Signs and Wonders: Then and Now

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Part 1: Are Wonders against the Word?

I am one of those Baptist General Conference people who believes that "signs and wonders" and all the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are valid for today and should be "earnestly desired" (1 Corinthians 14:1) for the edification of the church and the spread of the gospel. I agree with the words of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preached in 1965:

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions. . . . Was it only meant to be true of the early church? . . . The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary – never! There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 31-32)

My purpose here is not to defend any contemporary pattern of ministry. Instead I want to give Biblical reasons for my conviction and Biblical answers to some objections. This conviction flows out of my God-centered, Bible-based, Calvinistic commitment to the sovereignty of God and the supremacy of his revealed Word. It is not a departure from any truth I have championed in the past.

This question determines my starting point: Is the experience of signs and wonders detrimental to the centrality of Scripture and preaching? In other words, does it depreciate the supernatural power of God's written and preached word; does it contradict the sufficiency of the gospel to save sinners; does the search for signs signify a loss of confidence in the word of the cross?

The reason I take this question so seriously is that it is rooted in Biblical texts. Romans 1:16 says, "The gospel is the power of God unto salvation." The gospel, not signs and wonders. Paul says, "Jews demand signs, Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified . . . the power of God . . ." (1 Corinthians 1:22-23). The "word of the cross is . . . the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). Sign-seeking is a diversion from the power of Christ crucified. Thus Jesus himself said, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign" (Matthew 12:39; 16:4).

But there is a fatal flaw in bringing these texts against every longing for signs and wonders. They would prove too much. If desiring signs and wonders dilutes the power of the gospel–then the early Christians and the apostles themselves were wicked and adulterous, because they so passionately wanted God to do signs and wonders alongside their powerful preaching.

For example, Peter and John and the disciples prayed in Acts 4:29-30, "Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus." Here we have godly men and women praying for signs and wonders to happen in the name of Jesus. And Luke does not portray them as a "wicked and adulterous generation" for doing so. They are exemplary.

Not only that, Luke himself labors in the book of Acts to show how valuable signs and wonders are in winning people to Christ. He does not portray them as a threat to the gospel, but as a witness to the gospel. The reason the church prayed so passionately in Acts 4:29-30 for signs and wonders to happen is because God was using them to bring multitudes to Christ.

I count at least 17 times where miracles help lead to conversions in the book of Acts. The clearest examples are in Acts 9:34-35 and 9:40,42. Peter heals Aeneas, and Luke says, "And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord." Peter raises Tabitha from the dead, and Luke says, "It became known to all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord."

There is no doubt that the working of miracles–signs and wonders–helped bring people to Christ. That is what Luke wants us to see and that is why the Christians prayed for signs and wonders to happen.

This raises two questions: 1) Why was the prayer for signs and wonders in Acts 4:29-30 not wicked and adulterous, in view of what Jesus said in Matthew 12:39? and 2) Why did the seeking and occurrence of signs and wonders in the missionary effort of first century Christians not contradict the sufficiency of the gospel as the power of God unto salvation?

The answer to the first question comes from the context of Jesus' indictment of sign-seeking. Seeking signs from God is "wicked and adulterous" when the demand for more and more evidence comes from a resistant heart and simply covers up an unwillingness to believe. If we are carrying on a love affair with the world, and our husband, Jesus, after a long separation, comes to us and says, "I love you and I want you back," one of the best ways to protect our adulterous relationship with the world is to say, "You're not really my husband; you don't really love me. Prove it. Give me some sign." If that's the way we demand a sign, then we are a wicked and adulterous generation.

But if we come to God with a heart aching with longing for vindication of his glory and the salvation of sinners, then we are not wicked and adulterous. We are a faithful wife, only wanting to honor our husband.

