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Should Christians Expect Miracles Today? Objections and Answers from the Bible, Part 2, by Wayne A. Grudem

12. In 1 Corinthians 14:22 we read, “Tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers.” Doesn’t Paul mean here that tongues are a sign of a covenant curse by God against the unbelieving Jews? And shouldn’t that warn us not to use tongues today?

This objection is based on Paul’s having just quoted Isaiah 28:11 is one of judgment on rebellious Israel, some commentators have understood Paul to mean that tongues are always a sign of judgment on the Jews who rejected Christ. Thus, they are a sign of a “covenant curse” from God at one particular time in history, and should certainly not be used by us today.30

In order to evaluate this objection to tongues today, we need to look at the purpose of this passage. Paul is warning Christians not to speak in tongues in church without interpretation, and, in 1 Corinthians 14:20-25, he says that if they do so it would be acting and thinking like “children” (1 Corinthians 14:20). It is in this context that he quotes a prophecy of judgment from Isaiah 28:11-12:

In the law it is written, “By men of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord” (1 Corinthians 14:21).

In the context of Isaiah 28, God is warning the rebellious people of the northern kingdom of Israel that the next words they heard from Him would be words of foreigners they could not understand—the Assyrian army would come on them as agents of God’s judgment. Now Paul is about to take this as a general principle—when God speaks to people in language they cannot understand, it is quite evidently a sign of God’s judgment.

Paul rightly applies this to the situation of speaking in tongues without interpretation in the church service. He calls it a sign (that is, a sign of judgment) on unbelievers:

Thus, tongues are not a sign for believers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers. If, therefore, the whole church assembles and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad? (1 Corinthians 14:22-23).

Here Paul uses the word “sign” to mean “sign of God’s attitude” (whether positive or negative). Tongues that are not understood by outsiders are certainly a negative sign—a sign of judgment. Therefore, Paul cautions the Corinthians not to give such a sign to outsiders who come in. He tells them if an outsider comes in and hears only unintelligible speech, he or she will certainly not be saved but will conclude that the Corinthians are mad, and the uninterpreted tongues will therefore function to him or her as a sign of God’s judgment.

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Category: Pneuma Review, Spirit, Spring 2000

About the Author: Wayne A. Grudem is Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, Phoenix, Arizona. He has authored over twenty books, including Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (1994), Politics According to the Bible: A Comprehensive Resource for Understanding Modern Political Issues in Light of Scripture (2010), The Poverty of Nations: A Sustainable Solution (2013), The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, and "Free Grace" Theology: 5 Ways It Diminishes the Gospel (2016). He was also the General Editor for the ESV Study Bible (Evangelical Christian Publishers Association Book of the Year, 2009).

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