Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in Tongues October 31, 2013

Today, in the series responding to Strange Fire,  we turn to the subject of tongues. Before I get to the arguments that MacArthur makes in his book, lets review the few Bible references that refer to the phenomena:

Mark 16:17

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues;  (NB: most scholars believe this verse was not in the original)

Acts 2:4

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Acts 2:11

both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

Acts 10:46

For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared,

Acts 19:6

And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.

1 Corinthians 14:15

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.

Romans 8:26

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

1 Corinthians 12:10

to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

1 Corinthians 14:5

Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

1 Corinthians 12:28

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:30

Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?

1 Corinthians 13:1

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

1 Corinthians 13:8

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.

1 Corinthians 14:1

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

1 Corinthians 14:6

Now, brothers, if I come to you speaking in tongues, how will I benefit you unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or teaching?

1 Corinthians 14:18-19

I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.

1 Corinthians 14:21

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.”

1 Corinthians 14:22

Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.

1 Corinthians 14:23

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?

1 Corinthians 14:39

So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.


In addition many charismatics believe the following verses refer to tongues

1 Corinthians 14:15

What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.

Romans 8:26

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.

Jude 1:19

But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit,


We will now turn to the biblical arguments found within the pages of Strange Fire.

Argument Tongues were human languages given solely for the purpose of evangelism.

“In short, the glossolalia practiced by today’s charismatics is a counterfeit that by every measure falls short of the gift of tongues described in the New Testament. Today’s tongues-speakers claim to have received the biblical gift, but ultimately they have to acknowledge that the gibberish they are speaking has none of the characteristics of real language. Whereas modern “tongues” is a learned behavior consisting of unintelligible stammering and nonsense syllables, the New Testament gift involved the supernatural ability to speak precisely in a foreign language the speaker had never learned. Though charismatics may hijack biblical terminology to describe their practice, the fact remains that such fabricated behavior has no relation to the biblical gift”  Strange Fire, page 137

It is patently clear that tongues were not solely for evangelism. Acts 2 is the only place where there is any suggestion they were being used for that, and even there it is interesting that those speaking in tongues were not proclaiming the gospel but instead praising God. This would be consistent with the other examples which speak of tongues being towards God, edifying the person speaking, and needing a supernatural gift of interpretation. If tongues are always a language and are only for evangelism, why would the Spirit have given a gift of tongues for use when nobody was in the room to understand? Also, Paul says clearly that he doesn’t speak in tongues much if at all in church but he does speak in tongues a lot, more than the rest of them. The only time he could be doing this in his own prayer time.

Also, the phrase “tongues of men and of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1 does suggest that the gift of tongues might be the ability to speak some other- worldly, angelic language.  We also saw “various kinds of tongues” being described in 1 Cor 12:10.

Finally the concept of the Spirit helping us to pray with “groans that words cant express” could support the subjective experience of many with tongues, which is that words “run out” and can no longer express the praise they are giving to God at the time when tongues begin.  An example of this kind of experience is given by Augustine:

Behold, he giveth as it were the tune of thy song; seek not words as if thou couldest explain whereby God is pleased. Sing with jubilation: for this is to sing skilfully unto God, to sing with jubilation. What is it to sing with jubilation ? To be unable to understand, to express in words, what is sung in the heart. For singers, either in the harvest, or in the vineyard, or in any other busy work, after they have begun in the words of their hymns to exult and rejoice, being as it were filled with so great joy, that they cannot express it in words, then turn from actual words, and proceed to sounds of jubilation. The jubilee is a sound signifying that the heart laboureth with that which it cannot utter. And whom beseemeth that jubilation, but the Ineffable God? For He is Ineffable, Whom thou canst not speak; and if thou canst not speak Him, and oughtest not to keep Him silent, what remaineth to thee but jubilation ; that the heart may rejoice without words, and the boundless extent of joy may have no limits of syllables? Sing skilfully unto Him with jubilation.

—Augustine of Hippo on the 33 Psalm (AD 354–430) [38]

I appreciate not everyone will be convinced by these arguments, but at least appreciate that there are biblical arguments that charismatics rely on to support their experience.

But also, we should judge by the fruit. If a persons spiritual prayer language leaves them feeling closer to God, empowered to serve, encouraged and built up, and full of more love for Jesus, it is hard to see how this could be from the devil.

