It is interesting to look around and see how many people travel alone, and how many travel in groups. There are a great number of people, it seems, who travel to this conference on their own. These people tend to sit quietly on their own, sneaking into the auditoriums before they are supposed to be open to the public and sitting quietly with their books or laptops. There are also plenty who have come with friends and co-workers. These people travel in laughing, shouting packs. They go to the same seminars together and insist on sitting beside each other in long rows.
I tend towards the former. I am starting to understand myself as something of a loner – a conviction that grows with each conference I attend. It is not that I dislike meeting people and talking with them: it’s that I am not the type to strike up a conversation with a stranger. I guess that is why I enjoy blogging. It allows me to stay comfortably isolated. I wonder who meets more people during the course of the conference: those who tend to seek isolation or those who find community in the group they travel with. Either way it seems that a person is likely limiting his contact with others.
I am now in the basement of one of the various buildings that comprise the campus of Grace Community Church. Nathan Busenitz, John MacArthur’s personal assistant, will be giving a presentation entitled “Now that’s the Spirit,” which will assess and address Evangelical Charismatics. Over my shoulder I hear people discussing C.J. Mahaney and saying, “he’s Charismatic, you know.”
Busenitz began with a prayer for humility as we discuss a topic of great controversy and with the potential to hurt brothers and sisters in Christ. He then opened with a note of praise and admiration for Charismatic men who have impacted his walk with Christ: John Piper, C.J. Mahaney and Wayne Grudem.
There are three goals for this seminary: to provide an accurate representation of the continuationist position; a summary and response of the Cessationist position; and then provide the reason that Grace Church has chosen to partner with those with whom they disagree.
First, several important terms:
- Continuationist: – refers to those who believe that the miraculous gifts are still operational in the church today and therefore should be sought by Christians. There are three waves: Pentecostal, Charismatic and Third Wave.
- Cessationist: – refers to those who believe that the miraculous gifts ceased after the Apostolic era.
- Open but cautious: – refers to those who believe the gifts have continued but are skeptical of contemporary Charismatic practice of those gifts.
Question 1: both sides agree that the New Testament indicates that the gifts will cease at some point. The question is, then, does the New Testament tell us when? Continuationists believe that the gifts will cease with the return of Christ. They point to Acts 2 and the fulfillment of Joel 2 in this chapter which seems to say that the gifts continue throughout the last days. They also point to Ephesians 4 and the idea that the church will not be fully mature until Christ returns. The gifts remain until then. They would also look to the list of gifts and say cessationists should not draw a line between miraculous gifts and non-miraculous. Their arguments are ecclesiological, pneumatological, bibliogical, hermeneutical and practical.
Busenitz provided a cessationist response to each of these five points. With the speed he went through them I was not able to type fast enough to note them all. He relied fairly heavily on lengthy quotes from commentaries and this made it difficult to easily translate large ideas to a few small words. My apologies for this. But to summarize, the New Testament evidence, both textually and theologically, points to charismatic phenomena that were tied to the foundation stage of the New Covenant and the writing of Scripture. When this era ended, so did the gifts. His argument seemed very consistent with that made by Sam Waldron in his book To Be Continued?.
Question 2: both sides agree that the New Testament indicates that the miraculous gifts were active during the Apostolic age. Were the gifts, then, the same as are practiced in Charismatic circles today?
The continuationist argument:
- prophecy: continuationists define this as the “human report of divine revelation.” It is occasionally fallible because of the human agency involved. Humans may not properly transmit and apply the message, often pointing to Agabus in Acts 21, saying that he got the gist right but the details wrong. While prophecy is non-authoritative, it is edifying to the church and is an important component of church life. They also say that accuracy and frequency vary in proportion with the prophet’s faith and that it falls under the ecclesiastical authority of the elders.
- healing: “gifts of healing” suggests that Paul was speaking about different gifts or powers of healing. It is an error to assume that is a person could heal at one time, he can heal at all times. Thus the gift is under the control of the will of God and not the healer and healings are occasional and tied to God’s will. The gift is tied to the gift of faith and the prayer of faith (James 5). Since the apostles were the most gifted people in the church, we should not expect to have the gift in the same strength or frequency.
