Can I be confident that I actually have the Holy Spirit if do not speak in tongues? Did I really experience the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit?’ Didn’t the Holy Spirit fill the Christians on the day of Pentecost and empower them to speak in tongues (Acts 2:4)? Shouldn’t we expect this today? Aren’t there many Christians today who speak in tongues now?
I recently preached on Acts 2:1-13 at our church and these kinds of questions naturally arise. After studying the issue afresh—and after thinking about it over the past 20 years of being a Christian—I am persuaded that all Christians have the Holy Spirit and have experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit, even they never speak in tongues. In fact, I think that speaking in tongues as the Bible defines it was a supernatural gifting unique to the apostolic era, and not something we should expect to see today. It was a phenomenon unique to the 1st century church—like the presence of living apostles, miraculous healings of the kind done through the apostles, and writing of Scripture. What we see today by those who claim to speak in tongues is different from what we see in the book of Acts. Thus, it is a mistake to claim that a Christian has not experienced the fullness of the Holy Spirit if they never speak in tongues.
Here are 3 reasons why this is so (I drew these from my sermon notes on Acts 2:1-13):
1. Speaking in tongues in Acts 2:1-13 refers to speaking in other human languages understood by other humans.
I believe John Stott in his commentary was right to say that this passage in Acts is how we ought to interpret other passages in the Bible that refer to speaking in tongues. Acts 2:1-13 gives us the clearest picture of what ‘speaking in tongues’ looks like when it is happening. If we see speaking in tongues today, it will look like this. But, as other cessationists argue, this is not something we see today.
Miraculously speaking about Jesus Christ in foreign languages one does not know was a sign that God the Holy Spirit gave at unique moments in Early Church to validate and confirm the reality of the gospel. As the gospel spread to new people groups, we see at times God bring about this experience (Acts 10:44-48; 19:6).
As Stott and others note, today when we send out missionaries to foreign countries, we enroll them in intensive language learning programs, so that they can speak and communicate the gospel in foreign languages—we do not rely on those who are able to speak in tongues, because we don’t see that happening today as we saw it in in the Bible.
2. The Apostles taught that not every Christian is gifted to speak in tongues.
God gave different gifts to different people (1 Cor 12:8-11). Some Christians were given the gift of tongues in the Early Church, but others were given different gifts: “There are varieties of gift, but the same Spirit” (1 Cor 12:4). This means that even if the experience of speaking in tongues practiced by Pentecostals and continuationists today is what the Bible is speaking about, it is false and misguided to assume that all Christians should speak in tongues—or to claim that Christians who do not speak in tongues have yet to experience ‘the fullness of the Holy Spirit’ or the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit.’ God the Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people, and not every Christian was (or is) gifted with speaking in tongues.
3. Everyone who becomes a Christian has experienced what is called the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit.’
Several years ago, I heard a sermon by British preacher Dick Lucas where this became clear in mind. Titus 3:4-7 makes the clear connection between justification by grace and the experience of the Holy Spirit. If you have one, you have the other:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)
If you are a Christian, you have been “justified by his grace” (Titus 3:7) and you also have experienced “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). Evidence that this baptism of the Holy Spirit has occurred is that you have repented of sin and believed in Jesus Christ, and now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are starting to live a holy life—putting sin to death in the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:13).
In the end, I find the cessationist position most convincing. (You can find a good primer on it here). I love my continuationist brothers and sisters, but I disagree with their understanding of speaking in tongues today. If we want to understand what it means to speak in tongues, then Acts 2:1-13 is the clearest picture and we need to ask if what we see today looks like that.