The spiritual gift of speaking in tongues remains controversial in our day and is a subject deserving of our close attention. This short article is not designed to argue that tongues are still valid but simply attempts to describe the nature and function of tongues speech.
#1: The “tongues” spoken on the Day of Pentecost were real human languages.
The variety of nations represented (vv. 8-11) would certainly confirm this. The word “language” (vv. 6, 8) = dialekto = dialect (cf. Acts 1:19; 21:40; 22:2; 26:14). Can this phenomenon still occur today? Absolutely, yes. But in my opinion it happens quite rarely.
Some insist that the tongues in Acts 2 were not human languages. Acts 2 describes not the hearing of one’s own language but the hearing in one’s own language. At the same moment that “other tongues” were spoken through the Holy Spirit, they were immediately translated by the same Holy Spirit into the many languages of the multitude (J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology, 2:215). Thus, there is both a miracle of “speech”—other, different, spiritual tongues—and a miracle of “understanding,” each facilitated by the Holy Spirit.
If this view is correct…
a miraculous charisma of the Holy Spirit (namely, the gift of interpretation) was given to every unbeliever present on the day of Pentecost. But it is Luke’s purpose “to associate the descent of the Spirit with the Spirit’s activity among the believers, not to postulate a miracle of the Spirit among those who were still unbelievers” (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 138). Or, as Max Turner puts it, surely Luke “would not wish to suggest that the apostolic band merely prattled incomprehensibly, while God worked the yet greater miracle of interpretation of tongues in the unbelievers” (The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts, 223).
#2: The gift of speaking in tongues can include “heavenly” dialects.
The gift of speaking in tongues that continues throughout church history and is so widespread today is the Spirit-prompted ability to pray and praise God in a heavenly dialect, possibly even an angelic language that is not related to anything spoken on earth such as German or Swahili or Mandarin or English. The Holy Spirit personally crafts or creates a special and unique language that enables a Christian to speak to God in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. This gift is not a human language that one might encounter in some foreign country, but a Spirit-empowered capacity to speak meaningful words that are only understood by our Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (unless, of course, God provides the interpretation through the one speaking or through another believer.
#3: There is no evidence that tongues-speech in Acts 2 (or elsewhere) served an evangelistic purpose.
The content of tongues-speech was “the mighty deeds of God” (Acts 2:11; 10:46; 19:17). People don’t hear an evangelistic message but doxology or worship. So, again, how can tongues be evangelistic when the only two occurrences of tongues outside of Acts 2 (Acts 10 and 19) took place when only believers were present? Neither is tongues the invariable sign of Spirit-baptism or Spirit-filling. There are numerous instances in Acts of true conversion and Spirit-baptism where no tongues are mentioned (2:37-42; 8:26-40; 9:1-19; 13:44-52; 16:11-15; 16:25-34; 17:1-10a; 17:10b-15; 17:16-33; 18:1-11; 18:24-28).
#4: Speaking in tongues is prayer, praise, and self-edification.
Paul says that the one who speaks in a tongue “speaks not to men but to God” (1 Cor. 14:2). This means that tongues is a form of prayer. See especially 1 Cor. 14:14. Tongues is also a form of praise (1 Cor. 14:15) and a way in which we give thanks to God (1 Cor. 14:16-17).
Tongues is also a way in which we edify or strengthen ourselves. Paul writes, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (1 Cor. 14:4). Self-edification is a good thing, as we are commanded edify ourselves in Jude 20: “But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God.” Self-edification is only bad if it is done as an end in itself. It is good to take whatever steps you can to edify yourself, to build up and strengthen your soul, so that you might be better able and equipped to build up others (see 1 Cor. 12:7).
#5: Interpreted tongues edify others in the same way prophecy does:
“Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:5). Prophecy is to be preferred over uninterpreted tongues in the corporate gathering of the church because it is intelligible and thus can serve better than unintelligible tongues speech to build up, edify, and encourage the people of God. But this obtains only in the absence of an interpretation for tongues. If “someone interprets” (1 Cor. 14:5b), then tongues can also serve to strengthen and instruct God’s people.
#6: Tongues are a “sign for unbelievers”.
What does Paul mean in 1 Cor. 14:21-25 that tongues are a “sign for unbelievers”? In 1 Cor. 14:21, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11, the meaning of which is found in a prior warning of God to Israel in Deuteronomy 28:49. If Israel violates the covenant, God will chastise them by sending a foreign enemy, speaking a foreign tongue. Thus, confusing and confounding speech was a sign of God’s judgment against a rebellious people. This is the judgment that Isaiah says has come upon Israel in the 8th century BC when the Assyrians invaded and conquered the Jews (cf. also what happened in the 6th c. BC, Jer. 5:15).
