The Spiritual Gifts Today
Text: 1 Cor. 14:39-40
Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.
This manuscript is an extended version from what was preached. The audio reflects the sermon as it was delivered. It is supplied for further documentation and more detailed argumentation.
We are now at the end of 1 Cor. 14, and that means we are the end of the mini-series on spiritual gifts. Throughout chapters 12, 13, and 14, the Apostle Paul has been criticizing the way that the Corinthians used their miraculous spiritual gifts to “show off,” and he has pointed them to the proper use of spiritual gifts, which is love. Along the way, however, Paul has also laid down some rules for using the spiritual gifts, as well as some explanation for what they were all about. We’ve covered those in our previous sermons, and so I won’t repeat them now.
This morning we want to get to the question that most of you have been wanting to answer. Do the miraculous spiritual gifts of the New Testament church continue today?
This question is not just an exercise in theological debate. In about a hundred years, the presence and use of charismatic gifts in Christian churches has gone from nearly non-existent to mainstream. Charismatic churches are some of the fastest growing religious groups of any religion, and they number over 600 million members worldwide. To give you some perspective on that number, that’s about half as many as the Roman Catholic Church claims and about 500 million more than the Anglican Communion. The largest congregation in the United States is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, a “Word of Faith” charismatic church. Charismatics make up about 10% of all people in Polk County, and Lakeland has been the home to at least two internationally-known charismatic revivals. Many of you grew up in these kinds of churches, and I know some of you have been personally harmed by these teachings. It’s safe to say that this is a very relevant and practical topic, and it’s something which the modern church desperately needs to understand better.
So this morning we will ask, “Do the charismatic gifts present in the Corinthian Church still manifest themselves today, and should we attempt to use those gifts in our churches today?” To put it simply, are the modern day Charismatics right, or have those gifts ceased from ordinary church use?
Defining Our Terms and Asking the Right Question
This topic is a giant one, and it is controversial in our day. Many books and articles have been written on it, and we can’t say everything that needs to be said in a sermon. Rather, our goal is to get to the heart of the issue and offer a pastoral directive about how you should generally think about the matter. Further, we are not addressing every kind of miraculous event. We are not going to touch on the reality and activity of demons and spirits. We are not going to discuss whether God can grant people certain kinds of extraordinary ability for a certain purpose and a certain time. The history of the church is full of “wonder workers,” and we can’t weigh in on the veracity of each and every one of them. And God may indeed move in your life in subjective ways, even leading you towards certain goals or actions.
We do not have to argue against any of that. Instead, we are limiting ourselves to the kinds of spiritual gifts that are discussed in 1 Cor, and we are especially going to focus on prophecy and speaking in tongues. These are the gifts which rise to the top at Corinth, and they continue to be the most common among charismatic churches today.
The kinds of gifts that Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are what are often called “sign gifts” or “revelatory gifts.” They are gifts which reveal God’s will in a direct or immediate way. Even if they are “translated,” the person doing the translating is not giving extra interpretation or commentary. He is simply putting the words into an intelligible form. The gifts are meant to be “the word of the Lord,” and they are meant to be used publicly and to have public authority.
In fact, when these gifts are used, it is literally the Holy Spirit in action. “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one…” (1 Cor. 12:7). Paul often appeals to his having received a revelation as to the very seat of his authority:
I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ. (Gal. 1:11-12)
…by revelation He made known to me the mystery… as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets… (Eph. 3:3-5)
This sort of “revelation” is what Paul is referring to at Corinth. Notice, what Paul says in 1 Cor. 14:29-30: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent.” On that occasion, the prophet has received a divine revelation, and that is what he then speaks to the church.
Prophecy and Tongues Are Immediate Revelation from God
Likewise, when prophets appear in the New Testament, they claim to speak for God directly. Agabus is the most famous example. In Acts 21:11, Agabus says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit…” Some Charismatics have actually claimed that Agabus’ prophecy contained errors. They do this in order to show that prophecy does not have to be 100% accurate. In order to argue this, they have to insist on a pedantic and unnecessary reading of particular terms rather than the obvious fact that the prophecy did come true and that Paul chooses to use Agabus’ own terms later on when he describes it. But still, all of that is really beside the point, because Agabus describes his prophecy as God’s own prophecy. He says, “Thus says the Holy Spirit.”
