The Work of the Holy Spirit 1
The belief and practice of a cessationist church leader. This is the first of four articles on the subject of the work of the Holy Spirit as part of our All in the Family series.
The aim of the All in the Family series is to explore the breadth of belief and practice that exists amongst FIEC churches on matters that our Doctrinal Basis doesn't touch on and yet are important in church life.
For each subject we ask a variety of church leaders to respond to the same questions, with an emphasis on seeing how belief shapes practice in a local church.
In this collection on the work of the Holy Spirit, we have one cessationist paper and then three pastors whose understanding sits on the spectrum of continuationist views. These are:
- cessationism – Bill James (this article)
- continuationism – John James
- continuationism – John Risbridger
- continuationism – Greg Haslam
You can download a combined PDF of the four papers above.
Name: Bill James
Church: Emmanuel Church, Leamington Spa, was constituted in 1986. Our elders and deacons subscribe to the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and this is the teaching standard of the church. We do not practise prophecy or tongues, believing that such gifts ceased with the apostolic age.
Our church membership is drawn from a variety of different backgrounds, and some of our students from Warwick University have home churches which would have very different convictions and practice. However, we enjoy unity in the Gospel, and share a common desire to grow in love for Christ and for one another. In dependence on the Spirit, we seek to know God, and to make Him known to others, through the preaching and teaching of His Word.
1) Do you believe that the miraculous gifts were the “signs of the apostles” and therefore confined to the apostolic era? Why?
We all agree that there was an “apostolic age” which was unique and unrepeatable. The twelve apostles were appointed personally by the Lord Jesus Christ, followed by the extraordinary appointment of Matthias by lot. The qualification for being an apostle was to be a witness of the resurrection (Acts1:21-22). The apostle Paul makes it clear that he was added to the number as one “abnormally born” (1Cor 15:7) and that the Lord appeared to him “last of all” on the Road to Damascus. So no further additions can be made to these foundational apostles.
The period of the apostolic age was a time of unique revelation which brought the NT Scriptures into being. Such prophetic revelation is unrepeatable and the canon of Scripture is closed. The apostle Paul expresses this truth that the church is built on the “foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph 2:20). The apostles and prophets are spoken of together as a group whose ministry, being foundational, is not constantly being rebuilt through the life of the church. When Paul was coming to the end of his ministry, he urged Timothy not to look for further prophetic messages, but rather to “guard the good deposit” (2 Tim 1:13-4) of revelation already delivered to the church. Such revelation was given unrepeatably “once for all” (Jude 1:3), in the same way that Christ died “once for all” (Heb 9:26). It is the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, in person and through His apostles, who is the climax of all prophetic revelation (Heb 1:1-3). We now wait to see Him face to face.
Charismatic believers challenge the idea that New Testament prophecy must be regarded as foundational, and limited to the first century. They suggest, for example, that Eph 2:20 is speaking only of the OT prophets, or the “apostolic prophets.” Such arguments have proved difficult to maintain. It seems most unlikely that Paul has entirely different categories in mind when he speaks of prophets in 2:20, and then again in 4:11 (where once again prophets are associated with apostles).
This unique and unrepeatable season of special revelation in the New Testament was attended by miraculous signs. Such signs also accompanied other periods of special revelation in the Bible such as the ministry of the prophet Moses during the time of the Exodus, and the ministries of Elijah and Elisha. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul speaks of such signs as being the marks of apostolic ministry (2 Cor 12:12). In other words, just as signs and wonders spoke of the unique person and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, so such signs also accompanied the ministry of His apostles, testifying of the authenticity of their message (Heb 2:3-4).
2) Does your church pray for sick people to be healed? How is this done? Do you expect healing to take place?
Yes, we pray for the Lord to heal those who are sick, and sometimes have special times of prayer for those in particular need. We plead with the Lord to have mercy, believing that He is not only able but also kind and gracious in healing our diseases. He sometimes does this in extraordinary, supernatural ways which cannot be explained by medical science. More than once members of our congregation have been described as “miracles” by doctors who had despaired of their lives. However, we also acknowledge the sovereignty of God in these matters, and that it is not always His purpose to heal every believer, just as He did not remove the thorn from Paul's flesh. In such cases our prayers are answered as the Lord gives grace to the sick to sustain a good testimony to the end, in positive expectation of future glory. It’s important to emphasise godliness in this way rather than to promise deliverance. An expectation that all faithful believers will be healed can be crushing to those who are sick, and is pastorally most unhelpful”
While the Lord does answer our prayers for the healing of believers, this is different to the “signs of the apostles” which have now ceased. Both Jesus and His apostles had unique authority over sickness, which would depart at their touch or their command. No-one today has that same “gift of healing” because no-one today has that unique apostolic ministry.
