A foundational fact about biblical tongues is that they were real languages, not some sort of unintelligible mutterings.

The law of first mention is an important rule of Bible interpretation, and the first time we see the exercise of tongues in the New Testament is in Acts 2. Here we see that the gift of tongues was the miraculous ability to speak in a language that one had never learned.

“Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak IN HIS OWN LANGUAGE. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man IN OUR OWN TONGUE, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak IN OUR TONGUES the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:6-11).

At least 14 or 15 different languages are mentioned here. These were normal earthly languages spoken by men in that day, and the Jewish disciples were able to speak in these languages even though they were not their native tongues and they had never learned them and never before spoken in them.

There is no reason to believe that the gift of tongues mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is any different from that mentioned in the book of Acts. In both places the tongues involved speaking in earthly languages that one had never learned.

The same Greek word “glossa” is used for both. This word refers to the tongue itself (Mk. 7:33) or to a language spoken by the tongue.

WHAT ABOUT THE DOCTRINE OF APRIVATE PRAYER LANGUAGE that is not understood by anyone on earth, including the one who is praying?

Pentecostals and Charismatics often teach that there are two types of tongues described in the New Testament: the “public language” tongues of Pentecost and the “private prayer language” tongues of 1 Corinthians 14. Some call this distinction “ministry tongues” and “devotional tongues.”

As we have seen in the history section of this book, early Pentecostal leaders understood that biblical tongues were real earthly languages. They even thought they would be able to go to foreign mission fields and witness through miraculous tongues without having to learn the languages. Eventually the “heavenly language” and “private prayer language” doctrine was developed.

Those are the terms we have heard frequently at Charismatic conferences, such as those in New Orleans in 1987, Indianapolis in 1990, and St. Louis in 2000. The tongues that I heard in these conferences were not languages of any sort but merely repetitious mumblings that anyone could imitate. Larry Lea’s “tongues” at Indianapolis in 1990 went like this: “Bubblyida bubblyida hallelujah bubblyida hallabubbly shallabubblyida kolabubblyida glooooory hallelujah bubblyida.” I wrote that down as he was saying it and later checked it against the tape. Nancy Kellar, a Roman Catholic nun who was on the executive committee of the St. Louis meeting in 2000, spoke in “tongues” on Thursday evening of the conference. Her tongues were a repetition of “shananaa leea, shananaa higha, shananaa nanaa, shananaa leea…”

This is taken directly from the audiotapes of the messages. If these are languages, they certainly have a simple vocabulary!

Michael Harper says: “In the short history of the Charismatic Renewal speaking in tongues has become rare in public, but continues to be a vital expression of prayer in private (These Wonderful Gifts, 1989, p. 97). He says this type of “tongues” is “a prayer language: a way of communicating more effectively with God” (p. 92). He claims that this experience “edifies” apart from the understanding: “Modern Western man finds it hard to believe that speaking unknown words to God can possibly be edifying. … All one can say is ‘try it and see’. I can still remember today the moments when I first used this gift, and the immediate awareness I had that I was being edified. This is one of the most important reasons why the gift needs to be used regularly in private prayer” (These Wonderful Gifts, p. 93).

Harper says he is mystically aware of being edified even though he does not know what he is saying. He also says this “gift needs to be used regularly” and is therefore something important for the Christian life.

To prove his point he simply invites the skeptical observer to “try it and see,” reminding us that experience is the Charismatic’s greatest authority. (The “try it and see” approach creates a new problem, though, for the Bible never says to “try tongues” or to seek after tongues and never describes how one could learn how to speak in tongues. In the Bible, tongues-speaking is always a supernatural activity that is sovereignly given by God.)

For the following reasons we are convinced that the Bible does not support the doctrine of a “private prayer language.”

First, Paul said the tongues speaker edifies himself (1 Cor. 14:4). That would not be possible unless the words could be understood, because throughout the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul says that understanding is necessary for edification. In verse 3 he says that prophesying edifies because it comforts and exhorts men, obviously referring to things that are understood to the hearer. In verse 4 he says that tongues speaking does not edify unless it is interpreted. In verses 16-17 he says that if someone does not understand something he is not edified. Words could not be plainer. If there is no edification of the church without understanding, how is it that the individual believer could be edified without understanding? This is confusion. The word “edify” means to build up in the faith. Webster’s 1828 dictionary defined it as “to instruct and improve the mind in knowledge generally, and particularly in moral and religious knowledge, in faith and holiness.” The words “edify,” “edification,” “edified,” and “edifying” are used in 18 verses in the New Testament and always refer to building up in the faith by means of instruction and godly living. For example, in Ephesians 4 the body of Christ is edified through the ministry of God-given preachers (Eph. 4:11-12).

