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Four Points About Tongues from 1 Corinthians 14

Monday, November 11, 2013 | Comments (32)

by Phil Johnson

A goodly portion of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians is focused on correcting that congregation’s abuse of spiritual gifts—tongues in particular. The whole theme of the apostle’s admonition about how the gifts were to function is neatly summarized in 1 Corinthians 14:40: “All things should be done decently and in order.” Along the way, it’s hard to miss the stress the apostle places on that which edifies. The point Paul makes repeatedly is that the gifts should always be used in a way that enlightens and instructs the mind. “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:19).

That principle has been largely ignored—and often diametrically opposed—in the doctrine and practice of the modern charismatic movement. The real point of 1 Corinthians 14 is often buried under endless arguments about the exegetical nuances of that passage. I want to take a more big-picture perspective of the text and point out a few of that chapter’s most important ideas.

1. “Tongues” were real languages.

Paul is clearly no proponent of any kind of “speech that is not intelligible” (1 Corinthians 14:9). Sounds and syllables without meaning are of no use whatsoever. “There are doubtless many different languages in the world, and none is without meaning” (1 Corinthians 14:10). Throughout the chapter, he is talking about real languages with real meaning. The ecstatic gibberish of the modern charismatic movement does not even fit the apostle’s definition of a language.

Furthermore, he says in verse 11, “If . . . I do not know the meaning of the language, I will be to the one who speaks a barbarian, and the one who speaks will be a barbarian to me” (NASB). All true language has a meaning, and if the meaning cannot be understood, it sounds like the noises of a troglodyte. If the tongue is merely gibberish and has no translatable message, it is actually worse than a savage tongue.

So Paul insists that whenever tongues are spoken, they should be translated. Verse 13: “One who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret.” And verses 27-28: “If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”

In other words, if someone is authentically speaking in tongues, the utterance contains a message, and the message must be translated for those who hear. Even if the tongues-speaker is praying alone and no one else is around to hear, he is to pray that he may interpret.

Paul was not authorizing the use of tongues as a private prayer language, as some charismatics claim. But let’s lay that issue aside for the moment and simply point out that whenever tongues is spoken, whether in public or in private, whether in prophecy or in prayer, an interpretation is always to be sought.

2. Speaking in tongues is not supposed to be a mystical exercise that bypasses the mind.

Paul’s overriding message throughout this whole chapter is that everything done in the public worship service is supposed to be edifying to the hearers. That is his key point. He is calling for intelligibility. He is appealing for clarity. When we say something in public worship, the people in the congregation need to understand the message.

Go through this passage and notice how many times the apostle uses terms like understanding, edification, and the mind. A lot of Christians in the post-charismatic era have the utterly false notion that true spirituality is something that bypasses the intellect and operates mysteriously in the soul. That opinion has more in common with Hinduism than with true Christianity. Genuine Christianity is not anti-intellectual. We do not believe that the mind is a detriment to spirituality. In fact, we believe true spirituality involves being transformed by the renewing of our minds. We are sanctified by the truth, and truth is something we apprehend primarily with our minds.

The notion that the intellect is to be switched off while we seek some form of mentally disengaged spiritual ecstasy is an utterly false notion. If that is your idea of spirituality, then you might as well join the swaying mobs at the Kali temple in Calcutta who have done just that: they have switched off their minds in pursuit of spiritual euphoria.

Here Paul is telling us that the primary purpose of spiritual gifts is for edification. And by “edification,” he means the building up of the mind through a better understanding of the truth. If you do a study on the Greek word oikodomeo (which is translated edify in verses 3, 4, 5, 12, 17, and 26), you will find that almost everywhere this word appears in the New Testament, it speaks of building up the understanding. A person is “edified” in the biblical sense when the mind is enriched with truth and understanding.

That is why Paul insists that utterances in other tongues must be translated. What good is a message that bypasses the minds of the hearers? We don’t grow spiritually through subliminal means. We are sanctified when the truth is applied to our minds and our minds are transformed.

Matthew Henry writes, “Even an apostle could not edify, unless he spoke so as to be understood by his hearers. To speak words that have no meaning to those who hear them, is but speaking into the air. . . . There can be no assent to prayers that are not understood. A truly Christian minister will seek much more to do spiritual good to men’s souls, than to get the greatest applause to himself.”