Also, the parable found in Luke 11 is revealing, as it promises us clearly that if we are children of God he would not allow a bad gift to be substituted for the real thing if we ask him. Jesus himself says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  Luke 11:13


Argument All gifts were given for the edification of others, Charismatics are wrong then to think of tongues as self-edifying, and that is a selfish content.

Counterargument: MacArthur doesn’t really engage with “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.”  The argument is that in church tongues are to be interpreted so that others also benefit rather than that tongues do not benefit the speaker! Paul wants to limit tongues in church, but also wants all of them to speak in tongues. The fact that he does so more than any of them suggests that he is himself getting some benefit from the practice.

What is so wrong with wanting to be built up yourself so that you can build others up?

This is also why I included the verse from Jude which encourages us to be building ourselves up through the Holy Spirit.

In short I see no reason why someone should not speak in tongues and hence “speak to himself and to God” That phrase surely indicates a prayer language!

Some other articles on Tongues that may be of help:

Sam Storm’s series:

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  • David Morecroft

    Great post Adrian. I have always believed that tongues are primarily praise to God. When we reach the end of our words the Lord gives us a language (angelic?) to continue praising him. In fact I wonder whether when there is an ‘interptetation’ of a ‘tongue’ which is a message to the church it is not in fact actually a separate prophesy and the ‘tongue’ has not been interpreted. A correct interpretation of a ‘tongue’ with this understanding would be praise to God so the people can say Amen to it.

    • You are spot on. Paul taught that prophecy was God speaking to man, and the message in tongues accompanied by an interpretation although seemingly equivalent to prophecy is actually man speaking to (or praising) God. Interesting that this exactly what was occurring on the day of Pentecost with the first occurrence of tongues.
      I have been in church services when someone was inspired to sing a new song in tongues as the Holy Spirit was directing them. Immediately following someone began to sing out an interpretation of this song of praise. The effect on the congregation is amazing and certainly inspires an heartfelt agreement in worship.
      To handle a tongue and interpretation as simply a message from God as in prophecy is to sadly miss out on the full impact of what is intended.

  • Jesse Ratcliff

    Just a small point regarding Mark 16; although it probably wasn’t the original ending, due to the wide number of variants that we have it was a possible attempt to reconstruct an ending that was lost. Although it isn’t a big issue as everything that is mentioned is repeated elsewhere; I have debated some who simply dismiss it out of hand as not part of the original script and therefore not part of scripture. The fact it is there and has been considered scripture for many centuries should lead us to be careful about simply dismissing out of hand these passages.

    Aside from that I agree with most of what you say, with the exception of Romans 8.26 which I believe is a bit of a leap to make fit about tongues.

  • Alex Jordan

    I have not yet read MacArthur’s book, but where in the quote from Strange Fire you provide was it argued that tongues were given solely for the purpose of evangelism? You seem to be arguing against a point MacArthur is not making—at least, not in the passage quoted. Perhaps he makes such a point elsewhere in the book?

    Now it can I think be argued that tongues serves an evangelistic purpose, as we see in Acts 2 when by the miracle of tongues the gathered believers were empowered to speak in foreign languages they had not learned and thus they were understood by the people of different tongues from the neighboring regions. As the text records, they were praising God using actual languages– and this can surely be seen as evangelistic since it gave testimony to the power and reality of God.

    An evangelistic element might also be seen in 1 Corinthians 14:22, where Paul says, “Thus tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is a sign not for unbelievers but for believers.” Paul argues that the tongues Israel are hearing and witnessing are a judgment against them for their unbelief about Jesus. The implied purpose of tongues here seems to be to challenge Israel to repent of its unbelief.

    It can also be argued that interpreted tongues function like prophecy, and can serve an evangelistic purpose. As Paul continues, in 1 Corinthians 14, “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, 25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”

    In Acts 2, we see the tongues spoken are real languages. And in 1 Cor 14, where Paul is teaching the church how to use tongues and prophecy in the church in the proper way in order that the body is edified, he emphasizes that tongues that are not understood in words known to the hearer are essentially of no value for edification (1 Cor 14:6-13). Why would he make this point unless edification is contingent upon understanding the words of a tongue? This is why he insists tongues be interpreted. Also I don’t see evidence from the passage that Paul is stating that he speaks tongues away from church in order to edify himself, as that would contradict what he is arguing for here, namely, that tongues be interpreted in words the hearers will understand and thus be edified by.

