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Testing Tongues (Selected Scriptures)

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June 15, 1986

The summer of 1969 I lived near UCLA in Westwood. In Westwood village that summer a number of smiling, energetic young people would approach you on the streets and ask if you knew about chanting. They would then launch into testimonies of how their lives had been changed by chanting. I remember a wholesome looking girl who told me that she had chanted for a new Corvette and had gotten it. She had been alienated from her parents, but since she started chanting the relationship had been restored. Some of my friends went to their meetings, which reminded them of Campus Crusade’s “College Life” evangelistic meetings. The room was filled with happy, singing people of all ages who testified how chanting had changed their lives. They were members of the Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist sect, and they all chanted a prayer in some foreign language.

I tell that story to make the point that we live in a day when experience is seen as the supreme test of reality. “If it’s real for you, then it’s real.” “If it feels good, do it.” “If I experienced it with my own senses, then it must be real.” These are some popular expressions of our existentialist culture. Truth is seen as relative to a person’s experience.

There was no doubt that these people were having a spiritual experience which was greatly affecting their lives. The problem was that their experience was not based upon the truth of God’s Word, and thus was demonic and dangerous.

The Bible claims to be the infallible and absolute guide for how we ought to think and act. It is the final authority and test of reality (Matt. 4:4; John 10:35; 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21). With regard to any experience, the question is not, did I have an experience, but rather, did I have a biblical experience? This is especially true with regard to speaking in tongues. Many are having this experience. The question is, are they having a biblical experience?

Speaking in tongues is not strictly a Christian phenomenon. Non-Christian cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons claim to speak in tongues. Article Seven of the Mormon Articles of Faith states, “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, etc.” (James E. Talmage, A Study of the Articles of Faith [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1972], p. 217.) The Encyclopedia Britannica cites many instances of tongues speaking in pagan cults. One man reports that in East Africa, many people possessed by demons speak in fluent Swahili or English, although under normal circumstances they do not understand either language. Ecstatic speech is found among the Mohammedans and the Eskimos of Greenland. The Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) refers to the tongues speaking of the Sibylline priestess on the isle of Delos (these examples cited by Joseph Dillow, Speaking in Tongues: Seven Crucial Questions [Zondervan, 1975], pp. 172-173).

Since at least some tongues speaking is not from the Holy Spirit, we need to be careful to test any experience of tongues by the Scriptures to determine if it is valid. We are told to test the spirits to see whether they are from God (1 John 4:1). Concerning prophetic utterances we are told to examine them carefully and hold fast to that which is good (1 Thess. 5:19-21).

Tongues must be tested for validity against the biblical criteria.

I want to give you some biblical guidelines by which you can test any experience of tongues speaking to tell whether it is of the Lord or not.

Tests for biblical tongues:

1. Biblical tongues are foreign languages, not gibberish.

I consider this to be a major point which undermines most current tongues speaking. Since I developed this last week, I am not going to go into it in depth here. But let me briefly review.

First, the tongues in Acts 2 are clearly foreign languages, not ecstatic utterances. Men from various locations, visiting Jerusalem for the Day of Pentecost, heard the band of disciples speaking in their own languages, even though the speakers had never learned these languages (Acts 2:4, 6, 8, 11). It was not a miracle of hearing, but of speaking.

If the tongues in 1 Corinthians are substantially different from the tongues in Acts, then the burden of proof is upon those making that claim. Paul and Luke (the author of Acts) were close friends, both familiar with the tongues at Jerusalem and at Corinth. Yet both use the same Greek words to describe the events, without any explanation of differences.

The Greek word used for tongues means foreign languages in every other New Testament and Greek Old Testament occurrence. The word “interpret” used in connection with tongues means to translate or give the sense of something. Ecstatic utterances do not make sense to anyone. Only language, which has structure and grammar, has meaning and thus can be translated. Interpreting tongues as foreign languages fits consistently with every occurrence of the word in reference to the gift of tongues in the New Testament. So I believe that if tongues are valid, they will be translatable foreign languages, not meaningless nonsense syllables.

