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Is speaking in tongues the initial evidence of receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit?

Pentecostals have traditionally taught that speaking in tongues is evidence that a person is filled with the Holy Spirit. Those who defend this position do so primarily on the basis of a pattern they discern in Acts. They note that when the disciples were first baptized in the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, “all of them…began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:4). Similarly, when the Gentiles were initially filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter and the other Jewish Christians recognized it, “for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:46). And when the disciples of John the Baptist first received this blessing from God after Paul preached to them and prayed with them, they all “spoke in tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). On this basis that argue that everyone should seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18), and that they will know they are filled when they speak in tongues.

Most evangelicals reject this line of argumentation on a number of grounds. There are five compelling arguments that can be raised against it.

First and foremost, detractors of the initial evidence doctrine argue that it is illegitimate hermeneutics to base a doctrine on historical narrative. As a historian, Luke reported what happened; he did not teach what should always happen. His narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive. If we took everything Luke recorded as a prescription for how the church is always supposed to believe and behave, we would have to insist that all congregations be communistic (Acts 2:44–45) and that prayer cloths be sent out to heal people (Acts 19:11–12).

Second, the Bible provides a good amount of explicit teaching (not mere historical inference) about the evidence of being filled with the Spirit, and none of it centers on speaking in tongues. As people are filled with the Holy Spirit, they exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, especially love (Gal. 5:22–23; l Cor. 13; Rom. 5:5). Their lives are characterized by a zeal for the Lord, a boldness to proclaim truth, and holiness (Acts 1:8; Rom. 8:2–6; 2 Cor. 3:17–18; Gal. 5:16–18). If any charismatic phenomenon is to be associated with being filled with the Spirit, it is prophecy—speaking the word of the Lord with a powerful anointing—and revelatory visions, for Peter taught that these would follow the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2:17–18).

Third, if speaking in tongues is evidence that one has a unique infilling of the Holy Spirit, we’d expect people who speak in tongues to generally manifest more of the fruits of the Spirit than others. But this is undeniably not the case. It wasn’t even the case in the New Testament. The Corinthians spoke in tongues a great deal, but Paul chastised them for being spiritual babies (1 Cor. 3:1–4).

Fourth, it seems clear from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians that he did not assume that all believers would speak in tongues at some point. Paul asks, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?…Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues?” (1 Cor. 12:29–30). The answer, of course, is no. Yet Paul encourages all believers to continually seek to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). This seems to clearly suggest that Paul didn’t expect all believers to speak in tongues and didn’t identify tongues as a necessary manifestation of being filled with the Spirit.

Finally, on a more practical note, as a former Pentecostal minister I can attest to the fact that the “initial evidence doctrine” inevitably sets up a two-class Christianity, distinguishing between those who have spoken in tongues and those who have not. The New Testament knows of no such classification. Those in Pentecostal circles who have not spoken in tongues are encouraged to seek this initial evidence. Yet the New Testament contains no accounts of believers seeking the experience of speaking in tongues. Even in the episodes in Acts that Pentecostals cite in support of their position, the act of speaking in tongues just happens. No one is looking for it.

So, while I think the gift of tongues is a blessing, and while all believers are encouraged to be zealous for spiritual gifts (especially prophecy), I don’t believe speaking in tongues is any sort of “initial evidence” of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

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