So, Aren’t We All Cessationists? (at least on this point)

I have been sitting on this post for a long time. My students have heard me make this argument in class, but I have been hesitant to post it. The main reason I haven’t posted until now is my great respect for the continuationists at Sovereign Grace Ministries. Those guys are among the most humble, godly, joyful, loving people I’ve ever met, and I don’t mean any disrespect to them in this post. I disagree with them, though, and I’m about to say why. Before I do, some caveats:

First, my argument for cessationism is exegetical, but it is not tied to any statements in 1 Corinthians 13.

Second, this argument is not tied to a particular form of either dispensational or covenant theology (I’m in that overlapping middle that is sympathetic with both Progressive Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology).

Third, below I will lay out my argument. When I’m done, I’ll tell you what I think is the major defeater of my argument (in other words, I’ll tell you how I would argue against this position if I were a continuationist), and then I’ll tell you what (I think) defeats that defeater.

Here goes:

D. A. Carson has written,

“As long as ‘apostles’ are understood to refer to a select group (the Twelve plus Paul) whose positions or functions cannot be duplicated after their demise, there is a prima facie case for saying at least one of the cari,smata (charismata) passes away at the end of the first generation, a gift tightly tied to the locus of revelation that came with Jesus Messiah and related events” (Showing the Spirit, 88).

I would define The Apostles that Carson describes as those who saw the risen Lord Jesus and were commissioned by him. This would seem to mean that The Apostles were the 12, with Matthias replacing Judas (Acts 1:15–26), James the Lord’s brother (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19), Paul (1 Cor 15:8-9), and maybe Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14).

The word “apostle” is also used in the NT to describe those who were “sent out” from the churches, and these instances are generally translated along the lines of “messenger” (see, e.g, 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). If we were to follow the pattern of the NT on this point, we might call missionaries that we send out from our churches “apostles,” but we would always want to clarify that we don’t mean Apostle in the way that Paul and Peter were Apostles. All we would mean is “messenger,” or perhaps, “missionary.”

Dave Harvey has written the Sovereign Grace book on Polity (available free online here), which I think has beneficial information, but I don’t think the statement on “apostles” is helpful:

“While Sovereign Grace Ministries heartily agrees that ‘no one in the church today functions with the authority of the original apostles,’ let us not hastily extrapolate . . . to conclude that no one today functions as an apostle of any kind.”

I don’t think this is helpful because it clearly says, “We don’t mean Apostle in the sense of Paul and the 12, but we still want to use the word as though some people today have the gift.” The problem is, when Ephesians 4:11 says, “He gave some as apostles,” I think it’s really hard to make that mean something other than “Paul and the 12, James, Barnabas, and maybe Jude.” Ephesians 3:5 refers to The Apostles as those to whom the revelation of the mystery was given, which seems to refer to the guys who wrote the other parts of the New Testament. Right before that, Ephesians 2:20 refers to The Apostles as foundational for the church. So it seems to me that The Apostles that Paul describes Jesus giving to the church in Ephesians 4:11 are this closed circle of men who saw the risen Lord and were commissioned by him (the twelve and the few others added after the resurrection).

I understand the “gift” of “apostles” in both Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 to be a gift of certain people. That is, I do not understand either verse to be referring to a “skill set” of apostleship, but to certain men who were given to the church as The Apostles.

It seems to me that, in the passage cited above, Harvey concedes that the gift of Apostle has ceased, but then wants to say that something similar to it continues. But if that’s what the gift means, we might all be continuationists!

But we’re not really continuationist on this point. The real continuationists are those who conduct themselves as though the gift of Apostle hasn’t ceased, and there are at least two groups who behave as though it does: Roman Catholics and Mormons. For the Roman Catholics, tradition and the Pope’s ex cathedra statements are as authoritative as Scripture. The Mormons also claim to have new revelation that is on the level of Scripture.

It seems to me that any group that holds to a closed canon thinks that the gift of Apostle has ceased (I have argued the same point regarding prophecy here). Those who think the canon is closed and call themselves “charismatic/continuationist” on this point can only do so because they have redefined the terms.

Perhaps an analogy would be helpful here. I think this would be like me re-defining what it means to be an Arminian and then claiming to be one–after all, I do think that people have free will! Let me put it in a way that corresponds with Harvey’s statement above: “While we agree that free will as the Arminian typically understands it does not exist, let us not hastily extrapolate that there is no such thing as free will of any kind.”

