Image by: Paul M. Walsh
Not a Sign of the Spirit’s Abiding Presence
Speaking in tongues is the initial sign of receiving the Spirit, but by itself it does not prove the abiding presence of the Spirit. Many more important evidences of the Spirit’s abiding presence exist, such as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). In particular, love is the ultimate test of true discipleship (John 13:34-35). The true child of God will love God, obey His commandments, walk after the Spirit, and be led by the Spirit (I John 2:3-5; Romans 8:4, 14). In the absence of these characteristics, speaking in tongues does not guarantee that the Spirit dwells in one and controls his life.
After one has received the Holy Ghost, a continual ability to speak in tongues indicates only that he has faith for that particular gift and can yield to God for that particular purpose. He might still believe false doctrine, resume a life of sin, or refuse God’s leadership in other areas of life. We must always adhere to biblical doctrine, obey biblical instructions, and submit to God’s Spirit in order to be saved.
Someone can have the ability to speak in tongues and not be ready to meet God, because God will always honor faith in a certain portion of His Word despite a lack of submission in other areas. This explains why God answers the prayers of sinners, fills people with the Holy Ghost before baptism in Jesus’ name, and performs miracles when hypocrites preach. Many people experience miracles and preach in Jesus’ name but will not be saved because they do not follow God’s Word and will (Matthew 7:21-27).
Romans 11:29 says, “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” Although this verse occurs in another context, perhaps it teaches a principle with general application: once God bestows a spiritual gift He never revokes it entirely. Even if the recipient turns from God or abuses the gift, God seems to leave a portion of it to encourage the backslider to repent.
It is also possible that the human mind or spirit can “learn” to speak in tongues. When God enables someone to speak in tongues, He apparently places the words in his brain. God directs the speech but does so by using the person’s physical apparatus, including brain cells, nerves, voice box, mouth, and tongue. It is possible, then, that the brain may store these words just as it stores other information. The next time God moves on the individual, He may give new words or He may activate the existing words in memory. This could explain why some people repeat the same phrases when the Spirit moves on them.
Over a period of time the brain can possibly subconsciously “learn” to activate this stored combination of words on its own. If so, even without the moving of the Spirit, the person could utter words that were at one time given by the Spirit. This would explain how some people can “speak in tongues” at will even without the moving of the Spirit or even after the Spirit has left their lives.
In addition, we should not overlook the possibility of false imitations of tongues by men or even counterfeit tongues caused by the power of Satan. Satan has power to perform many miracles, and he often tries to imitate God’s work (Exodus 7:10-12; Revelation 13:2, 11-15). Some unbelievers or apostates may “speak in tongues” by the power of Satan. Of course, the existence of counterfeit tongues produced by the spirits of men or devils does not destroy the reality of biblical tongues as given by the Spirit of God.
After the Baptism of the Spirit
The Bible does not teach that speaking in tongues is a necessary sign after the occurrence at the initial Spirit baptism. Just as frequent tongues speaking does not necessarily signify spirituality, so a lack of the same does not necessarily signify unspirituality. Speaking in tongues plays no further evidentiary role, except perhaps as a reminder and confirmation of the previous experience. Of course, Paul spoke in tongues frequently (I Corinthians 14:18), and those who receive the Spirit usually speak in tongues again and again throughout their lifetimes.
The gift of tongues is one of the gifts available to those who have the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:8-10). First Corinthians 12:30 implies that not everyone continues to speak in tongues on a regular basis, although it probably refers primarily to public messages.
A Spirit-filled person who does not continue to speak in tongues is no less a Christian because of it. However, if he will seek the gift of tongues, exercise faith, and yield to the Spirit just as he did at the initial experience, he can speak in tongues again. Since tongues is for private edification, we believe that God desires for him to seek and use the gift of tongues. Once received, a failure to exercise this gift may indicate a drifting away from God. The gift of tongues is available to all Spirit-filled people who ask in prayer, with persistence and faith (Matthew 7:7-11; 21:22; John 14:12-14; I Corinthians 12:31).