A Response to Sinclair Ferguson on Spiritual Gifts

In a recent article (August 6, 2018; www.ligonier.org), noted Reformed theologian Sinclair Ferguson sets forth what he calls “solid biblical reasons” for believing that the spiritual gifts of working of miracles, revelatory prophecy, and speaking in tongues were purposely intended by God “only for a limited period.” By the latter he means the time during which the original apostolic company were alive on the earth.

Let me say that I have tremendous respect for Ferguson and am grateful for his consistent contribution through the years to the articulation of Reformed theology. But in this article he appears to parrot the same arguments for cessationism that we’ve heard countless times before, yet without engaging seriously with the numerous flaws and lack of biblical evidence on which they are based.

The so-called “solid biblical reasons” are three in number. Here they are, followed by my response.

(1) “A temporary manifestation of these gifts,” says Ferguson, “is characteristic of God’s pattern of working. Contrary to popular opinion, such gifts as these were given spasmodically in biblical history. Their occurrence is generally contained within a handful of time periods lasting around a generation each.” [Be it noted that this argument does not obtain in the case of tongues given the fact that it didn’t even exist prior to the formation of the body of Christ at Pentecost.]

This is known as the “cluster” argument, the idea that miraculous activity or miraculous gifts were clustered or concentrated at selected times in biblical history.

My first response is to direct you to Jack Deere’s book, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit (Zondervan). Jack provides an extensive and detailed refutation of this argument. I only wish spaced allowed me to reproduce his findings here. What you would clearly see is that the OT biblical narrative is thoroughly characterized by supernatural and miraculous occurrences. Whether in the form of angelic encounters, dreams, prophecies, healings, revelatory disclosures from God, both audible and otherwise, or a wide variety of nature miracles, the OT consistently records such phenomena. To say they are “clustered” at specific times (such as at the time of the Exodus or during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha) is simply false.

Also, this argument, even if true (which it isn’t), only demonstrates that miracles, signs, and wonders were more prevalent in some seasons than at other times, but not that they were non-existent during other seasons or that we shouldn’t pray for them today. One must also explain not only why miraculous phenomena were prevalent in these three periods (assuming they were) but also why they were, allegedly, infrequent or isolated in all other periods (see Pss. 74:9-11; 77:7-14; and Mark 6:5).

We must also not forget that there were no cessationists in the Old Testament! No one during the time of the old covenant appealed to the alleged “clustering” of supernatural phenomena as grounds for arguing that one shouldn’t expect them or pray for them or that they had altogether ceased. One must also reckon with Jeremiah 32:20. There we read: “You have shown signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, and to this day in Israel and among all mankind, and have made a name for yourself, as at this day” (italics mine). Then there is the miraculous and supernatural activity during the Babylonian Captivity as recorded in the book of Daniel). Prophecy in particular was prevalent through most of the OT, being absent or comparatively less active only because of the idolatry of Israel.

(2) Ferguson then asserts that “the function of these gifts, namely to convey and to confirm revelation (now ceased until Christ’s return), is underlined in the New Testament itself (Acts 2:22, 14:3; cf. 2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3–4).”

I’m surprised by the texts that Ferguson cites to prove his point. Acts 2:22 simply says that “mighty works and wonders and signs” attested to the ministry and identity of Jesus. No one disputes that. But where does this text or any other text in the NT say (or even imply) that this ministry of attestation cannot or should not continue to occur in subsequent centuries? Where in the NT is it ever asserted or merely suggested that the “these gifts” served only “to convey and to confirm revelation”?

All spiritual gifts, such as those in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10, were given to the church “for the common good of the people” (12:7), to build them up (see virtually all of 1 Corinthians 14), to encourage, edify, and console God’s people (14:3), along with numerous other functions. Ferguson is guilty here of the reductionist fallacy. He identifies one purpose of miraculous gifts (attestation) and then reduces these gifts to that single, sole function. But miraculous gifts served numerous other purposes as well.

