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  • Writer's pictureCole Feix

In Spirit & In Truth: Charismatics 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.

We’ve finally made it to the topic you’ve probably been waiting for, speaking in tongues. While the gift of prophecy is the most difficult doctrinal piece of the debate between cessationists and charismatics, the gift of tongues is far and away the most common source of disagreement. Chances are, when you think about the gifts of the Spirit, you probably think about speaking in tongues.

Some of this is undoubtedly due to the strangeness of the gift of tongues. Most other things in the Bible have some sort of cultural analog. The gift of teaching is not weird, neither are the gifts of encouragement or hospitality. Everyday ordinary people - although they may not have the gifts of the Spirit - have an interest in these things. But when it comes to the gift of tongues, there is no parallel. If someone all of a sudden starts speaking gibberish, that’s going to catch you off guard, no matter what the circumstances are. Speaking in tongues is mysterious to us, and if you’ve had a surprise encounter with the gift of tongues, it can be pretty scary.

In the first century, the gift of tongues wouldn’t have been as strange as it is today. People would have been familiar with nonsensical ecstatic speech, because that’s what some of the ancient oracles did. Spontaneously speaking in foreign languages would have been much less common. When the apostles began to speak in tongues on the Day of Pentecost it was just as weird then as it would be today.

In the Bible

There are two primary texts that describe the gift of tongues in the NT, Acts and 1 Corinthians. The book of Acts presents a pretty clear picture. First, the instances of tongues in Acts all appear to follow the same pattern. In Acts 2, 10, and 19, people speak in tongues after they receive the Holy Spirit. In each of these cases, people spoke in foreign languages that would have been intelligible to those who heard them. For example, in Acts 2:8, the people in the crowd say, “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” This is consistent with what the word glossa, which is used in Acts and 1 Corinthians, means - different languages.

While we only see speaking in tongues after someone has received the Holy Spirit, not everyone who receives the Spirit speaks in tongues, see Acts 8:15-17. Overall, we can see that in Acts, as Craig Keener helpfully puts it, speaking in tongues is a normal occurrence, but it is not a normative occurrence; it can happen, but it does not always happen.

Second, the instances of tongues in Acts all appear to happen for the same purpose. The theme of the book of Acts is given in Jesus’ final words to the disciples in 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The rest of the book is the story of how this promise comes true. Speaking in tongues, and all of the miracles in the book of Acts fall under this umbrella. God empowers his people to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, and they need to be able to speak a new language to reach people for Christ, the Spirit makes that happen.

The letter of 1 Corinthians is a little bit more difficult. Paul talks about the gift of tongues as if it is primarily a way of praying. In 14:2, he says, “For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God.” This is a little bit different. Here’s one thing to keep in mind, though. 1 Corinthians was written before the book of Acts, and Acts was written by Luke, who traveled with Paul. So Luke would have known what went on in Corinth and what Paul had regularly taught about the gift of tongues when he wrote Acts. So we shouldn’t think that these two accounts are in conflict with each other. Luke may be describing something different, but he is not ignorant of what was going on in the churches or what Paul’s views were on the topic of tongues.

In Practice

Speaking in tongues has been the trademark of the charismatic and Pentecostal movements from the very beginning. At the Asuza Street Revival, the gift of tongues was what they were teaching about and praying for. The major dividing line between classic Pentecostalism and everyone else is that they believe two things:

  • Baptism in the Holy Spirit is a separate event that occurs after conversion and water baptism.

  • The physical sign of baptism in the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues.

If you’ve ever been somewhere that taught you have to speak in tongues to be a Christian, this is why. They believe the stories in Acts teach that every person should speak in tongues when they receive the Holy Spirit. As we’ve seen in the texts, this was normal but not normative

This is also the point at which many charismatics - the Reformed group of Piper, Storms, Chandler, Grudem, and Driscoll as well as several other prominent pastors and scholars including Wesley, Keener, Dunn, and the Vineyard movement - part ways. They reject that there is a second baptism, but they believe every Christian receives the Holy Spirit at conversion and that many of them speak in tongues.

In his book, Showing the Spirit, D.A. Carson puts it plainly, “If the charismatic movement would firmly renounce, on biblical grounds, not the gift of tongues but the idea that tongues constitute a special sign of a second blessing, a very substantial part of the wall between charismatics and non-charismatics would come crashing down.”

In the church today, this is the biggest dividing issue when it comes to the gift of tongues. The charismatics who reject the second work of the Spirit have several views in common:

First, speaking in tongues is a gift given by the Holy Spirit and functions like all of the other gifts of the Spirit. It should be used for the building up of the church within the parameters Paul assigns in 1 Corinthians 14.

Second, many believers experience a private instance of speaking in tongues when they pray. Some believe that this is not in itself a gift of the Spirit for the church, but one of the ways believers walk by the Spirit. It may be that this is what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:26, “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Paul appears to have practiced this himself (1 Corinthians 14:18-19), but he forbids it during church when everyone is gathered together.

Third, if someone is going to speak or pray in tongues in public, then they need to be interpreted. If they are not, then it violates the main principle Paul provides for the use of the gifts; “strive to excel in building up the church” (1 Cor. 14:12).

The gift of tongues has several facets. Often, you’ll hear stories of speaking in tongues from people who are doing frontline mission work with unreached people groups. This would fit right along with some of the examples in Acts. God empowers his people supernaturally in many ways to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. Others will speak in tongues and have their prayer interpreted in the church so that everyone can be built up from what they’re saying. Others will pray privately in the Spirit, speaking in tongues and drawing near to God. All three of these examples match up with what the Bible teaches about the spiritual gift of tongues. Unfortunately, there are other examples, and the ones that do not fit into these categories violate the teachings of Scripture.

We have two more posts in our series. Next week, we’ll discuss the other gifts of the Spirit; healing, teaching, mercy, and others. We’ll also cover the gifts listed in Ephesians 4, which are commonly considered gifts of specific roles in the church. In the final week, we’ll bring everything together with a discussion of the role of the Holy Spirit and the nature of the gifts.

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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