When I was in the ministry there were times when I would feel God speaking to me so clearly that it was overwhelming. More often than not, He was getting me ready to preach a sermon, so I would write down (or speak into a recorder) the thoughts He was giving me. If I didn’t I felt as if I would burst. Shortly before I left the ministry, I would be in prayer, meditating on God’s Word, and I would feel God speaking to me in the same way. It was overwhelming. The “problem” was that He was showing me things that messed with my Pentecostal theologies. As I write this blog post, I have that same feeling. I am overwhelmed with the feeling that I must write this post. I am actually delaying doing homework so I can get this out—before I burst. I readily acknowledge that the “feeling” that God is moving on me to write this does not make what I have to say true. But I wanted to convey to readers that my conclusions are not just the result of some sort of intellectual exercise born out of some twisted desire to “prove” anything. Paul said, “Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel.” Tonight, I feel like “Woe is unto me if I don’t complete this post.” It “almost” makes me want to preach again. I hope and pray that the words that follow will resonate with someone, and that they will encourage you to lay hold of God’s grace in a new and vibrant way.
To begin with, I want to briefly explain Acts 2:38 soteriology as I understand it. Soteriology refers to a particular teaching regarding salvation. I have dubbed this “Acts 2:38” soteriology because the doctrine that I used to teach revolves around this verse of Scripture. Acts 2:38 soteriology basically says that in order to be “saved” (or to go to Heaven) a person must repent of their sins, be baptized correctly by full immersion in water in the name of Jesus Christ, and then be filled with the Holy Spirit with the accompanying evidence of speaking in tongues. These three “elements” or “steps” are all listed in Acts 2:38. It must be emphasized that one has not been properly baptized unless the name of Jesus was spoken over the baptizee during the baptism. And one has not received the gift of the Spirit unless they have spoken in tongues. In effect, one is not a true Christian under this teaching unless the person has been correctly baptized, and unless this person has spoken in tongues. For those who ascribe to this doctrine, 99% of all is that called Christianity is part of their mission field.
This doctrine evolved over a period of decades beginning in the early 1900’s (I could go over the history of it, but this is already going to be too long). The reasoning goes like this. Jesus told Nicodemus (in John 3:3-5) that a person must be “born again” (or from above—see my post “a primer for the new birth”) of the “water” and the “Spirit.” The logic goes that this “double” birth is really a double “baptism” (See my post on “the baptism connection”). It correlates nicely with Acts 2:38 where Peter says that a person should “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” and that they would “receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” So, the birth of water and Spirit in John 3:5 is the baptism of water and Spirit that Peter talked about in Acts 2:38.
So, where does speaking in tongues come in? Well, if one must “receive the Holy Spirit,” then, logically, there must be a way to know when this has happened. The “evidence” doctrine goes like this: If you look at the book of Acts, there are four places where it talks of people being “filled with the Holy Ghost” (or Holy Spirit): Acts 2:4; 8:16; 10:44-48; 19:1-6. There is a fifth instance in Acts 9 where Paul receives the gift of the Holy Ghost, but it doesn’t give any details. In that instance we know that Paul spoke in tongues because he says so in 1 Corinthians 14. But of the other four instances, three of them specifically mention tongues. The fourth doesn’t mention “tongues,” but it does mention something “happening” that caught the attention of those observing the event. So, the logic goes like this: of the five times when the book of Acts talks about someone receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, we know that the people spoke in tongues in four of those instances, and we know that in the fifth something “tangible” happened. So, if we use the book of Acts as our guide for discovering the pattern of “how” someone receives the Holy Ghost, then it is only logical to conclude that “tongues” must be the evidence.
At this point, some may object and go to 1 Corinthians 14:4 and note that Paul says, “I would that you all spoke with tongues. . .”, or 1 Corinthians 12:30, where Paul asks, “Do all speak with tongues,” seemingly indicating that some in the church did not speak in tongues. Acts 2:38 soteriology proponents will quickly note that Paul is talking about the “gift” of tongues here, and not the evidential tongues that one initially experiences with the reception of the Holy Spirit. The reasoning here is that 1 Corinthians is written to people who are “already” Christians, and if one must be “born” of “water” and “Spirit” by baptisms, and if Acts shows that people speak in tongues when they are baptized with the Spirit, then all the readers here had already spoken in tongues when they initially received the Spirit. So, Paul is ostensibly talking about the “gift” of tongues, which is clearly a different operation of the Spirit than “evidential” tongues.
