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Praying in the Spirit: That Glorious Day When Tongues are Not Needed: Until Then … Part 2

A day is coming when prophecies, words of knowledge, and tongues shall cease. When that day arrives, no one will be rejoicing more ecstatically than the charismatics. But until then

The thought of tongues making themselves cease is indeed very strange. The gifts “cannot cease of themselves, as they are things which do not control themselves … but originate with God and are under God’s control” (Elbert, pp. 27-28). Saying that tongues will cause themselves to cease operating, according to Elbert, is equivalent to saying a flute will cause itself to cease playing.

Issue #3: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part,” verse 9. What happened to tongues in this verse? Paul mentioned knowing and prophesying; why did he not mention tongues? The cessationist answer is that Paul omitted them as a sign that they would cease before the other gifts (Baxter, pp. 64-65, 70; Criswell, Baptism, p. 121; Dillow, p. 114; C. R. Smith, pp. 82, 87; Toussaint, p. 315). We might just as well conclude, however, since tongues are not mentioned here as ceasing with prophesy and knowledge, that only those two cease and tongues go on. Not that I believe tongues outlast these other gifts, but looking strictly at the grammatical form of this verse, it seems that the absence of tongues here might just as easily be construed to mean that prophecy and knowledge cease but tongues remain.

In reality, the absence of a reference to tongues here has no significance. Paul’s omission of tongues from this verse may be explained by the awkwardness of including it: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part and we speak in tongues in part.” How can one speak in tongues in part? If, as some believe, speaking in tongues is praise from the believer to God, it becomes even more clear why Paul didn’t say we speak in tongues in part: Tongues are not partial or fragmented in the sense that prophecy and knowledge are. The gifts of prophecy and knowledge transmit cognitive bits and pieces from an infinite and omniscient God; as finite creatures, we can only comprehend the partial. The gift of tongues, on the other hand, does not find its source in the infinite knowledge of God; it is, instead, man pouring out his finite soul as the Spirit gives utterance to a God capable of receiving all and loving enough to accept the totality of man’s expression.

Issue #4: “but when perfection [the whole] comes, the imperfect [partial] disappears, verse 10. According to cessationists, the noun translated imperfect (or partial) is to be understood quantitatively, as in a piece of pie, and not qualitatively, as in an imperfect pie-an interpretation necessary to make a contrast to the future and perfect Kingdom that Christ ushers in (Dillow, p. 120; Gromacki, p. 123; Judisch, p.47; C. R. Smith, p.77; Thomas, p.203).

Actually, the Pentecostal-charismatic understanding of the passage in question is satisfied by either a quantitative or qualitative interpretation of “imperfect.” The advent of Christ and His eternal Kingdom will bring with it not only full and complete knowledge (quantitative) but direct knowledge (qualitative). When we are in His presence, things will be perfect in every way! Then we will know “the whole truth about God” (Barrett, p.306), as opposed to the “partial and fragmentary” knowledge we now have of Him through the spiritual gifts (Elbert, pp. 1, 17).

Without a doubt, just as we partake of the blood and body of Christ until He comes, so we should edify the Body of Christ on earth until He comes to perfect it.

Furthermore, the cessationist’s quantitative construction of a whole (completion) does not seem to fit their argument. For if tongues, prophecy, and knowledge are pieces of the revelational pie, there can be no whole pie that excludes them. The Scriptures, then, are not whole, complete, or quantitatively perfect without the gifts. Some cessationists have sensed this flaw and have tried to correct it by saying that “the perfect thing” is not the Scriptures but the completion of all divine revelation (Reymond, p.32). But this does not work either. How can the remainder of the revelational pie be called the whole? The perfect must in some sense be qualitative, and only the coming of the eternal state satisfies this criterion.

In addition, the cessationist interpretation of “imperfect” or “in part” leads to a rather awkward conclusion. For if the gifts are partial and the canon or an already matured Church is complete, then we must now know as God knows us (verse 12). Most Christians would say that our knowledge is far from perfect! More on this later.

Issue #5: Verse 10 continued. The “perfect thing,” ultimately, is what the debate is all about. There are two cessationist schools of thought on this issue. One school claims that “the perfect thing” is the Scriptures, the canon, or finished revelation (Baxter, p.67; Chantry, pp. 50-5l; Coppes, p.60; Pyle, p. 101; Schutz, p.12; Unger, New, pp. 95-96). The other school teaches that “the perfect thing” is the matured Body of Christ, the Church, and could not be the Scriptures (Dillow, pp. 127-129; Gardiner, p.35; Reymond, p.34; Thomas, pp. l06-l07, 203-204). Of course, both schools deny that “the perfect thing” is the presence of Christ after this life, whether by our going (in death) or His Second Coming (known in the Greek as the parousia). The cessationists argue from this verse that the perfect cannot be the parousia because (1) “the perfect thing” never refers to the Second Coming anywhere else in the New Testament; instead, it refers to completion or maturity (Dillow, p.120; C. R. Smith, p.76; Thomas, p.203), and (2) the Greek word translated “perfect” or “perfection” is of the neuter gender, not the expected masculine if reference is to Christ (Unger, New, p. 95).

The cessationist has very good reason for wanting to disprove that “the perfect thing” is the parousia. For if it is the presence of Christ and His Kingdom, this means that tongues, prophecy, and knowledge are to continue until He comes, until we know Him directly—“face to face.”

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Category: Spirit, Summer 2000

About the Author: Robert W. Graves, M. A. (Literary Studies, Georgia State University), is the co-founder and president of The Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship, Inc., a non-profit organization supporting Pentecostal scholarship through research grants. He is a Christian educator and a former faculty member of Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, Texas, and Kennesaw State University (adjunct). He edited and contributed to Strangers to Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture and is the author of Increasing Your Theological Vocabulary, Praying in the Spirit (1987 and Second Edition, 2017) and The Gospel According to Angels (Chosen Books, 1998).

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