When it comes to continuationists of the reformed or at least gospel-centred ilk it is appropriate and wise to place the matter of the gifts in the secondary issue box. I love the warmth and genuineness expressed in Mahaney and the fire and passion in Piper. However, I recently shared an article Shreiner wrote called “Why I am a Cessationist”, and the discussion that followed got me thinking. While the doctrine is secondary and should not create division in the body the implications of this doctrine are rather huge.
Unless you are from the real extreme of charismania where you believe whatever is peddled from a stage, you have to concede that the quantity of supernatural manifestations of the kind we are speaking and the nature of these manifestations are far less frequent than in the Gospels or Acts. In John 14:12 Jesus said “”Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” Now the issue of who this was promised to aside, does greater mean quantity or quality? The Greek can mean both of those. How anyone could do a greater quality of work than Jesus is hard to understand. Jesus raised the dead, walked on water, ascended into heaven, cast out demons, and calmed a storm with a word… I mean what is qualitatively greater that we could do? We definitely don’t see the Apostles doing qualitatively greater things, so unless our reasoning is that it skipped a generation and waited for the 21st century to allow us to astral project or turn into super saiyans level 5 or something of the sort, I have a hard time thinking that Jesus meant qualitatively greater.
On the other hand if it means quantitatively greater then continuationists have a rather troubling issue to deal with regarding the church. It would then mean for at least 1900 years the tree that grows from a mustard seed and fills the whole earth, the stone that smashes Nebuchadnezzar’s nightmare statue and grows into a mountain that fills the whole earth, the very kingdom of God has for some or other reason grown without any substantial manifestation of supernatural sign gifts. If the reason is that, based on Ephesians 4:30, we have grieved the Spirit, then somehow God has blessed the church and allowed it to grow substantially with a grieved Holy Spirit. Interesting, the criteria for doing the ‘greater works’ was merely believing in Jesus, it did not contain all the criteria mentioned in Ephesians 4, but even there the context does not guide me to think gifts play a role in what Paul was writing about.
Now we can talk about what we hear is happening on a mission field somewhere, or what a friend heard happened somewhere, but this doesn’t fall into either definition of greater works. It is definitely not more in quantity or quality. Could those occurrences just be the hand of a sovereign God in history, but not necessarily the gifting of individuals with particular spectacular sign gifts?
My point here is not to try and prove from history that the supernatural sign gifts have ceased, but more to identify the implications if my continuationist brothers are right. It means that by and large for most of history the church got by without that which was allegedly promised to the church. Or that only small sects sporadically and a couple of missionaries are the only ones who have not grieved the Spirit, or done whatever else can stop the Spirit from imbuing believers with supernatural gifts. Then again He doesn’t seem to mind giving cessationists non-sign gifts like administration, faith, mercy, teaching etc.
I think I could put my thesis more simply by saying this: If the supernatural sign gifts are meant to be normative for the church, why is there any debate as to whether a normative thing actually happens or not? Now don’t straw-man the cessationists, many of us are nice guys and don’t take kindly to be scare-crowed; cessationism does not teach that God can’t do miracles and can’t answer prayer, but rather that the individual gifting for supernatural works were, well like in the book of Acts, generally limited to the Apostles or connected with the destruction of Jerusalem.