Does God Still Give the Gift of Speaking in Tongues? Part 2
Part 1 of this article can be found here.
In part 1 of this article I argued that the Bible fits better with the position that God continues to give the gift of speaking in tongues than with the view that He ceased doing this long ago.
I will now move on to look at objections that are made by those who say that God no longer gives this gift. I am confident that each objection can be answered adequately.
I mentioned at the beginning of the article that 1 Cor 14 refers to two different kinds of tongues. First, there is tongues for strengthening the individual Christian. And second, there is the tongue plus interpretation method of strengthening the local church.
As I also noted, the second kind of tongues is really just equivalent to a prophecy. So the objections that are leveled against the existence today of this kind of tongues are almost exactly the same as the objections that are leveled against the existence today of the gift of prophecy.
In an earlier article, “Every Christian Should Desire the Gift of Prophecy,” I have given answers to objections to the existence of the gift of prophecy today, and I don’t want to repeat all that here. Readers who are interested can find part 2 (the relevant part) of that article here.
In what follows I will concentrate only on objections that are made to the existence of tongues for strengthening the individual Christian. So in the following discussion, when I refer to the gift of tongues, I will be thinking specifically of this kind of tongues.
Some of the objections will overlap each other to a certain extent, and so will some of the answers.
The gifts of the Spirit listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10, including speaking in tongues, are what are known as “sign gifts.” These gifts were given by God in the first decades of the church to act as signs pointing to the truth of the gospel message while the church was getting established. However, once the church was established, sign gifts no longer had any place in God’s purposes.
There are several big problems with this argument:
(1) “Sign gifts” is not a biblical term, and even the concept is not a helpful one.
To begin with, some of the gifts listed in 1 Cor 12:8-10, such as distinguishing between spirits (v. 10), don’t really seem to have all that much to do with pointing to the truth of the gospel message.
Furthermore, even gifts that do often point to this have other purposes too.
For example, let’s think for a moment about the healing miracles that we read about in the book of Acts. This book refers to some supernatural healings that served to confirm the gospel message (e.g., in Acts 3:1-10; 8:5-7; 9:36-42). However, this was not all that these miracles did. They also helped to build up those who were already saved in the faith. And there is no doubt that part of God’s reason for working these miracles was simply because He loved people and wanted to free them from suffering. To say that the Christians who worked the miracles in Acts had “sign gifts” is an unhelpful description. These miracles were much more than just signs.
(2) To the extent that some gifts of the Spirit did function in the first century as signs pointing to the truth of the gospel, there is no reason whatsoever to think that these signs would be any less effective today. The fact that the church is now well established is beside the point.
(3) There seems to be an unspoken assumption in this argument that God wants to do the minimum amount of giving gifts that is possible. The argument seems to suppose that after the first few decades of the church, God said to Himself:
“Phew! Finally! The church is now established enough that I don’t have to give gifts like tongues any more. What a relief!”
But why would we assume that God wants to give these gifts as little as He has to? There is no good reason.
(4) It is a least questionable whether the gift of tongues for strengthening the individual Christian should be understood as a sign at all. It is true that in 1 Cor 14:22 Paul describes tongues as a sign for unbelievers. But the focus in this verse is on tongues that are spoken out loud in Christian gatherings. Tongues for strengthening the individual is normally a private thing.
The gift of tongues was useful for a time when there was no New Testament. However, once the NT was completed tongues no longer had any place in God’s purposes.
Again, there are big problems with this argument:
(1) Those who argue in this way seem to be assuming that there is much more of a difference between the first century and today than there really is.
In the first century, Christians had the Old Testament and the apostles’ teaching ministries. Today we have the OT and the NT. The difference between then and now is not that great, because the NT is full of the apostles’ teaching. So if the gift of tongues was useful in the first century to complement the OT and the apostles’ teaching, it makes sense to think that it would be useful today to complement the OT and the NT.
(2) The gift of tongues for strengthening the individual Christian is a mysterious thing that involves a deep work of the Spirit to build up that Christian in the faith. The fact that the NT now exists is really beside the point as far as the usefulness of this gift is concerned.
Christians who say that God still gives the gifts of 1 Cor 12:8-10, including tongues, also accept Pentecostal theology on baptism in the Holy Spirit. This theology claims that God usually baptizes Christians in the Spirit at some point after their conversion. However, the Bible teaches that Christians are baptized in the Spirit at conversion. Therefore, we should reject the idea that gifts are for today.
It is true that Scripture teaches that Christians are baptized in the Spirit at conversion (1 Cor 12:13). Nevertheless, there are some serious mistakes in this argument.
