Strange Fire & Miraculous Gifts
The title for our seminar this morning is “Charismatic Counterfeits: Do the Modern Gifts Meet the Biblical Standard?” That subtitle really defines our topic for this session. We want to consider the way in which the contemporary charismatic movement defines key spiritual gifts. And then we will compare the charismatic version with the Word of God to see how they match up.
As a side note, I want to note that much of the material we will cover today parallels what you will find in the Strange Fire book. I mention that at the outset, so that if you are interested in doing further study on this critical topic, you can do so by reading what Dr. MacArthur has published in that important resource.
Definition of Terms
Now, before we begin, it is important that we define several terms. If you were in my seminar yesterday afternoon, this part of the seminar will sound familiar. But I promise this is a different seminar, it is just important that we begin by making sure that we are being clear about the terms we are using:
Charismatic – The term “charismatic” is very broad, encompassing millions of people and thousands of denominations. Charismatics are known for their emphasis on the Holy Spirit and for their belief that the miraculous and revelatory gifts described in the New Testament should be sought by Christians today. According to the International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, there are more than 20,000 distinct Pentecostal and Charismatic groups in the world.
Those groups are generally subdivided into three broad categories or “waves.” The First Wave is the classic Pentecostal Movement which began in the early 1900s under the leadership of men like Charles Parham and William Seymour. The Second Wave is known as the Charismatic Renewal Movement. It began in the 1960s as mainline Protestant denominations were influenced by Pentecostal theology. The Third Wave represents the influence of Pentecostal theology within evangelical denominations. It started under the leadership of C. Peter Wagner and John Wimber, both of whom were teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary at the time. Today, we will be using the term “charismatic” to encompass all three waves – doing so in an admittedly broad fashion.
Continuationist – The term “continuationist” is similar to the term “charismatic” in that it refers to a belief in the continuation of the miraculous and revelatory gifts of the New Testament. Thus, continuationists assert that things like the gift of prophecy, the gift of tongues, and gifts of healing are still functioning in the church today.
The term “continuationist” is sometimes used to differentiate theologically conservative charismatics from those in the broader charismatic movement. Well-known evangelical continuationists would include Christian leaders like John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and Sam Storms. And, it is important to note, that while we do not agree with their position regarding the charismatic gifts, we have much that we appreciate about these men.
The term “continuationist” helps us differentiate conservative evangelical charismatics from those in the broader movement. Here is how one continuationist author explained the term:
The term charismatic has sometimes been associated with doctrinal error, unsubstantiated claims of healing, financial impropriety, outlandish and unfulfilled predictions, an overemphasis on the speech gifts, and some regrettable hairstyles. . . . That’s why I’ve started to identify myself more often as a continuationist rather than a charismatic. (Bob Kauflin, Worship Matters, 86)
Cessationist – The term “cessationist” refers to those who believe that the miraculous and revelatory gifts passed away in church history after the apostolic age ended. Cessationists therefore assert that supernatural phenomena like the gift of apostleship, the gift of prophecy, the gift of tongues, and the gift of healing are no longer functioning in the church today. Rather, they were given as signs to authenticate the ministry of the apostles during the foundational age of the church. Once the apostolic age has passed, and the canon of Scripture completed, the primary purpose for those gifts was fulfilled and they ceased.
There is obviously significant disagreement between charismatics and continuationists on the one hand and cessationists on the other. The first group contends that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit (such as prophecy, tongues, and healing) are still functioning in the church today. Cessationists, by contrast, assert that those extraordinary gifts were limited to the apostolic age of church history, after which they subsequently passed away.
This raises a key question. How should we approach this controversial issue?
Charismatics often approach the debate from an experiential starting point. They argue that the extraordinary gifts must have continued because they have personally experienced them, or they know someone who has. Pentecostal author James C. Warner illustrates the experiential argument: “It is hard to argue with somebody that speaks in tongues that there isn’t such a thing!” (The Handgun of the Holy Spirit [Xulon: 2007], 118). As Warner’s quote suggests, charismatics believe that their personal experience makes it hard to argue that the extraordinary gifts are no longer happening.
By contrast, cessationists often approach the debate from a chronological starting point. They go to passages like 1 Corinthians 13:8–10, and they argue that the miraculous and revelatory gifts passed off the scene shortly after the first century.
Now, seeking to know when the extraordinary gifts ceased is certainly a valid investigation. However, it seems this type of argument seldom succeeds in convincing charismatics (and continuationists) that their contemporary practices are misguided. After all, even if the cessationist is able to demonstrate that the extraordinary gifts quickly passed off the scene in church history, many charismatics will respond by asserting that those gifts returned in full force starting in 1901.