It is interesting that 73 percent of those who speak in tongues claim that their tongue is a foreign language (Dillow, p. 178). In his book, They Speak With Other Tongues (Spire Books, 1964, pp. 17-20), John Sherrill tells of Harald Bredesen, a Reformed Church pastor, speaking in Polish and in ancient Arabic. I have read and heard of other accounts of tongues speakers speaking in foreign languages.

However, Dillow (writing in 1975) states that every study to that date had failed to turn up a legitimate instance of a foreign language by those who speak in tongues. Dillow spoke in a Sunday School class Marla and I attended in Dallas. Three of his friends who spoke in tongues allowed him to tape record them. He played the tape for us. One speaker, we all agreed, sounded like he was speaking in German, another in French, and the third in Chinese.

Dillow took the tapes to experts in these languages and asked if there was any resemblance. The experts replied that there were occasional syllables which sounded like words in those languages, but that the tongues speaking was just meaningless gibberish.

J. Rodman Williams, a modern charismatic scholar, admits that there are no concrete data (from tape recordings, for example) of tongues being an unlearned foreign language (in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [edited by Walter Elwell, Baker, 1984], p. 206). He argues that biblical tongues are neither foreign languages nor ecstatic utterances. Rather they are what he calls “spiritual” languages. If someone says that he heard a person speaking in his own language, this occurs because the Holy Spirit immediately interpreted what was said. Thus it was not a hearing of but a hearing in one’s own language. The tongues both in Acts and 1 Corinthians were utterances of the Holy Spirit, understood only when interpreted by the Holy Spirit (ibid.).

He claims that speaking in tongues is not irrational but suprarational utterance. He is not disturbed by linguists who claim that tongues speaking has no observable language structure, for if such were the case, speaking in tongues would not be spiritual but rational speech. He sees tongues speaking as transpsychical, belonging to the realm of the spirit (ibid., p. 207).

But Williams is begging the question. His view allows no way to verify any experience of tongues speaking, because the one doing it can say, “It was a ‘spiritual’ utterance, and if you didn’t understand it or thought it sounded like gibberish, you just weren’t in tune with the Holy Spirit.” It doesn’t seem to fit God’s character and power to have such a crucial miracle, which served to substantiate the authenticity of the apostles and the gospel message, be a totally unverifiable thing that took place in the heads of those present, not in the actual languages spoken.

Williams calls tongues “the vehicle of communication par excellence between man and God ... the language of transcendent prayer and praise” (ibid., p. 206). But if it is “communication” and “language,” it should have the mark of language, which is structure. A linguist can readily discern the difference between meaningful communication and nonsense syllables, even if he doesn’t know the particular language. To call meaningless gibberish a “language” or “spiritual communication” stretches credulity.

Furthermore, Williams has to bend the obvious meaning of the account in Acts 2:4-11 to say that the speakers really weren’t using translatable foreign languages. As I pointed out last week, a number of verses in 1 Corinthians 13 and 14 also fit better with translatable languages, not ecstatic utterances or “spiritual” utterances, as Williams calls them (cf. 13:1; 14:10-11, 21).

So the first test of biblical tongues is that it must be translatable foreign languages, not gibberish. If Williams is correct in stating that there are no concrete data of an unknown language being spoken, most of the tongues speaking in our day is invalidated.

2. Biblical tongues are not pushed as a necessity for every believer.

This point is so obvious, biblically, that I find it incredible that anyone could disagree. Note 1 Cor. 12:30: “All do not speak with tongues, do they?” The Greek text requires a negative reply. In the context of chapter 12 Paul is arguing that the body is many members, not one member. While we are one body, we all have different gifts, sovereignly bestowed by the Holy Spirit (12:11, 18, 24, 28). One member of the body is not to envy another member: “If they were all one member, where would the body be?” (v. 19). Paul puts the gift of tongues at the end of the list (12:28, 30) to show its relative importance to the body, and then takes all of 14:1-25 to argue that prophecy is more important than tongues, because it builds the body.

