Tongues | The Nature and Function of Tongues Speaking

The following belongs to a series on the continuation or cessation of the miraculous phenomena of tongues-speaking. Read the previous post here.


One of the most significant and decisive factors concerning the cessation or continuation of tongues is the purpose that tongues had/has, or said differently, the essence of the presence of tongues. Temporary function and provisional existence would argue for the momentary presence of tongues. But on the other hand, a continual function and permanent nature would necessitate continuation.

A Sign

Of the Hardening of Israel

In 1 Corinthians 14:1 Paul begins an argument that prophecy is to be preferred over tongues, namely, uninterpreted tongues (14:1-25). Paul’s first reason is that uninterpreted tongues do not edify the congregation (14:2-19; cf. 12:7; 13:1-3). Paul’s second reason, found in verses 20-25, is that tongues repel unbelievers1 due to its apparent bizarre manifestation when uninterpreted (v.23). Paul says this repelling effect is due to the fact that tongues is not primarily for the church. The essence of tongues’ existence is found in it being a sign to Israel of their hardened hearts (vv.21-22).2 However, prophecy, which is given for the congregation’s good (v.22),3 can serve to draw the unsaved to repentance (vv.24-25).

In sum, Paul indicates that tongues’ primary purpose is to be a sign, namely, a sign of Israel’s hardening. This fact begs the implication that when this purpose is accomplished—that is, the sign-post has passed—then the sign (tongues) will no longer be needed and tongues will cease despite any other secondary functions.

Of the Pouring Out of the Promised Spirit and Grafting in of the Gentiles

After the tongues-speaking experience at Pentecost, Peter explicitly interprets the tongues as a sign that the promised Spirit has just been poured out (Acts 2:17-18) by the exalted Christ (v.33). And more so, in Acts 10-11 when Gentiles begin speaking in tongues, Peter understands it as evidence that the promised Spirit was being poured out on Gentiles and not just Jews (10:45, 47; 11:15-18), something Paul seemed to have in mind as he wrote Ephesians 2:11-22.4 Again, as before, these temporary purposes of tongues (which are intrinsically attached to salvation history) beg the implication of tongues’ cessation.

An Eschatological Characteristic of This Age?

Many continuationists5 argue that since the pouring out of the Spirit by the exalted Christ (Acts 2:33) is fulfillment of Old Testament anticipation6 (an “already” aspect of the “already/not yet” kingdom in this age), then this entire age (the “last days”), which is characterized by the presence of the promised Spirit (i.e., 2 Cor 3), ought to be characterized by tongues, which accompanied that eschatological outpouring (Acts 2:4-11). In other words, the argument is that tongues are an eschatological reality (Acts 2:17-18), and as such it ought to characterize not simply the dawning of this new age but the age itself.7

In response to this, it must be acknowledged that the initial outpouring of the Spirit that occurred at Pentecost is an event within redemptive history (salvation history). Tongues is only treated as being a sign that this event had occurred (Acts 2:17). To argue otherwise is to say more than what Peter said. Therefore, one must not confuse what is a part of an event within salvation history (Luke 3:15-16; John 7:39; Acts 1:5; cf. Acts 2:33)8 as being an intrinsic part of salvation (the ordo salutis) in the New Covenant, as a paradigm for salvation experience today. In other words, one must not confuse the gift of the Spirit with the gifts of the Spirit (i.e., tongues). This event in salvation history (the outpouring of the Spirit), by analogy, is not to be a repeatable event any more than Christ’s death and resurrection is to be repeated when a believer is united with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom 6:1-11).9 Such argumentation is further validated by the fact that tongues is not intrinsically attached to Spirit-Baptism.10

Hebrews 6:5 identifies miraculous activity as belonging to the “age to come”—the “not/yet” aspect of the kingdom. The Church is not the kingdom, and also, the consummation of the kingdom is still future, which means one must not assume that every aspect of the Spirit’s ultimate ministry is present now. Tongues is not a part of the presence of the kingdom in the Church today because of the nature of the Church and the correlating nature of the kingdom present within it—spiritual and not visible/physical manifestation.11

For Congregational Edification

As a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12:10), tongues has the function of edification within the local church (1 Cor 12:7; 13:1-3; 14:12, 17, 26). Paul indicates that, if interpreted, tongues can be used for corporate prayer, corporate praise (1 Cor 14:14-17; cf. Acts 10:46), and like the gift of prophecy (Acts 2:17; 19:6).12 Countless continuationists argue that this edificatory function demands tongues’ continuation until the return of Christ since there is nothing temporary about the need for edification (1 Cor 1:4-8). However, even amidst Paul’s instruction about tongues’ edificatory function within the church (ch. 14), he actually deemphasizes this use of tongues to some degree (vv.1, 5, 18-19, 27), and even more significantly, describes tongues as finding its essential existence in its primary and temporary function as a sign (vv.20-25). In light of this fact, the edificatory function of tongues is no indication of tongues’ continuation. This continuationist argument seems to falsely presuppose that the needs of the church in the apostolic period (namely, the need for revelatory utterances) are the same needs of the church today, which has the complete canon.