When we have a message for the assembly of God’s people, the sound must be distinct. The message, not the language, is the key to the gift of tongues. The Holy Spirit does not gift people with languages just to make interesting noises. There’s a message to be conveyed, just like on Pentecost, when the wonderful works of God were proclaimed in the hearer’s native tongues. And notice this carefully: Regardless of your position on the charismatic movement, you must ultimately confess that Scripture demands that tongues-speakers remain silent, unless the message they have to convey is going to be understood be the people who are present to hear. Verse 28: “If there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent.”

I know of few charismatic churches where people are taught to be submissive to that command. There’s a charismatic church not far from where I live that is one of the largest in America. Every Sunday morning in their worship service, they have a time at the end of the pastoral prayer when everyone in the church is invited to “worship the Lord” aloud. Most do so by speaking in tongues simultaneously. It produces exactly the kind of chaotic environment Paul warns against in verse 23: “If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?”

3. It is wrong to allow the church service to become chaotic.

Some charismatics delight in precisely the sort of chaos Paul condemns here. The so-called “Toronto Blessing” virtually conferred liturgical significance on chaos and noise in many charismatic churches. I visited a world-famous charismatic church at the height of the Toronto hysteria, and much of the service consisted of unbelievable chaos.

The preacher that night contradicted virtually every one of the principles laid out in 1 Corinthians 14. He cautioned people against using their minds and their doctrinal convictions to evaluate what they were about to see. He said, “God wants to reach your heart, not your mind. It is not necessary for you to have a rational understanding of what is going on here.” He encouraged people to speak in tongues simultaneously, even though no one interpreted any of those utterances. And he finally turned the meeting over to absolute chaos, unleashing a frenzy of noise and activity in the name of the Holy Spirit.

Can God possibly be behind such phenomena? The Bible answers that question with a definitive no. Verse 33 says, “God is not a God of confusion.” Such chaotic displays in the churches must not be attributed to Him. The Word of God speaks with the utmost clarity on this. In more familiar King James terminology, “God is not the author of confusion.” He is neither glorified nor pleased where chaos and confusion reign.

4. Tongues are a sign to unbelievers.

In verse 22, Paul writes, “Tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers.” Here he contrasts tongues with prophecy, which he says is meant for believers.

What is his point? Simple: Prophecy involved a message from God in a language everyone understood. The message conveyed in tongues was intelligible only to those who understood the language.

Remember, all the languages a tongues-speaker used were Gentile languages. Hebrew was the Jewish language, and Aramaic was a first-century variation of Hebrew. All other tongues were Gentile languages.

The fact that God would give inspired truth in a Gentile tongue was itself significant. At Pentecost it was remarkable enough to hear the disciples speaking in languages that were not their own. But to the first-century Hebrew ear it would have been equally amazing to hear them proclaiming truth about Jehovah in Gentile tongues. That is something no true Israelite would ever do.

Jews in first-century Israel often spoke Greek, of course, because that was the common language of commerce. Some of them also spoke Latin, and many other dialects. But when they came to the Temple, when they rehearsed the wonderful works of God, or (above all) when they prayed, they prayed in Hebrew, because that was deemed the language of God and His people.

The gift of tongues changed all that. For the first time ever, inspired truth was revealed by God in languages other than Hebrew. This in and of itself was a remarkable sign, not only to the unbelieving Gentile hearers, but also to the unbelieving Jews.

And for the unbelieving Jews, it was a sign of judgment to come. Isaiah 28:11 contains this promise about the Messiah: “By people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the Lord will speak to this people.” The apostle Paul paraphrases that verse in 1 Corinthians 14:21, just before saying that tongues are a sign to unbelievers. His primary meaning, then, is that tongues are a sign of judgment against the unbelieving Israelites and a token of divine grace to the Gentile unbelievers who hear the message in their own tongues.

So again we see that the gift of tongues was God’s declaration that the wall of partition had been broken down. Although the oracles of God had once been committed to the Jewish race alone, now the message about God’s wonderful works would extend to every nation, people, and tribe. That was the primary significance of the gift of tongues. It was never intended to be a Babel of noise that no one, including the speaker, understood.


