The very first Amendment of the United States Constitution protects our right, among other things, to freedom of religion. Whether or not justifiable according to its original intent—at which time Islam did not exist in America, the Amendment is today interpreted to protect the free expression of Islam as well as any other religion in America including of course Christianity. There is no equivalent protection for Christianity in predominantly Muslim countries around the world.
The Church in America has of course a comfortable head start over Islam of roughly 200 years or more. What might happen in the coming centuries if Christ does not return and the condition of the Church remains unchanged? As a historical precedent, let’s take a very brief look at India, where Christianity arrived about 2,000 years ago through the Apostle Thomas. It was not until approximately 700 years later that Islam reached the sub-continent. Today, however, there are far more Muslims in India than Christians. (Wikipedia lists Islam as 13.4% of the population, while Christianity is 2.3% as of 2001.) And let us keep in mind that the predominant religion in India is Hinduism, forcing both Islam and Christianity to exist as minority religions which at times suffer persecution from the majority Hindus.
Unless there is research which points to the contrary, one might arguably say that in India Islam and Christianity were on a level playing field. But in numbers Islam is now far ahead of Christianity even with its 700-year advantage. We do not know the reason behind this. We suspect that the traditions of man had as usual taken over the Church and robbed it of its power. But we know that in America, Christianity has had only a 200-plus year advantage over Islam. Looking at world events today involving Islam, we cannot be terribly optimistic about the future of Christianity in the States.
Let’s take note of something happening at this very moment in the state of Texas. Modern Turkey today is a strongly Islamic state. There is now a Muslim gentleman originally from Turkey who studied at the University of Texas in Austin. Following the example of Christian schools he has begun a slightly camouflaged Muslim outreach in Texas through Harmony Public Schools. Now every believer is familiar with the seven churches which Christ addressed in Revelation. It happens that all seven churches were located in what is today Turkey, now of course a stronghold of Islam. Little remains of these seven churches. Most of them seven were rebuked by the Lord in Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 for various reasons, most strikingly the Church in Laodicea for her lukewarmness. Could this explain why whatever was left of Christianity at the time lacked the power to confirm the truth of the gospel to the encroaching Muslims—the eventual consequence being the rise of the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the Fifteenth Century?
A stark contrast with Acts
If we look at the Church and the disciples in Acts, we see a far different story. Within the span of some decades, the gospel had spread rapidly throughout the known world:
Colossians 1:6 that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world–just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.
How can we understand the embarrassingly stark contrast between the Church in Acts and the Church of the 21st Century? One important difference is the way in which the gospel was preached in Acts and the way it is preached today for the most part. In Acts the gospel was often confirmed by powerful miraculous healings.
Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city. Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great, and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery. But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. (Acts 8:5-12)
In Samaria the crowds turn to Christ and renounced sorcery because the absolute truth of the gospel was confirmed by undeniable miracles which Simon could not duplicate. Other accounts in Acts (Chapters 3 and 9) follow a similar pattern.
Even Jesus Christ himself emphasized the importance of such miracles as the evidence of his identify as the Messiah.
Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.” (John 10:37-38)
“Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” (John 4:48)
Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works [miracles] themselves. (John 14:11)
But somehow many in the Church today say that these words of Jesus Christ spoken at that time and place are not for today. They are merely descriptions of past events and conditions, and not a prescription which applies today for the Church. This grave error is taught and propagated by otherwise very godly and committed pastors today in America. It explains in part why the Church has so sadly backslidden in terms of evangelism and the Great Commission. Just like the Jews of Jesus’ generation, pagan Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and idol-worshippers “will never believe unless they see signs and wonders.” This has not changed one iota in 2,000 years.
When we omit the important confirmatory part of the gospel to such resistant pagan peoples, the message will be difficult to distinguish from teaching found in some streams of Islam. Islam can even gain an advantage over us, as history and headlines of current events in the world today scream.
Cessationism is in part based on Church history following Acts where little in the way of the miraculous is found as it is recorded in Acts. Is this necessarily attributable to God’s perfect will for the Church by which He took away the miracles? No. In the same way, can we with any certainty attribute the rise of Roman Catholicism in the Church to God’s perfect will for her? We submit that it was precisely the lack of fervency and power in the lukewarm Church which allowed the ascendancy of Roman Catholicism and later Islam. This was not God’s will, but rather because by that time all that was left of the Church was but a “form of godliness while denying its power.” And it is power which enables the Church to confirm the truth of the gospel to the lost with convincing miracles of healing.
A brush too broad
Very sadly, the teaching of cessationism has painted the area of the supernatural with a very broad brush. They have—unwittingly perhaps—taken the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit (the charismata) for building up the Church and lumped them together as one with the power and authority given to the Church for confirming the gospel message to the lost. Now the gifts are for the benefit of the Church. The power and authority, however, are essentially for the benefit of the lost as they hear the gospel (Luke 9:1-2; Luke 10:9). But cessationism to the detriment of the gospel and the Great Commission teaches us that both have ceased. But the two are very different in nature and purpose and should never have been lumped together.
Jesus delegated the power and authority to his disciples as he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God during the time of the gospels. But the supernatural gifts were not made available until much later when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.
We would rather not debate the teaching that since the Church has the completed New Testament canon (or “the perfect” whatever this is said to mean), we no longer need the supernatural gifts. Let that be. The most important thing is that believers are saved. However, we do take strong exception to the conclusion that the power and authority over disease and demons delegated to the early disciples and now to us to confirm the truth of the gospel to billions of gospel-resistant pagan peoples has also ceased. This teaching has crippled our evangelism to resistant pagan people groups. The salvation of billions could be at stake. (If we teach cessationism and it turns out that we were mistaken, what can we say to the Lord when we stand before His Judgment Seat? Will he hold us to account for what we have taught God’s people? James warns us “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”)
When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. …So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. (Luke 9:1-2,6)
“Heal the sick and tell them, ‘the kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:9)
If we stubbornly adhere to the contemporary interpretation of this doctrine formulated by a theologian at Princeton Seminary a mere hundred years ago, we in America will not be able to complete with Islam. Instead we will follow in the footsteps of the Church in Great Britain and Western Europe—where it is actually an understatement to say that Christianity is in serious decline.