One of the important ministries of the Holy Spirit to believers today is the bestowal of spiritual gifts upon Christians at the time of their conversion. While Christians may have natural abilities even before they are saved, spiritual gifts seem to be related to the special purpose of God in calling them and saving them; and, in the language of Ephesians 2:10, they are “created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.”
Spiritual gifts are divinely given capacities to perform useful functions for God, especially in the area of spiritual service. Just as the human body has members with different capacities, so individual Christians forming the church as the body of Christ have different capacities. These help them contribute to the welfare of the church as a whole, as well as to bear an effective witness to the world. Spiritual gifts are bestowed by the sovereign choice of God and need to be exercised in the power and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
Every Christian has at least some spiritual gifts, as according to 1 Corinthians 12:7, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit.” After enumerating a partial list of such gifts, the apostle concludes in 1 Corinthians 12:11, “But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.” The analogy of the human body is then developed as illustrating the various functions of members of the body of Christ.
Spiritual gifts obviously differ in value, and the list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is given in the order of importance. In 1 Corinthians 13, the importance of the use of spiritual gifts in love is emphasized. Some gifts which were bestowed in the early church seem no longer to be operative today, and this introduces the important consideration of the extent of contemporary spiritual gifts.
Practically all serious expositors of the Word of God agree that some spiritual gifts continue throughout the age. These constitute the more important and essential capacities within the church which enable it to function and fulfill its divinely purposed role.
The gift of teaching or expounding the Scriptures is one of the more important gifts and is mentioned in Romans 12:7, 1 Corinthians 12:28, and Ephesians 4:11. Obviously the teaching of divine revelation to others is a most important function of the members of the body of Christ. Although all believers have the capacity by the Spirit to receive divine revelation as is taught in the Word of God, all do not have the same gift in communicating this truth to others. The teaching gift does not necessarily require superior knowledge, but it does require the capacity for successful communication and application of the truth to the individual. No doubt the gift of teaching natural truth is similar to that of teaching spiritual truth, but the spiritual gift is especially adaptable to teaching the Word of God. Hence a person might be quite gifted in teaching natural truth who would not be effective in teaching the Word of God.
A common gift among Christians is that of ministering one to the other—mentioned in Romans 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 12:28. This gift varies a great deal depending on the person and the situation, and some are able to minister in one way and some in another. The total work of God depends upon the capacity of the members of the body of Christ to minister in this way.
The gift of administration is related to wise direction of the work of God in the church and is mentioned in Romans 12:7 and in 1 Corinthians 12:28. Comparatively few Christians are able administrators in the realm of spiritual things, and those lacking this gift should seek direction and guidance of those who have it.
The gift of evangelism mentioned in Ephesians 4:11 refers to unusual capacity to preach the gospel of salvation and to win the lost to Christ. While every Christian should be a channel of information to others and should do the work of an evangelist as Timothy was instructed to do (2 Ti 4:5), nevertheless, some will be more effective in preaching the gospel than others.
The gift of being a pastor or shepherd of the flock also calls for special abilities. In Ephesians 4:11, pastors and teachers are linked, indicating that a true shepherd will also be able to teach or feed his flock, and that a true teacher should have some pastoral abilities. While these qualities may be found in various degrees in different individuals, the link between teaching and shepherding the flock is inevitable for one who wants to be effective in preaching the Word of God.
The gift of exhortation mentioned in Romans 12:8 has the thought of presenting the truth in such a way as to stir to action. Sometimes those who have a gift of exhortation are not necessarily good Bible teachers, and vice versa; and men with varied gifts are all essential to the work of the church.
Some less important gifts are also mentioned in the Bible, such as the gift of giving, or having the special grace of sharing earthly possessions as mentioned in Romans 12:8. The gift of showing mercy relates to the special ability to show empathy and sympathy for those in need and is mentioned in Romans 12:8. The gift of faith, or that of special trust in the Lord, is included in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. All of these gifts abide throughout the entire church age and constitute the divinely appointed enablement for the church to fulfill its task.