In a nutshell, that is this is the “evidence doctrine” portion of Acts 2:38 soteriology (There is more to it, and it gets more complex, but time is short). If I have done a good job of explaining this, then for the non-theologian casual reader the reaction is probably “makes sense to me.” And most converts and proponents are not theologians, so this does make for a convincing argument. Now, I am not a theologian (as I have declared multiple times), but I have found this doctrine to be flawed. Following is a brief explanation of why I say this.
First, the book of Acts was not written to teach doctrine. Luke was writing “descriptive history” not “prescriptive doctrine.” He was “describing” events—narrating history—not “instructing” his readers about church doctrine. He was describing events that were significant to the early church—and he did it largely without commentary. In other words, after he described the events in Acts 2, 8, 10 and 19, he does not add his understanding of the events or the meaning of the events. He simply moves on. Nowhere does he declare “and this is what happens to all people who receive the baptism of the Holy Ghost, and it is the pattern to follow for all generations to come.” So, to find an “evidence” doctrine in the pages of Acts is at best wrong-headed. It adds meaning to the verses that Luke never intended (at least he never told us he intended for us to get that meaning). Conversely, the epistles are “instructive,” and do “prescribe” doctrine. As a matter of fact, the book of Romans is probably the most comprehensive writing we have regarding church doctrine. In the book of Romans Paul does mean to establish and prescribe doctrine for the church. Luke does not intend to do that in Acts. In Acts, Luke is trying to convince skeptics that this new movement within Judaism is indeed the work of God. So, he picks out significant events over the early decades of the church. Note: Luke does quote portions of “sermons” that Peter, Paul, and others preached, but again, he does so without commentary. And you will not find an “evidence” doctrine in those brief quotations either. So, even in the “teaching” that is “recorded” in Acts, never is speaking in tongues given the emphasis that Acts 2:38 soteriology proponents give it today.
Nowhere in Scripture does it ever “teach” that there is any “initial evidence” when someone receives the gift of the Holy Ghost. If the doctrine that someone needed to speak in tongues in order to know that they had received this gift were so important, you would think that at least one writer in the New Testament would have said so. The fact is that no one does.
If you get a chance, read the book of Acts through and note how many times it talks of people being “saved.” The language of “salvation” in Acts is not “Someone was ‘saved’ today.” Rather, it speaks of people being “added” to the church, or of people “believing.” I was amazed when I realized that Luke records around 27 instances (It has been awhile since I counted them, so I may be off a bit) when people are “saved.” I had always assumed and taught that the five instances of Spirit baptism were the salvation events. But this is not what we see in Acts. In fact, “salvation” language is curiously absent from the tongue-speaking events in Acts.
(As I noted above, Luke does record portions of “sermons” in Acts. Take a look at the “first” sermon Peter preached in Acts 2. You may be surprised to find that Peter does talk about “how” to be “saved,” but he doesn’t do it in verse 38. He does it in verse 21 when he is quoting from the Old Testament (This was a shock to me when I first noticed this). He does the same in Acts 10:43. Interestingly, these two instances fit nicely with Paul’s teaching in Romans 10:9-13. These verses are all about “believing” and “calling on the name of the Lord.” But I digress—onward to more discussion of “tongues.”)
As we have noted, to use Acts to establish doctrines by stringing together observations of recorded events, when those doctrines are not expressly taught elsewhere is tantamount to “adding to Scripture,” something that none of wants to do. It is really using human logic to connect dots that are not otherwise connected for us by any biblical author. Again, there is NO teaching in Acts regarding speaking in tongues. As a matter of fact, the ONLY book that does teach about tongues is 1 Corinthians. Let’s take a look.
