This article offers a synopsis of the discussion on speaking in tongues, including whether this gift in the early church still exists today.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 2004. 4 pages.

Tongue Twisters

Have you ever spoken in tongues? This remains a pressing question for many people who claim the Name of Christ. To say "yes" is to give evidence that you have been filled with the Holy Spirit. To say "no" is to admit that you have at best an immature faith that in weakness has not yet reached out for the gift of the Spirit. Such is the thinking of many Pentecostals and their close relatives the Charismatics.

Since its beginning as a movement in 1901, Pentecostalism has stressed the importance of speaking in tongues. The very name of the movement shows that it takes its cue from what happened on Pentecost day as recorded in Acts 2. Pentecostals believe that the ex­perience of the 120 believers on Pentecost is to be the norm for all Christians. The 120 were baptized with the Holy Spirit and as a re­sult spoke in tongues.

This same pattern, they teach, can be and indeed must be re­peated for every Christian who desires to be baptized with the Spirit. Receiving this Spirit-baptism is called the "Second Blessing" which is a separate and subsequent event to a person's conversion. When baptized with the Holy Spirit, the believer is filled with and em­powered by the indwelling Spirit and so equipped and set ablaze for Christian service. Pentecostalism emphasizes that speaking in tongues is the evidence of that baptism.1

We should understand the implication of this doctrine well. If we have not spoken in tongues, then we have not received the fill­ing or indwelling of the Holy Spirit! This is a very serious charge. At best it makes us Reformed Christians to be impoverished believ­ers who have never tasted the power of the Spirit. At worst, it con­demns us as hypocrites who have a long history of opposing and even quenching the fire of the Spirit in tongues speaking.

Speaking in Tongues Today🔗

But what is speaking in tongues? Most Pentecostals would say that it is a special and unique Spirit-inspired speech that re­lates things about God. It is often referred to as "ecstatic speech" for it is thought to come upon a person in a state of holy ecstasy as one is baptized with the Spirit. An important feature of this speech is that it is not a human language but something unintelligible to the speaker and listeners.2 That means that though he himself speaks, the speaker does not understand the words that come out of his mouth. In fact, speaking in tongues is thought to originate in one's spirit (not the mind as with normal speech) while totally bypass­ing one's mind The practical result is that while the speaker is said to address God via his spirit-speech, it sounds like gibberish to the human ear.

The official web site for the Assemblies of God in the United States describes praying in tongues3 as follows:

Many believers today testify that praying in tongues greatly enriches their spiritual lives. The limitations of intellect are overcome as the Holy Spirit quickens the human spirit in glo­rious expressions of worship and adoration. The quandary of limited vocabulary and the inability to express feelings and concerns of the soul disappear as a Spirit-imparted language flows out from the heart. It is as if heaven and earth, time and eternity, God and man all compress together in a glorious act of worship.4

So, speaking in tongues, whether done in the public worship service (and so requiring interpretation for the congregation's benefit — 1 Cor. 14:28) or in private prayer is a matter of one's spirit speaking directly to God as enabled by the Holy Spirit. Reason and intellect are bypassed in this holy speech and the resulting cascade of sounds and syllables serves as the initial evidence of Spirit-Baptism.

Speaking in Tongues at Pentecost🔗

But is this what the Bible describes as speaking in tongues? Oddly, the very chapter of Scripture from which Pentecostals de­rive their pattern for faith and practice tells otherwise. Acts 2:4 says, All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them."5 Notice that it says, "other" tongues. Other than what? Other than the tongue they normally spoke! The 120 believers normally spoke in their mother tongue, likely either Aramaic or Koine Greek. But at the moment of the Spirit's outpouring they began to speak in "other" tongues ­other languages!

"Tongues" is simply another way of saying "languages" and can legitimately be translated that way.6 This understand­ing is confirmed by the reaction of those who heard the 120 speaking that day. Luke writes in Acts 2:7,

"Utterly amazed, they asked: 'Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native lan­guage?"

The Greek word used here for "language" is an alto­gether different word (dialekto) that indisputably can only mean language. The audience heard them speaking in their own native language, which must mean that those speaking in tongues were speaking in foreign human languages, fully intelligible to the vis­itors. They further equate "tongues" and "language" by exclaiming in v.11, "We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" The clear implication of this passage is that speaking in tongues is to speak in foreign but fully intelligible, human languages.

Beyond Pentecost — Two Kinds of Tongues?🔗

Of the few references to speaking in tongues in the NT,7 Acts 2 is by far the clearest in meaning. The only other passage that deals at length with speaking in tongues is 1 Corinthians 14, well-known by all as a very challenging chapter. Pentecostalism tends to take the Apostle Paul's much-debated description of tongues-speak­ing and read it back into the references in Acts. However, a good rule of interpreting Scripture is to allow the more clear passages to interpret the less clear. When Acts 2 is allowed to speak for itself then the undeniable conclusion is that tongues are human languages.

