Current Events Devotional theology

What on earth is speaking in tongues?

Gibberish or necessary tool? One of my papers from college: What does the Bible ACTUALLY teach about tongues?


In light of being asked about this numerous times, I decided to republish a paper of mine from my days at Moody Bible Institute, with slight revision. Hope it helps! Enjoy!

Why Speaking in Tongues is Not Mandatory for Salvation: A Biblical Argument

The global Pentecostal church often holds to a specific belief that an experience of speaking in tongues always accompanies the salvation of an individual.  They cite many scriptural passages to argue for the sign to accompany salvation, and in many circles, that one is not saved unless the glossolalia has occurred.  This essay will first look at the argument made from Mark 16:18, and state why it is not a command, but rather a prophetic prediction of things that will happen in the lives of believers. Then it will look at the historical accounts found in the book of Acts, and argue for their purpose being descriptive rather than prescriptive, in addition to the fact that tongues do not accompany every salvific episode, as will be shown below. Then the Pauline epistolary imperatives on glossolalia will be examined, as Paul makes no mention of tongues always accompanying salvation. Finally, the harmful effects of a legalistic approach to tongues and salvation will be surveyed. For the purposes of this paper, the assumption will be made that spiritual gifts have not ceased but are active and working in the Church today.  This paper will argue that tongues is a gift for the edification of the Church, not a necessary sign of salvation, and the examples given in the book of Acts are historical, not prescriptive.

This paper will assume the definition of glossolalia that is commonly assumed to most believers: “The supernatural gift of speaking in another human language without its having been learnt.” However, as most charismatic worshippers will add, the act of speaking in tongues is more often than not an “angelic” or “personal” language between them and God, rather than another human language. Therefore, this paper will also assume that the referent “tongues” is speaking about an unintelligible language, and differentiation will be noted when speaking about other human languages. However, although it will not be addressed, there is a time and place for speaking in non-human tongues, as per scriptural instruction in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 (though that is not prescribed for all believers as a necessity for salvation).

Mark 16:17

One of the first passages glossolalia adherents will jump to is Mark 16:17, in which Jesus tell His disciples that  “these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues”(NIV). Other translations translate the words “new tongues” as “new languages”(HCSB), or “foreign languages”(Goodspeed). The issue with this interpretation is, in none of these translations is the “new tongue” implied to be an incoherent babbling that is understood by no one, as is the case in many Pentecostal circles. Two more hermeneutical arguments object to that interpretation of this text. The first is simply reading the next verse, which reads, “they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” As with the preceding verse, all of these things came about later in the New Testament. Demons were repeatedly driven out of people (Acts 19), and believers spoke in new human languages (Acts 2). In Acts 28:3-5, Paul is bitten by a snake and suffers no harm. Though there is no specific passage on poison drinkers surviving, stories from missionaries have surfaced over the centuries of ‘unkillable Christians.’ Lastly, placing hands on sick people to heal them was repeatedly demonstrated throughout the New Testament, first by Jesus, and then by His apostles throughout Acts, and some of the epistles (Acts 28:8; 1 Corinthians 12:29; 1 Timothy 4:14).

In all of these evidences of the Lord moving and working through His people, only one is held up as more important than the others: the gift of tongues. No argument is made to declare the necessity of snake-handling, healing, poison drinking, or demon driving for salvation (except by few radical Pentecostal branches—even then, it is not done as a sign of salvation, but as tradition). To use this passage of scripture as a cohesive argument for tongues necessarily accompanying salvation disregards the immediate context and is a hermeneutical fallacy.

The second error with this passage is that the tongues Jesus referred to—presumably those at Pentecost and elsewhere in the book of Acts—is that He spoke of other human languages, not incoherent babble. Acts 2:5-11 “When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? . . . We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” It is made clear in this text that men from all over the nations were present, and understanding the message in their own language. When a Pentecostal believer states that tongues are a necessity for salvation, he rarely means to say that one must speak in a formerly unknown human language. That is much easier to falsify than a mumbled rambling of syllables. This argument is aided by Saint Paul, who wrote in 1 Corinthians 14:22, “Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers.” Logically, the deduction can be made that babbling in gibberish is a sign to no one of anything (though in worship, both private and public, there can be a proper time and place for this gift). However, speaking in another intelligible human language that can be understood by people of other nations, when one has never learned the given language prior, is a sign of something miraculous. Not only is it a miraculous display, but a useful tool in evangelizing to those of other languages. The gift helps to build bridges between language barriers—one of the largest faced by missionaries to foreign nations.

