13 Jan 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 3:23-31. Conclusion: signs and wonders.
Perhaps the three most notable features of Luke’s narrative in Acts 3 and 4 are (i) the spectacular healing miracle and prayer for more, (ii) the Christ-centred preaching of Peter, and (iii) the outbreak of persecution. Because Peter’s testimony to Christ has already been considered in some detail during the exposition, and because we will revert in the next chapter to the subject of persecution, we will concentrate now on the other topic of miracles.
The current controversy over signs and wonders should not lead us into a naive polarization between those who are for them and those who are against. Instead, the place to begin is the wide area of agreement which exists among us. All biblical Christians believe that, although the creator’s faithfulness is revealed in the uniformity and regularities of the universe, which are the indispensable bases of the scientific enterprise, he has also sometimes deviated from the norms of nature into abnormal phenomena we call ‘miracles’. But to think of them as ‘deviations of nature’ is not to dismiss them (as did the eighteenth-century deists), as ‘violations of nature’ which cannot happen, and therefore did not and do not happen. No, our biblical doctrine of the creation, that God has made everything out of an original nothing, precludes this kind of scepticism. As Campbell Morgan put it, ‘granted the truth of the first verse of the Bible, and there is no difficulty with the miracles’. Moreover, since we believe that the miracles recorded in the Bible, and not least in Acts, did happen, there is no *a priori* ground for asserting that they cannot recur today. We have no liberty to dictate to God what he is permitted to do and not to do. And if we have hesitations about some claims to ‘signs and wonders’ today, we must make sure that we have not confined both God and ourselves in the prison of Western, rationalistic unbelief.
The popular exponent of ‘signs and wonders’ teaching today is John Wimber of the Vineyard Fellowship in California. He and Kevin Springer have summarised his position in *Power evangelism* (1985) and *Power healing* (1986). Although it is impossible to do justice to it in a few sentences, its leading ideas are (i) that Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God, demonstrated its arrival by signs and wonders, and means us similarly both to proclaim and to dramatize its advance; (ii) that signs and wonders were ‘everyday occurrences in New Testament times’ and ‘a part of daily life’, so that they should characterize ‘the normal Christian life’ for us too; and (iii) that church growth in the Acts was largely due to the prevalence of miracles. ‘Signs and wonders occurred fourteen times in the book of Acts in conjunction with preaching, resulting in church growth. Further, on twenty occasions church growth was a direct result of signs and wonders performed by the disciples.
John Wimber argues his case with sincerity and force. But some unanswered questions remain. Let me ask three, especially in relation to our study of the Acts. First, is it certain that signs and wonders are the main secret of church growth? John Wimber supplies a table of fourteen instances in the Acts in which he claims, signs and wonders accompanied the preaching and ‘produced evangelistic growth in the church’. One or two cases are indisputable, as when the Samaritan crowds ‘heard Philip and saw miraculous signs he did’ and so ‘paid close attention to what he said’ (8:6,12). In a number of other cases, however, the connection between miracles and church growth is made by John Wimber not by Luke. For example, to take the only two cases he gives from the chapters we have so far considered, there is no evidence from the text that the Pentecostal phenomena of wind, fire and languages (2:1-4) were the direct cause of the three thousand converts of verse 41, nor that the healing of the congenital cripple (3:1ff.) was the direct cause of the increase to five thousand (4:4), as John Wimber’s Table claims. Luke seems rather to attribute the growth to the power of Peter’s preaching. In this sense all true evangelism is ‘power evangelism’, for conversion and new birth, and so church growth, can take place only by the power of God through his Word and Spirit. (eg. 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 1 Thess. 1:5)
Tomorrow: Conclusion: signs and wonders (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.