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Rodman Williams: The Gift of the Holy Spirit Today: Response

Thirdly, speaking in tongues is the language of exalted utterance. We have spoken of its intelligible content; now it is to be observed that the language is that of exaltation, of rapture, of transport.14  As we have noted, some mockingly said, “They are full of new wine,” which suggests (despite the lack of spiritual sensitivity of some in the audience) that the manner and speech of the disciples were not unlike inebriation. Here, though, was not wine of the grape, but wine of the Spirit, and an exuberance transcending anything earth could produce.15  When the Holy Spirit is poured out and men experience this abundance of God’s grace, it can but follow that there will be great joy and exaltation.

Here also is the place to comment that this language of exalted utterance may be that of song. Earlier, mention was made of how, through music, the ardent worshiper may seek to go beyond speech into lyrical expression, thereby conveying his worship and adoration of Almighty God. Now we take a step further by making reference to “singing in the Spirit.”16  Such singing may not be in conjunction with the added factor of the melody also being provided by the Holy Spirit. This often happens in a group at worship, and may be a climatic moment in the total worship experience.17

Before proceeding let us stress again that the basic human response to the gift of the Holy Spirit is the praise of God. The focus is not on tongues but on praise. Where, however, praise under the impact of the out pouring of God’s Spirit seeks to express itself, it may become transcendent. The breakthrough into the heights of praise is made possible by the Holy Spirit taking human speech and carrying it beyond itself into spiritual utterance. There may be praise without tongues, but where tongues are spoken there is always praise. The essential matter is, and continues to be, praise.

This leads, fourthly, to the recognition of tongues as a peculiar sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Those who have experienced the outpouring of God’s Spirit and spoken in tongues bear in their own speech evidence of a miracle. They never had spoken so before—though there may have been many other spiritual experiences. This was a sign of something new and different in their lives. Furthermore, they know they did not manufacture this speech,18  that in all of its strangeness (never becoming really comprehensible) such speaking remains testimony to a special visitation of God. The particular joy and elation of the original moment of the divine gift may come and go, even fade somewhat, but not the memory of this strange utterance. And this is all the more enhanced by the fact that, insofar as such speaking continues in the personal life and community life,19  there is a visible, audible reminder of the extraordinary fact of the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.

In this matter of tongues as a peculiar sign, it is apparent in the biblical witness that there is no record of speaking in tongues before the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Many other phenomena such as prophecy, healings, exorcism, etc. had occurred previously—but not tongues. Thus it is the particular sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Also, in at least one case where speaking in tongues occurs in Acts, it is designated as peculiar, undeniable evidence that the Holy Spirit has been given. I make reference to the Caesarean account where the text reads: “The gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they [those accompanying Peter] heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:45-46). Speaking in tongues was the sure evidence—the unmistakable sign—that the Holy Spirit had also been given to the Gentiles.

Indeed, in the books of Acts wherever speaking in tongues is mentioned, it is immediately after the gift of the Spirit. The disciples at Jerusalem: “were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (Acts 2:4). The Gentiles at Caesarea: the Holy Spirit falls on them and at once they are “speaking in tongues and extolling God” (Acts 10:46). Likewise the Ephesians: “The Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). It would seem unquestionable that Acts points to speaking in tongues as an immediate and unmistakable sign of the gift of the Holy Spirit.20

A sign, however, is not identical with the reality to which it points. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the primary reality, and speaking in tongues is the sign that the gift has been received. It demonstrates further that the human response of transcendent praise has occurred. So tongues are not constitutive of the gift of the Spirit (as if it were not possible to have one without the other), but are declarative, namely, that the gift has been received. Tongues are—and remain—a peculiar sign.21

Fifthly, tongues are to be understood as a universal possibility. It is the same Holy Spirit, the same reality of the gift of the Spirit, the same called-for response of praise, and the same opportunity to voice this praise in tongues. That it is a possibility for all is surely a matter of God’s grace wherein He grants the privilege for persons to enter into His highest praise.

Let us look again at the biblical record. In the book of Acts on every occasion when people speak in tongues all are involved. On the Day of Pentecost the waiting disciples were “all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues” (2:4); at Caesarea “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (10:44) and others heard “them [all] speaking in tongues …” (10:46); and at Ephesus “the Holy Spirit came on them; and they [all] spoke with tongues” (19:6). Where speaking in tongues is mentioned, all who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit participate. It is not the activity of a few, but that of the whole body of believers.22  No one is left out.

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Category: Fall 2002, Spirit

About the Author: J. Rodman Williams (1918-2008), Ph.D., is considered to be the father of renewal theology. He served as a chaplain in the Second World War, he was a church pastor, college professor, and key figure in the charismatic movement of the 1960s. Beginning in 1982, he taught theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and became Professor of Renewal Theology Emeritus there in 2002. Author of numerous books, he is perhaps best known for his three volume Renewal Theology (Zondervan, 1996).

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