Contemporary evangelicalism, I believe, has been thoroughly Pentecostalized with the expectation that if the Holy Spirit is active and working, then we will witness extraordinary effects ranging from direct revelation, special gifting, and emotional euphoria. In addition to receiving new revelation from the Holy Spirit, many professing Christians today also believe that the Holy Spirit continues to gift believers with special abilities like healing and speaking in tongues.
The first appearance of tongues in Scripture, Acts 2, is the single most important text for discerning the nature of this gift. Notice, first, that Luke states in verse 4 that the apostles and 120 followers “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The word “tongues” there is the Greek term glossais, which is the word used to describe the literal tongue organ in the mouth, so at this point the text is not clear as to what exactly “tongues” means.
But in verse 8, the Jews say, “And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” Here the word “language” is the term dialecto, from which we get our English word “dialect,” and it is clear that they are referring to distinct, known languages—different “dialects” from the various nations from which they came, listed in verses 10–11.
What’s more, these same Jews say at the end of verse 11, “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” The word “tongues” here is the same as verse 4—glossais, yet it is clear that they are using it interchangeably with dialecto—”languages” in verse 8. In other words, what is apparent in this first appearance of tongues in Scripture is that “tongues” and “languages” are exactly the same thing. They are interchangeable. Therefore, the gift of tongues is the ability to speak in known languages that the speaker himself does not know.
This biblical definition of tongues as speaking known languages is a far cry from the practice of tongues by charismatics today. In fact, even Charles Parham, the preacher connected with the first supposed case of tongues that sparked the modern Pentecostal movement, claimed that Agnes Ozman spoke in Chinese, though this was quickly proven false.1Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901–2001 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 88. Even D. A. Carson, a continuationist, acknowledges that “Modern tongues are lexically uncommunicative and the few instances of reported modern [speaking in foreign languages] are so poorly attested that no weight can be laid on them.”2D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 84.
But as with the matter of extraordinary revelation, moderate continuationists also defend the continuation of the gift of tongues. And like with revelation, they often do so on the basis that there are two different kinds of tongues. They agree that tongues in Acts 2 were known languages, but they insist that tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 were something different. For example, Sam Storms argues,
Acts 2 is the only text in the New Testament where tongues-speech consists of foreign languages not previously known by the speaker. This is an important text, yet there is no reason to think Acts 2, rather than, say, 1 Corinthians 14, is the standard by which all occurrences of tongues-speech must be judged.3Sam Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013), 180.
According to Storms and other continuationists, the Spirit continues to give the gift of tongues today as a means of person private devotion to God. In fact, Storms says that Christians have “a moral and biblical obligation” to seek spiritual gifts like this.4Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 157.
Rise Up and Walk!
Modern charismatics also claim the Spirit still gives the gift of healing. As with revelation and tongues, it is important to define what healing is biblically. When examining cases of healing in Scripture, it is clear that healings in Scripture were instantaneous. Once a person was declared healed, he did not have to wait for a period of time before he was completely healed. This healing was no gradual process. Furthermore, healings are always of diseases that are untreatable like blindness or lameness or even death. Healings were also complete, and they reversed all of the damage caused by whatever malady the individual suffered.
What is also evident from biblical healings is that those who heal do not do it of their own power or even of their own initiative. In fact, they have no control over the timing of when healings would be performed. For instance, even though the apostle Paul performed many spectacular miracles of healing, he endured a thorn in the flesh until the end of his life (2 Cor 12:7–9). He also apparently could not heal Epaphroditus, though he prayed for him (Phil 2:25–30). In other words, no individual permanently had “the gift of healing,” but the Spirit did gift individuals with the ability to heal in certain circumstances according to his divine will.
Of course, on the one hand are the faith healers like Aimee Semple McPherson, Oral Roberts, and Bennie Hinn, who have held extravagant healing meetings, complete with “slaying people in the spirit” and other frenzied chaos. The “healing” reported from such meetings are highly suspect.
But like with revelation and tongues, more moderate orthodox charismatics also teach that Spirit-given healing continues today. For example, Sam Storms teaches that the Spirit gifts certain individuals in certain circumstances a special measure of faith by which their prayers can produce supernatural healing.5Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 70.
I raise examples of more moderate charismatics like Sam Storms, not to lump them together with the prosperity gospel heretics—far from it. These men are orthodox evangelical teachers whose writing in many areas I find helpful. Rather, I raise them to illustrate what I believe to be confusion today even among otherwise orthodox individuals regarding how we ought to expect the Holy Spirit to work today.
