Absolute Cessationism

I want to interact with Kent Brandenburg’s recent post on soft continuationism, posted here on his blog. He has a follow-up article here. I hope you will pause to read what he has written before reading any further.  I count Pastor Brandenburg a close friend, and I have appreciated his writing and his stand for the Lord for many years.  I agree in principle with what Pastor Brandenburg has written on this subject. He and I have had many lengthy discussions of the work of the Holy Spirit in today’s world, and so I already know that he and I are on the same page on this subject. I have a few thoughts which I hope will draw along the discussion. These points might not be disagreements at all, but I think they need to be clarified.

First, I agree with Pastor Brandenburg that soft continuationism is a major problem among Independent Baptists today. Too many times, I have sat through a sermon muttering under my breath, “No, the Holy Spirit did not tell you that.” We seem to ignore Scripture entirely when discussing what the Holy Spirit does and how He operates. While it is true that the Holy Spirit is an infinite being and therefore unlimited in scope or ability, the Bible does describe His ministry very clearly. We have no warrant for adding extra-biblical operations of the Holy Spirit in our day.

The Holy Spirit does not give new revelation today, and I agree with Pastor Brandenburg that much of what Independent Baptist’s claim to be “God speaking to me” would qualify as new revelation. Many of the examples Pastor Brandenburg mentioned really do illustrate the way we think of the Holy Spirit as a sort of loose cannon. The truth is, we make the Holy Spirit do what we want Him to do and say what we need Him to say, and just as often we deny what the Holy Spirit really, actually does – His actual ministry to the believer as defined by Scripture.

I grew up under the influence of Jack Hyles, Holy Spirit imposter, so I am intimately acquainted with the kind of soft continuationism Brandenburg is trying to deal with, though Hyles was anything but a “soft” continuationist.

That being said, I wonder if our response to this “soft continuationism” is not a reaction that goes too far in the other direction. I am a cessationist, which means that I believe that the sign gifts of the New Testament, particularly of the book of Acts, were for that day and not for ours. The Bible teaches that the sign gifts were temporary, and that they have ceased (I Corinthians 13:8). But in order to deal with this subject fairly, we must identify what qualifies as a sign gift.

I Corinthians 12-14 identify the sign gifts.  I Corinthians 12:7-11 gives a list (I think partial) of the species of those sign gifts.  The Greek uses allos (another of the same kind) and heteros (another of a different kind) to distinguish the genus and species of these sign gifts. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown point out that the three categories divide between what we might call gifts of intellect, gifts dependent on a special faith, and gifts referring to the tongues.[1] In I Corinthians 13:8 Paul gives a concise classification of the  the three classes of sign gifts and makes it clear that these categories will vanish away. I Corinthians 14 especially focuses on the gift of tongues and explains why it was inferior to the other gifts (contrary to what the Corinthians believed), and why tongues, in particular, would perish.

While we believe that the sign gifts have ceased, we do not believe that the work and operation of the Holy Spirit has ceased. Certainly, God gifts men in other ways than the sign gifts (see Romans 12:6-8, for instance). All this to say that I am a cessationist, but not an absolute cessationist. And I am not an absolute cessationist because the Bible does not teach that the Holy Spirit has absolutely ceased His operation in this world.

The Holy Spirit continues to have a ministry, that ministry continues to be in the heart and life of the individual (as well as in the life of the church), and that ministry affects men personally in real time. On some level, we have to say that the personal work of the Holy Spirit will be a part of a believer’s experience of walking with the Lord, and that in many cases, the Holy Spirit will move a believer, sometimes even emotionally. I am more than a rational being. God made me a whole man, and that means I cannot separate my emotions from my brain activity. At times, God moves us through emotional response (Lamentations 3:51).

With that in mind, let me offer some specific points of disagreement with what Pastor Brandenburg has written.

First, following the Spirit’s leading is not a claim to the gift of prophecy

Pastor Brandenburg offered these examples of soft continuationism in what modern-day Independent Baptists often claim:

“God gave me this new method or strategy.”  “God told me what to preach.”  “God told me to build this building.”  “I prayed about it and God told me.”  “God gave me this message.”  “God gave me special insight.”  “God called me to go to….” “God told me how to do this.”  Sometimes less clear words are used, like “God moved me, “God put it within my heart,” or “God has burdened me with.”

