of God in their lives would be made obvious though the use of these miraculous gifts among them. This is what is means in 13:9 when it says “we prophesy in part”: they would see part of God’s will and hear part of His voice through the use of these gifts.

Yet, verse 10 tells us that “what is in part will be done away”. In other words, these two categories of gifts: knowledge and prophecy would be done away at some point in God’s great plan for the ages. When would that time be? It would be as the first part of verse 10 says, “When that which is perfect has come.”

That Which is Perfect

That which is perfect refers to the completion of the canon of Scripture.

I know that some hold this to be a reference to the Lord Jesus Christ. While it is true that He is coming and that He is perfect, I do not believe this could possibly be a reference to Him. First of all, if it refers to the coming of Christ it must be either a reference to the rapture or His second coming to earth. If that is the case, it follows that all these gifts will continue until that point in time. But there is no reliable evidence that these gifts are alive and well today as they were in the early church.

No, it must refer to the canon of Scripture. You see, these early gifts of knowledge and prophecy served as a way for God to reveal His mind to His people. They were gifts of revelation.

When the canon of Scripture was formed, the revelation of God was complete. No more revelation is needed and thus these gifts would be done away with. This is a very purposeful act by God to help preserve special revelation. Without this, any person claiming to use these gifts in our day and age would be adding to special revelation: what they had to say would be as valid and as truthful as what is written in the Word of God. And yet the closing chapter of the book of Revelation makes it very clear that the Word of God is complete and nothing must be added to it.

Thus, the only cohesive and logical conclusion is that the “perfect” refers to the canon of Scripture: the Bible that we hold in our hands today. When that was come, these gifts which only revealed part of the mind of God at any point in time would no longer be necessary.

Three Groups No Longer Needed

Let us come back to our three groups of gifts from chapter 12 for a moment:

  1. Word of wisdom and word of knowledge
  2. Faith, healings, miracles, prophecy and discerning of spirits
  3. Tongues and interpretation of tongues

We saw that in chapter 13 that these three groups come to an end:

  1. Knowledge will vanish (end of verse 8)
  2. Prophecy will fail (start of verse 8)
  3. Tongues will cease (middle of verse 8)

Knowledge and prophecy are referred to twice: in verse 8 and in verse 9 of chapter 13. Why are they mentioned twice and tongues only once (as having come to an end)?

Bear in mind that the knowledge and prophecy gifts revealed the mind of God. Revelation was implicit in the use of these gifts. Tongues, however, were merely a sign. It is interesting to note that the same verb is used in verse 8 of the knowledge and prophecy: in the Greek it only differs in terms of being plural (for prophecies) or singular (for knowledge). It just means “to cease”. Regarding tongues, on the other hand, it says they will “come to an end”.

The point is that it is particularly critical to note the end of the knowledge and prophecy categories of gifts. Tongues. however, were not a gift of revelation so while the end of these is important, the continuation of tongues would not represent the same degree of threat to the integrity of the Christian faith that the continuation of the other gifts would. However, the passage clearly teaches that tongues will also come to an end.

Thus, it is quite clear that the case for cessationism from 1 Corinthians 12 and 13 is very strong.

Other Evidence for Cessationism

Looking Back in Hebrews

Though not particularly obvious, another Scripture worth noting is Hebrews 2:3-4:

3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will. Hebrews 2:3–4 NKJV

Just observe from this verse that in the writer’s mind, and from his perspective, the “signs and wonders, with various miracles and gifts” were most significantly linked with the disciples who heard Christ speak. The author is not emphasizing the present reality of these gifts as much as ascribing the working of those gifts to that very first generation of believers. Again, this is a hint from Scripture that these gifts were already well on their way towards becoming a thing of the past by the time the author was penning this letter to the Hebrews.

Candid Observations Today

I am nearly loathe to mention this for fear of appearing sarcastic. But just let me say that one of my best friends in my younger years was a brother in the Lord and a Pentecostal. So I mean no disrespect to this group of believers: I appreciate their sincerity, enthusiasm and their earnest pursuit of the things of the Lord.

But you need to know that Pentecostal believers have to study foreign languages, just like the rest of us, before heading out to a foreign mission field. You also need to know that they use the health care system to the same extent that the rest of us do. No, the functionality of these gifts that was witnessed in the first century is no longer active today.

However, what about their practice of speaking in tongues? As I understand it, they claim to be speaking with “the tongues of angels”, a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:1. This practice confuses the apostle’s use of hyperbole in this verse for something that should be practiced today. In Scripture, we simply have no evidence that angels ever spoke in any other tongue than a human tongue. In short, there is no evidence for an angelic language, nor one unintelligible to those present.

Even if there was an angelic language, the teaching of chapter 13 is clear that all tongues have come to an end. Further, the wider teaching of Scripture is that tongues were a sign to the Jewish nation have no bearing on contemporary Gentile Christian practice today. So I cannot see how this position can be supported from Scripture despite the experiential evidence that is claimed by those who practice this.

With these passages in mind, as well as the overarching trajectory that we observed from the days of Samuel to the stoning of Stephen, it is my conviction that the cessationist perspective on gifts is the most biblical.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.