Q208 : The Purpose of Tongues

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Q208 : The Purpose of Tongues

Hello Tony,

I read your doctrinal statementa in regard to the Holy Spirit which contains a single line concerning the spiritual gifts which states:

We believe that speaking in tongues was never the common or necessary sign of the baptism nor of the filling of the Spirit. (Acts 4:8, 31; Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 13:8)

I would like to learn more on this area.

A few questions: (1) What was the purpose of the speaking in tongues and is there a change in this ministry today. (2) What about praying in tongues (1 Cor 14:14)?

Thank you for your website. It's been helpful.

A208 : by Tony Garland

As I'm sure you know, the issue of the use of Spiritual gifts, both in the early church and in our own day, is somewhat controversial and involves numerous subtleties which can be difficult to address in a simple question-and-answer format.

Our doctrinal statement recognizes that while speaking in tongues did occur in the initial giving of the Spirit to different people groups in the book of Acts: (1) Jews (Acts 2), (2) Samaritans (implied in Acts 8:18), (3) Gentiles (Acts 10), and (4) disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19) and was also a practice of the early church (1 Corinthians 13; 14), this ministry of the Spirit occurred within a historical context associated with the initial formation of the body of Christ (which began on the Day of Pentecost) and was not—as many assume—used to preach the gospel to foreign people groups. Moreover, the New Testament teaches that tongues are one of several “sign gifts” which were destined to pass away (1Cor. 1:8). Although we recognize there are different views within the Church concerning what 1Cor. 1:8 is teaching concerning when tongues would cease (e.g., at the close of the canon, at the maturing of the Church, at the advent of Christ), the teachers on our website believe the practice of true biblical tongues (e.g., speaking in unlearned known human languages) is no longer active in our age.1

Speaking for myself, I was saved within the Pentecostal movement where I learned the use of “ecstatic speech”—supposedly as a sign that I had been “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (just like in Acts!) and also for use in private prayer. As I grew to see problems with the practice—and came to a more Scriptural understanding of the historical context of Acts, I gave up the practice of ecstatic speech and eventually left the Pentecostal movement entirely. I came to believe, by the study of God's Word, that tongues were bona fide languages, and saw major differences concerning how they were used in the early church vs. modern practices. As a point of reference, my experience with ecstatic speech spanned about the first five years of my Christian experience.

A brief survey of the use of tongues in the early church yields the following observations:

  1. In every documented case, tongues were known human languages (Acts 2, possibly Acts 8:18; 10; 19)—not ecstatic speech.2
  2. Tongues were not used to preach the gospel—even in settings where the gospel was being given to a new people group (Acts 2; 8; 10; 19). In Acts 2, after the disciples erupted in tongues of praise, the unsaved people subsequently received the gospel message by the preaching of Peter in their native tongue (Acts 2:14-41). In Acts 10, the persons receiving the gospel message were the ones who spoke in tongues—and then only after Peter had preached the gospel to them in their native tongue (Acts 10:34-43).
  3. When the Spirit uses tongues to communicate in a language or languages which some who are present do not know, they are unable to understand God's message. In such a circumstance, the use of Tongues can be associated with judgment (1Cor. 14:21-22). It is my belief that this was the case when the Jews of the dispersion could understand what was being said on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8) but the local Jews could not (Acts 2:13).
  4. Tongues were used as a sign to different groups on different occasions. (1) In Acts 2, tongues were used by God as an indication to the disciples who were waiting for the Promise of the Father that the promise had indeed arrived. Tongues were also used in Acts 2 as a miraculous sign to the Jews of the diaspora who were in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Tongues were used yet again in Acts 2 as a sign of judgment in that local Jews did not understand what was being said. This was a strong hint that God's focus was now turning outward from Jerusalem. (2) In Acts 8:17-18, there is a strong implication that tongues were used by God to indicate the giving of the Spirit to the Samaritans was dependent upon the Jews. It was only when John and Peter laid hands on the Samaritans that the Spirit was given. This communicated that “salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22) and establishing the priority of the message of the Jewish apostles over the rival religious views of the Samaritans. (3) In Acts 10, God uses tongues as a sign to those who already believed—the Jews—that He was bringing the Gentiles into the Church. Peter's gospel presentation, in a language already understood by the Gentiles, was unexpectedly interrupted when the Gentiles erupted in tongues. Significantly, unlike the Samaritan case, they did this independently of Peter laying his hands on them (Acts 10:45; 11:18). The Gentiles were being brought in on equal terms with the Jews (Eph. 2:14-16). (4) In Acts 19, God uses tongues as a sign to the followers of John the baptist that Paul had God-given authority and that his message concerning Jesus was true.3
  5. Although not everyone in the early church spoke in tongues (1Cor. 12:30), they were all baptized by the Holy Spirit (1Cor. 12:13). In fact, it is impossible to be joined to the body of Christ—the Church—without having undergone Spirit baptism. Therefore, in our age in which the Spirit has already been given (John 7:38-39), it is not a second work beyond salvation.
  6. The instructions to tarry in Jerusalem for the “Promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4)—the Baptism of the Spirit—is anchored in the historical context of the formation of the body of Christ following the ascension of Jesus. After the literal body of Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father (Acts 1:9), the Holy Spirit descended to form the spiritual body of Christ which is to serve in His absence (Acts 2; Acts 11:16 cf. John 7:38-39). The Holy Spirit came in a new ministry of Spirit baptism to form the body of Christ, the Church (Rom. 6:3; 1Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27). “I will not leave you orphans, I will come to you” (John 14:18).
  7. Some aspects of the private use of tongues within the early church remain unclear (e.g., 1Cor. 14:2,4,14-15). However, when attempting to understand what tongues were and how they were used, we must begin with the clear passages and move to the less clear ones rather than using the less clear passages to build our understanding. Failure to follow this priority has led to the mistaken notion, in my view, that there are multiple kinds of tongues (e.g., unlearned human languages for preaching the gospel, heavenly angelic languages for praise, and ecstatic speech for private prayer).
It is my view that the New Testament gift of tongues is no longer evident within the Church. My assessment of the “ecstatic speech,” which I at one time practiced and many in the Church still practice today, is that it results from a zealous but misguided attempt to recreate, in the flesh, what the Spirit is no longer giving in our day. I also believe that the commonly encountered practice among Pentecostals of coaching people to “speak in tongues” (e.g., "start making a sound... just let a sound rise up from your mouth...") is nowhere to be found in the New Testament. This method of “learning” to speak in tongues is at complete odds with the use of tongues in Acts. Can you imagine Peter ever having coached Cornelius and his household in this manner—when the Jews themselves had no idea that God would cause the Gentiles to spontaneously erupt in tongues?