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#1  Posted by Robin Lane  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 3:51 AM

I agree with much of what Phil writes here, apart from a couple of points like the use of tongues as a private prayer language (that we are leaving aside for the moment). However, the exclusive focus on ‘mind’ really concerns me.

Whilst I am content with the statement that: ‘We are sanctified by the truth, and truth is something we apprehend primarily with our minds’; I disagree when that thinking is carried further to state that: ‘A person is “edified” in the biblical sense when the mind is enriched with truth and understanding.’ It is not solely when the mind is enriched that a person is edified.

The word ‘edified’ refers to being built-up; and a person is not just a ‘mind’. Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30) That commandment makes it clear that a person is more than a mind, and that we are to love God with our whole person, our whole being.

Therefore, it is necessary to be built-up in heart and soul and strength, as well as in mind. And that is where spiritual gifts are very helpful – when they are sought and used in accordance with Scripture.

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that faith in Christ is a purely rational thing. We are not just bodies with minds, we are spiritual beings too.

#2  Posted by Patrick Driscoll  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 8:47 AM

Thank you Phil,

As always, the clear and concise teaching of scripture is so helpful to the body of Christ. And by the way, thank you for doing that interview with Dr Michael Brown. I picked up on something that he and other charismatics like to do. They often use vague, unbiblical terms to defend their movement. In the interview, Dr. Brown used the term "touched by the spirit" in defense of millions of charismatics. That raises all kinds of red flags. Touched by the spirit? What spirit? The Holy Spirit? How do we know they are touched? And just what is meant by "touched"? Does that mean they are born again? Listening to Dr. Brown brought back some unpleasant memories of my days as a charismatic thirty years ago. Again, many thanks to you and the others for the conference and the new book, "Strange Fire".

#3  Posted by Jesse Howard  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 11:35 AM


Since the cessation of the gift of languages do you think that there have been unique times where a missionary (or individual) has had the ability to use the true gift of languages to communicate with a people group he would otherwise have been unable to communicate with? Thanks for your thoughts!

#4  Posted by Rick White  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 12:27 PM


The verse you quote, Mark 12:30, does not support your veiw. It says, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, AND with all your soul, AND with all your mind, AND with all your strength." We are not to disengage our minds while doing the other. Our minds should be fully engaged any time we are worshiping or serving God.

#5  Posted by Mark Chase  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 12:45 PM

My wife and I are membeers of a very large Southern Baptist Church in Edmond Oklahoma. I just found out that the pastor and staff beleive in speaking in tongues. Since we do not support that belief but concur with Phil Johnson and John MacArthur about this topic, we will be seekign another church that closer matches what teh Bible teaches. But we are in tears about this and ask for your prayers as we move forward and away from a church that is on an obvious wrong tract doctrinally.

#6  Posted by Robin Lane  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 2:05 PM

Hello Rick (#4),

I agree that we are not to disengage our minds; and I am not sure why you think I was saying otherwise.

So I apologise if I did not clearly express the point I was trying to make. My point is that we are to engage the other parts of our being as well as our minds. We are not to treat Christianity as solely a matter of the mind - as solely a matter of rational thought.

Just one of the Scriptures that indicate the importance of a 'more than mind' approach is Romans 8:16.

The spiritual element is one of the reasons that you and I cannot persuade an unbeliever to become a believer purely by rational argument. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts someone of their sins and the judgment to come (John16:8).

Whilst Christian faith is based upon facts, we cannot think ourselves into having faith; faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8).

#7  Posted by Guymon Hall  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 3:11 PM

Robin, in addition to Rick's comment, please consider this as well. Two passages that clearly indicate the need to have our mind fully engaged at all times.

First, in 2 Tim. 2:15, Paul exhorts Timothy to "rightly divide" the word of truth. What we see commonly translated as "rightly divide" or "correctly handle" literally means "to cut sharply". It has the connotation of being surgically precise. Thus, when we approach Scripture, we must approach it with the entirety of our mental faculties in order to be faithful to Paul's command to be surgically precise with God's Word.

