Are Tongues for All Believers? What is the Mark of the Holy Spirit?

Are Tongues for All Believers? What is the Mark of the Holy Spirit?

Some faithful followers of Christ believe that the Holy Spirit would like to give the gift of tongues to all believers. I will explain from Acts and 1 Corinthians why I think there is a better way to understand tongues, and a better mark of the Holy Spirit.

These followers often arrive at this teaching by connecting three phrases that Luke uses in Acts: the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16), the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 10:45), and speaking in tongues (Acts 2:4; 10:45; 19:6). By putting these three together, some conclude that tongues are the gift that the Spirit gives to all believers as the essential sign that they have been baptized by the Spirit. Let’s look at each of these phrases in turn.

The Baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5; 11:16). The one thing to notice about the baptism of the Spirit in Acts is that it is always mentioned along with John the Baptist. Luke never speaks of Spirit baptism apart from naming John. In the Gospels, John said, “I baptize you with water, but the coming Great One will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In other words, “I immerse/flood/soak you with water, but he is so much greater than I am that he will immerse/flood/soak you with the Holy Spirit.” John wants his audience to know how much greater the Christ will be than he is: by how much the Holy Spirit is greater than water.

Since the two places in Acts where we find Spirit baptism also name John, the speaker in Acts calls the Spirit’s work “baptism” specifically to tie what the Spirit does to John’s prophecy. Any giving or pouring or filling or anointing of the Spirit would qualify as being what John foretold. The Spirit’s work is called “baptism” in Acts only to link it to John’s prophecy, and John uses the word “baptism” of the Spirit only to tie it to what he’s doing with water. John does not care about a special “Spirit” experience, he only cares that the Spirit will be poured out. Every believer experiences the baptism of the Spirit when they repent, believe, and are baptized; that is, they receive the Holy Spirit.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 10:45). “The gift of the Holy Spirit” can be taken in two ways. It can mean the gift that comes from the Spirit, the gift which the Spirit gives; or it can mean that the gift is the Spirit, the Spirit itself being the gift. The phrase “the gift of the Spirit” can be taken either way in Greek as well as in English.

Elsewhere in Acts, the person of the Spirit is clearly the gift. See Acts 5:32: “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” Acts 15:8 reads: “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.” Acts 8:15–17 aims us the same way: “they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them … Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.” Where the Acts texts are clear, the Spirit is the gift of God that we receive, so it is best to take Acts 2:8 and 10:45 that way as well.

Another reason to understand the Spirit as the gift is that Luke never calls the spiritual gifts “gifts.” Luke records what Paul calls spiritual gifts – tongues, healing, prophecy, evangelism, and so on – but Luke never refers any of them as “gifts,” and never uses the Greek word charisma. For Luke, these “gifts” are simply what happens when one is filled or baptized or empowered or anointed with the Spirit (in Acts these are largely interchangeable). So to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in 2:38 and 10:45 is to receive the Holy Spirit that God gives.

Speaking in Tongues. In Acts, the Spirit manifests itself in many ways, speaking in tongues being one of them. When people come to Christ, Luke often includes some immediate evidence. For Cornelius and his household, and for the disciples of John the Baptist, this evidence includes speaking in tongues (Acts 10, 19). For the 3,000 in Acts 2, the evidence is astonishing community life. For the Ethiopian eunuch, the evidence is rejoicing (Acts 8). For Saul the persecutor, the evidence is proclaiming Jesus as Son of God (Acts 9). In Phillipi, for both Lydia and the jailor, the evidence is hospitality to the gospel preachers (Acts 16). If we compare all these stories, there is no reason to think that Luke rates speaking in tongues above the others.

Every believer in Christ is baptized in the Holy Spirit. It simply means receiving the Spirit that Christ will pour out on his followers, the gift of God for all who repent and are baptized. We have not yet seen the universal mark of the Holy Spirit, but there is one, and we turn to 1 Corinthains for that.

The Mark of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Corinthian church had several troubles, and one was that they held up speaking in tongues as the elite spiritual gift. Paul takes this up in 1 Corinthians 12–14. I urge any who believe tongues to be the supreme mark of the Spirit to patiently read these three chapters, because that is just what the Corinthians believed and what Paul corrects.

In particular notice 1 Corinthians 12:3. Paul clears the air right at the start of his long discussion by stating the one universal and unmistakeable mark of the Holy Spirit: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” “Jesus is Lord” is the central theological teaching of the New Testament. “Jesus is Lord” means “Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, and he has full rights to my life.”

It takes a miraculous work of God for any fallen human can acknowledge this. It requires an immense renewing of our minds to be able to say this honestly. Too many have heard the same gospel and walked away; they cannot say “Jesus is Lord.” Once the Spirit has done this great awakening and enlightening in our minds and souls, everything else the Spirit does is just tune up and adjustment. Producing this conviction and confession is the greatest and most obvious evidence of the Spirit in every believer’s life. No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. We read this in 1 Corinthians 12:3; immediately after this, beginning in 12:4, Paul switches to the immense variety of Spirit activity in the church: different gifts, different ministries, different workings, various body members with various functions. No end of difference. Luke in Acts would agree completely.

Stories on the Other Side. The teachings I hope to adjust in these pages come from classic “Pentecostalism.” I have a soft spot in my heart for Pentecostals, because the most profound experience of God that I’ve ever had (and I don’t have many) took place while I was listening to an old Dutch Pentecostal preacher. He was speaking to thirty or forty of us, and not about the Spirit. He was urging us to trust God no matter what happened, because God was utterly faithful and reliable, and continuing to trust God was never ever a mistake. I liked what he was saying, it resonated, and suddenly there was the most incredible private joy explosion in me. The intensity stunned me. There was no message, no picture, no vision, no words, no call, just indescribable delight at being in the presence of God. The Spirit touched me this way while this godly old speaker in his heavy accent urged us to always count on the utterly faithful God. That day set my life in a different direction. Thank you Lord for that Pentecostal preacher.

The other story took place during a trying time in the life of the small church I was leading. We were being torn apart by conflicting ideals and personalities, and I did not know where to turn or what to do. We prayed desperately in those weeks: “Lord, if you want this church to survive you have to do something. This mess is bigger than what we have. Lord, rise up and act, you have to do something.” After a Sunday morning service, my wife Marilyn said to me, “I had a strong urge to speak in tongues this morning, but I didn’t do it because I thought [a certain person] would be offended.” I said, “We’re in no position to turn down anything the Lord wants to do. If this happens to you again, speak in tongues, and we’ll take it from there.”

I went for a walk that Sunday afternoon and I said, “Tongues, Lord? You send tongues? We want you to help our church survive, and you send us tongues?” I could not see how that would help. To that point no one in our church had spoken in tongues, although biblically I was comfortable with such things happening. A few weeks later, Marilyn spoke in tongues in the service, and almost immediately someone else had an interpretation. The message encouraged us: the Lord was with us and was going to guide and help us. Tongues and interpretation happened once every few weeks after that for many years, always with an interpreter, usually the same interpreter, always an encouraging message. Marilyn is the only one who has publicly spoken in tongues in our church. From that point our church began to heal and strengthen again. Marilyn’s tongue and the interpretation function in our church body much as Paul describes the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14. So I value tongues, and I honour Pentecostals. God has used both to bring his life to me.

Ed Neufeld

June 2024