The question as to whether certain spiritual gifts are temporary is one of the debated areas of truth relating to the Holy Spirit in the contemporary church. While most of the church will agree that certain spiritual gifts were discontinued after the apostolic age, others are insisting that gifts given at the beginning of the church age continue in the same way throughout the entire period.
On the surface it is quite clear that the modern church does not function quite like the apostolic church. There is an evident decline in miracles, though God is still able to perform the miraculous. No longer does the testimony of the church depend upon its capacity to support its oral testimony by phenomenal miraculous works. It is also clear from the history of the Bible that miracles were evident for particular purposes in some periods while almost absent in others. Three notable periods of miracles are mentioned specifically in the Bible, that is, (1) the period of Moses, (2) the period of Elijah and Elisha, and (3) the period of Christ and the apostles. In each of these periods there was a need to authenticate the message that God gave his prophets, but once this need was met, the miracles seemed to recede.
The problems relating to the question of whether some gifts are temporary have been focused principally on the gift of tongues, the gift of interpreting tongues, and the gifts of miracles or healing. Relatively little controversy has been aroused concerning whether or not certain other spiritual gifts were only temporary.
It seems evident from the Scriptures that the gift of apostle-ship was limited to the first-century church. Apostles were distinguished from prophets and teachers in 1 Corinthians 12:28. During the apostolic period they had unusual authority and were the channels of divine revelation. Often they had the gift of prophecy as well as that of working miracles. Generally speaking, those who were in the inner circle of the apostles were eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Christ or, like Paul, had seen Christ subsequent to His resurrection. In Protestantism, comparatively few claims have been advanced that any exist today with the same apostolic gift as was found in the early church.
The gift of prophecy, although claimed by a few, generally speaking, has also been recognized as having only passing validity. In the early church prior to the completion of the New Testament, authoritative revelation was needed from God not only concerning the present where the prophet was a forthteller but also concerning the future where the prophet was a foreteller. The Scriptures themselves contain illustrations of such prophetic offices and their exercise. The gift is mentioned in Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:10, and 1 Corinthians 14:1-40. A number of illustrations are found as in the case of Agabus who predicted a famine (Ac 11:27-28), and who warned Paul of coming sufferings (Ac 21:10-11). Among the prophets and teachers at Antioch according to Acts 13:1 were Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Paul. Women could also be prophets, as illustrated in the four daughters of Philip (Ac 21:9). Paul clearly had the prophetic gift, as manifested in Acts 16:6-10, 18:9-10, 22:17-21 and 27:23-24. Among the others who were evidently prophets were Judas and Silas (Ac 15:32). All of these were used as authoritative channels through which God could give divine revelations sometimes about the contemporary situation and sometimes about the future.
New Testament prophets were like prophets in the Old Testament who spoke for God, warned of judgment, and delivered the message from God, whether contemporary or predictive. The Old Testament prophet, however, was more of a national leader, reformer, and patriot, and his message usually was to Israel alone. In the New Testament the prophet principally ministered to the church and did not have national characteristics.
In order to be a prophet the individual had to have a message from God in the form of special revelation, had to have guidance regarding its declaration so that it would be given forth accurately, and the message itself had to have the authority of God. The prophetic office, therefore, was different from the teaching office in that the teaching office had no more authority than the Scripture upon which it was based, whereas the prophetic office had its authority in the experience of divine reception and communication of truth.
In the early church the prophetic office was very important and was considered one of the principal gifts. It is discussed somewhat at length in 1 Corinthians 14, and given more prominence than other gifts in the list in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10. Because no one today has the same authority or the experience of receiving normative truth, it is highly questionable whether anyone has the gift of prophecy today. No one has come forward to add even one verse of normative truth to the Bible. While individuals can have specific guidance and be given insight to the meaning of Scripture, no one is given truth that is not already contained in the Bible itself. Accordingly, it may be concluded that the gift of prophecy has ceased.
