Mar 12, 2010

Is Speaking in Tongues Evidence of Spirit Baptism?

Tony GarlandBy Dr. Tony Garland

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Q. For quite some time I've watched my church go through what I have come to view as sort of radical practices, such as being slain in the spirit (which is rare; I can only remember this occurring once in my church) and speaking in tongues (which used to transpire frequently every service, but has toned itself down to little to none in most cases). I listened to a little over half of your presentation on the Pentecostal Church, so I know that you are already aware of what goes on in this denomination.

Personally, I think my doubts rose out of the fact that my pastor said that if I would simply ask, God would baptize me with the Holy Spirit and I would speak in tongues—this was simply not the case. It's my pastor's word against reality, so I began to doubt.

A. It is not unusual to encounter the teaching that baptism by the Spirit is a second work after salvation which is evidenced by the recipient speaking in "tongues." (I use quotes here because the tongues involved are understood not as bona fide human languages, but ecstatic speech.)

There are numerous problems with this teaching:

  1. Real Languages—Biblical evidence (e.g., Acts 2; 10; 19) indicates that tongues were known human languages. Although some appeal to 1 Corinthians 13:1 in an attempt to explain ecstatic speech as tongues of angels, there are several problems with this view. Firstly, ecstatic speech does not contain legitimate information content (non-repeating, information density) like a real language so ecstatic speech could not have been used by angels for communication (and speech is all about communication). Secondly, when the full context of the passage (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) is studied, it is clear that Paul is using hyperbole to emphasize that even giftings which he himself never experienced pale in comparison with love. Did Paul give his body to be burned? No. Did Paul bestow all his goods to feed the poor? Not that we know of. Did Paul understand all mysteries and all knowledge and have all faith such that he moved mountains? No. Did Paul speak with the tongues of both men and angels? The obvious implication is "No." So this passage cannot support the idea that ecstatic speech was used by Paul to speak in angelic languages.

  2. An Historic Transition—Believers need to interpret the events of the book of Acts within their original historic context. The book records a transition in God's program in the formation of a new spiritual entity: the Body of Christ. The giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost was in fulfillment to numerous promises which Jesus and John the Baptist had made earlier (Mtt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; 11:13; John 1:33; 7:38-39; Acts 1:5). John tells us that prior to the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not been glorified (John 7:38-39). Of course we know that the Spirit had been ministering up until then—the Spirit is omnipresent and is known to have been active from Genesis 1:2, and even before. How are we to understand this statement of John? John's passage indicates that a new ministry of the Spirit was to be initiated on the Day of Pentecost—which required the death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus. This new ministry is the formation of the Church, the "Body of Christ" which ministers in His absence. This "coming of the Spirit" which is recorded in relation to several different groups in the book of Acts is not something we, as believers, are to travel to Jerusalem and wait for today! It happened nearly 2,000 years ago.

  3. Baptized into Christ—It is the Holy Spirit, in this new ministry which began on the Day of Pentecost, who baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Following the transitional period recorded in the book of Acts, it is no longer possible to be a believer and not be baptized "into Christ." Salvation and Spirit baptism are now synchronous ministries of the Spirit.

  4. Not All Spoke in Tongues—Even in the early church we find that not all spoke in tongues (1 Cor. 12:30). Notice this is in the same passage in which we previously saw that all were baptized into Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Clearly, it is a logical contradiction for speaking in tongues to be taken as evidence of Spirit baptism when all believers are baptized into Christ and yet not all spoke with tongues.

  5. Frustrated Believers—The teaching that all spoke with tongues or that Biblical tongues are merely ecstatic speech (which both pagans and believers can exhibit) or that believers, some 2,000 years after the giving of the Spirit, are to seek a second baptizing work of the Spirit in order to be equipped for ministry ignores the historical context regarding the formation (foundation—something which is only laid once, Eph. 2:20) of the "one new man" which is the Body of Christ. It produces much confusion and frustration, especially on the part of sincere believers who are unable to experience this practice (despite repeated coaxing and coaching by others—something else nowhere found in Scripture).

  6. Undermines Faith—Whenever we misrepresent Scripture in our teaching, then damage results. There is internal damage because when believers find that what they are being taught is not happening, they naturally begin to doubt the very Scriptures themselves—instead of understanding that the problem is with the interpretation of the teacher they are sitting under. There is external damage because of the confusion which is evident to unbelievers who are watching our activities (1 Cor. 14:23). They will rightly ask why they should believe in our message of a man who rose from the dead when we are ready to accept ecstatic speech, which no one in any country can understand, in the place of bona fide languages which were exhibited in the early Church? Believers should understand that to the degree they are willing to interpret today's non-miraculous practices as being equivalent to that which the New Testament records of the early Church, they necessarily undermine our witness among the unsaved, not to mention the character of the Spirit of Truth and the veracity of His Word!

It is confusion like this which was behind James' warning to teachers:

My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (James 3:1)

Poor teaching has ramifications, both inside and outside the Body of Christ. May we study the Scriptures carefully—and do justice to the historical context which is critical to understanding what is recorded therein.