In spite of this, many charismatics argue that speaking in tongues is for every believer. The way they get around the obvious meaning of 1 Corinthians 12 is to say that not all Christians have the gift of tongues to be exercised in the church meetings. But all can and should have a “prayer language” for use in personal devotions, received when the believer receives the baptism of the Spirit.

There are two matters to sort out here: the baptism of the Spirit, and the so-called “prayer language.” The charismatic movement believes that the baptism of the Spirit is a distinct experience, either at the moment of salvation or subsequent to salvation, when the believer is filled with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (Williams, ibid., p. 205). Williams writes, “Baptism with the Holy Spirit is understood to result from ‘the gift of the Holy Spirit,’ wherein the Spirit is freely ‘poured out,’ ‘falls upon,’ ‘comes on,’ ‘anoints,’ ‘endues’ the believer with ‘power from on high.’ This event/experience is the moment of initiation into the Spirit-filled life” (ibid.).

I believe in the absolute need of every believer for the enabling and power of the Holy Spirit. I believe in the need for the Spirit’s anointing for us all. But I think that to call that anointing “the baptism of the Spirit” is a misnomer. It is not just a quibbling over words, though, because it is important that we use biblical words as the Bible uses them. Let’s briefly look at how the term “baptism of the Spirit” is used in the Bible.

John the Baptist predicted that Jesus would baptize His followers with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:11). Just before His ascension, Jesus told the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:4-5). That baptism took place on the Day of Pentecost (even though the term is not used in Acts 2).

In Acts 8, the Samaritans believed through Philip’s preaching. Peter and John were summoned from Jerusalem. When they arrived, they prayed for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Although the text doesn’t say so directly, we can safely assume that they spoke in tongues as the manifestation of receiving the Spirit (Acts 8:17-18, “saw”).

In Acts 10, the Gentiles at Cornelius’s house believe, receive the Holy Spirit immediately, and speak in tongues (10:44-46). In Acts 11:15-17, Peter is giving an account of this event, and he equates it to the same thing that happened to the Jews on the Day of Pentecost, and ties both into Jesus’ words about the baptism of the Spirit.

In Acts 19:1-6, Paul comes upon some men who had been baptized with John’s baptism, but had never heard of the Holy Spirit. They were “Old Testament” believers. When Paul told them of the Lord Jesus, they were baptized in His name, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.

Charismatics use these passages to argue that the baptism of the Spirit is in some cases subsequent to salvation, and that it is always accompanied by the sign of speaking in tongues. But I think they are misunderstanding these Scriptures.

If these were the only verses in the Bible on the subject, I would have to agree with the charismatic interpretation. But there are some other verses that we must integrate with Acts. In Romans 8:9 Paul states that if you do not have the Spirit dwelling in you, you do not belong to Christ. In 1 Cor. 12:13 he states that we all (including the carnal Corinthians) have been baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ. Furthermore, we are never commanded to be baptized with the Spirit. The filling of the Spirit is commanded as an on-going, repeated experience (Eph. 5:18; Acts 2:4; 4:31). But the baptism of the Spirit is not an experience at all. It is a spiritual fact in which the believer both receives the Holy Spirit and is baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ at the moment of salvation. If you believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, then you have been baptized in, with or by (same Greek word) the Holy Spirit.

How then do I explain the Book of Acts? Acts is a transitional book, linking the old dispensation of the law with the new dispensation of the Spirit. In the old dispensation, not all believers received the indwelling Spirit. Those who did receive the Spirit could lose Him (Ps. 51:11; 1 Sam. 16:14). But in the new dispensation, all believers receive the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2 we see the Jewish believers receiving the Spirit; in Acts 8 the Samaritans; in Acts 10, the Gentiles; and in Acts 19, those away from Palestine, in a pagan city, representing “the uttermost part of the earth.” This is the pattern laid out by our Lord in Acts 1:8. It was necessary for the apostles to be present because the keys to the kingdom were given to the apostles through Peter (Matt. 16:18-19).

Thus in the case of the Samaritans, the Lord did not give them the Spirit at the moment of believing because the apostles were not present. Their authority was required to open the age of the Spirit to this new people group. In Acts 10, with Peter present, the Gentiles received the Spirit immediately upon believing. In Acts 19, the men were not really believers in the Lord Jesus until Paul spoke to them, at which point they received the Spirit.

In each case, tongues was the authenticating sign of a new group receiving the Spirit. But there is no indication of that sign accompanying any other conversion in Acts (such as the women at Philippi, the believers in Thessalonica, or the islanders on Malta). Once the Spirit was given to the Jews, the Samaritans, the Gentiles, and to those outside of the Jewish nation (Acts 19), the transition from the old dispensation of God working solely through the nation Israel under the law to the new dispensation of God working through the church composed of every tongue and tribe and nation was complete. The authenticating sign of tongues to affirm the transition was no longer needed as the sign of the baptism of the Spirit.

Even if we assume that Acts is normative for the baptism of the Spirit and tongues, modern charismatic practice does not conform to it. In Acts, all the believers received the baptism at once, and seemingly all spoke in tongues at once. But Paul forbids the Corinthians to speak all at once (1 Cor. 14:27). Furthermore, except for Acts 2, none of the groups were seeking the baptism or tongues as an experience subsequent to salvation. It was a sovereign act of God. The Bible gives no command (except for the exceptional event at Pentecost) for believers to seek the Holy Spirit or the gift of tongues. (Jesus’ words in Luke 11:13 were spoken before Pentecost.)

The other matter which I need to speak to is the so-called “prayer language.” Charismatics argue that while not every believer has the gift of tongues for public ministry, every believer can and should have a personal prayer language for private devotions. This seems to be based on Paul’s private use of tongues (1 Cor. 14:18-19, 28--see last week’s message) and on Rom. 8:26: “And in the same way the Spirit helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

Concerning the private use of tongues, I think we must say that it is legitimate for those who have the true gift (foreign languages). This person is exhorted to pray for the ability to interpret his tongue, so that he will be benefited even more (1 Cor. 14:13).

Concerning Rom. 8:26, it is far from clear that the verse is referring to tongues. If it is, it is the only verse in Romans to do so, and neither tongues nor spiritual gifts are anywhere in the context. There may be some commentators who take it as tongues, but I could not find any who do so. Also, it is not the person who is speaking in groanings too deep for words, but the Spirit Himself, interceding before the Father. The word “groanings” means an inarticulate groaning (cf. Rom. 8:22), not a foreign language. To build a whole central doctrine of the spiritual life (that every believer is to have a prayer language) on one unclear verse, especially when the doctrine contradicts the specific, clear teaching of Paul elsewhere that tongues are a spiritual gift only for a few, seems risky at best.

Thus biblical tongues are foreign languages, not gibberish; and they are not pushed as a necessary experience for every believer.

3. Biblical tongues are not to be sought as a means to spirituality.

The Corinthians spoke in tongues but were carnal and immature. If tongues were a means to spirituality or spiritual growth, somewhere the Bible would command us to seek the gift. But it does not. As I mentioned last week, Paul’s wish that all believers spoke in tongues (1 Cor. 14:5) does not contradict what he stated a few verses earlier, that all do not speak in tongues (12:30). He is merely expressing a wish because speaking in tongues is a legitimate gift of the Spirit, just as in 7:7 he expresses his wish that all could be single, because that gift enables a person to have more time to serve the Lord. If everybody should seek the gift of tongues, then everybody should seek the gift of celibacy!

The Bible does not teach that spiritual maturity comes through a supernatural experience with the Spirit which instantly transports us to a higher plane of spiritual victory (such as the so-called “baptism of the Spirit”). That notion is very appealing, to be quite frank. But it is not biblical. Neither does the Bible indicate that spiritual growth comes through continued speaking in tongues.

