As noted in the introduction to What Are My Spiritual Gifts?, the sign gifts—also often referred to as the charismatic gifts—are a separate category of spiritual gifts from those that fall into the public, private, and paradigm groups I used within the book to help us better categorize the many spiritual gifts the Bible describes.
There is some debate, however, as to which of the gifts should be included as sign gifts. To us, the sign gifts include
Some would also include apostleship and prophecy as well.
But whichever gifts one includes in this category, it is important to note that they are no less biblical than the gifts of evangelism, faith, hospitality, or any of the others addressed in the book.
That the sign gifts and the rest of the spiritual gifts are equally biblical, however, does not mean they should necessarily be viewed in the same way.
We chose to deal with the sign gifts separately for two primary reasons.
Unlike many of the other spiritual gifts, their use is entirely dependent upon the Holy Spirit. Someone with the gift of leadership, for example, is likely to lead regardless of how closely they are following the Lord’s guidance. Their gift will have greater impact and influence if it’s powered by the Spirit, but that’s not a requirement to exercise it.
The sign gifts are different.
Those with the gift of healing cannot simply walk up to someone and make them well unless the Holy Spirit empowers them to do so. The gift of miracles and the genuine expression of the gift of tongues and interpreting tongues—typically seen as an entirely new form of speech rather than the ability to speak other known languages—are much the same.
The majority of times that the sign gifts have been abused and falsely claimed have come from people attempting to act as though God has given them the power to control these gifts when that is simply not how it works. Rather, those with these gifts must rely on the Holy Spirit to direct and empower their use in each instance. Were it otherwise, then there presumably would have never been a sick or disabled person in the early church, where we see clear examples of these gifts in action.
The degree to which the sign gifts are still given today is a subject of debate—at times heated debate—among well-meaning Christians in the church.
Those in the cessationist camp argue that these gifts were given during the New Testament period, but that the Holy Spirit stopped doing so after the first generations of Christians. They often argue that these gifts were intended to validate the apostles and their message, but once that message was established, they were no longer necessary. Many cessationists still allow for the possibility that the Holy Spirit could grant these gifts again in environments more akin to the first-century church, which could explain their genuine use in parts of the world where the gospel is still new, but that they are restricted to such circumstances.
The continuationists, by contrast, argue that the Holy Spirit never stopped giving the sign gifts. They argue that we see less frequent records of their use across much of church history because the Holy Spirit gave them less frequently or because our records simply fail to reflect the reality of the situation. This point will be addressed at greater depth later in this article, but what’s important to understand from the start is that there is room for faithful believers to disagree on this subject.
Whether the sign gifts are still given and active in the world today has no impact on one’s salvation, nor should it influence the degree to which disagreeing Christians are willing to work with one another to advance God’s kingdom. We should examine the evidence and discuss what we find, but it’s all right if that evidence leads people to different conclusions.
With that caveat in mind, let’s take a look at what Scripture teaches about the sign gifts and the reasons why disagreement exists today.
The passage that speaks most clearly to this topic is found 1 Corinthians 12. There, Paul addresses these gifts as bookends to his larger discussion on how spiritual gifts as a whole are meant to function within the body of Christ. He lists them alongside other gifts, with little to clearly set them apart from those that are more universally recognized today.
At the same time, the larger context in which that discussion takes place—one that places the emphasis less on the gifts and more on their role as building up a diverse but unified community of faith—points to the reality that these gifts will be given where they are best able to accomplish that function. Consequently, the discussion leaves open the possibility that the Holy Spirit may choose not to impart certain gifts if they would prove to be more of a hindrance than a help to fostering that community and its larger mission of advancing the kingdom of God.
Paul reiterates this message in chapter 14, when he notes that the gift of tongues is of little benefit unless what is said can be understood by the community of faith. He even goes so far as to instruct those with this gift to be silent “if there is no one to interpret” (1 Corinthians 14:28). His goal is not to diminish the gift or its significance to the church, but to remind his fellow Christians that the gifts are tools to be used in advancing the kingdom rather than abilities given to be used as the individual sees fit. While that is the case with each of the spiritual gifts, understanding and embracing that approach is vital with the sign gifts.
However, there is another passage that people often point to when discussing whether or not the sign gifts are still active today. Between the two chapters discussed above, Paul mentions the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge once again: “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8–10).
Paul’s statement about “when the perfect comes” often functions as the key interpretive principle for this passage as it pertains to the discussion of spiritual gifts. The “perfect” in this passage is traditionally understood as a reference to Jesus and his second coming. Those who argue for a continuation of all the spiritual gifts find support for that view through the understanding that all of the gifts, including tongues, will remain active until he returns. Those who argue for a cessation of the sign gifts often point out that there is nothing in this passage that requires the gifts to continue being practiced until the second coming to the same extent or in the same ways that they were during the time of Paul.
Both arguments have merit, both exegetically and theologically. However, both also tend to place too little emphasis on the larger context of chapter 13.
You see, when Paul gives the gifts as examples of what will eventually pass away, he does so primarily to highlight the permanence and power of love. That comparison has weight because prophecy, tongues, and knowledge are seen as such indispensable parts of the Christian life. Love is the focus, though, and needs to remain as such when it comes to interpreting this passage’s relevance to the discussion of spiritual gifts.
Ultimately, the Bible offers some clear guidelines on how the sign gifts should be used and the purpose for which they were given, but it does not definitively support either the cessationist or the continuationist position. There is room for both views to point to Scripture and find evidence for why their belief is defensible.
However, that also means there is no room for either to point to Scripture and say that the other view is clearly wrong. Understanding both of those truths is crucial when it comes to how individual believers convey their position on this topic, especially given that the sign gifts have often proven to be a divisive issue within the body of Christ.