For Paul to say “I would that you all spoke with tongues, but rather that you prophesied,” and “Do all speak with tongues,” with no further explanation would be truly confusing to readers who had all spoken in tongues. For proponents of Acts 2:38 soteriology, just think of what confusion this would cause in your churches if a minister got up and said “I wish you all spoke with tongues, but I would rather you prophesied,” without explaining himself. Or if he rhetorically asked “do all speak with tongues,” with the implication being that all do not—and did not offer further clarification about the fact that he was “obviously” not talking about “evidential” tongues—he would cause an uproar in these churches (He would probably be called before the district board and be asked to explain himself). Paul never distinguishes between the “gift of tongues” and “evidential” tongues anywhere in any of his writings. And he does not make a distinction here. Why? In answering, we need to be careful not to put words in Paul’s mouth (pen?) that he did not intend. We do not want to add to Scripture. It is my opinion that the gifts that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 12 (a list which does not appear to be exhaustive) are the various manifestations of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is intellectually dishonest, in my opinion, to say that Paul is making a distinction between different kinds of tongues when he never makes that claim himself.
The book of Acts does record something that Peter taught regarding the reception of the Holy Spirit. He quoted Joel, “and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” This is a direct “teaching” about what Spirit baptism would do for people. Likewise, Jesus declared in Acts 1:8 that we would receive “power” after the reception of the Holy Ghost, and this power was for “witnessing.” So, all of the “teaching” regarding Spirit baptism and speaking in tongues is remiss in connecting the two. If the writers of the New Testament were trying to teach an “evidence” doctrine connecting speaking in tongues with the baptism of the Holy Spirit, then they proved to be very poor communicators. Sadly, it is God that inspired them, so the “blame” really lies with Him.
Please forgive the length of this post, and indulge me on a couple more thoughts. (Borrowed from Dr. Gregory Boyd in Oneness Pentecostals and the Trinity) If we are to use Acts to set a pattern for how people for all time are to experience the baptism of the Holy Ghost, then we would see something entirely different in Pentecostal churches than what we see today. First, tongues is not the only commonality between 3 of the five events in the book of Acts. Here are other things that happened “every” time. The Spirit was always poured out on groups (at least in those events in which tongues are recorded). The Spirit always came without warning. And no one every anticipated speaking in tongues. So, if churches are to truly follow the pattern of Acts, these aspects of the tongues events should be adhered to as well—groups, no warning, and no expectation of tongue-speaking. But again, I emphasize that Luke was not trying to establish any pattern for the church to “follow.” In fact, a closer examination of the Spirit baptism passages, as well as all the events recorded in Acts seems to indicate that there was no pattern that could be followed. This is consistent with the witness and teaching of God’s activity in the whole of Scripture. The Spirit baptism is God’s business, and He “manifests” His Spirit when and where He wants (See 1 Corinthians 12).
One final note regarding the evidence doctrine as taught by Acts 2:38 soteriology proponents (Again, adopted from Dr. Gregory Boyd): For all the lip service given to “salvation by grace” in many Pentecostal churches, the outworking of Acts 2:38 soteriology produces nothing short of a radical salvation-by-works system. When your salvation—your place in eternity—is inexorably tied to the “evidence” of tongues (or any evidence other than the Cross and the Resurrection), then one cannot avoid “working” to “do whatever it takes” to experience this phenomenon. I personally witnessed people “seeking” the baptism of the Holy Ghost for years, waiting for that all important evidence to materialize—speaking in tongues. They would leave church service after church service not understanding why God had not yet given them His Spirit—why He had yet again refused to “save” them. The only thing they knew for sure was that “it was their fault” (Dr. Boyd’s words). So, they would spend the next days working to cleanse their hearts, working to figure out what they needed to do, only to be rejected by God the next Sunday. A few would speak in tongues the first time they approached a church altar, but most did not. Most spent weeks and months “seeking” for this experience. For those reading this who still believe in Acts 2:38 soteriology, just ask yourself “what is the one thing that I am looking for when I am praying for a sinner at a church altar?” I know what we looked for every Sunday morning and night when I was involved—speaking in tongues. That was the goal—always. And yet, that was never the “goal” in the book of Acts. Faith in Jesus Christ was. That is what it should be today.
I hope this has helped someone. I look forward to your responses. I will do my best to respond as I get time. God bless you all as you continue to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”