I am interrupting my reflections on worship to spend a few moments responding to the sermon I heard this past Sunday. It was on the Person of the Holy Spirit. In general, it was an excellent summary of the Third Person of the Trinity, focused mostly on what the Holy Spirit does in the life of the Believer. Our preacher, like many in our congregation came from a Cessationist background, which he bluntly described as teaching the “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” While this is probably a fair reflection of many churches in this country, I believe it does a disservice to those churches, as it is a reflection more of the poverty of their theological education, than their actual teachings and tradition. So, while not holding to every tenet of Cessationism, I thought it worthwhile to put forward a defense of Cessationism’s teachings on the Holy Spirit.
Cessationism was adopted by the Church fairly early on in response to a series of heresies that lay great emphasis on the immediate workings of God though the Holy Spirit on the believer, in such a fashion as to trump or contradict the teachings of the Church. This has actually been a continual issue within the Church, down to the present day. How does one respond to the person who claims to have heard directly from God?
Cessationism took as its starting point the decision to establish the canon of Scripture. This, too, was in response to several heresies. The Church took the position that the greater revelations of God were contained within the bounds of the canon. There was no need for further revelation, as we could now turn to Scripture. The Church took to heart Jesus’s warning at the end of Revelation that nothing should be added or removed from the written Word of God.
While those who emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit argue that the Church from this point denied the various gifts and the associated signs and wonders, this flies in the face of history. Certainly any history of the medieval church is full of tales of miraculous healings. Moreover, there were numerous men and women who rose up to speak with a prophetic voice. Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Savarnarola, John Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., amongst others, come to mind as examples of the continuation of prophecy in the Church, as they spoke God’s word to the Church and the times.
In the main, the Church has seen the Spirit’s presence and work as a much more subtle effort. The Spirit works through Scripture, for example, bringing it to mind, and applying it to our lives as we read or hear it proclaimed. The Spirit serves as God’s approval and empowerment of our work to advance His Kingdom. The Spirit is a tangible reminder to us of our salvation. The Spirit’s presence enlivens our souls, quickens our hearts, and by God’s grace empowers to become the people God has called us to be. As often as not, it does this work over time.
What a Cessationist would not do is focus on the gifts. Once you’ve dug through the underlying theology, it clear that Cessationists believe that the Spirit is very much active in the world today, and is a necessary player in all Christian endeavors. The difference, in part, is in emphasis. The gifts are adjuncts to the Church’s mission. Luke describes the gifts as the power needed to carry out our role as heralds and witnesses. (Luke 24:47-49; Acts 1: 4, 6-8) Without actually carrying out the work of the church, the gifts have no value.
A related concern is that as presented, Spirit-Seeking churches tend to dwell on only a few gifts, namely prophecy, healing, and tongues. They may admit to others, but say very little about them, which can lead to a lopsided church, which struggles to minister fully. While Cessationists may give short shrift to prophets, they do recognize a much broader range of gifts and ministries. We are encouraged to pray for the gift of tongues or prophecy, but does anyone pray to receive the gift of serving as a Nursery worker or church janitor? The Church needs all of them.
Our focus, then should be on the mission, trusting that God will bless our efforts with his power. Too often we stop short of this. We are called to be the people of God, making disciples of all people, and teaching them everything taught by Christ, much as we ourselves are to be transformed by them. That is the true measure of our faith. Many will speak that day of the miracles they wrought and the prophecies delivered, and the tongues spoken, to whom Christ will deliver the final verdict: “I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity [disregarding my commands].” (Matt. 7:22-23).
May that not be the verdict on us.