Salvations in Acts

The next evidence pointed to by Pentecostal believers is the examples of tongues at the point of conversion found in the book of Acts.  David K. Bernard, a Oneness Pentecostal adherent, builds his primary argument on the conversion of Cornelius, stating, “There is no mention of either a sound like wind or tongues like fire; speaking in tongues alone was the conclusive evidence. . . Speaking in tongues is the only sign that both Acts 2 and Acts 10 have in common, but it alone was enough to convince Peter that the Gentiles had received the Pentecostal experience.” Bernard’s conclusion is that because three signs showed up at Pentecost (tongues of fire, a sound of a violent wind, and glossolalia), and only one accompanies the conversion of Cornelius (glossolalia), it is the true sign of the Holy Spirit. His argument, however, disregards the laws of logic, draws false conclusions from evidence not named in scripture, and fails to look at other parts of scripture for support. Logically, the lack of two signs and the presence of one does not elevate that one above the others. For instance, when the Israelites were in the desert and the Lord was with them as a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21), people were not performing glossolalia, yet no one had any doubt that the Lord was with them. Or, in 1 Kings 19, when Elijah is in a cave waiting for the Lord, he sees both a fire and a violent wind, but once more, glossolalia is absent. Does this belittle the importance of speaking tongues? No. Bernard draws up a false dichotomy and creates his own rules with which to frame his own system of belief.

Further, to make the bold declaration that tongues must accompany salvation is to place it on a higher level than any of the Holy Spirit’s other works in the lives of believers and the Church. For instance, if someone were to never speak in a foreign tongue, but they could lay hands on people and heal them, few people could argue that the Holy Spirit was not acting in their life. Or more commonly, if someone were bound by a certain sin such as violent fits of rage, then received salvation and the Holy Spirit and saw the violent fits cease in their life, would the Spirit not be working in their life as well? The same is true of alcoholism, pornography, adultery, insecurity, idolatry, pride, and every other sin from which the Spirit frees believers.

More accurately, what is happening in Acts 10 is the the gospel is spreading from the Jews to the Gentiles. F. F. Bruce argues that the sign accompanies their salvation because, for the first time in history, the salvation which comes from the Jews (John 4:22) is being opened up to the Gentiles. The text makes no claim about a necessary sign that is to accompany salvation. Again, it is telling the reader what happened historically, as the gospel went out from “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”(Acts 1:8). This passage, spoken by Jesus in the opening of Acts, acts as a template for Luke’s demonstration of the Spirit moving outward from the disciples to the ends of the earth. Cornelius’ conversion is one of the steps in the progression, which Luke shows here through the sign of tongues.

The next account Bernard examines is Acts 19:6, in which the Ephesians receive the Holy Spirit, speak in tongues, and prophesy. (He skips entirely Acts 8, in which the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit, because the text mentions them receiving Him, but not that they spoke in tongues. It did not support his thesis. Acts 8 is further evidence of the Holy Spirit being received without the sign of tongues explicitly being present.) Once more, Bernard is forced to change his criterion for the required salvific evidence, as prophecy was not something that accompanied the previous outpouring of the Spirit. Prophecy is clearly a way in which God works repeatedly in scripture, as both the Old and New Testaments contain ample evidence of humans speaking forth the words of God. In his commentary on the book of Acts, Luke Timothy Johnson downplays the acts of speaking in tongues and prophesying, and points more toward who was doing them. He writes: As in the Samaritan mission, the bestowal of the Spirit accompanies the laying on of hands rather than the baptism itself.” In the case of Cornelius, Peter was the one to share the gospel with him and lead him to the Holy Spirit. Now that the book of Acts has shifted to follow Paul as he spreads the gospel to the Gentiles, his actions parallel those of Peter. Peter laid hands on men and the Holy Spirit came; now Paul is laying hands on men and the Holy Spirit comes. This is Luke’s way of showing the parallel missions of the two apostles.