The gift of miracles, while a prominent gift in the early church (1 Co 12:28) and frequently found in the New Testament, does not seem to exist today in the same way that it did in Bible times. Throughout the earthly ministry of Christ, hundreds of miracles were performed in attestation of His divine power and Messianic office. After the ascension of Christ into heaven, miraculous works continued in the early church, on many occasions attending the preaching of the Word and constituting proof that it was indeed from God. With the completion of the New Testament, the need for such miraculous evidence in support of the preached Word seems to have ceased and the authority and convicting power of the Spirit seems to have replaced these outer manifestations.
In holding that the gift of miracles is temporary, it is not taught that there are no miracles today, as God still is able to do supernaturally anything He wills to do. It is rather that in the purpose of God miracles no longer constitute a mainline evidence for the truth, and individuals do not (as in the apostolic times) have the gift of miracles. While some who claim to have the gift of miracles today have succeeded in convincing many of their supernatural powers, the actual investigation of their operation, which in some cases may be supported by individual miracles here and there, is often found to be quite deceptive, and often the alleged healings are psychologically instead of supernaturally effected. The thought is not that God cannot perform miracles today, but rather that it is not His purpose to give to individuals the power to perform miracles by the hundreds as was true in apostolic periods.
What is true of the gift of miracles in general seems also to be true of the gift of healing mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28 and 30. In biblical times there were special acts of divine healing, and undoubtedly there were hundreds of instances where the apostles were able to demonstrate the divine power that was within them by restoring health to those who had various physical disabilities.
A survey of the present church, while not without its segment of those who claim divine healing, does not support the contention that it is the same gift as was given in the early church. That God has the power to heal supernaturally today is obvious, and that there may be cases of supernatural healing is not to be denied. Healing as a divine method for communication or authenticating the truth, however, is not the present divine purpose, and those who claim to have the gift of healing have again and again been proved to be spurious in their claims. While Christians should feel free to pray and to seek divine healing from God, it is also true that frequently it is God’s will even for the most godly of people, that, like Paul, they should continue in their afflictions as the means to the end of demonstrating the sufficiency of God. Cases of healing are relatively rare in the modern church and are not intended to be a means of evangelism.
Probably the most controversial of the gifts of the Spirit in the contemporary doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the gift of tongues. According to Acts 2:1-13, on the day of Pentecost, Jews who had come to Jerusalem for the feast were amazed to hear the apostles speak in their language, and they asked the question, “How hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God” (Ac 2:8-11). This was clearly a supernatural work of God and a testimony to the authority and truth of the apostles’ message concerning Jesus Christ.
Two other instances occurred in Acts—one in Acts 10:46 on the occasion of Peter speaking to the house of Cornelius and the other in Acts 19. In Acts 11 Peter, analyzing their speaking in tongues, said, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning” (Ac 11:15). In the instance mentioned in Acts 19 when Paul encountered certain disciples of John the Baptist at Ephesus, as Paul “laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied” (Ac 19:6). It would seem reasonable to conclude that in all of these three instances in Acts there was a supernatural manifestation of the Spirit in the form of empowering men to speak in languages which were not known to them. It should also be observed, however, that these are the only three instances mentioned in the book of Acts, and that apart from the discussion in 1 Corinthians 12-14 there is no other reference to speaking in tongues in the New Testament. What is the explanation of this gift, and can it be exercised today?
Although some writers have distinguished between the instances in Acts which were clearly in known languages and the experience of the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 12-14, there does not seem to be adequate basis for this distinction, as the same expressions are used in both places. The term “unknown tongue” as in the King James Version in 1 Corinthians 14:2 is inaccurate, since the word “unknown” is not in the original. There is no evidence that the gift of tongues used languages that were unknown to men, although there is reference to the theoretical possibility of speaking in the tongues of angels in 1 Corinthians 13:1. The instance in Acts 2 was clearly in known languages as the recognition of a language as a known language is essential to any scientific confirmation that genuine speaking in tongues has taken place. If those speaking in tongues had only babbled incoherent sounds, this would lend itself to fraudulent interpretation which could not in any way be checked. Accordingly, it should be assumed that speaking in tongues in the Bible was a genuine gift, that it involved speaking in existing languages unknown to the speaker, and that actual communication took place in such experiences. Hence, genuine speaking in tongues cannot be explained simply by hypnosis or psychological emotionalism, but has to be recognized as a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit.