And this understanding of speaking in tongues is the implied meaning for Luke's description elsewhere in Acts. He mentions it twice more without any further elaboration or change in explanation. The Gentiles of Cornelius' household at Caesarea speak in tongues upon receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:46) as do the former disciples of John in Ephesus as they too receive the gift of the Spirit (Acts 19:6). The Apostle Peter even links the event in Acts 10 with Acts 2 when he explains in 11:15 that the

Holy Spirit came on them as He had come on us at the beginning.

The proof for Pe­ter that these Gentiles had received the gift of the Spirit was the fact that they exhibited the same sign as the 120 on Pentecost Day ­speaking in foreign human languages.

Further, if either of these two occurrences of tongues-speak­ing was something other than the foreign human languages Luke already described in Acts 2, we would expect him to make special mention of this new phenomenon and carefully explain it. With­out such a commentary, we must conclude that both latter refer­ences assume the understanding of tongues as Luke presented earlier. Thus, in total we find three clear, separate and distinct in­stances of tongues as speaking in foreign human languages.

Tongues in Corinth — Something New?🔗

This conclusion directly impacts our understanding of speak­ing of tongues in 1 Corinthians 14, the most controversial passage. According to references in chapters 12, 13 and 14, speaking in tongues played a prominent role in the church at Corinth. Paul him­self even spoke in tongues (14:18). It would seem safe to conclude that speaking in tongues began to take place in Corinth during his first visit there when he established the church. The remarkable fact is that Paul's missionary trip to Corinth (Acts 18:1-19) took place be­fore his journey to Ephesus where the speaking in tongues occurred among John's disciples (Acts 19:6). If the phenomenon at Corinth was something other than that in Jerusalem, Caesarea or Ephesus, it is incomprehensible that Luke neither explains it nor even men­tions it. Both before and after Paul's journey to Corinth, tongues are presented in Acts as the singular phenomenon of speaking in foreign human languages.8

Moreover, the evidence from Paul's letter to Corinth itself sup­ports this understanding. He uses the very same vocabulary and grammar as Luke to refer to speaking in tongues, thus giving no cause to think of a different phenomenon. All of the more difficult references to tongues speaking in chap. 14 can be legitimately un­derstood as speaking in foreign languages. But the clincher is Paul's quotation of an OT text in v. 21 of that controversial chapter itself which makes the matter plain:

In the Law it is written: "Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me," says the Lord. Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers.

The text Paul quotes is Isaiah 28:11-12 which unmistakably refers to the foreign speech of Gentile nations.

The conclusion seems inescapable. Whatever specific purpose speaking in tongues may have served in Corinth, Paul himself identifies them as foreign human languages. Thus the link with Luke's description is made solid and there is every reason to believe that the gift in Corinth is the same gift of the Spirit as mentioned on Pentecost and beyond in Acts.


Much more could be said about the purpose and place of tongues in the history of redemption. Why did they arise at that time and why have they since disappeared? Suffice it to say for now that what the Pentecostals and Charismatics practice today as speaking in tongues is something totally different than that found in Scripture. It is true that we Reformed people do not speak in tongues as did believers in the early church, but neither do the Pentecostals! Many people readily testify to their experience of ecstatic tongue speaking, but one's experience must always be judged by Scripture. Ecstatic speech or the pronouncing of sounds unintelligible to the human ear has no basis in the Bible as be­ing a gift of the Holy Spirit much less the primary result of being baptized with the Spirit. Neither, then, can modern-day tongues be legitimately claimed as the initial evidence that one has been filled with the Holy Spirit.

When that point is granted, then one can come to see why the Lord gave the gift of tongues at that time and why, along with other gifts like the Apostolic office, prophesy, and healing, they are no longer given by Him.


  1. ^ V. Synan, "Pentecostalism" in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictio­nary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984) p.836.
  2. ^ See further C.M. Robeck Jr., "Tongues," in Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, eds, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, (Illinois: Intervar­sity Press, 1993) p.940. Robeck mentions that only very rarely has there been sufficient documentary evidence to substantiate claims that the speaker communicates in a genuine human language foreign and unknown to himself. 
  3. ^ This is the main Pentecostal church group in the US. The web site notes four different purposes of speaking in tongues including private prayer as mentioned here. It is outside the scope of this article to discuss these four uses, but in any case the Assemblies of God states that, "In all these cases, tongues is the same in essence, but different in purpose." 
  4. ^ The web site is located at: This quotation is in answer to a question about tongues found at:­liefsibaptism_hs/baptmhs_04privatepublic.cfm.
  5. ^ All Bible quotations are taken from the New International Version (In­ternational Bible Society, 1984) unless otherwise noted.
  6. ^ See the NIV footnote on Acts 2:4, 11. The NIV consistently translates the word as "language" in the main printed text of Revelation. See e.g. Revelation 5:9, 10:11, 11:9, etc.
  7. ^ Tongues are mentioned in some detail only in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14. Passing references are found in Mark 16:17, Acts 10:46; 19:6 and a few times in 1 Corinthians 12, 13.
  8. ^ See the discussion in O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993) p.33-35.

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