Second, in Heb 5:11-6:2, we see the author admonishing his readers for remaining as infants in the things of God. He admonishes them that they all ought to be teachers who partake in the solid food of the mature. How is that accomplished? In Heb. 5:14, he writes, "for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil." The phrase "powers of discernment" literally means "the perceptive faculty" and has the idea of understanding with the mind. So the way we grow as Christians is by putting forth the effort to constantly study God's word in order to train and mold our minds with sound doctrine from the Scriptures.

So when you are concerned with what you perceive to be an "exclusive focus on 'mind'" (which Phil Johnson didn't advocate, by the way), I am actually concerned that you would be concerned over that. That perception runs contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, and is a dangerous falsehood that I see being prevalent in this corrupt Church-ianity culture we have in the American church today. Strange Fire runs deeper than just the Charismatic movement, my friends...

#8  Posted by David Smith  |  Monday, November 11, 2013 at 4:25 PM

@Mark Chase #5

As I have said previously, remember that cessationists and charismatics generally agree on 95%+ or more of doctrines, including all the major ones of the faith. Whilst I share the view that charismatic tongues are fake, I'm not sure it is necessarily a reason to leave a church. If the pastor is promoting speaking in tongues, then possibly it is, but do think carefully before moving on. By staying as a committed member of your church, you will have opportunities to discuss this subject with the staff that outsiders almost certainly won't have.

#9  Posted by Bongani Mkhabela  |  Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 2:41 AM


"Lets not make the mistake of thinking that faith in Christ is purely a rational thing"

Question is: What is it the?

I suspect you want more than what the scriptures give. Just thinking.

#10  Posted by Brad Kennedy  |  Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 8:15 AM

Thank you Phil Johnson for accepting the invitation to be interviewed by Michael Brown. It was insightful to witness 1 Corinthians 13:1 literally practiced in contrast over the airways. More amazing than that, Michael Brown hadn't already written somewhere among his wares that such a prophetic event was going to take place. Live, on his radio show! Boy, did he miss that prophesy. No telling what it cost him.

#11  Posted by Brad Kennedy  |  Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 9:31 AM

Just an addendum to comment (#10). The comment is not inferring that Michael Brown speaks with the tongue of men and angels. That inference was for Phillip Johnson (I know Mr. Johnson will not let it go to his head Robin Lane). Brown is the contrast-without genuine love, the noisy gong.

#12  Posted by Robin Lane  |  Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 10:46 AM

Hello Guymon (#7) and Bongani (#9),

Grace and peace to you.

I am concerned about people thinking that Christianity is just in the mind because I think that Scripture tells us Christianity is more than that. I don't think anyone should disengage their mind. Nor do I think that anyone should remain an infant in the faith.

In John 15:4 Jesus didn't say "think about me"; he said "abide in me". Abiding in him involves our whole being, not just our minds. If we are to keep his commandments (John 15:10) we have to do things that are very difficult, e.g. taking up our cross daily, resisting temptation, forgiving those who sin against us, loving one another, even loving our enemies. God gives the ability to do these things; we don't have these abilities in and of ourselves (John 15:5).

Whoever hears Christ's word and believes in the Father has eternal life (John 5:24). Eternal life is not a matter of knowing the Scriptures (John 5:39), it is a matter of knowing the Father and the Son (John 17:3).

Yes, we find out about the Father and the Son in the Scriptures, but those same Scriptures tell us we should be in a living relationship with God. That's why the apostle Paul wrote that he wanted to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). And that is why he prayed for the Ephesians that the Father would give them a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ (Eph 1:17).

It is knowing Christ himself that is important, not just knowing about him.

#13  Posted by Lamar Carnes  |  Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 2:23 PM

Thanks Phil for your excellent article on "languages"! I wish the translators would do their job correctly and put that word in the verses rather than "tongues" which only confuses the issue. Also, if I understood you correctly the word of God (the truth) works through our minds moving throughout our entire being which consists of mind, soul, spirit, heart, emotions, i.e., our entire being. We are not just a "mind" as one person stated but I think he was incorrect trying to make your statements "just limited to rational thinking". All of these terms are used so much interchangeably anyway. I came out of a background like that which was so deceitful and full of emptiness and always seeking to get hyped up with the emotions leaving sound reasoning behind and the scriptures also! Learned behavior fueled by the idol of free will creates most of this erratic stuff in my opinion.

