J. Oswald Sanders on Speaking in Tongues – Part 2

Back in April we began looking at what J. Oswald Sanders had written about the gift of tongues in his book Spiritual Maturity. Here is the second part of that article.

Sanders does not agree with the common Pentecostal teaching that tongues is the essential evidence for baptism of the Holy Spirit.. As the doctrine is based on the occurences in the Book of Acts where tongues is bestowed, he examines what the real purpose for tongues might have been on those occasions. He gives three cases:

1. At Pentecost: The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascencion of Christ had taken place. Great crowds of Jews were now about to depart from Jerusalem. If they were going to be evangelised then something was needed to get their attention quickly. The language barriers needed to be crossed if the fifteen nations present were to be initially reached.

2. At Caesarea: Peter was reluctant to take the Gospel to the Gentile Cornelius. God gave the identical gift of tongues to the Gentiles to convince Peter and the Jerusalem church that he treated Jew and Gentile equally.

3. At Ephesus: The Jews in Ephesus knew nothing about the events that took place since John the Baptist. The gift of tongues linked them to both the Church of Jerusalem and the Gentiles at Caesarea.

So, in these cases the gift is not so much evidence of the reception of the Holy Spirit as it is of the identity of the source of blessing. It was unasked for and unexpected. In fact, if tongues was the evidence of Spirit baptism, then it would have to be the most important gift. Yet Paul clearly teaches in 1 Corinthians 14:19 that this is not the case.

So, what is the purpose of the gift of tongues? It authenticated and confirmed the inspired preaching while there was yet no written New Testament. It was God bearing witness “with signs and wonders” (Hebrews 2:4). It is also an important devotional gift, otherwise it would not have been given directly by the Holy Spirit.

The church, and particularly Paul, introduced rules to limit the misuse of the gift of tongues, because, according to Sanders, ecstacy, hysteria and self-hypnotism are difficult to distinguish:

  • The gift is given at God’s disgression and may not be demanded.
  • The greater gifts are to be more desired.
  • The purpose of any gift is edification of the church.
  • Public tongues must be interpreted.
  • Public use must be orderly and limited.
  • If the gift produces confusion it is not of God.

The reasons Sanders emphasises these rules he gives as:

The danger of spiritual Pharisaism, or what we today might call elitism.

Its openness to counterfeit. However, Sanders makes no mention that healing, deliverance, prophecy, teaching and even evangelism are also regularly counterfeited today, perhaps with even more serious consequences.

The tendency to divisiveness. Sanders points out this unfortunate trend among Pentecostals, but surely they did not invent it. Possibly all denominations have come about at least in some degree because of divisiveness. Also, it takes two parties for a division to take place – one of which wants to adopt something new and another which react against the change. Given that God’s purpose is never static but always moving forward, you can easily guess which side of the division I believe the fault more often lies!

Emotional excesses. The Holy Spirit is able to affect all parts of a human: body – leading to miracles; spirit – leading to ecstacy of feelings as in tongues; and mind - which results in prophecy. Because the feelings of ecstacy are great and lead to lack of control, excesses of emotion are likely. Sanders betrays a number of biases here. First, if he was experienced in the true gift of tongues he would realise just how little ecstacy is involved. Second, prophecy is just as ‘ecstatic’ as tongues, but for Sanders, prophecy perhaps equates merely to good preaching, which is a common evangelical mistake. Third, the intellect is just as capable of excesses, as evidenced in the coldness of much conservative evangelical practice. Fourth, is emotion really such an evil? What of love which leads to self-sacrifice? What of grief for the lost which produces tears?

Sanders then otlines ways in which we can “best help those obsessed by this teaching and prevent others from embracing it.” This is a noble goal, as long as the teaching in question is the mistaken one of making tongues essential to salvation, and not the truth that the gift of tongues is a wonderful, powerful gift from the Holy Spirit, the use of which is vital for the ministry of the church,  and without which the growth and effectiveness of any believer will be that much slower and made more difficult.

One thing is evident to me from my reading of Sanders and other conservative evangelicals – don’t try to be a teacher about a subject unless you have embraced the fullness of that subject in your own experience. This is not a criticism of Sanders. I believe he has tried to do this, and he says as much in his concluding paragraphs.

However, if you read the most rabid denouncers of tongues, and the most arrogant of its advocates, then you invariably find a wounded individual who has another, far larger agenda at work within him than the one on the surface. Try a Google search of this topic and see for yourself.

About Mal

Pastor, prayer counsellor, webhost, web designer, radio amateur, aspiring pro blogger.
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2 Responses to J. Oswald Sanders on Speaking in Tongues – Part 2

  1. Judi says:

    I hear you; but what of the incident in Samaria when Philip baptized so many of them, but Peter and James (or John?) went down and laid hands on them and they received the Holy Ghost. My question is, what did Simon the Sorcerer “see” that made him offer money for what they did?

  2. Mal says:

    Hi Judi,

    Depends whether you are asking me or Sanders. I don’t know what he would say, and there are many things in his arguments I would disagree with.

    Personally, I believe it was most likely speaking in tongues, which is more easily ‘seen’, but it could also have been their peace and joy.

    I have more to say, but I’ll do it in another post.