Signs and Wonders

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Signs and Wonders was a phrase used often by leaders of the Charismatic movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is closely associated with the ministry of John Wimber and the Vineyard Movement. One of the major emphases of the belief is that the Gospel can be communicated more effectively to unbelievers if accompanied by supernatural manifestations brought on by the Holy Spirit (such as prophecy and healing).

The origin of the phrase is in Deuteronomy 26:8, which describes the commandment to tithe first fruits as linked to God's having brought the Israelites out of Egypt "with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with signs and wonders". This passage is read with emphasis in the Passover Haggadah and Seder.

A key verse in scripture that is understood by Christian ministries which allow God to move in signs and wonders is Mark 16:20, which states "Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it."


The beginnings of the movement

The recent emerging emphasis on signs and wonders began in 1981 when John Wimber delivered a lecture at Fuller Theological Seminary entitled, “Signs, Wonders and Church Growth.” From 1982 to 1985 Wimber taught the course, “The Miraculous and Church Growth.” The story of this course that many in the Pentecostal, Charismatic and Neocharismatic traditions would consider historic is told in Wagner’s Signs and Wonders Today, published in 1983.

Prior to John Wimber, most healing ministries were tied to their leaders. A distinctive feature of Wimber’s teaching was what some have called the “democratization” of healing. From 1981 onward, a new “Signs and Wonders” movement was underway with an emphasis on equipping and empowering the laity to minister in the power of the Spirit. Wimber’s works include A Brief Sketch of Signs and Wonders through the Church Age, Signs and Wonders and Church Growth, Power Evangelism, Power Healing, Power Encounters and Power Points. John Wimber credited Trevor Martin’s Kingdom Healing as a significant item in the formation of his own theology.

As the Signs and Wonders movement began to emerge out of Wimber’s teaching, dialogue on manifestations of the Spirit became more active. The 1982 meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies in Pasadena, California focused on the gifts of the Spirit. S. S. Schatzmann, who had previously released The Pauline Concept of Charismata in the Light of Recent Critical Literature in 1981, presented his work to the society. A compilation of papers, entitled, Gifts of the Spirit: Papers Presented at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, November 18-20, 1982 represents the content of the 1982 meeting.

Critical responses

Controversy stirred by John Wimber’s teachings on Signs and Wonders brought on a wave of critical responses.

The most persistent criticism centered upon the claim that effective evangelism cannot properly be exercised without the accompanying miraculous work. Such a situation, it was argued, added to the Gospel message and ultimately distorted its message from being one of salvation to being one of experiencing God's blessings now. While many critics did not deny that God could perform the miraculous, they also claimed that it was a fallacy to assume that miracles could be expected - as though God could be "forced" to act as it were.

The following works represent some of those who entered into the dialogue: J. Woodhouse’s Signs & Wonders and Evangelicals: A Response to the Teaching of John Wimber, K. L. Sarles’ An Appraisal of the Signs & Wonders Movement, K. M. Bond’s Signs and Wonders: Perspectives on John Wimber's Vineyard and D. H. Shepherd’s A Critical Analysis of Power Evangelism as an Evangelistic Methodology of the Signs and Wonders Movement. In the late 1990s, R. E. Jackson would produce An Evaluation of the Evangelistic Emphasis of the North American Power Evangelism Movement, 1977-1997 as an aid to skeptics, D. Williams produced Signs, Wonders, and the Kingdom of God: A Biblical Guide for the Reluctant Skeptic.

Defense and reflection

The ongoing theological reflection accompanying the Signs and Wonders movement was evidenced by Fuller Theological Seminary’s 1988 Symposium on Power Evangelism, which produced the document entitled, Papers Presented at the Symposium on Power Evangelism. In the same year, C. Peter Wagner released The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit: Encountering the Power of Signs and Wonders Today.

The study of the missiological implications of Signs and Wonders would continue on into the turn of the century with works such as T. O. Kettenring’s The Impact on Confidence for Personal Witnessing through Exposure to Power Evangelism and J. Lee’s Power Evangelism in the Third Wave Movement and Its Implications for Contemporary Church Growth.

The debate would continue. E. B. Dennis confronted the long-standing objections of cessationists with his thesis entitled, The Duration of the Charismata: An Exegetical and Theological Study of 1 Corinthians 13:10, written in 1989.

As reflected by the sources below, the debate over the Signs and Wonders movement and the present-day function of the manifestation gifts would continue on into the 1990s: D. T. Tharp’s Signs and Wonders in the Twentieth Century Evangelical Church: Corinth Revisited, J. A. Algera’s Signs and Wonders of God's Kingdom, J. M. Ruthven’s On the Cessation of Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles and J. I. Packer’s The Kingdom and the Power.

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