Sermon: “Reaching Higher”

I delivered this sermon to New Hope on 11 February 2007. The sermon addresses the topic of “glossolalia,” or speaking in tongues. I encourage you to read the entire sermon before making up your mind.

Sermon text: Jeremiah 1:1-10.
Sermon text: 1 Corinthians 14:1-20.

The Church exists to glorify God, and only to glorify God. We bring glory to His name by fulfilling the task of carrying the gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. For millennia, the Church has accomplished this task through ministry, proclamation of the gospel, and through baptizing new believers into the Body of Christ.

The work of spreading the gospel benefits from a unique aspect of the Church: We have never claimed the Bible exists in purity in only one language. We have never required anyone to learn Greek or Hebrew to read the “true” Bible. We can trust our Bible in English just as the original believers could trust their Bible in Koine Greek.

This advantage also implies a great intellectual challenge: The translation of the gospel into the languages of the world. A few weeks ago (28 January 2007 p.m.), we studied the confusing of the languages at Babel in Genesis 11. The results of pride on that occasion has complicated our task, but we continue undaunted in carrying the gospel to people of every tribe and language. We may be tempted, as was Jeremiah, to tell God, “we do not know how to speak.” However, as with Jeremiah, we find that God accepts no excuses; He accepts only obedience.

However, at certain times in the history of the Church, the Holy Spirit has “helped” the Church through a great gift: The gift of “tongues.” The most obvious example of this gift appears in Acts 2, when the Church began at Pentecost. In a great miracle, God blessed Galilean and Judean Jews with the ability to speak numerous languages with no previous study or experience. As a result, the Church spread into numerous nations from this one event.

Unfortunately, this great gift has brought great controversy from the first days of our existence. When St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, he had to address the abuse of “tongues.” Chapter 14 contains the greatest and most specific treatment of this gift.

As Southern Baptists, we tend to ignore this gift at worst, or belittle it at best. Some in the Convention and in other parts of Christendom confidently claim the gift no longer exists. In light of events in the Southern Baptist Convention (2007), I believe our belittling and cessationist tendencies have returned to haunt us. We can no longer ignore the fact that a large segment of Christianity emphasizes this gift, even to the point of teaching that only those with this gift have received the Holy Spirit at salvation.

Therefore, I want to address 4 questions today:

  1. What is the gift of “tongues” in the Bible?
  2. Are tongues necessary for salvation or for the reception of the Holy Spirit in a new believer’s life?
  3. Does the gift of tongues still exist?
  4. Lastly, should the Church give greater emphasis to the gift of tongues?

First, let’s consider the terminology relating to tongues.

The word “tongue” in the King James Version can refer to either a known human language or to an ecstatic utterance that no one understands, including the speaker. The events of Pentecost in Acts 2 lead us to believe that the believers’ words sounded like gibberish to most people except to those who heard in the “gibberish” the gospel in their own language.

The Greek word translated “tongue” in chapter 14, “glossa,” means just that: “tongue.” For that reason, the term for ecstatic utterances is “glossalalia.” In Koine Greek, this word refers to both the organ we call the tongue and to language. In the King James Version, the word is translated consistently as “tongue.” (The only occurrence of the word “language” in the New Testament in the King James Version is Acts 2:6, where the translators used the word as a translation for “dialektos.”)

When St. Jerome translated the New Testament from Koine Greek to Latin, he used the used the word “lingua,” the root for our word “language.” St. Jerome’s action, however, doesn’t help us much as the word “lingua,” like the word “ glossa,” can also refer to “tongue.”

As you can see, a great deal rides on the translation, especially in languages such as English that distinguish between “tongue” and “language.” If the word refers to “language,” then it may eliminate ecstatic blabbering as a possibility in the translation, because a language requires structured, consistent use of sounds.

In recent translations of the Bible into English, most versions, including the English Standard Version (my preferred version), the New American Standard Bible and the New International Version, translate this chapter using the word “tongue.” On the other hand, the new Southern Baptist translation, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, translates “glossa” as “language.” (Perhaps the translators wanted to eliminate any ambiguity as to their doctrinal preferences in this chapter.)

We can see where both definitions — ecstatic utterances and language — can apply to Corinth. Corinth was a major sea port of the Roman Empire, and Corinthian Christians would have routinely encountered people from across the Roman Empire and from the Black Sea. Those blessed with the gift of languages such as believers at Pentecost could have ministered to people from many nations on a routine basis.

On the other hand, St. Paul seems to imply that the other definition dominated the church at Corinth. Many Corinthian believers claimed the “gift” of tongues and attempted to display them every time the church gathered. For that reason, St. Paul tried to give some guidelines on the use of “tongues.” It is difficult to see these restrictions placed on those who spoke natural human languages, especially the restrictions on women. (Interestingly, in many cultures, women make better translators than men, leading to some rather amusing gaffs by men learning the language from women.)

