Because of my Baptist heritage, many people are confused when they discover that I both believe in and practice the charismatic or sensational gifts of the Holy Spirit (i.e. prophecy, healing, tongues, casting out of demons, etc.). Because these things are seldom practiced or taught about, even in Baptist churches that profess a belief in the gifts, there are many questions that arise when people find out about my beliefs and practices.
On the other hand, when I discuss spiritual gifts with my more charismatic friends — Pentecostals, or Assembly of God friends for instance — they are often confused by my ‘restraint’ put on the gifts and my inability to agree on some of the finer points of their respective denominations doctrinal teachings about the gifts, specifically the gift of tongues.
After a girl in my church began asking me a ton of questions last week about the gifts and tongues in particular, I though it would be a good opportunity to answer some of the more frequently asked questions that come up in discussions like this, and to attempt to ground those answers with solid biblical support for why I land where I do. If at the end of this list you still have more questions about the issue, please feel free to ask in the comment section.
Is the gift of tongues an earthly language that you never studied but God teaches you, or is it an unknown language altogether?
Both versions of ‘tongues’ are represented in the scriptures (Earthly tongues in Acts 2, Non-earthly tongues in 1 Corinthians 14). However, when most people talk about the gift of tongues they are referencing a non-earthly language that cannot be learned, taught, or even translated without the Holy Spirit giving the interpretation. If it were an earthly language, then the spiritual gift of interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:10) would not be necessary (1 Cor. 14:5, 27).
What is the primary purpose of the gift of tongues?
The primary purpose of all of the spiritual gifts are twofold. First to build up and edify the church (1 Cor. 12), and secondly, as a sign to non-believers. Tongues can fulfill both roles by personally edifying the one who speaks it (1 Cor. 14:4), by edifying the whole church when an interpreter is present (1 Cor. 14:26-27), and as a demonstration to non-believers (1 Cor. 14:22)
Is speaking in tongues a sign of salvation? Do I have to speak in tongues to be saved?
Speaking in tongues is never shown in scripture to be a sign of salvation. On one hand you may can argue that if someone speaks by the Holy Spirit’s power, then he or she must be saved. At the same time we know of non-believers and even animals in the Old Testament who God used to speak truth, but no one argues that animals can be saved. And we also know that there will be people at judgement time who try to use their prophesying and casting out demons in Jesus name as a sign of salvation, but Christ will deny them (Matthew 7:21-23).
Is tongues a sign that a person has the Holy Spirit? If I don’t speak in tongues does it mean I don’t have the Holy Spirit inside me?
No and No.
First off, we know that Satan can imitate all of the power and signs that God demonstrates among men. Therefore, just because someone claims to be speaking in tongues, it does not mean that they are truly filled with the Spirit of God. The Bible says we will know them by the fruits of the gift (Matthew 7:15-20), not the demonstrations of power.
Secondly, we know from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that not all Christians will speak in tongues, just as not all will be able to prophesy or lay hands on the sick and see them healed (1 Cor. 12:27-31).** Yet we know that all Christians are sealed by the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30) whenever they believe the Gospel and confess Jesus as Lord (Romans 10:9-10). So all believers have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside them, but the Spirit alone will determine how He manifests His gifts through that person (1 Cor. 12:4-11).
Is tongues the primary gift of the Holy Spirit?
No. Paul makes clear that there are gifts more desirable than others (1 Cor. 12:31), then spends all of 1 Corinthians 14 arguing that although he wishes all of them could speak in tongues (v. 5), he would rather them seek the gift of prophecy (vv. 5, 39)because it has more benefit to the full body of believers.
Can anyone speak in tongues? Should all Christians speak in tongues?
The only people who can legitimately speak in tongues from the Holy Spirit and not some counterfeit version are those believer’s who have sought the gift (1 Cor. 14:1) and whom God has chosen to give the gift to (1 Cor. 12:11).**
If I don’t speak in tongues does it mean that I am not as spiritual as someone who does?
No, nowhere in scripture is it indicated that the gift of tongues is any special mark on the character or spirituality of that person, or and indicator of a higher level of affection received from God.
What does it sound like when you speak in tongues? How do I know it’s tongues and not just gibberish?
Since I have not found a biblical answer to the question of what it sounds like, my cessationist friends will have to cringe a little as I answer from personal experience and the similar experience of others. Speaking in tongues does sound like gibberish, in the same way listening to someone speak in any language you don’t understand sounds like gibberish. However, when you listen to someone speaking in tongues, there does seem to be a structure to the language, and as time goes on, you will hear certain ‘words’ or ‘phrases’ being repeated.
The only way we can know someone is really speaking in the gift of tongues from the Holy Spirit is to test the Spirit and see if it is really from God (1 John 4:1-3) and as mentioned earlier, to judge from the fruits produced by the gift.
Do you know what you are saying?
Speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues are two different things. Paul says that when a person speaks in tongues, he is speaking to God, and that no man understands (1 Cor. 14:2)). It is a form of prayer in which even the mind of the one praying does not understand what is being said (1 Cor. 14:14).
How do I pursue tongues (or other charismatic gifts)?
1 Corinthians 14:12 says, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” If you want to pursue the spiritual gifts, it begins by realizing that they are for the purpose of building up the church. You become an extension of God’s love to the world (1 Corinthians 13). They aren’t for show, and they aren’t for you to have to feel you have attained a higher Christian status.
Now if you really want to pursue the gifts, I don’t know that there is a standard way to do so, but I feel like the following suggestions are a good place to start.
First of all, express the desire to God. He is a loving Father who wants to give gifts to His children if they will ask (Matthew 7:11).
Second, we know that God delights in the obedience of His children. The Holy Spirit is drawn to the person who is pursuing holy living. So strive to live a life pleasing to Him, rather than one at odds with Him (Galatians 5:16-24)
And finally, live a life that evidences your desire to see God’s Kingdom built, and God’s people to grow in maturity. Love and serve others (1 Cor. 13). Oftentimes it is when we run out of the ability to love and serve on our own power, that the power of God is made known (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
** Though it is true that not all people will practice every gift, and that this fact does not determine the level of spirituality in a person, I do not discount the fact that Paul tells us to desire the spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:1), and that God gives good gifts to His children when we ask Him (Matt. 7:11). It is my personal theological conviction that God can give many or all gifts to the person who devotes themselves to pursuing Him and serving the church. However, we must remember that the gifts are for that reason – service – and not for making a name for ourselves. Seeing people healed will only come when we seek every opportunity to pray for the sick. Giving a prophecy will only come when we seek to edify, exhort, and comfort others often (1 Cor. 14:3). And speaking in tongues will come to the one who is most hungry to spend time with the Lord in prayer, and to be built up in Him. [This note was added August 26, 2014]
[Note: While I look forward to reading your comments, please note that the intention of this blog is not to debate the cessation or the continuation of the spiritual gifts. If you believe the gifts have ceased, then I hope this blog helps you understand what the gift of tongues was when God did those things. I however believe they still exist and intend this as a resource for others who are on the same spiritual journey as I am. Although I may post a blog on the cessation debate at a later date, no comments to that end will be approved for this particular post. Thanks.]