#14  Posted by Wayne De Villiers  |  Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at 2:55 PM

Robin (#1,6,12)

I agree that knowing Christ is not purely an intellectual matter, but I'm not sure what you're trying to say about the role of spiritual gifts in edification or knowing Christ. Perhaps you can explain what you believe about how we "know" Christ in terms of Philippians 3:10 and John 17:3.

All of my experience of "knowing Christ" and being "built up" is the result of the Holy Spirit taking God's Word and using it to change me so that to some (growing) degree Christ's joys are my joys, His loves are my loves, His thoughts are my thoughts, His sufferings are my sufferings, His death is my death, so that increasingly it is true in practice/experience was is true spiritually: it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. But all of this experience is predicated upon, and sustained by the renewing of my mind through the Scriptures. It is in meditation upon and especially application of Scripture that I experience knowing the Father and the Son.

#15  Posted by Bud Diener  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 3:25 AM

Wayne (#14)

Excellent points. God created us with a rational mind so that we might know Him on an intellectual level first. Our apprehension of any specific, salvific knowledge of God is done rationally. Our faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Rom. 10:17). This rational process is the means by which the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to respond with our entire being to the objective truths of the gospel.

Our mind is what must be renewed (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:23) in the sanctification process. Why? Because it is from the heart/mind that our sin emanates (Mt. 12:33-35; 15:19).

#16  Posted by Robin Lane  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 4:14 AM

Hello Wayne (#14),

We seem to agree that our primary objective as Christians is to get to know Christ better. This was Paul’s objective when he wrote of losing all things so that he might know Christ (Philippians 3:10), because knowing Christ is of surpassing worth (Philippians 3:8). And, as you say, it is not just a matter of knowing Christ, but also becoming like him.

Paul’s objective in this clearly matches Christ’s definition of eternal life in John 17:3 – that it is a matter of knowing the Father and the Son. Thus we are talking about a personal relationship with God. This necessarily takes us into the realm of the spiritual, because God is spirit (John 4:24).

Yes, as you say, it involves being transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). But it also involves spiritual rebirth (John 3:3) because we were spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). And it involves growth to spiritual maturity, as Guymon commented (#7).

Therefore, since we are now living in awareness of the spiritual realm, since we are seated in the heavenly places with Christ (Ephesians 2:6), we should not dismiss the availability of spiritual gifts. GENUINE spiritual gifts are very useful to Christians, giving spiritual wisdom, knowledge, faith, etc. (1 Corinthians 12:8-10) so that we can each play our part within the life of the church. These gifts are given for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7), so their proper use should not lead to chaos, which was Phil’s third point.

The gift of tongues/languages is probably the most controversial and least understood; but Paul did write that he would pray with his spirit as well as praying with his mind (1 Corinthians 14:15). This was in the context of his earlier statement that if he prayed in a tongue his mind was unfruitful (1 Corinthians 14:14). So he wasn’t writing about doing both at the same time.

NOTE: he didn’t say that he switched off his mind or disengaged it. His mind was still active, but unfruitful in terms of understanding exactly what he was praying with his spirit. Paul also wrote: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.’ (Romans 8:26)

There is obvious value in the spiritual gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, distinguishing between spirits, and interpretation of tongues. So let us not be put off by the ones we don’t understand so well. But on the basis of the Scriptures, let us ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13) and earnestly desire the higher gifts (1 Corinthians 12:31), because our Father knows how to give good gifts (Matthew 7:11).

#17  Posted by Joe Brooks  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 6:24 AM

Mr. Johnson,

You wrote that it was not intended to be a noise that no one including the speaker understood. I realize that the hearers understood the languages on the day of Pentecost but the speakers did not. Therefore, the gift did by pass so to speak the minds of the apostles. I am grateful they chose to obey and speak even though they did not understand what they were saying. It was their choice to make too because the Scriptures tell us the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. They chose to yield their human reasoning to the leading of the Holy Spirit. That is what we who walk by faith often do. The unbeliever may tell us something we are doing for instance giving a certain amount of money to a work of the Lord is unreasonable and our common sense may agree but our faith leads us to give. Yes, we are to use our mind to its utmost capacity in studying and serving, but we are not to limit God by only doing what our mind can fully comprehend.

