J. Oswald Sanders on Speaking in Tongues – Part 1

In his book Spiritual Maturity, published in 1962, J. Oswald Sanders has two chapters on The Spirit and Speaking in Tongues.

Is tongues the sign of Spirit baptism?

He makes it clear that he disagrees with the standard Pentecostal doctrine of the time, and I believe still today, that speaking in tongues is the essential sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. While taking pains to point out that despite their eror on this point he believes Pentecostals are still sincere members of the body of Christ. He recognises the attraction of Pentecostalism as follows:

May it not be that hungry Christians and new converts have been driven into the arms of this group because it holds out the promise of something more vital, more satisfying, more dynamic than the type of Christianity they encounter in our churches? As they compare the zeal and fervor of the early church with the lukewarmness of most churches of our day, have they not grounds for following something which promises a repetition of early church power? Has our teaching in this connection been inadequate or defective? We do well to be challenged by the virility of the Pentecostal movement around the world, both in its home ministry and its missionary outreach. (p 176)

Who could reasonably disagree with this? However, regarding tongues, he compares what seems to be a Pentecostal “spiritual infatuation” with the “cold and logical argument” of the Evangelical (p176).

The “promise of the Father” of Luke 24:49 was not the gift of tongues but an enduement of power from on high, and the two are not the same. Being an effective witness was to be the sign of this power. About Acts 2:4 he says that although the enduement with power was accompanied by speaking in tongues, the ability to speak in tongues was not the gift, nor even its most significant evidence.

Are the tongues known or unknown?

Sanders raises an interesting point about the Greek language of Acts and 1 Corinthians. Nowhere does the Greek speak about “unknown tongues”. This is only in the English translations. Where the A.V. translates “unknown tongues” in 1 Corinthians 14, the A.S.V. correctly says simply “tongues”. “Other tongues” only occurs in Acts 2:4, and this does not mean “unknown” either, just different.

Are there one or two kinds of tongues?

Is there a difference between the tongues of Acts and of Corinthians? Sanders belives the tongues of Acts were human languages, but those of Corinthians were not necessarily so, and on pages 177 and 178 he quotes a commentary of E.H. Plumptre as saying the following:

At Pentecost all spoke in tongues (Acts 2:4). This was not true of the believers at Corinth (1 Cor 12:30).

At Pentecost the tongues were understood by all (Acts 2:6). At Corinth they were understood by none (1 Cor 14:2,9).

At Pentecost they spoke to men (Acts 2:11,17). At Corinth they spoke to God (1 Cor 14:2).

At Pentecost no interpreter was necessary (Acts 26). At Corinth speaking with tongues was forbidden if an interpreter was not present (1 Cor 14:23,28).

At Pentecost speaking with tongues was a sign or credential to believers (Acts 11:15). At Corinth it was a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor 14:22).

At Pentecost speaking with tongues brought salvation to others (cts 2:41). At Corinth it edified those who spoke (1 Cor 14:4).

At Pentecost strangers were filled with awe and marvelled (Acts 2:7,8). At Corinth Paul warned that if all spoke with tongues in a church assembly, strangers would say they were mad (1 Cor 14:23).

At Pentecost there was perfect harmony (Acts 2:1). At Corinth there was confusion (1 Cor 14:33).

It would seem that some of the confusion of today, on both sides of this argument, stems from trying to treat two different phenomena as if they were the same.

So, what are these two phenomena? The “other tongues” of pentecost were understandable, real, human languages not known to the speaker, but known to the hearers (unless, of course, the hearers were being given a miraculous gift of interpretation, which is also worth thinking about). At Corinth, they were exercising languages, no less real, not necessarily known to any human, except through the gift of interpretation.

Are tongues an ecstatic phenomenon?

Sanders, in common with William Barclay and many others of his time, insists on describing them as “ecstatic, vocal utterances, fervent and rapturous expressions” (p 178). They may sometimes be such, but our experience is that, like true prophecy, the gift of tongues is exercised in a far more matter of fact way, and is always under the control of the speaker. The degree of “rapture” varies with the circumstances of the speaker and the reason for speaking.

I believe this common expectation of “ecstacy”, as if something overcomes the speaker, is another source of misunderstanding that has caused great harm to the church. On the one hand, it leaves a person who uses the gift in such a state vulnerable to its being counterfeited by unholy spirits. On the other, it leaves the person who can’t achieve such ecstacy wondering what is so wrong with their faith that the lord won’t give them the gift. This later misunderstanding of the nature of tongues kept me from being able to exercise it for decades. Once I understood truly what I was seeking, the gift came relatively easily and is now one of my most effective ministry tools.

Sanders does not mention the possiblity of a third way of using the gift, that of exercising it either in the assembly during worship, or privately, without the need for interpretation. We will return to this another time.

A Point Sanders does make (p 179) is that since speaking in tongues, in an ecstatic manner, is common also in Islam, Hinduism, Mormonism and Spiritism, what does this say about it being a necessary sign of Spirit baptism?

Can there be tongues today?

Sanders outlines the arguments of his day against tongues being a gift for now. For example:

  • Tongues only appear in Acts and Corinthians, and not in the later Epistles, proving they had ceased.
  • The signs were initial and incomplete, to get Jerusalem’s attention, and were never repeated. 1 Corinthians 13:8–10 supposedly supports this, if you ignore the fact that the perfect that is to come is the return of Jesus, not the completion of Paul’s writings.

Sanders had used the same arguments himself, but to his credit, in the face of such scriptures as:

“Forbid not to speak in tongues” (1 Cor 14:39),

“I would that you all spoke with tongues” (1 Cor 14:5),

“I speak with tongues more than you all” (1 Cor 14;18),

he had to admit that some speaking with tongues must be allowable. He does say that most modern tongues speaking is only “jargon and hysteria” (p 181), and its fruits have not proved to be the fruit of the Spirit, but he quotes one experience of its use in public worship where the result has been “a spirit of gentleness, humility, sobriety and love” (p 181).

Sanders decided that its main use was to be in private, unexpectedly, without seeking it, for the purpose of adoration and worship. This happened to him a few times, but it ceased and never recurred.

I can’t help wonder whether the Spirit of God was gently trying to gain his attention, but he was not willing to engage with it, and so, sadly, the Spirit left, grieved.

Next we will look at Sanders’ second chapter on this subject of The Spirit and Speaking in Tongues.


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