|Signs and Wonders: Then and Now - Part 1
by John Piper
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 4:30, "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 4:30 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 4:30 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 4:30) 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.
By John Piper. ©Desiring God. Website: http://www.desiringgod.org/. Email: mail@desiringGod.org. Toll Free: 888.346.4700.
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