Understanding Sign Gifts - Healing and Miracles

Preface

Jesus, Apostles, and early church performed many miracles to authenticate divine origin of their Gospel. God used a prophecy to set me on fire for Him. Then, I ran into Reformed Baptists telling me such signs all ceased. Some cessationists were on the fence since missionaries they knew experienced miracles in the field. Pentecostals said they had it but they were inconsistent with Scripture (esp orderly worship). What to think?

I took a scientific-ish approach: read only theories with a lot of Scripture backing them, pray for guidance (esp Romans 8:28-style signs), personally observe whether God answers prayers with healing/miracles/prophecies, survey reports of them globally, eliminate biases (eg Reformed's Cessation or Pentecostals' tongues), and pick Scripture-backed theories that best fit observations. My theories cover both fundamentals that drive everything (eg prayer, obedience) and sign gifts (mainly healing). Finally, I stayed in Reformed and Traditional Baptist Churches with no visits to Pentecostal/Charismatic churches to bias the observations in favor of cessationists. They feel safer using my observations than others'. On other hand, it adds weight to observations if they show no cessation has occured.

(Edit on Sep 28 2021. Probably should've edited this sooner. I wrote this article a few months after becoming Christian again. I've learned a lot since then. I'm still a non-Cessationist with more miracle reports and Spirit-driven experiences than I had then. However, God has taught, corrected, and/or improved a lot of the specifics since this article. I need to rewrite it. I'm just leaving it for people evaluating if my mind, gifts, or unconvential style might benefit any work you're doing for Christ. Also, in case the points get people thinking in ways that bring them closer to God and help them serve Him more effectively.)

Introduction

From Jesus to the Apostles, many healing and other supernatural acts ("signs") occur. The Word of God is written as if we should be doing them, too. We're even commanded to seek them, taught how to manage them, and so on. They're absent from all Reformed churches I've seen outside really random events. They say all sign gifts ceased after the Apostolic Age ended. The Pentecostal churches claim in their statement of faith that healing is normal. I don't know their position on other sign gifts. The Charismatic churches claim to see everything. The Reformed opponents tell me a mix of they're lying, they're experiencing human phenomenon (eg gibberish tongues or psychosomatic healing), and/or it's the work of demons. Fortunately, I think we can skip past most of that mess by just looking at Scripture's claims, their claims about that, and miracle reports across denominations.

Jesus' Healings and Miracles

Purpose

Miracles are supernatural works God uses to accomplish His Will. Healings are a subset of them. Scripture says the primary reason for miracles is to get people to put their faith in Jesus Christ. Healings led people to either believe only in His power or in Him. Those believing in His power did so for selfish reasons or mis-attributed where it came from. His demonstrations of power succeeded when people believed in and followed Him. Witnesses kept reacting both ways. In Revelation, we see people cursing God even after all His prophecies take place. Refusal to believe in the face of God's wonders clearly won't change until the end.

Jesus' ministry mainly used the Word (esp prophecies), metaphors, miracles, and apologetics. Why did Jesus use miracles? They're especially useful when He or His message faced strong skepticism. The miracles proved who He was and that His Word was true. Miracles also caused mass conversions. In several stories, Jesus used the convincing power of miracles to get whole crowds to believe in His power. Only a portion of those that believed would follow Him, though. Some would fall away if He wasn't their actual priority. Both are still true.

Audience - Immediate

Who is their audience? Many look at these stories in isolation. I agree there's lessons there. However, God knew many would later hear of or read these stories. I think, when understanding, we should look at both their historical context and how the larger audience will react to them. I don't know if this is an existing principle of Christian theology. I later learned God does this in, say, Bible studies to use the Word to speak to our current circumstances. I've never heard it applied to miracles, though, despite God's character being consistent. Let's attempt it here.

Audience - Big Picture

It's a one-person miracle that Jesus said not to talk about. People witnessed Jesus do something impossible, life-changing, and worth telling everyone. Witnessing God's power just makes the need to share overflow out of them. The Word itself, preached across the world, would later turn those one-person miracles into testimonies impacting whole groups of people. The spread of the Word causes it to grow both linearly and exponentially as more are added. Miracles dramatically increase it. I believe the purpose of miracles, including healing, is more about the witnesses that tell everyone about the miracle than the recipient themselves. The mass conversions then and continued conversions today seem to confirm that.

