“Sign Gifts”?

by Marv

“Are the sign gifts for today?” one asks.

Well, excuse me, but if we wish to arrive at the right answer, hadn’t we better start with the right question?  And the above is just not the right question.  It is a wrong question, because it presumes the existence of a category called “sign gifts” in the first place.

For example, the very title of Daniel Wallace’s “Two Views on the ‘Sign Gifts’: Continuity vs. Discontinuity” casts the debate in cessationist terms.  Even so, note the quotes around “sign gifts.”  These disappear, however, in the body of the article.  The problem is, while the concept of “sign gifts” provides a convenient holding tank for, as Wallace lists them: “the spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy, miracles, and healings,” the designation is not a Biblical one, as the following evidence demonstrates:

1. The phrase “sign gift” is found nowhere in the Scriptures.  This observation is only a starting place, since many theological terms are not found as such in the Bible.  However, it is a fact worth noting.

2.  There are no passages where “sign gifts” are separated from other spiritual gifts, as if they formed a distinct category.  Gifts such as “prophecy” and “tongues” appear right along with “teaching” and “mercy.”

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Rom. 12:6-8)

For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles?  Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?  But earnestly desire the higher gifts. (1 Cor. 12:8-10, 28-31)

3.  Paul uses the term “sign” (Greek: semeion) unambiguously for only one gift, tongues.

Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers… (1 Cor. 14:22a)

It is a question of interpretation whether in the second half of the verse, Paul meant to call prophecy a “sign” too.  The Greek does not have the word for sign here, though it might be thought to be understood from the preceding clause.  The ESV takes it this way:

“…while prophecy is a sign3 not for unbelievers but for believers,”

But includes a footnote: “Greek lacks a sign.

The NASB has a similar reading.

On the other hand, the NIV takes the opposite position:

“Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.”

The majority of English translations concur, for example:  Wycliffe, Tyndale, KJV, RSV, NKJV, NET, NRSV, NLT, CEV, HCSB.

4.  Paul does refer to “the signs of a true apostle” (2 Cor. 12:12), though he does not say what these are, but only that they were performed “with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.”

5.  Luke refers to signs throughout Acts, and in one passage it specifically refers to a healing as a “sign.”  However, he never refers to “spiritual gifts” at all, much less “sign gifts.” In acts “signs” and “wonders” and “mighty acts” are different ways of indicating what we call miracles.

“What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” (Acts 14:16-17)

For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old. (v. 22)

This is in reference to the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate, which was performed by Peter (Acts 3:6).  If this is an example of a “spiritual gift,” then perhaps there is some justification for calling it a “sign-gift.”  Yet, Luke is not calling it both a sign and a gift; the word Paul uses for spiritual “gift,” charisma, is not in Luke’s vocabulary at all.  He does use the entirely different word dorea, but this by this he refers to the Holy Spirit Himself who is said to be given as a gift to believers.

6.  The author of Hebrews at least uses “sign” and “gift” in the same verse, though he speaks of these in parallel, along with “wonders” and “miracles.”  This verse is sometimes used as if “gifts” were here specifically those so-called “sign gifts,” but it is not what

“…while 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)

7.  There is one other possible source of the concept “sign gifts,” the references in the longer ending of the gospel of Mark.  These verses do not appear to be original, however, as early manuscripts omit them entirely.  However, they do refer to what elsewhere are listed as “gifts” by the term “sign”:

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs. (Mark. 16:17-18, 20)

I would venture to say that these verses are by far the strongest “Biblical” argument for a category called “sign gifts.”  Perhaps the phrase originally came out of this passage, before there came to be a general consensus that they are not genuine.  I’m not sure if cessationists would be better off with these verses than without them, but in any case the passage has doubtful authenticity and makes a poor basis for doctrine one way or the other.

So to summarize, the Scriptural case for a subset of spiritual gifts, identified as “sign gifts” is far from compelling.  As a continuationist, I do not consent to define the debate in those terms.  It lends a certain subtle circularity to the argument that yields a bit of ground to cessationism, because “sign gift” tends to suggest a narrow purpose and thus limited utility.  If you are a cessationist, I suggest trying to make your case without resorting to this term.  If you are a continuationist, you probably don’t use the term anyway, but if you do maybe you should reconsider.


8 responses to ““Sign Gifts”?

  1. Pingback: “Sign Gifts”? « To Be Continued… | All Topics Blog

  2. I’ve never really thought about debunking the term ‘sign gifts’. I am aware that the phrase doesn’t really show up in Scripture in the specific sense. I’ve never been opposed to the idea of sign gifts, but I think it is a category that has been created with an attempt to keep out certain gifts as still being available today. The reason: these specific gifts were confirmatory and attesting ‘signs’ for the message of the gospel preached (especially since we didn’t have a finished NT canon in those days).

    I sense that most cessationists might be backing off the ‘because we didn’t have a finished NT canon in those days’ argument. But these gifts (prophecy, tongues, healings, miralces) are still seen as firstly and mainly given to confirm the message of the first apostles. In the end, this argument seems very reductionistic. I think you even pointed out in one of your previous articles that Jesus was used with these gifts in almost a ‘normal’ (or non-confirmatory) way. He wasn’t trying to confirm any message of His, per se. He was simply being used, maybe as we are, for the common good and for building up.

    As a side note: With regards to #4, I believe the ‘signs of a true apostle’ might be Paul speaking of his suffering on behalf of those he worked with. Whereas the super-apostles were gloating in their self-accomplishments, Paul was being humble enough (though ‘mad’ enough) to boast of how much he had given his life for and suffered for the Corinthians and others. Those are the signs of the a true apostle, and these people also are used in signs, wonders and mighty works.

  3. John C. Poirier

    This post is most helpful. I agree, of course, with your perspective, but have some small differences with the details.

    The conversation about whether it’s legitimate to speak of “sign gifts” continues in the comments over on “Parchment and Pen”.

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  8. Pingback: Extraordinary Gifts | The Prodigal Thought

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