So, we find ourselves at a little bit of an impasse when we consider the usual ways that this discussion is framed. Cessationists are generally unimpressed by the subjective experiences of charismatics. And conversely, charismatics remain largely unpersuaded by some of the chronological arguments made by cessationists.
Is there a better way for us to frame the discussion, in our efforts to think about these things in a meaningful and fruitful way? I am convinced that there is.
Before we start talking about when the gifts ceased, we first need to establish what the gifts were. Once we determine what the gifts were from Scripture, we can then compare that true version of the gifts with contemporary charismatic experiences.
Our goal this morning is to articulate a biblical understanding of the miraculous and revelatory gifts. We will then compare that to contemporary charismatic practice. What we will find is that, when compared to the real thing (as described in Scripture), the modern charismatic gifts simply don’t measure up.
We will begin by asking what I call the what question. In other words: What were the gifts in the New Testament (based on the biblical evidence)? And how does modern charismatic practice compare?
Only after we answer that question are we then ready to address subsequent questions like: if the biblical gifts are no longer functioning in the church today, then when did they cease andwhy did they cease.
In particular, this morning, we are going to consider the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing. These three represent major points of disagreement and controversy between charismatics and cessationists—so it is important that we consider each one from a biblical perspective.
We are going to treat prophecy only briefly in this session, because I covered this topic in more depth in my seminar yesterday afternoon. Rather than repeating everything I said yesterday, I would refer you to that content if you are interested in digging into this topic in more detail. That being said, I do want to address the gift of prophecy briefly this morning.
As I noted in my seminar yesterday, Scripture gives us three criteria for evaluating anyone who would claim to be a prophet, or by extension, anyone who would claim to be delivering a word of prophecy from God. What are these three tests?
(1) First, a true prophet must be doctrinally orthodox. Conversely, any self-proclaimed prophet who deceives people by leading them into theological error is a false prophet. There are a number of biblical passages we could look at on this point, but for the sake of time we will look at just Deuteronomy 13:1–5.
Deuteronomy 13:1–5:  “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder,  and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’  you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.  “You shall follow the Lord your God and fear Him; and you shall keep His commandments, listen to His voice, serve Him, and cling to Him.  “But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the Lord your God who brought you from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, to seduce you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from among you.
In other words, this passage makes it clear that, if a prophet comes to you and even if the prophet makes predictions that come true — if the prophet leads you away from the truth and into error, then that prophet is a false prophet. And you’ll notice how seriously God treats this offense: He prescribes the death penalty for that kind of errant prophesy.
(2) Second, a true prophet must have moral integrity. Any self-proclaimed prophet who lives in unrestrained lust and greed shows himself to be a false prophet. Again we could look at numerous biblical passages to demonstrate this point. But, let’s just look at 2 Peter 1:1–3.
2 Peter 2:1–3:  But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves.  Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned;  and in their greed they will exploit you with false words; their judgment from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.
So again we see that false prophets can be identified by their lifestyle. As Jesus said, we can know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:20). And when we see the fruit of gross immorality and impurity in someone’s life, we can be confident that he is a false prophet no matter what he might claim.
Well, that brings us to a third test. In addition to doctrinal orthodoxy and moral integrity, a true prophet must meet one more qualification.
(3) Third, a true prophet must demonstrate predictive accuracy. Or to put this in the negative, if someone claims to speak prophetic revelation from God about the future (or about some other secret thing), but then that prediction does not come to pass or proves to be false, we can safely conclude that person to be a false prophet. Once again, let’s look at the Scriptures to see this principle delineated.
Deuteronomy 18:20–22:  ‘The prophet who speaks a word presumptuously in My name which I have not commanded him to speak, or which he speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.’  “You may say in your heart, ‘How will we know the word which the Lord has not spoken?’  “When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not come about or come true, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
Well, that is just about as clear as possible. How can we know if a prophet is really speaking for the Lord, or if the prophet is presumptuous and false? Well, in addition to the other two tests we’ve already covered, look at the prophet’s ability to disclose divine revelation about hidden things like the future. The Bible holds prophets, in their declaration of divine revelaiton, to a standard of absolute accuracy.
Now, if we take a look at the broader charismatic movement – especially that which is represented by TBN and mainstream charismatic media – we quickly see that the modern charismatic version of prophecy fails to meet these three biblical criteria. The broader charismatic movement is hardly known for its doctrinal orthodoxy and it is often plagued by moral scandals.