The purpose of speaking in tongues is clearly defined in the Scriptures. It was intended to be a sign in attestation to the gospel and a proof of the genuineness of the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Co 14:22). Although words were expressed and the glory of God was revealed, there is no instance in Scripture where a doctrine was revealed through speaking in tongues, and it does not seem to have been a major vehicle for revelation of new truth.
In all three instances in Acts, speaking in tongues served to prove that what was taking place was a genuine work of God. In Acts 2, of course, it was the gift of the Spirit and the beginning of the New Testament church. In Acts 10 it was necessary as an evidence to Peter of the genuineness of the work of salvation in the household of Cornelius and was designed to teach Peter that the gospel was universal in its invitation. The third instance, in Acts 19, again served to identify the twelve men mentioned as actually being converted to Christianity instead of simply being followers of John the Baptist. In all of the instances in Acts, speaking in tongues was a sign that the work of the Holy Spirit was genuine.
The only passage in the New Testament that deals theologically with the gift of tongues is found in 1 Corinthians 12-14. In the Corinthian church, plagued with so many doctrinal and spiritual problems, it is rather significant that three chapters of Paul’s epistle to them are devoted to expounding the purpose and meaning of tongues, giving more attention to this problem than to any other which existed in the Corinthian church. On the whole, the chapters are designed to correct and regulate speaking in tongues rather than to exhort them to the exercise of this gift. In the light of the fact that none of the other epistles or New Testament books apart from the book of Acts deals at all with this subject, it would seem apparent that speaking in tongues, although it existed in the early church, was not a major factor in its evangelism, in its spiritual life, or in its demonstration of the power of God. It seems to have been prominent only in a church which was notoriously unspiritual (see 1 Co 1-11).
The gift of tongues is introduced in 1 Corinthians 12 as one of many gifts, and, significantly, as the least of the gifts enumerated in 1 Corinthians 12:28. It is number eight in the list, and immediately afterward the apostle makes it plain that spiritual gifts are not possessed by all the church, and only a few would necessarily speak in tongues. The entire next chapter of 1 Corinthians is devoted to motivation in speaking in tongues, and Paul points out that the only proper motivation is love. Accordingly, they were not to exalt the gift and they were not to use it as a basis for spiritual pride. Speaking in tongues without love was an empty and ineffectual exercise.
In chapter 14 the discussion on the significance of the gift of tongues deals with the subject in some detail. At least five major points are made. First, tongues is defined as a gift which is not nearly as important as other gifts such as the gift of teaching or the gift of prophecy. The problem was that speaking in tongues could not be understood by anybody without the gift of interpretation and was limited in its capacity to communicate divine revelation. Paul accordingly says that it is better to speak five words with understanding than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue (1 Co 14:19). It is clear from this that Paul exalts the gifts that actually communicate truth rather than the phenomenal gift of tongues which was more of a sign.
Second, it is pointed out that speaking in tongues should not be exercised in the assembly unless an interpreter is present. The principal exercise of speaking in tongues was to be in private, but even here Paul indicates that praying with understanding is better than praying in an unknown tongue (1 Co 14:15).
Third, the importance of speaking in tongues is found in the fact that it is a sign to unbelievers—that is, it is a demonstration of the supernatural power of God—and tongues is not primarily intended for the edification of believers (1 Co 14:21-22). The Corinthian church, however, was told that unless speaking in tongues was conducted with proper order, it would not achieve its purpose of convincing unbelievers but rather would introduce an element of confusion (1 Co 14:23). In the public assembly the exercise of the gift of prophecy, the communication of a revelation from God in a known language, was more important and more effectual in leading to faith and worship than the exercise of the gift of tongues (1 Co 14:24-25).
