Most Christians are aware of the difference between continuationists and cessationists. They often encounter surprising difficulty, however, in pinpointing exactly what the difference is. One result of this imprecision is that some Christians feel obligated to maintain a kind of soft continuationism when a more precise understanding of the issues might move them toward cessationism. So what is the difference?
It is not a difference over whether God is able to do miracles today. Unfortunately, continuationists sometimes accuse cessationists of being overly influenced by the naturalistic biases of modernity. In other words, they think that cessationists are simply afraid of the supernatural. They suppose that cessationists prefer a world in which God does not miraculously intervene.
The debate, however, is not really over whether God is able to do miracles. He is God. All power is His. He has authority over the entire natural world. He made its laws and He is perfectly free to suspend them or work around them or accelerate them or simply ignore them any time He chooses. He does not need to consult anyone before He does. He never needs permission. God is free to do miracles when and where He wishes, and if He does, no one is in a position to call Him into question.
Too often the debate over continuationism revolves around vague definitions of miracles. At minimum, a miracle has to be an event that is incapable of natural explanation. Furthermore, before it can even be discussed as a miracle, it has to be evident to observers. Read the biblical accounts of miraculous deeds, whether by Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, or the apostles. Miracles are by their very nature obvious. If an event can be explained as a coincidence, then it is not a miracle.
Unusual events do happen. I was once called to the hospital because a church member was about to die. The doctors said that he would probably not live the forty-five minutes that it would take me to make the drive. As I drove I prayed for the man’s life, and when I arrived at the hospital he was sitting up and carrying on a lucid conversation with his amazed family members.
On another occasion I stopped to visit a church member in his hospital room (I had just been informed of the hospitalization). When I arrived, he was alone in the room, asleep. As I entered, he awoke and we talked for about twenty minutes. The man shared his testimony and his hope of heaven, and I read the Scriptures and prayed. Two hours later, his family called me back because he had just died. When I began to comfort them with his testimony, they looked at me in disbelief. The doctors explained that he had been in an uninterrupted coma for days and could not possibly have carried on a conversation with me.
These were unusual events, but I do not claim them as miracles. There is too much that I don’t know about what could have happened. Some natural explanation might account for everything. Even if these were genuinely miraculous events, however, I would remain a cessationist. The debate is not over whether God is able to do miracles. It is not even about whether God actually does miraculous things during the present day.
So what is the debate about? In the first place, it is about miraculous gifts rather than about miracles per se. A miraculous gift is more than a miracle. With miraculous gifts, God entrusts the dispensation of supernatural powers to some human agent, who acts more-or-less at will. The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets, and those with the gift of prophecy can choose either to utter their revelation or to become silent. People who have the gift of tongues are capable of being directed in their use of that gift. Those who have the gift of healing can choose whom they will heal. None of the foregoing means that people with miraculous gifts could employ these gifts absolutely wherever and whenever they wished, regardless of circumstances (even Paul could not heal Epaphroditus). Nevertheless, the giftedness implies some element of choice on the part of the one who uses the gift.
There is an old saying that cessationists believe in divine healing, they just don’t believe in divine healers. That saying underlines exactly the distinction that most cessationists actually make. They believe in praying for healing, and they believe that God can and does answer such prayers in ways that medical science cannot explain. Even so, they do not believe that God is presently granting the miraculous gift of healing to individuals who then dispense it at their discretion. The debate is not about miracles. It is about whether God presently grants miraculous gifts.
In the second place, the debate is less about what God is able to do and more about what God is actually doing. More specifically it is about what He has said that He intends to do. We have no right to expect God to do something that He has not told us He will do. If God intends to grant miraculous gifts throughout the present age, then those gifts should be welcomed and even sought. If, on the other hand, God has not indicated His intention of perpetuating miraculous gifts, then we have no particular reason to seek them or to recognize claims to practice them. All parties acknowledge that God is able to do miraculous things when and where he wishes. But has God given any indication of whether Christians should expect miraculous gifts in the church today?
The debate is not about miracles. It is about miraculous gifts. The debate is not about what God is able to do. It is about what God has revealed that He intends to do.
Once this distinction is recognized, the discussion can move forward—and it certainly will. The very next question will be about what counts as evidence. Can someone legitimately appeal to the experience of miraculous gifts in order to answer this question? Is the book of Acts intended to be normative throughout the church age or is it transitional? These are important questions, and they need to be answered. But they need to be answered as a way of providing larger answers to the correct questions. At some point, they may come up again in this publication.
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.
Holy Ghost, dispel our sadness
Paul Gerhardt (1607–1676), trans. John Christian Jacobi (1670–1750) and Augustus M. Toplady (1740–1778)
Holy Ghost, dispel our sadness,
Pierce the clouds of sinful night;
Come, thou source of sweetest gladness,
Breathe thy life, and spread they light.
Loving Spirit, God of peace,
Great distributor of grace,
Rest upon this congregation;
Hear, O hear our supplication.
From that height which knows no measure,
As a gracious show’r descend;
Bringing down the richest treasure
Man can wish, or God can send.
O thou Glory, shining down
From the Father and the Son,
Grant us thine illumination;
Rest upon this congregation.
Come, thou best of all donations
God can give, or we implore;
Having thy sweet consolations
We need wish for nothing more.
Come with unction and with pow’r,
On our souls thy graces show’r;
Author of the new creation,
Make our hearts thy habitation.