But I want to focus on that third requirement of biblical prophecy – accuracy – because I think it underscores just how different the charismatic definition of prophecy is from the way that Scripture itself defines it. By their own admission, proponents of the modern gift of prophecy readily acknowledge that modern prophecies are often inaccurate and full of errors.
Let me give you some examples from charismatics themselves. Now I shared some of these in my seminar yesterday, but I need to repeat just a few to illustrate the point:
Rick Joyner: “There is a prophet named Bob Jones who was told that the general level of prophetic revelation in the church was about 65% accurate at this time. Some are only about 10% accurate, a very few of the most mature prophets are approaching 85% to 95% accuracy. Prophecy is increasing in purity, but there is a still a long way to go for those who walk in this ministry” (Rick Joyner, “The Prophetic Ministry,” The Morningstar Prophetic Newsletter. Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 2).
Bill Hamon: “We must not be quick to call someone a false prophet simply because something he said was inaccurate. . . . Missing it a few times in prophecy does not make a false prophet. No mortal prophet is infallible; all are liable to make mistakes.” (Bill Hamon, Prophets and Personal Prophecy, 176)
Jack Deere: “Prophets are really messy. Prophets make mistakes. And sometimes when a prophet makes a mistake, it’s a serious mistake. I mean, I know prophets just last year that cost people millions of dollars with a mistake they made. I talked to people who made the wrong investments, actually moved their homes, spent tons of money….” (Jack Deere, National School of the Prophets, “Mobilizing the Prophetic Office,” May 11, 2000, 11:30 AM tape #3)
In spite of the fact that Scripture says that a true prophet must be held to the standard of 100% accuracy, modern prophets simply ignore that standard, being content with the fact that their prophecies contain hundreds of mistakes. Even among conservative evangelical continuationists, this same sub-standard approach to prophecy is made.
Wayne Grudem: “There is almost uniform testimony from all sections of the charismatic movement that prophecy is imperfect and impure, and will contain elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted” (Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, 110).
John Piper: “Now compare this to the gift of prophecy. It is prompted by the Spirit and sustained by the Spirit and based on a revelation from God. God reveals something to the mind of the prophet (in some way beyond ordinary sense perception), and since God never makes a mistake, we know that his revelation is true. It has no error in it. But the gift of prophecy does not guarantee the infallible transmission of that revelation. The prophet may perceive the revelation imperfectly, he may understand it imperfectly, and he may deliver it imperfectly. . . . The gift of prophecy results in fallible prophecy” (“NT Prophecy differs from OT Prophecy,” online at:http://preachingjesus.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/nt-prophecy-differes-from-ot-prophecy-john-piper/)
The implications of this view make it essentially impossible to know when a prophecy is actually true or erroneous.
Wayne Grudem: Pastorally, if someone is in charge of a home fellowship group or if a pastor is in charge of a prayer meeting, you call it as you see it. I have to use an American analogy, it’s an umpire calling balls and strikes as the pitcher pitches the ball across the plate. (Wayne Grudem in his debate with Ian Hamilton, Timestamp 59:53; online at: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2012/02/23/a-debate-on-the-continuation-of-prophecy)
In the end, the charismatic version of prophecy consists of supposed revelation that comes from God which is then declared by the human prophet—but in such a way that the prophecy itself is full of errors and is, therefore, not authoritative or binding on people’s lives. As we just read from Wayne Grudem, it contains elements which are not to be obeyed or trusted.
But, you see, that is not at all how the Bible defines prophecy. Revelation that comes from God is authoritative. It is absolutely trustworthy and must be obeyed. If the human prophet distorts that revelation, so that now it is no longer accurate or authoritative, the human prophet falls under the condemnation of God Himself.
So you can see, when we start with the biblical criteria for evaluating the gift of prophecy, and when we compare the biblical data with the contemporary charismatic movement, it becomes quickly apparent that the two do not match up.
If we had time this morning, we could spend more time demonstrating that prophesy in Scripture — in both the Old and New Testament — was the authoritative and accurate declaration of direct revelation from God. When we compare that to the modern charismatic version of prophecy, we find that the latter falls woefully short.
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 the majority of both cessationists and continuationists agree that the phenomenon consisted of the supernatural ability to speak in previously unlearned human foreign languages.
Acts 2:4–12 –  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.  Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.  And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language.  They were amazed and astonished, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  “And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born?  “Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.”  And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”
Verse 4 indicates that this was a speaking gift. And it consisted of real human languages which were miraculously spoken by those who had never learned those languages, such that Luke can list more than a dozen different dialects that were spoken.
By contrast, charismatics generally acknowledge the fact that the type of tongues that characterizes modern charismatic practice does not consist of real human languages — or, at least, not of languages that are immediately recognizable as such. Speaking of this gift, Wayne Grudem explains, “Ordinarily it seems that it will involve speech in a language that no one understands, whether that be a human language or not” (Wayne Grudem, Making Sense of the Church, n.p., accessed through Google Books).
While Grudem acknowledges that the gift of tongues could result in a real human language (in keeping with the inescapable implications of Acts 2), he is quick to admit that the tongues that pervade modern charismatic practice consist of unintelligible speech.
Modern linguists who have studied charismatic tongues (or “glossolalia”) would agree that the modern phenomenon does not consist of a genuine language. After years of first-hand research, University of Toronto linguistics professor William Samarin came to this conclusion:
William Samarin: Glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. The speaker controls the rhythm, volume, speed and inflection of his speech so that the sounds emerge as pseudolanguage—in the form of words and sentences. Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language.
Based on linguistic studies, it seems obvious that the contemporary charismatic version of tongues — in terms of non-human languages that no one understands — fails to match the gift as it is clearly described on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.
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,
Adrian Warnock: “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:
1. 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). Glossa is a Greek word that means languages. Thus, it is the gift of languages! 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).
Even continuationists acknowledge that glossa means languages:
Wayne Grudem: It should be said at the outset that the Greek word glossa, translated “tongue,” is not used only to mean the physical tongue in a person’s mouth, but also to mean “language.” In the New Testament passages where speaking in tongues is discussed, the meaning “languages” is certainly in view. It is unfortunate, therefore, that English translations have continued to use the phrase “speaking in tongues,” which is an expression not otherwise used in ordinary English and which gives the impression of a strange experience, something completely foreign to ordinary human life. But if English translations were to use the expression “speaking in languages,” it would not seem nearly as strange, and would give the reader a sense much closer to what first century Greek speaking readers would have heard in the phrase when they read it in Acts or 1 Corinthians. (Systematic Theology, 1069).
On that point, I heartily agree with Dr. Grudem. The problem comes when one allows the word “language” to mean something other than a real foreign language.
2. Same Description: 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.
Just as a side note, when Paul speaks of different “kinds” of tongues in 1 Cor. 12:10, the word for “kind” is genos from which we get the English word, “genus.” It refers to different familiesof languages. So it is not suggesting a human kind of language verses a non-human kind of language. It is differentiating different families of human languages.
3. 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” 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).
4. Same Recipients: In both Acts and 1 Corinthians 12–14, the gift of tongues was experienced by both apostles and non-apostles. On the Day of Pentecost it involved all of those gathered in the Upper Room. 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 as the apostles on the Day of Pentecost.
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.
5. 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 (Acts 2:5, 12, 14, 19). In 1 Corinthians, as in Acts, the gift of tongues was a sign for unbelieving Jews (1 Cor. 14:21–22; cf. Is. 28:11). Note that the gift is even called a “sign” in 1 Cor. 14:22. Thus, the Corinthian use of tongues was a sign just as the apostles’ use of tongues was a sign on the day of Pentecost.
6. Same Connection to the Other Gifts: In the book of Acts, the gift of tongues is closely connected with prophecy (Acts 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).
7. 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.
Added to all of 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, categorical difference between the two gifts (especially since such could lead to even greater confusion about the gifts — a confusion which plagued the Corinthian church).
Conclusion: The biblical 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 form of tongues-speaking so prevalent in modern charismatic circles does not involve actual foreign languages, they are simultaneously acknowledging that their contemporary experience does not match the New Testament precedent.
Historical Note: It is probably worth noting at this point that the original Pentecostals under the leadership of Charles Fox Parham considered the gift of tongues to refer only to real, authentic foreign languages. As a result, in the early 1900s, they sent missionaries to foreign countries only to have those missionaries return in disappointment when it became clear that the tongues they were speaking were not real languages.
As charismatics authors Jack Hayford and David Moore explain:
Jack Hayford and David Moore: “Sadly, the idea of xenoglossalalic tongues [foreign languages] would later prove an embarrassing failure as Pentecostal workers went off to mission fields with their gift of tongues and found their hearers did not understand them” (The Charismatic Century, 42).
Regrettably, when Pentecostals realized their tongues were not real languages, they changed their interpretation of the Bible to fit their experience.
Additional Observations about Tongues:
I’d like to give 8 additional observations about the gift of tongues – because as we look at what the Bible says about tongues we quickly find how different the biblical gift was from the contemporary charismatic version of it.
(1) Not every believer was expected to speak in tongues. Many charismatics claim that everyone should speak in tongues. But 1 Corinthians 12:8–11 and 27–31 make it clear that not every Christian received the gift of tongues (cf. 14:26).
Now someone might object by point to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:5 (“Now I wish that you all spoke in tongues”). But Paul has already explained that not everyone speaks in tongues, and he cannot be contradicting himself here. So how are we to interpret 1 Cor. 14:5? Well, I think we are helped when we recognize that it is almost identical to his earlier statement in 7:7 regarding singleness. (“Yet I wish that all men were even as myself”). Obviously, Paul wasn’t commanding every believer to pursue singleness. He was making a rhetorical point. Thus, Paul’s wish does not indicate that everyone in the Corinthian congregation actually spoke in tongues.
(2) Paul’s reference to the ‘tongues of angels’ does not justify unintelligible speech. The “tongues of angels” in 1 Corinthians 13:1 should be interpreted hyperbolically in keeping with the context of the passage (as Paul’s subsequent examples demonstrate). It is parallel to his statements of “knowing all mysteries and all knowledge” and “faith that literally removes mountains.” Both of those statements articulate hyperbolic impossibilities, and that is how we should likewise the “tongues of angels.”
Some commentators have further suggested that the phrase could be a figure of speech meaning “to speak very eloquently.” But even if one insists on taking it literally, there are still two things to consider: (A) It is the exception and not the rule, as evidenced by the rest of the New Testament teaching on tongues and as evidenced by the other examples Paul uses in vv. 1–3. (B) Every time angels spoke in the Bible, they spoke in a real language that people could understand (cf. Gen. 19; Exod. 33; Joshua 5; Judges 13). Thus, an appeal to angelic speech cannot be used to justify incoherent babblings.
(3) The fact that true tongues could be translated indicates they consisted of genuine languages. The concept of interpretation implies a rational message. As Norm Geisler (Signs and Wonders, 167) explains:
Norman Geisler: “The fact that the tongues of which Paul spoke in 1 Corinthians could be ‘interpreted’ shows that it was a meaningful language. Otherwise it would not be an ‘interpretation’ but a creation of the meaning. So the gift of ‘interpretation’ (1 Corinthians 12:30; 14:5, 13) supports the fact that tongues were a real language that could be translated for the benefit of all by this special gift of interpretation.”
(4) The purpose of the gifts was to edify others, not to edify oneself. The purpose of the gifts (as articulated in 1 Cor. 12-14) was to edify other believers in the church body (12:7; cf. 1 Pet. 4:10–11). Paul’s whole point is that love is superior to the gifts (chp. 13). The intended use of tongues, therefore, occurs when the message is translated so that fellow believers are edified. Tongues (languages) that are not translated do not profit the body because the message cannot be understood (14:6–11). Paul was not promoting a private use of tongues, since that does not edify others—cf. 14:12–19. Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 14:4 that the one who speaks in tongues edifies himself was said as a negative, as the context makes clear. Paul was noting that tongues was less desirable than prophecy, because prophecy did not need to be translated in order to edify the hearers.
(5) The prayer “in tongues” that is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 14 is a public prayer, not a private prayer. Charismatics want to define tongues in 1 Corinthians 14 as a private prayer language. But Paul’s prayer in 14:14–15 is a public prayer, not a private prayer. The languages spoken had to be translated so that those listening to the prayer could understand what was being said (v. 16).
Along those lines, Paul defines what he means by “speaking to God and not to men” when he says that “no one understands” (14:2). This would be true of a foreign language that someone spoke but no one else knew. The hearers would not be edified because they would not understand what was being said. But God knows all languages, so He would understand what was being said even if the language remained untranslated.
(6) These gifts were to be exercised in an orderly way. The gift of tongues was to be used in an orderly manner in the church (14:27–28, 39–40). Any disruptive or disorderly use of tongues-speaking goes against the way God intended the gift to be used.
(7) Nothing in 1 Corinthians suggests that the tongues described there were anything other than genuine foreign languages. Viewing tongues as authentic foreign languages is the only natural interpretation of Acts 2 and has the least number of problems in interpreting 1 Cor. 12–14.
As Thomas Edgar observes, “There are verses in 1 Corinthians 14 where foreign language makes sense but where unintelligible ecstatic utterance does not (e.g. v. 22). However, the reverse cannot be said. A foreign language not understood by the hearer is no different from unintelligible speech in his sight. Therefore, in any passage where such ecstatic speech may be considered possible, it is also possible to substitute a language not familiar to the hearers. In this passage there are no reasons, much less the very strong reasons necessary, to depart from the normal meaning of glossa and to flee to a completely unsupported usage” (Satisfied by the Promise of the Spirit, 147).
In interpreting the Bible, we use the clearer passage to help us understand the less-clear passage. In this case Acts 2 is the clearer passage. So it is appropriate to allow our understanding of Acts to inform our interpretation of 1 Corinthians.
As a side note, we might add that there are no other passages that specifically teach about the gift of tongues. Some charismatics try to find tongues in Romans 8:26 and 2 Corinthians 5:13, but the context in those passages makes it clear that the gift of tongues is not in view.
(8) We might also add that, while not authoritative, the universal testimony of the church fathers supports the cessationist understanding of tongues. The church fathers agreed that the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians was the same as that described in Acts. Moreover, they interpreted that gift as consisting of rational, foreign languages. Though many could be cited, here is a small sampling from several early Christian leaders.
Augustine (354–430): “In the earliest times, ‘the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spoke with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.’ These were signs adapted to the time. For it was necessary for there to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to show that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth” (Homilies on the First Epistle of John, 6.10).
Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–390): “They spoke with strange tongues, and not those of their native land; and the wonder was great, a language spoken by those who had not learnt it. And the sign is to them that believe not, and not to them that believe, that it may be an accusation of the unbelievers, as it is written, ‘“With other tongues and other lips will I speak unto this people, and not even so will they listen to Me” saith the Lord’” (The Oration on Pentecost, 15–17).
John Chrysostom (c. 344–407), commenting on 1 Cor. 14:1–2: “And as in the time of building the tower [of Babel] the one tongue was divided into many; so then the many tongues frequently met in one man, and the same person used to discourse both in the Persian, and the Roman, and the Indian, and many other tongues, the Spirit sounding within him: and the gift was called the gift of tongues because he could all at once speak divers languages” (Homilies on First Corinthians, 35.1).
Severian of Gabala (d. c. 408): “The person who speaks in the Holy Spirit speaks when he chooses to do so and then can be silent, like the prophets. But those who are possessed by an unclean spirit speak even when they do not want to. They say things that they do not understand” (Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church. Cited from 1–2 Corinthians, Ancient Christian Commentary Series, 144, in reference to 1 Cor. 14:28).
Based on the biblical and historical evidence, we are convinced that the gift of tongues was a supernaturally endowed ability, given by the Holy Spirit to select Christians, enabling those believers to speak in previously unlearned human languages. The content contained words of praise to God, and the intended use of the gift involved the translation of the message for the general edification of fellow believers. The gift also functioned as a sign to unbelievers. This ability was not given to all Christians nor were they commanded to seek it. It was not considered the hallmark of the early church, nor is it ever highlighted as a normal part of the Christian experience.
But that is not how charismatics define tongues. In modern charismatic practice, the gift of tongues primarily consists of a devotional prayer language which is available to every believer, and which normally goes uninterpreted. This prayer language does not consist of authentic foreign languages. Rather it consists of a so-called spiritual “language” which (upon investigation) does not conform to the linguistic structures of earthly, human languages. Many churches teach their people how to speak in tongues, underscoring the non-supernatural nature of the practice.
When we compare the biblical evidence to modern charismatic and continuationist experience, we find that the two are not the same. The New Testament does not present two types of tongues; but only the miraculous ability to speak previously unlearned foreign languages. Clearly, that does not match the contemporary phenomenon.
As Norm Geisler observes:
Norman Geisler: “Even those who believe in tongues acknowledge that unsaved people have tongues experiences. There is nothing supernatural about them. But there is something unique about speaking complete and meaningful sentences and discourses in a knowable language to which one has never been exposed. This is what the real New Testament gift of tongues entailed. Anything short of this, as ‘private tongues’ are, should not be considered the biblical gift of tongues.”
We intentionally spent the bulk of our time this morning discussing the gift of tongues. But I would like to conclude our time by considering the gift (or gifts) of healing.
Charismatics remain convinced that God is still doing New Testament-quality miracles of healing in the church today. But what happens when we compare the healing ministries of Christ and the apostles to the supposed healings that are paraded on charismatic television? We quickly find, once again, that the charismatic version of healing simply does not match up to the biblical reality.
Let me show that to you by articulating 5 characteristics of biblical healing.
(1) New Testament healings did not require faith on the part of the recipient.Unlike charismatic faith healers, who make the promise of healing conditional on the sick person’s faith, the healings performed by Jesus and the apostles were not dependent on any such prerequisite.
For example, only one of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11–19 expressed faith, yet all ten were healed. The centurion’s servant received healing, but only the centurion is said to have had faith (Matt 8:5–13). Lazarus in John 11, Jairus’ daughter in Matthew 9, and the widow’s son in Luke 7 were all dead and incapable of displaying faith. The demoniacs of Matthew 8:28–29and Mark 1:23–26 cannot reasonably have had faith before being healed. The lame man healed at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1–16) did not even know who Jesus was until later. Jesus healed the multitudes (see Matt 9:35; 11:2-5; 12:15-21; 14:13-14, 34-36; 15:29-31;19:2), not all of whom believed.
In Acts, we similarly see the apostles healing a lame man without demanding faith (Acts 3:7) as well as delivering a girl from demons (Acts 16:18) and even raising the dead (Acts 9:40;20:10), miracles which did not demand faith from the recipient.
(2) New Testament healings were complete, permanent, and 100% effective.The narrative of the Gospels and Acts is clear that the healings of Christ and the Apostles were complete, permanent, and successful. Jesus healed real diseases, not psychosomatic ones. He cleansed lepers, gave sight to the blind, made crippled men walk, and raised dead people.
For example, in Matthew 14:36, those who touched the hem of Christ’s garment “were made perfectly well.” Moreover, Christ healed lepers (see Matt 8:2-3; Mark 1:40-42; Luke 5:12-13;17:11-21) whose healing had to have been complete in order to pass the inspection of the priest (see Lev. 14:3, 4, 10). In fact, there is no record of any New Testament miracle which was not ultimately complete and successful.
The two exceptions some may point to, however, include the inability of the disciples to cast out a certain demon (Matt 17:20) and Christ’s decision to heal a blind man in two stages (Mark 8:22-26). Yet, in the first case, the failure was caused by a lack of faith on the part of the disciples, and Jesus later did cast out the demon (see v. 18). And, in the second case, Jesus fully restored the man after the man saw “men like trees, walking” (v. 24). Not only did Christ have 100% success in His healing ministry, but so did the apostles in the book of Acts.
(3) New Testament healings were undeniable. The healing miracles of Jesus and the apostles could not be denied, even by the enemies of Jesus.
The unbelieving Pharisees did not deny Jesus’ power, they simply distorted the truth in order to cast dispersion on the source of His power (Matt. 12:24). For example, in John 11:47-48, Christ raised Lazarus and “everyone, including His enemies, stood amazed, astounded, and unable to deny or discredit the miracles.” In Acts 4:16–17, after Peter healed a lame beggar (Acts 3:1-10), the Sanhedrin was unable to deny that such a miracle occurred. In Acts 16, when Paul cast the demon out of the slave girl in Philippi, her angry owners did not deny what had happened. Rather, they dragged Paul before the city magistrates and had him thrown in jail.
(4) New Testament healings were instantaneous. Another common characteristic of the healing ministries of Christ and the Apostles was that their healings were instantaneous. There was no period of recovery or recuperation necessary. One such example is found inMark 1:42 where “as soon as [Christ] had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.”
Although no exceptions to this rule occur in the book of Acts, there are three possible exceptions in the Gospels. These are found in Mark 8:22–26 (where a blind man is healed in two stages), Luke 17:11–19 (where the ten lepers are cleansed while on the way to see the priest), and John 9:1–7 (where the blind man is healed after washing in the Pool of Siloam). But those delays were a matter of only a few moments, and in keeping with Jesus’ purposes for those specific healings. Moreover, those people were completely healed—not over days or weeks, but in a matter of minutes. Thus, an overall examination of New Testament healings will show them to be immediate.
(5) New Testament healings were not prearranged. Another important characteristic of the miracles of Christ and the Apostles is that they were not prearranged, but rather were done in the normal course of ministry.
For example, in Matthew 8:14–15, Christ healed Peter’s mother-in-law simply because she was feeling ill when He came to Peter’s house. In Matthew 9:20, He healed a woman who simply, and secretly, touched the hem of His garment while he was walking to Jairus’ house. In Matthew 9:27–29 during Jesus’ travels, He healed two blind men who happened to be in the vicinity. And, in Acts 3:6-7 Peter healed a beggar while he and John were “about to go into the temple” (v. 3).
These, and other instances, confirm that New Testament healings were not pre-scheduled. Jesus and the apostles did not limit their healings to healing crusades in environments that could be highly organized and tightly controlled. Jesus certainly did not require the help of screeners—those found at charismatic miracle meetings who keep the seriously ill and physically disabled from reaching the stage.