Would it work for me to announce, “Therefore, I believe in free will, and I will call myself an Arminian.” Is this helpful in the discussion? Wouldn’t a real Arminian object to the way that I have co-opted their language?

So it seems to me that everyone who thinks that there are no more Apostles like Peter and Paul thinks that at least one spiritual gift has ceased. It seems, then, that this discussion is simply over the degree of cessationism that we hold, because anyone who holds that there is no one in the church today with the same kind of authority possessed by Peter and Paul believes that the gift of Apostle has ceased. In conclusion, it appears to be the case that, at least as it regards the gift of Apostleship, all protestants are really cessationists. If they are not, they can, in principle, add to the New Testament.

One final tongue in cheek comment: if we had an apostle or a genuine prophet today, wouldn’t it be possible to settle some of the thorny issues that divide protestant Christians into denominations? For instance, wouldn’t an Apostle or a Prophet be able to tell those paedo-baptists to quit sprinkling their babies and join up with the Baptists!?

A Possible Defeater

If I wanted to maintain the continuationist position, I would argue that the term “Apostles” cannot be limited to this “closed circle of men” (the twelve minus Judas plus Matthias, Paul, Barnabas, James, and maybe Jude) described in the New Testament. One text (which my friend Denny Burk pointed out to me) that might open up the circle of The Apostles is 1 Corinthians 15:7, where after saying that Jesus appeared to the twelve in 15:5, Paul says that Jesus appeared to James and “all the apostles.” This text could be taken to mean that “The Apostles” refers to a broader group than those named above. Incidentally, those who think that Junia is both female and an Apostle (Rom 16:7) also think there are more apostles than those I have named.

Answering the Defeater

I think it likely that Paul mentions the twelve in 1 Corinthians 15:5 and then mentions “all the apostles” in 15:7 because The Apostles is a broader group than merely the twelve. One member of this broader group has been named in the previous phrase in 15:7, James. I am inclined to think that the reference to “all the apostles” in 1 Corinthians 15:7 is a reference to all those who make up this group of fifteen or sixteen men (the twelve including Matthias, James, Jude?, Barnabas, and according to 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul). I think that Paul is saying that Jesus the Risen Lord appeared to them and commissioned them.

With D. A. Carson, I think that The Apostles are a closed circle and that when those men died the foundation of the church had been laid and the gift of Apostle ceased.

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks, Jim, for this succinct and clear post.

    And a belated congratulations on your position at Southern. I say that with some sadness, though, because Houston and the rest of us baptists in Texas need to be gaining leaders like you, not losing them. Perhaps our Lord will use you to send a few down our way from Louisville.

  2. You seem to be making the same kind of argument put forward by Dr. Sam Waldron in his book To Be Continued?: Are the Miraculous Gifts for Today?.

    In it, Waldron essentially gives a cascade argument: he moves from the cessation of Apostles, to prophets, to tongues, and finally to workers of miracles. His step-by-step argument shows that all of these gifts ceased upon the end of the Apostolic era. I found his case both biblical and compelling.

  3. Thank you for this helpful article! Our young adult Bible study has just been studying this passage (Ephesians 4:11-ff) and I will pass this on to them.

    I was blessed by your article on the Prophets as well.

  4. Don’t most people who are continuationists mean that the gifts of the Spirit are enduring? If so, how does the fact that the apostles (office) have bearing on the question of cessation (gifts)? I guess it strikes me as a catagory mistake of sorts. Thanks.

  5. Even though you disagree on this, too, it should be said that the Sovereign Grace movement is consistent and doesn’t fall under your critique here directly, because they do indeed consider the office of apostle to continue to today. In fact, C. J. Mahaney is considered an apostle within the movement. So I don’t think they’ll fall onto their knees in repentance through what you argued here; you’d have to first break down the apostleship argument. Your reasoning would apply more to the “open but cautious” types in evangelicalism.

  6. Euphranor,

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. In my post I interact with the continuationist position as articulated by Dave Harvey. He says the “gift” of apostleship continues in some sense (conceding that no one has Peter or Paul’s authority), and I contend that to say that is to use the language of “apostle” in a way the NT doesn’t use it. Moreover, I think the “gift” is not a “skill-set” enjoyed by those who are apostles, rather, the “gift” is the men who are apostles (the 15-16 guys in the NT).

