Tongue Twisters (what the Bible Says About Praying in Tongues)

Dear Pastor Gabe

Thank you for the WWUTT ministry! It has been a blessing to me and other people that I know. I have a question regarding speaking in tongues. Can we really advise that it is okay to use any spiritual gift such as tongues for private or mere personal edification? Wouldn't this be a deviation from the rest of 1 Corinthians, and be done in a way that is really not typical of how Paul points that kind of thing out? I'm not saying that someone should not use the gift if it is given, just that I think the biblical use of the gift would not entail speaking mysteries to the wind, so to speak. Paul would rather speak five words that could be understood. How easy is that to do (Jesus saves all repentant sinners)? It seems he's making a point there.

Thank you again!

That's an e-mail I received last year when I held more liberal beliefs than I hold now concerning the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. A friend of mine (When We Understand the Text was first brain-stormed in his living room) has since shown me the doctrinal errors in my former understanding. I don't wish to try to explain what I used to believe, but if you watch this video with John Piper and this one with David Platt, you'd get an idea.

What's the position I hold now? The biblical one. The gift of tongues as we see it given starting in Acts 2 is an anointing of the Holy Spirit to testify the message of God in languages that the hearers could understand. That is its purpose and function.

So I'd like to come back to Neil's question from 2015 and answer it the right way in 2016. You're right, Neil. We should not advise that it's okay to use the gift of tongues for personal edification. Paul didn't either. I'd further your question and my answer by adding that the babbling we refer to now as "speaking in tongues" isn't.

I'm going to expound on this response by coming to the text so we can understand what speaking in tongues actually is and what it isn't, all according to what the Bible says. So grab your Bible. But before I get to that, permit me to share my experience from this past week.

Tongue Twisters of the Word

Last weekend at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, some 60,000 people at event called The Call, also known as Azusa Now, prayed in tongues for 15 straight hours on the 110th anniversary of what is known as the Azusa Street outpouring. At least, they think they were praying in tongues. It was actually complete gibberish.

The thing was set off in part by false prophetess Cindy Jacobs who said, "This is that which the prophets foretold. I'm getting ready to open up the greatest generation of young evangelists the world has ever known!" I can definitively say Jacobs was more full of herself than with the Holy Spirit.

It was in the midst of the whole Azusa Now garbage that I made the following tweet...

That was preceding a WWUTT video I was working on about praying in tongues (posted on Wednesday). In the 24 hours following the video, I was told I'm not actually saved, called a false teacher, compared to being a "mutt in a dumpster," that I had a rancid heart, I'm dividing the body of Christ, I suffer from typical Baptist false doctrine, and that I needed to be a man and take the video down.

Now, I'm not looking for sympathy. Mere words on faceless internet cannot even compare to the suffering my Savior bore for my sins. I mention those few comments just to make this point -- the subject of speaking in tongues is a very, very touchy subject. And it really, really shouldn't be. Those who place such critical importance on speaking in tongues (emphasis on critical) are at least as guilty as the Corinthians were when they prompted a rebuke from the Apostle Paul for the way they abused the spiritual gifts.

I would say that those who defend the modern western world notion of speaking in tongues are actually guilty of worse than what the Corinthians were doing. For what they are defending as "tongues" aren't actually "tongues" at all.

The defense that is made regarding speaking in tongues typically begins in 1 Corinthians 14. It cannot start there. An understanding of this spiritual gift has to start in Acts 2 where we see the gift of tongues first given. Then 1 Corinthians 14, the last chapter the spiritual gift is mentioned in, affirms its proper function and clarifies its proper usage. I'm not going to quote the entire chapters word-for-word. But you can open up your Bible and see for yourself the context as I give it.

Starting with Acts 2

In the first chapter of Acts, Jesus told the disciples to go back into Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father. They would receive power when the Holy Spirit had come upon them, and then they would go throughout Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth preaching the gospel. When Jesus said in John 14:12 that his disciples would do "greater works" than he had done, that's what he was referring to -- taking the gospel out even further by the power of the Holy Spirit.