The answer to the second question–the question why signs and wonders need not detract from the power of the gospel–comes from Luke's own explanation of how wonders and the word are related. In Acts 14:3 he says that Paul and Barnabas "remained a long time [in Iconium] speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands". This is utterly crucial: signs and wonders are God's witness to his word. They are not in competition with the word. They are not against the word. They are not over the word. They are divine witnesses to the value and truth and necessity and centrality of the word (see also Hebrews 2:4; Mark 16:20).

Signs and wonders are not the saving word of grace; they are God's secondary testimony to the word of his grace. Signs and wonders do not save. They are not the power of God unto salvation. They do not transform the heart–any more than music or art or drama which accompany the gospel. Signs and wonders can be imitated by Satan (2 Thessalonians 2:9; Matthew 24:24), but the gospel is utterly contrary to his nature. What changes the heart and saves the soul is the self-authenticating glory of Christ seen in the message of the gospel (2 Corinthians 3:18-4:6).

But even if signs and wonders can't save the soul, they can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest; they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion. Like every other good witness to the word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines. Therefore the early church longed for God to stretch forth his hand to heal, and that signs and wonders be done in the name of Jesus.

The fact that the early Christians prayed so earnestly for signs and wonders (Acts 4:29-30) is all the more striking when you realize that they, of all generations were in least need of supernatural authentication. This was the generation whose preaching (of Peter and Stephen and Philip and Paul) was more anointed than the preaching of any generation following. If any preaching was the power of God unto salvation and did not need accompanying signs and wonders, it was this preaching.

Moreover this was the generation that had more immediate and more compelling evidence of the truth of the resurrection than any generation since. Hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Lord were alive in Jerusalem. If any generation in the history of the church knew the power of preaching and the authentication of the gospel from first-hand evidence of the resurrection, it was this one. Yet it was they who prayed passionately for God to stretch forth his hand in signs and wonders.

Therefore I conclude that in our zeal for the centrality of the word we should not go beyond the word by making signs and wonders enemies of the word of the cross. Nobody was more jealous for the power of the word than Paul. Yet he described his mission as Christ working through him "in the power of signs and wonders" (Romans 15:19). Were these the unique "sign of an apostle" and thus not valid for us? I don't think so. That will be the question answered in the next section.

Part 2: Signs and Wonders and "the Signs of the Apostle"

In the previous section I argued that when the early Christians prayed for signs and wonders (Acts 4:29-30) they were not "evil and adulterous;" nor were they abandoning the centrality of the preaching of the cross. Signs and wonders witnessed to the word of grace (Acts 14:3); they did not replace it. They did not save; they helped open people to the gospel which is the power of God unto salvation.

Another objection raised against signs and wonders is that those who pursue them do not take seriously the futility of a fallen world, the Christian call to suffer, and the "not yet" of the kingdom. This is a very important objection because we do live in a fallen and futile world (Romans 8:21-22). We groan in bodies that will not be redeemed before the second coming (Romans 8:23). The power of Christ is made perfect in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22). And our afflictions are preparing for us an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).

The answer to this objection is that signs and wonders happen within ministerial suffering, not instead of it. Notice that all the texts quoted in the preceding paragraph about the place of suffering came from Paul. That's not surprising, because at the very beginning of his ministry Jesus said, "I will show [Paul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9:16). Paul's life was one long experience of suffering – physically, emotionally, spiritually and relationally.

So we ask: Did this make signs and wonders inconsistent in his ministry? No. He summed up his ministry like this: "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God" (Romans 15:18-19).

In other words, a life of suffering and a ministry of signs and wonders were not inconsistent for the apostle. C. K. Barrett put it like this in his Commentary on 2 Corinthians: "Miracles were no contradiction of the theology of the cross which Paul proclaimed and practised, since they were performed not in a context of triumphant success and prosperity, but in the midst of the distress and vilification he was obliged to endure" (p. 321).

