(image courtesy ChristArt)
Spencer D Gear
In my Contending Earnestly for the Faith letter (March 2010, p. 25), I wrote that the following Christian leaders were cessationists (the gifts of the Spirit ceased when the Scriptures were complete). These include Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, Matthew Henry, C.H. Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, and a multitude of current leaders such as John MacArthur & Norman Geisler.
The editor’s note at the end of the letter stated: “I am not sure that you are quite right in labelling C. H. Spurgeon and possibly some of the others, whom you have named, as ‘cessationists’” (p. 26).
Let’s check the evidence. What did the people I mentioned believe about continuation or cessation of spiritual gifts?
John Piper, an outstanding expositor of the Scriptures from Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN, and founder of Desiring God Ministries, wrote: “Virtually all the great pastors and teachers of history that I admire and that have fed me over the years belong to the … group who believe that signs and wonders were only for the apostolic age (John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Spurgeon, Benjamin Warfield, my own father). But I am not fully persuaded by their case”. This is some of the evidence of cessationism from the history of the church.
Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria (north Africa) from 328 until his death in 373, was known for his tireless defense of the deity of Christ against the heresy of Arianism at the Council of Nicaea in 325. It is believed that he wrote his “Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit” while he was exiled in the desert between 356-361. In those letters he wrote of “the blessed Paul who … did not divide the Trinity as you do, but taught its unity when he wrote to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts and summed them all up by referring them to the one God and Father, saying ‘there are different gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who works all of them in everyone’ (1 Cor. 12:4-6). For that which the Spirit imparts to each is provided from the Father through the Son. Everything that belongs to the Father belongs to the Son (Jn 16:15, 17:10); thus what is given by the Son in the Spirit is the Father’s gifts”.
In context of his writing to Serapion, Athanasius makes no direct commitment either way to continuation or cessation that I was able to locate. However, his quoting from 1 Cor. 12:4-6, and using the present tense, “that which the Spirit imparts to each”, does not seem to point to these gifts as having ceased. However, it is by inference only. I have not been able to find a direct quote from Athanasius affirming either way.
However, another early church father, Chrysostom (347-407), a name that means “golden mouth” as he was an eloquent speaker, had a cessationist perspective. He was a contemporary of Athanasius’s later life, was Archbishop of Constantinople and defender of orthodoxy. He wrote of spiritual gifts as being obscure in his understanding. In his homily on 1 Cor. 12:1-2, He wrote, “This whole place is very obscure: but the obscurity is produced by our ignorance of the facts referred to and by their cessation, being such as then used to occur but now no longer take place. And why do they not happen now? Why look now, the cause too of the obscurity has produced us again another question: namely, why did they then happen, and now do so no more?
One of the greatest church fathers was St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in northern Africa. He wrote that “in the earliest times, ‘the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues’, which they had not learned, ‘as the Spirit gave them utterance’. These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away”.
In his later life, Augustine returned to a belief in the Lord’s supernatural ability to heal. I have documented this in my article, “The man who dared to change his mind about divine healing”.
Martin Luther, from whom we Protestants owe a great deal in his leadership of the 16th century Reformation. His teaching was a mixed bag concerning his statements on the gifts of the Spirit. He wrote of the continuation of gifts: “When you depart lay your hands upon the man again and say, These signs shall follow them that believe; they shall lay hands on the sick and they shall recover‘“. But he also wrote as a cessationist in his commentary on Galatians 4:1-9, “Paul explained the purpose of these miraculous gifts of the Spirit in I Corinthians 14:22, ‘Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.’ Once the Church had been established and properly advertised by these miracles, the visible appearance of the Holy Ghost ceased”. Which perspective belongs to Luther’s theology?
Another leader of the Reformation, John Calvin, wrote that “the gift of healing, like the rest of the miracles, which the Lord willed to be brought forth for a time, has vanished away in order to make the new preaching of the Gospel marvelous forever… It now has nothing to do with us, to whom the administering of such powers has not been committed”.
