A Dialog on Cessationism and Missions: Part 2

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 2.

Concerning the qualification and sending of missionaries, I have argued that men who desire to go and who are biblically qualified should be sent. There is no need for God to tell a particular church to send a particular person. In contrast, Goodman says that “our criteria for sending is not only some checklist of qualities and qualifications, but also a spiritual unity of the sending church.” I do not exactly know how to respond to this statement because I do not know what Goodman means by “a spiritual unity of the sending church.” What I do know is that Goodman believes this spiritual unity “is reached through prayer (and sometimes fasting), as the Spirit of God brings the opinions of the pastors in line with Christ” (If that is not mysticism, I don’t know what is). From this, I deduce that spiritual unity exists when the opinions of the pastors of a particular church are aligned. Goodman refers to Acts 13:2 as the precedent for this doctrine; but in that verse, the Holy Spirit speaks audibly and says, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (NASB). There is nothing recorded in this passage about the opinions of the pastors being brought in line with Christ. I do not know of any biblical precedent for such a doctrine. If there is one, I would like someone to point it out to me. In the meantime, I do not see any biblical reason why a qualified person should not be sent based solely upon his qualifications.

Goodman then asks a series of questions, which I will answer.

“What are the criteria for ‘missionary?’ Where do these come from?”

The criteria for a missionary are identical to the criteria for an elder. When Paul wrote his letter to the Ephesians, the office of elder within the Christian Church had four main functions. Elders acted as apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers (I consider pastor and teacher to be the same function). Some elders performed one function. Others performed more. My point, though, is that an evangelist is an elder who focuses his time and energy on the proclamation of the gospel to non-Christians. This is also the job of the missionary. Therefore, I consider the missionary role to be a sub-set of the evangelist role. “Missionary” is simply a descriptive term used to describe the evangelist who is sent across some kind of border to proclaim the gospel to a particular group of people. Since the missionary is an evangelist and because the evangelist is an elder, the missionary must therefore be an elder, and the qualifications for an elder are spelled out very clearly in Scripture.

“What if the candidate is qualified, yet doesn’t want to go?”

No one should be forced to travel somewhere he does not want to travel. Why would we ever send someone out as a missionary who doesn’t want to go?

“What if he’s both qualified and willing to be sent, but he is needed in his local church?”

The only instance in which a particular elder is needed in his local church is if he is the only elder in that local church. For him to abandon his flock would be a sinful desertion of his responsibilities. He would not have the right to send himself out as a missionary. If he wants to serve as a missionary, he must first appoint at least one other elder in his place. At that point he is no longer needed in his local church, and he is free to go out as a missionary.

“Why should we ‘pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest’ (Matthew 9:38) if God has nothing to do with the calling and sending of his people?”

Who said that God has nothing to do with the calling and sending of his people? I never said that. I have never heard anyone else say that. In my book The Great Enterprise from a Reformed Perspective, I devote a whole chapter to the calling and sending of the missionary and describe exactly how God calls and sets apart his missionaries. So, to be clear, God is very active in calling and sending missionaries. However, that does not have to mean that the Holy Spirit is telling particular pastors of particular churches to send particular missionaries to particular places.

Goodman then goes on to say that he is not as trustful in human wisdom as I seem to be. I do not know why Goodman thinks I am trusting in human wisdom. I have certainly never advocated that anyone trust in human wisdom. On the contrary, I believe Scripture exhorts us to use godly wisdom, wisdom that applies the commands of Scripture to our lives. Solomon’s judicial decision between the two women who came to him with the dispute over the baby is a good example of this. The Bible made clear that stealing a baby was a crime. Solomon then used wisdom and logic to devise a way in which to differentiate between the perpetrator and the victim. The Holy Spirit did not tell Solomon who the real mother was. He used his brain to figure it out. Is there any reason why we should not do the same thing today in the context of missions?

Goodman then asks these questions, “You can’t reach out in every direction at once. With which tribe, language, or nation will you begin? How does a church determine where to allocate resources and where to pass up perfectly good opportunities?” The answer is quite simple. God’s people only have to do what Scripture demands that they do, and they are free to do anything Scripture does not forbid. Therefore, God’s people have the freedom to answer these questions any number of ways.

Goodman also asks, “When is the work in a particular place finished?” Missionary work in a particular place is finished when one of two things happens, when a church is planted or when the missionary determines that he should not continue to throw pearls before swine and shakes the dust off his feet and leaves. The follow up question most certainly is, “When/how does the missionary determine that he should not continue to throw pearls before swine and shake the dust off his feet and leave?” This is a more complicated question over which there is some legitimate disagreement. Suffice to say for now that there are ways in which the missionary can make this determination without the Holy Spirit specially telling him that he should leave a particular place.

