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  • Writer's pictureCole Feix

In Spirit & In Truth: Cessationism and Speaking in Tongues

In Spirit & In Truth: For the past year or so, I’ve been working through the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and specifically the practice of the spiritual gifts. I want to invite you to think through this with us. This is one of the most important aspects of our lives as believers. The gift of the Holy Spirit is one of the fundamental changes that takes place in us when we become believers. Most of us live like nothing ever changed. The Bible calls us to something more than that.

The gift of tongues is the watershed issue when it comes cessationism and continuationism. If you think about what it means to be charismatic, you probably think about tongues. In the American church, this is the predominant issue and a lot of cessationism is geared as a rebuttal to the misuse of speaking in tongues.

In his book, Strange Fire, John MacArthur lays out the case for cessationism when it comes to speaking in tongues. We’ll use his book and some commentaries on 1 Corinthians 12-14 as our primary guides. We’ll make the cessationist case by answering a few questions.

What is speaking in tongues?

This is a difficult question to answer, because there are so many different versions of speaking in tongues practiced in the church today. To paint with a really broad brush, there are essentially two kinds: public and private. The public gift of tongues is seen when an individual addresses the congregation and the message is interpreted by someone else. The private gift of tongues, if it truly is a gift, is a prayer language spoken to God. Both groups share a common characteristic in their modern manifestation. Today, most of what is considered speaking in tongues consists of strings of unintelligible syllables that are not classifiable as a coherent language.

This would appear to be very different from the way the gift of tongues is described in Acts 2. The disciples spoke in different languages that they did not know, and people from all over heard them speak, or heard them being translated into their own native language. MacArthur argues this is also a major change from the beginning of the modern charismatic movement in the early 20th century when charismatic preachers like Charles Fox Parham and Agnes Osman believed they had received the ability to speak in foreign languages or the language of Heaven.

Many charismatics brush this criticism aside arguing that the languages of Heaven don’t need to abide by any human linguistic standards. Cessationists have a harder time with this. The Greek word glossa used in the New Testament is usually used to describe understandable languages.

What’s going on in 1 Corinthians?

1 Corinthians 12-14 is the major biblical text that addresses tongues. Paul addresses what is going on in the church, and he gives them some instruction about how the church should operate. Unlike most modern churches, the Corinthian church had no shortage of gifts. In fact, one of Paul’s overarching commands is that they limit the amount of people prophesying and speaking in tongues in their services.

Is the gift of tongues the same in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 12-14? Cessationists argue that there is no reason to believe they should not be the same. First, MacArthur makes the argument that Luke, who was a traveling partner of Paul’s and probably spent time with him in Corinth would not have been unaware of what Paul was addressing in the Corinthian letters. Since 1 Corinthians was written before Luke and Acts, Luke would have had Paul’s teaching on tongues as a guideline for his thinking. Why would Luke use the exact same words in Acts that Paul did in 1 Corinthians if he meant something completely different? The Greek terms are exactly the same.

Second, Paul appears to be referencing existing languages when he’s talking about the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:10-11, “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning, but if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me.”

Third, in 1 Corinthians, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for the way they were practicing the gift of tongues. One feature commonly overlooked in 1 Cor. 14 is Paul’s insistence that prophecy is greater than speaking in tongues in the church. The congregation at Corinth appears to have been gravitating toward the flashier gifts instead of the embracing all the gifts God had given them. Paul shakes up their hierarchy so that they might see the gifts from God’s perspective. Although he does not prohibit speaking in tongues, and in 14:39 he tells the Corinthians not to prohibit the gift, he does charge them to exercise the gifts in an orderly fashion.

To summarize Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 12-14, everything in the church should be fitting and done with order. The gifts are for building up of the body, and anything that does not do that should not be done in the assembly. It’s important to note that Paul encourages them to use the gifts, but to use them correctly.

Is the gift of tongues practiced in charismatic churches the same as the gift in the Bible?