In his commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, writing of Mark 16:17 (“and these signs shall follow them that believe”), Calvin wrote, “When he says that believers will receive this gift, we must not understand this as applying to every one of them; for we know that gifts were distributed variously, so that the power of working miracles was possessed by only a few persons…. Though Christ does not expressly state whether he intends this gift [of miracles] to be temporary, or to remain perpetually in the Church, yet it is more probable that miracles were promised only for a time, in order to give lustre to the gospel while it was new or in a state of obscurity”.
Calvin seemed somewhat arbitrary when he wrote of the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers in Ephesians 4. He believed that “only the last two [pastors and teachers] have an ordinary office in the church; the Lord raised up the first three at the beginning of his Kingdom, and now and again revives them as the need of the times demands”. The functions of apostles, prophets and evangelists “were not established in the church as permanent ones, but only for that time during which churches were to be erected where none existed before, or where they were to be carried over from Moses to Christ. Still, I do not deny that the Lord has sometimes at a later period raised up apostles, or at least evangelists in their place, as has happened in our own [Reformation] day.”
How would Calvin interpret John 14:12, which states: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father” (KJV)?
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, Calvin wrote of John 14:12:
“ And shall do greater works than these. Many are perplexed by the statement of Christ, that the Apostles would do greater works than he had done I pass by the other answers which have been usually given to it, and satisfy myself with this single answer. First, we must understand what Christ means; namely, that the power by which he proves himself to be the Son of God, is so far from being confined to his bodily presence, that it must be clearly demonstrated by many and striking proofs, when he is absent. Now the ascension of Christ was soon afterwards followed by a wonderful conversion of the world, in which the Divinity of Christ was more powerfully displayed than while he dwelt among men. Thus, we see that the proof of his Divinity was not confined to the person of Christ, but was diffused through the whole body of the Church.
Because I go to the Father. This is the reason why the disciples would do greater things than Christ himself. It is because, when he has entered into the possession of his kingdom, he will more fully demonstrate his power from heaven.
One of the problems that I see with Calvin’s interpretation is that he makes John 14:12 as applicable only to “the Apostles”, meaning Christ’s apostles of the first century. They would see “many and striking proofs” when they no longer had Christ’s bodily presence and he had returned to the Father.
The “greater works” were spoken to the Twelve, but Philip specifically. However, John 14:12 states that ” He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also”. It does not state that the greater works would be done by the Apostles, but by “he that believeth on me”. That sounds very comprehensive and not limited to the Twelve. D. A. Carson says it well: “Jesus’ ‘works’ may include more than his miracles; they never exclude them”. The “greater works” is not easy to understand as it is unlikely that Christ was referring to “more works” as though the church would do more of them, as there was a common Greek word for “more”.
It is hardly likely that “greater works” could refer to greater examples of the supernatural. What could be greater than the raising of Lazarus from the dead? The meaning seems to point to the fact that Jesus was returning to the Father and that those who believed in Jesus, the church, would become the new order through which God’s miraculous gifts would be channelled, by the Holy Spirit’s ministry. But the meaning is not crystal clear to me.
St. Augustine of Hippo, in the fifth century interpreted the “greater works” as:
“What works was He then referring to, but the words He was speaking? They were hearing and believing, and their faith was the fruit of those very words: howbeit, when the disciples preached the gospel, it was not small numbers like themselves, but nations also that believed; and such, doubtless, are greater works. And yet He said not, Greater works than these shall ye do, to lead us to suppose that it was only the apostles who would do so; for He added, “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do.” Is the case then so, that he that believeth on Christ doeth the same works as Christ, or even greater than He did? Points like these are not to be treated in a cursory way, nor ought they to be hurriedly disposed of”.
A theologian such as Norman Geisler gets over this difficulty with his cessationist interpretation, “Jesus did promise that miracles would continue after His time, but not after the time of the apostles. In fact, it was specifically to the apostles with Him in the Upper Room that he made His promise that they would do greater miracles than He did (John 14:12; cf. 13:5ff)”.
