Continuationism & The Sovereignty of God

by Rick Pidcock

Traditionally, charismatics are usually Arminean in their theology.  I’ve heard a number of reformed, Charismatic pastors express that when they first began believing in continuationism, they thought, “Reformed and charismatic?  Is that even possible?”

I would like to propose that not only is it possible, but that my belief in continuationism has actually bolstered my appreciation for the sovereignty of God.

The sovereignty of God determines the distribution of the gifts.

“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.  You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led.  Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.”—1 Corinthians 12:1-3

The first gift of the Spirit that God gives to an individual is the gift of regeneration that instantaneously produces repentant faith.  Notice how before salvation, the pagan is led by false gods.  In fact, it is not until a person is “in the Holy Spirit” that the former pagan can say, “Jesus is Lord.”  This is yet another example in Scripture of the sovereign God producing what He wills in us by sovereign grace, rather than simply reacting to whatever we choose of our own free wills and whims.

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”—1 Corinthians 12:4-11

That same sovereign God who regenerates and produces repentant faith in pagans with His Spirit is the same sovereign God who determines the spiritual gifts of every member of the church throughout history.

The varieties of gifts include but are not limited to wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, working of miracles, prophecy, the ability to distinguish between spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.

Notice the parallel between the election of God and the gifting of God.  In election, Romans 9 says that He “has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills.”  And in spiritual gifts, He “apportions to each one individually as He wills.”  In both election and spiritual gifting, God operates in whatever way He sovereignly chooses to operate.  Who are we as mere vessels to question the sovereign choices of the Potter?

The sovereignty of God determines the purposes of the gifts.

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”—1 Corinthians 12:7

The strongest case that I heard from cessationists is that because the purpose for the temporary gifts was to authenticate the message of the apostles, and because apostleship has ended, then there is no more purpose for the continuation of temporary gifts.  Therefore, in their minds, the temporary gifts have ceased.

One major problem that I have with that interpretation, however, is that authenticating the apostles is not the only purpose for the temporary gifts.  According to 1 Corinthians 12:7, the purpose for all of these gifts is “for the common good.”  The purpose for these gifts is also for edification.  And this purpose is repeated all throughout 1 Corinthians 14.  Specifically, these gifts are meant “for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation (14:3); edifying both the individual and the church (14:4, 12, 17); and to benefit the church (14:6).

So while the purpose for authenticating the message of the Apostles has ceased, the purposes for upbuilding, encouraging, consoling, and edifying the body have continued.  Therefore, it is insufficient to make an argument for cessationism based solely on just one of the many purposes for the gifts.

The sovereignty of God determines the duration of the gifts.

“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 through a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall fully know, even as I have been fully known.”–1 Corinthians 13:8-12

It is very clear from this passage that the miraculous gifts are temporary and partial.  The question is not if they will cease, but rather when they will cease.

The answer, according to the text, is “when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”  So what is the “perfect”?  For years, I’ve always viewed the “perfect” as the completion of the canon of Scripture.  After all, in the Greek, the word for “perfect” is written in the neuter gender.  So, I thought, it could not be speaking of Christ’s second coming, since Christ would need to be referred to in the masculine gender.

However, if we take a look at the context, the meaning becomes quite clear.  The next verse continues the picture of imperfection growing into completeness.  When we are a child, we are incomplete.  We continue growing into completeness and full maturity.  And as believers, we are all partial, incomplete, imperfect, yet growing into completeness and full maturity.

So when will the perfect state of completeness come?  It says, “For now we see through a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall fully know, even as I have been fully known.  This thought parallels 1 John 3:2, 3, which says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”

Until we see Christ face to face, we live in a partial world, with partial gifts.  But when we see Him, we will be made like Him, made complete, and brought to full maturity and perfection in Him.  And when that state of perfect completeness happens, there will no longer be any need for the partial gifts.  And it is then that the partial, temporary gifts will cease.

So why haven’t we seen the gifts throughout church history?

