The cessationist debate is back, although in some ways, it’s never left.
Pastor John MacArthur and Grace Community Church recently hosted the Cessationist Conference, timed to coincide with the release of the Cessationist movie—bringing an age-old topic back to the forefront of trending conversations, especially among Reformed believers. These discussions center on a basic question: “Are the miraculous gifts for today?” Cessationists would answer no.
But to me, there are even more fundamental questions at play here—such as why there is fresh interest in this subject today, and why so much effort is being spent on arguing against the continuance of supernatural signs and wonders.
The answer may be as obvious as it is simple. The Pentecostal-charismatic movement continues to rise rapidly around the world, and in the eyes of cessationist leaders like MacArthur, this is a cause for alarm, not celebration. In their view, this global movement is marked by doctrinal deviances and aberrant practices so extreme that some believe the “vast majority” of Pentecostals and charismatics are not Christians at all.
Dale Coulter, professor of historical theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary, argues that the “the Pentecostalization of American Christianity” is coming of age. But in the opinion of these cessationist leaders, this isn’t a positive trend—dangerous doctrinal weeds are growing rapidly in our backyard, and theological diligence is required.
Having dialogued face to face with some of these leaders for hours, I don’t doubt the sincerity of their Christian faith or their pastoral concerns about perceived spiritual abuses. As a Pentecostal-charismatic leader, I have addressed problems within our movement for more than three decades. In fact, I told TheNew York Times two years ago that the failed prophecies of Trump’s 2020 reelection amounted to the “greatest deception” I’d seen in my five decades in the Lord.
So I have no desire to minimize error or deny the fact that, with the exponential expansion of the Pentecostal-charismatic movement worldwide—growing from 58 million in 1970 to 656 million in 2021—there has been plenty of strange and even false fire.
But to focus on the aberrant is to miss the greater reality: Over the last 50 years, hundreds of millions of people have come to true and lasting faith in Jesus through the present-day, miraculous ministry of the Holy Spirit.
As a thoughtful rabbi once commented, we should not take the best of our religion and compare it to the worst of someone else’s religion. As I’ve said elsewhere, “The existence of flaky charismatics no more disproves continuationism than the existence of spiritually dead Calvinists disproves Reformed doctrine.”
Historian Conrad Cherry pointed out that, during the First Great Awakening, critics like Charles Chauncy often focused on the chaff, whereas revival leaders like Jonathan Edwards focused on the wheat. Sadly, this is often the same with those who criticize the worldwide Pentecostal-charismatic movement today.
I can testify personally—having spent decades of my life working with this movement worldwide and ministering overseas on more than 160 trips—that there is far more Jesus-glorifying, Word-based wheat than could possibly be counted. Moreover, this harvest has grown and remained strong in the face of great suffering and persecution.
But the best answer to cessationism is found in the Bible itself.
While I respect my cessationist friends, I disagree that there is scriptural support for their stance that the miraculous gifts were uniquely associated with the apostles and existed solely for the establishing of the gospel. In fact, I personally believe this position is rendered indefensible by the explicit testimony of God’s Word.
In my book Authentic Fire, which I wrote in response to MacArthur’s Strange Fire book and conference, I explain that it is precisely because I am sola Scriptura that I am charismatic.
For many years I’ve heard my cessationist colleagues say, “You charismatics rely on experience. We rely on the Word.” But to be candid, I’ve often found the opposite to be true.
I know many who became cessationists because of bad experiences with charismatics or Pentecostal churches, whereas (as you will soon read) I’ve remained a charismatic because of the testimony of God’s Word. When my experience confirms the Word, wonderful. But when my experience (or lack thereof) is contrary to the Word, I don’t reject the Word. I reject the experience.
This is a lesson I have learned the hard way through my own faith journey.
I came to faith in 1971 at the age of 16 in a little Italian Pentecostal church as a heroin-shooting, LSD-using Jewish hippie rock drummer. But 10 years later, while working on my PhD in Near Eastern languages and literatures at New York University, my perspective greatly changed.
I did not want to be Pentecostal anymore. I wanted to be spiritually sophisticated, like the Reformed scholars whose works I was now studying. Speaking in tongues, which used to be a rich part of my spiritual life, was no longer something I wanted to practice.
Bear in mind that this was before I knew of any prominent biblical scholars and theologians who were Pentecostal or charismatic. I’m thinking of people like Gordon Fee, Craig Keener, Ben Witherington, Peter Davids, Jeffrey Niehaus, J. P. Moreland, Wayne Grudem, R. T. Kendall, Sam Storms, and others. In my mind at the time, being Pentecostal or charismatic meant being small-minded and theologically backwards.