What this means is that many high-living healers today are far from the spirit of Paul. But it also means that the prayer for signs and wonders today is not necessarily a denial of the Biblical call to suffering. Paul's ministry (not to mention Jesus') proves that. If we see a man in a wheelchair performing a healing ministry for others, let us not be among the number who stand back and say the ominous words, "Physician, heal thyself." Paul's "thorn" no doubt pressed deeper with every healing he performed.

Now the question rises: Were the miracles of Paul the unique "sign of an apostle"? Should we refrain from praying for signs and wonders today, since they were meant to authenticate the authority of the apostles who were the once-for-all foundation of the church (Ephesians. 2:20)?

In 2 Corinthians 12:11-12 Paul is defending his apostleship. He says, "I am not at all inferior to these superlative apostles, even though I am nothing. The signs of the apostle were performed among you in all patience by signs and wonders and miracles." Note the wording carefully. The "signs of the apostle" are not equated with signs and wonders. The "signs of the apostle" are done "by (or with) signs and wonders and miracles." (Beware: the NIV misses the Greek construction entirely!)

This probably means that "signs and wonders and miracles" were part of the validating work of God in Paul's life, but by no means the whole of it. For example, Paul calls the transforming power of his preaching the "seal of apostleship": "Am I not an apostle? . . . You [my converts] are the seal of my apostleship" (1 Corinthians 9:1-2; see also 2 Corinthians 3:2). He also says that the way he works without asking for pay is a way of showing his authenticity (2 Corinthians 11:7-12); and all the sufferings he endures for the gospel are mentioned as evidence of his vindication over the "false apostles" (2 Corinthians 11:22-33). Charles Hodge suggests eight evidences of apostleship which may be included in "the signs of the apostle" (Commentary on 2nd Corinthians, p. 291).

The text does not require that "signs and wonders" be unique to the apostles. For example, if I say, "The sign of a professional biker is strong thighs," I do not mean that no non-professionals have strong thighs. I only mean that professionals do, and when taken together with other evidences, this can help you know that a person is a professional biker. Paul is not saying that only apostles can perform signs and wonders. He is saying that apostles certainly can, and together with other things this will help the Corinthians know that he is a true apostle.

Consider an analogy with the miracle-working of Jesus. Was it a sign of his messiahship? Yes it was. In Matthew 11:2 John the Baptist's disciples asked, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?" Jesus' answer was, "Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them." In other words, it would be fair to say that the miracles of Jesus were "the signs of messiahship."

Nevertheless in Matthew 10:8 Jesus commissions the twelve and says, "Preach as you go saying, 'The kingdom of God is at hand.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons." They were to do the miracles he was doing. But this does not prove that each of the twelve was the messiah. So somehow the miracles of Jesus could evidence his messiahship even though non-messiahs could do them. The reason is that the miracles themselves are only part of the evidence. Taken together with other things, they confirm his messiahship. So it is with "the signs of the apostle". It is not that only apostles can do them, but that they are a crucial part of the evidence.

There are good Biblical reasons for thinking that signs and wonders are not meant by God to be unique to the apostles. I'll mention four.

