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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I will recommend a few resources, if you’re interested:
- Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter by Thomas Schreiner. 121 pages. Perhaps the best modern book on the topic.
- The Charismatic Phenomenon by John Whitcomb and Peter Masters. 100 pages. A great book that’s a bit more stern than Schreiner … or me!
- 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.
- I wrote a short article explaining what I believe 1 Corinthians 14 is saying.
I hope this very short primer is helpful.