How does spiritual growth take place? We are exhorted to walk (not leap, run, or fly) by means of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16). We are told to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7-8). There is effort and steadfastness required on our part (1 Tim. 4:10,15, 16). It is an on-going, gradual process which will not be complete until we meet Jesus Christ face to face (Phil. 3:12-14).

At the same time we are assured that we all have been made complete in Christ (Col. 2:10). Every believer has been enriched with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3). “His divine power has granted us everything pertaining to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). “We were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13).

While we need to learn to appropriate all the riches which are ours in Christ Jesus, we do not need to tarry or wait or plead with God for the gift of the Spirit or tongues. It is not a mark of spirituality which we must seek. If God gives it, He gives it sovereignly to some according to His purpose, for the building up of the church.

Many godly saints in the past were mightily used of God but did not speak in tongues: our Lord Himself, John the Baptist, Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, George Whitefield, George Muller, Hudson Taylor, D. L. Moody, and Billy Graham, to name a few. You are not missing one of God’s blessings if you do not speak in tongues.

Thus biblical tongues are foreign languages, not gibberish; they are not pushed as a necessary experience for every believer; they are not to be sought as a means to spirituality.

4. Biblical tongues in a church gathering must be in conformity with certain guidelines.

Paul spells these out in the passage we will cover next week, 1 Cor. 14:26-40, so I will only mention them briefly now. While I believe that the tongues speaking in Acts and in 1 Corinthians are both the same phenomenon (foreign languages), there are a number of differences in terms of the practice of the gift which are not observed in our day. If Acts describes the transition to the new dispensation of the Spirit, then 1 Corinthians prescribes the order to be followed during that dispensation. In other words, 1 Corinthians, written to the church, is the guide for the practice of tongues, not Acts which describes how the gift came to the church.

In Acts, the tongues were outside the church; in 1 Corinthians tongues were in the church meeting. In Acts, tongues accompanied the initial receiving of the Spirit; in 1 Corinthians, they were subsequent to receiving the Spirit. In Acts, it was a large group all speaking at once; in 1 Corinthians, it was to be one at a time, by two or three at most. In Acts, there is no interpretation recorded; in 1 Corinthians it must be accompanied by interpretation. In Acts, it came on everybody in the group in an uncontrollable fashion and seems a bit chaotic; in 1 Corinthians, not all had it, it was controllable, and it was to be done in an orderly manner. In Acts, there is no mention of love or edifying others; in 1 Corinthians, it can be done only if done in love to edify others.

Many times when I have been in charismatic churches these guidelines are ignored. Everybody speaks in tongues at once for their own edification, there is no interpretation, and it is not orderly. Obviously these folks were having an experience, but it was not a biblical experience!

Also, if tongues are of the Lord, they will not be divisive to the church. When a group of people start pushing tongues on everybody else in disregard of these biblical guidelines, it splits the church. That is not of the Lord, who prayed that His church may be one, that the world would know that the Father sent Him. Churches which exclude someone who practices tongues in line with these guidelines are equally divisive. I know of churches where anybody who speaks in tongues is suspected as being under demonic influence. That excludes the charismatic brother, just as much as those who gather around charismatic gifts exclude the non-charismatic brother. The basis of our unity is not to be our view of the gift of tongues, but rather our common Lord (Eph. 4:1-6).


You may be wondering: If most speaking in tongues today is not the biblical gift, how do you explain it? Why is God seemingly blessing charismatic churches? Why do those who practice tongues seem to get such a blessing from it? I’ve heard testimonies of renewed love for the Lord, new zeal in prayer, new power over sin, all as a result of the “baptism of the Spirit” and tongues.

Again, let me emphasize that the Bible must be our test of reality, not experience. If the tongues experienced in our day are not in line with the biblical gift, they are not valid, no matter what the seeming results. Obviously I cannot deal with every situation here. But let me offer a few observations.

