Q: Are the gifts of the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues, &c.) still present and available to Christians today?
A: Yes, but they sure do get abused an awful lot.

Scripture appears to describe two types of what we call “speaking in tongues”.

The first description is by Luke in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit falls upon the 120 assembled in the upper room, and it says that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).1 In this instance, the text continues,

Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

(Acts 2:5-11)

The second form of what we call “speaking in tongues” is described by Paul in his first letter to the church at Corinth:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

(1 Corinthians 12:4–11)

However, Paul describes these “tongues” differently from how they are described in Acts. They are of a different kind and serve a different purpose:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation. The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

(1 Corinthians 14:1–5)

As described by Paul, the form of speaking in tongues is a prayer language between the individual and God, and its purpose is to build up himself alone rather than the whole church, unless there is someone to interpret what the individual is praying. Later in the same chapter, Paul provides guidance on how they should operate.

If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.

(v. 27)

Apparently the fellowship in Corinth was going pretty wild with these gifts to the point of abuse, and Paul’s purpose is to bring his brethren back into line with the reason they are gathering in the first place, which is to strengthen each other in the faith, concluding, “So, my brothers, earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 39–40).

Responding to 13:8

There are those who use the following text to suggest that the gifts of the Holy Spirit ended with the passing of the Apostles.

As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

(1 Corinthians 13b:8)

I’m not so sure that’s what Paul says here. First of all, let’s put it back into its context: Paul is writing about love being “the more excellent way,” more than tongues, or prophecy, or asceticism, or even faith itself (vv. 1–3). As such, he is not necessarily discouraging the use of these gifts, but he is establishing some guidelines to prevent the abuse of those gifts as was apparently happening in Corinth, stating that in the end, everything should be done in love for the building up of the church. Things like prophecy, tongues, giving everything away—those are forgotten after a time, but love is timeless just like our God is timeless.

This last point runs contrary to a lot of what is found in today’s pentecostal movement—where it isn’t uncommon to turn on the local Christian TV station and watch a preacher openly go back and forth between off-the-cuff preaching and unintelligible babble, supposedly “speaking in tongues.” And, we haven’t even touched things like “holy laughter” or the “laughing revival”, or turning services into strange dance parties and rooms full of seemingly incoherent babbling. Paul in his writing to Corinth explicitly makes a stand against this—not by denying their existence, but encouraging their proper use, in a way that both builds the believer and draws the unbeliever toward Christ.

When used properly…

I close this by sharing an episode that happened to me in bible college what can happen when the gifts of the Spirit are used properly.

One of my required courses while in bible college was about theology and church mission. One session we had finished a segment on the calling to ministry and mission, and we were supposed to have a quiz that morning on the subject matter. As was usual the class was opened with prayer, but before the instructor was able to begin that day’s lesson plan, a student sitting in the front row gave him pause by saying “I feel that there’s something God wants to say.”

The instructor gave the student the floor. There was a short silence, then the student began exclaiming aloud in another language that I personally knew he did not know (for that matter, neither did I). He did this for about a minute.

There was another short span of silence, and the instructor gave the interpretation. A prayer, acknowledging our inadequecies as a next generation of pastors, missionaries, and church leaders, and crying out for strength and purpose.

What happened next could not be orchestrated by mere mortals. Nearly all of us, myself included, found ourselves out of our chairs and on our faces before God, praying, many (again, myself included) in tears, simply pouring our hearts and lives out to Christ in whatever way we knew how in prayer.

Obviously, the quiz was cancelled. The instructor abandoned his lesson plan and allowed the students to stay in the conference room as long as they felt they needed to in prayer and worship, and left. I continued praying for about another half hour before leaving to prepare for my evening class.

When I came back to campus that afternoon some hours later there were still students on their faces in prayer. I’m pretty certain it lasted a lot longer before they finally had to leave in order to allow the building to be locked up for the night.

  1. Emphasis in scripture quotations is my own. All quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).