Spiritual Gifts in general
This is discussion of spiritual gifts. There are whole books written on this topic, even on just the topic of speaking in tongues! We don’t have room or time for that here, but this will give you a start off of the blocks, so to speak.
We look especially to Romans 12, I Corinthians 12-14, and Ephesians 4 in our attempt to better understand Spiritual gifts. I recommend going and reading especially these chapters yourself at this point before continuing to read. There are other passages, but a pretty good understanding can come from these.
So that you know, as you look at these passages, we see two Greek words often translated into “gifts” or “Spiritual gifts.” The most famous is “Charisma.” “Charis” is the Greek word usually translated into “Grace.” It is from this word that we get the “Charismatic movement.” Obviously, the word “charity” also comes from this root – it is closely linked with “love” and other “free gifts.” This implies something that is given freely and can only be accepted – not merited, bought, purchased or worked off. This is already a helpful for a correct understanding of gifts like speaking in tongues.
The other word often used is the work for “Spirit,” or “breath…” some form of “Pneumati” with the “gift” part understood, as in I Corinthians 12-14. This makes clear that these spring from The Spirit. In other words, the “Spiritual Gifts” describe an aspect of the Christian/Spirit filled life that are freely given by and through the Spirit. This should help us in understanding what they are and what form they should take and how they should be seen.
For the sake of study, I often will distinguish between two types of Spiritual Gifts. This difference is not made clearly in scripture, so it is merely an after-the-fact categorization. However, while there is no clear-cut categorization or description of what these gifts look like in Scripture, we can still infer quite a bit through Paul’s writings about them. Especially in I Corinthians 12-14, there seem to be 2 distinct purposes described for various gifts. But since the distinction is not clear scripturally, these, including this one, have to be seen as not authoritative. Obviously, this makes the distinction suspect, but it also can a helpful tool in studying the Spirit-given gifts.
I. The first category of gifts, in this study, we will call “miraculous gifts.” This title is not meant to imply that the other gifts are anything other than the miraculous working of the Spirit, but that these first gifts are “signs,” “visitations” or “special acts” of the Spirit, and not aspects of our identity changed by our conversion. In these cases, the Spirit, in reference purely to God’s own will and in response to our faith, acts supernaturally.
The purpose of these seems to be to show build up one’s own faith. They are unavoidable proof that God is real and powerful. Check this out:
1 Cor 14:1-4
“Pursue love, yet desire earnestly spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries. But one who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation. One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church.” (NASU)
1 Cor 14:22
“So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophecy is for a sign, not to unbelievers but to those who believe. (NASU)
These can be important for people who personally need to be edified themselves… they need to see something to “prove” God, and to bolster their faith in His existence or His power. The contemporary existence of these gifts is even debated in many circles. We will get to that in a minute.
These “miraculous” gifts include: speaking in tongues, healing, miracles, interpretation of tongues, and telling the future. These gifts, as we see them experienced in the Bible, are not aspects of the person performing them; they are special acts of the Spirit into the world. These are gifts that the Spirit performs as He wills, admittedly, it seems to be in response to the faith of believers; however, the Spirit is not turned on or off like a light switch – He is a person, not just a conduit. When I teach on gifts, I distinguish between these gifts as “acts of the Spirit,” (though they are certainly no less gifts) and other Spiritual Gifts. I will offer a list of other “sign” gifts at the end of this discussion.
II. The other type of gifts seem almost like temperament traits; indeed, some researchers have placed a strong correlation between the two. They may be thought of as similar to the “talents” in Luke 19. They are gifts given to us that we become stewards of, as in that passage. Perhaps, in much the same way personalities are given at birth; Spiritual Gifts are given at rebirth. These are gifts that are Spiritual role/calling that each of us is given to use for the common good of the rest of the Church. This is the clearly stated purpose for them, and for all gifts used in public – the edification of the Body.
The Spirit has placed them in our hands, and it is our task, through Him, to use or allow Him to use them to glorify God. They are given and empowered by the Spirit, but are not generally experienced as special visitations. In fact, there is some thought that they could be misused and result in sin as well. Consider the distinction: The first would be like being given a great steak dinner. The second kind is more like being given more like a grill. The grill still requires the fire of the Spirit, but it is “owned” by the recipient for the purpose of cooking for the church, so to speak. The Spirit is in all believers, so that fire is on at all times, but it is more or less quenched, again, by our lives… and it is our responsibility to make the right use of these gifts.
Now, speaking in tongues in particular.
What is speaking in tongues? In the New Testament, the first account of speaking in tongues appears in Acts 2. Here, either the different men are speaking in their own language and the people are supernaturally hearing in their own. (e.g. Peter speaks in Aramaic and someone in the crowd hears it in Latin, for example), or the different men are speaking in different languages. It is tough to tell in this passage. However, generally when people talk about speaking in tongues, they mean that they are speaking in a language they themselves do not consciously know. To their own ears, they are speaking gibberish, but to a listener who knows that language, they are speaking sense (or to the listener to whom God gives a translation of the words). I have heard stories of people speaking in a tongue and having someone later tell them that they were speaking in ancient French. I don’t know if the story is true, but it would fit the model. So, what about people who seem to be speaking in total gibberish? They claim that they are speaking in the “tongues of angels” (referenced but not explained in 1 Cor 13:1). They believe that somewhere angels speak in this language – that it is not gibberish. All tongues should be a language spoken somewhere. I admit personally being a little dubious of the “speaking in tongues of angels” explanation of what seems like gibberish, but I admit that there is a reference here. Certainly, some people are just speaking in gibberish out of psychological error or fraud. Is it possible that they are speaking in a real tongue, though? I guess so. How could one tell if it is real or faked? It wouldn’t be easy, but I think the Bible gives us some answers, and we are getting there.
