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Contemporary Issues in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit — Part IV: Spiritual Gifts Today

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]

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 of 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. capacity to support its oral testimony by phenomenal miraculous works. It is also clear from the history of the Bible that miracles were evident in some periods for particular purposes 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 receded.

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 gift of miracles or hearing. Relatively little controversy has been aroused by considering certain other spiritual gifts temporary.

It seems evident from the Scriptures that the gift of apostleship 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 the resurrected 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 future 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 14:1-40 . A number of illustrations are found as in the case of Agabus who predicted a famine (Acts 11:27-28), and who warned Paul of his sufferings (Acts 21:10-11). Among the prophets and teachers at Antioch according to Acts 13:1 were Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, and Paul. Even women could be prophets as illustrated in the four daughters of Philip (Acts 21:9). Paul clearly had the prophetic gift as manifested in Acts 16:6ff; 18:9-10 ; 22:17-21 ; 27:23-24 . Among the others who were evidently prophets were Judas and Silas (Acts 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 discussed somewhat at length in 1 Corinthians 14, and given more prominence than other gifts in the list in 1 Corinthians 12:28. 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 Cor 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 seem 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 is still 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 hearings 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 in the early church mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28, 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. 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 Cor 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 being actually converted to Christianity instead of being simply followers of John the Baptist. In all of the instances in Acts, tongues were 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 of New Testament books apart from the book of Acts deal 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.

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 plain in the questions that are asked 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 he 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 the 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 a tongue unknown to the hearer (1 Cor 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 gift.

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 Cor 14:15).

Third, the importance of speaking in tongues is found in the fact that it is a sign to unbelievers, that is, a demonstration of the supernatural power of God, and that tongues is not primarily intended for the edification of believers (1 Cor 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 would rather introduce an element of confusion (1 Cor 14:23). In the public assembly the exercise of the gift of prophecy, that is, 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 Cor 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 they should be exercised when it was for the edification of the church. Ordinarily only two or three in any given meeting should be allowed to speak in tongues, and not at all if an interpreter was not present (1 Cor 14:27-28). A blanket prohibition was laid down against women speaking either as a prophet or in tongues in the church assembly (1 Cor 14:34-35). The general rule is applied that all things should be done decently and in order.

Fifth, as a final point he allows that tongues should be exercised and not forbidden, but that 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 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 claimed 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 the gift of speaking in tongues today.

There are at least four arguments leading to the conclusion that tongues are 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 were 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 were temporary such as the gift of apostleship, the gift of prophecy, the gift of miracles, and the gift of healing. 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, of course, can be debated as to whether this means that tongues will cease now or whether they will cease at some future time. The point is, however, in either case that tongues are temporary and not a continued manifestation 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, however, is how can we account for the exercise of speaking in tongues today as it is claimed by many individuals. That there is some sort of a phenomenon which is identified with speaking in tongues is a manifest feature of contemporary Christianity. The answer is threefold.

First, much of the phenomena 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. today a prominent spiritual gift but 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 proof that it was not an important feature of the 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. That women were prominent in speaking in tongues in the church in Corinth is indicative of the dangers that exist in Pentecostalism today.

Fourth, it is not true that speaking in tongues is an inseparable evidence of the baptism of the Spirit. While one who spoke in tongues in the early church obviously, if it were a genuine gift, was also baptized into the body of Christ, 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 that 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 issue of both salvation and spirituality. Accordingly, evangelical Christians are duty bound to speak out on this subject and in Christian love to reaffirm what the Scriptures teach on this theme.

If the gift of tongues is suspect as far as contemporary exercise, it also follows that the gift of interpreting tongues would not be given today. Because of the nature of the gift of interpreting tongues, it is difficult to check on it, but if a bonafide case could be found of one who without knowledge of a foreign language would be able to interpret such a foreign language if exercised in 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 the possible question of whether this was of God or of Satan. However, the Pentecostal movement has seldom come forward with any such proof, and until they do it is reasonable to question whether the gift of interpreting tongues can be exercised today.

The gift of discerning spirits, while not related to speaking in tongues, is another factor that seems to be 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 it does not seem to be bestowed upon the church today as a particular gift.

In approaching these matters which are controversial, 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.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.