Among the purposes for such phenomena, one could cite: doxological (to glorify God – John 11:4; 11:40; John 2:11; 9:3; and Matt. 15:29-31); evangelistic (to prepare the way for the gospel to be made known – see Acts 9:32-43); pastoral (as an expression of compassion and love and care for the sheep – Matt. 14:14; Mark 1:40-41); and edification (that is, to build up and strengthen believers – 1 Cor. 12:7 and “common good”; 1 Cor. 14:3, 4, 5, 26).

My point is this: all the gifts of the Spirit, whether tongues or teaching, whether prophecy or mercy, whether healing or helps, were given, among other reasons, for the edification and building up and encouraging and instructing and consoling and sanctifying of the body of Christ. Therefore, even if the ministry of the miraculous gifts to attest and authenticate has ceased, a point I concede only for the sake of argument, such gifts would continue to function in the church for the other reasons cited.

Acts 14:3 says that the Lord “bore witness to the word of his grace” by “granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” Amen to that! But where in this text or any other are we told that God no longer bears witness to the word of his grace in precisely this way? I often hear it said that since we have the final canonical Scriptures in hand, we no longer need such miraculous phenomena. But where in the NT, may I ask, is this ever so much as stated or suggested? Nowhere are we told or led to believe that the Bible has replaced miraculous gifts. In fact, it is the Bible (!!!) that tells us to earnestly desire such gifts, especially prophecy (1 Cor. 14:1, 12, 39), and nowhere tells us that they were of limited duration.

No biblical author ever claims that written Scripture has replaced or in some sense supplanted the need for signs, wonders and the like. Why would the presence of the completed canon preclude the need for miraculous phenomena? If signs, wonders and the power of the Holy Spirit were essential in bearing witness to the truth of the gospel then, why not now? In other words, it seems reasonable to assume that the miracles which confirmed the gospel in the first century, wherever it was preached, would serve no less to confirm the gospel in subsequent centuries, even our own.

If signs, wonders and miracles were essential in the physical presence of the Son of God, how much more so now in his absence. Surely we are not prepared to suggest that the Bible, for all its glory, is sufficient to do what Jesus couldn’t. Jesus thought it necessary to utilize the miraculous phenomena of the Holy Spirit to attest and confirm his ministry. If it was essential for him, how much more so for us? In other words, if the glorious presence of the Son of God himself did not preclude the need for miraculous phenomena, how can we suggest that our possession of the Bible does?

“But doesn’t Acts 14:3 say that God bore witness to the gospel through signs and wonders performed by the ‘hand’ of the apostles?” Yes. But nowhere does it say that such phenomena cannot or would not or could not be performed by average Christians. In fact, the Bible repeatedly says precisely the opposite!

Others, aside from the apostles, who exercised miraculous gifts include (1) the 70 who were commissioned in Luke 10:9,19-20; (2) at least 108 people among the 120 who were gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost; (3) Stephen (Acts 6-7); (4) Phillip (Acts 8); (5) Ananias (Acts 9); (6) church members in Antioch (Acts 13:1); (7) new converts in Ephesus (Acts 19:6); (8) women at Caesarea (Acts 21:8-9); (9) the unnamed brethren of Galatians. 3:5; (10) believers in Rome (Rom. 12:6-8); (11) believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14); and (12) Christians in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-20).

If that itself were not enough, we are told in 1 Corinthians 12:7-10 that miraculous gifts like healing and prophecy and miracles were given to average, non-apostolic believers, people just like you and me, all for the building up or edification of Christians in a local church.