As for supernatural healing, I’d heard about past stories and was assured of future ones, but I had seen very little with my own eyes. As for people being “slain in the Spirit” (something I used to see when I prayed for people), I now taught against it, saying it proved nothing and was not found in the Bible. I even bought books like B. B. Warfield’s Counterfeit Miracles and Robert Gromacki’s The Modern Tongues Movement to help persuade myself that the miraculous gifts were not for today. I fully desired to be a cessationist.
In the end, I could not be convinced. The Word was too clear, and cessationist arguments too weak and easily refuted. So I concluded that the supernatural gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing were still for today, but that what we were seeing in the contemporary charismatic movement was not what Scripture had promised.
Then in 1982, over a period of months, God brought me to repentance for leaving my first love and convicted me of theological and intellectual pride—speaking to me through some friends of mine who were charismatic believers.
To say this rocked my world would be an understatement.
Now, I’m not saying that cessationists are not walking in love and devotion to the Lord—I’m simply sharing my own experience. At that time, I was serving as an elder in training at a largely non-charismatic congregation, which was incredibly active in good works, but lacking in the power of the Spirit. By the end of the year, my life was radically changed—and the Lord even used me as a vessel to pour out his Spirit in our church.
As glorious and wonderful as that season was—as I was once again witnessing the gifts of the Spirit in operation, and more than I’d ever seen before—I now had a big problem. Here I was, with the right theology and accurate exegesis but seeing no one healed, while the people with wrong theology were seeing healings happen. How could I reconcile this?
At that time, I was in the early stages of research for my doctoral dissertation, “Abbreviated Verbal Idioms in the Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Semitic Approach,” but I decided to change my topic to “‘I Am the Lord Your Healer’: A Philological Study of the Root RP’ in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East.”
I had so many questions that needed answering—exegetical, linguistic, practical, theological, and philosophical—that I wanted to dig into what the Word said about healing from as many angles as I could. Ten years later, Zondervan published my monograph, Israel’s Divine Healer, as part of their series titled Studies in Old Testament Biblical Theology. In it, I expanded my research to include the New Testament, which only further cemented my beliefs about healing for today.
So what do the Scriptures really say about miraculous healing?
First, the Bible indicates that acts of miraculous healing point to the goodness of God and are often an extension of his compassion (e.g., Matt. 14:14).
As Scripture attests, Jesus brought the full revelation of the Father and ushered in the kingdom of God—which included healing of the sick and setting captives free (Luke 4:18–21, John 14:8–11; 3). And, while we pray for the kingdom to come in fullness with the return of Jesus (Matt. 6:10), we recognize that, in a spiritual sense, God’s kingdom continues to grow worldwide.
Jesus taught plainly that whoever believed in him—a universal formula in the Greek and in John’s Gospel (see John 6:35; 7:38; 11:25; 12:44, 46, which apply to all believers)—would do the works he did, and even greater works (John 14:12; the immediate context makes clear he is speaking of his miraculous works).
Moreover, the Bible makes clear that the Spirit’s outpouring, which began in Acts, came with tongues and the promises of prophecy, dreams, and visions—and that it would be for all people and for this entire era of the church in these “last days” (Acts 2:14–21, 39).
Paul directly commands us to earnestly seek the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, and to not forbid tongues (1 Cor. 12:31; 14:1, 39). He also makes it clear that these gifts would continue until the eschaton (1 Cor. 1:7; 13:8–10). In addition, miraculous healing of the sick, in response to the prayer of faith of local elders, should be the norm in our churches (James 5:13–16).
Of course, each of these concepts could be unpacked in far greater depth, but it is my personal conviction that the Bible itself does not support the cessationist position. That is, I believe it is impossible to make an exegetically robust argument for cessationism using the Bible alone. And for sola Scriptura believers, this should matter.
Much of the witness of church history also attests to the continuation of supernatural signs and wonders.
There is ample evidence of ongoing miracles after the death of the apostles. There are also countless stories of Christian skeptics who changed their minds about miracles—including the early church father Augustine, who said, “What do these miracles attest but the faith which proclaims that Christ rose in the flesh and ascended into heaven with the flesh?”
There is also an overwhelming number of testimonies to the modern-day miraculous work of the Spirit over the centuries, and some have been carefully documented in recent decades.
That said, I ultimately welcome any debate among the body of Christ on how the Holy Spirit is at work today. Let’s all put our best arguments on the table, with respect and grace, for the glory of God and the good of his people.
Michael Brown is the host of the Line of Fire podcast and author of more than 45 books, including Revival or We Die and Why So Many Christians Have Left the Faith.