  1. Jesus sent out the seventy, not just the twelve apostles, "to heal the sick" (Luke 10:9). And when they returned, they said that the demons were subject to them in Jesus' name (Luke 10:17). These miracles in Jesus' name show that apostolic signs and wonders are not unique to the apostles.
  2. In the book of Acts, Stephen "did great signs and wonders among the people" (Acts 6:8), even though he was in the "deacon" category not the apostle category (Acts 6:5). Similarly it says that "the multitudes gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did" (Acts 8:6). Philip was not an apostle, but performed miraculous signs.
  3. Paul writes to all the churches of Galatia and says, "Does he who is supplying the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?" (Galatians 3:5). The point is that God is now supplying his Spirit to the Galatians and working miracles among them when he is not there. Hans Dieter Betz notes that "the [present] participle 'supplying' (epichoregon) suggests a continuous supply rather than an initial and momentary 'outpouring'" (Hermenia, Galatians, p. 135). And Ernest Burton says, "In view of the dative 'to you' after 'supplies,' the 'miracles' must be supposed to have been wrought not principally by Paul but by the Galatians themselves, as 1 Corinthians 12:10,28,29 imply was the case among the Corinthians" (I.C.C., Galatians, p. 152).
    Peter Masters does not adequately deal with this grammatical fact when he says that these miracles refer to Paul's own miracles which he had worked among the Galatians when he was recently among them (The Healing Epidemic, p. 134). Burton also wrestles with our very question concerning "the signs of the apostle" and astutely observes, "2 Corinthians 12:12 indeed suggests that such things were signs of the apostle, yet probably not in the sense that he only wrought them but that the dunameis of the apostle were in some way more notable, or that they constituted a part of the evidence of his apostleship" (Galatians, p. 152)
  4. Finally, 1 Corinthians 12:9-10 says that among the spiritual gifts given to the members of the church at Corinth were "gifts of healings" and "workings of miracles." Thus (as Burton suggested) such "signs and wonders" were not the "sign of the apostle" in the sense that only apostles could do them. Various gifted members of the church were also empowered in these ways as well. This is confirmed in verses 27-29, where these gifts are distinguished from the gift of apostleship.

Therefore, if signs and wonders were not limited in function to validating the ministry of Jesus and the apostles, but rather had a role in the edifying and evangelistic work of the church in general, then there is good reason to trust God for their proper use today. In the next section we will see that the New Testament calls for this very thing.

Part 3: Signs and Wonders till Jesus Comes

In the previous section I argued that "signs and wonders" in the New Testament were not the prerogative of apostles only. The "seventy" performed them (Luke 10:9,17), deacons performed them (Acts 6:8; 8:6), Galatian Christians performed them (Galatians 3:5), Corinthian Christians performed them (1 Corinthians 12:9-10). Since signs and wonders were not the prerogative of the apostles, there is no New Testament warrant for inferring that these miracles were to cease after the apostolic age.

In fact, I want to argue in this section that the New Testament teaches that spiritual gifts (including the more obviously supernatural or revelatory ones like prophecy and tongues) will continue until Jesus comes. The use of such gifts (miracles, faith, healings, prophecy, etc) give rise to what may sometimes be called "signs and wonders." Therefore signs and wonders are part of the blessing we should pray for today.

There is no text in the New Testament that teaches the cessation of these gifts. But more important than this silence is the text that explicitly teaches their continuance until Jesus comes, namely, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12.

The main point of this passage is that love is superior to spiritual gifts like "prophecies" and "tongues" and "knowledge". The basic argument for the superiority of love is that it lasts forever while these gifts do not. They cease "when the perfect comes," but love goes on forever. The reason given for why these gifts cease is that they are "imperfect". But when the "perfect" comes the imperfect will pass away. So the key question is: When does the "perfect" come which marks the end of the imperfect gifts like prophecy?

The answer is plain in the text if we follow Paul's line of reasoning. Verse 8 says, "Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away" (RSV). Why are these gifts temporary? The answer is given in verse 9: "For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect." So the reason these spiritual gifts are temporary is their incompleteness or imperfection.

How long then are they to last? Verse 10 gives the answer: "When the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away." But when is that? When does the perfect come? The answer is given in verse 12: "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." The "now" of incompleteness and imperfection is contrasted with the "then" of seeing face to face and understanding even as we are understood.

So the answer to the question of when the perfect comes and when the imperfect gifts pass away is the "then" of verse 12, namely, the time of seeing "face to face" and "understanding as we are understood." When will this happen?