Fourth, spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues as well as the exercise of the gift of prophecy should be regulated and should not be allowed to dominate the assembly. The principle should be followed that these gifts should be exercised when it is for the edification of the church. Ordinarily only two or three in any given meeting should be allowed to speak in tongues, and none at all should be permitted if an interpreter is not present (1 Co 14:27-28). A blanket prohibition was laid down against women speaking either as a prophet or in tongues in the church assembly (1 Co 14:34-35). The general rule is applied that all things should be done decently and in order.
Fifth, Paul allows that speaking in tongues should be exercised and not forbidden, but its limitations should be recognized and its exercise should be in keeping with its value. From this thorough discussion of the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, as well as from the introductory two chapters, it is evident that speaking in tongues was not intended to be a primary source of revelation or a primary experience of power in the church. It was rather collateral and auxiliary as a proof of the truth of God.
If the speaking in tongues was truly exercised, however, in the early church and under proper regulation was beneficial, the question of course still remains as to whether a similar experience can be had by the church today. Because it is almost impossible to prove a universal negative in an experiential matter such as this, especially in the light of many who claim to have exercised the gift, a practical line of approach is first of all to examine the question as to whether the Scriptures themselves indicate that speaking in tongues was a temporary gift and then, on the basis of the total evidence, to ask the question as to what one should do in the light of the claims of many that they have a gift of speaking in tongues today.
There are at least four arguments leading to the conclusion that speaking in tongues is temporary. First, it is clear that there was no exercise of speaking in tongues before Pentecost. Christ and the apostles and John the Baptist did not exercise the gift of speaking in tongues prior to Pentecost. There is no evidence that such a spiritual gift was given in the Old Testament period. Accordingly, it follows that if such a gift was given at Pentecost it also could be withdrawn according to the sovereign will of God.
Second, according to the Scriptures, tongues was especially to be a sign to Israel. Isaiah 28:11 prophesied, “For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.” This is quoted in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 as being fulfilled in the exercise of the speaking in tongues. Such a sign gift would be fitting and effective at the beginning of a new age, but it would not necessarily be required throughout a long period of time.
Third, although it is debated, it seems evident that some other spiritual gifts, such as the gift of apostleship, the gift of prophecy, the gift of miracles, and the gift of healing, were temporary. If these gifts, so effective in establishing the church, were used in the apostolic period but seem to fade thereafter, it would follow that the gift of tongues might have a similar withdrawal from the church.
Fourth, the statement is made in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that tongues would cease. It can be debated, of course, as to whether this means that the gift of tongues will cease now or whether it will cease at some future time. The point, however, is that in either case, speaking in tongues is temporary and not a manifestation continued indefinitely in the purpose of God. These evidences seem to point to the conclusion that speaking in tongues is not a gift which can be expected to be exercised throughout the entire church period.
The natural question is, How can we account for the exercise of speaking in tongues today as it is claimed by many individuals? Some sort of a phenomenon which is identified as speaking in tongues is a manifest feature of contemporary Christianity. Three explanations are possible.
First, much of the phenomenon of speaking in tongues today seems by all normal tests to be babbling without known words or language. Such can be completely explained by psychological means and without supernatural inducement.
Second, claims are made in some cases that speaking in tongues is in definite languages recognizable by those who are familiar with these languages. Although such claims are few and far between and hard to demonstrate, if such a claim can be substantiated the question is, How can it be explained? This introduces a second possibility for explaining a portion at least of the tongues phenomena today.
It seems clear that Satan is able to counterfeit the gift of tongues, and occasional reports are received of those claiming to speak in tongues who actually express the most horrible blasphemies against God.
A third possibility in explaining the contemporary claim for speaking in tongues is, of course, to recognize that, in some rather remote instances, it is a genuine spiritual gift. Many evangelical Christians do not feel that there has ever been evidence in our century of the exercise of the genuine gift; but if such could be substantiated in a particular case, it still would not justify the great majority of instances of speaking in tongues—which apparently are not at all what the Scriptures refer to as speaking in tongues.