Of course, there is wide debate today concerning whether and which of these gifts continue today. As I have discussed previously regarding direct divine revelation, there is a very simply reason I believe gifts of the Spirit have ceased: they were inherently transitional in nature. The Spirit gave revelation and empowered key individuals during important transitional periods in the progressive unfolding of God’s redemptive plan.
The same is true with gifts like tongues and healing. With tongues, which as I demonstrated earlier is the ability to speak in known languages, the purpose was inherently transitional in nature. We have to remember that up to the time of the New Testament, God’s focus had been exclusively upon the people of Israel. At the Tower of Babel God confused the languages, and from that point on the focus of his love and work was upon the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Salvation was from the Jews (Jn 4:22).
But as of Acts 2, membership in the church of Jesus Christ is not limited to one nationality. This was a concept completely foreign to a Jew, and the gift of tongues is therefore a poignant sign to the Jews that they are no longer the exclusive focus of God’s attention and love—now there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him. It was a sign to them that God was shifting his focus away from them for a time and toward the Gentile nations.
In fact, Paul specifically makes this point in 1 Corinthians 14, when he quotes Isaiah 28:11–12 in verse 21: “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.’” The appearance of these “strange tongues” during these early years of the church was a pronouncement of curse upon the nation of Israel, and it signified to everyone that salvation was no longer held within one ethic group.
And it is for this reason that twice more God sends the gift of tongues in the book of Acts. The second appearance of tongues comes in chapter 10 where the gospel first comes to Gentile people. Peter proclaims the gospel to Cornelius and his household in verse 34, saying, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable him.” But remember, even Peter had at first been hesitant to take the gospel to the Gentiles, so God made clear that these Gentile converts were indeed part of the church, and he did so through giving them the same sign he had given in Acts 2. In verse 46 Luke records that these Gentile converts began to speak in tongues, evidencing that they, too, had been Spirit baptized.
The third appearance of tongues in Acts 19 is similar. While Cornelius and his household were Gentile converts within Israel, in chapter 19 Paul encounters some Gentile disciples in Ephesus who had been baptized into John’s baptism but apparently had not yet heard about Christ. Upon believing in Christ, they began to speak in tongues and prophesying, evidencing that Gentile converts outside Israel were, too, now part of the body of Christ.
The gift of tongues, as is evident in the three appearances in Acts along with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14, had a very specific purpose: it served as a sign that membership in the church was without national distinction. Furthermore, there is no biblical support for the argument that tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 were any different than those in Acts 2, and it should not surprise us that the only mention of tongues or prophecy in the New Testament epistles is in 1 Corinthians, an early Pauline letter. By the time he wrote to most other churches, those gifts had served their purpose and passed away.
The gift of healing was also transitional. Acts 2:43 specifically said that the signs and wonders were being done by apostles. In fact, 2 Corinthians 12.12 says that miracles were marks of someone who was an apostle. There are roughly thirty-three miracles in the book of Acts. Twenty-six of them are performed by apostles, and the rest are done by angels except for a few miracles done by Stephen, Philip, and Barnabas, each prominent founders of the church.
All of this information leads us to safely conclude that signs and wonders were exclusively by apostles or close associates of apostles. The primary purpose of miracles was to authenticate the message of these apostles concerning Jesus as the promised Messianic king. This has been true of every period of redemptive history: miracles authenticated God’s revelation at every key stage in kingdom history throughout the Old Testament. The same is true in this key transitional period in the book of Acts. This is exactly where the Sprit’s works fit—in bringing order to God’s plan of establishing his kingdom on earth with Christ as king.
At this time in the book of Acts, there was no completed Bible; there was no unified message of the Holy Spirit, and so he had to authenticate his true message through miracles in order to distinguish which messages were truly his. But now the Scriptures are finished. We have a completed Canon of Scripture. Because of this, the Holy Spirit no longer needs to authenticate his message through some kind of external means like miracles.
The Holy Spirit now authenticates his completed Word directly. As 1 John 5:6 says, the Spirit Himself testifies as to the truthfulness of the message of Jesus Christ. If anyone says something contrary to the Scriptures, we know it is untrue because we have a completed Bible. They did not have this privilege yet, and so the Holy Spirit had to do something external to authenticate his message.
Here is the key: Before the complete Canon of Scripture, the Holy Spirit authenticated His message through signs and wonders. Now that the Bible is completed, the Bible itself is self-authenticating, meaning that it needs nothing outside itself to authenticate its message. Since the Holy Spirit inspired the message itself, he can attest to its truthfulness through illuminating the heart of the listener, that is, removing any doubt or question as to whether or not it is true. And because the completed Bible is self-authenticating through the illumination of its Author, signs and wonders are no longer needed.
|Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901–2001 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 88.
|D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987), 84.
|Sam Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013), 180.
|Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 157.
|Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts, 70.