Saturday, November 06, 2010

The Role of the Holy Spirit – Cessationism vs. Continuationism

This is Part two of a series on Godly Leadership.

I have often been counseled to “walk in the power of the Holy Spirit”. This is good counsel in general, but it needs much in the way of clarification. And sadly, the clarification either doesn’t come or is very, very vague.

A very encouraging passage is from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:11 ESV)

While this particular verse seems to only be talking soteriologically (about our salvation) the passage that it comes from is also ministerial. In other words, it doesn’t merely say that we are alive because the Holy Spirit has made us alive, but that we have a meaningful life because of the work of the Holy Spirit. Of note:
We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). We are led by the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14). The Holy Spirit is not simply a general spirit of goodness that we have in our hearts as I have heard some say, but He is the Spirit of God separate from our spirit (Romans 8:16). The walk of our life is not merely characterized by, but is centrally a matter of co-suffering with Christ (Romans 8:17) and that we are not immune from the groaning of all creation as we wait for the hope of the return of Christ which brings the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23). The Holy Spirit helps us in this weakness (Romans 8:26). All things happen according to the will of God and work together for good (vv 27, 28) because we are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:29, 30). So is all this merely soteriological? Go back up to verse 5 (Romans 8:5) to see that we “live according to the Spirit”. Then go to 1 Corinthians 11 and see how the Holy Spirit provides for our ministry as a Body.

The question remains as to how we perceive the particulars of the leading of the Holy Spirit. This is the heart of Christian epistemology. Two schools of thought define the spectrum among conservative Christians: Cessationism and Continuationism. I’m not sold completely on either school of thought for various reasons. I’ll make some observations and summarize each one.

First, we already know, as I have pointed out, that as believers we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit and have His guidance. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth (John 16:13). How the Holy Spirit does this is what is in question:

Cessationism is the belief that the miraculous acts performed by virtue of the Holy Spirit have ceased. The money verse for this belief is:

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV)

The understanding is that no more scripture is being written, therefore there is no more need for signs and wonders to mark extra-biblical authority. Many cessationists do not deny that miracles can still happen, but that no act or special message from God outside the Bible can be reliably attributed to God through the Holy Spirit.

There are indeed false prophets who claim to speak on God’s behalf. There are people who “feel led” to do certain things and attribute these feelings to the Holy Spirit. However, there is no way for others to determine if such a feeling was given by God or last night’s lasagna. In fact, too many people seem to think that a flutter in your gizzard means that God is telling you something. Some, in hopes that God is giving them the gift of prophecy, claim certain things as prophetic that are clearly not.

But does this discount such things? Could there be a difference between a prophetic word that should be scripture and a prophetic word that God does not intend to be scripture?

Continuationists, in this vein, believe that miracles have not ceased. Not only that, that we are given divine gifts as such to mark, not scripture as such, but the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The money passage for this view is 1 Corinthians 12 (or even Acts 2 for Pentecostals in particular). In this verse, we learn that some have been given the gift of tongues and others have been given the gift of prophecy. While cessationists claim that these should only be interpreted in a merely natural sense (preachers and translators), continuationists understand Spiritual gifts as anything but natural.

Setting these aside for the moment, let’s look at the facts.

  1. Given the history of the Bible and the unanimous acceptance of the canon of scripture by the early churches even before the Council of Nicea demonstrated such agreement, we must understand that the canon is closed. That is to say that we have a known standard by which we can judge things to be true.

  2. This standard is confirmed in the lives of true believers by the Holy Spirit.

  3. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts to use in the context of other believers for the proclamation of the truth of Christ.

  4. The Holy Spirit is, by definition, supernatural.

  5. It is too often difficult for most Christians to discern the difference between the activity of the Holy Spirit and our own flawed desires and emotions.


Given #2 and #5, we may have a problem as individuals, especially where it comes to leadership. I plan to address this problem in the following articles.

Next article: The Role of the Holy Spirit – Desiring God

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