I believe we may safely assume that St. Paul is referring to ecstatic utterances in this chapter.

Secondly, many people claim that only those with the gift of “tongues” have received the Holy Spirit and therefore qualify as true believers. Is this really the case? Are those of us who have never spoken in tongues really bereft of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

While event in Acts seem to imply that speaking in tongues always followed conversion, this belief lacks historical validity. For centuries, the Church believed that those born again received the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion. St. Paul wrote the letter to Corinth in A.D. 55. When he wrote to the Romans in A.D. 57 and to the Ephesians in A.D. 60, he didn’t mention tongues in relation to the spiritual birth.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas refers to St. Augustine’s statement that in his lifetime, the gift of tongues no longer appeared at the moment of conversion. St. Augustine lived at the turn of the fifth century A.D.

In the eighteenth century, a religious renewal we call the Great Awakening swept through the New England colonies. The minister Jonathan Edwards, who some call America’s greatest theologian, oversaw this awakening in his church and in the surrounding areas. Edwards wrote several treatises on the awakening, explaining it to skeptical ministers in both the American colonies and in England. In A Divine and Supernatural Light, Edwards wrote:

The Holy Spirit operates in the minds of the godly, by uniting himself to them, and living in them, and exerting his own nature in the exercise of their faculties….

When it is said that this light is given immediately by God, and not obtained by natural means, hereby is intended, that it is given by God without making use of any means that operate by their own power, or a natural force God makes use of means; but it is not as mediate causes to produce this effect. There are not truly any second causes of it; but it is produced by God immediately.

We are there abundantly taught, that the saints differ from the ungodly in this, that they have the knowledge of God, and a sight of God, and of Jesus Christ.

It is rational to suppose, that this blessing should be immediately from God; for there is no gift or benefit that is in itself so nearly related to the divine nature, there is nothing the creature receives that is so much of God, of his nature, so much a participation of the deity: it is a kind of emanation of God’s beauty, and is related to God as the light is to the sun. It is therefore congruous and fit, that when it is given of God, it should be nextly from himself, and by himself, according to his own sovereign will.

Edwards, then, believed that, as St. Paul taught in Romans and later letters, that the Holy Spirit comes upon us immediately at conversion. Otherwise, we would not recognize the work of God in our lives and would lack the protection of the Holy Spirit St. Paul clearly taught we enjoy.

Thirdly, does the gift of tongues still exist?

Remember that I pointed out Corinth’s advantage in tongues in relation to its purpose in the Roman Empire. The gift of languages would have greatly aided the church’s ministry. However, in A.D. 90, the Bishop of Rome, Clement, wrote a letter to the Corinthian church exhorting them to peace and cooperation. (Apparently, the Corinthians had a merry tradition of disunity that continued for decades after St. Paul’s death.) For this gift to claim such prominence in St. Paul’s time, St. Clement never mentioned tongues at all. Apparently, the gift had ceased in Corinth in the roughly 5 decades since St. Paul’s letter.

I mentioned St. Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologica earlier. St. Aquinas gave us the reason St. Augustine stated the gift had ceased: “whereas even now the Holy Ghost is received, yet no one speaks in the tongues of all nations, because the Church herself already speaks the languages of all nations: since whoever is not in the Church, receives not the Holy Ghost” (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, “Of the Grace of Tongues, Reply to Objection 3”). In other words, St. Augustine saw no reason for the gift since the Church had reached every tribe surrounding the Empire.

If the gift ceased at that time, is it back? Could God have sent the gift back in our time?

We’re currently witnessing one of the greatest expansions of the Church in her history. The gospel is spreading faster in Africa and Asia than anywhere else in the world. I’ve heard of missionaries in these areas who speak of experiences where they utter some saying that was interpreted by those around as the gospel in their native language. I’ve heard too many cases to discount them; however, I also know from personal experience that language study is difficult, demanding, and exasperating work. While I believe God can give the gift of languages to someone, I also believe He expects most of us to go about language study the old fashioned way: the daily grind of intense study.

I’ve also noticed that the part of the Church growing fastest, the Pentecostal movement, is also the part that most emphasizes the gift of tongues. I’m unprepared, however, to believe this vindicates their emphasis on tongues, especially since most Pentecostals tend to emphasize the ecstatic utterances definition over that of human languages. As St. Paul pointed out, “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” (14:23)

I really believe St. Paul wanted the Corinthians to spend more time ministering to the outside world than demonstrating their experience with ecstatic utterances.

This brings me to my last point: should the Church give greater emphasis to the gift of tongues, and should we seek this gift today.

