The Work of the Spirit | pt. 10


Tongues are used in a few overlapping ways in Scripture and should be pursued and practiced as outlined in the Bible. Scripture shows us that the problem is not tongues but the abuse of the gift of tongues.[1] I think it should be admitted that even if we do not completely understand the gift of tongues we should not forbid their practice in private or publically when interpreted (1 Cor 14:27-28) because Paul explicitly says “do not forbid speaking in tongues” (v. 39).

Paul actually tells people to be ready to share a tongue (1 Cor 14:26) and he says, “I want you all to speak in tongues” (v. 5). Further, Paul tells us that he spoke in tongues more than all the Corinthians (v. 18).[2] Paul said all of this even though “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (v. 2). Therefore, even though tongues are unintelligible to the human mind unless one is given the gift of interpretation (12:10), to speak in tongues is not wrong or bad (see 14:39); although, it should not be done publicly unless there is an interpreter (v. 28).

Many believe that tongues simply refer to a foreign human language (e.g. Ferguson, MacArthur).[3] Michael Horton says, “We should… understand ‘tongues’ as synonymous with natural languages, which some were miraculously gifted to speak and others to interpret.”[4] This understanding of tongues is simplistic and wrong for at least three reasons. (1) Tongues are used to speak to God. Paul says, the “one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit” (v. 2). In this way tongues, at least the way tongues are used here, may be similar to the groans that Romans speaks of (Rom 8:26-27). (2) If tongues are interpreted they seem to function in a similar way as prophecy thus they are different than a foreign speaker coming into a meeting that needs to be interpreted. (3) Paul says there are different types of tongues (1 Cor 12:10, 28). It seems that tongues (glossia) are used in overlapping ways in Scripture. R. P. Spittler points out that in Scripture we see that tongues refer to three types of overlapping phenomena. He says,

‘Kinds of tongues’ (génê glôssôn, 1 Cor. 12:10, 28) can refer to anything on a glossolalic continuum ranging from (1) prayer ‘with groans that words cannot express’ (Rom. 8:26, NIV; preferable to RSV ‘sighs too deep for words’), through (2) tongues speech in a controlled ecstatic jargon that ‘no one understands’ by someone who ‘utterers mysteries to God’ (1 Cor. 14:2), to (3) charismatic use of a recognizable language never learned by the speaker (Acts 2:8).[5]

Regarding tongues, it must also be pointed out that though tongues are good gifts that are given by the Spirit, tongues are not the marker of maturity. Further, tongues are not linked to a “second blessing” or to being filled with the Spirit.[6] Lastly, it must be understood that even if we do not understand something in Scripture does not mean it is wrong or that it does not continue. I, for example, do not understand, the seraphim. But I believe in them. In the same way, just because we may not understand every aspect of tongues does not mean that tongues do not still or cannot function as a blessing to the Church.

Here is a summary of what 1 Corinthians says regarding the gifts of tongues:

(1) There seem to be various kinds of tongues (1 Cor 12:10. 28 cf. 13:1; Acts 2:4).

(2) Tongues are unintelligible and unedifying to the group (1 Cor. 14:2-4, 6, 19) but are edifying to the speaker (v. 4).

(3) Tongues are not a foreign langue but are addressed to God (at least this is the case in 1 Corinthians) (vv. 2, 14-17).

(4) Tongues are not to be shared publically unless interpreted (1 Cor 14:6, 13, 26-33 cf. Acts 19:6).

(5) Tongues themselves are not forbidden but actually encouraged (1 Cor 14:5, 26).

(6) The regulations of tongues show that the tongues speaker is not in “ecstasy” or “out of control” (vv. 27-28).[7]


Scripture is to always be obeyed as the final authority[8] and all practices should align with Scripture and that means, first, that Christ should be exalted and all things should be done decently and in order for the building up of the body.

God reveals things, and even infallible things, to people all the time through a vast array of means (gravity, electricity, the solar system for example).[9] These are included in the “every good and perfect gift” that comes from God (Jas 1:17). I realize, of course, that these things are in a different category than Scripture but that is precisely my point! Just because God reveals something true that was previously unknown does not mean that the canon of Scripture is in danger of being compromised. None of the things listed above should ever be inscripturated (and also notice they will also never contradict Scripture because that is not their point, they give a different type of information). They are from God, and they are true, but they are not nor will they ever be Scripture.[10] That is because they serve a different purpose than Scripture. Prophetic revelation serves a different purpose as well. It does not reveal new theological knowledge. It may, however, correctly predict some relevant event (e.g. the arrest of the apostle Paul or a famine). Or it may disclose the secrets of someone’s heart (perhaps this is the word of knowledge but they seem related) as in the example with Spurgeon. Or perhaps God will give a prophetic revelation that is the timely application of biblical truth. In none of these examples is new theological knowledge being revealed.

