The Cessationism Debate

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Readers of this post will probably be a little disappointed due to the fact that I am not seeking to stoke the fires of this debate.  Rather, this is a plea for humility.  I wish to endeavour to breed a little humility in this often heated debate.  As I see it there are primarily two stumbling blocks with respect to achieving agreement on the topic.  The cessationist has an exegetical problem, while the continuationist has a theological problem.  In identifying these weaknesses in the argument I trust it will aid us in breeding humility.

The Cessationist has an Exegetical Problem

In some sense both the cessationist and the continuationist have an exegetical problem, in that neither can point to a particular verse, passage or chapter of Scripture which definitively supports either case.  However, the cessationist has a slightly bigger stumbling block to overcome as nowhere in Scripture is there an explicit statement that the miraculous speaking gifts will cease at the end of a particular age (nor indeed that they had ceased during the New Testament era).

Those who favour the continuation of the miraculous speaking gifts can clearly point to a number of different parts of Scripture which either record, document or rule on the use of these gifts in the context of the local church.  The following are just a sample:

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. (Acts 2:4)

For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. (Acts 10:46)

And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:6)

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up. (1 Cor. 14:5)

Cessationists need to concede that they cannot point to any particular verse, passage or chapter that documents the cessation of these gifts.  This should foster a degree of humility as there is the acknowledgement that there is no final nail for the continuationists coffin.

The Continuationist has a Theological Problem

This may of course encourage some continuationists to become a little proud in their position, since it is clearly documented in the New Testament era and more importantly present within the canon of Scripture.  However, the continuationist should not be so quick to jump to conclusions.  There is a significant theological problem which lies along their pathway.  As O. Palmer Robertson correctly observes:

No further words, ideas, or supposed visions and prophecies shall supplement the completed revelation of Scripture.  It is not just that the written canon is closed, meaning that no more words are to be added to the Bible.  The end of revelation means that all those former ways of God’s making his will known to his church have now ceased. (The Final Word, pg. 60)

With the exception of perhaps the first sentence most continuationists would agree that God’s authoritative revelation has ended with Scripture, the closing of the canon.  The continuationist, however, would simple argue that the miraculous speaking gifts are not revelatory in the same way today.  And here-in lies the theological problem.  It is very difficult to argue that tongues and prophecy are of a different nature in different eras of church history.

Humility

I am sure that as people from either ‘camp’ read through the above words that a whole host of arguments flooded to mind to defend their position.  My aim is not to encourage you to leave those arguments at home, rather my aim is to encourage you to hold your position fiercely but with humility.

There is nothing sadder than Christians who are flippant about their views on important matters such as this debate; except perhaps that brother or sister who holds their position so dogmatically that they query the salvation of those who disagree with them.  The above arguments are in no way conclusive arguments, but simply an illustration of how precarious the debate really is – no one has an ace up their sleeve.

Therefore, can we enter the cessationism debate with humility?  By all means continue to debate, read, study and pray – but do it all knowing there are subtle flaws in your own argument.


Author’s note: In case you are wondering, I lean toward the cessationist side of the debate.

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The Summer Report Back

Summer Report Back Season

It is that time of year again when church ministries kick-off; all of the holidays are over; the short-term mission teams have ended; and our church calendars are full of Sunday evenings and midweek meetings of summer work report backs.  Lots of nervous youngmeeting-1502045 (and not so young) people are sharing with everyone their acts of service over the summer.  Many people are delighted and encouraged to hear what others got up to.  Those who supported and prayed faithfully are keen learn about the ways in which God used that support.

But despite the support and interest of our home churches, the reality is that it is very difficult to make a report back interesting, and encouraging (unless of course you fought a lion bare-handed and 4,000 people were converted).  So here are five things that could help us make our report backs a little more interesting and encouraging:

  1. Tell us why you went with a particular agency

Virtually all summer work takes place through the medium of a particular agency.  It might be a parachurch organisation; a denominational structure; or perhaps some kind of mission agency.  For some reason though we chose one (or perhaps two or three) of these agencies to serve with as opposed to the other options.  It would be beneficial for your church to know who you served with, and why you chose them.

For example, for the past number of summers I have served with Baptist Youth – a department of the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland.  The reason I serve with them is probably connected to the fact I am a Baptist.  However, they also operate a profitable policy of only sending teams to work with established Baptist Churches or Baptist Mission’s work.  The reason for this is so that all ministry undertaken in the summer by a visiting team can be followed up by the local congregation.  This seems wise and sensible to me.  So, tell your church why you served with a particular agency.