    Regarding 1 Cor 13:1, Paul is here making the point that the way of love is the highest and most important priority for the Christian. Thus he’s saying that even if one might speak with an angelic tongue, if one did so without love as driving motive, one’s words would be worthless. But he uses hyperbolic, hypothetical language— Paul’s point here isn’t the nature of tongues at all, but how to put to use all the gifts God gives. Also it doesn’t make sense that the tongues spoken of in 1 Cor 12:10 would classify foreign languages together with unknown, ecstatic utterances, since Paul goes on to argue in 1 Cor 14 that it is tongues that have been interpreted that bring edification to the body, not un-interpreted words.

    You also mentioned for support the verse “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” (Rom. 8:26). Note that the verse speaks of “groanings too deep for words”– there is no verbal expression here at all. This verse seems to speak of the Spirit accompanying our weak prayers by taking our fumbling words and somehow going beyond them— it is not clear exactly how the Spirit is doing this, but since it is something beyond words and “not uttered”, how then can this be referring to tongues?

    You cited Luke 11:13 as proof that if we ask God for the gift of tongues He’ll not allow us to receive a counterfeit gift. Yes it’s true God Himself gives only good gifts, but this does not prevent people from deceiving themselves or allowing themselves to be deceived. Jesus warned in Matt 24:21-23, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”

    We acknowledge that charismatics try to argue for the contemporary practice of tongues from Scripture. But one finds the arguments unconvincing.

    As you say, one must decide these things by biblical argument and by the fruit produced. Perhaps there is little harm if charismatics feel closer to God and more energized to follow after Him by their tongues-speaking. But others observing the movement as a whole see that the open door given to extrabiblical revelation via the practice of tongues and prophecy in a manner that does not seem to be in accord with Scripture has brought in with it many errors and deceptions. The desire to have a deeper experience with God is laudable, but the manner in which it is pursued seems flawed.

    • Adrian Warnock

      He makes the evangelism argument elsewhere. Sorry should have been clearer about that in the post.

      • Alex Jordan

        No problem, I figured that was probably the case.

  • I think a reading of even a few verses towards the beginning of I Cor. 14 provides strong refutation of both arguments:

    “For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy . . . unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.”

    Few would say that a person who “does not speak to people but to God” is primarily doing evangelism. Praising God and prayer is much more likely what Paul is describing here. What’s more, just a few verses down, Paul himself connects tongues to prayer/thanksgiving “in the Spirit”:

    “Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.”

    Further still, Paul says: “If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.” So even absent an interpreter, the one who speaks in tongues should do so “quietly” and speak in tongues to himself and God. I’ve never, therefore, understood how anyone can say that tongues is only and/or necessarily intended for others. Yes, it’s better if there’s an interpreter, but not bad or evil without one. Without an interpreter, one should pray quietly to God, building one’s self up via prayer, but not disturbing the church with language they cannot understand.

  • Lyndon Unger

    Searching for arguments MacArthur or myself actually use…still searching…still searching…

    I mean, the MacArthur quote doesn’t even make the “tongues were only used for evangelism” argument, but rather that the nature of tongues did not include ecstatic speech.

    Surely you can see that!

    • These arguments are all found in the book Strange Fire my friend! Believe me I have no interest in creating arguments all on my own to disagree with. Well, I think the verses above prove that tongues were used for private worship. You may disagree, but I say we should accept that such a disagreement is like say arguing over the implications of the “household baptisms” in Acts (pedobaptists say these refer to baby baptism, credo baptists making the point that the Phillppian jailers household also believed). We can agree to mutual respect, while holding on to our own interpretations of these verses.

      • Lyndon Unger

        Dr. Warnock, I don’t have a copy of the book so I’ll have to take your word for it that those arguments are used…except for one thing.

        You wrote “Tongues were human languages given solely for the purpose of evangelism.” as the first argument, but the quote you provided says nothing of the sort and I pointed that out. You just ignored my point, moved on, and talked about private worship…except that 50% of your refutation is dealing with an argument that MacArthur doesn’t actually make.

