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Cessationism: What Counts As Evidence?

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Christians ought to desire everything that God has in store for them. It would be wrong to neglect any good and perfect gift that God has given. Consequently, if God has chosen to grant miraculous gifts to Christians today, then those gifts ought to be nurtured and prized. On the other hand, if God is not giving those gifts, then any putative demonstrations of the gifts ought to be disdained. Furthermore, if God is not giving the gifts, then the spiritual insight of those who defend them ought to be questioned, at least in this area.

In this debate, all parties agree that God has actually granted miraculous gifts in the past. In principle, God could continue to grant these gifts whenever He chooses. The question is not about what God can do, but about what God intends to do. Does God intend to continue granting miraculous gifts, or does He intend for them to cease?

How should this question be answered? What counts as evidence? The answer favored by cessationists is that God reveals His intentions in Scripture alone. The answer favored by most Charismatics is that the actual experience of miraculous gifts indicates whether God is still granting them. From the Charismatic point of view, if people are still receiving miraculous gifts, then God must still be granting them, and Scripture ought to be understood in the light of this fact. From the cessationist point of view, if Scripture itself does not authorize the continuation of miraculous gifts, then any putative claims to the gifts must be called into question.

In other words, the case for continuationism is often based at least partly upon experience. The fact that people actually do heal, prophesy, cast out demons, or speak in tongues is seen as indisputable proof that God is still giving the gifts. The logic that leads to this conclusion is straightforward: the gifts are being given, therefore God is giving them.

Cessationists respond to such experiences in several ways. They argue that the gifts as (putatively) practiced today are not necessarily identical to those practiced in the New Testament. They further point to the high proportion of forgery among those who claim to be practicing the gifts. They also insist that supernatural-appearing phenomena can stem from a number of causes, not all of which are truly divine.

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The last objection is the most important. If true—that is, if miracles could be shown to be caused by something or someone other than God—then the argument from experience would be severely undermined. In fact, if miracles can come from non-divine sources, then miracles should never be seen as self-authenticating.

The hypothesis is that miracles can be caused by powers that do not come from God. Scripture itself provides the necessary information to be able to test this hypothesis. It reports multiple episodes in which miraculous phenomena are caused by powers other than God’s. In fact, the Bible even includes explicit warnings that miracles are not self-authenticating.

In the book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron were able to do miracles in the power of God. They cast down Aaron’s rod and it became a serpent (Ex. 7:8-13). They turned the waters of Egypt into blood (Ex. 7:20-25). They brought frogs up to cover the land of Egypt (Ex. 8:6-7). The magicians of Egypt were able to duplicate these deeds. The source of the magicians’ power is not specified, but their power was clearly not from God. Somehow they were able to produce the same miracles that Moses and Aaron did, but they accomplished them using some other power.

In the New Testament, Simon Magus was able to do unspecified miracles. According to the text, he was able to bewitch the people with sorcery (Acts 8:9-13). Since Luke attributes these miracles to sorcery, Simon was likely performing them through demonic power. Later, in Philippi, Paul and Silas also encountered miracles done through demonic power (Acts 16:16). Whether or not Simon was relying on demonic power, he clearly did not work his marvelous deeds in the power of God.

Writing prophetically, the apostle Paul foretold a future “man of sin” who will be able to work “power and signs and false wonders,” i.e., miracles that deceive people. Interestingly, the terms that are used for the miracles of the “man of sin” are the very terms that are used in the Gospels to describe the miracles of Christ. This “man of sin” is almost certainly the Antichrist. The text states exactly how he accomplishes his miracles: his coming is “after the working of Satan” (2 Thess. 2:9).

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The above examples provide three biblical instances of individuals who did or will do miracles based upon some power other than God’s. These three are not unique to the text of Scripture. In fact, other examples go further in warning believers not to regard miracles as self-authenticating.

One has to do with biblical prophets. The task of prophets in both Testaments was to deliver the very words of God. Consequently, God’s people were given tests to discern who was a true prophet and who was a pretender. One test involved the ability to do miraculous things: if the prophet foretold the future and it did not happen as he said, then he was a false prophet (Deut. 18:22). The ability to do signs and wonders, however, was not a certain proof that one was a true prophet of God. A prophet also had to be tested by his message (Deut. 13:1-5). A prophet who delivered the wrong message was to be rejected, even if he could do signs and wonders. In this case, the miracle was genuine, but it did not come from God.

Even devotion to the name of Jesus is no guarantee that a miraculous gift is authentic. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about people who would prophesy, cast out demons, and do marvelous deeds in His name. But Jesus will accuse them of working iniquity. He will cast them from His presence saying, “I never knew you.” In other words, Jesus Himself will disavow any involvement with the prophecies, exorcisms, or miracles that they have worked (Matt. 7:21-23). These words of Jesus constitute a clear warning that miracles are never self-authenticating.

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Even miracles that are done in the name of Jesus can be produced by some other power. It is not necessary to know what power that might be. It is enough to know that plenty of miracles come from some source other than God. Consequently, the experience of miracles should never be enough by itself to convince anyone that God is at work. The fact that people can display abilities that look like miraculous gifts does not mean that God is granting miraculous gifts. Whether God is still granting these gifts or not will have to be determined on the basis of biblical evidence, not on the basis of experience.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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In the Hour of Trial
James Montgomery (1771–1854)

In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial I depart from Thee.
When Thou seest me waver, with a look recall,
Nor for fear or favor suffer me to fall.

With forbidden pleasures would this vain world charm,
Or its sordid treasures spread to work me harm,
Bring to my remembrance sad Gethsemane,
Or, in darker semblance, cross-crowned Calvary.

Should Thy mercy send me sorrow, toil and woe,
Or should pain attend me on my path below,
Grant that I may never fail Thy hand to see;
Grant that I may ever cast my care on Thee.

When my last hour cometh, fraught with strife and pain,
When my dust returneth to the dust again,
On Thy truth relying, through that mortal strife,
Jesus, take me, dying, to eternal life.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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