In the entire book of Acts, there are many examples of salvations without the sign of speaking in tongues. For instance on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 people were added to their number, and there is no mention of the new converts speaking in tongues, only of the extant believers (Acts 2:41). There are five more examples of salvations in the book of Acts sans glossolalia in chapters 4:4; 6:7; 8:14-36; 9:1-42; 17:32-34. Max Turner concludes: “But the case that [Luke] thought this was regular is unconvincing, and that he thought it ‘normative’ is beyond demonstration.”

Paul and Tongues

The argument for tongues being a necessity for every believer ends with the book of Acts. Paul speaks of tongues in several of his letters, but the most prominent of these is 1 Corinthians. While he explicitly expresses the importance of the gift, he never equates it with a necessary sign of salvation. Sam Storms writes: “[In] 1 Corinthians 12:28-30, Paul quite explicitly stated that “all do not speak with tongues” any more than all are apostles or all teachers or all have gifts of healings and so on.” Though Storms draws a rigid dichotomy between the gift of [public] tongues and the grace of [private] tongues, he says that the grace of private tongues is available to all believers, though it is not a mandatory element of salvation (with which the author would agree).

Paul continues to speak of glossolalia in vague and mysterious terms, both lifting it up as a way to positively connect with God, but also a way to cause division and distraction in the church (1 Corinthians 14:18-19). His instruction also seems to draw the dichotomy between public and private employment of glossolalia. He praises the benefits of the activity: “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues”(14:5a), and, “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you”(14:18). And he cautions against the dangers of misusing the gift: “If there is no interpreter [of a tongue], the speaker should keep quiet in the church”(14:28). Regardless of the practical applications of Paul’s instructions to tongue-speakers, it is never expected to be normative for a salvific act evident in all believers. Rather, Paul lifts it up as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and nothing more. The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry argues for a different sign to accompany salvation, which may have more evidence among other biblical texts: “Speaking in tongues is not the sign of salvation but a sign. If anything, the fruit of the indwelling Spirit of God as listed in Gal. 5 is the sign of salvation. Ask the [Pentecostal] person if the fruit are the true signs of salvation in his or her life rather than speaking in tongues.” Arguing that glossolalia must accompany salvation is as much an argument from silence as the cessationist’s argument that all spiritual gifts have stopped.

Why This Belief is Harmful

“Pushing the gift on everyone is not only unbiblical but can also do great personal damage,” writes Mallone. The legalistic expectation for every believer to have the gift of speaking in tongues sets a false expectation for converts to attain that is not given in scripture. Many believers have been hurt, or know people who have been hurt by groups that demand tongues to be spoken and withhold full acceptance in the absence of glossolalia. Many even claim to have ‘faked it’ to be accepted in certain churches. “I have counseled dozens of men and women who have never possessed the gift of tongues but were forced to manifest it to be accepted by their church leadership,” adds Mallone. Giving into such unbiblical and legalistic pressure, especially for such a mysteriously vague and mystical instruction is a testament against such churches and groups.

Theologically, the act of forced glossolalia elevates the gift and those who have it above others. In the context of 1 Corinthians 12, this “takes God’s colorful and rightly arranged body and transposes it into a drab, monochromatic, single-limbed body.” This sort of manipulation disposes with the diverse and beautiful Church God desires and replaces it with an army of clones in which every member has the same gift. It disposes with the key word of the act in the first place: gift. Paul expresses this in 1 Corinthians 12:11 when he writes: “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” It is the Holy Spirit who decides which gifts He gives to whom. He knows the personality, strengths, weaknesses, and mission of every believer far better than any pastor ever could, and it is He who distributes the multitude of gifts as He sees fit. Forcing His hand to accommodate a certain system or belief is a dangerous thing to do, yet that is exactly what many in Pentecostal circles continue to do.

Personal Reflection

In terms of application to the Church in this age, a battle is and has been rising up to fight legalism. The postmodern individual wants nothing but self-guided autonomy and the ability to make choices for him or herself. Nothing opposes this desire more than a legalistic doctrine pulled from a misguided interpretation of scripture. And that is exactly what ‘mandatory glossolalia’ is. It hides behind the guise of free expression in a charismatic worship service, but when it is forced the way many Pentecostal brothers and sisters declare, it is no longer free.