Pastor Brandenburg does not explain the degree to which he denies that God does any of these things so I will not assume to know. I will only say that the Bible clearly teaches us to live our lives in submission to the Holy Spirit.

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; (Ephesians 5:18)

To be “filled” with the Spirit should be taken in the same sense as to be “drunk” with wine – that is, to be controlled by the Spirit. Romans 8:1 points to this as characteristic of the Christian, and Galatians 5:16 commands us to walk in the Spirit. Believers correctly assume that they must surrender to the Holy Spirit and live their lives in submission to Him.

Living under the Spirit’s control and submitting our lives to Him has to mean something, and we must have some kind of experience of this. I do not want to overstate this, as I have seen the damaging effects when some have extended this to the ridiculous and heretical. Our experience of walking in the Spirit and living in submission to Him has to be connected to God’s Word since the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God. Whatever we think the Holy Spirit might be telling us to do must be tested and evaluated in light of the clear revelation of God’s Word.  I would add that the church also has a say in these matters, as God’s Holy Spirit often works through the church (see Acts 13:2 for an example of this).

So if someone claims that God told them to preach something and then preaches something that is not found in the Bible, we have every reason to reject that claim. “No, God did not tell you to preach that.” But before a preacher stands up to preach, somewhere along the way he ought to be asking God to guide him to the passage He wants preached. He might pray for guidance before tackling a new series through a book of the Bible, or before he preaches a particular message.  But he ought not act as if he were a free agent, doing his own thing.

A pastor who asks God to guide Him to the right passage to preach is not claiming to have the gift of prophecy. If you study a passage carefully until you get a full sense of its meaning, you have Scriptural warrant to say that the Holy Spirit taught it to you (John 16:13; 14:26; I Corinthians 2:9-13), and probably should say so.  And there have been times when God has so gripped me with the truth of a passage that I found it a great burden on my heart.

Secondly, not all miracles are obvious signs

I agree with Pastor Brandenburg that we often throw terms like “miracle” around in a loose and shoddy way, and sometimes we make this claim to validate what we have done and give us credibility with our people. I knew of a pastor who claimed that God had worked a miracle in giving his church a certain property. What he didn’t say was that he had secured a bank loan and then solicited grant money to cover needed repairs.

Properly understood, a miracle is a suspension of the laws of nature. Every miracle points to God as Creator and Lord, so miracles are signs. On that we are agreed. But we should not think that miracles are limited to spectacular suspensions of natural law. Pastor Brandenburg said,

A miracle is a sign.  These signs have ceased, so whatever it is, it isn’t a miracle.  God works in the normal affairs of men, but miracles are not being produced.

I disagree. Our world is a miracle, and a continual sign to unbelievers of the glory of God (Psalm 19:1-3; Romans 1:20). We miss some of the miracles of the created world because it is a miracle on a large scale, what C.S. Lewis referred to as a “grand miracle.”

If the “natural” means that which can be fitted into a class, that which obeys a norm, that which can be paralleled, that which can be explained by reference to other events, then Nature herself as a whole is not natural. If a miracle means that which must simply be accepted, the unanswerable actuality which gives no account of itself but simply is, then the universe is one great miracle. To direct us to that great miracle is one main object of the earthly acts of Christ: that are, as He himself said, Signs.      -C.S. Lewis in his essay “Miracles” in The Grand Miracle, p. 12.

Though I might be smacked for quoting Lewis, he makes an important point about the natural world – that it can only be understood in the framework of a miracle that occurred in the beginning when God made this world out of nothing but raw words. The worlds were framed by the Word of God. That in itself is a miracle. And nature works the way it works because God is Who God is. God is nature’s sovereign. God does not conform to the laws of nature; the laws of nature conform to God.  So His use of the laws of nature cannot be thought of as “natural” in any way.

In fairness, a pastor who claims that God worked a miracle to get the church a piece of property probably doesn’t mean to validate himself, as if God were blessing him because he is so great. The pastor might be thinking this, certainly. All of our apples have worms. But more likely he meant to give God the glory. Was it providential? I struggle with the assertion that God’s works of providence are never miraculous.