What Now - Cessationist Claims

Cessationists' first claim is they ended with Apostolic Age. They believe that the sign gifts existed to authenticate the canon of Scripture that the Apostles were producing. With the Bible whole, we no longer need the sign gifts. They claim God still delivers miracles occasionally as responses to prayers. Far as I can tell, they don't attempt laying on of hands or commands to heal. They say merely preach the Word of God which itself does all the work from that point on. That doctrine is called Sufficiency of Scripture. The basic version I agree with says it's sufficient to save and teach anyone who believes in it. The broader version I reject is it's sufficient to accomplish all of God's purposes. That claim not only strongly contradicts Scripture: their own claim about the purpose of miracles, authenticating Scripture for skeptics, totally contradicts it.

Is Broader "Sufficiency of Scripture" Actually in Scripture?

Let's go back to Jesus and the Apostles. They faced resistance trying to deliver the Word of God. If Scripture is sufficient, they'd have just used that and moved on. Cessationists say we needed the whole Gospel. They're implying Jesus and Apostles should've just made more canonical statements to a non-believing audience. Instead, both Jesus and Paul switched to miracles and debate. The Spirit performed the miracles. The Spirit also inspired teaching, apologetics, and so on grounded in Scripture to counter opponents. False teaching kept getting more clever with its distortions of Scripture. Paul would then counter the false teaching with the fact that he worked the "signs of a true apostle," or miracles. Presumably, the audience needed to see and read that, not just his original words, to fulfill God's purpose for them. He writes like most or all of his audiences believed in part due to signs. The Word was *not* sufficient in the Word itself.

Do its Proponents Practice It Themselves?

Maybe the Cessationists only use Scripture. Anyone truly believing in the Sufficiency of Scripture would just need a Bible, some historical books for context, and something about languages. Cessationists today who say Scripture alone is sufficient employ tons of external sources both to further interpret it for other believers (eg commentaries, seminary) and debate non-believers (eg apologetics, Christian science). They have the same problems as Apostolic Age with contradicting interpretations that created entire denominations worth of division. Like Paul, many I've challenged about whether God is behind their beliefs eventually start citing the transforming power of the Spirit and/or answered prayers. That's the closest thing to miracles that Cessationists believe in. So, they're claiming Sufficiency of Scripture while relying Scripture, non-Scriptural sources, and the Spirit's activity on their people. Although it varies by person, their reliance on and usage of external, non-Scripture sources can be large.

Quick recap. The evidence says we should reject the broader version of Sufficiency of Scripture on the basis that Jesus didn't practice that, the Apostles didn't practice it, they preached the opposite for us, and most Cessationists don't practice it either. I do agree with their minimal version that it's all you need for salvation, is the foundation for all other work, and should be used to test and discern the truth of external claims. I also want to note that I find it beautiful that the Word itself works to a degree, Jesus uses miracles/debate, they become part of the Word itself, Paul combines that Word with his additions, he adds miracles/debate, and it just keeps flowing from there. Although Canon closed, there seems to be a continual pattern of the Word, people's use of it, and Spirit's power just flowing together to lead as many people to Jesus as possible. It's not a weakness of the Word: it's what God does intentionally does to manifest His greatness to the maximum extent.

"Scripture Says They Ceased"

Cessationists tell us that Scripture says sign gifts ceased. I've seen some also claim seeking them is a sin. So far, they've shown me no clear verses from Scripture backing either position. They mostly use interpretations of one section of 1 Corinthians whose meaning is highly debatable. Even commentaries I've read disagree on its details. Continuationists think it's talking about the end of the world because it says knowledge will cease. We're at what looks like a peak of human and spiritual knowledge right now. Before my head exploded, I noticed a possible shortcut to assessing all of this. That is, it's strange that Cessationists appeared to start from an interpretation of one section before using it to understand and even redefine everything else on that topic. Is that standard for interpreting Scripture?