According to Acts 1:15, there were 120 of them altogether devoting themselves to prayer. Then they cast lots for the 12th apostle who would replace Judas, and the lot fell on a man named Matthias.

At the start of chapter 2, the apostles were together in one place on the day of Pentecost. Pentecost was a feast day when the Jews celebrated the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. This is extremely significant. The day the Jews were gathered together to celebrate the law was the day they would hear the gospel of Jesus Christ who fulfilled the law.

The Scriptures say that a sound came from heaven like the sound of a mighty rushing wind. And divided tongues "as of fire" rested on each one of them (note: It wasn't actual fire but something that looked like fire). Verse 4 says, "And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance." The Greek word for "tongues" here is glossais (1100 in Strong's Concordance) which means "language." I'll come back to this again.

Jews from "every nation under heaven" (Acts 2:5) had come back to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. They had been scattered in the exile about 600 years before. After the exile ended, many Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem (as in Nehemiah, for example), but many stayed where they were and made lives for themselves. The generations that followed spoke mostly the language of the people they lived among. Still honoring their heritage, they would travel back to Jerusalem for major occasions. Jewish festivals were a hodgepodge of nationalities and languages.

At the sound of the rushing wind and the apostles who were speaking in tongues, the multitude came together, "and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language." The people said, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in this own native language?"

In other words, according to the traditions of those days, there was no reason for the apostles, ordinary Galileans, to have been so educated that they knew the multitude of languages they were speaking. That was recognized by those who observed them. The Bible's description of this ability to speak in tongues is given immediately: a gift of the Holy Spirit to speak in a language of man that the person speaking did not previously know.

Verses 8-11 explain which nations were represented among them, and yet "we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God" (verse 11). Some were asking "What does this mean?" Yet there were others who did not understand what was going on, and they said, "They are filled with new wine." (For some stupid reason, Kenneth Hagin taught this meant the Holy Spirit makes a person indistinguishable from an idiotic drunk.)

Then Peter spoke up to speak to those who did not understand. He said, "Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem;" so Peter spoke in a language specifically for the men and women that resided in that region. "Let this be known to you," he said "and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day" (it was 9:00 in the morning, too early to be drunk yet).

Peter said what was happening was a fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures, when it was said through the prophet Joel that God would pour out his Spirit on all flesh, "and your sons and daughters would prophesy." He showed them how Jesus of Nazareth, killed at the hands of lawless men according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23). Peter explained how Christ fulfilled the prophesies of old, and that he was known even by David, their greatest king.

"This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses," Peter continued. "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, 'The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.'' Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified" (Acts 2:32-36).

The gospel Peter preached cut them to the heart. They asked what they needed to do, and Peter said, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself."

The Scriptures say that Peter continued to preach them many words, saying "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." This was a long sermon, not limited to just the thousand words we have in Acts 2. Those who were convicted and received his word repented of their sins, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Understand that tens of thousands of people heard this message. Three thousand were saved. That's still really fantastic! More people were converted in one day than in Jesus's entire earthly ministry. Again, as he said to his disciples, they would do even greater works than he had done -- because he had given them the Helper, the Holy Spirit, who spoke through them (Luke 21:15), even in languages the apostles did not know.

The people were saved because they heard the gospel. Romans 10:17 says, "Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." These Jews heard the word of Christ, were saved and were baptized." They heard the message in their own language. That's what the gift of tongues is. That's what the gift of tongues is for.

Other Occasions of Speaking In Tongues in Acts

Speaking in tongues is mentioned only two other times in the book of Acts. But both of these occasions must be looked at in light of what we read in Acts 2.

In Acts 10, an angel appeared to a Roman centurion named Cornelius who told him to seek out Peter who would preach to the Gentiles. Peter had previously been resistant to preaching to the Gentiles, but God had shown him "that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him."