(1) It is simply not the case that all Christians who say that God still gives the gifts of 1 Cor 12:8-10 also accept Pentecostal theology on baptism in the Spirit. Many who accept the gifts do accept this theology. However, many others who accept the gifts reject this theology.
Some major figures in present-day evangelicalism who accept that gifts are for today but reject Pentecostal theology on Spirit baptism are D. A. Carson, Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms.
Should we accept that the gifts are for today? Absolutely!
Should we side with Pentecostal theology on baptism in the Spirit? Absolutely not!
Whether gifts are for today and whether Pentecostal theology on Spirit baptism is correct are two separate issues that mustn’t be confused.
(2) The logic of this argument makes no sense anyway. Basically, the argument says that because a group of people believe something false, then another belief they have must also be false. But this is illogical. Just because Pentecostals make a mistake about baptism in the Spirit, it doesn’t follow that they must be wrong to say that God still gives the gifts of 1 Cor 12:8-10.
Between the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 20th, orthodox (i.e., non-heretical) Christians never claimed to be able to speak in tongues. This shows that it was always a temporary gift. It seems very strange to think that God allowed this gift to die out and then chose to revive it in our time. Therefore, it makes sense to think that all claims to be able to speak in tongues today are false.
I can only assume that those who use this argument haven’t taken time to research the matter. In fact, there have been more than a few claims of speaking in tongues by orthodox believers between the 2nd and 19th centuries.
For example, Irenaeus, who lived c. 130 – c. 202, wrote:
“…we hear many of the brothers in the church, who have prophetic gifts, and who speak all sorts of tongues by the Spirit, and who also bring to light the secret things of people . . .” (Against Heresies, book 5, ch. 6)
Similarly, Tertullian, who lived c. 155 – c. 240, in a challenge to the heretic Marcion, wrote:
“. . . let him produce a psalm, a vision, a prayer – only let it be by the Spirit, in an ecstasy, that is, in a rapture, whenever an interpretation of tongues has come to him . . . Now all these signs can be provided by my side without any difficulty . . .” (Against Marcion, book 5, ch. 8)
It is true that Tertullian speaks here about interpretation of tongues, which has to do with tongues used to strengthen the local church. And, as I have said, in this part of the article I am defending the existence today of tongues used to strengthen the individual Christian. Nevertheless, if one sort of tongues existed in Tertullian’s day, it seems highly likely that the other sort existed as well.
It is not just in the first centuries of the church that there were claims by orthodox believers to have spoken in tongues. For example, there is good evidence that some Huguenots, i.e., French evangelicals, claimed to be able to speak in tongues in the 18th century.
The idea, then, that between the 2nd and 19th centuries no orthodox Christians claimed to be able to speak in tongues is simply not true.
If God continued giving the gift of tongues throughout the Christian era, we would expect Him to have done this as often as He did in the 1st century. However, it can’t be denied that there have been relatively few claims of tongues in the following centuries as compared to the 1st century. Therefore, this suggests that the claims there have been after the 1st century were all fakes or wishful thinking.
It is surely true that for at least most of the Christian era there have been relatively few claims of tongues as compared to the first century. However, there are two important things to consider here.
(1) The Bible often makes receiving things from God conditional upon believing. The believing is very important. So when a Christian doesn’t believe that God wants to give a gift of some sort, it seems that He would very probably not give that gift, even if He wanted to.
I would suggest that part of the reason why there has been a lack of tongues throughout church history is because most Christians wrongly believed that God had no desire to give this gift.
(2) We need to recognize that the Holy Spirit is thoroughly mysterious, and it is a mistake to think that He must have chosen to do things in roughly the same amounts in each century of the church.
In 1 Sam 3:1 we are told that when Samuel was a boy, “the word of the LORD was rare in those days.” Similarly, I think that even under post-Pentecost, New Covenant conditions, it is not all that surprising if there is considerable variation in how much the Spirit operates supernaturally from time to time.
That is not to say that over the centuries God has been inconsistent in His requirements or promises. In all centuries of the church He has wanted Christians to seek the ability to speak in tongues. But it is much too simplistic to say that we should expect God to give gifts in uniform amounts in each century of the church.
The principal Reformers in the 16th century, most notably Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, believed that God stopped giving the gift of tongues in the first century. Because these men were giants of the faith, it makes sense to think that their views on this point were correct.
It is true that the Reformation was extremely helpful in some very significant ways. But to assume that the Reformers were correct on everything of importance can’t be right for the simple reason that they differed among themselves on a number of key issues.
There are unfortunately many Christians today who follow certain people in church history without questioning their beliefs nearly enough. This is really a form of idolatry and it should be carefully avoided. What matters is what the Bible teaches, not what certain Christian leaders have believed in the past.
