Cessationism has had a bad press and is often misunderstood. The fact that there may be different types of cessationism tends to cloud the issue. But taking the term in its generally recognized meaning it is fair to say that many Christians do not understand what those who hold a cessationist position believe, still less why they believe it.
Christians who hold to a cessationist position are not sceptics, nor unbelievers, but generally are concerned conservative or reformed evangelical Christians who hold certain views about miracles, signs and wonders. Cessationist do not deny the omnipotence of God. They believe that God can do anything (except lie, deny Himself, or change), when and where He chooses, in terms of miraculous happenings, spiritual gifts, unusual experiences and the like. Consequently cessationists have no problem with remarkable insight or knowledge of events being given miraculously as in the days of the Covenanters in Scotland, nor with the occasional inexplicable healing being given in answer to prayer, nor with instances of remarkable power being supplied in preaching resulting in many conversions at one time as in the revival at Kirk O’ Shotts, nor, of course with genuine revival. But that is a very different position from believing and expecting miraculous signs and gifts to be manifested at all times, still less believing that men and women can produce such things more or less at will.
Cessationist believe that the sign gifts have ceased. What are the sign gifts? They are the miraculous events and wonders that accompanied Christ’s incarnation in order to demonstrate His deity and Messiahship, and the signs and wonders given to authenticate Christ’s apostles. In a general sense, they also marked the advent of new revelation into the world. It is these specific things that cessationists believe have ceased.
When John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus asking whether He was the Messiah or not, Jesus pointed to His miracles as evidence that he was the One who should come (Luke 7:17-23). It is important to observe two points here. First, if anyone else could have performed these ‘signs’ they could not have been the exclusive proof that Jesus was the Messiah. Secondly, since His work on earth is completed, and our Lord has returned to heaven, there is no need of such signs.
With regard to the apostles, we must first note that there were two types of apostle. The word apostle means ‘representative’ or ‘sent one’. There were apostles of Christ and apostles of the churches, that is, those sent by the churches. The apostles of Christ were foundational of the church (Ephes. 2:20). Once laid the foundation does not need to laid be again. Now the foundational apostles had these characteristics: they were chosen by Christ, sent by Christ, taught foundational truths, wrote Scripture and performed signs and wonders to authenticate their ministry (2 Cor. 12:12). No one today can do that. The signs of the apostles have ceased.
Whenever God brought in new revelation remarkable things happened such as during the Exodus, the giving of the Law on Sinai, the Incarnation and the founding of the church. The New Testament brought in a completely new era. The ‘mystery’ was revealed (Ephes. 3); Christ has given the final word; He is the final Word (Hebrews 1:1ff). Nothing must be added to the word given by Christ and through the apostles of the Lamb (Rev. 22:18,19). Since revelation has ceased, no new signs are needed. Signs and wonders were never given for their own sake. They always had a purpose, usually to confirm new revelation. So, since the final word has been spoken, such signs are neither necessary nor possible.
As already stated, that does not mean that God cannot or will not occasionally do some remarkable thing for His own reasons, but that is very far away from the charismatic position of expecting signs and wonders as a part of normal Christian worship and experience. Such an expectation leads to all kinds of errors such as manufacturing gifts, trivializing gifts, expecting prophecy and elevating it above the written word of God, calling silly remarks prophecy, accusing people of sin or unbelief if they are not healed, and downgrading or displacing the Word of God.
Nevertheless, God in his sovereignty may intervene and do remarkable things through people. He may reveal something otherwise not easily known, such as the state of a person’s heart. These things are entirely within his prerogative.