Dr. S. L. Johnson on the Perfect
What is interesting is the mention of Dr. Storms at Pyromaniacs, since Dr. Storms is probably best known now for his defense of continuationalism, and Dan Phillips of TeamPyro is a fairly vocal cessationist. In light of all this, I thought it might be interesting to post a portion of Dr. S. Lewis Johnson's exposition of 1 Corinthians 13, in particular his exegesis of what the "perfect" is.
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson on the Perfect
Now I think that "when that which is perfect is come" is a very important statement by the Apostle. The time of the coming is crucial in the view of some cessationists. For example, those who believe that the miraculous gifts have ceased. When is this perfect to come? When has it come? When that which is perfect has come. There are those who believe that this is a reference to the closing of the canon of Scripture. In other words when the closing of the canon came to pass, then that which is in part will be done away. So at the closing of the canon, we'll just say the closing of the NT canon at the end of the 4th Century, about 397 AD at the 3rd Council of Carthage, then at that time and thereafter, these particular gifts are no longer. When that which is perfect has come then that which is in part will be done away and that would include knowledge, and tongues, as he said, and prophecies. It is not easy to show that. As far as I can tell there is nothing in the context to suggest the canon. Chances are that that Corinthians who read this, who would have been students of this particular epistle, wouldn't even necessarily know there would be such a thing as the closing of the canon. What canon they knew about had to do with Old Testament writings. So they did not know about the New Testament canon, so far as we can tell, and weren't prepared for that.
It might also suggest, in the light of verse 12, "for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face," if that "then" is a reference to that which is perfect, as it would seem to be ("when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part will be done away") it would suggest that when the canon was closed, then these individuals knew even more than the Apostle Paul knew, cause he speaks about knowledge being dimly grasped at this time. So I confess that I have doubt about "when that which is perfect is come" being a reference to the closing of the canon. That seems very unlikely to me.
What "that which is perfect has come" seems to me to refer to is the Second Coming of our Lord. The advent of our Lord. "When that which is perfect has come then that which is in part will be done away." And we cannot look for that finally until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The question then is raised, "Well then have the gifts ceased?" Well the possibility exists that the gifts might be given. We of course would not suggest that God could not give the gifts. And in the light of the fact that they are sovereignly given, then that is a possibility from just looking at what the text has to say.
But we talked about this the other night, and I'd like to make the point again, that it seems very clear from history that from the time of the Apostles and those that the Apostles taught, perhaps those that Paul taught who went on for a while after the Apostle Paul, for example Timothy, and others like him who had been taught, that when that age came to an end, the Apostolic age plus the age of those taught by the Apostles, from that time on history does not give evidence of the giving of gifts as they were given in the ministry of the prophets, some of the prophets, in the age in which they did miraculous gifts, like Elijah and Elisha, for example, or Moses, and the Apostles. From that time of the Apostles passing away those gifts have not been given, as far as history is concerned.
Now, some of you in the audience know that I believe in the sovereignty of God. Thank you. Thank you for smiling and laughing. That tells me a lot. That tells me you really have heard me say this (not necessarily that you have gotten it but you've heard me say it). If it is true that God is a sovereign God and does his will - Martha and I were reading this morning in the book of Daniel and we were in Daniel chapter 4 and in Daniel chapter 4 and verse 35 we happen to have a text that bears on the point. I hadn't thought about this but this morning when we read it I confess I did think about it. Listen to what we read from Nebuchadnezzar:
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?”
So if it is true that God is a sovereign God and if it is true that history does not give us the outpouring of gifts as in the days of the Apostles or the prophets or of our Lord. Then what does that tell us about the will of God? Why it tells us that it was not God's will that those gifts be given. If it was his will that they be given, they would be given even though men might be disobedient and not responsive. They would have been given. He is sovereign. He does in Heaven and on earth according to His will. But they have not been given.
I know that there are some who will say, "Yes, but we think they have been given." And, of course, we can do nothing more than to say I do not think that what you call the giving of gifts can be compared with the gifts that were given to Moses, and the signs and wonders he performed in Egypt, or the signs and wonders that Elijah performed, and Elisha performed, and that our Lord Jesus Christ performed and that the Apostles performed. Tested by those signs and wonders, what is claimed today does not measure up.
Now let me also say this: It is certainly possible for certain things to transpire that would be harmonious with such an outpouring. That is individual cases. We do not deny that God answers prayer. We have in the Scriptures that we are to pray and that we may expect something that we see as miraculous to happen. As a matter of fact, we have specifically in the Bible instructions in the last chapter of James for what we are to do if we desire healing. We are to call for the elders of the church. We are not to attend a healing meeting. Call for the elders of the church. When people, for example, say come to our meetings and healing will take place, it seems to me that they are themselves out of harmony with the word of God. If they were inviting men to come to the elders, for the elders to pray for them, that healing may happen, that would be in harmony with the instructions given in the word of God. But healing meetings, as such, the New Testament does not really know such meetings. So we don't deny that healings, call them miracles if you like, or a sign, may occur. But the occurrence of a sign or the occurrence of a healing is not the same as the outpouring of miraculous signs that occurred in the days of the Apostles. It's different.
So, coming back now to our text. The coming of that which is perfect, it seems to me, is very clearly the Lord's coming and that the possibility exists for such answers to prayer that might be called a work of God in behalf of those for whom you and I pray. We certainly should pray. Pray for those who are sick. Pray for those who are in difficulty and trials. Pray for them that God will meet their need. We look for that. We don't deny the things that we should be involved in when we deny the outpouring of the gifts as in the days of the prophets, our Lord, and the Apostles. So the possibility of healing exists. But the sovereignty of God and history as well as experience, I think, argue for the cessation of the gifts.
When I joined Believer's Chapel (where Dr. Johnson was ministering the word of God), I was a cessationist, based largely on understanding "the perfect" to be the canon. While I'm not a charismatic, viewing "the perfect" as the canon now seems like the most unlikely of the popular options, it being most foreign to the context. While I have a lot of sympathy for Dr. Johnson's view of history, without the Scriptural backing I cannot draw as hard a line. The Old Testament was not filled with continual gifting of miraculous signs. Why should we expect the church age to be different? Perhaps only at the end of the age, or perhaps at different critical junctures for the church, God still gifts people in what we would view as miraculous ways.
I don't know that we live in one of those times. I don't know that those times ever occur. I just don't see in Scripture that God has said He would not act in that way again. In fact, Revelation 11:3 says He will. So I remain "open but cautious."