by Jason Dulle
Q: Do you believe that tongues are the only unique sign that one has received the Holy Ghost? If so, why? I’m personally questioning the teaching. One of my friends has pointed out to me that the Scripture does not support the idea that tongues are the “initial and only unique” evidence of being filled with the Holy Ghost. Can we truly conclude from the evidence we find in Acts 2, 8, 10 and 19 that tongues should be the expected norm at the reception of the Spirit? It only seems to prove that they were evident in these particular circumstances. How can we just assume that everybody will speak in tongues based off of the evidence in Acts, which Acts does not even say that this is the case. There does not seem to be any Scripture explicitly teaching us that tongues will be the “only unique” sign manifested at the initial infilling; therefore it is only an assumption that they will occur at every instance of the baptism of the Spirit today. This practice of “theology by assumption” can be dangerous and concerns me greatly. Can you comment please?
A: Regarding whether or not tongues are the only evidence of having received the Holy Ghost, we must be honest with ourselves and admit that this is not a clear issue Biblically speaking. Although I believe that tongues are the only unique evidence of having received God’s Spirit, and I believe this based upon Biblical data, this doctrine is deduced from the Scripture, not explicitly taught in the same, and not exegeted from any particular verse. There is no passage that says tongues are the evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit. We arrive at the conclusion that tongues are the evidence from looking at the occurrences of people receiving the Holy Ghost in the Book of Acts. We note that they spoke in tongues when they received the Holy Ghost, and take this to be normative.
Some cite Mark 16:17 as evidence that all will speak in tongues when receiving the Spirit, but there are problems with appealing to this verse. Many Christians dismiss this verse because it is lacking in early Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark. They do not believe that it is part of Mark’s original writing. Whether this is true or not (for it is not the issue here), we should not base an entire doctrine off of a verse that many question the authenticity of. Assuming that it is original, if we want to argue from this verse that tongues are for all because it is a sign to follow believers, then we must also argue that every believer must recover from drinking poisons, and that we are to take up snakes (the meaning of this is disputed). Clearly this is not the point of this verse. So how are we justified in taking the reference to tongues and making this a universal sign, but relegating the other signs to mere possibilities? At the most, all we can draw from this verse is that tongues will be normative, but we cannot draw from this verse that every person will speak in tongues. Besides, Jesus never connected these tongues with the reception of the Holy Spirit. From this verse alone, it might be thought that believers may speak in tongues after conversion. If we are going to find Biblical proof that tongues are the evidence of receiving the Holy Ghost, we will have to look elsewhere.
There are five times in Acts in which people are said to have received the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2 there were several signs that accompanied the receiving of the Holy Spirit: sound from heaven (v 2), tongues like fire (v 3), and tongues (v 4). I will examine Acts 8 later, so I will skip that for now. Acts 9 which records Paul’s conversion does not give any evidence of what happened at all. In fact, it is never even said that Paul received the Holy Spirit here. Ananias only told Paul that he was sent to Paul so that he might be filled with the Spirit (v 17). We assume that Paul did receive the Spirit that day, but without anything being said of Paul’s receiving of the Spirit, we cannot draw much from this occurrence.
In Acts 10, when Cornelius’ household received the Spirit, these signs accompanied the event: tongues (v 46), magnifying God (v 46). What I find interesting about this passage is that Peter was still speaking when Cornelius received the Spirit. Cornelius did not have to stop Peter and let him know that he just accepted Christ as his savior, but Peter knew that Cornelius received the Holy Spirit. The Scripture gives the reason he knew. It is said, “For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God” (v 46). The word “for” indicates a reason. Peter knew he received the Spirit because he heard the tongues. Some argue that Peter was astonished because he heard the tongues, and that was not what normally occurred when one received the Holy Spirit. The fact of the matter is that Peter was astonished because a Gentile had received the Spirit. He was shocked that God would save a Gentile; he was not shocked that someone spoke in tongues. In Acts 11, when Peter was called on to explain why he went into the house of a Gentile, Peter explained what happened to Cornelius’ household saying, “And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning” (v 15). He was referring to the Day of Pentecost. We should ask ourselves in what way the two events were similar. There were no tongues of fire and no rushing wind at Cornelius’ house. The only common denominator between these two events is that both parties spoke with tongues. This seems to point to the fact that this was seen as the common sign of having received the Holy Ghost. Any other phenomena, although real, was not standard.
Finally in Acts 19 we have some Ephesian believers who receive the Holy Spirit. Here the accompanying signs were: tongues (v 6), prophesying (v 6). The sign of prophesy is unique to the account of the Ephesian believers. In all three accounts, though, whenever signs are spoken of, the only common sign is tongues.
Now concerning Acts 8. Many attack our position on tongues as the initial evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit based on this chapter, because it describes people who receive the Spirit, but it does not say that they spoke in tongues. Based on this, many claim (even some Pentecostals) that although tongues may be a sign, they are not the sign. They believe that there are many signs that could accompany the experience (although it may be that there are no signs at all) and we cannot limit the sign to tongues. While at first Acts 8 seems to prove their point, in all reality it is the best proof in all of Acts that there must be an observable sign to show that one has received the Holy Spirit. Since tongues were the common sign in all other occurrences in Acts, we assume that this was the observational sign here too. This is why I believe Acts 8 is the most powerful verse demonstrating that tongues are the evidence of receiving the Holy Ghost.