The principle is this:
When God speaks to people in a language they cannot understand, it is a form of punishment for unbelief. It signifies his anger. Incomprehensible speech will not guide or instruct or lead to faith and repentance, but only confuse and destroy. Thus, if outsiders or unbelievers come in and you speak in a language they cannot understand, you will simply drive them away. You will be giving a “sign” to unbelievers that is entirely wrong, because their hardness of heart has not reached the point where they deserve that severe sign of judgment.
So when you come together (1 Cor. 14:26), if anyone speaks in a tongue, be sure there is an interpretation (v. 27). Otherwise the tongue-speaker should be quiet in the church (v. 29). Prophecy, on the other hand, is a sign of God’s presence with believers (v. 22b), and so Paul encourages its use when unbelievers are present in order that they may see this sign and thereby come to Christian faith (vv. 24-25).
Therefore, Paul is not talking about the function of the gift of tongues in general, but only about the negative result of one particular abuse of tongues-speech (namely, its use without interpretation in the public assembly). So, do not permit uninterpreted tongues-speech in church, for in doing so, you run the risk of communicating a negative sign to people that will only drive them away.
#7: There are objections that need to be addressed:
One objection to the gift of tongues…is that nothing is of spiritual value unless it passes through the cerebral cortex of the brain and can be cognitively understood. Any notion that the Holy Spirit might engage with the human spirit directly, by-passing our cognitive thought processes, is anathema to most evangelicals. If it is to be spiritually profitable it must be intelligible.
But there is a vast difference between the necessity of intelligibility for the sake of the entire body of Christ, on the one hand, and whether or not a Christian can be edified and blessed and built up spiritually while speaking in uninterpreted tongues privately, on the other. Tongues in the corporate assembly must be intelligible or interpreted for the sake of others who are listening.
Profound spiritual fruit is possible in the life of the individual believer when he/she prays in tongues privately.
When you pray in tongues in private, you are most certainly praising. The person who speaks in tongues is truly praying to God (14:14), praising or worshiping God (14:15b), and thanking God (14:16), all the while his/her “mind” is “unfruitful” (1 Cor. 14:14). By “unfruitful” he means either, “I don’t understand what I am saying,” or “other people don’t understand what I’m saying,” or perhaps both.
Paul doesn’t understand what he is praying or how he is giving thanks or in what manner he is worshiping. But praying, praising, and giving thanks is most certainly taking place! And all this at the same time he lacks cognitive awareness of what is happening.
Many say: “Paul’s response to his mind being ‘unfruitful’ should be to stop speaking in tongues altogether. Shut it down. Forbid it.” But that isn’t Paul’s conclusion. No sooner does he say that his “mind is unfruitful” than he makes known his determined resolve: “I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also” (1 Cor. 14:15). We know that Paul is referring to praying and singing in tongues because in the next verse he describes giving thanks with one’s spirit as unintelligible to those who may visit the church meeting.
Paul was not afraid of a trans-rational experience.
If Paul had been fearful of trans-rational experience (which, by the way, is far and away different from being irrational), would not his next step be to repudiate the use of tongues altogether, or at minimum to warn us of its dangers? At the very least we should expect Paul to say something to minimize its importance so as to render it trite, at least in comparison with other gifts. But he does no such thing.
Paul asks the question, in view of what has just been said in v. 14, “What is the outcome then?” (NASB; v. 15a), or “What am I to do?” (ESV). I know what many of you think he should do: “Put a stop to this ridiculous and useless practice of speaking in tongues. There is only one viable response; only one reasonable conclusion: I’ll never speak in tongues again since my understanding is unfruitful.” But that isn’t what he says.
His response is found in v. 15. There we read that he is determined to do both! “I WILL pray with my spirit,” i.e., I will pray in tongues, and “I WILL pray with the mind also,” i.e., I will pray in Greek or the language of the people so that others who speak and understand the language can profit from what I say.” Clearly, Paul believed that a spiritual experience beyond the grasp of his mind, which is what I mean by “trans-rational”, was yet profoundly profitable. He believed that it wasn’t absolutely necessary for an experience to be rationally cognitive for it to be spiritually beneficial and glorifying to God.
#8: Paul preferred to exercise the gift of speaking in tongues in private.
If Paul speaks in tongues more frequently and fervently than anyone else, yet in church almost never does (preferring there to speak in a way all can understand), where does he speak in tongues? In what context would the affirmation of v. 18 (“I thank God I speak in tongues more than all of you”) take shape? Clearly, Paul exercised his remarkable gift in private, in the context of his personal, devotional intimacy with God. Again, the only grounds I can see for objecting to this scenario is the reluctance that many secessionists have for spiritual experiences that bypass or transcend the mind.
Logical, reasonable, highly-educated Paul prayed in tongues more than anyone else!
