Do Cessationists Miss Out on the Full Joys of Christianity?
At Desiring God, we talk a lot about joy in God. So how closely connected is the full experience of our joy in God to the “charismata,” the gifts of the Spirit, outlined by Paul in the epistles of the New Testament (such as in 1 Corinthians 14) where he talks about the gifts of tongues and prophecy? It’s a question from a listener named Matthew. “Dear Pastor John, how essential is continuationist theology for experiencing the fullest expression of Christian Hedonism? In other words, if I am a cessationist, will my joy be incomplete?”
Let’s begin with three definitions so that we know what we’re talking about.
“All things being equal, someone pursuing spiritual gifts can experience the goal of Christian Hedonism more fully.”
First, I assume that when Matthew asks about continuationist theology, he’s referring to the view that the spiritual gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12–14 are still available and operative in some measure today.
Second, I assume he means by cessationism the view that the extraordinary supernatural gifts, like speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, discerning of spirits, and so on, are no longer given by the Spirit, and should not be pursued today. That’s cessationism.
Third, by Christian Hedonism, I take him to mean my view that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, and that therefore it is our duty to pursue maximum satisfaction in God so that he might be maximally glorified in us. Those are my three definitions.
The first question that he asked was whether the denial of the presence of spiritual gifts will limit the goal of Christian Hedonism — namely, the maximum joy in God for the sake of maximum glorification of God.
Second, to put it positively, he is asking if the pursuit of spiritual gifts enlarges the outcome of our pursuit of joy in God for the sake of his glory.
Now, there are several things that I need to clarify here before I give a specific answer to that question. The first important clarification to give is that any given cessationist may have greater joy in God than any given continuationist, and vice versa.
In other words, nothing in continuationism guarantees that the Christ-exalting joy of every continuationist will be greater than the Christ-exalting joy of every cessationist. That’s not true. There are too many other factors involved to make that judgment. That’s the first thing that really needs to be kept in mind.
Gifts Without Love
Here’s the second observation. Spiritual gifts are only spiritual in the fullest biblical sense — that is, made holy and beautiful and Christ exalting by the shaping power of the Holy Spirit in them — they are only spiritual in that fullest biblical sense when the Holy Spirit makes them, which means that in and of themselves they may not be a sign that a person is spiritual or even born again.
“The commands to earnestly desire spiritual gifts are given for the building up of the body and the increase of our joy.”
Now I know that sounds strange to some people. It sounds strange that an unregenerate, un-Christian person could speak in tongues or perform healing, but that’s true. The devil himself is going to produce deceptive signs and wonders at the close of the age (2 Thessalonians 2:9).
Paul says, amazingly, in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3 that we can speak in tongues, we can have all knowledge of mysteries, and we can move mountains, yet if we don’t have love — the premier grace of the Holy Spirit — we’re a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal, and we morally and spiritually amount to nothing.
That’s damning for those who have spiritual gifts but don’t have love. In other words, speaking in tongues, prophesying, and moving mountains may not be spiritual in that fullest sense.
What this means is that spiritual gifts are in an important sense like other natural gifts, like food, sunsets, friends, children, music. All of those things can become means by which we know God, taste God more fully, enjoy him more fully, and glorify him more fully. Or they can become replacements for God and actually detract us from the enjoyment of God himself.
That’s true for natural gifts in nature. It’s true for spiritual gifts that are not infused by the Holy Spirit.
All Things Equal
With those clarifications, my answer to the question is that, all other things being equal, a person who pursues spiritual gifts can experience the goal of Christian Hedonism more fully than a person who doesn’t.
“God is seeking the increase of our joy in him as we see him show his power and love to his people through us.”
This is the case if all other things are equal. That’s because God has given spiritual gifts as a means of ministry to his people, and these gifts are points of supernatural encounter with the living God in which he shows more of his power, more of his wisdom, more of his love to his people.
Whenever God is showing more of himself, there is the possibility of our having more joy in him, seeing more of him, being more deeply satisfied in him, and thus glorifying him more.
Pursuing Our Joy
I think Paul’s three commands to earnestly desire spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14 are in fact given both for the building up of the body of Christ and for the increase of our joy in him. He says,
Earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:31)
Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)
Earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. (1 Corinthians 14:39)
Paul says that. He’s not seeking the diminishment of our delight in God when he makes these commands. He’s seeking the increase of our joy in God as we see him show his power and love to his people through us.
Yes, I think all other things being equal, a person who pursues spiritual gifts can experience the goal of Christian Hedonism more fully than a person who doesn’t.