Much of the difficulty in the modern Pentecostal movement is found in the fact that rarely will it submit the exercise of the speaking in tongues to scientific demonstration. If a given instance of speaking in tongues were put on electronic tape and played separately to several individuals who claim to have the gift of interpretation, and their translations proved to be identical, it would be a scientific demonstration of the genuineness of speaking in tongues such as was true on the day of Pentecost. Unfortunately the Pentecostal movement has not, as far as the author knows, been willing to submit speaking in tongues to such a scientific test. Until they do, they continue to cause questions to be raised as to the genuineness of the exercise of the gift of tongues in the contemporary situation.
It is also obvious that while speaking in tongues was a genuine gift in the early church, it was peculiarly adapted to abuse. In the Corinthian church it was a source of pride on the part of unspiritual people who exercised the gift but who had little spiritual power or holiness attending its exercise. Unfortunately, the same tendencies sometimes are observed today in those who claim to speak in tongues but who make it a source of pride instead of effective testimony for the Lord. It is not true, as often claimed, that speaking in tongues is a proof of either the filling of the Spirit or of spiritual power. There is no basis for pride in the exercise of such a gift.
The danger of the abuse of tongues may be itemized as existing in four areas. First, speaking in tongues is not, as is sometimes claimed today, a prominent spiritual gift. It is the least of all spiritual gifts and is the least effective in propagating Christianity.
Second, tongues is not a required sign of salvation and, by its very nature as a gift, would be given only to a few, not to all Christians. The lack of reference outside the books of Acts and 1 Corinthians is substantial proof that it was not an important feature of experiential Christianity in the first century.
Third, it is quite clear that speaking in tongues is not in itself a proof of spirituality. The church that seems to have exercised it the most was the least spiritual. The history of the tongues movement seems to have given rise to emotionalism and excesses of various sorts which have not been beneficial to the propagation of the gospel.
Fourth, it is not true that speaking in tongues is an inseparable evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. Since it was a genuine gift in the early church, one who spoke in tongues obviously was also baptized into the body of Christ. Yet it is quite clear from 1 Corinthians 12:13 that every Christian is baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ, but only a few speak in tongues. Accordingly, the attempt to make tongues a necessary sign of either spirituality or salvation is an abuse of the doctrine which is expressly prohibited in the Scriptures.
A practical approach to the problem of speaking in tongues is probably not one of attempting to prove to Pentecostals that they do not have the gift, although this may be our own conclusion. It is rather than evangelical Christianity should insist that Pentecostalism should confine the exercise of their supposed gift of tongues to the regulations and limitations imposed by the Scriptures themselves. Obviously, if the Pentecostal movement followed closely the regulations laid down in 1 Corinthians 12-14, there would be little harm, if any, in exercising the supposed gift, for it would be regulated and kept within bounds and properly evaluated. The improper use and promotion of the gift of tongues, however, is detrimental to the exposition of Bible doctrine as a whole and confuses the issues of both salvation and spirituality.
If the gift of tongues is suspect as far as contemporary exercise is concerned, it also follows that the gift of interpreting tongues today is suspect. Because of the nature of the gift of interpreting tongues, it is difficult to check on it, but if a bona fide case could be found of one who without knowledge of a foreign language would be able to interpret such a foreign language while exercising the gift of tongues, and this in turn could be checked by someone who knows the language naturally, there would be scientific evidence for a supernatural gift. There still would be a possible question as to whether this was of God or of Satan. Until proof has been established as to the nature of the interpretation, it is reasonable to question whether the gift can be exercised today.
The gift of discerning spirits, while not related to speaking in tongues, is another gift that seems to have been temporary in the church. This was the gift of discerning whether a person supposedly speaking by the Spirit was speaking of God or of Satan. It is probably true that Christians today who are spiritually minded can discern whether one is Spirit directed or demon possessed, but this ability does not seem to be bestowed upon the church today as a particular gift.
In approaching these controversial matters, Christians should avail themselves of the revelation of Scripture and attempt to find a workable basis for solving these problems. The important truth is that there are spiritual gifts bestowed on the church today. The proper use of these gifts in the power of the Spirit is essential to fulfilling the work of God in and through His church. While the temporary gifts are no longer necessary to the testimony of God, the exercise of the permanent gifts is vitally important and the best demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit.