Foundations: Spirit Baptism and Speaking in Tongues



Jesus promised his disciples, and all believers, a Helper would come after his ascension back into heaven. He goes on to reveal, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Jesus is referring to the third person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. All the truths that describe God’s character and nature are equally true of the Holy Spirit. He is God—just like God the Father and Jesus the Son.


Spirit Baptism and Speaking in Tongues


The Holy Spirit is described in Scripture as a person having a mind, a will, and feelings. It is easy to wrongly view the Holy Spirit as a force or energy rather than a person. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit does the activities of teaching, witnessing, testifying, speaking, and revealing. He is described as one who carries out the will of God, brings glory to Jesus, imparts holiness, leads humanity to truth, imparts grace, fills believers’ hearts with God’s love, convicts the world of sin, brings us into the family of God, and preserves both natural and spiritual life. All these describe what the Holy Spirit is doing in the church and world today.


Another Role


The work of the Holy Spirit is vast. He is the person responsible for God’s active work in the world and individual believer’s’ lives. While there was period in history where churches and church leaders scarcely mentioned the person and work of the Holy Spirit, it seems we are living in an age where there is a renewed passion for the Holy Spirit and his powerful work. This has propelled the subject of being filled with the Holy Spirit, or baptized in the Holy Spirit, into many Christian conversations. It has turned into a controversial topic, with errors being made by those on both sides of the discussion. Many have seen the very public errors that charismatics have made by turning the work of the Holy Spirit into an experience that steps outside the boundaries of Scripture and into something that is, at the very least, full of selfish human desires and motives, and at the very worst, something that it is demonic. On the other hand, some have dismissed being filled by the Spirit altogether and don’t seem to mind they are missing out on a precious gift from their Heavenly Father.


Both errors are tragic and seem to lose focus on what the Holy Spirit leads us to focus on—Jesus and sinners being reconciled back to God.

All Believers


The baptism of the Holy Spirit is available to all believers. Some wrongly teach that one needs to be baptized in the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues to be saved. Rather, all who are saved can be filled with the Holy Spirit, with the initial evidence of speaking in other tongues, and be given a Spirit-filled power and zeal to witness to a lost world concerning the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Peter quotes the prophet Joel when explaining the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; (18) even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. (19) And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; (20) the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. (21) And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Acts 2:17-21). Joel may not have understood that he was prophesying about the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but Peter seems to instantly recognize that what the Old Testament prophet was talking about had just unfolded before his very eyes! These verses make it clear that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is indeed for every believer. Additionally, the quote from Joel helps us understand that the baptism of the Holy Spirit was not only for the believers in the 1st century. Joel writes that all this will happen, which we now know is referring to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, before the “Day of the Lord.” Some argue that the Holy Spirit only baptized the initial disciples and has since ceased to do his filling work. If this were true, it means Jesus has returned (the Day of the Lord) and we are living in an age sometime after the return of Jesus that Scripture makes no mention of. Rather, Joel is revealing that God will continue his work of Spirit baptism and salvation until the return of Christ.


Initial Evidence for a Second Distinct Work


Ephesians 1:13 tell us that the Holy Spirit seals our salvation. He is the one who regenerates our sinful hearts, reveals the truth of the gospel, and opens our blind eyes to see the glory of God. The Holy Spirit’s work in our salvation is essential and glorious. Once we are saved, the Holy Spirit does come to live inside of us, sealing our salvation, and guides us to make much of Jesus and grow in holiness. But there is a second distinct work of the Holy Spirit—the baptism of the Holy Spirit.


Acts 2,8,9,10, and 19 contain the historical examples of the Holy Spirit’s second work in the lives of believers. In all cases, the ones who were baptized in the Holy Spirit were already saved; they had already been sealed by the Holy Spirit and counted as heirs of salvation. If the baptism of the Holy Spirit referred only to his sealing work in salvation, there would be no need for those in the Book of Acts to be asked if they had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit or to even be taught about this work.


What Are Tongues?


Critics of the Pentecostal understanding of biblical tongues have described tongues as meaningless sounds, a miracle of hearing, or foreign words and sounds that have simply been stored in one’s mind. But Scripture clearly teaches that tongues are actual languages inspired by the Holy Spirit and are willingly being spoken by a believer. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13:1, describes the language being spoken as “the tongues of men and angels.” There are also recorded instances, just like what happened in Acts 2, where someone who had never learned a particular language finds themselves speaking that language. But the strongest biblical suggestion is that tongues are primarily an angelic or heavenly language. If tongues are directed to God, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, a heavenly language seems more appropriate than another human language to address God.


The Uses of Biblical Tongues


Tongues as initial evidence. The Pentecostal position of tongues as initial evidence of Spirit baptism is based on the five instances of the Holy Spirit filling believers recorded in the Book of Acts (2,8,9,10, and 19). Speaking in a Spirit-given language is clearly seen in three of the examples and implied in the other two.


Tongues as prayer language. There are times when a believer faces such a serious circumstance in their lives that they find themselves struggling to know how to pray. Praying in tongues at such a time can be the Spirit himself interceding on our behalf concerning the need or situation. 1 Corinthians 14:4 states that praying in tongues edifies, or builds up, the one praying. Our private prayer language is a way for us to offer God both prayer and praise when human words and intellect seems to fall short. A believer’s heavenly prayer language is a means of grace that can help us overcome doubt, worry, stress, and anxiety. Just like physical exercise strengthens our bodies, spending time praying in tongues strengthens our souls and spiritual life.


The gift of tongues in corporate worship. This gift is not available to every Spirit-filled believer, but only to those the Spirit chooses to use in encouraging those attending the corporate worship service. Paul has words of caution to the church at Corinth about the use of tongues without interpretation in their public worship service. Paul did not tell the Corinthians that the gift of tongues was false or to be done away with in corporate worship, but rather seeks to bring order to the chaotic way they seemed to be practicing the gift of tongues. The abuse that he sought to correct was everyone speaking in tongues at the same time without interpretation. This would have been very confusing, especially to unbelievers, and would not have been particularly edifying to the worshiping congregation. An orderly approach, where one person speaks out in a tongue and another gives the interpretation in the congregation’s native tongue, seems to be what Paul is instructing believers to practice. It is also common for the person who delivered the tongue to also provide the interpretation once the message in tongues has concluded.


Spirit Baptism Is More Than Tongues


Although tongues are the initial evidence of the Holy Spirit’s filling work, and a precious gift in the ongoing life of a believer, being baptized in the Holy Spirit is much more than speaking in a heavenly prayer language. Spirit baptism reveals significant truths and responsibilities to a follower of Christ. Just as we develop a relationship with the other members of the Trinity, the Father and Son, we are to develop a relationship with the Holy Spirit. Being filled by the Spirit deepens our relationship with him. Many think of Spirit baptism as an event or experience. It would be better to view it as a deepening of an already existent relationship we have with the Spirit of God.


After Jesus’ resurrection, he has an important message for the disciples—wait. He instructs them to wait, before they begin to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and their subsequent baptism in the Spirit. He clearly lets them know, in Acts 1:8, that Spirit baptism will enable them to have power as his witnesses. Being baptized in the Holy Spirit brings boldness to a follower of Christ. The Spirit’s work brings power to our gospel witness and assurance that we are not alone as we seek to spread the glory of God in a sinful, fallen world. The work our Lord has called his children to can be tough and emotionally, physically, and spiritually draining. But he has given us a great Helper in the Holy Spirit.


Some Common Misconceptions About Spirit Baptism and Tongues


It is a sign of growth. Being filled by the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues is not a sign of spiritual growth. In the Book of Acts, there seem to be those who had just recently been converted, not having grown much, who are baptized in the Holy Spirit. Rather, the sign of a believer’s spiritual growth can be measured by looking at the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).


Speaking in tongues involves some sort of trance. The Bible is clear that we speak. We speak and trust the Holy Spirit to provide and guide our language into Spirit-led prayer. Many Pentecostals who regularly speak in tongues will tell you that sometimes it feels very unspectacular—like they seem to be reciting words from their memories—and other times it can have a very dynamic feel where there is little doubt that the Holy Spirit is helping them pray in a heavenly prayer language. In both cases, the believer is the one who is speaking. They decide and use their will to open their mouth and submit to the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not, nor will he ever, take someone over and make them do something that they do not decide to do.


Speaking in tongues makes you a superior Christian. Spirit baptism and our prayer languages are a gift. There is nothing we can do to earn it—just like our salvation. The glory belongs to the Lord, and we cannot let pride take anything away from that glory. Speaking in tongues does not make someone more important, holy, or more loved by God than a believer who has not yet been filled by the Holy Spirit.


It is a one-time thing. Some churches have emphasized the initial experience and neglected to encourage followers of Christ to live an ongoing Spirit-filled and Spirit-led life. Our relationship with the Holy Spirit, and his work in using us to pray in tongues, should be an area of growth in our lives like any other spiritual discipline.


If you do not receive Spirit baptism and tongues when you pray for it, then it is not for you. This work of the Holy Spirit is available to all believers. Many Christians have desired and prayed for the baptism of the Holy Spirit for an extended period of time before receiving the promise. Scripture teaches us to be persistent in prayer and to pray according to God’s will. We know that Jesus desires to baptize us in the Holy Spirit, so believers should continue to pray for it to happen until their prayer in answered.