#18  Posted by William Proud  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 8:32 AM

If speaking in tongues is a sign to unbelievers, then those speaking in tongues are therefore,..... unbelievers. God is giving you a manifest fleshly sign that you don't believe something about your salvation.

I don't know how else to put it in a loving manner. And now some want to justify even nonsensical babbling as a sign of the Holy Spirit.

When Thomas was told by the other disciples that they had seen the Lord, John 20:25, Thomas said, -"Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe."

Thomas was saying he needed one more sign to believe. He needed one more piece of evidence to really believe Christ was resurrected. He needed to see Christ, and touch Christ, both fleshly things to believe.

Jesus responded in 20:29, "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and believed."

We are of the Spirit of God. We believe in things we can't see, or hear, or taste. Our confidence comes from faith that He is who He says He is not by flailing about with our tongues and bodies.

#19  Posted by Rick White  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 10:30 AM


It appears you read too much of your charismatic tradition into the scriptures. For example, you reference Romans 8:26 and make the claim that Paul is saying that he doesn't understand what he is praying. That assertion is not in the text. What Paul says in the text is that 1) We don't know what to pray for.( because of our fallen nature). And 2) The Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Nowhere does that verse say Paul didn't know or understand what he was praying. You also seem to think that one can request more of the Holy Spirit when scripture tells us that either you have the Holy Spirit or you don't. If you don't you do not belong to Christ. Romans 8:9,16. Nowhere are we told to ask for more of the Holy Spirit. We are only told to not do things that suppresses the Spirit's work in us, like getting drunk, Ephesians 5:18. We must let scripture speak for itself, not read our presuppositions into it. I believe this is where many charismatics jump the rails and get off track.

#21  Posted by Wayne De Villiers  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 11:19 AM

Robin (#16),

Certainly the new birth is spiritual in nature. However, you make a jump in your reasoning in the 4th paragraph that does not seem to follow logically from what you state. You seem to go from noting that we know about the spiritual realm to asserting that revelatory spiritual gifts necessarily result. That seems to me to be a massive leap in logic.

All the verses you cite from 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 have been explained in their contexts by John over the years, whether in sermons, Q & A’s, or books. Based on understanding the verses you cite in the context of Paul’s broader argument, as well as the historical context of the church to which he was writing, they do not support the argument you are using them to make.

Specifically, 1 Corinthians 14:14 is not saying you should pray with your mind being unfruitful. Paul is observing that if you pray in a tongue your mind is unfruitful--and that is a problem, not a good thing. That’s why praying with both the spirit and mind is vital for edification to occur. Which brings us back to what Phil has argued above and what you took issue with originally.

Spiritual gifts are for the purpose of edification which involves the mind. If your mind is inactive, you are not being edified. Edification is not a mystical spiritual experience separate from my mind, it is a spiritual experience that demands rigorous engagement of my mind. This has effects on every aspect of our spiritual life—as you said initially, we are more than a mind. The mind is but one aspect of our spiritual or immaterial make-up. As one commenter (#13) noted, the terms for heart, mind, soul, spirit are describe different facets of this non-material part of us. They are all referring to the same thing. Thus by definition, one cannot separate edifying the mind from edifying the heart, soul, etc. If the mind is edified, the whole person is edified.

#22  Posted by Earlene Lamnek  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 12:14 PM

I feel really blessed and at peace about this subject, this scripture is very clear to me. Maybe it was the way I was taught growing up that we do better to keep scripture simple and take it at face value. God wants us to understand him and he is not a God of confusion. Thank you, Dr. MacArthur, for keeping it simple and making it clear as I have always known it.

#23  Posted by Michael Kennedy  |  Wednesday, November 13, 2013 at 2:25 PM

Phil, thanks for all your thoughts on this; I hadn't attacked this problem in a while, but what I did years ago was get the Sermons on Tongues; 1 Corinthians 12 and 14...and John cleared it up perfectly.