Second, if the tongues-speaking of 1 Corinthians 14 is different from that of Acts 2, the Bible never explains the difference. We leave “tongues” in the book of Acts (the last mention is in Acts 19:6) and we do not see them again until 1 Corinthians 12-14. If the “tongues” in this epistle is a different type of thing than the “tongues” in Acts, why doesn’t the Bible say so?

Third, Paul says that tongues are an earthly language (1 Cor. 14:20-22). If the tongues-speaking in 1 Corinthians 14 were some sort of “private prayer language,” why would Paul give this prophetic explanation of it and state dogmatically that it is an earthly language? He does not say that only some “types of tongues” are languages.

Fourth, in 1 Cor. 14:28 Paul says the tongues speaker speaks both to himself and to God. “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God.” This means that he can understand what he is speaking. Otherwise, how could he speak to himself? Does anyone speak to himself in “unknown gibberish”?

Fifth, there is no example in 1 Corinthians 14 of a believer speaking in tongues privately and there is no encouragement to do so. What about verse 28? “But if there be no interpreter, let him keep silence in the church; and let him speak to himself, and to God” (1 Cor. 14:27-28). This says nothing about praying in tongues privately. It is talking about the exercise of gifts in a public meeting. Paul says that if there is no interpretation, the individual tongues speaker should keep silent and pray to God, but he says nothing about getting off by oneself and praying privately in tongues. One must read all of that into the passage.

Sixth, if there were a “private prayer language” that edified the Christian’s life it would be very important and the Bible would explain it clearly and circumscribe its usage as it does the use of tongues in the church. Further, a “private prayer language” that helped the Christian to be stronger in his walk with Christ would doubtless be mentioned in other places in the New Testament in the context of sanctification and Christian living. In fact, though, it is never mentioned in such a context. The apostles and prophets addressed many situations in the New Testament epistles and gave all things necessary for holy Christian living, but they never taught that the believer needs to speak in a “private prayer language” in order to have spiritual victory or to find God’s guidance or to be healed or to be able to fall asleep or any other such thing.

Seventh, it is not possible that tongues-speaking could be a necessary part of the Christian life, because Paul plainly states that not all speak in tongues (1 Cor. 14:29-20). Some will ask, “Why, then, does Paul say, ‘I would that ye all spake with tongues’” (1 Cor. 14:5)? The answer is that Paul was not saying that all did speak with tongues or that all could speak with tongues; he was merely expressing a desire that the exercise of spiritual gifts be done and that it be done right. In 1 Cor. 7:7, Paul uses exactly the same expression in the context of celibacy. He said, “For I would that all men were even as I myself…” We do not know of any Pentecostals or Charismatics who take this statement literally by teaching that it is God’s will for every believer to remain unmarried, but they take the same expression in 1 Cor. 14:5 as a law. There is a strange inconsistency here.

Eighth, all of the New Testament’s instruction about prayer take for granted that prayer is a conscious, understandable act on the part of the believer and that he is speaking to God in understandable terms. We see this in Jesus’ instructions about prayer. “After this manner therefore pray ye: Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen” (Matt. 6:5-13). This is a conscious, understandable prayer. We see the same thing in Paul’s instructions about prayer (i.e., Rom. 15:30-32; Eph. 6:18-20; Col. 4:2-3; Heb. 13:18-19). There is not one example of a prayer recorded in Scripture that is anything other than an individual speaking to God in conscious, understandable terms. In fact, Christ forbade the repetitious type of “prayers” that are commonly heard among those that practice a “private prayer language.” “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Mat. 6:7). Yet I have oftentimes heard “prayer tongues” that sound like this: “Shalalama, balalama, shalalama, balalama, bubalama, shalalama, bugalala, shalalama….” Whatever that is, it is not New Testament “tongues” and it is not New Testament prayer.

Ninth, even if we were to agree that 1 Corinthians 14 refers to a “private prayer language,” it would not be something that could be learned or imitated. Whatever is described in 1 Corinthians 14 is a divine miracle, but this is contrary to the Pentecostal-Charismatic practice whereby people are taught to speak in a “prayer language.” We discuss this under a later point in our study on tongues.

