The Gift of Tongues

December 16, 2019

But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given … different kinds of tongues. 1 Corinthians 12:7–8, 10

The gift of tongues is perhaps the most controversial and misunderstood of all the gifts of the Spirit. Some Pentecostals and Charismatics say that unless you speak in tongues, you have not been baptized in the Holy Spirit. A few even go to the extreme of saying that unless you speak in tongues, you are not even saved!

Extreme Opinions

Those on the conservative evangelical side say that those who speak in tongues are led by emotionalism, or that they are even being influenced by demons! With such extreme opinions, one might wonder if it would not, perhaps, be better to leave the whole issue alone and continue in the more important things of the kingdom. That might be an easier thing to do, but I do not think it would be the best thing to do. I think we would be at a disadvantage to disregard any of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, no matter how difficult the subject might be to approach.

What Is the Gift of Tongues?

What is the gift of tongues? Tongues is a language given by the Holy Spirit, unknown to the speaker, by which the believer prays to God. Paul describes this in 1 Corinthians 14. In the second chapter of the book of Acts, we read, “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4). The text goes on to tell us that these people from a whole host of nations were confounded as they heard the apostles speak in their own dialects. The miracle was that these Galileans were proclaiming, in languages previously unknown to them, the great things God had done. The word “speaking” in Acts 2:11 is translated from the Greek also as “preach” or “preaching.” Here we see a different operation of the gift of tongues. The apostles were preaching in an unknown tongue, and in 1 Corinthians 14, the believers were praying in languages previously unknown. Although there are times when the gift is manifested like it was on the Day of Pentecost, the more common manifestation seems to be praying in tongues.

As we discuss the gift of tongues, a few misconceptions need to be addressed.

Are Tongues for Today?

Are tongues for today? Much of modern evangelicalism rejects the idea that tongues are for today, but they do so without any biblical basis. Scripture does not teach anywhere that tongues, or any of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit, will cease before Christ returns. Paul the apostle said, “prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away … when that which is perfect has come” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 10). This means that the need for the gifts will come to an end when Jesus Christ returns to the earth, which has not happened yet!

Nearly all of the Bible commentaries written before the end of the 19th century interpreted “that which is perfect” as referring to the visible manifestation of the kingdom of God. It was only in the last century, and largely as a reaction to the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, that many evangelicals began to interpret “that which is perfect” as the completion of the New Testament canon. With this new interpretation came the idea that certain gifts ceased with the death of the last apostle. Because of this belief, those who hold to this view are known as cessationists. Although they have put together a clever system of interpretation, they have completely failed to prove their position scripturally. Are tongues for today? If we take the Bible at face value, I have to conclude that yes, they are!

Do All Speak With Tongues?

If tongues are for today, does that mean that every Christian is to speak in tongues? Not according to the apostle Paul. Many Pentecostals and Charismatics will tell you otherwise, but I would rather hold to Paul’s view inspired by the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12, he asks a series of rhetorical questions, one of which is, “Do all speak with tongues?” Of course, the answer is, “No!” But just as the cessationists have developed clever arguments to try to prove their view, so those from the Pentecostal and Charismatic persuasions have tried to deny Paul’s assertion that not everyone will speak in tongues. If that is not what he meant, then he should have articulated more clearly, because that is certainly what he wrote.

The Interpretation of Tongues

This gift obviously works in conjunction with the gift of tongues. Paul states that tongues are not to be exercised in the public assembly unless there is someone present with the gift of interpretation (see 1 Corinthians 4:19). Every time there is a public utterance in tongues, an interpretation should follow it.

The Conclusion of the Matter

The Holy Spirit has given the glorious gift of tongues for the edification of the believer and the church. Paul clearly gives instruction in 1 Corinthians 14 on the purpose and proper use of this gift. If people would follow the teaching of the Scriptures on these matters, most, if not all, of the confusion would be eliminated.