Ferguson’s appeal to 2 Corinthians 12:12 is typical among cessationists. His citation of the text is presumably based on his belief that miraculous gifts are identified here with the “signs of an apostle,” such that when apostleship ceased, so too did the signs. But in fact 2 Corinthians 12:12 says no such thing. Paul does not say the insignia or marks of an apostle are signs, wonders and miracles. Rather, as the ESV more accurately translates, he asserts that the signs of a true apostle were performed among the Corinthians with “utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works,” or better still, “accompanied by signs and wonders and mighty works.” Paul’s point is that miraculous phenomena accompanied his ministry in Corinth. Signs, wonders and miracles were attendant elements in his apostolic work. But they were not themselves the “signs of an apostle.” If you want to investigate the meaning of this passage in greater depth and see how the Greek text supports this conclusion, see my contribution to Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views (Zondervan, pp. 194-5, and especially n. 23).

What then were “the signs of an apostle,” such as Paul? Among other things, we could readily cite (1) the fruit of his preaching (1 Cor. 9:1b-2; 2 Cor. 3:1-3); (2) his Christ-like humility and holiness (2 Cor. 1:12; 2:17; 3:4-6; 4:2; 5:11; 6:3-13; 7:2; 10:13-18; 11:6, 23-28); and (3) his suffering, hardship, and persecution (2 Cor. 4:7-15; 5:4-10; 11:21-33; 13:4). Paul patiently displayed these things that marked his apostolic authority. And this was accompanied by the signs, wonders, and miracles he performed.

So, yes, of course signs and wonders and miracles were performed by the Apostles, but they were also present among non-apostolic believers, as noted above. Simply put, nowhere does Paul or any other NT author suggest that signs and wonders and miraculous gifts were exclusively or uniquely apostolic.

The fourth text cited by Ferguson is Hebrews 2:3-4, where the author of Hebrews asks, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Heb. 2:3-4).

Does this passage support the notion that signs, wonders, miracles, and spiritual gifts of a certain sort ceased to exist at some point in the first century? No. Several things should be noted.

First, the author does not limit this text to the apostles, nor does the word “apostle” even appear in the passage. The phrase “those who heard” would surely include the apostles but by no means must be limited to them. Many more than the Twelve heard Jesus, did miracles, and exercised spiritual gifts.

Second, to “what” or to “whom” did God bear witness by signs and wonders? Most likely he has in mind the gospel of “salvation” (v. 3). Jesus first proclaimed the message, those who heard him confirmed it to those who did not have the privilege of hearing it firsthand. God in turn confirmed the veracity of this gospel by signs, wonders, miracles and gifts of the Spirit.

Third, nothing in this text suggests that the miracles that confirmed the message were performed only by those who originally heard the Lord. The text allows for the possibility that when God testified to the gospel he did it among and through the author of Hebrews and his audience as well. The present tense participle, “God also bearing witness,” at least suggests that “the corroborative evidence was not confined to the initial act of preaching, but continued to be displayed within the life of the community” (William Lane, Hebrews, 1:39).

Fourth, nothing in the text asserts that these miraculous phenomena must be restricted either to those who personally heard the Lord or to those who heard the message of salvation secondhand. Why wouldn’t God continue to testify to the message when it is preached by others in subsequent generations? In other words, in saying that God “bore witness” to the people of the early church he is not necessarily saying that God never “bore witness” for the benefit of those in the church of more recent days.

Fifth, and as noted above, we must never forget that there are other purposes, uses, or benefits in the display of the miraculous beyond that of gospel attestation. Paul believed that “miracles” and “healings” and “prophecy” and the like were designed by God to build up the body of Christ. They were given for “the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The error of reductionism, once again, must be avoided. That is to say, we must not take one stated purpose of signs, wonders, and miracles and reduce God’s aim in such phenomena to that alone. There is no reason why signs, wonders, and miracles could not easily continue to function in numerous other ways beyond the age of the apostles.

Sixth and finally, note that the author distinguishes between “various miracles” and “gifts” of the Spirit, suggesting that by “gifts” he intends more than what we would call miraculous charismata. I doubt anyone would restrict all spiritual gifts (such as teaching, mercy, evangelism, etc.) to the first century simply because they served to authenticate and attest to the gospel. So I find nothing in this text that would require a cessationist view of spiritual gifts.