And one of the chief sources of contention is the fact that we have limited evidence of these gifts in practice for most of Christian history, with the possible exception of more modern times.
A leading argument made by many who believe that the sign gifts were limited to the Apostolic period of church history centers on the notion that we stop seeing sign gifts in practice after that era.
To be sure, we do have more historical evidence of their use during the New Testament period than we do for most of the following centuries—we’ll discuss more modern examples of the gifts in action shortly. For cessationsists, that lack of clear evidence supports the belief that the Holy Spirit stopped giving those gifts as readily or in the same ways as he did during those first generations of the faith.
Others, however, disagree. Sam Storms, for example, cautions that “we have extensive knowledge of but a small fraction of what happened in the history of the church. It is terribly presumptuous to conclude that the gifts of the Spirit were absent from the lives of people about whom we know virtually nothing.” He goes on to note that “the absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence.”
Moreover, if the sign gifts were still present and active during the first few centuries of the church, it would make sense that the Christian authors from that period would neglect to mention them. Many of the heresies and questionable branches of the faith with which the church contended during that time placed a great deal of weight on manifestations of the Spirit that resembled the sign gifts.
The Montanists, for example, were a sect of Christians that, though never crossing the line into heresy, proved problematic for the early church during the second century. They believed that the cure to the heretical movements threatening the church was not an increased emphasis on church hierarchy—the position for which most of the church fathers argued—but rather a renewed emphasis on being Spirit led. As such, speaking in tongues and prophecy became central elements to their practice of the faith, to the point that such utterances began to take on an almost divinely inspired level of authority within their groups.
Gnosticism, meanwhile, served as the greatest heretical threat to the fledgling faith across this same period of time. While the movement was too diverse to say that all Gnostics emphasized these manifestations of the Spirit, one of the principle tenets of their system of belief was that salvation came through a special knowledge that Jesus imparted to his followers.
Given that there was not yet an established canon regarding which books of the Bible constituted Scripture, the church fathers placed an increased importance on tracing one’s teachings back to the apostles—a practice called Apostolic Succession—with the hope that limiting what could be considered divinely inspired truth to those principles would protect against heretical beliefs. As such, if the sign gifts were still present during this time, then recording their use and elevating them to the same level of authority as the other gifts could have proven problematic.
As the church became the officially recognized religion of Rome and grew in importance, both politically and socially across the following centuries, this emphasis on the church leaders serving as the gatekeepers to all things spiritual became an established practice for how the masses approached the Christian faith. Consequently, if the sign gifts—or many of the other spiritual gifts for that matter—were still given and practiced, there was strong motivation by those recording the history of the period to ignore or minimize their presence.
That pattern began to change, however, during more recent centuries.
During the Second Great Awakening, revival camp meetings played an integral role in the resurgence of the faith in the more rural parts of America. While it would be incorrect to describe these events as mass manifestations of the sign gifts, they marked a renewed openness to religious occurrences similar to prophetic pronouncements and speaking in tongues on a large scale. This version of Christianity made many people—especially in the Northeast—wary, however, and caused some division within the church. That division would only continue to grow toward the start of the twentieth century.
The Pentecostal movement marked the first time since the Apostolic period that we see clear examples of people claiming to exhibit the sign gifts in a manner akin to what we see in Scripture. Again, that does not mean it was the first time it happened, but rather that it’s among the first times we have recorded on that large of a scale.
Those who adhered to this branch of the faith did not begin by starting their own sect of Christianity. Rather, they began by trying to reform existing denominations and reintroducing a greater emphasis on the active presence of the Holy Spirit among the church at large.
The movement traces its history back to Bethel Bible College where, in early 1901, a group of students began praying that the Holy Spirit would move as he did with the apostles in the New Testament. Shortly thereafter, they began to speak in tongues and heal physical ailments through prayer and laying their hands on people. The movement gained national prominence following the Azusa Street Revival in 1906.
When the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission began holding a revival on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, few expected that it would have a global impact. However, the ecumenical and diverse nature of their services meant that people from all walks of life joined together in worship and experienced many of the sign gifts during the services. Because, at this point, the Pentecostal movement was not trying to start their own denomination, many of these people then took these experiences and practices back to their home churches. In so doing, the sign gifts began to proliferate across the country and around the world.
Many, however, did not trust that these experiences were a genuine manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some were uncomfortable with the way these gifts were practiced and dismissed them while others went so far as to attribute them to the work of the devil. That a portion of the Pentecostal community taught that everyone who was truly saved and empowered by the Holy Spirit would exemplify these gifts—an idea that is as unbiblical as it is divisive—further exacerbated the negative view many took toward the movement.
To be sure, there were and still are enough examples of these gifts being abused and falsely used to give credence to their doubts. To say that they were never the result of the Spirit’s gifting is also difficult to believe, however.
In the end, much of the division that still exists within the church today when it comes to how people see the sign gifts can be traced back to those same fears. There have been enough false claims and poor examples of the gifts in action to give credence to those who believe they ceased with the early church, while those who believe they are still given have ample evidence to support that claim as well.
What seems most clear, however, is that neither view should be adopted with such certainty that it leaves little room for the humble acknowledgment that those who hold a different perspective might be correct.
For what it’s worth, I believe that the Holy Spirit does still give the sign gifts today in places where they can be used to edify the body of Christ and advance the kingdom. However, as with any gift, they can be and have been abused and used by Satan to do harm to that mission and divide the church.
As such, it’s understandable if we see them less frequently in the West than we might in other parts of the world where they would be more efficacious. Perhaps a time will come when more of our communities of faith will reach the point that these gifts can be seen and utilized by the Spirit to accomplish his mission.
Until then, let’s just make sure that we don’t let the sign gifts divide us and limit what God can accomplish through his people.