James 5 is often referred to as an example of prayer for the sick; however, this passage raises a number of difficult questions:
- Why should the sick person call the elders, rather than someone with a gift of healing?
- Why are healing and the forgiveness of sins so closely linked?
- How is it that the healing seems to be “guaranteed”? (Jas 5:15). This raises other questions about what is meant by the “prayer of faith.”
I believe the only satisfactory interpretation understands this sickness to be related to the believer's sin, and falling out of fellowship with the church. This fits the context of James, and is parallel to a similar situation in 1 Cor 11:30. This would explain the summoning of the elders to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, and the subsequent assurance of physical healing. The “prayer of faith” is offered on the basis of God's promise to reconciled believers (Matt 18:19-20), and the pouring out of oil speaks of the restoration of the Spirit's blessing on believers who are now reunited (Ps 133:2).
3) What do you understand by the gift of prophecy? Is it practiced in your church? In what way?
Prophecy is consistently described in Scripture as God speaking through human instruments so that their words are His words. For example, just as Aaron is Moses' mouthpiece, speaking what Moses commands, so Moses is God's mouthpiece, speaking His words (Exod 4:16). Again and again in Scripture we see the announcement “Thus says the Lord...” The words of the prophets are the words of God, so that what Isaiah prophecies, the Holy Spirit says (Acts 28:25-27). Because they are the Lord's words they are both infallible and authoritative.
Modern charismatics (such as Wayne Grudem) suggest that there are two types of prophecy in the New Testament, and it is possible for prophecy to be both fallible and non-authoritative. This view seems to me to be illogical. If someone comes to me and announces that they have a message from the Lord, how seriously am I to take that if I know that the content of the message may be both mistaken, and without authority? And how can it be described as a “word from the Lord” if it is unreliable? That seems to be a slur not only on the phenomenon of prophecy, but the Lord Himself.
The prophet Agabus is cited as an example of a fallible prophet. After all, he spoke of Paul being bound by the Jews, when in fact he was bound by the Romans (Acts 21:11). But Agabus is no less accurate than the apostle Peter who declared that the Jews had crucified Christ (Acts 2:36). In both cases it is clear from the context that the primary responsibility lies with the Jews, even if it was the Romans who bound and crucified. The prophecy of Agabus is preceded by the words “The Holy Spirit says” in direct parallel to the “Thus says the Lord” of the Old Testament prophets.
In the New Testament church, before the closing of the canon, there were prophets in the churches. This was of vital help to the believers to guide and direct them in their understanding, and even to lead them in their worship (the reference to prophecy in 1 Cor 12-14 may well include songs of praise like Miriam's prophetic song after the triumph of the Exodus). Prophecy is prized ahead of “teaching” in 1 Cor 12:28, and we should not be surprised by that as prophecy is the inspired words of God.
Does this mean, then, that I don't believe the Lord speaks at all today? Not at all! I fear that very often the cessationist position is caricatured to make it seem as if we scarcely believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit. While I reject the charismatic view of prophecy, I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks powerfully today through His Word, and also guides, directs and prompts His people in every age. Such guidance and direction might take a number of forms. For example:
- How often have preachers been approached after the sermon by believers who say “I thought you were speaking directly to me”, or “How did you know of my situation?” Sometimes this happens in remarkable ways. It is said that on one occasion when C H Spurgeon was preaching he spoke of a man present in the congregation who had been working on the Lord's Day for the sake of a few pennies. Spurgeon's words proved to be remarkably accurate. Yet when preachers make such applications (or indeed even throw-away remarks) they have no idea of the significance of their words. As far as the preacher is concerned he is just preaching! Yet as we expound God's word the Holy Spirit is at work, both directing our thoughts and our words, and using them in the hearts and minds of our hearers in ways which we might never fully understand until glory. This is not the “gift of prophecy” which is conscious or under the control of the preacher, but it is the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit at work through his ministry.
- How often has a fellow believer spoken to us about something, and the words have gone to our hearts? Perhaps this brother or sister had a special burden to speak to us on the subject; yet they had no idea of the impact or significance of their words. This is the guidance and direction of the Spirit.
- How often have we woken in the middle of the night, or at other times, being burdened to pray for a specific individual or situation? We only discover later the significance of that moment.
We could multiply examples. Some charismatic believers would then claim: So there is prophecy going on in your church! Perhaps our differences are only a matter of semantics after all? But I believe that to use the label “prophecy” in such cases is not only to demean God's prophetic word (infallible and authoritative), but also to limit the ministry of the Spirit in the lives of believers. We should ALL (whether we are considered “prophets” or not), at ALL times seek to be servants of the Lord, speaking His words, and doing His will (1 Pet 4:11).
Whenever a believer shares their wisdom with me, or gives me advice, I do not take it less seriously because it is not called “prophecy”. Rather I understand all such counsel to be fallible and without authority, but perhaps pointing me back to the Lord. I believe that the Holy Spirit may be using my brother or sister's words to edify or direct me.