In churches that claim to use the gift of tongues, there is often a frenzy of emotion in worship services. These churches also frequently support false teaching, such as the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.”
It is true that many churches which use the gift of tongues make some big mistakes, as do all sorts of churches.
However, to say that abuses and mistakes show that this gift is not given today makes no sense. By the same logic, we should avoid anything that is abused or about which mistakes are sometimes made.
For example, teaching from the Bible is something that is often abused in our day. Every Sunday there are thousands of so-called Christian leaders worldwide who say they are teaching from the Bible, but who are actually promoting heresy in one way or another.
But this doesn’t mean that all teaching from the Bible is false! It doesn’t mean that leaders on a Sunday should abandon giving biblical instruction to their flocks. And the same applies to tongues. To say that abuses and mistakes mean that there is no place for tongues today is illogical.
Wherever there is something that is from God, Satan will almost always try to counterfeit it. He will also tempt Christians into using gifts, including tongues, in ways that are less than edifying. And part of what it means to be a sinful human being is to make mistakes. So even Christians with good intentions and motivations can get things wrong at times.
Therefore, bad reports surrounding tongues in no way mean that God doesn’t give this gift today.
There are other arguments that are sometimes used to support the view that God doesn’t give the gift of tongues today, but I have given the most important of them. In short, none of the objections convinces.
TESTIMONY OF TONGUES
When we are forming our views on some aspect of the Christian faith, what the Bible has to say is far and away the most important thing to consider.
Nevertheless, listening to what Christians say they have experienced also has some value. Being a Christian, after all, isn’t just about believing certain things to be true, although that is an important part of it. It is a relationship with God. Anyone who has been a believer for any length of time should have testimony of what they have personally experienced God do. Some will have experienced a lot more than others, but we should all be able to tell others something of what we have experienced of God.
In this respect, it is important to listen carefully to Christians who claim that they can speak in tongues.
In some Christian circles which deny that God still gives this gift there seems to be the idea that all believers who claim to speak in tongues are shallow, sensationalist and anti-intellectual.
I think it is true that many Christians who use the gift of tongues do have these faults. But there are a great many who don’t. Many who claim to use this gift are very biblically minded and cautious about what they do and say. We need to be careful not to tar everyone with the same brush. That is really a form of false accusation, and God hates it when people are falsely accused.
For what it’s worth, I can speak in tongues myself, and I have been able to do this since 1988. I have also led a few other Christians to begin speaking in tongues.
Nor do I believe that I am shallow, sensationalist or anti-intellectual. Furthermore, when I see Christians who use the gift of tongues acting and speaking in these sorts of ways, I am the first to level criticism. If you doubt this, have a look at some of my other articles. Several of them of them are aimed at abuses and mistakes in Christian circles that use the gifts of 1 Cor 12:8-10.
I would therefore encourage readers of this article to take Christians like myself seriously when we say that we can speak in tongues.
THE BIBLE COMMANDS US TO SEEK SPIRITUAL GIFTS INCLUDING TONGUES
In part 1 of this article we saw that the Bible suggests that the gift of tongues will continue until Jesus returns. And in part 2 we have seen that there are no convincing objections to the existence of tongues today, and that we should take seriously the claims of Christians who say they have experienced this gift.
All things considered, it makes sense for us to accept that God still gives the gift of tongues.
But we should do more than just accept this. We are actually under obligation to seek gifts of the Spirit, including tongues, from God:
In part 1 I commented on 1 Cor 14:1, where Paul tells the Corinthian Christians:
“Pursue love, and eagerly desire spiritual gifts . . .”
As I noted in my comments, the spiritual gifts Paul refers to in this verse certainly include the gift of tongues. And I noted too that this command to desire gifts including tongues would have applied to all Christians at the time 1 Corinthians was written.
Whenever there is a biblical command that applied to all Christians at the time of writing, by far the most natural way of understanding it is as a command that applies to all Christians in all centuries of the church. Therefore, anyone who claims that today we shouldn’t follow a biblical command that applied to every Christian when it was written needs to have a very strong argument indeed to support their view.
In part 1 we saw that the Bible doesn’t lead us to believe that God has ceased giving the gift of tongues. On the contrary, we found that the evidence actually points in the other direction.
This means that we have no excuse for not obeying the command in 1 Cor 14:1 to eagerly desire spiritual gifts. And for those who don’t currently speak in tongues, this will include desiring this gift.
Let all of us, then, who are following Jesus as Lord, be faithful in heeding what the Spirit says in this verse of Scripture. We dare not disobey it.
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