        That doesn’t make you look like you’re very careful in even representing those with whom you disagree, and it takes away from your credibility when you get your opponents arguments half wrong.

        Also, there’s the whole “the verses above prove that tongues were used for private worship”. What? There’s no agree or disagree since you list 21 verses and only 1 verse in the list may arguably be talking about private worship (1 Corinthians 14:15).

        How is there an agree or disagree? That’s like saying “Mark 3:7 talks about Jesus visiting Jerusalem, though you may disagree”.

        Statements of fact aren’t something we can agree or disagree on. They demarcate the difference between rational and irrational. Saying that 1 Corinthians 14:39 somehow supports the notion that tongues was used in private worship is irrational. The passage simply says “and do not forbid speaking in tongues”. It says nothing about when, where, with whom, etc. To stretch it into some sort of support for an idea that it nowhere mentions is not rational.

  • iaino

    Sorry Adrian but the reference from Rom 8 does not refer to utterance either in normal speech or ‘tongues’. Groans too deep to be uttered means just that – silence!
    In 1 Cor 12-14 Paul is addressing corporate worship, not personal prayer time.
    So when Paul speaks of the tongue speaker ‘edifying himself’ he is talking in the negative. All the gifts are for the edification of the church,not the individual.

    A tongue speaker in church without interpretation would be like one who prophesies going into a cupboard and closing the door. No one would be edified.

    You are grasping at straws when you think that in I Cor 13 that Paul may be referring to angelic tongues. Check the context, is Paul also saying that he has ALL knowledge ? He is clearly using hyperbole to make a point about the importance of love.

  • The title of the series is “Strange Fire: Every Biblical Argument Refuted”, but the arguments Adrian presents here are being countered and not very well-defended, in my opinion. On one contested point, Mr. Warnock states, “that such a disagreement is like say arguing over the implications of the “household baptisms” in Acts (pedobaptists say these refer to baby baptism, credo baptists making the point that the Phillppian jailers household also believed). We can agree to mutual respect, while holding on to our own interpretations of these verses.” OK, but then perhaps the series title ought to be changed to “Every Biblical Argument discussed with everyone agreeing to maintain their own interpretations as correct since it really doesn’t matter anyway so long as we have mutual respect?” But actually, it does very much matter what one thinks on these particular doctrinal issues because the implications for application to one’s Christian walk are radical and far-reaching. They impact how we approach Scripture (is it sufficient or not), the manner in which we pray (do we trust God is sovereign to answer prayers for healing and miracles or expect that miracles must come), our view of the means of evangelism (are signs and wonders what we must have now to convince folks to believe), our view of what it means to be empowered by the Spirit (are all believers indwelt by the Spirit, or must we wait on some other experience to “complete” us, as it were), all very practical issues that impact upon how we live as Christians. And the conference posited that much of charismaticism has been terribly mistaken on many of these issues, which in turn leads to mistaken practices unhelpful to the body of Christ. So it may be that the SF arguments are refutable, but they haven’t been refuted here, not by a long shot.

  • Paul

    Adrian, if this was an attempt to refute JM’s argument about the gift of speaking in tongues then you have failed poorly. If you are the Charismatic goal keeper on your team then you are on the receiving end of a hiding. I think you would have been better off arguing from the tired experiential perspective, at least you would have saved yourself from scoring a few “own goals” here.

  • Ivan Schoen

    Much ado about nothing.

  • David En Renate Sorensen

    I have written an in depth bible study about the gift of speaking in tongues:


  • Pam Benjamin Donaldson

    I cannot comment on whether those who say they speak in tongues are counterfeit or not. However, I can say that the Bible shows us that there was an expectation that something observable take place when a person was intitially filled with the Holy Spirit. This was most often recorded as people speaking in tongues. Whether people want to accept it or not, Jesus promised that His followers would be baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5-8). John the Baptist first mentioned baptism with the Holy Spirit to a crowd of skeptics (John 1:33). Every recorded event in the Bible describing this baptism described something visibly taking place at the time people received the Holy Spirit. It was not a quiet, personal experience, and it was most often noted that the people who experienced this baptism of the Holy Spirit spoke in tongues and prophesied. There is ample biblically evidence to support this position. For more information see this booklet on the subject http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00HQP0QS8