Sign Gifts and the Church

In the Book of Acts and the rest of the New Testament letters, people do some amazing things. They miraculously speak foreign languages without study. They raise people from the dead and heal the sick. They provide direct revelation (prophecy) from God. These gifts are known as sign gifts.

This means they’re a sign or credential the Kingdom of God has broken into this world in the person of Jesus. Something new and amazing has happened, and these miracles are signs from God proving it. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “I am God the Son. See, watch this! [Insert miracle here] Now, listen to my message …”

Jesus pointed to His miracles as proof the kingdom had come (Lk 7:21-23; cp. Isa 35:4-6). That’s why the scripture says “God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will,” (Heb 2:4). The apostles agreed (Acts 2:22), and that’s why some of them had these gifts, too (Acts 2:43).

Do these sign gifts continue, today? People have different opinions, ranging from (1) absolutely not, to (2) yes, absolutely, and (3) many shades in-between.

I’ll briefly answer the question, then define my terms and suggest a scriptural way to handle it if somebody claims to have an apostolic sign gift. This article is nothing more than a primer to frame the issue for the congregation where I serve, so I won’t defend my statements here. I’ll just place some guardrails so I can have that conversation during an upcoming theology class.

Answering the question

1 Corinthians 12-14 suggests there was a time when many Christians had the apostolic sign gifts. The scriptural evidence for their disappearance today is circumstantial. At least in the West, these sign gifts don’t appear normative like they were in Paul’s day. But, it’s more than a bit brazen to suggest God does not or will not give these sign gifts again. God can still give these gift if He wants. Does He? I’m not sure, nor are you. So, just test for the gift.

Defining terms and testing the spirits

  1. Tongues. This word means “language.” Over time, some Christians have assumed it means something it doesn’t. The “tongues” in Acts and in Paul’s letters (e.g. 1 Cor 12-14) are real human languages. According to the example from Acts 2 (and 10:46), the gift of tongues means the supernatural ability to immediately speak a foreign language without training. We test this gift by acquiring an interpreter for the language in question and inviting the Christian to demonstrate miraculous, instantaneous fluency in the foreign language.
  2. Healing. According to the examples from scripture, this is the supernatural ability to completely cure somebody from a disease, injury or illness instantaneously. The best way to test for this gift would be to drive the individual to the oncology ward of the local hospital and invite him to heal everyone in the ward.
  3. Raising people from the dead. It means what it says. Test this sign gift by, say, driving the Christian to the local emergency room and inviting him to raise from the dead everyone who has recently died in the ER.
  4. Prophecy. This means you receive a direct revelation from God, and you give that revelation to God’s people. Prophecy is not a feeling or a leading (though both of these may be promptings from the Spirit). Prophecy is direct communication from God; as in “the oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi,” (Mal 1:1). There are two tests for a true prophet; (1) the prophecy must always come to pass (Deut 18:21-22), and (2) the prophet must never prophesy or teach anything opposed to the scriptures (Deut 13:1-5).

Once we understand terms, the short answer to the question of whether sign gifts continue today is, “Probably not, but maybe so! God can do anything! If you have the gift, please prove it.” One Christian theologian has written some good advice about this:

What we must do, then, is to evaluate each case on its own merits. This does not mean that we are to sit in judgment on the spiritual experience or the spiritual life of other professing Christians.

What it does mean is that we cannot assume that everyone who claims to have had a special experience of the Holy Spirit’s working has really had one. Scientific studies have discovered enough non-Spirit-caused parallels to warn us against being naively credulous about every claim. Certainly not every exceptional religious experience can be of divine origin, unless God is a very broadly ecumenical and tolerant being indeed, who even grants special manifestations of his Spirit to some who make no claim to Christian faith and may actually be opposed to it.

Certainly if demonic forces could produce imitations of divine miracles in biblical times (e.g., the magicians in Egypt were able to imitate the plagues up to a certain point), the same may be true today as well.

Conversely, however, no conclusive case can be made for the contention that such gifts are not for today and cannot occur at the present time. Consequently, one cannot rule in a priori and categorical fashion that a claim of [speaking in tongues] is spurious. In fact, it may be downright dangerous, in the light of Jesus’s warnings regarding blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, to attribute specific phenomena to demonic activity.

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.), p. 802.

It’s never a good policy to repeat the mistakes of the Pharisees, who attributed the power of God to Satan (Mt 9:32-34). God can do anything He wants. But, we should be cautious and follow the scripture in testing for the gift.

