WHY IT MATTERS. If we believe spiritual gifts have ceased but they haven’t, our church is missing some good things (1 Corinthians 12:7)—like upbuilding, encouragement and consolation (1 Corinthians 14:3). On the other hand, if we believe they haven’t and we’re seeking them, we’re being deceived by “gifts” that aren’t of God.
FULL DISCLOSURE. I’m a continuationist—someone who believes the Spirit’s gifts have continued from the 1st century to today and will until Jesus comes again. My wife and I grew up in a Pentecostal church. I graduated from a Pentecostal Bible college. I was originally ordained in a Pentecostal denomination. If you think I might suddenly bark like a dog or get “slain in the Spirit” or break out in “holy laughter”, think again. I abhor the abuses of the abusers as much as the staunchest cessationist does (someone who believes the Spirit’s gifts ceased with the apostles’ death around the end of the first century).
CONTEXT AND PROOF TEXT. How can we know which view is right? Scripture, soundly interpreted. That requires knowing the context of the proof text. (That’s the verse or verses used to substantiate a particular theological viewpoint.) For cessationists, the primary proof text (as far as I can tell) is 1 Corinthians 13:8-12.
“Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Generally cessationists interpret “the perfect” to mean the close of the biblical canon. (“Canon” means “rule” or “standard” and in this context refers to the rule or standard of truth that God has revealed in Scripture.) When the apostles died or (some say) when the church officially recognized which books were God-breathed (that recognition came in the 4th century A.D.), the gifts of the Spirit ceased. The gifts were needed to confirm the apostles’ gospel preaching. The completed canon was self-confirming. To evaluate the cessationists’ interpretation of verse 10, let’s look at its context—the rest of 1 Corinthians 13.
“THE LOVE CHAPTER.” Chapter 13 sits in the middle of a larger section—chapters 12-14. So to understand the context of chapter 13, we have to briefly look at chapter 12. Chapters 12-14 are about spiritual gifts. It’s not a complete theology of spiritual gifts. Rather, as chapter 14 reveals, Paul is addressing an abuse of speaking in tongues: the Corinthians were making that gift the sign of being “spiritual.”
Love is necessary (12:1-3). “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is morally excellent (12:4-7). “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth; Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
THE SUPREMACY OF LOVE. Since I’ve exceeded my length limit (are you still there?), I’ll have to say “to be concluded next time.” But let’s take note how Paul resolves the Corinthians’ tongues-abuse. Before he issues “how-to instructions” for desiring spiritual gifts (chapter 14), he turns the spotlight on love. Without love, spiritual gifts amount to nothing more than self-indulgence. Without love “how to instructions” amount to nothing more than legalistic regulations. Love is supreme!
THE PRIORITY QUESTION. It’s not “What does ‘the perfect’ really mean?” It’s not “Why should we scissors 1 Corinthians 12 from our Bible if cessationists are right?” The urgent question of first importance is this: “Are we lovers like Jesus?”
Are we lovers like Jesus in the way we desire and use spiritual gifts? Are we lovers like Jesus when we discipline someone who uses a spiritual gift in an out-of-order way? Are we lovers like Jesus when we debate cessationism versus continuationism? Because they won’t know that we are Jesus’ disciples by our spiritual gifts or absence thereof. They will know we are his disciples if we love one another as he loved us (John 13:34,35).