To Everyone who commented ;

The best way that I understand this tongues thing is to go to Romans 26-8, as one example, where it talks about the "groanings of the Spirit"...spirit this and spirit that, etc..

Now... where the word "spirit" is written....just check if it is capitalized or not. If it is, it's talking about the Spirit of God. If it is not's talking about the person's spirit. Very simple. A person has to know which spirit the Bible's speaking about and that's the best way that I was shown to know what the verses are saying to get the absolute truth. Not too hard after that.

I remember when I was in the charismatic church, I always thought something wasn't right about the tongues thing; and it can get tricky... Romans 8-26 is the scripture that was taught about how WE can speak in tongues...with "groanings ", which was gibberish, our own private prayer language with God. It got all messed up and everybody just went along with it thinking it was right...along with 1 Cor. 14-2.

Some were accepting it, some not and I'm the type that doesn't accept everything, so, I just asked God to show me what the truth was and He did through the tapes I bought a long time ago.

And am I ever glad I did. Well, I hope this may help....God bless.

#24  Posted by Robin Lane  |  Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 5:46 AM

Hello Rick and Wayne.

Rick: in your comment #19 you have misunderstood what I was trying to say in comment #16. My phrase ‘Paul also wrote’ was meant to link to a second way in which the Holy Spirit helps us in prayer – ‘interceding with groanings too deep for words’ (Romans 8:26). I wasn’t trying to link that verse directly to the gift of tongues; so I apologise for not making that clearer.

Wayne: regarding your comment #21, John has offered explanations of all the verses I quoted from 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. However, there are other respected theologians who do not agree with those explanations. Examples in the USA are Wayne Grudem, John Piper and Sam Storms; whilst examples from the UK are Martyn Lloyd-Jones and David Pawson – to mention just a few.

If we think carefully about Romans 8:26, the fact that the Spirit intercedes for us, with groanings too deep for words, indicates that our command of human language is insufficient to convey fully what should be prayed to the Father. Also, 1 Peter 1:8 refers to joy that is inexpressible – our minds and command of language are not much help there either, we feel the joy.

Indeed, church history reveals that it was the inadequacies of human language and understanding that led to the controversies over the two natures of Christ - the fact that he is both God and man, and yet still one person.

Furthermore, from life in general we know that we sometimes express deep feelings without using words. We weep, we sigh and we groan. Indeed, Hebrews 5:7 tells us that Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears. So our communication with the Father is not limited to completely calm, reasoned statements that we have thought through beforehand. Weeping, sighs and groans can express things more powerfully than words alone. In particular, they convey the depth of feeling involved.

Our minds are not switched off when we weep, sigh or groan; but they are not fully able to express our feelings, our needs or our desires. So, when it comes to expressing these things fully to God, it is quite biblical to ask him for some special help.

#25  Posted by Lazar Lazarovski  |  Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 8:29 AM


Thank you brother for this concise look into 'tongues'. I would encourage all bloggers to read chapter 7 of John's book, Strange Fire for a more detailed account of this explanation. It'll fill in any of the gaps that a concise look may leave open.

#26  Posted by William Proud  |  Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 2:51 PM

You are never edified by weeping or sighing or groaning, or laughing, falling on the floor. These all involve the body and your fleshly emotions.

The 7 Spirits of God are Wisdom, Knowledge, Understanding, Fear, Counsel and Might, Isaiah 11:1,2. This is edification.

Deuteronomy 4:5-10 is a good passage to read concerning edification.

#27  Posted by Brad Kennedy  |  Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 3:01 PM

Robin Lane/David Smith: May I be so bold as to recommend a couple of Jay Adams books to you: "Competent to Counsel" and "The Christian Counselor's Manual"

Forgive my presumption Robin, but if the lucid logic of Phil Johnson's article doesn't warm the cockles of your heart, Dr. Adams books are packed with practical theology, skillfully applied to the physiology and psychology of man; minus the sentimental, syrupy, sappy, sweet psychobabble you and David may be enslaved to.

If it makes you feel any better, I am enslaved to sarcasm.

