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Are there still revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit today? In other words, does God still give certain people the unique ability to prophesy and speak in tongues to give new revelation?
To the question whether the revelatory sign gifts ceased with the closing of the Apostolic age, the answer biblically, theologically, and historically has to be yes.
Biblically, Hebrews 1:1–2 emphasizes the finality of the revelation in Jesus Christ as coming after the work of the prophets and as recorded in the New Testament by the Apostles. The issue of prophecy and its connection to Scripture is foundational for the Christian. There was a covenantal context of revelation and prophecy in the Old and New Testaments that must shape how we view this question. Throughout the Scriptures, prophecy is associated with a public ministry and is accountable to the Word of God.
Theologically, that the Son is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3) leaves no doubt that the apex of prophecy terminates on the person and work of Christ. There is no greater prophecy to add, no additional special revelation, as the warning of Revelation 22:18–19 declares. Jesus Christ says near the completion of His earthly ministry that the Holy Spirit is the Helper “whom the Father will send in my name,” who “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Here we see that the Holy Spirit’s work among God’s people is through applying the benefits of Christ’s accomplished work on our behalf in our understanding and in our lives. The Holy Spirit’s work among God’s people involves regenerating and calling them in response to the gospel through faith in Christ, as many as have been given by the Father to the Son. In individual believers, from this regenerating work of the Spirit arises comfort and boldness from the inner testimony that the Word of God is true, that Christ’s work is on their behalf, and that the Lord will never leave them or abandon His promises.
Now, what does this have to do with revelatory gifts or sign gifts? Well, much in every way. In debate about continuationism and cessationism, people might lose sight of the fact that all Christians believe that the Holy Spirit is active now, creating faith in all whom the Lord has called to Himself through the ministry of the gospel. There is no debate among believers as to whether the Holy Spirit is at work; the question is how. That point should not be forgotten, even as Christians and churches differ.
Given that Pentecostalism is one of the largest movements in Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is found throughout branches of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and is an unavoidable issue in global missions, my negative answer to the question above might come as a surprise. There is a wide spectrum among contemporary Christians holding everything from a form of continuationism to cessationism. Continuationism in its strongest view is the claim that the revelatory sign gifts are necessary, constitutive, and continuing marks of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church and in individual believers. In this strong continuationist view, churches, and even professing Christians without at least some of these sign gifts, may very well be false churches and false Christians. Or to state it positively, continuationists emphasize that the vibrancy of the church is evidenced by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit manifested in individuals with such revelatory gifts as speaking in tongues and continuing prophecy.
When it comes to the spectrum of continuationist views, it has become common, if not fashionable, in Christian circles today to affirm a soft continuationism that sanctions in principle the full spectrum of continuationism in pulpit and pew. While there may yet be objection in soft continuationist churches to the full practice of Pentecostal views of revelatory gifts in public worship, the objection would be not in principle but only on pragmatic or prudential grounds of what is best for public worship.
On the other hand, cessationism is the view that the revelatory sign gifts were for the age of the Apostles within their lifetime and ceased with the closing of the canon of Scripture. Thus, for cessationists the primary emphasis is cessation upon the completeness of Holy Scripture with the closing of the production of the New Testament. Furthermore, in Scripture the invocation of “a word from the Lord” or speaking “a prophetic word in the name of the Lord” does not allow room for error. For example, Deuteronomy 18:21–22 clearly states:
And if you say in your heart, “How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?”—when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
The significance of this point cannot be overstated. True prophets of the Lord and His words through them do not admit of fallible prophecies. Besides the biblical and theological finality of God’s revelation in Christ mentioned earlier, it is important to note that along with a robust doctrine of Scripture’s inerrancy and infallibility, the cessationist position holds to similarly high requirements of the veracity, accuracy, and infallibility of true prophecy.
The continuationist, while claiming a fuller work of the Spirit in the New Testament, has to hold to a less-full or lesser view of prophecy than what occurred in the Old Testament. Some very strong continuationists—but certainly not all continuationists—might argue for the equivalence of their private revelation with Scripture, even referring to themselves as present-day Apostles. Admittedly, such an assertion makes most continuationists, whether they hold modified or soft forms of the view, squirm, and rightly so. Why? For one, most continuationists want to interject a critical difference between the level and priority of Apostolic inspiration and post-Apostolic prophecy. Continuationists might allow a post-Apostolic prophetic and revelatory gift from the Holy Spirit that is fallible. Let that sink in for a moment: among those in the charismatic orbit, not every word from the Lord given by one gifted with post-Apostolic prophecy is actually true or should be expected to be absolutely true. It may turn out to be mostly true. It may be probable. It may not happen at all. It may reflect only an ecstatic impression intended as true. But it cannot be taken as absolutely true on its face. By implication, an ongoing sign of the Holy Spirit’s true presence in the church, and by extension in believers, is reduced to a fallible and probabilistic sign. Can a true prophecy of the Holy Spirit ever be wrong? Of course not. If a practice of fallible “prophecy” were to rise in the practice of a church, would it not tend in practice and principle toward a lower view of Scripture?
Besides the arguments over the sign gifts in the New Testament, I believe it would be exceedingly more profitable to discuss what is frequently called illumination. It must be stated that illumination is not the same thing as revelation. Revelation is the objective truth that points to God. Among classic Reformed theologians from the sixteenth century onward, inspiration is most often defined relative to the inspiration of the prophet or Apostle and in relation to the inspiration of Scripture. It is in this domain that the discussion of prophecy as special revelation is most faithful and appropriate. Illumination is a confirmation by the Holy Spirit to someone of the truthfulness of the Holy Scriptures. To the newly regenerate believer, Christ is grasped with faith in the heart and understanding in the mind. To an established believer, the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination builds faith and understanding in the Holy Scriptures with the goal of Christian maturity and holiness. The doctrine of illumination among the Reformed is the view that it takes a work of the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures in a saving way that the elect are called to eternal life. Properly speaking, illumination is not revelation. The doctrine of illumination seeks to explain how the Holy Spirit applies the Scriptures in the heart of a believer to produce conviction of sin, repentance, faith, and a heart for new obedience. The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is a tremendously important aspect of the Christian life as we realize in light of God’s Word, for example, that we have the confirming work of God’s Holy Spirit encouraging our hearts to trust Him, that we have been adopted into God’s family, and that we have access to God through Christ for bold and free prayer. The doctrine of illumination means that we can and must pray that the same Holy Spirit who inspired the Scriptures would shine in our hearts to know them and to know God as He must be known—as our faithful God, as our Savior, as Abba Father, as our King and Lord, as the source and seat of all our joy. And while we long and desire for a greater and fuller worship of God with all of God’s people in heaven, here in this life we are given the sufficient and authoritative Scriptures to train, guide, and rule our hearts and minds to God.