(3) Here is Ferguson’s third and final argument: “The history of the New Testament suggests that by the close of the apostolic age the role of these gifts was being superseded by the completion of the New Testament. Thus, there is no reference to their presence—or, more significantly, their future regulation—in the Pastoral Letters.”

Really? Where, precisely, in the NT is it suggested that by the close of the apostolic age these gifts would be superseded by the completion of the NT? The answer is: nowhere!

I would also ask the cessationist: Since Paul thoroughly addresses the guidelines for the exercise of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12-14 and corrects the errors of those who were abusing said gifts, why would anyone think it necessary for him to repeat himself in subsequent epistles? What need to discuss “their future regulation” when he already did that in extensive detail? Nowhere subsequent to 1 Corinthians does Paul or any other NT author discuss how the Lord’s Supper should be observed. But no one concludes from this that it had dropped from the life of local churches. Neither am I aware of anything said in letters subsequent to 1 Corinthians about guidelines relating to Christians taking each other to court (1 Cor. 6:1-8). And the list could go on.

Ferguson’s statement that “there is no reference to” the presence of these gifts in the Pastoral Letters is simply false. In fact, Paul exhorts (indeed, he “charges”) his spiritual son, Timothy, to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience,” by means of “the prophecies previously made about” him (1 Tim. 1:18-19). Clearly, Paul believed that an essential tool for living a godly life, at least in the case of Timothy, was the power and encouragement that comes from prophetic ministry. And later in the same epistle, he encourages Timothy not to neglect the spiritual gift “which was given” to him “by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on” him (1 Tim. 4:14; see also 2 Tim. 1:6-7).

And how would Ferguson account for the Apostle John’s instruction in 1 John 4:1-3 on how to identify “false prophets” and differentiate them from those who truly confess that Jesus is God come in the flesh? John appears to assume that prophetic ministry was still operative and wants his readers to be alert and discerning so they might know the difference between what Satan (or the spirit of Antichrist) is doing and what the Holy Spirit is doing. And 1 John was likely written somewhere between 85 and 95 a.d., more than 30 years after 1 Corinthians and more than 20 years after the pastoral epistles.

And what would he make of the reference to the “prophetic” ministry of the two witnesses in Revelation 11? Whether these are two literal individuals or, as I believe, a symbolic reference to the entire church and its ministry throughout the course of this present age, they prophesy, and well beyond the time of the close of the canon of Scripture.

Finally, there is the account of Paul’s on-going miraculous healing ministry in Acts 28:1-10, an event that transpired well beyond the time that he wrote 1 Corinthians and not long before he wrote First and Second Timothy.

One more thing must be noted. The hermeneutic reflected in Ferguson’s argument is seriously flawed. He has, in a sense, created a canon within the canon. No longer is the NT in its totality the authoritative guide for how we should conduct ourselves in the church of Jesus Christ. Rather, on Ferguson’s view, it is the pastoral epistles. If we embrace this perspective we must conclude that 1 Timothy is more important, more applicable, and more relevant to local church life than is Romans, or that 2 Timothy is more important, applicable, and relevant than 2 Corinthians or Ephesians. But there is nothing in the NT that would lead us to believe that these two letters that we refer to as “pastoral” are more important or more authoritative simply because they were written last.

What Paul said about spiritual gifts in Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:10-14 is just as authoritative and relevant for church life and our expectations for what the Holy Spirit might choose to do as anything the apostle said in 1 and 2 Timothy.

I must conclude, once again, that the arguments for the temporary duration of miraculous gifts of the Spirit are simply lacking text support in the NT. If individuals such as Ferguson persist in denying the validity of such gifts today, they need to identify biblical texts and articulate cogent reasons other than those set forth in his article.

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