A number of my cessationist friends have admitted that they have come to believe in cessationism more on the basis of their lack of experience of the temporary gifts, the lack of usage of the temporary gifts throughout church history, and the association of the temporary gifts with aberrant theology.

In fact, a number of my Sovereign Grace pastor friends have also admitted to me that in 25 years of ministry, they’ve never seen the gift of speaking in tongues done in public on a Sunday morning.  My response to them was, “Doesn’t that cause you to wonder if the gifts have ceased then?”

Their answer to me consistently has been, “No.  We cannot allow our experiences and our fears to define our theology.  We must let the Bible define our theology.  And if 1 Corinthians 13 explicitly says that the gifts are available until we see Christ face to face, then we must believe that.”

I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that a number of the temporary gifts have indeed been exercised today.  There are numerous examples of divine healing that cannot be explained scientifically.  I’ve personally witnessed the gift of prophecy.  Friends of mine have experienced visions and dreams of specific situations with specific people that they had never met, in places they had never been, just days before the events took place.  Sure, there are plenty of abuses.  But those do not negate the actual occurrences of these gifts.

So why would these gifts be experienced, but not the public speaking of tongues on Sunday morning?  The only answer that I can come up with is to go back to the same foundation that this article is built on–the sovereignty of God.  Remember, it is not man who chooses to put on and to put off certain gifts.  It is God who sovereignly elects certain men to salvation, and then sovereignly gives to each individual the gifts that God wants them to have.

The temporary spiritual gifts open up an element of mystery to God.  We do not know why He chooses at times to give certain gifts to certain people.  We do not know why He chooses to give some people a more public experience of certain gifts, while leaving others to experience certain gifts only in private between them and their God.  But we do know that in every case, the mystery is being directed by a Sovereign God.

Whether we observe abuses of a biblical gift, or lack experience of a gift, does not give us the biblical authority to deny God the possibility to utilize that gift.

Continuationism takes God out of the little box where we know what to expect out of Him.  It opens up a mystery of unexpected gifting, and unexpected withholding.  And it does so for the purpose of creating in us a longing for the day that we will have no more temporary, partial experiences of Christ, a longing for the day that we see Him face to face and fully know, even as we have been fully known.

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4 thoughts on “Continuationism & The Sovereignty of God

  1. Hey Rick, thanks for the article. We’ve discussed this issue before, so I’m not going to go into detail (plus, I don’t have the time right now!). I just wanted to ask about one paragraph: “I’ve personally witnessed the gift of prophecy. Friends of mine have experienced visions and dreams of specific situations with specific people that they had never met, in places they had never been, just days before the events took place.”

    Is this extra-biblical revelation? Even if you believe in the continuation of the sign gifts, when we’re dealing with revelation that is BEYOND the Scripture, there needs to be a line drawn, does there not? Is the gift of prophecy really about foretelling the future, or is it more properly related to a clear understanding of Scripture as it has been given and the empowerment to faithfully proclaim it?

  2. Jeremiah,

    I had to laugh when I saw that you had commented already!

    To be honest with you, I struggled much more over your question than over the duration of the gifts in general. There are profound implications and dangers when we question the sufficiency of Scripture. So by no means am I desiring to cause people to question the sufficiency of Scripture.

    I’m going to answer your question more fully in the third article entitled, “Continuationism & The Sufficiency of Scripture.” So I’ll just say for now that I share your concerns. And I would agree that it is not extra-biblical revelation in the sense of new doctrine, though I believe that it is more than simply having an understanding of Scripture or merely effective preaching and teaching. Like I said, I’ll lay out more fully why I believe that in the third article. So I guess you’ll just have to wait in the partial, longing until the “perfect” of the third article comes. 🙂

    The main point of this article is merely to show that God sovereignly determines what gifts He gives to each Christian throughout history, and to show how the continuationism of partial gifts creates within us a longing for the day that we see Christ face to face, and fully know.

  3. Btw, I’ve actually decided to do the “Continuationism & The Sufficiency of Scripture” article as the second article, rather than the third. I think that it’s an important foundation to lay before discussing orderly worship. So it should be coming soon.

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