Tenth, to use the gift of tongues as a “private prayer language” would be to destroy its chief purpose, which is a sign to unbelieving Israel. Former Pentecostal Fernand Legrand wisely observes: “By using this sign in private, some think they can profit from ONE of its aspects, while ignoring the others, but you cannot dismantle a gift and retain only one of its components. A car is a complex mechanical object that is driven as an entity or is not driven at all. You cannot take the wheels for a run and leave the body and the engine in the garage. When a car is running it is the whole car that moves. In the same way, TONGUES WERE NOT TO BE SLICED UP LIKE A SAUSAGE. They were to edify the speaker AND the others AND be a sign for the Jewish unbelievers AND be understandable or be so rendered by interpretation. They had to be all that at the same time. The gift was inseparable from its one and only unchanging purpose: to be a sign for non-believing Jews of the universal offer of salvation (Acts 2:17; 1 Cor. 14:20-22)” (All about Speaking in Tongues, p. 67).

The fact is that biblical tongues were real earthly languages, and this is a foundational truth. Any doctrine of tongues that reduces this practice to mere gibberish of any sort that is not a real language is unscriptural.


Paul said, “Forbid not to speak in tongues,” but he also gave many serious restrictions on how tongues could be used. I have never seen the practice of “tongues” in modern times restrained in the following manner.

* Tongues are to be spoken only by course, one by one (“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course…” 1 Cor. 14:27). In most of the Pentecostal-Charismatic meetings I have attended the “tongues” were spoken by many people at once.

* Tongues must be interpreted (“If any man speak in an unknown tongue, let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course; and let one interpret”1 Cor. 14:27). Rarely are the tongues messages interpreted in modern Pentecostalism, and when they are it is often obvious that the “interpretation” is something different than the “tongue.”

* There is to be no confusion or lack of peace (“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” 1 Cor. 14:33). Every time I have been in a Pentecostal-Charismatic service where “the Spirit was moving” I have thought to myself, “This is confusing.” Disorder reigns. The “tongues” cannot be understood. Things happen that make no sense and that are not found in the Bible. But we are told that God is not the author of confusion, and that covers a lot of territory.

* Women are not allowed to speak in tongues (“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law” 1 Cor. 14:34). Paul refers to the Law of Moses, which also said the woman is under the man’s authority (Gen. 3:16; Num. 30:3-13). If you could remove the women from the modern tongues-speaking movement it would collapse, but the Spirit of God plainly forbids them to speak in tongues or to prophecy in the meetings where the saints are gathered together and men are present. Women are allowed to teach women (Titus 2:3-4) and children (2 Tim. 1:5; 3:15) but are forbidden to teach or usurp authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12).

* Those who are truly spiritual will acknowledge Paul’s authority (“If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” 1 Cor. 14:37). Many times when I have shown these restrictions to Pentecostals and Charismatics they have argued against them and given various reasons why they don’t feel obligated to obey them. This only proves that they are not truly spiritual and are not truly attuned to and obedient to the voice of Almighty God. They are self-deceived, and the evidence is that they will not acknowledge that the things Paul wrote are the commandments of God.

* Everything is to be decent (“Let all things be done decently” 1 Cor. 14:40). The Greek word translated decent is “euschemonos,” which is also translated “honestly” (Rom. 13:13; 1 Thes. 4:12). It carries the idea of moral decency and sincerity and integrity, of adorning the gospel of Jesus Christ and the church of Jesus Christ in such a manner that no reproach is brought upon it by our actions. When we think about the deception and fraud that is so prevalent in the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement and when we think about the many times that women are allegedly overcome by the Spirit and fall in an indecent manner and have to be covered, it is obvious that all things are not done decently.

* Everything is to be orderly (“Let all things be done decently and in order” 1 Cor. 14:40). The God of creation is the God of order. He is not the God of confusion and disorder.

George Gardiner was a Pentecostal for many years, and he said that his journey out of Pentecostalism “began with nagging questions about the gulf between Charismatic practices and Scriptural statements–a very wide gulf!” (Gardiner, The Corinthian Catastrophe, p. 8). He determined to study the book of Acts. “I reread the book of Acts, slowly and carefully, praying as I did, ‘Lord, let me see what it says, and only what the Word says. Give me grace to accept it if I have been wrong and grace to apologize if I have been unduly critical. The journey through Acts was an eye opener! The actions and experiences of the early churches were far removed from the actions and ‘experiences’ of the modern movement. In some ways they were completely opposite!”