Peter told them about the words of the prophets, Jesus's death on the cross, and the forgiveness of sins through Christ. The Holy Spirit fell on all who heard it. The Jews that were among them were amazed because the Holy Spirit was given even to those who weren't Jews, for "they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God" (Acts 10:46).

Meaning what? Meaning that the Gentiles started speaking in a language they did not know, but perhaps the Jews did, and this was an evidence to the Jews that even non-Jews would receive this gift of the Spirit. The people of God would be made up not just of Jews, but of Gentiles also. Whatever it was the Gentiles were saying in these foreign tongues, the Jews understood them to be praising the Lord. Again, the gift of tongues was given to communicate a message.

In Acts 19:1-7, Paul found some disciples of John the Baptist when he was passing through Ephesus. He asked them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" They said, "No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit." So Paul explained to them that John baptized with a baptism or repentance, but that this was a testimony of the one who was to come after him, that is Jesus Christ.

This is a little different occurrence than what happened in c.10. Note that they were baptized first, then Paul laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that they didn't have the Spirit until Paul gave it to them, as though Paul saved them by touching them. They were saved upon hearing and receiving the gospel, which was why they were baptized. Then they were given an anointing of the Spirit by the authority of Paul as an apostle to speak in tongues.

Verses 5-7 read, "On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all." It says in verses 9-10 that Paul took those disciples with them and they ministered with him for 2 years. Those twelve men became instrumental in sharing the gospel, which by the power of the Holy Spirit they were able to do in tongues that other men could understand.

Many charismatics and pentecostals will twist these two stories, in Acts 10 and 19, to make the argument that speaking in tongues is the sign of receiving the Holy Spirit -- not a sign, but the sign. If you've never spoken in tongues, they say, then you've never received the Holy Spirit. That is a lie from the pit of hell.

First of all, we do not see those who were baptized in Acts 2 speaking in tongues, nor do we see those described as receiving the Spirit in Acts 8:19 speaking in tongues. The Ethiopian Eunuch that Stephen baptized in Acts 8:26-40 did not come up out of the water speaking in tongues. Again, speaking in tongues is mentioned only three places in Acts. Not one verse in the Bible says we must speak in tongues to show evidence of the Spirit. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:30 that not all who receive the Spirit would speak in tongues. End of story.

Do not believe anyone who tells you that you must speak in tongues or else you haven't received the Holy Spirit. They are liars teaching false doctrine. You will find many other teachings of theirs will not line up with the word of God.

Getting to 1 Corinthians 14

Once you understand what tongues are as they are spoken about in Acts, then you can better understand to what Paul is referring in 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14. In chapter 12, he talks about speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues being gifts of the Spirit. But he starts by saying, "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (v.7). Gifts of the Spirit are for building up the church, not edifying the self. And it is the Spirit "who apportions to each one individually as he wills" (v.11).

Tongues are listed as the least of the Spiritual gifts (v.28), and as I've already mentioned, not everyone will speak in tongues, nor will everyone have the ability to interpret them (v.30). Though not everyone will have, we should all desire the higher gifts (v.31). Why? So our desire is for the church to be edified, and ultimately for God to be glorified. Paul is instructing them on the proper usage of spiritual gifts because the Corinthians had been abusing the gifts, and desiring the lesser gifts when they should be promoting the higher gifts.

We know 1 Corinthians 13 as "The Love Chapter" of the Bible. It's commonly read at weddings and quoted in lovey-dovey greeting cards. But Paul was not being romantic. He was rebuking the Corinthians. Everything that we read love is in 1 Corinthians 13, the Corinthians were doing the opposite.

When Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:1, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." He's not saying he does speak in the tongues of angels. He's being hyperbolic. He's telling the Corinthians that even if you were able to speak in the languages the angels speak, if it was not done in love for God and his saints, it would mean precisely squat.

