• Eric Carpenter

Recovering the Biblical Ministry of Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Part 4A: POLEMICS - Signs*

Updated: Dec 11, 2019

*“Polemics” may seem too daunting a word for this blog, but It follows the idea of a battle or contest of words and ideas. In addition, it follows the alliterative series of titles I’ve chosen.


Daniel and I sat hunched together in a crowded coffee shop, discussing the person and the work of the Holy Spirit. As we talked, I noticed a man to my left listening in. Suddenly he spoke up, seeking to join the conversation, sharing that he was a leader in a large Pentecostal ministry just outside our city. I nodded – politely, of course – but continued on with Daniel.


When we got to the topic of tongues and its relation to Spirit baptism, I read from the end of 1 Corinthians 12, “And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles?” (I paused to explain to Daniel that this was a normal Greek rhetorical question. The implied answer is “No.”) I continued, “Are all prophets? (No) Are all teachers? (No) Do all work miracles? (No) Do all have gifts of healing? (No) Do all speak in tongues?” Suddenly our new-found Pentecostal friend burst back into our conversation and shouted, “YES!”


He began a discourse on why the gift of tongues is the initial sign of Spirit baptism for everyone. I countered, “In the Corinthian text Paul asked a series of rhetorical questions. He and his audience knew the answer was ‘no’ to them all. For emphasis, he applied his point to all the gifts. Paul certainly didn’t assign a different status to the gift of tongues.” Soon I realized that our friend wanted to teach us, not discuss with us. Too bad. I respectfully thanked him and finished the discussion with Daniel.


As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog series, two teachings have unhappily surfaced to confuse many believers.

  1. The gift of tongues is the initial sign of Spirit baptism.

  2. Spirit baptism always happens at the point of conversion.

In this blog, I will only deal with the first, I’ll take up the second in the next post. In the spirit of fairness, I will present the best arguments for considering tongues as the initial sign of Spirit Baptism. However, following that I will show why I believe this is an unbiblical mandate connected to the experience of Spirit baptism.


Pursuing Tongues

To give you a little background… though I was raised in a primarily Presbyterian context, I was profoundly influenced by my mother. She was a “closet Charismatic” and had experienced a powerful baptism in the Spirit accompanied by tongues. Another important influence in my life was my sister. She too had experienced Spirit baptism with tongues when she went on a retreat with a different church.


However, I didn’t really grow up with that phrase, baptism with the Holy Spirit. Instead, it was the idea that “the gift of tongues was for every believer.” So, of course, I wanted this gift and I pursued it. I read about it. I prayed for it. I confessed sin. I surrendered every part of my life. I asked for this gift. Pentecostal friends and pastors prayed over me. During many nights, I sought, prayed and bargained. In hindsight, I realized that what I really wanted was more of God, more intimacy with Him. (Which, by the way, he has given me.) My mother (as well as most of my Pentecostal friends) was taught that the gift of tongues was normative for every believer experiencing the baptism in the Spirit. So, often, it turned out that the pursuit of speaking in tongues was the equivalent of pursuing Spirit baptism.


Exploring the Teaching: “Speaking in Tongues is the Initial Sign of Spirit Baptism

The Assemblies of God (AOG) is one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in the world. Not only does the AOG argue for baptism in the Spirit as a separate work after conversion, but it also believes and practices the gift of tongues as the initial (and subsequent) physical evidence of Spirit baptism.[1] A 2010 doctrinal position paper adopted by the AOG, reads, “Speaking in tongues was an integral part of Spirit baptism in the Book of Acts. It is the only manifestation associated with Spirit baptism which is explicitly presented as evidence authenticating the experience, and on that basis should be considered normative.”[2]


As I have studied baptism in the Spirit, I have always found it difficult to justify tongues as the unique initial sign. I prefer to follow the renowned teacher, pastor and revivalist R.A. Torrey (1856 – 1928). He actually preceded the birth of Pentecostalism (early 20th century) and taught internationally about the baptism of the Spirit. On the issue of tongues as the initial sign, he concludes, “I would argue that there is very strong biblical evidence, in both the Old and New Testaments, against this teaching.”[3] In Part 2 of this series about Spirit baptism (Purpose and Precedents), we saw people in the Old Testament empowered with the Spirit. None of them spoke in tongues, as far as we know. We also looked at Jesus as our model, and when the dove-like Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus, he didn’t speak in tongues.


Look at the event of Pentecost itself. The apostles and other disciples did not speak in tongues in a “personal prayer language” manner like Paul discussed in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (see especially 14:1-19). The Greek phrase in Acts 2 used for “speaking in tongues” is lalein glossais. Glossais can be translated either “tongues” (the actual organ) or “languages” (by extension, the product of the tongue) based on the context. Acts 2:4-8 is very clear; the disciples were proclaiming the wonders of God in the languages of people who had come from other countries to Jerusalem. People were amazed. Yes, glossais should be translated “languages.”