The Encyclopedia of Religion says that “both Luther and Calvin wrote that the age of miracles was over and that their occurrence should not be expected”. This is a questionable statement, based on the above information.
What of Matthew Henry (1662-1714), the British Presbyterian Bible commentator? He stated in his concise commentary on 1 Cor. 12:12-26 that “spiritual gifts were extraordinary powers bestowed in the first ages, to convince unbelievers, and to spread the gospel”.
Revivalist and theologian, Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), wrote,
“The extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, such as the gift of tongues, of miracles, of prophecy, &c., are called extraordinary, because they are such as are not given in the ordinary course of God’s providence. They are not bestowed in the way of God’s ordinary providential dealing with his children, but only on extraordinary occasions, as they were bestowed on the prophets and apostles to enable them to reveal the mind and will of God before the canon of Scripture was complete, and so on the primitive Church, in order to the founding and establishing of it in the world. But since the canon of the Scripture has been completed, and the Christian Church fully founded and established, these extraordinary gifts have ceased”.
Revivalist George Whitefield (1714-70) asked, “What need is there of miracles, such as healing sick bodies and restoring sight to blind eyes, when we see greater miracles done every day by the power of God’s Word?”
John Owen, 17th century British non-conformist theologian and Puritan, wrote: “Gifts which in their own nature exceed the whole power of all our faculties” [tongues, prophecy, healing powers] belong to “that dispensation of the Spirit [which] is long since ceased, and where it is now pretended unto by any, it may justly be suspected as an enthusiastical delusion”.
One of the champions of cessationism was B. B. Warfield, professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, 1887-1921. He is regarded by some conservative Presbyterians as the last of the great Princeton theologians before the split of the church in 1929. In his article, “Cessation of the Charismata”, he wrote that
“the theologians of the post-Reformation era, a very clear-headed body of men, taught with great distinctness that the charismata ceased with the Apostolic age. But this teaching gradually gave way, pretty generally throughout the Protestant churches, but especially in England, to the view that they continued for a while in the post-Apostolic period, and only slowly died out like a light fading by increasing distance from its source”.
C. H. Spurgeon the prominent 19th century Baptist preacher and pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, for 38 years, wrote that
“those gifts of the Holy Spirit which are at this time vouchsafed to the church of God are every way as valuable as those earlier miraculous gifts which are departed from us… As you would certainly inquire whether you had the gifts of healing and miracle-working, if such gifts were now given to believers, much more should you inquire whether you have those more permanent gifts of the Spirit which are this day open to you all, by the which you shall work no physical miracle, but shall achieve spiritual wonders of the grander sort”.
In my preparation of this article, I engaged in email discussion with my friend, Philip Powell, who alerted me to several incidents in the life of C. H. Spurgeon which indicate that he was not a cessationist. Spurgeon provided these descriptions and an explanation, as supplied by Philip Powell (I have located the following quotes from other sources):
Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92) was the prominent Baptist preacher in England during the 19th century, who spoke of a “sermon at Exeter Hall in which he suddenly broke off from his subject, and pointing in a certain direction, said, `Young man, those gloves you are wearing have not been paid for: you have stolen them from your employer’. At the close of the service, a young man, looking very pale and greatly agitated, came to the room, which was used as a vestry, and begged for a private interview with Spurgeon. On being admitted, he placed a pair of gloves upon the table, and tearfully said, `It’s the first time I have robbed my master, and I will never do it again. You won’t expose me, sir, will you? It would kill my mother if she heard that I had become a thief’.” (see HERE)
“On another occasion while he was preaching, Spurgeon said there was a man in the gallery who had a bottle of gin in his pocket. This not only startled the man in the gallery who had the gin, but it also led to his conversion.” (see HERE)
Spurgeon gives further examples of his prophetic ministry:
“While preaching in the hall, on one occasion, I deliberately pointed to a man in the midst of the crowd, and said, `There is a man sitting there, who is a shoemaker; he keeps his shop open on Sundays, it was open last Sabbath morning, he took nine pence, and there was four pence profit out of it; his soul is sold to Satan for four pence!’ A city missionary, when going his rounds, met with this man, and seeing that he was reading one of my sermons, he asked the question, `Do you know Mr Spurgeon?’ `Yes,’ replied the man `I have every reason to know him, I have been to hear him; and under his preaching, by God’s grace I have become a new creature in Christ Jesus. Shall I tell you how it happened? I went to the Music Hall, and took my seat in the middle of the place: Mr Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took nine pence the Sunday before, and that there was four pence profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul.'” (See HERE)
How does Spurgeon explain this prophetic ministry?