    Hope this helps!


  7. Nick,

    I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, either. I am quoting the Sovereign Grace book on Polity written by Dave Harvey and stating why I don’t think that’s a good way to use the word “Apostle.” It seems to me that what they mean by “Apostle” is not what the NT means by it.

    The NT seems to mean either: 1) someone who saw the risen Lord (as in “resurrection appearance of Jesus”) and was directly commissioned by him; or 2) a simple messenger of a church.

    What Sovereign Grace seems to mean is something like: a strong, dynamic leader who is enormously gifted of the Lord such that people love to follow this person (they may include other descriptive components), but Sovereign Grace would not say that someone they refer to as an “Apostle” has the same authority as one of the REAL “Apostles” (like Peter and Paul and the rest)–see the Dave Harvey quote above.

    Thus, I submit that in distinguishing between the authority the real apostles had (Peter and Paul kind of apostles) and the kind of authority that their apostles have, they are conceding that the Apostolate has ceased. I think it is helpful to compare their view with the view held by the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormons. These groups have real apostles who contribute real authoritative new revelation that carries the same weight that the NT carries.

    The Roman Catholics and the Mormons are the consistent ones, though I think that they are wrong. It seems to me that it is precisely the inconsistency of the position held by the folks at Sovereign Grace that makes the likes of John MacArthur happy to cooperate with them (think of one of his book titles).

    At this point I think I will say again how much I love the Sovereign Grace brothers with whom I have interacted. I have been greatly blessed by C.J.’s ministry, I love Bob Kauflin’s music, and I hope the Lord will continue to use Sovereign Grace to edify me!



  8. Jim,

    Just wondering here if the “twelve foundation stones” upon which the new Jerusalem wall is built (Rev. 21.14) has any binding on this discussion. If they are the “twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb,” does that then make a case one way or the other?

    A very happy continuationist,


    P.S. And congrats on SBTS.

  9. Thanks for the congrats, Trent, I take that as simply a symbolic statement about the 12 apostles, perhaps connoting the way that they symbolize (I think) the reconstitution of the 12 tribes of Israel around Jesus, which might indicate that they stand as representative of the whole people of God. . . Do you see it bearing on this discussion? I don’t think I do.

    Great to hear from you!


  10. Jim,

    I’m a blogging idiot, so forgive me for posting to you what I sent to you via email.

    My wondering (and it is that) goes something like this…

    I agree – I think that’s symbolic of the 12 Apostles. And if that’s true, it appears that there is some special endowment for the 12 Apostles. So, I think they’re a special group.

    It would appear to me, then, that in light of the NT use of apostle, there are two distinct groups. One being the 12 Apostles and the other being apostles in the “sent out” sense. I think you’re right in saying Paul deals with the 12 Apostles pretty exclusively in Ephesians (which would make a lot of sense if Ephesians is a letter for broad publication). But I think in light of the list in 1 Cor 12, it’s a harder case to make for such exclusivity.

    I’m open to being taught. Blessings to you and Jill and kids…


  11. Trent,

    Thanks for your note, brother, and thanks for your evident humility. I, too, am eager to learn! I appreciate this interaction very much.

    I plan to think further about this, but what immediately comes to mind goes like this: the list of the “12 tribes of Israel” in Revelation 7:5-8 doesn’t match any of the lists of the “12” tribes in the OT. Where is Ephraim (not named in Rev 7)? Why is Joseph (Rev 7:8) listed with Manasseh (7:6)? Wasn’t Joseph replaced by the “half” tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh? This isn’t any indication that John was not so familiar with the OT and who the tribes were. Could it be that he leaves Ephraim out b/c Ephraim came to be associated with the wicked north? (I’m thinking, for instance, of the way that the northern kingdom is referred to as “Ephraim” in a passage such as Isa 7).

    So there seem to be “roughly” 12 tribes. There really are 12 tribes, but if Joseph is replaced by Ephraim and Manasseh, we have 12 in one sense, even though it’s literally 13, unless they didn’t count Levi since the tribe of Levi didn’t inherit a portion of land. . . If we count all the names (Levi, Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh) we could say that the 12 tribes are really more like 15 tribes. . . But the authors of the OT could certainly count, and they knew there were these other names. . . Maybe the number 12 is retained as a symbol of wholeness.