Resources

I will recommend a few resources, if you’re interested:

  1. Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter by Thomas Schreiner. 121 pages. Perhaps the best modern book on the topic.
  2. The Charismatic Phenomenon by John Whitcomb and Peter Masters. 100 pages. A great book that’s a bit more stern than Schreiner … or me!
  3. Chapter 52 (especially pp. 1031 - 1046) from Systematic Theology, by Wayne Grudem. He takes a more open position on the sign gifts, and Grudem redefines “prophecy” for the New Covenant era.
  4. I wrote a short article explaining what I believe 1 Corinthians 14 is saying.

I hope this very short primer is helpful.

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There are 13 Comments

Mark_Smith's picture

Even in Acts raising the dead was a specific thing. It is likely (depending upon your perspective) that Paul and Barnabas were raised from the dead after their stoning by expert stoners who would check to make sure they were dead before they left. Not to mention it says Paul walked the next day out of town...

Other than that, the man who fell asleep listening to Paul preach. Paul raised him, but not the guy that died the day before of a heart attack, or the person who died the next day of cancer...

The point is, neither Paul nor Peter (nor Jesus!) went to the morgue and started working.

Mark_Smith's picture

Jesus Himself went to the pool of Bethesda (the ancient hospice facility)... and healed one guy. Then left.

TylerR's picture

Editor

My aim is to do two things:

  1. I don't know definitively whether sign gifts are gone. Scripture evidence is circumstantial. God can give them if he wants.
  2. So, the best way is to test for them. We can't blindly accept the claim that one has the gift of healing, for example. Simply test for them, and (if genuine) have these signs accompany the preaching of the Gospel.

The people who claim the gifts today likely don't have them. But, it's possible, of course. With God all things are possible. So, just have them demonstrate. I think Erickson's recommendations are reasonable and prudent.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

TylerR, loved your article.  I consider myself a "soft cessationist," along the lines of the Millard Erickson quotation.  I really resent it when people abuse I Corinthians 13:8-10 and try to get make "that which is perfect is come" the completed Bible.  The context is obviously the eternal state.  To me, this is an agenda-driven interpretation by people who start with a conclusion and then bend the Scriptures to fit it.

Like you, I look at how the gifts are described in Scripture, compare it to current claims of said gift, and then say "no match."  But, since God may have purposes in giving such gifts, I cannot say "there cannot be a match because we have our Bibles."  There can be, and I often wonder if some of these gifts are sometimes manifest where the Gospel is new and it suits God's purposes.  For example, I believe God is sending dreams of Jesus to the Muslim people.

It is one thing to say God is not giving these gifts out on the basis of observation and comparison to Scripture, another to say God CANNOT give these gifts out because He has revealed He will not.

"The Midrash Detective"

Mark_Smith's picture

I hear you. It is common to hear people talk about miracles and say "well go clean out the hospital" or "go to the morgue". Jesus, Peter, and Paul, never did either. That's why I mentioned it.

Like you, I see no evidence that people have the gift of miracles, or the gift of healing. In that sense, I am a cessationist. I do know that God Himself still performs miracles when He desires.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I get it. It seems commonsense to me, even though it is a common trope:

  1. Miracles accompany and accredit the Gospel
  2. What better way to preach the Gospel then by miraculously healing cancer patients first, then presenting the Gospel!?

Some people may be malicious when they suggest it. I wasn't. It would be the best way possible to bring the Gospel to bear. If someone has the gift, then go for it. But, we can't just believe on faith the person has it! If he has it, it's meant to accredit the Gospel! So, let's do it.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

There is not consistency in the Biblical record of miraculous healings.  For example, this week I am preaching on Acts, and part of my text includes verses 19:11-12

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 

This wasn't the norm.  As a matter of fact, there is no record of the handkerchief thing before or after.  Even when the gift of healing was given, it was never given carte blanch.  As a matter of fact, even Jesus didn't have the handkerchief thing going.  Sometimes He healed all, it seems (Matthew 4:23), at other times only a few (Mark 6:5).  And He never waived his hand over a multitude of sick and healed them all, but saw them one by one to the point of exhaustion.

Resurrections are so rare that they are usually pointed out in great detail.  Certainly the many who "sleep"  mentioned in I Corinthians 15:6 were neither healed nor raised.  Even in the apostolic era, miracles were exceptions and it could be true that many of them were for purposes of validation, although some seem to be mercy-driven.