Deriving Continuationism Using Standard Interpretation

On other topics, the same Cessationists say to first look at every way a word is used or topic discussed in Scripture. Then, make a definition or theory is consistent with all of them. Let's try that. Looking across the NT, it tells us to seek the higher gifts, pray that we prophecy, don't ban tongues, heal the sick, perform other miracles by command, and ask Jesus for what we desire. On sign gifts, Paul also tells us how to manage them along with their high impact. These direct, clear-looking verses appear to be imperatives that may grant such blessings to churches that obey them. That's called Continuationism.

Whatever the theory, action and results that glorify Jesus will follow. The first that followed were Jesus' own actions matching claims of continuationists. Then, the Apostles did. We've already covered that mass conversions following signs. Paul tells the audience in Corinthians to manage, not cease, their gifts that are for building up the church. Paul also gives the example that a bunch of prophecies in a room of non-believers can instantly convert them. The actions of Jesus, Apostles, and Scripture's churches confirm Continuationism's base claims. All clear verses support it, too, with no clear cessation. Conclusion: we should default on believing in and praying for those gifts.

How They Occur

They don't just happen to random people. It's almost always Jesus and an Apostle doing it. James indicates the elders can do the healing. Paul addresses the general assembly in parts of 1 Corinthians. This is too narrow, though. I think we have to back up further to look at the whole context the sign gifts occurred in. Was anything going on that was a prerequisite or contributing factor? Do we have to *do* something to get these blessings by God? Or blessings in general?

Contributing Factor - Prayer

Jesus and the Apostles prayed a lot about everything. In Luke 6:12, Jesus spent the entire night praying. Pentecost didn't happen until after 120 people gathered somewhere praying for it. That's a long, focused prayer by a massive group of people. Later, there were also entire churches praying daily for Paul to be equipped for his duties. Paul's example prayers encouraged us to all pray for each other that way. In OT, Daniel was praying three times a day (Daniel 6:10). David, too (Psalm 55:17). In both OT and NT, people would sometimes fast when seeking God, including asking for miracles. A serious commitment to prayer by large groups of faithful people is consistently there with the sign gifts. The exception where it was one man was Jesus. We all know the Son of God is exceptional, though.

Contributing Factor - Obedience

Is obedience a factor after we're justified by Christ? God says consistently throughout Scripture that He blesses obedience. Testing Word vs people's actions, those in the Word whose example we are to follow dedicated their lives to God with much praise, prayer, and obedience. Even the 120 people praying were commanded to show up there doing exactly that. The Word even taught us He draws near us as we draw near Him. Jesus said His friends follow and obey Him. He many times helped His friends. Sometimes, that involved miracles such as rebuking a storm or raising the dead. Those who didn't follow closely to Jesus saw a lot less of His power in their lives. Cessationists taught me God was immutable. That means we should expect Him to perform less signs if churches are low in committment to the Word, prayer (esp group prayer), and obedience.

Contributing Factor - Sin

My single, best lesson from Charismatics: we can grieve or extinguish the Holy Spirit. Reformed Cessationists had taught me we're in a "blanket of righteousness" where God sees only Jesus' obedience, not our sin, when he looks at us. Yet, Scripture tells us that sin grieves the Holy Spirit. He notices it, it negatively impacts us, and we're ordered to avoid that where possible. On a different topic, told me our goal and what the Spirit does is draw us day by day to think and act more like Jesus Christ. In John 15:2, they said we're told He prunes off branches that bear no fruit. That contradicts their other belief! God cannot get us from point A (sin) to point B (holiness), prune our bad habits, be grieved, His manifestations be extinguished, etc if He can't see or be affected by our sin, bad branches, etc. The amount of sin in individuals' lives and/or churches is, per Hebrews, lowers how active the Holy Spirit is in us. This fits with the prior theory that God blesses obedience and disciplines disobedience.

(This part might look rougher than intended to for Cessationists. Please, mentally preface the next paragraph with "If my interpretation of those Corinthians verses are correct." Also, the people I'm rebuking otherwise love and pursue Christ. I have only respect for them.)

