These are more commonly known as ‘tongues.’ Here some of the biblical basics.
Since the Jesus Movement in the 1970s, I’ve spent almost my entire life—all of my Christian life—in the Renewal Movement, broadly defined. I have observed a few things and read a lot.
Let’s get started.
1.. Why should we change the term “tongues”?
In Greek the noun glōssa (pronounced glows-sah) means both the physical tongue and a language. In French today langue means both “tongue” and “language,” so Acts 2:4 is translated as “parler en langues” (“speak in tongues / languages”).
In Elizabethan English, which influenced the translation of the King James Version (King James I succeeded Queen Elizabeth I in 1603), tongue could mean both the physical tongue and language. In the early seventeenth century and later, the tongue and language could be synonyms. Today, however, we don’t say, “This is the German tongue,” but “this is the German language.”
The New Century Version, the Contemporary English Version, the New Living Translation, and the Message Bible all correctly use languages in v. 4. However, if they mean the natural ability to speak languages, then those translations fall short. The editors of the Spirit-Filled Life Bible (3rd ed., Thomas Nelson, 2018) in their notes call the God-given gift “spiritual languages,” but unfortunately they resort to the archaic “tongues” in many instances.
Let’s no longer call it ‘tongues,’ and every critic or questioner of this God-given should at least be courteous to those of us who have received it by calling it by the correct biblical term: ‘God-inspired languages’ or ‘spiritual languages’ or ‘prayer languages’ or ‘heavenly languages.’
2.. Do you expect the term to change any time soon?
Not really, but the change has to be introduced to the next generation.
3.. Is receiving the Holy Spirit a necessary ingredient for salvation?
Yes. The Spirit causes a person to be saved (Rom 10:9-10) or born again (John 3:3) or regenerated (Titus 3:5). The Spirit brings people into the church, so he is necessary for salvation, but Spirit empowerment, which can happen over and over again, with or without Spirit-inspired languages, edifies the church and leads people to share the gospel and minister to people outside the church.
4.. Is a Spirit-inspired language a necessary condition for salvation?
No. This gift is just one among others in Scripture. No one needs to receive the gift of teaching or serving (Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor 12:29) or the gift of prophecy (1 Cor. 12:10; Rom. 12:6), for example, to be converted. Christ’s sacrifice and your receiving his sacrifice by grace through faith is sufficient for that. Then the Spirit lives in you for personal growth. However, Spirit baptism-immersion and the gift of Spirit-inspired language projects you into a more powerful and intimate walk with God and ministry and growth in Christ.
Think of the fourth point like this.
You are in a big international airport. You have two ways to get to your next flight. You can take the conveyer belt or walk next to it. You sensibly choose the conveyer belt, and you even walk on it while it is moving forward. The belt and motor driving it empowers, carries, and propels you forward. This is like Spirit baptism-immersion and Spirit-inspired language (not the same thing, though often connected). Others who chose to walk without the conveyer belt are moving forward, because they have been born again, but you enjoy faster progress because you have been baptized-immersed with power in the Spirit.
It is no wonder why Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Renewal churches generally are the fastest growing on the planet. Is that unwholesome triumphalism and boasting? No, it is a real-world fact and the fulfilment of the promise in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (NIV). Through the Spirit’s gift to people of immersion-in-power, the church in Acts grew rapidly, adding 3000 in one day (Acts 2:41). Spirit-empowered and Spirit-filled churches are still growing strong and rapidly for the same reason.
5.. Are you saying those who have been born again are not baptized and immersed in the Spirit and are therefore second-class Christians?
No. They are every bit as saved as Spirit-baptized-immersed believers are. And they too are potentially or actually Spirit-immersed or Spirit-baptized, depending on their individual lives and church teachings. For example, they may go to a church that ignores the Spirit except in a passing doctrinal mention of him. Or their church may teach that most or all of the gifts ceased 1900 years ago. Or they may even mock Spirit-immersed believers and their gift of Spirit-inspired languages.
If that is the case, then these extra-restricted believers are saved, but they are teaching a deficient pneumatology (doctrine of the Spirit) that closes off the Spirit’s biblical activity (Mark 6:5-6). They are in danger of or have already quenched the Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieved him (Eph. 4:30) or resisted him (Acts 7:51). They may live godly lives and will make it into heaven because of God’s grace and gift of salvation and the Spirit’s causing them to be born again, but their church leaders have turned off the faucet to just drips.
Who knows? Believers who are the harshest critics may be slapping away God’s wonderful and powerful and life-changing gift of praying in the Spirit (Eph. 5:18-20; 6:18), which seems (to me at least) an arrogant viewpoint and presumptuous act.
6.. What do four key passages in Acts say about prayer languages being the sign of the infilling of the Spirit?
As noted in my commentary on Acts, Luke links receiving prayer languages with being filled with the Spirit in three explicit paradigmatic or exemplary instances, and one clearly implied paradigmatic and exemplary instance, and another example that he omits entirely, but the church practiced this gift (Corinth):
1.. In Jerusalem, the 120 disciples at the birth of the church knew Jesus from the beginning or early on (2:1-4). The church was born and empowered, and the charismatic environment can now ripple throughout Acts, and this gift and the Spirit’s power are for everyone who are afar in geographical distance and subsequent generations (2:39).
It is important to realize three biblical facts about the 120. First, that they had already converted to and trusted in the Messiah (Luke 9:1-2; Luke 10:22; John 20:22). They had already been saved. Second, they received their prayer language as a sign of this infilling of the Spirit. Third, therefore salvation and the infilling of the Spirit are two distinct divine acts.
2.. In Samaria, in an atmosphere of Philip working signs and wonders (8:7, 13), Peter and John came from Jerusalem to endorse the evangelistic campaign and lay hands on the Samaritans. Simon the Sorcerer saw that the Spirit was given (8:17-18).