Most cessationists will say it is not. The instances of speaking in tongues in the New Testament all consist of speaking in a foreign tongue that is intelligible to the people listening. This is the case in Acts 2, when the disciples began to speak in foreign languages they had no previous knowledge of, and the people around were amazed, saying, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

Outside of 1 Corinthians, this is the way tongues is portrayed in the Bible. As we’ll see in a few weeks, charismatics argue that what was going on in Corinth is the exact same things as what goes on in charismatic churches today.

What about private prayer languages?

In 1 Corinthians 13:1, Paul mentions speaking in the tongues of angels. This is the second major version of the gift of tongues. Many charismatics believe that Christians can pray in a tongue of angels and communicate with God. They look to 1 Corinthians 14:2, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit,” or 14:14, where Paul writes, “For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.”

There is certainly something different about the private prayer language. It does not fit any of the usual descriptions of the spiritual gifts elsewhere in the Bible. Tom Schreiner addresses this in Spiritual Gifts, by observing that a private prayer language is not corporate and it is not edifying to the body. It is a self-edifying practice. As Paul argues in 1 Cor. 14, it does not build up the church, and Paul urges the Corinthians to pray in an intelligible tongue or to pray in tongues only when there would be someone to translate. He admits that there may be private prayer tongues, but since they are not gifts, they are not a topic of concern between cessationists and charismatics.

The strongest argument concerning the gift of tongues lies in the fact that Paul appears to be addressed public prayer in this context. It is not that he rules out private prayer languages, but that he doesn’t mention them at all. The major point of this passage is that the litmus test for the appropriate use of spiritual gifts is the building up of the body. In verses 6-12, Paul gives four examples that all illustrate the importance of intelligibility. Paul argues that because speaking or praying in a tongue does not concern or build up the whole body, it should not be done in the worship services without translation. This would rule out private prayer languages in the assembly.

Why did the gift of tongues cease?

Cessationist don’t deny that the gift of tongues existed in the early church. Some even argue that the gift of tongues exists in frontline mission work today where missionaries do not know the language of indigenous peoples. Cessationists do believe that the gift of tongues has ceased in the church. They believe that the gift served several purposes.

First, the gift of tongues allowed the rapid transmission of the gospel. On the day of Pentecost, people from all over the world were gathered in Jerusalem, and when the disciples spoke in tongues, all the people were able to hear the message and take it back to their own land and culture.

Second, the gift of tongues showed God’s fulfillment of his promises from the old covenant. The day of Pentecost is a fulfillment of the story of the tower of Babel. There, God dispersed the people and confused their languages, but on Pentecost, God reunited his people by making the language intelligible to everyone.

Third, the gift of tongues authenticated the ministry of the gospel. This is a consistent argument across the board when it comes to miracles in the New Testament. Jesus, Peter, Paul, and others did not do miracles for their own sake, but as a confirmation that their message was from God.

Fourth, the most common argument cessationists make about tongues is the historical record. The gift of tongues was not observed, and for a lot of Christian history it was condemned, between the time of the early church and the first years of the 20th century. Sinclair Ferguson gives three reasons for this pattern. First, spiritual gifts always come in episodes in the Bible—miracles are contained in small windows of history. Second, miraculous gifts accompany new revelation, as seen in 2 Corinthians 12:12 and Hebrews 2:3-4. Finally, the gifts appear to fade as the church expands. There is no mention of the gifts in the pastoral epistles or the later books of the NT.


In Strange Fire, John MacArthur puts a fine point on the cessationist position on tongues, “The genuine gift endowed a person with the miraculous ability to speak in unlearned foreign languages for the sake of proclaiming the Word of God and authenticating the gospel message. When used in the church, it had to be translated so other believers could be edified by the message.” He argues that this is not what is being done in the charismatic churches, and it is not an operative gift in the church today.

The gift of tongues is incredibly divisive. Because of the warnings Paul gives in 1 Corinthians to avoid using the gifts in a way that creates disunity, many cessationists embrace their position on tongues out of practicality. Others hold that the New Testament demonstrates that the gift of tongues was only given to surround the coming of the Holy Spirit and faded away. Others believe that the historical record proves God has stopped giving the gift of tongues.

Next week, we’ll flip sides and look at the charismatic position!

Check out the other posts in this series:

Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.

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