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Praying in the Spirit: Focus of the Charismatic Experience: Tongues, the Holy Spirit, or Christ?

The third chapter of the Praying in the Spirit Series.

Robert W. Graves wrote Praying in the Spirit (Chosen Books) in 1987, when it received great reviews from a number of Pentecostal/charismatic scholars and leaders including John Sherrill, Dr. Vinson Synan, Dr. Gordon Fee, Dr. William Menzies, Dr. Howard Ervin, Dr. Walter Martin, and Dr. Stanley Horton. It is the great privilege of the Pneuma Review to republish it here.

The strongest criticisms leveled at the charismatic renewal seem to center on two theories: one, the experience is tongues-centered, and two, the experience is Spirit-centered. The two have in common, of course, the inference that the source and focus of the baptism and its attendant gifts are something (or someone) other than Jesus. Let us take a look at whether or not these two charges are accurate.


Is the Pentecostal-Charismatic Experience Tongues-centered?

More than one critic of the charismatic renewal has labeled it the “tongues movement.” This, of course, does not speak highly of it. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more degrading label! The implication is that what many believe to be a work of God is in fact the work of carnal man based on incomprehensible gibberish.

According to one non-Pentecostal historian, tongues-speaking for the Pentecostal has become “an end in itself, and the central teaching of the Pentecostal movement” (R. M. Anderson, p.96). For non-Pentecostal Donald Burdick, this may be too mild an indictment. He suggests that Pentecostalism seeks “to convert people to tongues” instead of to Christ (p. 88). Non-Pentecostal minister Robert Gustafson also believes that “the mission of the tongues movement is not to lead souls to Christ but is to evangelize the gift of tongues” (p. 95).

Speaking in unknown tongues can be very arresting. As tongues testified to the rigid religionists of Luke’s day, so they testify to listeners today: Be filled with the Spirit!

While we will see that these accusations of tongues-centeredness (glossocentricity) are not justified, they at least remind us that tongues for tongues’ sake is a dangerous and deplorable doctrine. It might be compared to putting more importance on the ringing of the doorbell than the guest at the door. Christians who wish to enter into this dimension of power and service should understand that the evidence of tongues is a mere external sign of a dynamic interior work being wrought by the Spirit. Anyone desiring to be used to edify the Body with an utterance of tongues should understand that the most important gift is the one needed at the moment, and the gift of tongues, per se, is no more important than any of God’s charismata. Uppermost in our minds should be the desire to serve and honor God. Servanthood and God-centeredness are the hallmarks of Christianity, charismatic or otherwise.

And if anyone should stray from these principles, we have these words of the late Pentecostal leader Donald Gee to hearken us back:

Nothing more surely defeats the purpose of any love gift than for the recipient of it to put the gift before the giver. Yet such a danger is decidedly real where spiritual gifts are concerned. There can easily arise a morbid ‘gift-consciousness’ that dwells upon either the real or the fancied possession of some spiritual gift far more than upon the life of fellowship with the Giver. There have been believers who have become so taken up with gifts and offices that the whole subject has become nauseous. Only the divine Giver can satisfy the soul—never His gifts.

(Concerning, pp. 78-79)

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Category: Spirit, Summer 1999

About the Author: Robert W. Graves, M. A. (Literary Studies, Georgia State University), is the co-founder and president of The Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship, Inc., a non-profit organization supporting Pentecostal scholarship through research grants. He is a Christian educator and a former faculty member of Southwestern Assemblies of God College in Waxahachie, Texas, and Kennesaw State University (adjunct). He edited and contributed to Strangers to Fire: When Tradition Trumps Scripture and is the author of Increasing Your Theological Vocabulary, Praying in the Spirit (1987 and Second Edition, 2017) and The Gospel According to Angels (Chosen Books, 1998).

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