All of this will drive the consistency police crazy!

"The Midrash Detective"

T Howard's picture

I'm VERY hesitant (to the point of being dismissive) of modern evangelicals who claim to have heard God speaking to them either in a "still small voice" or via dreams. This direct revelation from God is often very subjective, and these individuals often communicate it so as to demonstrate their own spiritual closeness with God. They also encourage other believers to seek out these direct revelations from God.

Meanwhile, biblical revelation is either ignored or needs to be supplemented with these new revelations from God.

No thanks.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Agreed. I think the main problem when discussing this issue is defining terms! What is this "small voice?" Prophecy?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

THoward wrote:

I'm VERY hesitant (to the point of being dismissive) of modern evangelicals who claim to have heard God speaking to them either in a "still small voice" or via dreams. This direct revelation from God is often very subjective

You brought up a good point.  I would like to make, what to me, is an important distinction.

To my way of thinking, if these people claim to have an authoritative/infallible experience, then I am with you. On the other hand, there is room, IMO, for the mystical (as long as it doesn't contradict Scripture and there is no assumed mandate/authority).  When someone  says, "God laid it on my heart to call Norman," I don't challenge it, but I wouldn't depend upon it as a dependable message from God.  What is bad is when people expect you to accept their experience as definte and truly from God.

"The Midrash Detective"

T Howard's picture

Here are two examples of direct revelation that others have told me God gave them:

Example 1: A person was unsaved and had a dream where Jesus himself appeared to him. This dream changed his life, and he has been a believer ever since. He now encourages other believers to ask God to give them direct revelation because he believes this provides a believer sweeter, closer fellowship with God.

Example 2: A believer and his wife were trying to determine whether to move ahead with a difficult adoption. He and his wife had a similar dream in which God told them to move forward with the adoption. Based on the dream, they decided to move forward with the adoption.

Ed Vasicek's picture

T. Howard wrote:

Here are two examples of direct revelation that others have told me God gave them:

When discussing things like this, it is important to recognize that a host of things about the Christian life are ambiguous.  As a matter of fact, how gifted men, called by God, can preach/teach a text with two differing interpretations is a case in point.   We need to be careful to avoid the Perfectionist Fallacy, aka the Nirvana Fallacy.

This is important, because Sola Scriptura rests upon imperfect people being able to adequately interpret Scripture, as opposed to the "perfect" church interpretation.

The same concept applies here; this is an imperfect science and creates opportunity for error.

IMO, when someone is always "feeling led," I tend to dismiss the likelihood that they are. But when someone rarely or never senses a leading (or gets a vision), I am open to the possibility.  I might act upon such a leading (I have never had a vision, but have had a few clear leadings), but I wouldn't expect others to act upon my leading.  Many pastors, like myself, sense a call (leading) to ministry, for example.  Many of us are also undoubtedly wrong.  And there we go with the baby and the bathwater and the perfectionist fallacy.

Of course when people do not check their leadings with the Word, that is bad. God can lead people contrary to human wisdom, but not the wisdom of His Word.

The bigger issues is not people who get a once-in-a lifetime vision or mature Christians who get an occasional leading (which usually stretches them), but the many who determine God's will by a sense of peace.  Now there is a culprit!

Subjective experiences, like a dream, are hard to call. We all dream all sorts of things.  Yet there are examples of God communicating in dreams, and I believe He sometimes does.  But, once again, a person might act on a dream that clearly stands away from the rest of his/her dreams ()like Nebuchadnezzars or Pharaoh's, or NT Joseph, for example), but he/she shouldn't expect others to act on it.

So I would be open to both of those examples being possible, but I would actually be more suspicious ot the latter, unless the couple did not originally want to adopt.  It doesn't make sense for God to send a dream or vision to confirm what we already intend to do.

So an imperfect science, yes.   Skepticism is good, but not to the point of making an imperfect science to be construed as perfect.

"The Midrash Detective"

Bert Perry's picture

I'm a soft cessationist as well.  I don't see a ton of evidence for genuine sign gifts today, but would love to believe that where the Church is not, God yet shows His grace by opening Himself to them before missionaries get there--or with missionaries getting there--to authenticate His ministry.  

But now, as in Bible times, it seems He often wants us to get things from His Word--much in the same way we tell our own children "you need to do the work to figure this out" on many topics.  Maybe that's part of what He's getting at with how He works.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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