It should be noted that Paul said to the Corinthians on another occasion that he's heard and seen heavenly things "that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (2 Corinthians 12:4). We cannot speak heavenly or divine languages with our fleshly mouths. Sorry.

Love is the most excellent way. Let all that we do be done in brotherly love for building up the body of Christ. That's the point of 1 Corinthians 13, which falls right between chapters 12 and 14 describing the spiritual gifts.

In 1 Corinthians 14:1-4, we read the following: "Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For 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. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church."

Verse 2 is I think without question the most abused verse when it comes to mounting a defense of speaking in tongues. I did the same thing when I thought it was okay to permit the practice. But you must read verse 2 in light of verse 1, and you must read verse 1 in light of chapters 12 and 13, and you must read chapters 12 and 13 in light of Paul's reason for writing to the Corinthians, and you must understand any mention of tongues in light of the gift as it's first given in Acts 2.

In 1 Corinthians 14:1, Paul says to pursue love (as in chapter 13) and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially to prophesy (as in chapter 12). Why? So the lost will hear the gospel and the saints will be encouraged, which we do in the love of God poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Romans 5:5).

When Paul gets to verse 2 and explains that "one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understand him, but he utters mysteries of the Spirit," he's saying that speaking in tongues does not edify the body of Christ. If a person speaks in tongues to himself, he's only edifying himself, and that's not what we should desire. We should desire the spiritual gifts for the purpose of edifying the body and building up the church.

The rest of chapter 14 is a continued rebuke for the ways the Corinthians were misusing the spiritual gift, while lovingly teaching them how it is to be used properly. It is not in any way, shape, or form giving permission to pray in tongues. And it is especially not permitting or encouraging prayers in gibberish that aren't actually any language at all. It's just gobbledygook we call tongues but really is not.

Not one time in the Bible all the way up to 1 Corinthians 14 is tongues described as some indiscernible mysterious divine language. You have to come to the text believing that qualifies as tongues and read that into the text. When Paul says in verse 5, "Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy," he is not saying Paul wants you to speak gibberish in private prayer, nor is he even saying he wants you to pray another language to yourself. He's saying it's good for you to speak in tongues for the purpose it was intended for -- sharing the gospel.

Paul says in verse 6, "Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?" In other words, speaking in tongues in and of itself does not fulfill some purpose. It's what's being said that's purposeful. If we're praying in languages that mean nothing, then... well, it means nothing!

Now look at verse 10: "There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning..." Can that be stated any more plainly? There are many languages in the world, and they all have meaning. Again, speaking in tongues is not meaningless gibberish or some divine, unknown language.

Paul goes on, "But if I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be a foreigner to the speaker and the speaker a foreigner to me. So with yourselve, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church." There we have that said again -- desire what is edifying to others and builds up the church.

Verse 13: "Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret." Again, a "tongue" here is a language in the world. And speaking in tongues is not the same thing as understanding what is being said. But a person who prays in a tongue can either be given the interpretation of that tongue, or the interpretation may be given to another.

Verses 14-15: "For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also." And again, Paul is not saying here that he prays in tongues. He says, "if I pray in a tongue." Even his own mind is unfruitful to himself. So what does he desire to do? Not pray in tongues. He will pray and sing with his spirit and his mind so that he and others will be edified.

As kind of a side-note, we also get the instruction here that our songs aren't to be merely thoughtless words that rhyme: "I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also." Paul instructed the Colossians, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16). Even in the songs that we sing, we are to prophesy to one another the words and works of God.

Paul says in verse 19 something that Neil quoted in his question: "In church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue." Those who place such a high importance on speaking in tongues speak contrary to the ministry of the apostles, whom we are told to imitate (1 Corinthians 11:1).

"Brothers, do not be children in your thinking," Paul says, again emphasizing that speaking in tongues is among the lesser gifts. "Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature. In the Law it is written, 'By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.' Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers" (v.20-22).