#28  Posted by Rick White  |  Thursday, November 14, 2013 at 3:16 PM


The fact that we pray with great emotion at times doesn't contradict anything that Phil said in the article. What he has said many times before is that we just aren't to disengage our minds when doing so. I guess that's what is so confusing about your original post. I've never heard him say at anytime that we aren't to pray with emotion. I've read and listened to Phil on many occasions and I believe all he is saying is that we aren't to turn our minds over to unbridled emotion and that when emotion is involved we must be able to understand what we are doing and saying. Otherwise it's just some kind of mystical and subjective experience that has no lasting purpose. It would just be some kind of temporary emotional high.

#30  Posted by William Proud  |  Friday, November 15, 2013 at 7:08 AM

I omitted the Holy Spirit from my list of the 7 Spirits, sorry for that.

#33  Posted by Dawn Baldwin  |  Friday, November 15, 2013 at 8:59 PM

There are millions of people around the world who claim to speak in tongues. Is this a demonic manifestation? If a person did speak in tongues but now understands it's a false gift, do they then need to address and demonic influence over their life as a result of years of "babbling"? If so, how? If it's not demonic, are you saying that it's a product of the persons over-active imagination and that any emotional experiences accompanying the use of the "gift" are psychosomatic?

#35  Posted by David Smith  |  Monday, November 18, 2013 at 9:19 AM

Dawn Baldwin #33

Whilst there is the possibility that tongues could be demonic, in the vast majority of cases I would say definitely not.

I think your term "over-active imagination" isn't really the right way of explaining it. Tongues (as found in the charismatic movement and elsewhere) is simply a natural ability of the himan mind, resulting from a combination of learned behaviour, peer pressure, and altered states of consciousness (ie hypnosis). The exact mix of these three factors will depend on the individual and the situation.

Likewise, any experiences a tongues-speaker has will also be also be natural or man-made. They will believe that the experiences are of God or the Holy Spirit, but that's just their brain playing tricks on them.

The key point is that we all have an inherent tendency to regard something we don't understand or can't explain as miraculous or supernatural. We hear someone speak in tongues and think it must either be God or the devil. But the truth is neither - it is all psychological. It took me a long to realise this, and the thing that helped most was the work of secular academics on speaking in tongues and the psychology of religious experience.

#36  Posted by Greg Fischer  |  Monday, November 18, 2013 at 9:31 AM

It is only after one has been involved in some aspect of the charasmatic movement (the Word of Faith for 3 years), and come out from it's many false teachings, that the larger perspective comes into view. Charismatic teachings, including tongues, fails to address it's claims based on the larger context of the Bible, specifically the book of Acts, and to a lesser degree, 1st Corinthians (Ch. 14). As Paul said, tongues have ceased. When? By the end of Acts it is almost never mentioned, Jesus Christ never instructed the Apostles in its use, and Paul never instructed it for the edification of the church. It is practically never practiced, or preached, from that time until about 1900, with the Pentecostal movement. All the great prechers of the past - Spurgeon, Wesley, Whitefield, Moody, and so many others, understood that those minor gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased and were never meant to be characteristic of the lives of believers, but for the purpose of pointing to and authenticating the Apostles as revealers of divine truth. So much of the charismatic movement is a selfish, man-centered gospel, which is no gospel at all. Case closed.

#38  Posted by Mario Minondo  |  Friday, December 6, 2013 at 1:17 PM

Dear Mark Chase,

My family and I were in the same conditions that you and your wife are passing by right now. We live in Guatemala, a country were is pretty hard to find a place where you can receive a true doctrine according to the Scriptures. The members of my family were assisting to different churches and at the same time we wanted to move from those places. So we started to talk with people from a church in another country next to this one and we contacted people from GTY as well. Both gave us information on how to start a little group with their help. So it's been a while (about 4 months) since we started the little group. The help came from the church close to our country. Pastors who speak our same language (spanish) are teaching us, traveling for hours every sunday. The group is growing so fast, everybody is looking to learn the true doctrine. If you were here you were amazed how our "Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." Acts 2:47.

My prayers are with you. I am sure you can get something similar to what God has done in this part of the Earth to his sons.