Goodman again makes the claim that some people “believe that God no longer interacts with His people in real-time.” Who believes this? God interacts with his people every day. Just because God does not speak audibly to me does not mean that he does not interact with me.

Lastly, Goodman explains some of the various ways a person can share the gospel. I agree with him. There are lots of ways to verbally proclaim the message of the gospel. This was my very point to begin with. All of these ways are legitimate ways to proclaim the message of the gospel. Missionaries are free to pick and choose from them. Missionaries have brains. They can decide which way they think is best for the time and place. There is not one right way of doing it. There are lots of right ways to do it. We do not need the Holy Spirit to tell us which right way to use. God just wants us to use one of them.

While Goodman goes on arguing that the Holy Spirit has to specifically tell us what to say to who, he says this, “How you present the gospel is a huge factor in how it’s received . . . Fortunately, the eternal destiny of the nations does not depend on my speaking ability.” Does this not seem like a contradiction to anyone else? What he says and the way he says it is a huge factor regarding whether or not the gospel is received, but whether or not the gospel is received does not depend on what he says. Maybe I have misunderstood what he is trying to say. If so, maybe he or someone else can correct me.

Stay tuned for my response to Part 3; and again, if I have missed something that you think I should have addressed, let me know so that I can address it either in the comment section or in the next article.

6 thoughts on “A Dialog on Cessationism and Missions: Part 2

  1. E. Goodman

    Thanks again, Pastor, for allowing the discussion here on your site. I’m not sure who else, if anyone, is following the discussion, but I do prefer to interact with a real person on these matters (as opposed to hypothetical people, who tend to be more fun but less helpful).

    My point with the Acts 13 passage wasn’t whether the Spirit spoke audibly or not, but rather that He spoke at all. The leadership of the church heard directly from the Spirit and responded by sending.

    I admit I am unfamiliar with your book. I may look into it, though, as there are so few missiologies written from a reformed perspective. I am especially interested to hear how God “calls and sets apart his missionaries” without any secret, individual, or mystical interaction.
    “Just because God does not speak audibly to me does not mean that he does not interact with me.”

    How does God interact with you apart from what you’ve been referring to as “mysticism” and “secrecy?”

    You wrote: “What he says and the way he says it is a huge factor regarding whether or not the gospel is received, but whether or not the gospel is received does not depend on what he says.”

    But I wrote: “How the gospel is received,” not “whether or not it is received.” The eternal destiny of the nations does not depend on come “correct” presentation of the gospel, but carelessness puts us at risk of adding serious baggage to the churches we start. I’m sure you’ll agree that syncretism is a real and dangerous side-effect of poor approaches to contextualization.

    Again, I find it interesting that in your previous post you seem to equate “the Great Commission” with “the mission of the church.” Do you see Matthew 28:19-20 as being the totality of the church’s mission in the world today?

    Also, I don’t believe we’ve discussed the Spirit’s guidance of Paul in Acts 16:6-10. This seems to be a clear example of a missionary doing what he thought wise (going to preach the gospel in Asia), but being prevented, directed, and otherwise called Macedonia. From my perspective, this is the leadership of the Spirit for God’s people on mission. Do you see this differently?

    Again, thanks for your thoughts here. I do appreciate your willingness to talk through this.

    1. Jason Bolt Post author

      If your point with Acts 13 was merely that the Spirit communicated in some way to the leaders of the church in Antioch, why did you bring up “spiritual unity” and define it as “the Spirit aligning the opinions of the elders with Christ”? I get confused when you say one thing but mean another thing.

      How does God interact with me apart from what I have been referring to as “mysticism” and “secrecy?” I thought I had been quite clear on this issue. God inspired the words of the Bible. In other words, he has communicated to me by writing to me. Not only does he write to me, he also gives me the capacity to understand what he writes and the ability to obey what he tells me (though writing) to do.

      You are correct about me not noticing the difference between “how the gospel is received” and “whether or not it is received.” What I still don’t understand is how carelessness puts us at risk of adding serious baggage to the churches we start. Can you define this “carelessness” and explain what it looks like and how we know when we or someone else is doing it? I have an opinion about syncretism and the various issues associated with contextualization. However, they are just my opinions, and I don’t have the right to accuse anyone of carelessness for simply not aligning with my opinion.

      “Do you see Matthew 28:19-20 as being the totality of the church’s mission in the world today?” I apologize. I had answered this question in one of my drafts of this article, but my answer is now missing. So, I will provide the answer here. When I refer to the mission of the Church, I am referring to the Great Commission. I use the phrases interchangeably. However, I do not believe that the Great Commission constitutes the purpose of the Church. The purpose of the Church is to obey all that God has commanded, and one of those things is the Great Commission. It is this specific command to which I refer when I speak of the mission of the Church. But to answer your question, no, I do not see Matthew 28:19-20 as being the totality what the Church is required to do in the world today.

