Is there such a thing as “Sign” Gifts?
One often hears from the cessationist that a distinction should be made between certain, so-called “sign” gifts such as tongues, prophecy, miracles, and healing, which, they contend, are no longer given to the church, and all other gifts of the Spirit.
However, much to the surprise of many, the phrase “sign gift” appears nowhere in Scripture. Cessationists often (always?) create a special category for certain miraculous gifts and speak of them as “sign gifts,” believing that this will provide grounds for contending that such gifts served a unique purpose in the first century but have since been withdrawn.
The word “sign” does often appear, and likewise the word “gift” (charisma). But no spiritual gift is explicitly called a “sign gift.” And no author ever speaks of this category of gifts in order to differentiate them from the more ordinary or less miraculous charismata. We might note that in Romans 12:6-8 the gift of prophecy (one of the cessationist’s so-called “sign gifts”) is listed alongside serving and teaching and mercy. No attempt is made to single it out or any other miraculous gift, as if they were of a different nature and purpose from those gifts that all Christians acknowledged continue in the life and ministry of the church today.
It is true that in 1 Corinthians 14:22 Paul says that “tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.” However, a close look at the context makes it clear that to speak in tongues without interpretation in the presence of unbelievers is a negative sign of judgment that Paul does not want the Christian community to give. He does not use the word “sign” to set apart tongues into a different category. In other words, he is rebuking them for a misuse of tongues, not identifying the actual purpose of tongues in the life of the believing community. And be it noted that when Paul immediately mentions prophecy, the word “sign” does not appear in the original text. The translators of the ESV include the word “sign” but direct the reader’s attention to a footnote where they indicate that the “Greek lacks a sign.”
The word for “sign” (semeion) appears often in Acts but usually with reference to “signs and wonders.” The latter typically refer to the abundance of miracles that were associated with Jesus and the original company of apostles (see Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 7:36; 8:13; 14:3; 15:12; also Rom. 15:19; Heb. 2:3-4). Could a particular healing serve as a “sign” in some capacity? Yes (see Acts 4:16, 22; 8:6), but neither healing nor tongues nor prophecy are ever described as “sign gifts” in order to indicate that they were temporary and in a different category from other gifts that were designed by God to be permanent. Again, although on occasion a healing may serve as a “sign,” at no time is healing called a “sign gift”. The only possible exception to this is in the long ending to Mark’s gospel, a paragraph that the majority of NT scholars do not believe is part of the original text of Scripture (see Mark 16:17-18).
Thus, to speak of certain spiritual gifts as “sign” gifts does not serve us well. It tends to suggest a narrow and temporary purpose for some gifts, something not corroborated elsewhere in the NT.