1. In other words, the unbelievers mentioned in v.22 are unbelieving Israelites (see footnote 41) while the unbelievers in v.23 are distinguished as “outsiders.” Hudson, interview by author.

2. In v.21 Paul quotes from Isaiah 28:11-12. In Isaiah 28:11-12, Isaiah warns Israel of God’s coming judgment on her due to her unrepentance. Isaiah’s warning is based in the covenantal curse and prediction of Deut 28:49 which is reiterated by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 5:15). This prediction finds its initial fruition in the Babylonian captivity of 586 BC. However, here in 1 Corinthians 14:21-22 “Paul says this sign of covenantal curse on Israel found its climactic fulfillment by the manifestation of the gift of tongues in the New Testament era” (emphasis added). O. Palmer Robertson, “Tongues: Sign of Covenantal Curse and Blessing,” Westminster Theological Journal WTJ 38:1 (Fall 1975): 43, 47.

However, many scholars interpret Paul’s use of Isaiah 28:11-12 as more of an illustration. For example, Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 676-88; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 108-117; C. Samuel Storms, “A Third Wave View” in Four Views, 220. They argue that just as tongues resulted in the hardening of Israel (a negative reaction), so likewise, if unbelievers witness the Corinthian church practice tongues they will have a negative reaction (1 Cor 14:23). Although this interpretation is internally consistent, among other problems, it does not take seriously Paul’s use and Isaiah 28:11-12 and its background.

3.The word sign in “sign for believers” is inaccurately added by some translations (ASV, NASB, ESV), which can easily causes confusion to the interpretation of this text.

4. Therefore, tongues’ purpose was very much so to be a sign of Paul’s theology in Romans 11 concerning the temporary hardening of Israel (see “Of the Hardening of Israel”) and the grafting in of Gentiles.

5. Ruthven, Cessation of the Charismata, 80, 103, 112-26; Deere, Power of the Spirit, 225, 285; Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 893; Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1019, 1069-70; Douglas A. Oss, “A Pentecostal/Charismatic View” in Four Views, 265-73; Storms, “A Third Wave View,” 206; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 151-54.

6. Isa 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28.

7. Generally speaking, classic and traditional dispensational cessationists, who view the Church as a parenthetical stage within the kingdom program and, generally speaking, see Peter’s use of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2 as more analogous to what is occurring at Pentecost, might think they can disregard this continuationist argument. However, these dispensationalists inherit a parallel question of their own: why has tongues ceased within the midst of a dispensation characterized by the Spirit without the occurrence of a dispensational change?

8. For the sake of this argument it should be noted that Christ’s pouring out of the Spirit is used interchangeably in scripture with Christ’s baptizing with the Spirit (Mt 3:11; Mk 1:8; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:33; Acts 1:4-5; cf. Acts 2:17-18, 33; and Acts 10:44-45, 47; cf. 11:15-16).

9. Gaffin summarizes this argument well: “We cannot conclude that . . . everything true during the process of salvation history continues beyond its completion” (“A Cessationist Response to C. Samuel Storms and Douglas A. Oss” in Four Views, 286-6). See also idem, “A Cessationist View,” 30-33; Saucy, “A Open But Cautious Response to Douglas A. Oss” in Four Views, 300-303; Carson, Showing the Spirit, 140-141.

10. Pentecostal theology has taken the false idea that tongues is a part of the “fabric” of Spirit-Baptism so far as to form the doctrine subsequence—that Spirit-Baptism is a “definite experience, subsequent to salvation . . . .” (emphasis added) and that tongues is without exception a necessary sign of that baptism (Guy P. Duffield and Nathaniel M. Van Cleave, Foundations of Pentecostal Theology [Los Angeles: L.I.F.E. Bible College, 1983], 307, 320-22). But on the contrary, Scripture shows that tongues is not a necessary evidence of Spirit-Baptism. For example, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12 that all believers have been baptized in the Spirit (v.13) yet he recognizes not all speak in tongues (v.30). Or again, at Pentecost about “three thousand souls” receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, yet no record of any of them speaking in tongues is recorded (Acts 2:37-41). Furthermore, Spirit-Baptism occurs at conversion. This is because the baptism of the promised Spirit is intrinsically attached to the promised salvation of New Covenant (Ezek 36:26-27; Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18; Gal 3:14; 2 Cor 3:6-8). As such, it occurs simultaneously with New Covenant salvation, not as a “second blessing” after salvation. This is validated again by the text of 1 Corinthians 12:13 where Paul states that all believers received the baptism or in Acts 19 where Paul seems to assume reception of the Spirit at conversion is the norm (Carson, Showing the Spirit, 150). In other words, every believer post-Pentecost receives Spirit-Baptism at conversion. Therefore, the “subsequence” that occurred in the book of Acts (which is not even a consistent occurrence, [i.e., Acts 10:44-47]) as well as the “rushing wind” and “tongues as of fire” (which not surprisingly no one wants to claim as paradigmatic for today) must be understood as unique, occurring within the initial outpouring of the Spirit to various groups transitioning into this new age.

11. David Saxon, interview by author, personal interview, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, Watertown, WI, January 30, 2012.

12. This is also implied by Paul’s comparing and contrasting tongues with prophecy throughout 1 Corinthians 14.