      I concede that if a missionary has made what he thinks is a good and wise decision and then God stops him and tells him that he must do some other specific thing, he should do that specific thing. The issue, however, is whether or not God will actually do this today. The cessationist believes that God has said everything he is going to say, which means that God is not going to give any new information to anyone. If he is right, then God will never tell a missionary today to go and do some specific thing instead of doing the thing that he thought was good and wise. Do you even understand the biblical argument for the cessationist’s position and why he believes that the Holy Spirit has performed various functions at various times throughout human history? Do you believe the cessationist has the right to hold his view? I understand that you want God to speak to you in some way other than audibly or through the written word, but do you expect everyone else in Christendom to agree with your opinion? This, to me, is the heart of our discussion. Do cessationists have the right to live their lives according to their doctrine, or do you require them to adopt your position?

  2. E. Goodman

    Spiritual unity was achieved at Antioch when the Spirit spoke to them (all at once). The elders didn’t simply decide it would be “acceptable” to send Saul and Barnabas. There’s no indication that Saul or Barnabas asked to be sent. God spoke to the church all at once, and they unanimously responded in obedient by sending missionaries.

    You’ve been quite clear that God only speaks to you through the Bible. But then you’ve talked about “calling.” Because “calling” is personal, what is it if not mystical communication from the Spirit? We all read the same Bible, yet we somehow arrive at different conclusions about what the text would have us do. Some read the Great Commission and conclude that obedience to it requires moving abroad. Others read it and conclude that they need to stay at home. If this is more than just personal preference, and there is indeed a such thing as “calling,” how is that not the sort of “mystical extra-biblical revelation” you say doesn’t exist?

    In Acts 15, we read about the controversy in the early church over whether circumcision was a requirement for salvation. This teaching, we know, was in error, and the Jerusalem Council set the record straight. Circumcision was a cultural tradition that became attached to the gospel message by those who were ministering to non-Jews. They had, by not taking care to sort the gospel from culture, introduced “baggage” into the practice of Christianity among Gentiles.
    This sort of thing happens often in mission. We often don’t think about the ramifications of how we present the gospel. This is the carelessness in mission that leads to baggage in the churches we start. Anytime we forget that our methodologies are connected to our culture, we risk introducing extra-biblical practices into the churches we plant. This is why we see Western-style church buildings being built in Africa, or unfortunate meaningless transliterations in religious language.

    I am familiar with the cessationist interpretation of the Spirit’s activity. In fact, I initially had some reservations about interacting with you at all about this because I figured you would eventually end up saying, “It doesn’t matter how God led His people on mission in the Bible, we don’t believe He does it that way anymore.”

    Which brings me to another question. Why do you choose to interpret the Great Commission as normative for Christians (beyond those who were physically present to see Jesus ascend into heaven), but the leadership of the Spirit as no longer the norm? How do you come about this distinction?

    Your question about “having the right” to believe one way or another seems very odd to me. Of course you have the right to believe that the Holy Spirit does not speak apart from Scripture! If He wants to convince you otherwise, He certainly could. I definitely wouldn’t say that I want God to speak to me outside of Scripture. I want Him to guide us on mission according to Scripture, and I think it’s pretty clear that the Spirit leads us in discerning whether “go and make disciples” means going here or going there.

    1. Jason Bolt Post author

      I understand that the church in Antioch made a unanimous decision to send Paul and Barnabas and that this decision was made after the Holy Spirit told them to send Paul and Barnabas. What I don’t know is what this has to do with a spiritual unity that is reached by the Holy Spirit aligning the opinions of the leaders with Christ. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. How do they know that their opinions are in line with Christ? How do they know it was the Holy Spirit who did the aligning? Does spiritually unity only occur when the opinions of the leaders are aligned with Christ? If so, what happens when there is a disagreement? Are those who disagree not unified in Christ? Is there not room for a difference of opinion, such as there is between you and me?

      Can you really not conceive of a way in which person can be called to missions without the Holy Spirit mystically talking to him? I love soccer. I always have. I love playing it, coaching it, and watching it. Do you know why I love it? Neither do I. I love it because I do. There is something in me that drives me to play the game. I have always felt called to play. The missionary calling is similar. The missionary has an innate desire to preach the gospel among the nations. When he reads the Bible, his desire to preach the gospel among the nations becomes stronger. If he meets the qualifications and expresses a desire to go, his local church will call him to serve as a missionary. There are both an internal or personal calling, the innate desire, and an external or public calling, the local church’s recognition of the missionary as a missionary, yet there is no mysticism taking place.