Both of these phrases ("seeing face to face" and "understanding as we have been understood") are stretched beyond the breaking point if we say that they refer to the closing of the New Testament canon or the close of the apostolic age. Rather, they refer to our experience at the second coming of Jesus. Then "we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2) The phrase "face to face" in the Greek Old Testament refers to seeing God personally (Genesis 32:30; Judges 6:22). Thomas Edwards' hundred-year-old commentary is right to say, "When the perfect is come at the advent of Christ, then the Christian will know God intuitively and directly, even as he was before known of God" (First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 353, italics added).

This means that verse 10 can be paraphrased, "When Christ returns, the imperfect will pass away." And since "the imperfect" refers to spiritual gifts like prophecy and knowledge and tongues, we may paraphrase further, "When Christ returns, then prophecy and knowledge and tongues will pass away."

Here is a definite statement about the time of the cessation of spiritual gifts, and that time is the second coming of Christ. Richard Gaffin does not do justice to the actual wording of verse 10 when he says, "The time of the cessation of prophecy and tongues is an open question so far as this passage is concerned" (Perspectives on Pentecost, p. 111). It is not an open question. Paul says, "When the perfect comes [at that time, not before or after], the imperfect [gifts like prophecy and tongues, etc.] will pass away."

Therefore, 1 Corinthians 13:8-12 teaches that such spiritual gifts will continue until the second coming of Jesus. There is no reason to exclude from this conclusion the other "imperfect" gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Since these include miracles, faith, healings, etc., with which we associate "signs and wonders", there is clear New Testament warrant for expecting that "signs and wonders" will continue until Jesus comes.

Now add to this conclusion the forthright command in 1 Corinthians 14:1, and you will see why some of us are not only open to, but also seeking, this greater fullness of God's power today. This command says, "Make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy." And it is repeated twice: "Earnestly desire the higher gifts" (12:31); "Earnestly desire to prophesy and do not forbid speaking in tongues" (14:39).

I wonder how many of us have said for years that we are open to God's moving in spiritual gifts, but have been disobedient to this command to earnestly desire them, especially prophecy? I would ask all of us: are we so sure of our hermeneutical procedure for diminishing the gifts that we would risk walking in disobedience to a plain command of Scripture? "Earnestly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy."

I have come to the point of seeing that the risk lies in the other direction. It would be a risk not to seek spiritual gifts for myself and my church. It would be a risk not to pray with the early church, "Grant your servants to speak your word with boldness while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through your holy servant Jesus." Disobedience is always a greater risk than obedience.

Much of my experience disinclines me to "earnestly desire spiritual gifts" especially the gift of prophecy. However, I do not base my prayer for such spiritual empowering on experience, but on the Bible. The Scripture is sufficient for all circumstances by teaching us the means of grace to be used in all circumstances. And I agree with Martyn Lloyd-Jones that one of the means of grace needed in our day is the extraordinary demonstration of power by signs and wonders. Here is what he said:

What is needed is some mighty demonstration of the power of God, some enactment of the Almighty, that will compel people to pay attention, and to look, and to listen. . . . When God acts, he can do more in a minute than man with his organizing can do in fifty years. (Revival, pp. 121-122)

Lloyd-Jones calls this mighty demonstration of power a fresh baptism in the Holy Spirit and he relates it directly to spiritual gifts.

The special purpose . . . of the baptism with the Holy Spirit is to enable us to witness, to bear testimony, and one of the ways in which that happens is through the giving of spiritual gifts. (The Sovereign Spirit, p. 120)

By the use of these gifts, he sees the possibility of "compelling people to pay attention" in their speed to destruction. By this, the gospel could receive fresh authentication in our day as in the days of the apostles.

It is perfectly clear that in New Testament times, the gospel was authenticated in this way by signs, wonders and miracles of various characters and descriptions . . . Was it only meant to be true of the early church? . . . The Scriptures never anywhere say that these things were only temporary–never! There is no such statement anywhere. (The Sovereign Spirit, pp. 31-32)

But now we can say even more. In 1 Corinthians 13:8-12, there is a clear teaching that not only were these things not temporary, they were meant to last till Jesus comes.