It is important to realize the same three biblical facts. First, the Samaritans had converted to and trusted in the Messiah. As a sign of their faith, they were baptized. Even Simon believed and was baptized (Acts 8:13). Second, the gift of spiritual languages is clearly implied. Luke assumes his readers would understand that the visible sign was spiritual languages, in light of Pentecost and when two prominent apostles prayed and laid hands on the Samaritans. Third, therefore salvation and the infilling of the Spirit are two distinct acts.
3.. In Caesarea, Cornelius and his household, who were Gentiles (or Cornelius was), needed their own Pentecost (10:44-48). And it is also important to realize the same three biblical truths, with perhaps a compacted element. First, Cornelius and his household heard the word, so faith rose in their hearts. Second, they received their prayer languages. Third, it could be the case that salvation and the infilling of the Spirit to the point of receiving prayer languages can happen at the same time, or at least one right after the other. It is the Spirit who works both salvation and the empowering infilling.
4.. In Corinth, Paul spent eighteen months there because Jesus appeared to him in a vision and told him that he had numerous people there (Acts 18:1-18). Luke never mentions any of the spiritual gifts, including prayer languages, but Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians spells out that these believers exercised them powerfully and frequently (1 Cor. 12:7-11; 14:1-40). Once again, Luke’s omissions speak volumes about the charismatic atmosphere inf Acts.
That is, Paul’s experience proves that Luke does not have to explicitly link the fullness of the Spirit and prayer languages every single time. Paul received the fulness of the Spirit, but his prayer language is not mentioned at that time (Acts 9:17-18). But we know that he used this gift very often (1 Cor. 14:18).
5.. In Ephesus, twelve disciples believed in the Messiah, but knew only the baptism of John (19:1-7). And, as expected, it is important to understand the same biblical truths. First, the twelve men were called “disciples,” and in every instance in Acts this refers to believers in the Messiah Jesus. And Paul even called them believers (Acts 19:2). Second, they received the fullness of the Spirit and spoke in their prayer languages. Third, therefore salvation and the infilling of the Spirit are two distinct acts of God.
Let’s wrap up this sixth point.
These cases are paradigmatic and exemplary because they illustrate that converts to the Jesus Movement or the Way had also to be filled with power and this speaking gift.
Luke expects us to fill his omissions with the power of the Spirit because the entire sweep or context of his book of Acts is charismatic. It is similar to his omitting water baptism in key places. Often he does say that new converts got baptized: Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-13, 35-38; 9:18; 10:48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5), Yet in other cases water baptism is not brought up for new converts: Acts 9:42; 11:21; 13:12, 48; 14:1; 17:12, 34.
7.. Do all persons who are part of the Renewal Movements believe that Spirit-inspired language are the necessary sign of the baptism-immersion-infilling in the Spirit?
Some renewal denominations, like the Pentecostals, say yes. Some renewal churches, like independent charismatic or charismatic denominational churches, say no. Either way, baptism-immersion in the Spirit is just an extra-anointing or power surge, needed for serving God and shaking off old sins and habits. It can come on someone at any time, more than once, as the need arises and as the person asks for it—no passivity. It is more than just a one-time act. For some it may initially come with Spirit-inspired languages, or they may come later or not at all.
However, the question cannot be answered adequately to everyone’s satisfaction. When Bible interpreters disagree so strenuously because the key verses can be interpreted in various ways, that is a sign that we are asking the wrong question.
Here is a clearer way.
The gift of Spirit-inspired languages is God-ordained. He wants his people to pray the perfect prayer and worship him with the mind of the Spirit through heavenly prayer languages. Therefore, he extends his gift to any and all people who will take it. His hand is open and on it is this gift he invented. They can receive it at any time and in any place, whether at the initial baptism in the Spirit or multiple infillings or long afterwards. But if his people reject his offer of his gift—it is an offer that they can refuse!—then he will not compel them to accept it. It seems sad, however, that they would slap it away, out of his hand.
How does this teaching lead me to know Jesus better?
Several passages (Acts 4:8; 4:31; 8:15-17; 13:9; 13:52; 19:2-6 and Eph. 2:8-9; 5:18) tell believers to keep on being filled with the Spirit or the Spirit came for the first time or again on the same believers. The Spirit gladly empowers and fills people as often as the same people need it. The Spirit anoints or surges in them with power for service right then and there, as the need arises and as people seek God for it—no passivity allowed.
Example: teaching and preaching with boldness and wisdom and signs and wonders indicates the anointing and power surge through the Spirit. And signs and wonders and wisdom can consist in numerous conversions and persuading people to adopt right thinking and doctrines and healings, after preaching the gospel (Acts 28:31; Rom. 15:18-19; 1 Cor. 2:4).
The gift of Spirit-inspired languages is available to all who want it. But no one has to have it imposed on them. And it is certainly not a requirement for salvation to be born again and to get into heaven. One may not have to receive this gift, but one gets to receive it—a privilege from God. It is wise to receive any gift from God—to take all that he offers us. But if people refuse it, they must not criticize and sneer at those who received it with child-like faith and joy. 1 Cor. 14:39 says not to forbid speaking in Spirit-inspired languages.
As noted, the Spirit leads people to Christ and causes new birth in them, but Spirit-baptism-immersion-empowerment leads people outside the church to minister and reach out (Luke 24:48-49; Acts 1:8). Spirit-inspired languages simply prepares the heart of the one praying and the ones receiving ministry. It is the perfect prayer, since it is the Spirit who prays.
If you got it, use it! Don’t let it fall into disuse. If you don’t have it, ask for it! It will propel you forward in your Christian walk, much like the 120 disciples were launched in great power to their God-given ministry.
Written by James Malcolm