Contributing Factor - Asking for the Sign Gifts

When praying for simplification, I noticed that Jesus and the Holy Spirit usually only performed miracles when (a) believers asked for them and (b) the asker had faith it would happen. Jesus told us (Matt 7:7-8) that we must ask, seek, and knock for what we want. The Holy Spirit is described as a "Helper" (John 15:26) that requires we ask Him for specific help, believe He will give it to us, and then works hand in hand through and around us delivering that help. In contrast, Cessationists literally tell God and His followers they don't believe He will perform sign gifts, they disobey imperatives on seeking sign gifts, and they even order the Spirit not to perform one (tongues) in their churches.

Contributing Factor - Banning the Sign Gifts

Let's look at that clear one: tongues. It clearly says to manage, but don't ban, tongues in churches. The Cessationist churches all ban tongues. Then, they see no tongues. We were told for this gift to ask, seek, don't ban, and keep orderly. We indeed might not see the Holy Spirit do things that we instead don't ask for, that we mock, and/or that we ban. Local churches that do so may extinguish at least those aspects of the Holy Spirit in their congregations. They're telling God up front they don't want gift He may want to give them. Wouldn't He give them what they wanted? Or in this case, make absent what they demanded be absent in their churches?

Contradiction in Approach to Sign vs Other Gifts

Another Charismatic lesson was other gifts required volunteering and training. The Cessationists that don't seek or do ban sign gifts take opposite approach to other gifts. Then, they get what they pray for when they ask Him to speak to us when we read the Word, teach Bible studies, prepare recipients' hearts for evangelism, counsel their suffering brethren, and provide funds for missions. They believe in those gifts, ask whole-heartedly for them, and receive whatever His Grace allows.

The gifts might not have instant results today. Cessationists spend months to years training people to use other gifts appropriately. Seminaries are an example. Even giving often has an amount to determine with allocations among conflicting goals. Sign gifts such as tongues or prophecy might similarly take coaching for best results. On this topic, one "Reformed Charismatic" pointed out that, upon seeing bad preaching, we usually coach them instead of ban preaching entirely. His church refused to ban sign gifts just because they weren't always granted or used properly. They just coach people on developing them.

Reformed Baptists and Cessationists vs Assembly of God and Charismatics

Again, I have no prior stake in their debate. The Cessationist denominations say they have no sign gifts while Continuiationist denominations claim they regularly occur. Ignoring whether that's true, there is an immediate prediction that follows from my above claims: Cessationist churches wouldn't have them and Continuationist churches would. Let's see why.

In Scripture, group prayer for specific things gets them more often. People who don't ask don't usually receive. We're talking about entire churches asking in prayer for tongues, healing, miracles, and prophecies. Wouldn't they get them more often than churches that both don't ask and actually ban them? For even more fun, what if we had an *entire denomination of 70+ million people* asking for the same things? And the 70+ million people were praying for sign gifts (esp healing)? Doesn't our understanding of the fundamentals of Scripture say God is more likely to give them that and more often? I think so.

What Should We Expect? (Way, Way, Back in the Day)

Cessationist' other concern is frequency or normative: does it still happen and often? I'll first say miracles in Scripture might themselves have been rare events with the Word, Jesus' teaching, doing most of the work. They could be a highlight reel. John admits his whole Gospel is like that to evangelize people. Psalms have language in them that celebrates past miracles instead of a stream of current ones. It's as if some people writing the Word of God itself have seen fewer miracles in their lifetime than some of us have in a few months. Outside a few points in time, the quantity or baseline of sign gifts such as miracles might be really low compared to other gifts. Can we even know what's normative in the NT? Can we claim sign gifts are less normative today if we don't know what normative is?

We know Jesus spent most of His life serving, working, and teaching. Paul and early churches did likewise. Jesus turned down signs for some that wouldn't believe anyway. In one case, He dodged an entire crowd wanting healing to deliver His Word to others. Healing people spiritually was His priority, even during physical healings. Paul didn't heal some people either. Finally, Jesus' many miracles and Paul's "signs of a true apostle" indicate: (a) vastly more miracles happened back then to bootstrap stuff than we'll ever see; (b) the number goes up during pivotal moments in specific areas to create movements. My data could go either way or both ways. I have no answer.

