Confessions of a Functional Cessationist

This article is more about aspirations than answers. I am describing the start of a journey more than documenting how to arrive at a destination. I begin with a confession: I have always been a theoretical continuationist. That is, I have always believed that the gifts of the Spirit continue to this very day.

I have never adopted the cessationist viewpoint that certain spiritual gifts ceased when the apostolic age came to an end. Paul’s argument that tongues and prophecy will end “when the perfect comes” (1 Corinthians 13:8–10) is a reference to the second coming of Christ, not the close of the biblical canon. I tell my cessationist friends that there is a day coming when I too will be a cessationist: the second coming.

Even though I have always been a theoretical continuationist, I am far too often a functional cessationist. In other words, I am a continuationist in theory, but I look a lot like a cessationist in practice. This gap between theory and practice pricks my conscience.

Test Everything — Including Attitudes

Recently, I have been convicted by clear differences between the way the Bible speaks and the way I speak about spiritual gifts. I have said things like “I am open, but cautious” when it comes to sign gifts like prophecy, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. That statement about caution rightly stresses the need to “test everything” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Every experience must be examined by the searchlight of Scripture.

“Instead of ‘open, but cautious,’ I am more like ‘open, but overly suspicious.’”

However, in practice, I can take this caution so far that it turns into suspicion and fear. Instead of “open, but cautious,” I am more like “open, but overly suspicious.” I have discovered that Scripture tests our attitudes and not just our experiences. It was a little shocking to see how much my attitude is actually rebuked by Scripture. Paul commands Christians, “Earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1). He characterizes the Corinthians as “eager for manifestations of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 14:12).

My attitude towards spiritual gifts has fallen far short of earnest and eager. In fact, Scripture goes further and asks me about how much I am committed to corporate edification. Spiritual gifts or manifestations of the Spirit are for “building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12). The great Love Chapter (1 Corinthians 13) controls the application of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 14). This issue is not just an attitude check, but a love test. Will I love my people enough to move from extreme caution to earnest desire? What motivates me more? Do I fear losing a measure of corporate control, or does love move me to desire greater heights of corporate edification?

Desiring God in His Gifts

One thought has captured me more than any other at the start of this journey. This thought came from a thought-provoking question from Sam Storms in his book The Beginners Guide to Spiritual Gifts. He asks whether we should talk about “God and his gifts” or “God in his gifts.” He does not leave the answer in doubt.

Spiritual gifts are nothing less than God himself in us, energizing our souls, imparting revelation to our minds, infusing power in our wills, and working his sovereign and gracious purposes through us. Spiritual gifts must never be viewed deistically, as if a God “out there” has sent some “thing” to us “down here.” Spiritual gifts are God present in, with, and through human thoughts, human deeds, human words, human love.

This paragraph captured me. These words arrested me because if spiritual gifts are manifestations of God, then, in a sense, desiring the gifts is desiring God. Christian Hedonists are not fully desiring God if we stop short of desiring him in his gifts.

The pastoral implications are weighty as well. The apostle Paul keeps pushing the discussion of spiritual gifts toward corporate edification: “building up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:12). Love looks like a pastor wanting more manifestations of God for the corporate joy and edification of his people.

Christian Hedonism Seeks for More

Therefore, I aspire to pastor a Christian Hedonist, continuationist church. The gifts of the Spirit are present at our church; I don’t want to give the impression that manifestations of the Spirit have been absent. But certain gifts of the Spirit — like prophesy and speaking in tongues — have been more sporadic than consistent.

“Spiritual gifts are nothing less than God himself in us.”

I don’t have all the answers for what consistency would look like as a Christian Hedonist, continuationist church, but I want to grow into it. We are taking some small steps in this direction. Our leadership has made plans to attend the Convergence Conference this month, and the next Bethlehem Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders will focus on the person and the work of the Holy Spirit.

We don’t expect changes to come overnight. Any changes in practice will require extensive teaching and careful shepherding, but we are eager to learn from others who are leading the way in demonstrating how to desire God in his gifts.