There is little doubt that in the New Testament, people spoke in languages that they and most of the people in their audience did not understand – and it created controversy then too! Much of 1 Corinthians is a discussion of this controversy.
Do people speak in tongues today?
There are people who believe that tongues and other miraculous gifts “ceased” at some point in history (they are called “cessationists”). They claim, for example, that since the coming of the written and compiled Bible, there is no need to further miracles* to prove God; His word does it fine. I am not going into the argument in detail here, but I will tell you that I personally disagree with this view and the arguments surrounding it. In 1 Cor 14:39, Paul gives this command: “Therefore, my brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak in tongues.” (NASUpdated)
I would need strong evidence to go against this direct command, and since I don’t see it, I would be unwilling to outright forbid speaking in tongues.
I personally believe that miraculous gifts do still occur – but not in the style of many of the current churches that practice it. As mentioned, I do not think that they are in our control. I am very distrustful of someone who can schedule a miracle like healing, signs, or speaking in tongues based on a schedule of a worship service or even worse, between commercial breaks! Anything that makes it look like the Spirit is working “on cue” troubles me. He is God; I am not.
(*There is a list of miraculous gifts that are talked about and/or found in scripture at the very end of this note.)
Proper practice of tongues
Much of the misunderstanding around tongues has less to do with what the Bible actually says about it and more about the teaching that has been added to it.
A common teaching in the “charismatic movement” has been that a believer isn’t really filled with the Holy Spirit unless they are speaking in tongues. I personally see little if any evidence of this in scripture, and lots of evidence against the idea. What do you think the point of this series of rhetorical questions is?
“All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?” (1 Cor 12:29-30, NASUpdated)
I think it is clear that NOT everyone has or experiences the same gifts. In fact, 1 Corinthians 14 is the textbook for proper practice of the gifts of tongues. I do not think this is Paul trying to control the Spirit, no, no, no. This is Paul trying to control human beings. I believe Paul is saying that tongues practiced in any way other than this IS NOT from the Spirit, and how to practice self control and church authority to protect everyone from improper experience. So, this is not instructions of how to build a duck; it is a guideline for recognizing a real duck when you see it (waddles, quacks, etc.) So, what does the proper practice and experience look like? Let me introduce the Apostle Paul:
1 Cor 14:27-28:
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, it should be by two or at the most three, and each in turn, and one must interpret; but if there is no interpreter, he must keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God. (NASUpdated)
1 Cor 14:39-40:
“But all things must be done properly and in an orderly manner.” (NASUpdated)
Some also include the rest of the passage in 1 Cor 14 about women’s role in a worship service, but I am not going to step in that here. I don’t want to write an entire other answer.
I will tell you that in regard to the work of the Spirit, there are two things that I believe dictate whether or not someone will experience or practice effectively any gift.
First, the will of God. As mentioned above, it is apparently not God’s plan for everyone to practice all the gifts. “Not all…” Check out: 1 Cor 12:18
“But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.” (NASU) I think it is important for us to remember that God’s gifts are His, not ours. He can steward us with them so that we may bless others, or He may bless us directly with one, but they are, in all cases, HIS. If God desires for me to ever speak in tongues, I think that would be amazing – but it’s really up to Him.
Second, apparently we can, through the sin and self-centeredness of our own lives, “quench” the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19). I think that in accordance with His own purposes (see “First” above), God may choose to not respond because of our lack of faith. Even Jesus faced this! Look at Mark 6:5-6.
I have never spoken in tongues, though I have experiences miracles at God’s Hands. I don’t know why I have not experienced this one gift. I take a stand against books or speakers who offer to train me to take the proper steps to make it happen. I was given one of these a few years back; read it; and I think it was insulting to God. Is it my lack of faith? It easily could be. Is it because I don’t need to be edified in that way? I hope so. In either case, I am satisfied with the evidence I already have of God’s existence and power.
I hope this has been helpful – sorry it was so long, but it is a doozy and has been for about 2000 years, apparently, given the letter we call First Corinthians!
* Some of the “sign” gifts that are talked about include:
Healing – miraculously making a physical change in someone’s wellness.
Signs – various miracles like walking on water, changing water to wine, etc.
Tongues – speaking in a real language (of men or angels) unknown to the speaker, or as in the Acts account, speaking in your own language and people hear their own language.
There are very specific guidelines for the practicing of this gift in public. See I Corinthians 14 for Paul’s Corinthian worship schedule involving tongues. For example – not more than 2 or 3 should do so in a service, there should always be an interpretation in public usage, and the focus should be directed at nonbelievers, it should not be forbidden, but should always be orderly in practice.
Translation of tongues – understanding and translating an unknown tongue for public information; required for public use of the gift of tongues.
Telling the future – a version of prophecy involving predicting specific events or occasions in the future.
Word of knowledge – there are more than one “word” gift – knowledge is the most well known. In this event, the Spirit gives the Christian insight into information that they could not otherwise know.
Prayer warrior/Intercession – not listed as a gift, but actually a type of prayer involving asking for something for some else.
Apostleship – apostles were people who had seen and worked directly with Christ – had experienced physical calling from Him in some aspect. Paul should have been the last apostle. Apostleship carried great responsibility.
Being In the Spirit – John, during God’s revelation to him, referred to himself a few times as “in the Spirit.” This is apparently something of an altered state during which God reveals Himself to the recipient of the gift. Some people connect this to being “slain in the Spirit,” or “falling out,” neither of which are otherwise mentioned in scripture.
Laughing – hysterical laughter is sometimes associated with Spiritual experiences. It is not mentioned in scripture.