4) What do you understand by the gift of “tongues”? Is it manifested today? If so how and when?
The gift of tongues first appears in the New Testament on the Day of Pentecost. The impact is sensational, as the crowd marvels that they are able to hear the “wonders of God in our own tongues” (Acts 2:11). In other words, the Spirit has been poured out and prophetic words are being spoken (Acts 2:18), but in a range of different languages. Not only is this helpful to the multi-ethnic congregation, but it is a glorious announcement that now God does not just speak in Hebrew or Aramaic, but He speaks to all nations in their own languages, and the message of Christ is for all peoples.
The gift of tongues then appears again at the conversion of Cornelius, and Peter reports these events as a repeat of what happened at Pentecost (Acts 11:15). It is therefore reasonable to assume that when Paul speaks of believers speaking in tongues in the churches, he is referring to the same phenomenon. When such languages are interpreted (translated) they are words of prophecy (1 Cor 14:5). The problem is that if there is no interpretation (i.e. translation), such tongues are incomprehensible to the other believers, and therefore unedifying. Indeed, Paul describes the use of tongues where there is no interpretation as a mark not of God's blessing but of judgment. In 1 Cor 14:21 he quotes the prophet Isaiah who refers to God's people being taken away into exile, only to be surrounded by a babble of voices they cannot understand. That is not what should be happening in the church!
Because the gift of tongues is simply prophecy in another language, this gift ceased at the end of the apostolic age for the reasons explained above. The question is then asked: what is going on in charismatic churches today when the “gift of tongues” is exercised? I believe that the best explanation is that believers are expressing their devotion to Christ in inarticulate ways. Linguistic studies have been carried out on tongues speaking in different countries, and it is found that believers always use the same vocal forms when they speak in “tongues” as they do when they speak their own native language. In other words, German “tongues” are slightly different to English “tongues”. More specifically, tongue speakers tend to use the same range of verbal forms as their teacher who guided them into this practice in the first place.1 That is difficult to explain if this is a supernaturally generated language. So, while I do not doubt the sincerity or spiritual devotion of such believers, nor their testimonies of encouragement through exercising this “gift”, I doubt that what is going on is the same as the gift of tongues described in the New Testament.
5) What are the clearest evidences of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of your church?
The ministry of the Holy Spirit is to bring glory to Christ. When the Gospel is preached and those who are spiritually dead are awakened to new life and conversion, that is an unmistakeable mark of His activity (1Thess 1:4-6). It has been wonderful to see some come to faith at Emmanuel, and others grow in love for Christ and for one another.
I recently had a message from a student who had been with us at Emmanuel for 3 years before graduating and starting work in London. She wanted to express her appreciation for her time at the church and said “what I have learnt most from is seeing people living out their faith in self-sacrificial service, love, and care for others and their constant desire to become more like Christ and proclaim him in their actions as well as their words.” That is the Holy Spirit's work!
I am grateful for the enormous privilege of serving the Lord in a church where the Holy Spirit is clearly at work. I have the sense when I stand up to preach that there is something going on (or, rather, someone at work) over whom I have no control. Spiritual growth and progress is made quite apart from my own efforts, and sometimes I fear in spite of them. The work of the church is supernatural.
6) What would you say to Christians who believe that in theory all the gifts are available today and yet do not expect to see them manifested in their church?
I think this question is intended for those of charismatic persuasion!
7) How do you handle differences of opinion on spiritual gifts within church leadership, within church membership and in your relationship with other churches?
We don't have significant differences on these issues in our church leadership; indeed it would create tensions if we appointed elders who disagreed about whether tongues and prophecy should be exercised in the church today. However, we do have church members who take a different view.
Generally speaking, and especially within our local church, such differences are not a problem. Charismatic church members graciously understand our position, even if they cannot accept it for themselves. And when I explain that I do believe in the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit through His Word, and in guiding and directing believers, they see that our differences are sometimes simply a matter of semantics.
There can be difficulties in working with evangelical charismatic churches if their view of evangelism is inextricably linked to signs and wonders. Or there are practical tensions if they are constantly looking for direction, and making decisions, by seeking “words from the Lord”. It seems to me that even the apostle Paul generally took decisions according to his own spiritual wisdom, without any special revelation. Sanctified common sense is a gift of the Spirit too! (Rom 1:13, Phil 2:25, 1 Cor 16:4).
However, the general rule is to seek to work together wherever there is agreement on the Gospel.
- Richard Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979).
- O. Palmer-Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1993).
1. Felicitas D Goodman, Speaking in Tongues: A Cross-Cultural Study of Glossolalia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), quoted in D A Carson, Showing the Spirit (Michigan: Baker, 1987).