LAWSON: I would start with Ephesians 2:20, which says that Christ and the Apostles are the foundation of the church. The sign gifts were uniquely given to the Apostles as a confirmation of their Apostleship and as a means by which direct revelation would be given to them, the church, until the canon of Scripture was completed.
When you build a building, how many times do you lay the foundation? You only lay it once. You do not lay a foundation on the roof, the second floor, third floor, fifth floor, or all the way up to the twenty-first floor. A foundation is only laid once. Ephesians 2:20 says that God gave revelation to Christ and the Apostles so that the church through the centuries is built upon this one foundation. Ephesians 3:5 supplements the same message. Many other passages and theological arguments could also be brought to bear on this.
NICHOLS: I would have them work with Hebrews 2:3 because I think it reflects on exactly what you are talking about within Scripture itself. You have to follow the pronouns here. The author says: “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It [the gospel] was declared at first by the Lord and was attested to us by those who heard.” There are three groups here: the Lord, those who heard the Lord (the Apostles), and us, the group taught by the Apostles. Hebrews 2:4 says, “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.” Those gifts were an attestation of that ministry of the “those who heard directly from Christ.” The author of Hebrews was putting himself outside of that group. Within the canon of the New Testament, there was already the reflection of a movement beyond the Apostles. Hebrews 2:3 is an important verse to consider. I would put it in front of them and have them see what the Word teaches.
LAWSON: There is no mention of these miraculous sign gifts in the New Testament past 56 or 57 A.D., when 1 Corinthians was written. Once you get past that date to the later general epistles and even Paul’s later epistles, there is no mention of these gifts, which indicates that they were beginning to pass.
To clarify what I was trying to say earlier, the sign gifts were given when the foundation was laid, which only happened once. The gifts were part of the foundation but not in an ongoing manner, as each subsequent floor is being built up from the foundation. This understanding speaks to the sufficiency of Scripture and the Holy Spirit. If it’s new, it’s not true, meaning there is no new revelation to be given. We have the faith that was once-and-for-all given to the saints. If we need more information to be given in a private revelation, that is really an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture. We have everything we need to live the Christian life already in the Bible. That is why we are big on the Bible.
PARSONS: This is such an important topic because I think this mindset has been infiltrating even solid Presbyterian and Reformed churches in recent years. We have seen elders and pastors who hold a difference from our confessional standards being ordained into the ministry. Some people refer to it as an exception. Technically, we ask for a difference to be held, and the presbytery or governing body grants that difference as an allowable exception. In my mind, it is not an allowable exception with our confessional standards to be cautiously non-cessationistic, as it’s often said. That is to say, they believe that there is still the possibility of these sign gifts being demonstrated. The problem with that is exactly what these gentlemen have said: they think they are elevating the sign gifts when they are actually devaluing the Word of God.
The reason sign gifts exist in history is that, at various redemptive periods or epochs, God gave His truth to be proclaimed to His people through the prophets, judges, and Apostles. To attest to the veracity, or truthfulness, of God’s Word through His prophets and Apostles, God testified to the truth of their words. It is the Word that is supreme, not the signs and wonders. It is the Word, the truth, that is ultimate. The signs and wonders are secondary. They are servants to the Word of God proclaimed.
To desire the sign gifts or to want to see them exhibited is not a greater experience but a lesser one. You are going back to the foundation. You are going back to the servant rather than to the ultimate authority—the Word of God, to which all those signs and wonders attest. That is why they faded away of themselves, as they needed to, as the Apostolic era came to an end. So, to want and desire them is to devalue the Word of God.
LAWSON: It is to go back to the nursery, the infancy stage of the church, rather than for the church to mature, act like an adult, and speak like an adult. As 1 Corinthians 13:11 says, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child.” That is referring to speaking in tongues, prophecies, and so on, which is immature talk. Paul says, however, that we are to speak as a man, as an adult; that is, to preach the Word of God, which contains the full counsel of God.
To go back to the sign gifts is to go back to the nursery room, the infancy of the church. They were a very limited means of communication, whereas now we have it in objective, written Scripture that can be studied, parsed, exegeted, and compared. We have a far superior means of revelation in the written Word of God than the baby talk of the first century.
PARSONS: One more quick point because this is so important in the church today and something we are still fighting. In Jesus’ day, there was a commendation for those who believed because they saw the signs and wonders. However, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who do not see and believe.” We are more blessed than the first-century Christians because we believe without having to see signs and wonders.
NICHOLS: This discussion expands beyond cessationism because it touches on the issue of “just experience.” We are talking about signs and wonders versus the Word. When Dr. Parsons was talking about Christ’s words to Thomas, I was thinking of Peter. As he was remembering the transfiguration, Peter said, “But we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to take heed” (2 Pet. 1:19). What experience compares with Peter’s as a disciple?
LAWSON: On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter actually heard the voice of God say, “This is my beloved Son.” Peter said that experience was nothing compared to having the written Scriptures.
NICHOLS: So, why would we want some sort of direct experience when we have the gift of God’s Word to us?
This is a transcript of Steven Lawson’s, Stephen Nichols’, and Burk Parsons’ answers given during our A Continuing Reformation: Pittsburgh 2021 Conference and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email email@example.com or message us on Facebook or Twitter.