Historically speaking, evangelical Christians (from Martin Luther to Jonathan Edwards to Charles Spurgeon) have held to a cessationist position. They believed the miraculous spiritual gifts of the New Testament era ceased shortly after the first century. Contemporary cessationists include names like John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, Sam Waldron, and Richard Gaffin.
It is important to note, at the outset, that cessationists do not deny the possibility of miracles in the general sense of special acts of divine providence. Rather, cessationism limits its focus to the miraculous and revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit, contending that those specific gifts did not continue after the apostolic era came to an end.
With the birth of Pentecostalism in 1901, followed by the Charismatic Renewal in the 1960s and especially the Third Wave in the 1980s, the evangelical camp found itself divided in its view regarding charismatic gifts. A number of widely-read evangelical pastors and theologians (like Wayne Grudem, Sam Storms, and C. J. Mahaney) have been outspoken about their continuationist views. As evangelical charismatics, they believe the miraculous gifts of the Spirit did not cease and are still in operation today. Other well-known leaders (such as John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and James MacDonald) have also expressed openness toward the idea that the miraculous gifts are still operational.
In assessing any theological position, it is vital to begin with the Word of God. If we are to rightly understand the gifts of the Spirit we must start by going to the Scriptures which He inspired.
Addressing every aspect of this complex and controversial issue would be impossible in a short article. However, at its essence, there are three essential questions that must be answered.
- Essential Question #1: The What Question. What were the gifts in the New Testament, and how does that biblical description compare to what is happening in contemporary charismatic circles?
- Essential Question #2: The When Question. If the miraculous gifts (biblically defined) are not occurring in the church today, then does the Bible provide indications to when those gifts ceased?
- Essential Question #3: The Why Question. Why were these gifts given, such that they are no longer necessary after the foundation age ended?
Essential question #1: the what question
What were the gifts in the New Testament, and how does that biblical description compare to what is happening in contemporary charismatic circles?
If contemporary charismatic experiences of tongues, prophecy, and healing match the New Testament description of those same gifts, then the continuationist position is greatly strengthened. On the other hand, if the modern phenomena do not line up with the biblical data, the continuationist position is severely weakened.
Evangelical continuationists generally espouse a two-tier approach to the biblical gifts. For example, according to the continuationist paradigm, the apostolic gift of prophecy (which is inerrant and authoritative) must be distinguished from the congregational gift of prophecy (which is fallible and non-binding). The foreign-language gift of tongues (which was exhibited by the apostles in Acts 2) must be distinguished from the prayer-language gift of tongues (in which a non-rational “heavenly” language is spoken). And the immediately-effective, miraculous gift of healing (which was demonstrated by Christ and the apostles) must be distinguished from healing in answer to prayer (which is delineated in James 5:13–16).
While some mainline charismatics assert that both tiers of each gift are still in operation, conservative evangelical continuationists generally acknowledge that only the congregational form of prophecy, the prayer-language form of tongues, and the answers-to-prayer form of healing have continued throughout church history.
But does the New Testament support this two-tier description of spiritual gifts?
For our purposes, we will focus on the gift of tongues. Gary Gilley addressed the gift of prophecy here. On the matter of contemporary healing, we recommend The Healing Promise by Richard Mayhue.
The gift of tongues
The charismatic gift that launched the Pentecostal movement in 1901 was speaking in tongues. But does the contemporary version of that gift match the biblical data?
The definitive passage on the gift of tongues is Acts 2—where both cessationists and continuationists agree that the phenomenon consisted of the supernatural ability to speak in previously unlearned human foreign languages. Continuationists also generally acknowledge the fact that tongues-speakers today do not speak in authentic foreign languages—or, at least, not in languages that are immediately recognizable as such. Thus, it would seem, the contemporary charismatic version of tongues does not match the apostolic gift.
In order to bypass this dilemma, continuationists contend that there are more than one kind of gift of tongues in the New Testament. As one continuationist writer explained, “One thing that most of us agree on is that there are different kinds of tongues…. I think it is fair to say that the tongues of 1 Corinthians are different from those of Acts 2. Paul himself speaks here of different kinds of tongues [1 Cor. 14:10]. It is at least possible that at different points in this passage [in 1 Cor. 12–14] Paul is talking about different forms of tongues.”
But does the biblical evidence allow for this distinction? More specifically, is the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians categorically different than the gift described in Acts?
Here are seven observations from the text, suggesting that the gift of tongues described in Acts was the same as that described in 1 Corinthians 12–14:
- Same source: In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues was given by the Holy Spirit. The miraculous tongues in Acts were directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (2:4, 18; 10:44–46; 19:6). In fact, tongue-speaking is evidence of having received the “gift” (dorea) of the Holy Spirit (10:45). As in Acts, the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians was directly related to the working of the Holy Spirit (12:1, 7, 11, etc.). Similarly, the gift of tongues is an evidence (or “manifestation”) of having received the Holy Spirit (12:7).