The view that Spirit baptism is a second work beyond salvation in our day betrays a lack of understanding concerning the historical context surrounding the Promise of the Father, the transition from the gospels through Acts to the formation of the Church, and the nature of the body of Christ beyond the transitional period recorded in the book of Acts. At the time of Acts, the Holy Spirit had not yet been given (John 7:38-39) and could not be given until Christ had departed and been glorified (Luke 11:13; John 7:39; 16:7). These preconditions for the giving of the Spirit were met in the one-time historical event of His departure which led to the events of Acts 2, the establishment and maturing of the early Church, and the formation of the New Testament canon. None of which continues in our day.

For further study on this topic, you may find the following resources helpful:

May the Lord guide and bless you as you seek to understand what the New Testament reveals concerning the use of tongues.


1.This is not to deny that God could miraculously empower someone—should it suit His purpose—to speak in an unlearned foreign language in a specific situation. But the gift, as was apparently common in the early church, is not evident today.
2.Paul's mention of “tongues of angels” notwithstanding (1Cor. 13:1). When studied carefully, 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, provides no evidence that men ever spoke with angelic tongues. Paul did not give his body to be burned (v. 3), give all his goods to feed the poor (v. 3), have all faith so as to remove mountains (v. 2), understand all mysteries and have all knowledge (v. 2). Nor did he ever speak with the tongues of angels (v. 1). This is all part of an argument which employs hyperbole concerning the superiority of love.
3.It was also part of a series of works found throughout the book of Acts where everything Peter does Paul does. God was certifying the authority of the apostle to the Gentiles, born out of due time (1Cor. 15:8) on a par with the authority of the apostle to the circumcision. Consider the following comparison between Peter and Paul: (1) Both healed a lame man, Peter (Acts 3:6-7), Paul (Acts 14:8-10). (2) Both heal through indirect media, Peter via a shadow (Acts 5:15), Paul via handkerchiefs (Acts 19:11-12). (3) Both impart the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands, Peter (Acts 8:14-17), Paul (Acts 19:6). (4) Both oppose a sorcerer, Peter (Acts 8:20), Paul (Acts 13:6-12). (5) Both were worshiped, Peter (Acts 10:25), Paul (Acts 14:11-13). (6) Both miraculously released from prison, Peter (Acts 12:7-11), Paul (Acts 16:26-29). (7) Both raised the dead, Peter (Acts 9:36-42), Paul (Acts 20:9-12). (8) Both rendered swift judgment, Peter (Acts 5:4-5,Acts 5:9-10), Paul (Acts 13:11). (9) Both have one complete sermon recorded by Luke, Peter (Acts 2:14-40), Paul (Acts 13:16-41) (10) Both entrusted with gospel to people groups, Peter to Jews (Gal. 2:7-8), Paul to Gentiles (Acts 9:15; Gal. 2:7-8). What Peter did by apostolic authority so did Paul — this authenticates his apostolic authority (2Cor. 11:5, 2Cor. 11:12:2Cor. 11:11-12).

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