Does the NT Rebuke Christians for "seeking" and "praying" for Signs and Wonders?
Yet another argument one often hears from cessationists pertains to the alleged negative assessment in the NT regarding the nature, purpose and impact of signs, wonders and miracles. I had been taught and believed that it was an indication of spiritual immaturity to seek signs in any sense, that it was a weak faith, born of theological ignorance, that prayed for healing or a demonstration of divine power. Some are even more pointed in their opinion. James Boice, in his contribution to the book Power Religion (Moody, 1992) quotes with approval the sentiment of John Woodhouse, to the effect that “a desire for further signs and wonders is sinful and unbelieving” (126).
But consider, for example, Acts 4:29-31, which records this prayer of the church in Jerusalem:
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your 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. And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”
This text is important for at least two reasons: it shows that it is good to pray for signs and wonders, that it is not evil or a sign of emotional and mental imbalance to petition God for demonstrations of his power; and, secondly, it shows that there is no necessary or inherent conflict between miracles and the message, between wonders and the word of the cross. Let me take each of these points in turn.
First, it is good and helpful and honoring to the Lord Jesus Christ to seek and pray for the demonstration of his power in healing, signs and wonders. But what about Matthew 12:39 and Matthew 16:4? Doesn’t Jesus denounce as wicked and adulterous those who “crave” and “seek” after signs (cf. 1 Cor. 1:22)? Yes, but note well whom he is addressing and why they are denounced. These are unbelieving scribes and Pharisees, not children of God. These who made such demands of Christ had no intention of following him. “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” (John Piper, “Signs and Wonders: Another View,” The Standard [October 1991], 23). Seeking signs as a pretext for criticizing Jesus or from a hankering to see the sensational is rightly rebuked. But that certainly wasn’t the motivation of the early church, nor need it be ours. Perhaps an illustration will help. John Piper explains:
“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, 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” (23).
Do you come to God insistent on a miracle, being prompted by an unbelieving heart that demands he put on a show before you will obey him? Or do you come humbly, in prayer, with a desire to glorify God in the display of his power and an equal desire to minister his mercy and compassion and love to those in need? The former, God condemns. The latter, he commends.
Second, the power of signs and wonders does not dilute the power of the gospel nor is there any inherent inconsistency or unavoidable conflict between wonders and the word. Still, there are those who appeal to Romans 1:16 and 1 Corinthians 1:18,22-23, texts that assert the centrality of the cross and the power of the gospel to save (theological truths to which all of us, I am sure, wholeheartedly subscribe). But the author of these passages is Paul, the same man who described his evangelistic ministry as one characterized by the “power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:19), the same man who wrote 1 Corinthians 12-14 and about whom most of Acts, with all its miraculous phenomena, is concerned. It is none other than Paul, whose message and preaching came “not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). And it was Paul who reminded the Thessalonians that the gospel did not come to them “in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5).
If there is an inherent inconsistency or conflict between miracles and the message then why was God himself "bearing witness to the word of his grace, granting that signs and wonders be done by their hands" (Acts 14:3). If signs and wonders dilute the word of God’s grace, if signs and wonders detract from the centrality of the cross, if signs and wonders reflect a loss of confidence in the power of the gospel, then God cannot escape the charge of undermining his own activity. If there is a conflict between wonders and the word, it is in our minds that the problem exists. It isn’t in Paul’s mind. And it certainly isn’t in God’s.
Signs and wonders and miraculous phenomena could not save a soul then nor can they now. The power unto salvation is in the Holy Spirit working through the gospel of the cross of Christ. But such miraculous phenomena “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” (23).
Be it noted that if any generation was least in need of supernatural authentication, it was that of the early church. Yet they prayed earnestly for signs and wonders. Piper explains:
“This was the generation whose preaching (of Peter and Stephen and Phillip 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 with more immediate and 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” (23).
Others have argued that signs, wonders and miracles breed a spirit of triumphalism inconsistent with the call to suffer for the sake of the gospel. Those who desire and pray for the miraculous, so goes the charge, do not take seriously the painful realities of living in a fallen world. Weakness, afflictions, persecution and suffering are an inevitable part of living in the “not-yet” of the kingdom. But when I read the NT, I see no inherent conflict between signs and suffering, and it is the NT, not the posturing or glitz of certain TV evangelists, that must be allowed to decide the issue. Paul certainly sensed no incompatibility between the two, for they were both characteristic of his life and ministry. As C. K. Barrett put it, “Miracles were no contradiction of the theologia crucis he proclaimed and practised, since they were performed not in a context of triumphant success and prosperity, but in the midst of the distress and vilification he was obliged to endure” (Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 321).
As Piper has said, “Paul’s ‘thorn’ [in the flesh] no doubt pressed deeper with every healing he performed” (28). Personal trials and afflictions did not lead him to renounce the miraculous in his ministry. Nor did the supernatural displays of God’s power lead him into a naive, “Pollyanna” outlook on the human condition. Again, if signs and suffering are incompatible, one must look somewhere other than in the Bible to prove it.
One final point needs to be made. Some would dismiss my appeal to Acts 4:29-31 by insisting that such a prayer is valid only when “apostles” are present. But this will not do, given the fact that we see non-apostolic believers, such as Stephen (Acts 6:8), Philip (Acts 8:6-7, 13), Ananias (Acts 9:17-18), anonymous disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:6), women at Caesarea (Acts 21:8-9), believers in Galatia (Gal. 3:5), believers in Rome (Rom. 12:6), believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14), believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:19-20), and believers in Ephesus (1 Timothy 4:14; 1:18-19), all exercising what even cessationists believe are miraculous gifts of the Spirit!
[Much of this article was adapted from my contribution to the book, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views [Zondervan], 195-200, 321.]