Even more so, I strongly disagree with this statement:

Some might ask, what about salvation?  Isn’t that a miracle?  It isn’t.  God saves people, but that isn’t a miracle.

If salvation isn’t a miracle, then why did Jesus teach, “Ye must be born again.” Why did He describe it in terms of wind (John 3:8)?  Surely, Pastor Brandenburg does not mean to deny the supernatural work of God’s Holy Spirit in the salvation of sinners. I think he is overstating his case here.

Thirdly, not all prayers for healing are claims to a gift

Pastor Brandenburg has often written against the idea of praying for the sick, so I have had plenty of time to consider my answer. On this point, let me first agree with him that “certain diseases get prayer and others don’t.” Nobody prays for an amputee to get his legs back, but we all pray for the cancer patient.

Pastor Brandenburg is not always completely clear on what his objections are against praying for the sick. I don’t believe he means to argue absolutely against praying for the sick. I know, for instance, that he has prayed for my family during my wife’s five year battle with Lyme Disease. I don’t think he opposes prayer for the sick. He certainly isn’t against healing when healing is possible. From what he said in the article under discussion, he opposes the idea of a healing ministry through prayer, which more than a few Independent Baptists believe they have. On that point, we are in agreement.

Certainly, Scripture teaches us to pray for the sick. If we only take the example of those who in the time of Christ brought the sick to Him for healing, we have a warrant to pray for the sick.  Added to that, we have the example of David, who prayed fervently for his baby to be healed.  These two examples alone encourage us to pray for the sick.

Praying that God will comfort, sustain, and strengthen the sick, that He will ease their pain and even heal them is a way we love our neighbor. It is a mark of compassion. No, we should not think that our prayers alone will heal the sick, or that if the sick get better it is because we prayed for them, as if they wouldn’t be healed if we didn’t pray. That simply is not true. God is not limited by our prayers or by our prayerlessness. But certainly, our prayers for the sick are a kindness to them and an encouragement to them.

Besides all of that, we really need to recognize the miraculous way God has made us. If I get a deep gash in my skin, a scab will form and my skin will heal itself. What law of nature made it do that? If I get strep throat and take amoxicillin, the antibiotic doesn’t heal me. The antibiotic stimulates my body to do what God made it to do.

And on that note, we can see the way all of Christ’s miracles were meant to make us aware of the mighty power of God at work in the universe around us. For this, I am again indebted to C.S. Lewis, who pointed out that the miracles of Jesus Christ were on a small scale what God does on a grand scale in our world. Jesus turned water to wine once. But every year in vineyards around the world, he somehow makes the vine draw water up through its roots, combines that water with sunlight and air, and Welch makes another gallon. Jesus healed the sick in His lifetime so that men could see Him do it. He hasn’t stopped His healing work. Give chemotherapy to a corpse. There will be no healing. Bandage the cut on a corpse. The cut will not heal. This is because the one thing necessary for the sick to be healed is the one gift God has given us that transcends nature and nature’s laws – and that is the gift of life. “The magic is not in the medicine but in the patient’s body.” “All who are cured are cured by Him, the healer within.”

When we pray for healing, we are simply saying, “Lord, please do it again.”

Fourthly, not all revivals are claims to a special “visitation”

The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to stir us up, to renew our vision and focus, to draw us closer to Himself, and to equip us for service. We should pray the prayers of Scripture. But if we do, we will sometimes find ourselves praying, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.” And sometimes, “Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?” And sometimes, “O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid: O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.”

It is not soft continuationism to get a feeling sense of our need for renewal in our relationship with God, to long for God the way the hart longs for the water brooks. Certainly, we should not spend our lives looking for mystic fire to fall. But we also ought to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit, both when He withers us (as in Isaiah 40:6-8) and when he stirs us up (as in Psalm 39:3).

Fifthly, God does still call men to a particular field of service

I think I understand what Pastor Brandenburg is trying to combat in his comments about the Macedonian call. That particular passage of Scripture has been abused and misused to force everyone to back down against false claims to a call. But the fact of false claims does not remove the possibility of true claims. How else would a person know what God wants Him to do and where He should be doing it?