    In a similar way, it seems to me, the number 12 could function symbolically even if we have 15 or so (the 12 plus Paul, Barnabas, and James) and if Jude is included then we get 16. Perhaps they are still referred to as the “12 apostles” in the same way that the tribes of Israel continue to be referred to as the “12 tribes.”

    I’m just making a suggestion, here. . .

    I still think that when the last person who had seen the risen Lord Jesus and been commissioned by him as an apostle died, the apostolate ceased.

    I’m also inclined to think that prophecy dried up, but depending on how one interprets the two witnesses in Rev 11, it could be that there will be a revival of prophecy at the end of history (I’m thinking of those two witnesses).

    I think that Poythress’s suggestion that something analogous to apostleship and prophecy may be experienced today, even if we acknowledge that it’s not the same thing, is sensible. . .

    Great to hear from you!


    PS: Blessings to you and yours too!

  12. To play the continuationist’s advocate…

    would your argument (that using the title “apostle” differently than the NT uses it is unhelpful) be analogous to arguing that speaking of believers being indwelt by the spirit is unhelpful because we are not indwelt the way the apostles were indwelt at Pentecost?

    Just as there are no more apostles like they were apostles, there are none indwelt like they were indwelt…?

    Should we throw out “indwelling” along with “apostle?”

    -The Pestering Little Brother

  13. In my view indwelling commenced in John 20:22, and what we have in Acts 2 is actually a Baptism in the Holy Spirit. After the baptisms in the Holy Spirit happen in Acts 2, 8, 10, and 19, I don’t think baptisms in the Holy Spirit happen anymore.

    So your analogy actually works with me, once we recognize that baptism in the Spirit, not indwelling, is the issue in Acts 2. I agree with you that no one is baptized in the Spirit like they were on the day of Pentecost described in Acts 2. We’re not “throwing it out,” we’re recognizing that event as a unique occurrence in the history of Salvation.



  14. The 12 ended, the ministry of apostle did not as there are others besides the 12 (and Paul) in the Bible. The 12 mapped to the 12 tribes and so needed to be exactly 12.

  15. Jim,
    I have a question for you about the Holy Spirit that does not have direct implications with this article’s direct line of influence. I hope that you can help me out! In Heb 6, does the Holy Spirit allow for a brief illumination, a brief tasting, which produces a perception of belief (Carson against Schreiner) OR does the TYPE of person referred to (in Heb 6:4-8) simply have the tasting and the partaking as they are around genuine believers (ala Grudem) OR is this a warning as a means of grace to believers (Schreiner)? Thank you for the help!

  16. Ben,

    Sorry for the slow response.

    How about asking a hard question next time! Man, that’s a difficult one.

    I think I would go with a combination of Grudem and Schreiner on this one [the TYPE of person referred to (in Heb 6:4-8) tasting and partaking as they are around genuine believers (ala Grudem) AND a warning as a means of grace to believers (Schreiner)].

    Hope this helps!


  17. This reply is too late to be read by any but late night owls combing archives due to insomnia. But I just couldn’t help noticing the obvious.
    Dr. Hamilton, your well written argument relies primarily on the inclusion of the term “apostles” in Eph. 4:11. By valid hermeneutical principle, whatever applies to that term should also apply to the other four terms in the passage. So, to be consistent, you must argue that prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are closed sets of persons and applicable only to the first century. But this contradicts verse 13, which states that all of these gifts (including apostles) are for the edification of the church “until we come to maturity” in the faith. Of course, you don’t have to be consistent.

  18. James,

    Thanks for your note. I would agree with you if Ephesians were the only thing we have. Since we have other places in the NT that clearly give qualifications for making new pastors (which I’m equating with overseers and elders, see 1 Tim 3:1-7; Tit 1:5-9), and since we have statements that indicate that others will “become teachers” (James 3:1), I think we have evidence in the NT that the Apostles are expecting pastors and teachers to be raised up in the future.

    By contrast, there are no lists of qualifications for Apostles, Prophets, or Evangelists, nor are there any warnings like James 3:1 about those who want to occupy those roles. So I’m inclined to think that the authors of the NT didn’t expect more of those.



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