Let’s remember, this is the man who wrote Romans. This is the man whose incomparable mind and power of logical argumentation rendered helpless his theological opponents. This is the man who is known to history as the greatest theologian outside of Jesus himself. This is the man who took on and took out the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17)! Yes, logical, reasonable, highly-educated Paul prayed in tongues more than anyone! Paul not only believed in the spiritual value of praying in private in uninterpreted tongues, he also himself practiced it. In fact, he happily declares that he prays in private in uninterpreted and therefore unintelligible tongues more than all the tongue-happy Corinthians combined!
#9: Is it God’s will that every Christian speak in tongues?
Paul writes: “Now I want you all to speak in tongues” (1 Cor. 14:5a).
Those who say “No” appeal to 1 Cor. 7:7 where Paul uses identical language to what is found in 14:5. With regard to his own state of celibacy, Paul writes: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” No one will argue that Paul intends for all Christians to remain single as he is. His “wish”, therefore, should not be taken as the expression of an unqualified and universal desire. Surely, then, we should not expect all to speak in tongues either.
Secondly, according to 1 Cor. 12:7-11, tongues, like the other gifts mentioned, is bestowed to individuals as the Holy Spirit wills. If Paul meant that “all” were to experience this gift, why did he employ the terminology of “to one is given . . . and to another . . . to another,” etc.? In other words, Paul seems to suggest that the Spirit sovereignty differentiates among Christians and distributes one or more gifts to this person and yet another, a different gift to this person and yet another gift to that one, and so on.
Paul implies that not all have the gift, but doesn’t imply that all cannot.
Then there is 1 Cor. 12:28-30 where Paul quite explicitly states that “all do not speak with tongues” any more than all are apostles or all are teachers or all have gifts of healings and so on. In Greek there is a grammatical structure that is designed to elicit a negative response to the question being asked. Paul employs it in 1 Cor. 12:29-30,
“All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?” (NASB)
Paul asks his question in such a way that he wants you to respond by saying, “No, of course not.” But what about other texts where Paul uses the “I want” or “I wish” terminology (1 Cor. 10:1a; 11:3; 12:1)? The same Greek verb is used in these texts that we find in 1 Cor. 14:5 (“I want” or “I wish”), and in all of them what the apostle wants applies equally and universally to every believer. Furthermore, in 1 Cor. 7 Paul tells us explicitly why his “wish” for universal celibacy cannot and should not be fulfilled. It is because “each has his own gift from God” (1 Cor. 7:7b). But in 1 Cor. 14 no such contextual clues are found that suggest Paul’s “wish” or “desire” for all to speak in tongues cannot be fulfilled.
The potential for every believer to pray in tongues in private devotion exists.
Some (but not I) insist that 1 Cor. 12:7-11 and 12:28-30 refer to the gift of tongues in public ministry, whereas 1 Cor. 14:5 is describing the gift in private devotion. In 12:28 Paul specifically says he is describing what happens “in the church” or “in the assembly” (cf. 11:18; 14:19, 23, 28, 33, 35). Not everyone is gifted by the Spirit to speak in tongues during the corporate gathering of the church. But the potential does exist for every believer to pray in tongues in private.
Gift of Tongues v. Grace of Tongues
Jack Hayford argues that the gift of tongues is limited in distribution (1 Cor. 12:11,30), and its public exercise is to be closely governed (1 Cor. 14:27-28); while the grace of tongues is so broadly available that Paul wishes that all enjoyed its blessing (1 Cor. 14:5a), which includes distinctive communication with God (1 Cor. 14:2); edifying of the believer’s private life (1 Cor. 14:4); and worship and thanksgiving with beauty and propriety (1 Cor. 14:15-17) (The Beauty of Spiritual Language, 102-06).
The difference between these operations of the Holy Spirit is that not every Christian has reason to expect he or she will necessarily exercise the public gift; while any Christian may expect and welcome the private grace of spiritual language in his or her personal time of prayer fellowship with God (1 Cor. 14:2), praiseful worship before God (1 Cor. 14:15-17), and intercessory prayer to God (Rom. 8:26-27).
Not every believer contributes to the body in the same way.
Thus, according to Hayford, Paul’s point at the end of 1 Corinthians 12 is that not every believer will contribute to the body in precisely the same way. Not everyone will minister a prophetic word, not everyone will teach, and so on. But whether or not everyone might pray privately in tongues is another matter, not in Paul’s purview until chapter 14.
“All are not prophets, are they?” (1 Cor. 12:29). No. But Paul is quick to say that the potential exists for “all” to prophesy (14:1, 31). Why could not the same be true for tongues? Couldn’t Paul be saying that whereas all do not speak in tongues as an expression of corporate, public ministry, it is possible that all may speak in tongues as an expression of private praise and prayer? Just as Paul’s rhetorical question in 12:29 is not designed to rule out the possibility that all may utter a prophetic word, so also his rhetorical question in 12:30 is not designed to exclude anyone from exercising tongues in their private devotional experience.
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