I discovered the same thing as a young Christian. One thing that convinced me that Pentecostalism is not scriptural was that their “tongues” were not practiced in a biblical manner. I have attended Pentecostal and Charismatic meetings dozens of times in various parts of the world and I have never witnessed tongues operated in a biblical manner.


“But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:7-10).

“And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? Have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:28-30).

Paul asks, “Do all speak with tongues?” The question is rhetorical and the answer is no.

The United Pentecostal Church tries to get around this by making a distinction between tongues as “the initial evidence of Spirit baptism” and tongues as a gift of the Spirit.

“Some people quote I Corinthians 12:30 in an attempt to prove that not all speak in tongues when they are filled with the Spirit: ‘Do all speak with tongues?’ However, this verse refers to the gift of tongues, that is, speaking a public message in tongues to be interpreted for the congregation, which is a spiritual gift that a person may exercise subsequent to the infilling of the Spirit. Though both tongues as the initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Ghost and tongues as a later spiritual gift are the same in essence, they are different in administration and operation” (“Why Did God Choose Tongues?” United Pentecostal Church’s web site).

This teaching does not hold up in light of Scripture. A simple survey of the book of Acts proves conclusively that not all believers in the early churches spoke in tongues. Even on the day of Pentecost, while the disciples that were in the upper room spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4), those that were saved that day through Peter’s preaching did not speak in tongues (Acts 2:40-42). The Jews that believed in Acts 4:4 and 6:7 did not speak in tongues. The Ethiopian Eunuch that was saved in Acts 8:35-39 did not speak in tongues. The first people who were saved at Antioch in Acts 11:20-21 did not speak in tongues. Lydia and her household who were saved in Acts 16:13-15 and the Philippian jailer and his family who were saved in Acts 16:30-33 did not speak in tongues. Those who were saved in Thessalonica and Berea and Athens in Acts 17:4, 12, and 34 did not speak in tongues. Cripus and others who were saved at Corinth in Acts 18:8 did not speak in tongues. Those who believed in Ephesus in Acts 19:17-19 did not speak in tongues.

There is no emphasis whatsoever on tongues-speaking in the New Testament. It was exercised only three times in all the book of Acts and the vast majority of the believers did not use it. To create the sort of emphasis upon tongues-speaking that one finds in the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement one must read many things into the Bible that are not there, and this is not the way that honest brethren use the Scriptures.

QUESTION: What about Mark 16:17-18, which says “these signs shall follow them that believe”?

ANSWER: First, these signs were fulfilled by the apostles. It was to the apostles that the Lord gave special sign gifts (2 Cor. 12:12; Acts 2:43; 4:33; 5:12, 15; 19:12). The apostles cast out devils (Acts 16:18) and spoke in new tongues (Acts 2:1-4) and took up serpents (Acts 28:3-6) and lay hands on the sick and they recovered (Acts 3:6-8; 9:40-41; 28:7-9). Second, the gift of tongues was chiefly a sign to the nation Israel that God was doing a new thing by extending the gospel to all people and creating a new spiritual body composed both of Jews and Gentiles (1 Cor. 14:20-22; Isa. 28:11-13). It was a temporary sign (1 Cor. 13:8) that ceased when the nation Israel rejected it and was judged (Isa. 28:13). Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. and the Jews were scattered to the nations. Third, no one can do the specific apostolic signs today. Those who claim to do them do not work after the fashion that we see in the Acts. No one is raising the dead like Peter did in Acts 9. No one is healing after the fashion of Acts 3:6-8. There are no “healing services” or “signs and wonders crusades” in the book of Acts. There were no spirit slayings or spiritual drunkenness. The apostles did not have signs of healing such as fire or vibrations or electricity in their hands. Not once did the apostles attempt to heal someone and fail. The wondrous miracles recorded in the book of Acts are simply not being reproduced in churches today. Fourth, though the apostolic sign gifts ceased the Lord has continued to do miracles throughout the church age. He has redeemed countless souls from the power of Satan and has supernaturally answered countless prayers and has supernaturally supplied countless needs and has given supernatural strength and encouragement and wisdom to countless men and women in every conceivable situation and difficulty and has healed countless people in answer to prayer in accordance with James 5 and has miraculously established countless churches in the devil’s own territory and many other things.