What Should We Expect? (Back in the Day to Today)

Looking for today, Craig Keener (Assembly of God / only survey) tried to set a high bar on the topic. In his exhaustive research, book on it, and YouTube videos, he studies and reports on miracles from NT onward to today. He reports that church father Iraneus said all signs still occurred in his time. A historian said they were main edge Christianity had over false religions, including distored gospels, in early centuries. Augustine started out Cessationist, renounced cessationism after witnessing some miracles, and said he had seen about 70 or so by the end of his life. If those reports are true, then God's work was consistent with Continuationism throughout the centuries after Scripture was finished.

From there, Keener's surveys report steady examples happening up to today of blind/deaf/sick healed, demons cast out, and even the dead raised. Keener said they happen mostly in unreached areas with strong barriers to getting the Gospel out. He says the miracles often create movements that spread the Gospel in those areas. One example was a high officials' dead son being raised after he asked Jesus to do it like He did for Lazaurus. His prior gods couldn't. After that resurrection, tens of thousands of conversions followed in the ensuing movement.

Both the Vicar of Baghdad and a DesiringGod contributor said their frequency in some areas was so high that they mostly stopped thinking of them like they were special. I'll also note people in these places are often all in for Jesus, even dying for Him. They attempt strong obedience of faith and much prayer. The Vicar's church in the Green Zone claimed to see more than one resurrection. They also watched 1,500 of our brothers and sisters die over 5 years but still were growing. Seeing all of that, the miracles become just another aspect of God's hand moving heavily in those areas. Their testimony makes miracles seem like they can be normative today under very, specific conditions that demand it.

Is Frequency of Miracles Tied to Availability of the Gospel?

Outside of the repeats, areas in the New Testament receiving miracles would be called unreached today. The post-Apostolic Age record, ancient and today, show the same miracles happening for the same reasons mostly in unreached areas. They still happen in other areas in lower quantity where godly people believe in and ask for them. Given conversion is primary purpose, I believe miracles are more likely where they'll lead many to Jesus and/or to worship God. The conversions themselves are to His glory. Some do appear to happen simply due to His compassion, though. We saw Jesus show compassion for family of those close to him (Luke 4:38-39) and entire crowds of people (Matt 9:36). Yet, I must argue even that still brought non-believers to Him and believers closer to Him when His followers preached about it later. Drawing many people to God seems to be primary purpose of the higher gifts.

(Note: I'll add that it's the work of God, not people possessing gifts, that's higher here. We're all unworthy servants acting under His Grace grateful for all gifts that help us accomplish His Will. All because He so loved us. This essay is just focused on sign gifts that people often debate about.)

Conclusion

How do we get these gifts, esp healing and miracles, today? He's provided on quite a few prayers of mine about healing, one possession, and unexplainable outcomes. How He answered has me convinced (for now) that it usually requires strong dedication to God, much prayer, aligning what we ask for with what's within His Will (what we perceive of it), *seeking those gifts*, and using them for their actual purpose. We must please Him out of our love, ask for these gifts *for His glory* vs our self interest, and believe we will receive them. If He doesn't give them, we continue our primary focus of worshipping Him for who He is, thanking Him in Jesus' name for already receiving our greatest gift, and living as Jesus' friends ought.

Cessationists did have one, great lesson for me: love is the greatest, spiritual gift. Whether in the mundane or extraordinary, we followers of Christ will continue loving and following Him. And loving and serving each other. Scripture said love, peace, and hope... but especially love... are the gifts He gives to everyone with the widest, deepest, and most-lasting impact. Although He does spontaneously give blessings, I'm convinced that love for Him and others is just as important as faith and prayer in making miracles happen. It's also what powers our living and sharing the Gospel. We should treasure most that priceless blessing He lets us keep when He brings us to Heaven with Him.

(Read the Gospel, learn to share it, read other essays, or back to home.)