What is said here in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 affirms the purpose of tongues we saw demonstrated in the book of Acts. Tongues are a sign for unbelievers, declaring the saving message of God in their own language. It is not or is it ever defined as a private prayer language. Paul quotes from Isaiah as Peter quoted from Joel to point out how the gift of tongues fulfilled Old Testament prophesy, and even in the Old Testament, tongues are spoken about as declaring a message in another language.

Paul then expounds on that understanding and goes on to talk about order: "If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you."

Pentecostal, apostolic, and full gospel churches are in defiance of 1 Corinthians 14:23-40, whether their understanding of tongues is the languages of men or the gibberish they call tongues. Paul again says, "Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God."

Acting like circus animals (as in the Kenneth Hagin clip from earlier) is not godly. God is not a God of confusion, but of peace (verse 33). All things should be done decently and in order (verse 40).

After 1 Corinthians 14, the gift of speaking in tongues is never mentioned in the Bible again. And 1 Corinthians was one of Paul's earliest letters. We get the impression that the gift of speaking in tongues had an immediate purpose in the earliest years of first sharing the gospel, and once multiple people in multiple languages heard it, that purpose steadily diminished, even within those first 40 years of the early church.

In Conclusion

"So Pastor Gabe, are you saying that the Assemblies of God churches, the Foursquare churches, the full gospel churches, pentecostal and charismatic churches, and any other denomination, even the smattering of Baptist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, and Methodist churches that encourage praying in 'tongues' as we think of prayer in tongues are actually teaching something that is contrary to what the word of God says?"

I would be saying that, yes.

"But Pastor Gabe, that's divisive! That does not promote unity!"

Well, the word of God cuts like a sword (Hebrews 4:12), and Jesus said he's come not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10:34). I'm telling you what the Bible says. If you think that's divisive, it's because you're falling on the sword of God's word. I'm not being divisive by teaching what the gift of tongues actually is and what the Scriptures say about it. The ones who slander their brothers and sisters in Christ over what the Bible does not say about one of the least of the gifts, the gift of tongues -- it is they who divide. Any teaching that is contrary to Scripture divides bodies, not unifies them.

Now, I will clarify that speaking in tongues is not an essential doctrine. Regarding a brother who thinks speaking gibberish is some kind of heavenly language to the Lord, I don't consider him unsaved. But he is misguided. I was, too. Though I never spoke in tongues, I permitted the practice because I did not understand the Scriptures properly regarding this matter. (In that same vein of thought, those who make speaking in tongues an essential doctrine are heretics, for they claim something is necessary for salvation that is not.)

I do not think that the body of teaching of men like John Piper, David Platt, and Matt Chandler should be thrown out because they permit speaking in tongues in what they consider to be a biblical practice. I still greatly respect those men and their teaching. Anything any teacher says should always be tested according to the Scriptures -- even what I am saying here.

My congregation will tell you there is not a subject I will not address. I've had people get up and leave in the middle of service because I said if you teaching your children that Santa Claus is real, you're lying to your kids. I've said if you want to save your children from this wicked and crooked generation, pull them out of public school and homeschool them or send them to a Christian school. I have done this in love, not to be controversial.

The false idea that speaking in tongues as a necessary evidence of salvation is heavy in our community, influenced by pentecostal and apostolic denominations with large attendances. An understanding of what they teach and how to respond is necessary when confronting false teaching with the sound teachings of Christ.

The subject of speaking in tongues is in the Bible, so it must be taught and clarified according to what Scripture says it is, not what we want it to be. When it comes to instructing one another on this or any other subject, we must do it as we must do all things: in love, for the purpose of building up the body of Christ, to the praise of his glorious grace.

The clearest instruction that we have on prayer -- and I do mean clear -- was given to us by our Savior Christ. In the first sermon of his we have recorded in Scripture, he taught us how to pray and what to pray (Matthew 6:5-15):
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: 
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
For to God is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.

This Q&A was featured on the WWUTT podcast episode #165. You can subscribe to the podcast by clicking here. Thanks for reading!

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