- Same recipients: In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues was experienced by both apostles and non-apostles. In Acts 11:15–17, Peter implies that the tongue-speaking of Acts 10 was the same as that of Acts 2, even noting that Cornelius and his household had received the same gift (dorea) as the apostles on the Day of Pentecost. This indicates that the tongues of the apostles (in Acts 2) was not limited just to the apostles, but was also experienced (at least) by both Cornelius’s household (Acts 10) and the disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19). In 1 Corinthians, Paul, as an apostle, possessed the gift of tongues (14:18). Yet he recognized that there were non-apostles in the Corinthian church who also possessed the gift.
- Same substance: In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues is described in ways that rational languages would be described. The miraculous ability, as it is described in Acts 2, is the supernatural ability to speak in other tongues (meaning foreign languages) (2:4, 9–11). In 1 Corinthians, as in Acts, the gift of tongues is described as a speaking gift (12:30; 14:2, 5). The fact that it can be interpreted/translated (12:10; 14:5, 13) indicates that it consisted of an authentic foreign language, similar to the tongues of Acts 2. Paul’s direct association of tongue-speaking with foreign languages in 14:10–11 and also his reference to Isaiah 28:11, 12 strengthens this claim.
- Same terminology: In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the same words are used to describe the gift of tongues. The primary word for tongues in Acts is glossa (2:4, 11; 10:46; 19:6), although it is also described with the word dialekto on two occasions (2:6, 8). As in Acts, the primary word for tongues in 1 Corinthians 12–14 is glossa (12:10, 28; 13:1, 8; 14:2, 4, 5, 9, 13, 18, 19, 22, 23, 26, 27, 39), though Paul also uses the term phoneo twice (in 14:10–11).
- Same primary purpose: In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues was given as a sign to the nation of Israel that God was now working through the church. In Acts, it is presented as a sign for unbelieving Jews (2:5, 12, 14, 19). In 1 Corinthians, as in Acts, the gift of tongues was a sign for unbelieving Jews (14:21–22; cf. Is. 28:11). Note that the gift is even called a “sign” in 14:22 (the word “sign” is from the same Greek word as “sign” in Acts 2:22). Thus, the Corinthian use of tongues was a sign just as the apostles’ use of tongues was a sign on the day of Pentecost.
- Same connection to the other gifts: In the book of Acts, the gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (2:16–18; 19:6) and with other signs that the Apostles were performing (2:43). In 1 Corinthians, as in Acts, the gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (all throughout 12–14).
- Same reaction from unbelievers: In Acts 2, some of the unbelieving Jews at Pentecost accused the apostles of being drunk when they heard them speaking in other tongues (languages which those particular Jews did not understand). Similar to Acts, in 1 Corinthians, Paul states that unbelievers will accuse the Corinthians of being mad (not unlike “drunk”) if their tongues go uninterpreted (14:23), and are therefore not understood by the hearer.
The biblical evidence (from the correlating observations above) supports the conclusion that the gift of tongues described in 1 Corinthians consisted of the same phenomenon as the miraculous sign of tongues depicted in Acts.
Added to this is the fact that Luke (the author of Acts) was a close associate of Paul (the writer of 1 Corinthians), and wrote under Paul’s apostolic authority. Moreover, the book of Acts was written after the first epistle to the Corinthians. It is unlikely, then, that Luke would have used the exact same terminology as Paul if he understood there to be an essential difference between the two gifts (especially since such could lead to even greater confusion about the gifts—a confusion which plagued the Corinthian church).
The exegetical evidence leads us to conclude that there is only one gift of tongues, and that it consisted of authentic foreign languages that the speaker had not previously learned (Mark 16:17; Acts 2:4, 8–11; 10:47; 11:17). Such a conclusion has significant ramifications for contemporary charismatics: by acknowledging that the modern form of tongues-speaking does not involve actual foreign languages, they are simultaneously acknowledging that their contemporary experience does not match the New Testament precedent.
(Part 2 addresses additional exegetical factors and the testimony of the church fathers)
Nathan Busenitz has served in teaching roles at The Master’s College or The Master’s Seminary since 2000. Since 2009, he has served full time as an instructor of theology at the seminary. Prior to ‘09, Nathan served on the staff of Grace Community Church, and as managing editor of Pulpit magazine. He is also the author of The Gift of Tongues: Comparing the Church Fathers with Contemporary Pentecostalism.