Some pray as if they want some sensational or unusual guidance.  In refuting them, I agree with Pastor Brandenburg. I have seen people pick up their family and spend money they did not have to move across the world, all based on a whim which they interpreted as the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we put too much stock in quirky impulses when the answer of where to go and what to do is obvious. But God must have some way to direct a man into the ministry, and must have some way to tell that man where he should be when he pursues that calling. If a man wants to be led by God, he does not desire something wrong. And if he has sought the Lord’s will and has desired to submit to the Lord’s leading, we shouldn’t consider him a “soft continuationist.”

I do not believe that my objections make me a soft continuationist, but we will see. The Holy Spirit acts the way the Bible says He acts.  Though we deny many of the manifestations claimed by believers today, we do not help our case if we deny absolutely the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  On that note, perhaps Pastor Brandenburg would clarify what he believes the Holy Spirit does today.

[1] Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 287). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

2 thoughts on “Absolute Cessationism

  1. Bro. Mallinak,

    There’s a significant amount of ground covered in this post, and I suspect that attempting to re-cover it in a comment will render the word “comment” meaningless. A couple thoughts:

    1) I think your use of the term “laws of nature” confuses the idea of “laws of nature,” which seems to be essential to Lewis’s argument. I’m not going to try to smack you for Lewis…other than to note that it seems to me that the only way to get to “Creation is a miracle” is to use Lewis, since I don’t see “witness testimony” (which is how Psalm 19 and Romans 1 treat the evidence of the Godhead in Creation) equated in Scripture with miracles. If they were the same, miracles would not be miracles. Lewis also seems to treat the laws of nature as though they’re “nature’s laws” instead of the “laws which govern nature,” given by the Creator. In trying to build the case that nature itself is a miracle, you seem to hold that position yourself (these words: “God’s use of the laws of nature cannot be thought of as “natural” in any way,” and these: “…my skin will heal itself. What law of nature made it do that?”) He established the laws of nature…the laws by which nature is governed. They are not “nature’s laws,” but His laws for Nature. To argue that because God established them, that’s a miracle, is, I believe, to render the word miracle meaningless.

    2) Regarding the prayers for healing, a couple things stood out to me. It seems to be a misrepresentation to say about Bro. Brandenburg that he “has often written against the idea of praying for the sick…[he] is not always clear on what his objections are against praying for the sick.” From my reading of him, his point has been consistently about praying for the *healing* of the sick. As a likeminded church, we pray regularly for the sick without praying for healing, but it is prayer that is structured according to the Scripture, just as with any trial, such as the pattern given for us in John 17:15-17. It is prayer that commits their care and wellbeing to the Lord, that seeks for His strengthening especially in the areas where spiritual trials develop from the physical difficulty. Further, while I realize only so much ground can be covered in one post, I’m not seeing any real interaction here with the Scriptures that have been presented as the basis for not praying for the *healing* of the sick. Your first example (those praying for the Messiah to heal them during his earthly ministry) fits well within a model that identifies believing prayer as prayer according to a promise in Scripture. In other words, they came to Him as the Messiah, seeking healing, because that is what the OT prophesied Messiah would do when He came to them. If that is normative and the basis for continued prayers in that vein, then there is no reason to restrict those prayers to cancer patients, but to include the blind from birth, the deaf, and the dumb. Further, if praying for the healing of the cancer patient shows them you love them, then why would you withhold that love from the blind or double amputee? And even then, why stop there? We ought also to pray for the raising of the dead, since they are raised in Scripture as the result of prayer. I would add to that the observation that David’s unanswered (as in, didn’t receive what he prayed for) prayer for the life of his child cannot furnish authority for praying similar prayers with the expectation of receiving our petitions.

    3) I’m really, really trying not to take a swipe at Lewis, who mastered the allegory and failed theology (ok, just did. I don’t repent!). He is out of his league (and Scripture) in this. The sign at Cana with the water turned into wine is in no way overshadowed in magnitude by the God-ordained laws by which water is drawn through the roots of the vines to make a grape. Again, I think this stems (pun intended) from an improper consideration of the term “laws of nature.”

    Just some thoughts on a few major points that stuck out to me as I read this.


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