Recently, I read C.S. Lewis’ sermon “Transposition,” which he delivered on Pentecost, 28 May 1944. In this sermon, Lewis discussed the limitations of our physical bodies in responding to spiritual events. Ironically, Lewis started the sermon with a mention of glossalalia: speaking in tongues. I’d recommend you read the sermon, simply because Lewis has such an excellent point, which is: We respond physically to spiritual experiences, simply because we have no other means to respond.

This sermon caused me to think a bit about a discussion with a former student. I’m somewhat convinced, reading Lewis, that we seek the ecstatic because we desire a “repeat” of our conversion experience, especially if that experience was a joyful, emotional one. Some seek a repeat of conversion in music; my student mentioned a worship leader transposing between chords, sending the congregation into ecstasy simply from a higher chord in a song. Others seek to repeat the emotion through gossalalia.

Our spiritual experience at conversion caused a physical and emotional experience, and some part of us urgently — longingly — desperately, even — desires to repeat that experience.

Is this logical? Should we constantly seek to repeat the reaction to the greatest event in our lives, the event that signaled our spiritual birth?

St. Paul says, “No.” The Corinthians longed for a repeat experience, so much so that they elevated glossalalia above any other spiritual gift. Paul urged them to seek a higher gift: prophecy. Unfortunately, my personal experience tells me that prophecy doesn’t always bring an emotional “high” anywhere near my own conversion experience. Prophecy — the gift of proclaiming the truth of God’s word, not the foretelling of events — is difficult work. Prophecy requires immense preparation, and the proclamation of unpopular truths will certainly cause opposition. In my knowledge, no one was ever martyred for glossalalia. We can’t say the same for prophecy, Jesus reminds us. People have died in the prophetic service.

I see this error in the Church today: refusing to seek “higher ground” because we seek a repeat of an emotional experience instead. We plan our services to elicit emotional responses equivalent to our conversion. Then, worship leaders and congregations are sadly disappointed when the experience fails to repeat itself. “The Spirit just wasn’t here today.” Well, Our Lord tells us He is present when 2 or 3 are gathered in His name, regardless of whether the emotion appears or not. Still, disappointed worship leaders work harder on next week’s service: new songs, new chording, new arrangements of music, new slides in the Powerpoint presentation, new testimonies; anything to bring about an emotion approaching that of conversion.

I’m realizing that the desire to repeat an emotion, an experience, explains more than the problems afflicting the Church today. People seek to repeat the emotion of first love, the “high” that comes when you first meet someone, the infatuation. Then, when the infatuation fades — as it inevitably does — people panic, not realizing that infatuation transforms itself into true love that does not fade but lasts forever. Unfortunately, people so seek the infatuation they leave the one for whom they are no longer infatuated, failing to see the devastation in their wake as they leave relationships God never intended to be broken.

Yet, St. Paul calls us higher. “I would rather that you prophesy,” he says. There are events that cannot — should not — be repeated. We are called to seek higher gifts, regardless of their emotional value. Man cannot live by bread alone, but he also cannot live on emotion alone. Glossalalia is a gift. I will not join my SBC “brethren” in denying its existence or denigrating its value; however, glossalalia is a sign of the Spirit’s presence, not the sign. We have no leeway to think Cornelius and Company stopped growing and spoke in tongues the rest of their lives. I’d like to believe Cornelius and his household went on to proclaim the gospel throughout Caesarea and the Empire, wherever they went.

I believe we fear reaching higher, for the greater gifts. Lewis said in his sermon “The Weight of Glory” that “we are far too easily pleased.” Too many people are willing to settle for glossalalia when so much more is waiting on those willing to ask for it. “Ask and it shall be given,” Our Lord tells us. Paul told the Corinthians, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking (1 Corinthians 14:20).” As we grow, we must seek higher gifts. Perhaps we’ll keep the gifts we were given, perhaps not. I’ve found that God never takes anything from us without giving something far greater.

Higher gifts are difficult, and in spite of our desire for them, we have no guarantee God will give us the exact gift we crave. I didn’t ask for the gift of prophecy, of proclamation; it was given to me by grace. However, I propose a spiritual “Montrose’ Toast:” “He either fears his fate too much, or his desserts are small, who dares not put it to the touch, to risk or lose it all.” Ask high! Aim high! Montrose spoke of risk in a military sense, but Our Lord says He wants to give us good gifts. There is no risk in asking God for greater gifts. God promises great things to those who seek them.

Conversion is great. Spiritual growth is greater. Those who content themselves with the emotion of conversion, or with any pale substitute like glossalalia or musical stimulation, will find they rob themselves of great gifts from the Father of Lights. Let’s not settle for the former things when God has great things, greater blessings, waiting for us.