Philip went to Samaria to preach Christ to them. Philip performed many miracles among them such as casting out devils, healing those sick of the palsy, and healing the lame. Verse eight says that “there was great joy in that city.” The people believed and were baptized in Jesus’ name, yet they did not receive the Spirit (v. 16). When Peter and John came down and prayed for the people and they began to receive the Holy Ghost.
There was a man named Simon, who was a sorcerer, who beheld all the events listed in the previous paragraph. This Simon himself even believed and was baptized. The funny thing about this Simon is his reaction to seeing the people receive the Holy Ghost. Keep in mind that Simon witnessed devils coming out of people, those who had the palsy healed, and arms and legs growing back on people’s bodies. He witnessed all these things and stood silent, but when he saw people receiving the Holy Ghost he offered the apostles money so that he could have this gift. He wanted the ability to lay hands on people and for them to be filled with the Holy Ghost. Are we to think that what made Simon want to offer money for this ability was watching people say, “I believe in Jesus Christ. Great, now I’m filled with the Holy Ghost.” If this is all it was then I think it is reasonable to believe that Simon would have rather wanted to buy the ability to make people’s arms and legs grow back. It is obvious that something extraordinary happened when these people received the Holy Ghost for Simon to want this ability above the others that he had seen performed. It would be very logical to assume that what Simon witnessed was people speaking in other languages (tongues). It truly would be a great power to cause people to speak in languages that they never learned.
The strongest point we can make from this passage is to ask how did Philip and the apostles knew that the Samaritans had not yet received the Holy Ghost. Unless there was a particular sign they were looking for that had not yet occurred, there would be no way of knowing they did not have the Spirit yet. How did they know? There had to be something they were looking for, and they had not found it yet. They knew they had not yet received the Spirit due to the absence of the sign. If, however, receiving the Spirit occurs at the point of faith without any immediate observational sign, then Philip should have assumed that these Samaritans had received the Holy Spirit, because the Samaritans had believed, and were even baptized. What was the sign then? The sign was not that the people would be happy, because there was “great joy in the city” yet none had received the Holy Ghost at that point. It was not their baptism, because they were already baptized, but did not have the Spirit (v. 15-16). So what would the sign have been? I believe that it was tongues. Even non-Pentecostal commentators will agree that they spoke in tongues.
Some will say that the episodes in Acts where people spoke in tongues when receiving the Holy Spirit should not be taken as normative, because they only prove that tongues were evident on these particular occasions. This is a common argument, but why would Luke only record the particular times when people received the Holy Ghost as evidenced by speaking in tongues (with the exception of Acts 8 where it is not said they spoke in tongues, but is strongly inferred) if this was not a common experience? Why not record other instances where there were other evidences? Instead of arguing that these are only particular instances that were not common, why would we not argue these are just a few of the many instances in which people spoke in tongues when they received the Spirit, but Luke choose these because they were important examples to demonstrate the spreading of the gospel. The thesis of Acts is to show how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to Samaria to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That is why Luke chose to show the examples of people receiving the Holy Ghost from different ethnic groups. First it was the Jews (Jerusalem), then the Samaritans (Samaria), then the Gentiles (ends of the earth).
Some, using this fact, say that the only reason that all of these groups spoke in tongues when receiving the Holy Spirit was because they were the first people representing the different ethnic groups. After this, however, tongues would not be needed. Tongues, then, were needed to validate that God had accepted and saved this ethnic group. This sounds like a valid argument at first, but Luke records two Gentile groups receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 10, 19). If tongues were only given the first time a particular ethnic group received the Spirit to validate that God had accepted that particular ethnic group, there would have been no reason for the Ephesian believers to speak in tongues (Acts 19).
Others object to the initial evidence doctrine because of the fact that it is inferred from the text, and not explicitly taught. It is argued that Luke was not trying to relate what should happen or needs to happen when one receives the Holy Ghost, but only what did happen in these particular instances. I believe that this is a valid objection, but I do not think, based off of the data in Acts, that we are wrong for seeing tongues as the sign that one has received the Spirit. We may do good, however, to let the fact that this is not an explicit teaching of Scripture to cool down our dogmatism on the issue. We best not “put someone in hell” who has not spoken in tongues if we have no clear verse of Scripture saying that tongues are the only sign of having received the Holy Spirit. Although I believe the Biblical data strongly supports our conclusion, it does not absolutely prove our conclusion. Those who believe in Christ and have been baptized, but who have not spoken in tongues, are in God’s hands. Whether or not they have received the Spirit I cannot tell. All I know is what Luke seems to infer in Acts, i.e. that tongues are the sign of receiving the Holy Ghost. If I, or we, are wrong in that inference, and these individuals who have not spoken in tongues are truly saved, I will be praising God for their salvation! But we cannot base our doctrine and practices off of the “maybes,” but on the message of the Word of God. As far as I can see, the Scripture heavily infers that tongues are the initial evidence of having received the Spirit, and therefore that is all I will preach. If there are exceptions, and we are wrong, then we can rest knowing that salvation is in the hands of God where it rightly belongs, and not in ours.