      You may be familiar with the cessationist interpretation of the Spirit’s activity, but that was not my question. I asked whether or not you know the biblical argument in support of cessationism. Even if I started this discussion by saying, “It doesn’t matter how God led his people on mission in the Bible, we don’t believe he does it that way anymore,” why would that cause you to not have a discussion with me?

      I interpret the Great Commission as normative for the leaders of the Church. The commission was given to the apostles who subsequently passed the commission on to those leaders who came after them. Why do you accuse me of saying that the leadership of the Holy Spirit is no longer the norm for the Church? Did I make this claim? No, I never said such a thing. In fact, I said the opposite. I outlined in my Part 1 how God exercises his leadership over us. So, I don’t know what you are talking about when you say that I reject the Holy Spirit’s leadership. What I do reject is that your understanding of the Spirit’s leadership is normative for all Christians.

      1. E. Goodman

        Pastor, are you saying that you are called to play soccer? In the same way that Paul was called to be an apostle to the Gentiles? In your mind, does “calling” amount to personal preference?

        To answer your question, no, I cannot conceive of a way in which a person can be “called to missions” without the Holy Spirit directing him to it. We all read the same Scripture, yet come to different conclusions for how we must obey them. The sending is quite clear throughout the scriptures, and yet one interprets “go” to mean “go” and another interprets the same to mean “stay and send.” The difference is not a matter of preference, but of the Spirit’s orchestration of His church on His mission.

        So I can say that I believe I do, in fact, know why you love soccer. I attribute your preferences, abilities, interests, and experiences as tools and gifts, given by a sovereign and sending God who equips His people for His mission.

        Where did the apostles pass on the Great Commission to leaders who came after them? I’m not trying to be argumentative, I’m just curious about how you come by this understanding. I’m not familiar with any mention of the Great Commission after it was given in Matthew 28. I believe that the Great Commission has application to us today, but it seems clear to me that it is not referred to as an explicit motivation for the missionary expansion of the church in the New Testament.

        I’m familiar with the verses used in support of cessationism. My initial reluctance to engage with you is this: If it doesn’t matter how God led His people on mission in Scripture because He doesn’t work that way anymore, why dwell on a conversation of how God did it in scripture?

        I feel as though I need to explain. I am not against you. I’m trying to be clear (though I often fail) and I’m trying to understand you. I want to bless you and to learn from you. I am not trying to take away your “right” to believe anything. I’m not accusing you of anything. I do not believe that the sort of Spiritual guidance on mission that Paul enjoyed is “normative for all believers.” I do believe, however, that this sort of illumination of scripture into the lives of His sent-out people is normative for God.

        I was trying to summarize your position that the Holy Spirit does not direct missionaries to the time and place of their service. I don’t mean to misrepresent you. You say that God leads us on mission through the Scripture and I agree that He does. Where we differ is that you seem to believe if He leaves everything beyond “go and make disciples of all nations” up to us (what “makes sense,” and is “acceptable”). This is a rejection of the Holy Spirit’s leadership in mission as we see it in Scripture. You believe that God changed tactics, as it were, at one point in history.

        It’s an odd discussion we’re having. One Christian brother who has never experienced being “led” or prevented” by the Spirit on mission clarifying his philosophy to another brother who has had (at least, in retrospect) such experience. I hope that the dialog honors God and builds up His church. I hope that it helps cessationists and continua lists alike wrestle with their sent-ness in Christ.

        1. Jason Bolt Post author

          No. I am not saying that I am called to play soccer the same way that Paul was literally called by Christ to be an apostle to the gentiles. I am saying that my call to play soccer is analogous to my call to missions. I do not equate my call to play soccer or my call to missions with Paul’s call to be an apostle.

          It seems like we are beginning to talk past each other on the whole calling issue. You cannot conceive of a way in which what I am saying could be true. This is the point at which we simply agree to disagree on the issue.

          The Great Commission was given to the apostles as representatives of God’s Church. Therefore, the mission was given to the Church as a whole, but it is carried out by the leaders. When new leaders took over after the apostles, they continued the mission.

          I get confused when you say that you are not accusing me of anything and then say that my position “is a rejection of the Holy Spirit’s leadership in mission as we see it in Scripture.” That sure sounds like an accusation to me. The reality is that I reject the Holy Spirit’s leadership in mission as YOU see it in Scripture. I don’t think that God has changed tactics. I think he has always told his people what they need to know. The only difference is that we now have the complete revelation of his will. Therefore, he has told us everything he wants to tell us. I am not rejecting the Holy Spirit’s leadership. I am rejecting your mystical view of guidance.

          This is an odd discussion. We simply see things differently, but that is okay. I do find this very helpful, though, because I am surrounded by missionaries who are constantly seeking mystical guidance. Interacting with you and getting a window into your world helps me better understand them, which helps me interact with them in a positive way. So for that, I thank you.


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