In Acts we see Christians baptized in the Spirit. Then, in some cases, they experienced the gift of tongues (see Acts 10:44-45; 19:6), but not in every case (see Acts 8:15-17[4]; 9:18-19). To me the gift of tongues is one sign that can accompany baptism in the Spirit, but it is not the sign. Why should we insist on something that was not evident in the Old Testament stories of the Spirit empowering his servants? Why should we insist on something that Jesus didn’t experience? Why should we insist on something that the early church didn’t insist upon? The answer to my rhetorical questions is, “We shouldn’t!”

Exploring the Teaching: “Tongues is a Form of Prophecy”

The best argument for this idea is again from the Pentecostals. In the AOG analysis the gift of tongues is a form of prophecy. They cite some Old Testament empowerment experiences (see Numbers 11:25; 1 Samuel 10:10), as well as Joel 2 and some additional New Testament experiences.


From the same AOG position paper cited above, we read, “But is speaking in tongues the same as prophesying? Both oral prophesying and speaking in tongues occur when the Holy Spirit comes upon someone and prompts the person to speak. The basic difference is that prophesying is in the speaker’s own language, whereas speaking in tongues is in a language unknown to the speaker. But the mode of operation for the two gifts is the same. Speaking in tongues may therefore be considered a specialized or variant form of prophesying as to the manner in which it functions.”[5]


This explanation may sound reasonable, but it is not supported in scripture. My primary response is that the Apostle Paul did not see tongues as a variant form of prophecy. In fact, Paul’s whole argument in 1 Corinthians 12-14 was that the church had put too much emphasis on the gift of tongues. (Sound familiar?) Part of his solution, then, was for the Corinthians to pursue the gift of prophecy over and above the gift of tongues. Paul saw prophecy and tongues as distinct gifts and even encouraged prophecy over tongues.


I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified. 1 Corinthians 14:5


Not only did the Apostle Paul see the two gifts as distinct, but nowhere in his letters did he teach that the gift of tongues is the sign of Spirit baptism. This was not taught by Jesus, the book of Acts or any of the gospels. In fact, Paul specifically discouraged an unhealthy emphasis on this particular gift. The Church today would do well to heed his warning.


Straight Lines and Crooked Sticks

We have seen that tongues as the sign of Spirit baptism is not biblically supported, and yet it is foundational to the Pentecostal movement. Does this render the movement illegitimate? Absolutely not! Has the Pentecostal movement had its bumps, bruises and missteps? Unfortunately, yes, even from its earliest days. It’s also not hard to argue that the Pentecostal movement has done great good for the Church worldwide and advanced the Kingdom of God in powerful ways.


An old medieval proverb assures us, “God is in the business of drawing straight lines with crooked sticks.” If he wasn’t, I am confident that I would have absolutely no ministry. The idea is not to throw out the stick, but allow the grace of God to produce something good through it.


Martin Luther said, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils… my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Shouldn’t every Christian, whether Pentecostal or Reformed, Baptist or Charismatic, be constantly reforming our understanding and practices according to the Word of God? Regardless of our spiritual heritage, let’s allow the scriptures to be our final authority.


My Personal Experience of Tongues and Spirit Baptism

Looking back, I consider my baptism in the Spirit to have been at a missions conference – that is, if I take off the requirement of speaking in tongues as the initial sign. It was my senior year in college. I was praying hard about my future. As seventeen thousand students took communion together, a passion welled up in my soul. I felt a call to ministry and I began to weep profoundly. It was then that I heard the still, small voice of the Spirit inviting me into full-time ministry.


I never ceased asking for the gift of tongues, but I felt like the Lord continued to say, “Patience.” Almost fifteen years later, I was at another conference for leaders. A few pastors prayed from the stage, with only a couple of hundred in attendance. They didn’t pray specifically for the gift of tongues. But as I opened myself up to all that the Lord had for me in that moment, I began to pray in tongues. It wasn’t forced. It wasn’t even on my mind at the time; it just came. It was the Spirit’s timing, not mine. And I was thankful.



[1] See the official doctrinal statements of the Assemblies of God found in the Statement of Fundamental Truths (Numbers 7 and 8).


[2] This is a position paper entitled, Baptism in the Holy Spirit. It was adopted by the General Presbytery of Assemblies of God in session August 9-11, 2010. It is a very helpful and informative treatment of the subject and despite my differences I would recommend reading it. It is the best articulation of the close association of the gift of tongues and Spirit Baptism. https://ag.org/Beliefs/Position-Papers/Baptism-in-the-Holy-Spirit


[3] R.A. Torrey, The Holy Spirit Who He is and What He Does. Bridge-Logos, Alachua, FL. pg. 134.


[4] Yes, in Paul’s case (Acts 9:17-18) there was perhaps some kind of physical evidence of Spirit baptism, because he regained his sight. In Acts 8:17 the text leaves any physical evidence unspecified. Luke, the inspired author of the book of Acts, did not find it necessary to specify what physical manifestation the Samarians experienced. It’s as if that was not important.


[5] Op.Cit. (Under the heading “Evidential Tongues in Acts.”)

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