So you can see how different New Testament healings were from the so-called healing ministries of modern faith healers. When modern faith healers excuse their inability to heal on the lack of faith in the sick person, or when their healings are not successful, or when their supposed successes don’t stand up under scrutiny, or when they claim their healings take place over a long period of time, or when they limit their miracle crusades to tightly controlled and highly manipulated events … they show just how far from the biblical standard they are.
Now, to be fair, evangelical continuationists are more conservative on this point. They generally distance themselves from faith healers, and that’s a good thing. But they essentially reduce the gift of healing to answers to prayer. A person with the gift of faith prays for a sick person, and God answers that prayer in accordance with His will.
As cessationists, we would wholeheartedly agree that God answers prayer, and that He can do so in ways that seem extraordinary.
But praying for God to heal and then waiting to see if God is going to answer that prayer is not how the New Testament describes miraculous healing. That is certainly not the way in which the healing ministries of Christ and the apostles are portrayed. But by insisting that the New Testament gift of healing has continued, charismatics set themselves (and their followers) up for confusion and disappointment.
Here is an example of that frustration from one charismatic leader:
John Wimber: Sometimes our experiences don’t fit with our understanding of what the Bible teaches. On the one hand, we know that God is sovereign and that he sent Jesus to commission us to pray for and heal the sick. On the other hand, we know from experience that healing does not always occur. Why would God command us to heal the sick and then choose not to back up our act (so to speak) by not healing the person for whom we pray? This can be downright discouraging, as I learned years ago in my own congregation when I began to teach on healing. It was nine months before we saw the first person healed. (John Wimber, “Signs, Wonders, & Cancer,” Christianity today, October 7, 1996, 50)
Wimber is right to be frustrated. But he fails to recognize the real problem. It is his misguided understanding of the miraculous gift of healing that results in the disconnect he observes in real life between his experiences and what the Bible teaches.
So again, there is a clear contrast between how the New Testament describes miraculous healings, and the way in which healing is defined within modern charismatic circles. By comparison, the modern version falls far short.
This morning we have just briefly considered the what question. In other words, we have asked the question: What were the gifts in the New Testament (based on the biblical evidence)? And how does modern charismatic practice compare?
Our survey has been admittedly brief, but here is what we have found:
The Gift of Prophecy: New Testament prophets are to be held to the same standard as Old Testament prophets since the NT writers make no attempt to distinguish between the two. Thus, the content of their prophecy (whether foretelling or forth-telling) must accurately convey the true, error-free revelation they are receiving from God. If their prophecy is shown to be incorrect, it is also shown to not be from God. Moreover, now that we have the completed “prophetic Word,” additional revelation from God is no longer needed for the present age.
The Gift of Tongues: The gift of tongues was a supernaturally endowed ability, given by the Holy Spirit to select Christians, enabling those believers to speak in previously unlearned human languages. The gift served as both a sign to unbelievers and as a way in which to edifiy fellow Christians (in which case it had to be translated). This ability was not given to all Christians nor were they commanded to seek it. It was considered less valuable than the gift of prophecy because translation was required in order for the gift to fulfill its purpose of edifying others.
The Gift of Healing: The NT gift (or gifts) of healing were of the same quality and kind as miraculous healings in the Old Testament, Gospels, and book of Acts. While cessationists appreciate answers to prayer in which God intervenes in healing a sick person, they maintain that this does not fit the biblical description of miraculous healing by a Spirit-endowed healer. Since the healings of contemporary charismatics do not fit the biblical description, they cannot be construed as being the same thing.
It has not been our purpose this morning to address the questions of when the true gifts ceased or why they passed away. We could certainly do that if we had time. And we would look at passages like Ephesians 2:20, which limits the presence of apostles and prophets to the foundation of the church.
Rather, we have addressed a more basic question. What were the biblical gifts? When we start there, and when we compare the biblical description to the modern charismatic version of those gifts, we find the modern version to be greatly lacking.
So, as cessationists, do we deny that charismatics are experiencing things? Of course not. Rather, we deny that what they are experiencing is equivalent to what was happening in New Testament times.
They claim to “prophesy” but it is not prophecy as the Bible describes it. They claim to “speak in tongues” but their irrational speech does not consist of real human languages. And they claim to possess the New Testament gift of healing, yet nothing about modern charismatic healings matches up to the healing ministries depicted in Scripture.
The implications of this are significant. Though charismatics claim to possess the gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing, a comparison of their experiences with the biblical reality demonstrates that the charismatic version of these gifts consists of something other than the real thing.