“I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, `Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. I have sometimes seen persons nudge their neighbours with their elbow, because they had got a smart hit, and they have been heard to say, when they were going out, `The preacher told us just what we said to one another when we went in at the door.'” (See HERE)
Noted Reformed theologian and defender of the orthodox faith at Princeton Theological Seminary, Charles Hodge (1797-1878), wrote in his commentary on 1 Corinthians that “[the word of] knowledge and prophecy are to cease. They are partial or imperfect”.
The contemporary, famed Bible expositor from Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA, John MacArthur Jr is renowned for his promotion of cessationism. In his exposé of the charismatic movement in Charismatic Chaos, he stated, “I am convinced by history, theology, and the Bible that tongues ceased in the apostolic age. And when it happened they terminated altogether. The contemporary charismatic movement does not represent a revival of biblical tongues. It is an aberration similar to the practice of counterfeit tongues at Corinth”.
A leading contemporary exegete, theologian and apologist, Norman Geisler, teaches that “even though tongues are mentioned in the New Testament, it is possible that tongues are no longer for us…. Since apostles existed only in the New Testament (Acts 1:22) and since there were supernatural sign gifts given to apostles (2 Cor. 12:12), it follows that these sign gifts ceased with the apostles in the first century”.
Cessationism is not a new development of the anti-charismatic movement. It has been evident throughout church history. However, there is another side to the cessationist arguments and it was provided by a very early theologian of the church.
Irenaeus was born in the first half of the second century (his birth date has been suggested between 115-125) and died towards the end of that century. As one of the first great theologians of the church, he was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of the apostle John. Irenaeus became bishop of Lyons, Gaul (France today).
Irenaeus assures us that the supernatural gifts of the Spirit had not disappeared by the end of the second century. He wrote in a leading refutation of Gnosticism, Against Heresies (written about 180):
“Those who are in truth His disciples, receiving grace from Him, do in His name perform [miracles], so as to promote the welfare of other men, according to the gift which each one has received from Him. For some do certainly and truly drive out devils, so that those who have thus been cleansed from evil spirits frequently both believe [in Christ], and join themselves to the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years. And what shall I more say? It is not possible to name the number of the gifts which the Church, [scattered] throughout the whole world, has received from God, in the name of Jesus Christ”.
So Irenaeus knew of the practice of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit in his day. Thus, they did not cease with the death of the Twelve and the formation of the New Testament canon of Scripture. It is estimated that the last book of the New Testament was written about AD 95-96 (the Book of Revelation). Thus, Irenaeus refutes John MacArthur’s statement that “once the Word of God was inscripturated, the sign gifts were no longer needed and they ceased”. Irenaeus clearly shows the existence of sign gifts in the church over 100 years after the completion of the canon of Scripture.
Irenaeus also provided us with the earliest undisputed authority for the authorship of the four Gospels: Matthew issued his Gospel among the Hebrews; Mark was the disciple and interpreter of Peter; Luke was a companion of Paul and recorded a Gospel preached by Paul; John, a disciple of the Lord, published his Gospel while he was in Ephesus in Asia.
