Sunday, March 12, 2017

Normal Church Is Continuationist, Not Cessationist

Linda gave me these two gifts, which are on my home office window.

I preached at Redeemer this morning against a false theology called "cessationism," and for the ongoing, needed, operative reality of all the gifts of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians. If a church has no spiritual gifts in operation (including healing, tongues, etc.), that is weird. Normal Church experiences all the gifts Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians. 

There is not one sentence in the New Testament that says, "One day, in a few hundred years, when the Bible is compiled, the spiritual sign gifts (tongues, healing, etc.) will no longer be needed."

I have never been a "cessationist." I am a "continuationist"; i.e., one who believes that all the gifts of the Spirit have continued (thankfully!).

When I got rescued out of drugs and alcohol abuse at twenty-one, I picked up a Bible and began to read. I was familiar with a few stories, but had never read the thing for myself. My initial, cold reading of the Bible did not cause me to think anything leaning towards cessationism. To the contrary, it opened me up to a God and a life where there were miracles, signs, and wonders.

I read about miracles, spiritual warfare against satan and demons, spiritual gifts given by God to build up the people (the church), and a Spirit-empowered Church that was not a building but a people movement. No one, on a first reading of the Bible, would ever conclude cessationism. They might wonder why we don't see miracles and spiritual gifts in operation, but that would be another thing.

Later, when I became an academic theologian, and taught at various theological seminaries, I read, as a matter of historical interest, about cessationism. If you want to learn about this I recommend Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views. In this book we find a scholarly, readable, and loving dialogue between "continuationists" (which I am - the spiritual gifts are for the Church, not only in the past but the present) and cessationists.  


Historically, cessationism has roots in The Westminster Confession of 1693. While that document has things to commend it, it contains at least one moment that is misleading because false to the biblical texts. It reads: "Therefore the Holy Scripture is most necessary, God's former ways of revealing his will to his people having ceased."

What's that about? Old Testament scholar Jack Deere writes,

“The Reformers argued that the primary purpose of New Testament miracles was to validate the apostles as trustworthy authors of Holy Scripture. Then…   after the apostles had written the New Testament, miracles would have fulfilled their purpose and would no longer be needed, for because now the church would have the Bible.”

That is false. Regarding the Westminster Confession, I am with John Wesley, who wrote:

I do not recollect any scripture wherein we are taught that miracles were to be confined within the limits either of the apostolic … or any period of time.”
And, in his journal, Wesley added that the reason miraculous gifts were seen so little was "not only that faith and holiness were almost lost, but that dry, formal, orthodox men began to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves.”
We often ridicule what we fear. I have met some people over the years who fear the spiritual gift of healing because it is out of their control. There can be abuses! But of course. And so what? The following is a non-sequitur:
1. The gift of healing is sometimes abused.
2. Therefore, we will not allow the gift of healing in our church.
This morning I asked people who were sick and wanted prayer to raise their hands. Then, many of us prayed for them. Not just me, since all God's people are invited to pray for the sick. As we saw some people healed I reminded everyone that, as this happens, it is God doing it, not us. As Peter said to the people, after seeing someone healed:
Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? … By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. (Acts ch. 3)
I think some Christians (maybe just a few) look at someone like me and a church like ours and think we are weird. Strange. But I believe that the kind of thing that happened to Peter in Acts chapter 3 was not at the time strange, but normal and beautiful. Normal Church is about God and his love and his power, and what happens when God enters the room. At that point you can throw a lot of your Western rationalistic categories out the window (BTW, I've been a professor of Logic at our local community college for the past seventeen years).
I always had this thing in me that thought it was weird to read the story of Jesus - his healings, his encounters with demons, raising the dead - and then, in churches, seeing not only none of this stuff happening, but not even talked about. In spite of the biblical fact that this gets at the very heart of Jesus' teachings!
I thought it was weird to sing songs about shouting to the Lord, and no one - ever - shouts to the Lord. 
I thought it was strange to sing about lifting hands to the Lord, and seeing no one, ever, raise their hands.
I thought it was strange to read the apostle Paul say that God’s kingdom was not a matter of talk, but of power, and then to attend church services where it was all talk and no power.
I thought it was weird to read about ALL the gifts of the Spirit, like tongues and interpretation of tongues,  and never hear this stuff.
I thought it was weird to read about Jesus casting out demons, and to read Paul say our battle is not flesh and blood but against Satan and demons, and then see churches where a lot of flesh and blood was being spilled while there was never engagement in spiritual warfare. My sense was that such talk was simply too weird and too embarrassing for the Christians in those churches, and yet, according to the apostle Paul, the answer to all their church problems was to battle spiritually against demons, principalities, and powers.
I thought it was weird to read all the verses and stories in the four Gospels about Jesus healing people, and then be in churches where they never prayed for people to be healed and never expected anything to happen. (The convoluted theological theories that attempt to explain away the lack of the supernatural in the American Church is almost weirder to me than the lack itself. Like, e.g., cessationism.)
I thought it was weird to be in churches where the greatest miracle, for some, was to get out of church on time.
I have been a part of churches where we never, ever, laid hands on people. We never prayed for their physical and emotional healing. We did not have this great sense of expectation that God was going to do something. Like I read about in the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the letters of Paul.
This began to confuse me, because as a new follower of Jesus I was reading the Bible (I later found out Bible reading is not done by many people who say they are Christians). In the Bible I was reading, I saw Jesus - always - touching people and healing them. I also read about this in the early church, in the book of Acts.
I have concluded that what is seen by some as weird is actually normal, and what many consider normal church is in fact weird.
Randy Clark, whom I find normal, while some find him weird, says: “Many believers today understand and practice the ministry of healing in the Church, but many more do not, and significant resistance still exists.” (Clark, Authority to Heal: Restoring the Lost In heritance of God's Healing Power)
Let me remind you of what Jesus did.
Matt 4:23 - Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.
Matt 12:15 - Aware of this, Jesus withdrew from that place. A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill.
Let me remind you of what Jesus commanded his followers to do.
Matt 10:7 - As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
Finally, let me remind of what Jesus said his followers would do.
John 14:12 - Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
What Jesus did.
What Jesus tells you and I to do.
What Jesus says we will do.
That is Normal Church. If this actually happened, churches would not need to advertise.