God’s word is not to be added to. It is completed. If anyone adds to God’s word He will add to them the plagues that are described in the Bible (Rev 22:18). The definitive theological revelation has come: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1-2). We do not need new theological revelation but we do need the Spirit to help us and lead us by His revelation.[11]

I conclude this section with this important reminder from Grudem:

In our daily lives, it is the words of Scripture alone that must have first place in our hearts and our minds. We must read them, believe them, memorize them, and cherish them as the very words of our Creator speaking to us. All other gifts and teachings today are to be subject to the words of scripture and are to be judged by them. No other gifts or teaching or writing should be allowed to compete with them for absolute priority in our lives.[12]


[1] Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 148.

[2] “If [tongues] were known foreign languages that foreigners could understand, as at Pentecost, why would Paul speak more than all the Corinthians in private, where no one would understand, rather than in church where foreign visitors could understand?” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1072).

[3] If this is the case, then why would Paul say when you come together each one have a “tongue” or interpretation? And people that speak different languages are not allowed to speak in their language unless someone interprets? Also, languages are not typically considered a spiritual gift. And this would mean I guess that human languages will cease at Christ’s return? And look at the context that he says all this in, he talks about tongues of angels and he talks about speaking in tongues by oneself. Is Paul promoting talking to oneself? And why this talk about tongues being unintelligible? Different languages are not unintelligible. Tongues are unintelligible to the human ear unless the Spirit empowers the interpretation.

[4] The Christian Faith, 884. Horton also says that tongues have no private purpose or use (Ibid.) but that is not what the Apostle Paul says. Paul says that he speaks in tongues more than all of the Corinthians and he says that tongues edify the speaker (1 Cor 12:4).

[5] R.P. Spittler, “Spiritual Gifts,” 603 in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.

[6] “Luke repeatedly records instances where individuals are said to be filled with or full of the Holy Spirit, with no reference to speaking in tongues (e.g., Acts 4:8, 31; 6:3, 5; 7:55; 9:17; 11:24; 13:9, 52). If being Spirit-filled without speaking in tongues was God’s path for some of them, it is hard to see why tongues-speaking should be made the criterion for proper obedience to God today” (Carson, Showing The Spirit, 150 see also Gaffin, Perspectives on Pentecost, 50). Carson also says, “I think it extremely dangerous to pursue a second blessing attested by tongues, I think it no less dangerous not to pant after God at all, and to be satisfied with a merely creedal Christianity that is kosher but complacent, orthodox but ossified, sound but soundly asleep” (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 160).

[7] For this point see Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 889.

[8] Because the Bible is the authoritative word of God it is uniquely profitable (2 Tim 3:16-17). It is our sole authority for faith and practice. Scripture is a light (Pss 119:105,130), a sword (Eph 6:17), a hammer (Jer 23:29), and a surgeon (Heb 4:12). Scripture is more essential than bread (Matt 4:4), better than gold (Pss 19:10; 119:72), and we need it to live (Ps 119:144). Scripture is perfect (Ps 19:7), true (v. 9), pure (v. 8), and eternal (1 Pet 1:25). Scripture contains the words of life (John 6:68) and the words that are breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16). Scripture gives joy (Ps 119:111; Jer 15:16), makes wise (Ps 19:7), equips (2 Tim 3:17), guards (Ps 119:9), guides (Pss 73:24; 119:105), saves (1 Pet 1:23), sanctifies (Ps 119:9,11; John 17:17), and satisfies because by it we know God (1 Pet 2:3). The Bible is of absolute importance.

[9] John Frame even says, “It does seem to me that there are ways in which revelation continues today” (The Doctrine of the Word of God, 234). Then he goes on to give some examples. One of the things he says is that “general revelation is real revelation, though it would not be appropriate for us to add it to the biblical canon” (Ibid., 235).

[10] Augustine says in On Christian Doctrine that “every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master,” Herman Bavinck in Reformed Dogmatics, has said, “God is the source and origin of the knowledge of truth in all areas of life,” and similarly John Calvin says, “All truth is from God” in his commentary on Titus 1:12 (see Keith Mathison, “All Truth is God’s Truth—A Reformed Approach to Science and Scripture.” Ligonier (2012) [on-line]. Accessed 18 March, 2020). John Piper works this out and says, “The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that the Scripture is all we need to live obediently. To be obedient in the sciences we need to read science and study nature. To be obedient in economics we need to read economics and observe the world of business. To be obedient in sports we need to know the rules of the game. To be obedient in marriage we need to know the personality of our spouse. To be obedient as a pilot we need to know how to fly a plane. In other words, the Bible does not tell us all we need to know in order to be obedient stewards of this world” (Thoughts on the Sufficiency of Scripture: What it Does and Doesn‟t Mean.” Desiring God (2005). Accessed 18 March, 2020). All this to say, that God graciously provides truth to us in all sorts of ways but that does not mean that it is in completion with the canonized Scripture.

[11] Storms says, “Scripture never claims to supply us with all possible information necessary to make every conceivable decision. Scripture may tell us to preach the gospel to all people, but it does not tell a new missionary in 2002 that God desires his service in Albania rather than Australia. The potential for God speaking beyond Scripture, whether for guidance, exhortation, encouragement or conviction of sin, poses no threat to the sufficiency that Scripture claims for itself” (The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 149-150).

[12] Wayne Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2000), 49.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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