With John Piper and Irenaeus, I am not persuaded by the arguments of the cessationists. For a defence of the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit, I recommend Jack Deere’s chapter, ‘Were miracles meant to be temporary‘ (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, ch 8).
 CETF refers to the magazine, Contending earnestly for the faith, published by Christian Witness Ministries, available from: www.cwm.org.au.
 “John Piper on the continuation of the gifts of the Spirit”, available at: http://reformedandreforming.org/2010/03/31/john-piper-on-the-continuation-of-the-gifts-of-the-spirit/ [Assessed 20 June 2010].
 See Brian LePort, 21 April 2010, “An Introduction to the The Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit by Athanasius of Alexandria”, available at: http://westernthm.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/leport-an-introduction-to-the-letters-to-serapion-on-the-holy-spirit-by-athanasius-of-alexandria.pdf [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 p. 186, available at: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=KrvXjxlRsP0C&pg=PA186&lpg=PA186&dq=%22spiritual+gifts+Athanasius%22&source=bl&ots=bSy_5TDTTk&sig=M0eG3pAw_84LDTCcrR0aMmFZjh0&hl=en&ei=aTkdTLD7BIi8cY-4_P4M&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CDEQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 “Homily 29 on First Corinthians”, available at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/220129.htm [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John 6:1-14, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers [7:497-98].
 This article was originally published as, “The man who dared to change his mind about divine healing,” in the Pentecostal Evangel, September 11, 1983, pp. 18-20. It is available at: The leading church father who changed his mind about the supernatural gifts. I have written about him in St. Augustine: The leading Church Father who dared to change his mind about divine healing [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 “Letters of spiritual counsel” to one of his followers, available at: http://www.pentecostalpioneers.org/gpage.htm20.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Available at: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/gal/web/gal4-01.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 1960. Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. F. L. Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, p. 1467.
 Some of the earliest Greek manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, Mark & Luke – vol. 3; Matthew 28:16-20; Mark 16:15-18, available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom33.ii.li.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 1056.
 Ibid., p. 1057.
 Available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom35.iv.ii.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 1991. The Gospel according to John. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, p. 495.
 Homily on John 14:10-14, available at: http://220.127.116.11/ccel/schaff/npnf107.iii.lxxii.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Systematic Theology, vol. 4, pp. 673-75).
 Cited in: http://thisblogchoseyou.wordpress.com/2007/08/06/the-continuationistcessationist-debate-part-x/ [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Bible, I Corinthians 12, “The variety of use of spiritual gifts are shown”, Bible Gateway, available at: http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/Matthew-Henry/1Cor/Variety-Use-Spiritual-Gifts [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Jonathan Edwards, “Love more excellent than the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit”, available at: http://www.biblebb.com/files/edwards/charity2.htm [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Arnold Dallimore 1970, George Whitefield: The life and times of the great evangelist of the eighteent-century revival, vol 1. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, p. 348.
 The Works of John Owen, IV:518, cited in J. I. Packer, “John Owen on spiritual gifts”, available at: http://www.johnowen.org/media/packer_quest_for_godliness_ch_13.pdf [Accessed 20 June, 2010].
 Available at: http://www.the-highway.com/cessation1_Warfield.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 “Receiving the Holy Ghost”, sermon no.1790, vol. 30, Year 1884, p. 386, available at: http://adrianwarnock.com/2004/05/what-would-c-h-spurgeon-have-made-of-charismatics/ [Accessed 20 June 2010]..
 1857-1859. I & II Corinthians (The Geneva Series of Commentaries). Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, p. 272.
 Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992, p. 231.
 2005. Systematic Theology vol. 4. Minneapolis, Minnesota: BethanyHouse, p. 192.
 Against Heresies, II.32.4, available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iii.xxxiii.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
 Charismatic Chaos, p. 199.
 Against Heresies III.1.1, available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.ix.iv.ii.html [Accessed 20 June 2010].
Copyright © 2010 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 22 May 2020.