- tongues: Tongues is a form of prayer – a prayer language – that is under the control of the speaker who can stop and start at will. It is intended to edify the speaker. Tongues are edifying even if the speaker does not understand what he is saying. The primary purpose is not evangelistic but for glorifying God. It is a form of spiritual warfare and was a regular part of Paul’s spiritual or devotional life. Devotional tongues are for every believer and are not necessarily human languages but are spiritual or angelic. This gift results in a deeper prayer life.
The cessationist response:
- prophecy: The New Testament never distinguishes between New and Old Testament prophets. If Old Testament prophecy was held to a standard of perfection, the same is true of the New Testament. Because a prophecy had to be subject to Scripture does not show that it was fallible. The claim that Agabus erred in his prophecy is unwarranted and gives undue woodenness to his words. Neither Luke, nor Paul, nor anyone else in Scripture takes issue with Agabus’ prophecy. The distinctions continuationists believe in between New and Old Testament, are foreign to Scripture. Were prophets to exist today, we would have to see their revelation as infallible and authoritative.
- healing: the phrase “gifts of healings” appears only in 1 Corinthians 12 and is not explained. We have to look elsewhere to determine what it means. The continuationist understanding does not explain the decline in quality or quantity in the healings of the modern church versus the New Testament church (which in turn matches the quality and quantity of healings in the Old Testament). The continuationist understanding does not explain why the New Testament epistles do not give further instruction regarding this gift of healing (note: cessationists see James 5 as unconnected with 1 Corinthians 12). The modern practice does not measure up in quantity or quality. Cessationists affirm that God can and does do miracles, especially in response to the prayer of the saints, but this does not necessitate the ongoing gift of healing.
- tongues: The gift of tongues is closely associated with evangelism. It authenticates the message of the evangelist (Mark 16, Acts 2, Hebrews 2, etc). It consisted of authentic foreign languages previously unknown to the speaker. 1 Corinthians 12 makes it clear that not everyone is given this gift and it cannot be shown from this passage that Paul is speaking of two different gifts of tongues. The “tongues of angels” is probably hyperbole in keeping with the context, yet even if taken literally this would be the exception and not the rule. Additionally, every time that angels spoke in the Bible, they spoke in a real language. Paul makes it clear that tongues was never meant to be the hallmark of the church or the most prestigious gift. The fact that languages were rational proves that the languages were rational and thus a real language. The intended use was for the edification of others, not of self. The additional evidence of the early Church Fathers supports a cessationist understanding of the definition and purpose of the gift of tongues.
Final Question: In light of these important doctrinal disagreements with continuationist leaders, how is it that Grace Community Church can partner with certain continuationist leaders in standing together for the gospel?
The Grace staff affirms that these are important questions with a great array of implications. However, for those who agree on the essentials of the gospel, there are times to unite on first-level doctrines despite differences in second-level doctrines. This debate is not about the heart of the gospel and thus is a secondary doctrine. To partner with these continuationists is not to change or lessen the church’s stance on these issues. In an increasingly anti-Christian world, it is increasingly important to stand together on the gospel, even with those with whom we have disagreements on secondary doctrines.
Following the example of Albert Mohler, Busenitz provided three levels of doctrine:
- Level 1: Doctrines necessary to recognize someone as a Christian, and in particular doctrines regarding the gospel and the person and nature of Christ. We cannot have unity with anyone who does not share these beliefs.
- Level 2: Doctrines important for the formation and operation of a church or seminary. There are issues which must be confirmed to be on staff or to be member in a church. These would include, for example, infant or adult baptism, the charismatic gifts, etc. These do not forbid us from having a person teaching or preaching on occasion.
- Level 3: Doctrines that we can disagree on but still have unity within a particular church. This could include dispensationalism eschatology, and so on. These are not issues that are unimportant, but are issues that do not mean a person cannot join a particular staff or church.
And so, Grace stands together with other believers for and upon the gospel.