A Dialog on Cessationism and Missions: Part 1

Roughly three months ago, I wrote an article criticizing the portrayal of cessationism by Ernest Goodman in his article, “The Spirit Incognito.” Goodman has written a three-part response to my article, which can be found at “Missions Misunderstood.” This is my response to Part 1. Before I begin, though, I would like to thank Goodman for engaging in this discussion. Willingness to talk about these things in a thoughtful and mature way is a rare quality these days. My hope is that he and I and all of our readers will be edified through the process, even if no one’s opinion is altered.

The first thing Goodman and I disagree on is the definition of the sufficiency of Scripture. Goodman writes, “I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. I believe that it is the complete revelation of God for mankind.” This statement is true. The Bible does give us the complete revelation of God for mankind. However, the Bible gives us more than information about who God is. The Bible also tells us what God wants from us. Therefore, I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God and the only infallible rule of faith AND practice. A more historical definition would be something like, “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, having been given by inspiration of God, are the all-sufficient and only rule of faith and practice.” This is a more precise definition than what Goodman uses. The Scriptures are all-sufficient for every matter pertaining to salvation and obedient, godly living. The Bible does not only tell us who God is, it tells us how we have to live. In other words, it tells us how to be obedient. It tells us what we must actually do, and it tells us everything that we must actually do. This is the historical understanding of Sola Scriptura.

Goodman argues that the Holy Spirit illuminates the Scriptures to us. I agree. The Holy Spirit most certainly engages in the ministry of illumination. The act of reading words written in the Bible is not all that must be done. We must realize “the reality and relevance of those activities of the triune God to which Scripture testifies. The work of the Spirit in imparting this [realization] is called ‘illumination,’ or enlightening. It is not a giving of new revelation, but a work within us that enables us to grasp and to love the revelation that is there before us in the biblical text as heard and read, and as explained by teachers and writers” (Packer). Illumination takes place when I read in the Bible that I must love my wife as Christ loved the church AND when the Holy Spirit gives me the capacity to understand this command and to then actually do what the Bible tells me to do. The Holy Spirit has enabled me to obey what the Bible says, but he has not actually told me anything. If the Holy Spirit were to tell me to love my wife by doing the dishes after dinner, this would be extra-biblical revelation, and it would mean that the Scriptures are not all-sufficient for all matters of practice.

Goodman says that revelation is exclusively about God and that illumination is exclusively about us. If this were true, then Simeon did not receive revelation when the Holy Spirit told him that he would not die before he had seen the Messiah (Luke 2:25–26). What he received was illumination, but what was the Holy Spirit illuminating? The Holy Spirit provided new information to Simeon about what he would experience in his life. He was not illuminating something for Simeon. He was providing information to Simeon, and this providing of information is the very definition of revelation.

Goodman says that “the Spirit doesn’t give us some new, secret revelation.” If this is what Goodman really believes, then it is safe to assume that the Spirit has never said anything to Goodman that is not written down in the Bible. For instance, the Spirit never told him to move to Western Europe as a missionary and has never told him to speak with a particular person. The Spirit has never told him where to live or where to work or on what he should spend his money. The Spirit has never told him that he should pray a specific thing for a specific person. The Spirit has never told him that he should teach from a particular passage on a particular Sunday morning. If this were the case, then Goodman and I would be in agreement. However, I have to conclude that Goodman has actually heard the Spirit say these kinds of things to him. I conclude this because Goodman asks “how would one ever come to interpret Matthew 28:19-20 as motivation to move to Northern India” if the Spirit is silent today? The clear implication is that the Spirit tells specific people to specifically move to Northern India. Since the Bible does not tell specific people to move to a specific place in India, it is necessarily extra-biblical revelation when the Spirit tells a specific person to move to a specific place in India.

There is an answer to Goodman’s question. Matthew 28:19 says that the Church is to make disciples of all nations. Since Northern India is part of “all nations,” it is a perfectly acceptable and obedient act for a minister of God’s Church to move to Northern India and make disciples. There is no further information required other than what is already written.

Goodman argues that without the Holy Spirit actively telling people where to go and what to do, the Church is left with an anthropological approach to missions. He says the problem, though, is that “this approach to mission is not demonstrated anywhere in Scripture.” It may be true that the apostles were not anthropologists, but surely they took a logical approach to missions. I wonder if Goodman could tell me why Philip went to Samaria in Acts 8:5, why the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria in Acts 8:14, why Saul (soon to be Paul) came to Jerusalem after leaving Damascus in Acts 9, why Paul and his companions put out to sea from Paphos and came to Perga in Acts 14:13, why Paul returned to Lystra and Iconium and Antioch in Acts 14:21, why Paul left Athens and went to Corinth in Acts 18:1, or why Paul stayed in Ephesus for two years reasoning in the school of Tyrannus in Acts 19:9? There are probably hundreds of biblical examples of people using logic in order to decide where to go and what to do. A logical approach to not only missions but all of life is clearly demonstrated in Scripture.

Lastly, Goodman says that he “can’t help but think that it’s due to a certain amount of Modernism that [we have] adopted, one that values human logic, effort, and scholarship over the Lord’s leadership,” that has caused us to approach missions the way we do, the way that relies solely on the information that is written in the Bible. I have to reject Goodman’s claim. It is not Modernism that causes us to rely solely on the information recorded in the Bible. Rather, it is our belief that Scripture is all-sufficient for all matters of life and godliness that causes us to rely solely on the information recorded in the Bible. Indeed, this is how Jesus exercises his leadership over us. If obeying what is written in the Bible is not a demonstration of submission to the leadership of Christ, then what exactly does Goodman believe God’s people must do in order to demonstrate submission to the leadership of Christ?

Stay tuned for my response to Part 2. If there is anything I have missed that Goodman or any of our readers think I need to address, let me know. I will do my best to address it either in the comment section or in the next article.

4 thoughts on “A Dialog on Cessationism and Missions: Part 1

  1. E. Goodman

    Pastor,
    Thank you for responding again, and for your willingness to dialog. I’m not sure whether this is the appropriate place to post this response. If you’d prefer, I can post these thoughts on my site instead. I just have a couple thoughts about what you’ve written here:

    “Goodman says that revelation is exclusively about God and that illumination is exclusively about us.”

    I understand your desire to parse the wording of my post and I did try to select my words carefully, but I did not use the word’s “exclusively” in my distinction between revelation and illumination. Obviously, God revealed this truth to Simeon.

    “However, I have to conclude that Goodman has actually heard the Spirit say these kinds of things to him.”

    To be clear, I have never heard the Holy Spirit speak in an audible voice.

    “Since Northern India is part of “all nations,” it is a perfectly acceptable and obedient act for a minister of God’s Church to move to Northern India and make disciples. There is no further information required other than what is already written.”

    Why haven’t you, pastor, sold your belongings and moved to Northern India to proclaim the gospel? The need there is great, and witnesses few. Does it not seem right or good for you to go? Have you sent anyone in your stead? If not, why not?

    I agree that those missionary decisions you include from Acts do not claim to have been made in response to some work of the Holy Spirit (you omitted the ones that explicitly do mention the Spirit’s guidance). But I don’t see any that explicitly attribute the decision to logic, or human reason, either. Many were made in response to circumstances (persecution, riots, church leadership). Of course, I relate every step of the expansion of the early church to Jesus’ announcement in Acts 1:8 of the arrival of the Holy Spirit.

    Since you make reference to it in this post, what is your understanding of the biblical meaning of the word “nations?” As you may imagine, it is a term that comes up quite often in missiological discussions, and various definitions of this word have led to a variety of missions strategies.

    Reply
    1. Jason Bolt Post author

      E. Goodman,

      This is a perfect place for this discussion.

      I did assume that you were defining the difference between revelation and illumination when you said that revelation is about God and that illumination is about us. If that is what distinguishes them, then the only logical conclusion is that revelation is always about God and that illumination is always about us. If revelation and illumination are sometimes about God and sometimes about us, what is the purpose in saying that revelation is about God and that illumination is about us? I thought you were defending your position that the Holy Spirit telling a person to do something does not constitute new revelation because revelation is always about God. If revelation can be about us, though, why does it not constitute new revelation when the Holy Spirit tells a person what to do?

      If you have not heard the Holy Spirit speak in an audible voice, how then have you heard him speak? Whether it was audible or not, is my conclusion correct that you have “heard” the Spirit say these kinds of things to you?

      Packing up and moving to India is A perfectly acceptable and obedient act for a minister of God’s Church. It is not the ONLY perfectly acceptable and obedient act though. It is just as perfectly acceptable and legitimate for me to minister in a local church in my hometown. I have not sent anyone else in my stead to India, but our church has sent missionaries elsewhere. We send missionaries as much as we are able. I would have to look at the numbers to be exactly sure, but I believe over 50% of our budget currently goes to support missionaries. None of them are in India, but the work they are doing is perfectly acceptable and legitimate.

      If the apostles in Acts can make decisions about where they go and what they do without the Holy Spirit telling them to go there and do that, why can’t we do the same thing today? I did omit the instances in which the Holy Spirit clearly told them to go somewhere and do something, and I think you are permitted to follow that model if you like. The issue, though, is what we do when God does not specifically speak to us. How do we make decisions then? I choose to use wisdom and logic.

      I believe that the biblical use of the term “nations” is a very general term. Nations, peoples, and families all seem to be used interchangeably, yet a family is certainly more precise than a nation. What I do know for sure is that God intends to bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:3) through the seed of Abraham who is Christ. I take this to mean at least that God intends to bless some people from all over the world. Seeing these families as ethno-linguistic people groups can be helpful in discovering who is all over the world, but I believe God used vague language for a reason. I don’t think he wants us to know exactly how much work is left. That’s just my opinion.

      Reply
  2. E. Goodman

    In my experience, the Spirit has led me through scripture. He has, however, helped me interpret scripture into personal action through circumstances (not unlike Paul reacting to persecution, opportunities, requests, and riots), prayer, and my church.

    How do you suppose that, after reading the explicit commissions in Scripture, one Christian would come to the conclusion that he should sell everything and move to a faraway land to proclaim the gospel to people who have not heard it while the other would choose to remain in the comforts of home? 

    Both may be “perfectly acceptable,” but how do you account for the difference? 

    Reply
  3. Jason Bolt Post author

    It seems to me that everything in your question hinges on how we understand “should.” I have concluded that I should go skiing tomorrow because the mountains just received 3 feet of snow. To me, this is clearly the best decision I can make. You, on the other hand, might hate the snow and the mountains. So, you conclude that you should stay home and avoid the snow. If this is the “should” to which you refer, it is quite easy to “suppose that, after reading the explicit commissions in Scripture, one Christian would come to the conclusion that he should sell everything and move to a faraway land to proclaim the gospel to people who have not heard it while the other would choose to remain in the comforts of home.”

    On the other hand, if a person concludes, after reading his Bible, that he should pack up and move to the other side of the world and that it would be sinful disobedience for him not to do so, this is a completely different kind of “should.” In my opinion, this kind of “should” only applies to the commands of Scripture. I don’t believe that anyone ever has to do anything that Scripture does not demand that he do. There are many things a person can do if he wants, things that may be good and wise, things about which one might even say, “I should do this.” However, that does not mean he is sinning if he does not do it. If it is not a sin to not do it, then he does not have to do it, even if it is something he “should” do.

    It all comes down to what it is that we believe we have to obey. I believe we have to obey the commands of Scripture. If we don’t obey them, it is sinful. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that many people, such as yourself, believe that we must obey something in addition to Scripture. We have to obey whatever it is that we think the Spirit tells us (through whatever means) about Scripture. I hold this to be false. As an elder, I cannot hold anyone in my church acceptable for not obeying something that is not written in the Bible. If he is convinced that he must do something that he thinks the Spirit has led him to do and if it is something that he is free to do, I would encourage him to go ahead and do it so that he can keep a clear conscience. If he fails to do it, though, he will not have done anything wrong.

    So, to which “should” are you referring?

    Reply

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