 2. Don’t simply run through the schedule

There is little that is more tedious than listening to five report backs in a row which all follow the same pattern – rehearsing the schedule.  “On Monday at 9 we had breakfast, at 10 we had Bible study, at 12 we handed out invitations…” and so on and so forth!  Don’t get me wrong it is important to let people know what the components of your week was made up off.  Some teams/camps do things a little differently than others and so it is beneficial to share the differences.  However, no-one is going to enjoy your reading out your schedule for the week.  Instead share a highlight, or something which was particularly difficult, or an unusual activity which peeked interest with the team members or children.  It is important that we don’t simply run through the schedule.

 3. Share what you learned, or ways in which you were challenged

If you’re not going to run through the schedule what should you share?  Share what you learned, or some way in which you were challenged.  By and large your church doesn’t want you to return from summer service exactly the same as before you left.  The church desire and pray that through service we will be changed, transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ and develop in our discipleship.  Offer them encouragement to continue those prayers by sharing how you have been changed.

I once led a team through a five-part study of the letter of Jude.  One of Jude’s focuses is the judgement that will certainly be unleashed on false teachers and those who abandon the faith.  I waxed eloquent about God’s justice and the comfort that God’s justice should be to Christians facing difficulties.  While taking this on board, the team challenged me as they were deeply moved at thinking about unbelievers who faced this same punishment.  I learned that there was a hardness to my heart which had prevented me from seeing things from that angle.  I changed as I grew more compassionate when meditating on God’s justice.  Let your church know that your service has changed you in some way.

 4. Offer specific prayer points

One of the helpful things about short-term service over the summer is that it is often away from your usual circle of friends and acquaintances.  This means that there is usually an anonymity for the people you are working with.  While praying for all the children who heard the gospel, and all the leaders who helped out is a good thing – it is also vague.  Pick an individual, an event, a story which will capture people’s attention and ask for specific prayer for the specific scenario.

 5. Share Scripture

This final one is usually left out, and that’s a shame.  God’s word feeds God’s people, so encourage and exhort those listening to your report back with Scripture.  Tie what you were doing in the summer to what Scriptures teaches, prays, encourages or promises.

I have served in London over the past few summers, in an increasingly ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse area.  Therefore, this year when I reported back I read Psalm 67 to those present.  This Psalm presents the scandalous picture of the God of Israel enjoying a relationship with the nations (the Gentiles).  It prays that God may be known among the nations (v. 3), that the peoples, all the peoples, would praise Him (v. 3, 5) and that the nations would be glad and sing for joy in God (v. 4).  It ends with the somewhat certain hope that all the ends of the earth will fear God (v. 7).

Pick a passage of Scripture which is related to your area of service and share it with the congregation.

Enjoy it

Sometimes the report back season can be tedious and tiresome – for both those tasked with reporting back and those listening.  It should not be so.  Those reporting back should be enthused by their opportunity to join the work of the kingdom, proclaiming Christ and praying for transformed lives.  Those listening should have their hearts warmed by faithful servants, glorious reports of God at work and the realisation that the individual standing in front of them has been changed by God through their service.

Have a think through the things mentioned above and enjoy sharing your experiences with your loving home church!

Top Five Piper Books

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Dr John Piper is a name that almost all evangelical Christians have come across at some point or another.  Whether or not you’re a fan of his work, it would be difficult to deny that he has been one of the most influential voices in modern Christianity.  Piper served as Senior Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist for 33 years, until his retirement in 2013.  Currently, he is chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary and continues to serve the Christian community at large through Desiring God.  Here are my top five reads from the pen of Piper.

  1. Let the Nations Be Glad!: The Supremacy of God in Missions (2004)

This was a formative book for me with respect to a theology of mission.  In Let the Nations Be Glad! Piper effectively develops a theology of mission, while at the same time offering a rallying cry for the church, and the individual Christian, to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.  No one can consider mission without reading this book and taking on board the huge task that faces us in obeying the Great Commission, but huge resources we possess in Jesus Christ, our glorious Saviour.  A worthy compatriot to this book from Piper is Jesus: The only way to God.

  1. Don’t Waste Your Life (2003)

I will never forget he picture Piper paints of the elderly couple offering Jesus a handful of sea-shells as the fruit of their retirement!  God forbid that any faithful disciple squanders their final years in ‘rest’ before reaching our eternal rest.  The honest truth is that this life throws so many distractions at us that living a life fully devoted to Jesus Christ is increasingly difficult.  Indeed, this book is probably more pertinent now than when it was first published 13 years ago.  If you desire to be chided for your lethargy, but in a gracious and encouraging manner then this book is for you.

  1. Seeing and Savouring Jesus Christ (2001)

This delightful book has thirteen brief studies/meditations on various aspects of the character of Jesus Christ.  It is easily accessible, pastorally rich and quite frankly worship inducing!  Piper, through this book, aids us in seeing Jesus for who he truly is as presented in Scripture.  However, he doesn’t just plant that in our minds, but forces it down into our hearts.  Feeling bored or exasperated with Christianity?  See and Savour Jesus.

  1. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (2003)

This is effectively the definitive work by John Piper.  Why does it come fourth on my list then?  Well, that is perhaps a subjective judgement.  This book did not captivate me in the same way that other books of Piper’s have done, and this is probably because it wasn’t one of the first Piper books I read.  However, it is necessary reading for those who are appreciative of Piper’s work as it lays out the underpinnings for his philosophy of ministry.  For that reason, even if it is a little more difficult to get through than some of his other books, this is a must read.

  1. The Supremacy of God in Preaching (1990)

The preacher can never read too many books on preaching, but he can read bad books on preaching.  This thankfully is not one of those bad books.  Supremacy of God in Preaching is akin to Let the Nations Be Glad in that it offers a lofty theology (albeit briefly) while not neglecting the hugely practical aspects of the task.  Lots of this book takes its example from Jonathan Edwards also which is helpful as there is someone to ‘see’ this worked out in.

There should also be honourable mentions for Piper’s writing on gender issues.  There is far too much to list here but you’ll find all his books at Desiring God.  Perhaps for starters see What’s the Difference? Manhood and Womanhood defined according to the Bible.  That would be a good entry point into his work on gender issues – something which is extremely pertinent today.  Another group of books which are well worth perusing are his biographical sketches.  Books such as Contending for Our All or Filling up the Afflictions of Christ are excellent as they not only introduce to important figures in various ages of church history, but also draw out implications from their lives for ours.

In all of Piper’s writings he reminds us again and again that the only way to enjoy true happiness is to forsake the pursuit of our own joy and give all in the pursuit of God’s glory.  No matter what you read of Piper’s you will inevitably be drawn into desiring God.

Why Study the Biblical Languages?

This week I have the responsibility of introducing the latest Irish Baptist College student intake to New Testament Greek.  Undoubtedly one of the first questions in their minds (as it was in my mind when I started six years ago) will be ‘why study the Biblical languages?’  There are many answers to that question, but here are four brief reasons for studying the Biblical languages.

Bible Translations Aren’t Perfect

There is an inherent difficulty in translation work – that difficulty is that something is always lost in translation.  Lots of English translations of very good and accurate.  However, there is always a choice to be made – should the translation follow a word-by-word philosophy or a functional (phrase-by-phrase/meaning) philosophy.  Either the translators sacrifice the flow of the English language or they make an interpretive decision (which isn’t always accurate).

The question is how can we have an assurance on what the Biblical text says and means?  The answer is read it in the Greek or Hebrew – in doing so you don’t have to rely on a translator’s interpretation or attempt to decipher an awkward English sentence.  Instead,

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if you know the Biblical languages, you can make those decisions yourself.

Develops a deeper Biblical Understanding and Discernment

Being competent in the Biblical languages also leads to a developing of a deeper Biblical understanding and discernment.  This is of course predicated on the above point.  In being able to go to the original language instead of relying on a translation gets us closer to the Biblical text.  As we do so our understanding and discernment grows with our familiarity.

The benefit of this is that we are capable of assessing new Bible translations, the next innovative theological trend and the novel developments in Church and culture.  There won’t be the same necessity to go seeking for other’s opinions and assessments of particular translations, theological trends and developments in Church and culture.  (That being said listening to other experts is always advisable – just not necessary as such).

Offers Confidence in Preaching and Teaching

The previous two reasons give rise to this.  Knowing the Biblical languages offers us confidence in preaching and teaching the truths of Scripture.  This is not just something for pastors and preachers, but for all of us who have responsibility in opening God’s word and explaining it to others.  Instead of relying on commentators or scholars to explain things for you, to in turn explain things for others.  To be able to speak with first-hand knowledge of issues offers a confidence that can’t be found as we offer second-hand opinions!

The Church Need Textual Critics

This final reason isn’t perhaps the first thing that might come to mind.  The church is in vital need of pastors, missionaries, Bible Teachers, elders, deacons, ministry leaders, and so on and so forth.  However, the church also need textual critics.  Textual critics are the people who seek out ancient manuscripts, spend endless hours reading and reproducing them and finally deciding which variants and the best options.  It is textual critics who offer us the latest information for our ever better Bible translations.  But this skill requires a deeply intimate knowledge and understanding of the Biblical languages.  Being a textual critic is not glamourous, but it is ever so important for the church as they ensure we have the most accurate manuscripts informing our Bibles.

Conclusion

In 1524, six years after posting his “Ninety-five Theses,” Martin Luther (1483–1546), father of the Protestant Reformation, charged his contemporaries:

Let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages. The languages are the sheath in which this sword of the spirit [Eph. 6:17] is contained; they are the casket in which this jewel is enshrined; they are the vessel in which this wine is held; they are the larder in which this food is stored…if through our neglect we let the languages go (which God forbid!), we shall…lose the gospel.

Also see Bitzer was a Banker!