First, God works with imperfect vessels. If He waited for us all to arrive at a point of doctrinal or personal perfection, His work would not get done. Many charismatic brothers and sisters have a sincere love for the Lord Jesus, and He works with them in spite of their mistaken view of the gift of tongues.

Also, many charismatics have a real dependence upon the Holy Spirit, even though their terminology may be incorrect. They call it the baptism of the Spirit; I think that biblically it is the filling of the Spirit. But I would rather have somebody mistaken in his terminology and complete in his yieldedness than correct in his terminology and halfway in his yieldedness. The Pharisees knew the Scriptures, but they lacked reality with God. May that never be said of us! I believe God blesses many charismatic people and churches because they have a fervency for the Lord that non-charismatics have lost. I’d much rather worship in a charismatic church where there is a fervent love for the Lord Jesus than in many non-charismatic churches which have theological accuracy but have lost their first love.

In my opinion, most of the tongues speaking in our day is purely psychological. Some rare cases may be demonic, some rare cases may be of the Lord. I think there are spiritual dangers in the psychologically explained tongues. Satan loves for us to substitute anything counterfeit in the place of Christ. Many who think that they are praying “in the Spirit” (in tongues) are just babbling gibberish, no matter how happy it makes them feel. There is a real danger of substituting that kind of purely psychological activity for the discipline of prayer and Bible study which lead to solid spiritual growth.

One former charismatic pastor who came to question and then to abandon the gifts of tongues and prophecy, wrote about the process of his struggle,

I think I realized (in my heart at least) that my tongues were not a linguistically definable language. And now the argument came to me with renewed force. No one could listen to me speaking tongues and then marvel that the mighty acts of God were being proclaimed in an understandable language. And so this fact alone was enough to invalidate the gift for me.

I suppose that I could have sidestepped this line of reasoning by taking refuge in the idea that tongues are not necessarily a known language. But even so, I still had to admit that the Scriptures teach that tongues are a miraculous gift. What happened on the day of Pentecost was a miracle! ... Therefore, even if tongues aren’t necessarily a known language, I still had to ask myself, “Is there any evidence that my tongues speech is of a miraculous nature? Is there any indication that my utterances originated with the Holy Spirit and not just my own mind? (Neil Babcox, A Search for Charismatic Reality [Multnomah Press, 1985], pp.63-64.)

After he came to the conclusion that his tongues were not of the Holy Spirit, this pastor still had trouble quitting. Speaking in tongues had seemed like such an enriching aspect of his personal devotions. He writes,

However, I soon began to realize that speaking in tongues was not as edifying as I had previously thought. How could it be, since I was uttering words and phrases of my own invention? Therefore, I was beginning to understand that, far from being a deeper dimension of prayer, praying in tongues was an evasion--a failure to grapple with the profundities of prayer (ibid., p. 65).

I don’t share any of these things to club anybody who speaks in tongues. It would be a gross misuse of this message if those of you who do not speak in tongues used it to club those who do. I share it because I believe it is crucial to base our experiences on the Word of God. I believe that the church will be stronger and the Lord’s work will go forth in greatest power when we order our lives in accordance with His Word. Most of you who read this may not practice tongues. Don’t get smug about “having the truth.” Learn from your charismatic brothers to be fervent for the Lord. If you do speak in tongues, I ask you to evaluate your experience by Scripture. Above all, let us all pursue love.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree that it is wrong to divide the church along charismatic lines? How can this be avoided in a specific situation where both elements are in a church?
  2. What would you say to someone who pointed to the obviously good results in his spiritual life due to his experience with tongues?
  3. Would you rather be in a church that had correct doctrine on tongues but was restrained in devotion for the Lord or one which emphasized tongues but was fervent in devotion for the Lord? Why?
  4. Discuss: If the Holy Spirit left your life today, how soon would you discover that fact? What about if He left our church? How can we depend on Him more?

Copyright 1986, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Spiritual Gifts, Tongues

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