Should every believer speak in an unknown tongue after they are filled with the Holy Spirit?

Should every believer speak in unknown tongues after they are filled with the Holy Spirit?

According to Acts, there are three instances where believers spoke in tongues after they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” or “the Holy Spirit came on them.”

  1. When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs–we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (Acts 2:1-11)
  2. While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said… (Acts 10:44-46)
  3. While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. (Acts 19:1-6)

We can reasonably conclude that these three instances as recorded in Acts when the Holy Spirit first came upon believers are similar and parallel.

It’s clear that in the first instance the believers spoke in a known tongue which they had never learned. The Jews who had come from various other nations for the Feast in Jerusalem could hear them “declaring the wonders of God” each in their own language. In the second instance the circumcised believers who came with Peter to the home of the Gentile Cornelius “heard them speaking in tongues” and could understand them to be “praising God.” In the third instance Paul could hear John’s disciples speak in tongues and could understand that they had just “prophesied.” Prophesy, of course, must be spoken in a language understandable by the listeners (1 Corinthians 14:3-6). 

In these three cases, especially the first and the second, the text would lead us to the conclusion that the known tongues being spoken were a very meaningful sign to the observers present and not primarily directed at God. In the first case in Acts 2 the known tongues brought the astonished crowd together to hear the gospel presented with great boldness by Peter. In the second case in Acts 10 the tongues showed the stunned Jewish believers that the gospel was not only for Jews, but that God had opened the way for Gentiles to enter the kingdom of God as well: “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles,” that is, in the very same way that the gift was poured out on the Jewish believers at Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2 when the Jewish disciples spoke in known tongues. Therefore in Acts 10 the Gentiles listening to Peter preach must have also been speaking in known tongues. In the third case in Acts 19 it is clear that the newly-Spirit-baptized disciples were prophesying—which is of course by definition in a known language.

Therefore we can reasonably conclude that in all three instances the newly Spirit-filled believers were speaking in a known tongue which could be understood by others—whether “declaring the wonders of God,” “praising God,” or the prophecies uttered by John’s disciples which were understood by Paul. Especially in Instances 1 and 2 above the tongues were a very meaningful sign to the bystanders and observers who heard and understood the known tongues.

Based primarily on these three passages, we are taught that speaking in tongues is the evidence to others and to ourselves that we have been baptized in the Holy Spirit. That would appear to be reasonable enough. If we do not speak in tongues, that means we have not yet been filled with the Spirit.

However, in charismatic gatherings today where the baptism of the Holy Spirit is taught and ministered, one almost never sees this taking place (if ever). The candidates who do speak in tongues after hands are laid on them speak in a totally unknown tongue—unlike what transpired in the three instances cited above from Acts where the tongues could be understood by bystanders. Some candidates during such gatherings do not speak in tongues at all—and sadly feel left out. In some gatherings the candidates are coached to utter certain sounds in an attempt to “prime” them to speak in tongues. Such a practice is of course not found in Scripture.

Let us add some clarity to the controversy with the body of Christ surrounding the matter of speaking in tongues.

The “unknown tongues” practiced and taught by charismatics today as the evidence of the infilling of the spirit are not the same as the tongues recorded in Acts, where listeners could actually understand the tongues—as was clearly the case on the day of Pentecost. But with current charismatic practice no one understands the tongues being spoken after the candidate is filled with the Holy Spirit and begins to speak in tongues. The tongues spoken in such gatherings—which are unknown—are actually described very clearly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:2.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 14:2)

These are the “different kinds of tongues” which are classified as one of the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Now, should all believers have the gift which Paul calls “speaking in different kinds of tongues?” The answer is clearly no. Paul goes on to reassure us:

And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? (1 Corinthians 12:28-30)


So now we find ourselves in a quandary. In Acts, especially at Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2, the believers spoke in a tongue which was known to the listeners on each occasion they received the Holy Spirit or were baptized in Him. But today if and when candidates for the infilling speak in tongues, the tongues are unknown and not understood. So strictly speaking Scripture is not being fulfilled in such gatherings. We do not know why this is the case, and can only speculate.

Some might explain this by postulating that the known tongues spoken in Acts following the baptism or infilling of the Holy Spirit was a description of the events which transpired when the Spirit first came, and not a prescription for what should be taking place today.

To complicate matters, Paul teaches that unknown tongues are clearly for edifying the one speaking in tongues, and not for the benefit of bystanders—as were the known tongues in Acts as discussed earlier.

For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. (1 Corinthians 14:2)

Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves… (1 Corinthians 14:4)

Rather, speaking in unknown tongues is primarily for self-edification. It is not a sign for observers as speaking in known tongues was recorded in Acts. Moreover, not everyone receives the gift of speaking in unknown tongues.

1 Corinthians 12:30 Do all speak in tongues?

Our quandary, therefore, is the following: we strongly encourage (if not insist) that candidates speak in tongues when being baptized in the Holy Spirit as recorded in Acts. But if and when the candidate does, he or she does not speak in known tongues as see in Acts as a sign to observers, but rather in unknown tongues for self-edification as taught in 1 Corinthians 14:4 above. It appears therefore that we have confused the “public tongues” of Acts with the “private tongues” of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. They are clearly distinct from one another. To add to our confusion, Paul assures us that not all speak in private tongues.

Suffice it to say that there appears to be no solution to this quandary, at least none that will satisfy everyone. But perhaps at the very least we should ease up on our insistence that every candidate for being filled with the Holy Spirit must speak in unknown tongues as the evidence of being filled. That is clearly not the pattern seen in Acts—especially in Acts 2—where known tongues were spoken. Those believers who do not speak in unknown tongues after having hands laid on them in charismatic gatherings should not feel “left out” or forgotten in any way.

Perhaps the real evidence of being saved and filled with the Holy Spirit is not speaking in tongues (whether “public” or “private”) along with the other gifts and the power of the Spirit, but rather having the sweet fruit of the Spirit evident in our day-to-day personal lives.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:15-23)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control… (Galatians 5:22-23)