Many people have reported being hurt by churches that require speaking in tongues, and have been pressured to fake what is supposed to be a beautiful and natural gift from God. When someone receives a gift, they do not fret about how to receive it, or worry if they deserve it; that they have worked hard enough to earn it. Rather, they receive it most beautifully like a child: with their palms open and their hearts knowing that it is a free blessing freely granted by someone else. So it is with spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit divvies out the gifts as He—in perfect knowledge and wisdom—sees fit. The gift of tongues, though frequently mentioned in scripture, is never elevated to a position above the other gifts, nor is it stated that every Spirit-filled Christian will obtain this specific gift. Therefore, to practice ‘mandatory glossolalia’ is to force the hand of God, manipulating the Spirit (if that were possible) and place fear into the hearts and minds of unaware laypeople.

Fear is a common form of trying to proselytize, and in the past several decades, it has become less and less effective. The man standing on the sidewalk, pointing at people and promising them an eternity in hell is no longer a respected and truth-speaking prophet, but a lunatic who is annoying the rest of civilized society. Using fear to manipulate people into a religious submission is dangerous and opposed to the heart of God. And yet, people who require new converts to spout out in babbling tongues are doing just that. They are applying pressure to someone who doesn’t know any better. And should the person not be blessed with the gift of tongues, they walk away feeling embarrassed, fake, rejected, and inferior to those who do have the gift.

In light of the research portion of the paper, forcing the gift of tongues is not only harmful and hurtful to Christians and seekers, but it is not founded in any biblical teaching. The examples given in Acts seem to suggest that when converts began speaking in tongues, they were not spouting out gibberish the way many modern-day adherents would encourage, but they were speaking in other human languages, which cannot be faked. If someone has never learned Chinese, and suddenly they are fluent, they are not faking an act of the Holy Spirit. However, hiding behind a guise of gibberish defined as ‘angelic language’ is easily faked and largely misleading.

The gift of speaking in tongues, both human and non-human, is a beautiful and effective tool to strengthen believers and the Church. However, it can easily be skewed and prostituted for the worldly gain of misguided leaders. A proper understanding of the gift and patient acceptance of the gifts one already has is the first step in interacting with glossolalia.


Although unbiblical beliefs abound in all circles of Christianity, the doctrine of necessary glossolalia is one doctrine that can easily be done away with using logic and a clear exegetical look at scripture. Paul never declares the gift of tongues as a universal or mandatory gift, but rather a blessing from the Holy Spirit that pushes a believer and a church closer to God, when done properly. The book of Acts employed the gift of tongues as a sign to the Jews that the reach of Christianity was expanding and the circle of Spirit-filled persons was growing to include gentiles and people from around the world. And Jesus’ words in Mark 16 are skewed to turn a prediction of things that will happen into a command for Christians to obey. Countless people have been hurt or shunned by churches because of such a small doctrine that should unify the church and bring people closer to the Lord. The arguments made by such believers are arguments from silence that have little or no grounding in scripture, but rather a humanistic desire for control, proof, and the ritualistic comfort of legalism.


Bernard, David K. “Chapter 9. Speaking in Tongues.” The New Birth. Hazelwood, Mo.: Word Aflame, 1984. Print.

Bruce, F. F. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951. 217. Print.

Colman, Andrew M. A Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Johnson, Luke Timothy, and Daniel J. Harrington. The Acts of the Apostles. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 1992. 338. Print.

Mallone, George. Those Controversial Gifts: Prophecy, Dreams, Visions, Tongues, Interpretation, Healing. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1983. Print.

Mills, Watson E. “Glossolalia in 1 Corinthians.” A Theological/exegetical Approach to Glossolalia. Lanham: U of America, 1985. Print.

Storms, C. Samuel. The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts. Ventura, Calif.: Regal/Gospel Light, 2004. 128. Print.

Turner, Max. “Tongues in the New Testament.” The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Gifts: In the New Testament Church and Today. Rev. ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998. Print.

Vine, W. E., and John R. Kohlenberger. The Expanded Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. A Special ed. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1984. Print.

0 comments on “What on earth is speaking in tongues?

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: