The Private, Devotional Use of Tongues

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Weighing in on the perennial arguments about speaking in tongues, Nathan Busenitz at The Cripplegate posted an article last week entitled Two Kinds Of Tongues?  Busenitz thought “it seemed fitting to post something related to the charismatic-cessationist debate” in view of this week’s (how else to put it?) anti-charismatic “Strange Fire Conference” being organized by John MacArthur.

Blogger Adrian Warnock seems to have provoked Busenitz’s post by asserting that there are different kinds of tongues. Busenitz for his part claims that the tongues of Acts and the tongues of 1 Corinthians are the same, but his real goal is to uphold the cessationist argument that there is no exegetical support for the idea of private or devotional tongues – something often referred to by Pentecostals and Charismatics as a “prayer language.”

As one who believes in the ongoing availability of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, I found the article disturbing. Like many who advocate cessationism, Busenitz seems to overlook or not connect other important things that we (and the Apostle Paul) are saying. Perhaps not interacting with Pentecostal and Charismatic writings going back 100 years also creates problems for his formulations. I wanted to respond to Pastor Busenitz and discuss the private, devotional use of speaking in tongues.

A Definitional Problem

I’ve been involved in Charismatic circles for over 30 years, and I don’t accept Busenitz’s quite limiting definition of the gift of tongues – nor, I imagine, do many others. He asserts that:

Charismatics generally define the gift of tongues as a devotional prayer language that is available to every believer. This prayer language, according to its proponents, is not bound to the linguistic structures of earthly, human languages. In other words, it is not a real language — but rather “angelic” speech which supposedly transcends human language.

But therein lies a problem. On the one hand, the charismatic version of tongues does not consist of real human languages. On the other hand, Acts 2 makes it clear that the tongues spoken at Pentecost were real human languages.

I have to respond to this first by saying that Busenitz’s definition is incomplete. Pentecostals and Charismatics do not assert categorically that this is the character of the gift of tongues. There is no agreed-upon definition, to be sure, but Classical Pentecostals would certainly first want to say that tongues today may indeed be real languages of this Earth. This is xenoglossolallia, speaking in a foreign tongue which can be recognized by someone hearing it.

Are there real instances of this occurring today? I believe there are, and I believe many thousands of people can bear witness to it. I myself have both done it (so I’ve been told) and also heard it in person. I was present to hear a young lady, newly baptized in the Spirit, speaking in Arabic, as identified by a medical doctor present who knew Arabic and had done his residency in Saudi Arabia. This gentleman is sober, missions-minded, and has suffered persecution for the cause of Christ. He has no reason to lie and was in fact amazed. Such stories are common, if not pervasive, in Pentecostal missions literature.

I would also add that not all Charismatics even accept the “tongues of angels” theory, although some do. But given that there are literally thousands of living human languages and thousands more extinct, who can know whether someone is giving voice to a language of Earth or a language of Heaven in any case? Who can say that tongues is not “real?” The source of the language is, after all, utterance given to us by the Holy Spirit, who knows all tongues of all the beings He has made.

[As an aside, this points to a broader problem in cessationist thinking: the Gifts of the Spirit as nearly-magical and automatic. In this view of things, a person with a healing gift should be able to run down to the hospital and lay his hand on the cornerstone to empty every bed. In that world, people with the gift of prophecy always gave out Scripture, although Paul said we prophesy in part; and people who speak in tongues are always speaking Spanish or Mandarin. Such a view is seeking, concededly, to give due honor to the Spirit, but don’t seem to comport with biblical and historical evidence of ministry in the Spirit. Jesus Himself could do no mighty works in Nazareth because of their unbelief. That shows that (1) Jesus was not doing everything He did out of His Divine Power; and (2) the administration of supernatural gifts is a complex matter involving many variables, including God’s sovereignty and even on occasion the faith of human candidates for prayer. ]

The Sign of Tongues and Tongues in Acts 2

Cessationists want to assert that tongues was always a human language because their claim is that tongues only has value as a sign of condemnation (a sign contra Israel) or to enable people to preach the Gospel, as helping with communication and as validating the messengers of Christ. As to the first matter, we know that the fact of tongues and the presence of the gifts of the Spirit in general were a part of the apologetic of the Early Church against Judaism. The idea of course was that the gifts had passed from natural Israel to the New People of God. We would have to agree that this idea is accurate. Both Jews and Gentiles who receive Jesus as Messiah participate in the New Age of the Spirit, in which we enjoy the promised universal outpouring of the Spirit, wished for by Moses.

However, there is no indication in 1 Corinthians 14:19 or anywhere else in Scripture that the purpose of tongues was preaching the Gospel to people of other languages, although there have been instances recorded in history where the phenomenon has been reported.

Even on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Gospel was not preached in tongues. It fell to Peter to preach the Gospel in Acts 2, not the tongues-speakers. The text says that the assembled Jews could hear the tongues-speakers proclaiming “the wonderful works of God.” There is no reference in that report to them hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It was only when the Word was preached by Peter that they were cut to the heart and asked what they should do.

It begs the question: if preaching is the purpose of tongues, why would the completion of the Canon or the establishing of the Gospel in a given region render tongues unnecessary or withdrawn by God in other localities? If there yet remain many hundreds of languages whose speakers have not heard the name of Christ, why do we not still need tongues?

Devotional Tongues in 1 Corinthians and in Paul’s Life

Paul never suggests in 1 Corinthians or anywhere else that tongues should be intelligible languages, but he says prophecy is to be preferred, seeing it does not require interpretation. If tongues are used in the assembly, then they must be interpreted. This renders them intelligible and capable of edifying the congregation, which is his goal throughout 1 Corinthians 12-14.

This is why he also says in 1 Cor. 14:13, “Wherefore let him that speaketh in an unknown tongue pray that he may interpret.”

Paul also says very clearly towards the end of chapter 14 (v. 39) for us to be zealous to prophesy and not to forbid people to speak in tongues – a frequently-disobeyed commandment if ever there were one. Note that in 1 Cor. 14:28, Paul specifically says that if there is no interpreter present, the person speaking in tongues should speak to himself and to God.  Because the person is to speak to himself and to God, verse 28 also therefore demonstrates that there is a private, devotional use of tongues for personal edification. Why is this so?

(1) If there were no private use of tongues, Paul would have said that in the absence of an interpreter present, the man ought to simply be quiet and not speak at all.

(2) If there were no private use of tongues, Paul would not have said that the man should speak to himself and God. If tongues were only useful as a sign, or to somehow fill in the gaps in our edification until the Canon of Scripture were complete, Paul could not say that the man ought to speak to God. In other words, if the content of tongues were only addressed to other people, cessationists could make a better case that tongues is for the purposes they assert. But if, as the Apostle Paul says, there is a use of tongues which is directed towards God, then the uses of tongues cannot be confined to a condemning sign, or to giving people edification before the close of the Canon.

As for the devotional practices of Paul himself, we have his own record in 1 Cor. 14: 18-19a: “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church…”

Where did Paul’s frequent tongues-speaking take place? By his own words, it was done mostly outside of the church – in other words, privately. He regulated his tongues-speaking by whether or not he was in church, as a place where tongues was not to be preferred over prophecy. Yet it seems to me that cessationists not only ignore the implications of this Scripture, they avert their eyes from its very existence.

Cessationists also overlook 1 Cor. 14:14-15, where Paul explains that tongues is a volitional activity to be regulated, again, by his situation, as measured by the rule of love. He says that he will pray with the spirit or with his understanding, depending on where or with whom he finds himself. If he was praying with his spirit, whether in the church or out, he was edifying himself, since, as he taught us, “he that speaketh in an [unknown] tongue edifieth himself.” (1 Cor 14:4)

Even to realize that Paul by his own words prayed in tongues should be sufficient to cause cessationists to simply leave the field of debate graciously. Will anyone doubt that his use of proseuchomai in verse 14 and 15 of 1 Cor. 14 means that he is praying to God? it is a normal New Testament word for prayer made to God. And if so, this must be a private use of a spiritual gift to assist Paul in his own, personal, private seeking of God.

Conclusion

An examination of Paul’s own, stated personal prayer practices as well as the rules for Christian assemblies he provides for us within 1 Corinthians 14 compels us to conclude that Christians can and should enjoy the private exercise of tongues in worship and in prayer. We can do no better than to conclude by echoing Paul’s own words, words which are not at all negative, but which are sadly cited often just to reinforce his promotion of prophecy over tongues in public assemblies:

θέλω δὲ πάντας ὑμᾶς λαλεῖν γλώσσαις…

I want you all to speak with tongues… (1 Cor. 14:5a)

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Author: Nick

I’m a pastor, a writer, musician, and recovering lawyer. Blessed to serve the people of Harvest Time Church as Associate Pastor. In my spare time I enjoy losing to my wife in Words With Friends.

9 thoughts on “The Private, Devotional Use of Tongues”

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this important topic, Nick! I’ve never been a part of a church that embraced tongues, and had a very negative opinion about them until the past two years. I am just so thankful now to know that God does desire for us to embrace all the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

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  2. Except you have not taken the entire context into account. The epistle to the Corinthians was addressed to the most carnal church in the entire NT. You cannot just take a few verses out of context and make a doctrine out of it. What you are actually doing is appealing to the way the Corinthians were using the gift and somehow using that as an example to emulate. Again, Paul considered them carnal, as in “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal”. So what you are doing is using the practice of carnal christian’s as your example.

    The context on tongues starts in Chap. 12, not 14 and the famous Love Chapter, ch 13 is in the middle of 12 and 14. This love chapter is added as a correction, i.e. as a rebuke to the Corinthians misuse, as was all of Ch 12 – 14. Just read those 3 chapters together in their entirety and keep them in context without reading something into them.

    The book of 1 Cor. is one correction after another to a carnal church, this has to be factored in when trying to use it for a doctrinal statement. Again the entire context of Corinthians is a correction, a rebuke to a carnal church. This is not a church you go to, to find good examples to follow.

    When reading it you should be asking why is Paul writing them and how can I benefit from the corrections he is giving the Corinthians? That is the context of the epistle!

    So in Chap 12 he says to them, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.” Remember in Chap. 3 he said, “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.”

    So in Chap. 12 he wants to start at the basics with the milk. In v. 7 he says, “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This is the foundation of his correction, this is the start of him correcting their understanding, rather misunderstanding and abuse of spiritual gifts. Remember his statement here, “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Let’s repeat the base of his correction to them, “for the common good.” This principle is never rescinded, but rather is what Paul then builds on in Chap. 12-14. If you do not factor this in, you are not accepting all of the word of God as it is written, but rather are ignoring the purpose of the gift!

    If I tell you that a hammer is what is supposed to be used to hammer in nails, then come along and say to you, you are trying to put screws into wood with a hammer, does that mean I am condoning your use of the hammer fro screws or pointing out you are using the tool in the wrong way.

    So when Paul’s make the statement that the purpose of gifts are for the “common good”, then brings up examples when they are not using the gifts for the common good is that an endorsement or a rebuke? Of course it’s a rebuke.

    Remember the “common good”, then think about Chap. 13, the love chapter, let’s see how Paul build on this “common good” purpose clause. Paul goes on to say, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” He starts to mention tongues here, but in the context of what he just said in Chap 12.
    Remember they did not have chapter divisions, this was on entire epistle and he never rescinds the purpose clause of “But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” So he then builds on this purpose statement in chap. 13 and even says, “but if there are gifts of [c]prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease”.

    13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the [f]greatest of these is love.

    In other words the most important thing is love and using the gifts for in love “for the common good” of the body!

    Then he goes on to say, “Pursue love”, which is in what has been divided into chap 14, but remember there were no chapter divisions.

    So in Paul’s mind he just stated the purpose clause in Chap. 12, built on the “common good” theme in Chap. 13, then he is building toward this principle, which fits perfectly with Chap. 12, which is about using the gifts to edify the body. He in chap. 14 goes on to say, “For you are giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not edified.”

    Now this is in the middle of his statement about how they are using tongues for “personal edification” which is exactly the opposite of what he just said in Chap 12 of using it for the “common good” and edifying others. So his whole train of thought is very consistent in Chap. 12 to Chap 14. It is all about using the gifts for the common good to edify the body, anything else is abuse, self centered abuse, remember Chap. 3 he called them “babes in Christ”. And that is exactly what a baby is, which is self-centered. It take maturity to seek the “common good” and this is something the carnal Corinthian church was not, they were not mature and their use of the gifts was immature carnal babes in Christ, needing to be fed with milk!!

    So their use of the gifts can never be thought of as an example or as something to build an entire doctrine on. In fact if someone is doing what the Carnal babes in Christ were doing, then they too need to go back to basics and be fed with milk.

    And with the context of Chap.12 and the “common good” purpose clause Paul says,

    “9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of [d]languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a [e]barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a [f]barbarian [g]to me. 12 So also you, since you are zealous of [h]spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.”

    Again edifying the body! Notice he mentions what tongues are here, he clearly calls them “languages”, which is why he concludes that thought with “13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.”

    He never said, sometimes interpret. Who is to pray to interpret? The “one who speaks in a tongue”, which means always. If you speak in a tongue, then pray to interpret. How many who practice this as a “private prayer” language are doing that? If not you are disobeying the word of God, plain and simple, every time you ignore this verse. This verse has never been rescinded!

    Yes he does mention to the carnal babes in Christ that they were using the gift “personally”, but remember he just told them it is for the “common good” and these babes in Christ are NOT using it for the common good, but rather for their own self-centered use, just like a babe would, not a mature Christian who is seeking the “common good” for the edifying of the church! And again the word of God itself tells you in 14:10 it is a language that is to be understood, not a “private prayer” language. “There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of [d]languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning.”

    “So also you, since you are zealous of spiritual gifts, seek to abound for the edification of the church.”

    That is not what “private prayer” language does or using tongues for some kind of “personal use”!!

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  3. You said, “As for the devotional practices of Paul himself, we have his own record in 1 Cor. 14: 18-19a: “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church…”
    Where did Paul’s frequent tongues-speaking take place? By his own words, it was done mostly outside of the church – in other words, privately.”

    I certainly accept the verses as quoted as being true, but you have made numerous assumptions about these verses that are just no supported by Paul and the NT.

    First and foremost, you said, ” in other words, privately.” Where does it say that anywhere in Scripture? I would be interested in seeing where it says Paul used it “privately”. I myself do not know anywhere that is stated. So this would seem like a big assumption on your part and that this slight twist you put on his quote is what you are using to try to shift the meaning of what tongues is.

    Paul made it clear that as a basic tenet not to be violated, “13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.”

    The whole context is about clear communication so that the hearer would understand! “So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.” So Paul would never violate the clear principles he mentioned. And I only quoted a small portion of what he said about clear communication for the gift of tongues.

    So what does the word of God say the gift of tongues is? Let’s let the word of God interpret the word of God. It says, “9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. 10 There are, perhaps, a great many kinds of languages in the world, and no kind is without meaning. 11 If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.”

    He mentions tongues and spiritual gifts in this passage and he refers to tongues as languages:

    1. “many kinds of languages in the world”
    2. “and no kind is without meaning”
    3. “If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian,”

    This is where he stresses clear communication, just as in Acts where everyone heard them speak in “their own language”.

    4. “and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me.” Again clear communication in a language that is understood”

    So Paul in very plain language tells you exactly what he is referring to when he refers to “tongues”, it cannot be any clearer, since the word of God gives you the definition of tongues, you need look no further.

    You said, As for the devotional practices of Paul himself, we have his own record in 1 Cor. 14: 18-19a: “I thank my God, I speak with tongues more than ye all: yet in the church…”

    You said, “Where did Paul’s frequent tongues-speaking take place? By his own words, it was done mostly outside of the church”

    Of course, Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles and he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, so he needed the gift of languages to communicate the gospel to them, nowhere does it say “privately”, that is jumping completely out of context.

    And that is exactly what he had in mind when he said, “”If then I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian,”.

    He even goes on to say, “In the Law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of strangers I will speak to this people, and even so they will not listen to Me,” says the Lord. 22 So then tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers;”

    So he also has the idea of his talking to “unbelievers” in mind in this passage from chap 12 to chap 14.

    You then say, “Even to realize that Paul by his own words prayed in tongues should be sufficient to cause cessationists to simply leave the field of debate graciously.”

    Well in the passage you quoted, “18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; 19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

    You keep making these subtle shifts in the words. You said in his own words, “Paul by his own words prayed in tongues” v. 18 does not say he “prayed” in tongues, but that he “spoke” in tongues and remember he just said they were languages and that the language should be understood, or he will be as a barbarian to the hearer.

    And again he made the guiding statement, i.e. rule, that “13 Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” He never rescinded this in v. 18.

    You also left out the end of v.19 in the verses you mentioned, where it is abundantly clear what Paul is referring to, which is, “in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

    So again clear his is referring to the idea of, so that I may instruct others also. So along with the principle of v. 13 “Therefore let one who speaks in a tongue pray that he may interpret.” and his statement here that he wants to instruct with clearly understood language, “rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.”

    I really don’t see how it can be said that the entire passage from chap. 12 to chap. 14 can be used to support the idea of “private devotional” prayer language. Nope, just not there in the context!

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  4. 12:7 But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
    “he that speaketh in an tongue edifieth himself.” (1 Cor 14:4) Isn’t the the exact opposite of 12:7? I really don’t see how Paul can just contradict himself after just few verses. How can “you are edifying yourself” be seen as a purpose clause when he just stated the purpose in 12:7 and kept that focus from ch 12 to ch 14? If Paul told me the purpose of the gift is for the common good, but you are using it to edify yourself, I certainly would feel rebuked! When I teach I am edified, but that does not mean that is the purpose of teaching and that I should go into a private “teaching closet” and teach and speak only to myself and to God, cause no one else is hearing me.

    So I am real curious how you reconcile these two verses. Remember there were no chapter divisions, 12:7 is Paul’s statement clause for the context of chap 12 to chap 14 and it is this purpose clause he builds on and then ends with “For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted;” The idea here again, is going back to the purpose he stated in Chap 12 “for the common good” Paul never looses that focus with the carnal, babes in Christ. This context has to be kept in mind and I think loosing this context is why there is so much error on this one gift!

    I think it is very clear that all 3 chapters are driving home the point of clear communication of the word of God for the edifying of the body!

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  5. And remember, “9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.”

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  6. 9 So also you, unless you utter by the tongue speech that is clear, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

    This sure seems to describe “private language” to a T! That is exactly what they are doing.

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