The book of Revelation is called a prophecy. “To everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book…” (Rev. 22:18). By calling itself prophecy, it does mean that it is predicting the future, but more fundamentally, it means that it is the very word of God. It is infallible and inerrant, and anyone who tampers with the words of the prophecy will bring a divine curse upon themselves.
Peter describes prophecy this way, “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Again, we see that prophecy is the Holy Spirit speaking. It is God literally breathing out His word, a sort of inscripturation only without being written down. It carries divine authority, and by its very nature, it must be obeyed. There is no arguing with true prophecy. It just is the word of God.
There is no category of fallible prophecy or halfway prophecy in the Bible. The two kinds of prophecy are true prophecy and false prophecy. False prophecy is described as a great sin, and it warranted the death penalty in the Old Testament (Deut. 13:1-5, 18:15-22, Ezekiel 13, 14:9-10). The New Testament describes false prophets quite bluntly, “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). Nowhere does the Bible speak of a well-intentioned and godly prophet who ordinarily gets it wrong.
And in Corinth, we see that there were people who were gifted with the ability to “discern spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10). These are the people who would decide whether a person was a prophet or not and allow them to speak: “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge… the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:29, 32).
To this point, we must also see that “prophets” were a class of people whose authority was second only to the original apostles and who were often classified with the apostles as holding the highest rank of authority, over all other classes of Christians. This can been in a number of places in the New Testament:
And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:28)
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. (Eph. 2:19-20)
…as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets. (Eph. 3:5)
Therefore, the prophets of the New Testament are not simply ordinary Christians who happen to have a gift, but are instead authoritative and public persons who speak God’s word to the church and are meant to be obeyed. From the perspective of the average church member in the first century, the prophets had equal authority with the apostles, and their public teaching was meant to be taken as God’s Word.
Tongues, as we have explained in the past, were a kind of prophecy. If they were not interpreted, then they were a prophetic judgment against the hearer. They were a “sign for unbelievers” (1 Cor. 14:22). If the tongues were interpreted, then they became an intelligible word for believers. In other words, they became prophecy. This means that tongues-speakers were not “prophets” as such, but their speech was nevertheless a sort of prophecy, and when it was used appropriately, it was also considered a word from God.
So again, the question we are addressing is limited to the specific revelatory gifts of 1 Corinthians. We assume that those were typical of the 1st century church experience, but we are not going beyond that to any and all miraculous activities. We are only discussing immediate actions of the Holy Spirit through prophetic persons which are intended for public use.
Do the spiritual gifts that we see in Corinth continue today? The answer is no. The Holy Spirit no longer speaks immediately, except through the Scriptures.
The Right Way to Answer This Question
At this point many people will say, “How come?” and even, “Show me where the Bible says that?” These are both valid questions, but they are different questions from the first question which was, “Do the gifts continue?” It is possible to know the answer to the one question, without knowing the answer to the others. “Why?” questions are notoriously difficult for any topic.
Additionally, the Bible was written during a time when the charismatic gifts were ongoing. They had not ceased during the time Paul was writing, and he actually does not tell us when they will cease. Some people point to the passage in 1 Cor. 13 which speaks of “the perfect,” but as we explained when we were at that passage, there are many good reasons not to read the section in that way. For instance, Paul contrasts three spectacular gifts—prophecies, tongues, and knowledge—with three more ordinary gifts—faith, hope, and love. Yet of those three spectacular gifts, he later goes on to show that they are not equal in stature. Even the three “ordinary gifts” are not equal, since “the greatest of these is love,” and of those three ordinary gifts, both faith and hope will also cease at the coming of Christ. That passage simply isn’t addressing the “cessation” question that is before us today, and all attempts to make it answer that question end up abusing the passage.
One further argument will make that point plain. Biblical scholars routinely point out that the three spectacular gifts are being used as signifiers for all of the charismata. Paul isn’t only interacting with prophecies, tongues, and knowledge, but also with the gifts of wisdom, healing, and miracle working listed in chapter 12. But chapter 12 also lists one more spiritual gift and office. It lists “apostles.”
This means that if 1 Corinthians 13:8-13 really does intend to argue that the charismata will continue until Christ returns, then it must also argue that the apostolate will continue until Christ returns. As we have seen, prophets and apostles are routinely grouped together, and both are explained as having direct divine revelation. But we do not believe that the apostles continue today, and none but the most extreme versions of Charismatics believe this. We also do not believe that new Scripture can be written, even though Scripture is itself a gift of the Spirit, a sort of prophecy. And so everyone admits that some of charismata ended. But why do they do this? If they have to have a specific passage in the New Testament which directly states it, then they should not be able to admit it. Instead, they answer the question the same way we do, by taking the overall teaching of Scripture, along with its logic and implications, and then coming to a systematic answer. They add history and experience to this, and the end result is what we call doctrine. That’s not a dirty word. It is necessary and inescapable.
But if we allow for this kind of thinking to answer the question about the end of the apostles or the end of inspired Scriptures, then we must allow it for other questions too. And in fact, most Protestants do allow for this. We all use it when we argue for sola Scriptura, that the Bible alone is the infallible and inerrant word of God, the only rule for faith. Paedobaptists also use this way of thinking to argue for infant baptism. We do not require a direct passage to say “Thou shalt baptize babies.” Instead we look at the logic of the question, as well as the overall Biblical teaching. We ask, “What is the point of this action? What is it for?” Then we look at our situation and make an appropriate application.
And so we look at speaking in tongues. Paul says that speaking in foreign tongues is a prophetic and covenantal judgment upon those who cannot understand the language. Quoting Isaiah he says:
Brethren, do not be children in understanding; however, in malice be babes, but in understanding be mature.
In the law it is written:
“With men of other tongues and other lips
I will speak to this people;
And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,”
says the Lord.
Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers. (1 Cor. 14:20-22)
As we said in a previous sermon, these tongues were a sign from God, showing that God was translating His word into a new language, into a Gentile language. The Jews would no longer be the sole possessors of it, and if they did not hear God’s word and obey it, they would in fact be cut out of the kingdom. This happened at the end of the book of Acts. After preaching and prophesying “to the Jew first,” but being consistently rejected, Paul said:
The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, saying,
“Go to this people and say:
‘Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand;
And seeing you will see, and not perceive;
For the hearts of this people have grown dull.
Their ears are hard of hearing,
And their eyes they have closed,
Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears,
Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn,
So that I should heal them.’”
Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will hear it! (Acts 28:25-28)
Again, Paul quotes Isaiah, telling the Jews that they had been hardened to the point where they could not hear God’s word. It was spiritually a foreign language to them, and so God made it literally a foreign language to them. This is what the tongues were for in the first century, and as the Church decisively moved past that time in redemptive history, as it did after AD 70, then the tongues no longer had that purpose, and so they ceased.
Prophecy is a little different because it is not tied to the element of foreignness (Gentile-ness). It is connected to direct divine revelation, as we have argued above, and so its cessation occurred along with the cessation of the apostles and the end of inscripturation, and it did so for the same reason. God could have willed for a living apostolate to continue to govern the church, in the same way that the apostles governed the New Testament church, but He chose to transition the church’s governance to local pastors and elders, and perhaps bishops and regional networks.
The Historical Fact of Cessation
It’s common for Cessationist thinkers to argue that the charismatic gifts ceased with the completion of the canon, but we need to be clear that this is simply an observation of a historical fact. The precise causality is a judgment of providence, made after the case. And we should point out the canon didn’t just close all at once. There was no early church council that ruled on it. It took about three centuries for a clear consensus to emerge. Anyone who has studied the question knows this to be true. And so it’s very interesting to note that the revelatory charismatic gifts have pretty clearly ceased by at least the 4th century, just around the same time that the biblical canon of Scripture is no longer being debated.
John Chrysostom lived from 344-407AD. He wrote a series of sermons on 1 Corinthians, and this is what he had to say about the tongues and prophecy there, “This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place” (Homily 29.1 on 1 Corinthians). Augustine of Hippo lived from 354-430 AD, on the other side of the empire, and he said the same thing about speaking in tongues: “These were signs adapted to the time… That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away” (Homily 6.10 on 1 John).
The Protestant Reformers maintained this same position. Martin Luther said, “Once the Church had been established and properly advertised by these miracles, the visible appearance of the Holy Ghost ceased” (Commentary on Galatians 4:6). John Calvin agreed, “The gift of tongues and other such like things are ceased long ago in the church. But the Spirit of understanding and of regeneration is a force and shall always be a force” (Commentary on Acts 10:44). Commenting on Philip’s daughters in Acts 21:9, Calvin said, “prophecy…ceased shortly after.”
Even Jonathan Edwards, that great father of revival in North America, maintained that tongues and prophecy were no longer present in the church. He writes:
When the apostle, in this chapter, speaks of prophecies, tongues, and revelations ceasing, and vanishing away in the church—when the Christian church should be advanced from a state of minority to a state of manhood—he seems to have respect to its coming to an adult state in this world… Therefore I do not expect a restoration of these miraculous gifts in the approaching glorious times of the church, nor do I desire it.
(The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, section III.3)
This history is important. We are not elevating these men to the level of Scripture, but we are allowing them to confirm what we see to be true around us. The unique charismatic gifts of the New Testament are no longer with us, and they have not been with us for more than 1700 years.
The fact is modern Charismatic Christianity is really new. There have always been miracle stories in church history, but no one outside of very fringe groups claimed to be able to use the gifts of tongues or prophecy until the 19th century. The earliest modern examples were actually the Irvingite movement in Scotland in 1830 and then the Mormons in North America in 1832. Both of those groups were viewed as “outside the pale” of orthodoxy, of course, and it wasn’t until the 1880s that the various Wesleyan and Holiness churches started to claim that the charismatic gifts were present with them. And even these groups made claims on a sporadic and occasional basis. It took the 1906 Azusa Street Revival to made speaking in tongues a regular feature of Pentecostal and Charismatic life. Mainstream Protestants and Evangelicals did not accept this practice at the time, and it was pretty extreme. The original Pentecostals claimed to have the 100% real deal stuff, exactly like the apostles and prophets of the first century. Most all of them also claimed that the appearance of the charismatic gifts were signs that Jesus was coming back soon. None of this is orthodox, and so the questions answered themselves.
But then in the 1960s, more mainstream evangelicals began to adopt some of the charismatic practices. They began to prophesy and speak in tongues, but because they knew that they couldn’t make all of the extreme claims of the earlier Pentecostals, they modified their position. They mostly downplayed tongues, and some even said that tongues were just their private prayer language. And they modified prophecy as well. They claimed that prophecy could be fallible. It was divine revelation, but it was a sort of middle revelation, something that the prophet might misunderstand or misinterpret. This didn’t make it false prophecy, though, and they maintained the right for a prophet to be routinely wrong and yet still a true prophet.
One leading figure in this new charismatic school is Rick Joyner. Joyner, you may be interested to know, is affiliated with Todd Bentley, and he has even attempted to help rehabilitate Bentley. Joyner has written a great deal about prophecy today, and it’s really quite shocking to hear what he thinks prophecy is. Joyner says:
There is a prophet named Bob Jones who was told that the general level of prophetic revelation in the church was about 65% accurate at this time. Some are only about 10% accurate, a very few of the most mature prophets are approaching 85% to 95% accuracy.
(Quoted from Nathan Busenitz.)
Isn’t that amazing? It’s normal in modern charismatic circles to have 65% accuracy for prophecy. I’d like to think that I hit 65% without that gift. But notice, it is possible for the number to be as low as 10%. 10%! How could anyone claim that God was giving them divine revelation but their office was only 10% accurate?
Even Wayne Grudem, a widely respected and influential evangelical scholar, describes the role of prophecy today in these terms:
Did the revelation seem like something from the Holy Spirit; did it seem to be similar to other experiences of the Holy Spirit which he had known previously in worship. Beyond this it is difficult to specify much further, except to say that over time a congregation would probably become more adept at making evaluations… and become more adept at recognizing a genuine revelation from the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from their own thoughts.
(Also quoted from Busenitz.)
Brothers and sisters, this is simply not what is going on in 1 Corinthians. This is not the New Testament gift of prophecy. The reason that these modern men have had to water down prophecy is because they know that they do not have the identical phenomena that the 1st century church had. Whatever they have, it’s something different. But if it is not the same thing, then it cannot be a continuation of the same thing, and it cannot be supported from the biblical text.
This moderated form of prophecy is dangerous in precisely the way that it holds people in bondage to uncertainty. I greatly respect and admire John Piper and his ministry, but he provides us with a great case of this danger. He was once “prophesied to” that his wife would give birth to a daughter but die in childbirth. It was a false prophecy. She gave birth to a son, and she survived. But what’s so sad is that John Piper did not know whether that was a true word from God or not until after the fact. He was held captive to an unjust message, and the prophet was not punished for such a crime. And that was John Piper! Imagine the damage that that sort of thing wreaks on less mature and less educated Christians. It’s a terrible burden, a sort of spiritual bondage, and I would not wish anyone to suffer under it.
The final clincher is that, even more than observing that the charismatic gifts are no longer with us, we can definitely say that the church order of 1 Corinthians 14 has not been preserved. In that chapter we clearly see a rule laid down for tongues. Tongues may only be given along with interpretation, and there may only be two or three. An interpreter must be present because if there is no interpretation, then Paul says the people must remain silent (1 Cor. 14:28). Prophecy likewise must be governed. The recognized prophets must judge all prophecy that is uttered, and in order to do this, they must be recognized as prophets by the church. It will not do for individuals to randomly claim this office apart from public jurisdiction and credential. That would just be an end-run around the office. They must be acknowledged by the standing order—and that order is long gone. Scotch Presbyterian James Durham highlights exactly this point in the 17th century:
…there is therefore no such office to be pleaded for, that follows upon that; yet even these prophets, in the matter prophesied by them, were to be tried by the word and judged; and, in the gift, if it were a revelation indeed, 1 Cor. 14. Now, there being none such who can abide that proof, we are not, at least, without that, to acknowledge such a gift, or such an office.
(Commentary upon the Book of Revelation, Glasgow, 1788 edition, cited from SWRB bound photocopy, Vol. 2., pp. 219-224. Quoted here.)
The order of the early church simply has not been preserved in any kind of entirety. Different denominations debate about the amount of “tradition” in their church polities, whether bishops or elders, go all the way back to the apostles. But none of them claim to have a succession of prophets, and none of them can make that claim because leading churchmen from the 4th century onward maintained that that office had come to an end.
If we do not have the church order that regulates and governs the charismatic gifts, then we cannot practice those gifts without violating the command of the apostle Paul. But doesn’t Paul say, “desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues?” (1 Cor. 14:39). Yes, he does. But he also says, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (1 Cor. 14:40). 1 Cor. 14:26-38 gives us the order. It says not to use the gifts without that order. But that order is gone now. Therefore we cannot use the gifts.
Conclusion: Cessationism Rightly Understood
This sermon has been polemical and mostly negative. It has argued that the charismatic gifts of 1 Corinthians do not continue in the modern church and therefore the modern charismatic church is in error. It has taken this form because of the necessity of our day. This is a prevalent error, especially in our part of the country, and many are greatly harmed by it.
Nevertheless, we do not believe that all charismatic Christians today are evil people willfully harming others. Many of them are very sincere, and many of them sincerely believe that they are experiencing God’s presence in their gifts. Still, insofar as they claim to be doing what went on at Corinth, they are wrong. We must gently correct them and point them to a better way.
There are others, however, who are outright frauds and charlatans. There are some, like Todd Bentley, who have been discredited by their scandalous public sin and whose claims to miraculous revival are rightly described as false prophecy. Anyone who makes the kinds of claims he did and anyone who engages in the outrageous behavior he did deserves to be rebuked and rejected as teachers in the church. And I would extend this to those pastors who propped him up and who still, to this day, use his name to bolster their credentials. Do not listen to such men. Do not submit yourself to their authority. Do not grant their office as having legitimacy. It does not. They are in gross error and should step away from the ministry.
We who believe that the miraculous gifts have ceased are sometimes called Cessationists. The label isn’t very good, really, but like all labels it serves a purpose. It identifies a position. All we mean by it is that the gifts of immediate divine revelation, like the ones in Corinth, have ceased, and that the Spirit has now begun to abide in every believer through faith, hope, and love. The Spirit continues to be active and can even “move” you subjectively in many ways. But He will always move you towards His Word and towards the person and work of Jesus Christ. He will lead you to profess that Jesus is Lord, and He will lead you to build up the body of Christ, the congregation of believers.
Let us then walk in the Spirit, with “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:23). Let us worship in the Spirit, with “reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28). And let us do all things decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40).
Let us pray.