The need for "sorting out spiritual language" isn't unique to the last century. In his time, the apostle Paul also found it necessary to address believers on this subject. In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul was dealing with people who were confused that spiritual language was an end in itself, which it is not. While the Bible says, "he who speaks in a tongue is not speaking to men but to God" (1 Cor. 14:2), if we are speaking only to God and not talking to people, we are not serving the ministry for which the Holy Spirit has empowered us.
The blessing and phenomenon of spiritual language commonly attends being filled with the Spirit. I've been asked if a person is truly filled with the Spirit if they don't speak with tongues. There are scriptures in the Bible that either side could argue, but I don't think it is supposed to be a point of argument. Neither do I believe it ought to be a point of passivity.
Over and over in Scripture, people receive spiritual language at the same time they are baptized with the Spirit. It's been my experience, and the traditional Pentecostal Church usually ties the two closely together. Spiritual language was available to everyone on the day the Church was born, and there's no reason to doubt that as the Church continues, it is available to all believers, regardless of when they receive Jesus Christ.
Every person who receives Jesus Christ as Savior has received the Holy Spirit as the indwelling Spirit. In fact, we wouldn't have come to the Lord without the Holy Spirit drawing us. He brings us to Christ, He glorifies Christ, and He magnifies Christ (see John 15, 16).
Jesus makes clear, however, that there is a difference between the indwelling Holy Spirit and the overflowing Spirit. In John 4, He tells the woman at the well, who needed saving grace, that the water He had to give would become in her a fountain springing up unto everlasting life. Then, in John 7, speaking about the Holy Spirit who would later be given, He says, "Those who believe in Me, out of their inner being will flow rivers of living water." Jesus distinguishes between coming to receive eternal life at the well of salvation, and rivers of living water that not only refresh us, but also flow out of us in ministry to other people by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Bible distinguishes between spiritual prayer and our native language prayer: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding" (1 Cor. 14:15). While we may not understand the words we are speaking, spiritual language is not meaningless or gibberish; it is begotten by the Holy Spirit. The Bible says, "There are...so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance" (1 Cor. 14:10).
With over 6,000 languages spoken on planet Earth, it is doubtful anyone is able to recognize them all, and thus, there are no grounds on which to judge someone's spiritual language. There have been occasions, both in my own ministry and that of others, in which, unbeknownst to the person praying, their spiritual language was later determined to be a language spoken by a tribe or people somewhere else in the world.
Along with seeking to correct abusive practices in the church, especially regarding the public use of tongues, the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 describes the very practical benefits of the private, devotional exercise of spiritual language.
Spiritual language enables us to speak to God
He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him... (v. 2)
Speaking to God in spiritual language is not the only way to speak to Him, but it is a privileged benefit by which we gain intimacy with God, and by which the Holy Spirit empowers us to serve others. The Lord preciously and personally loves each of us in a way that is distinctive. When we pray in the Spirit, we are speaking only to God. While we don't know what we are saying, we do know to Whom we are speaking, as well as the texture of what our heart feels toward Him, as the Holy Spirit enables us to speak beyond the words we know.
Spiritual language equips us with insight
...however, in the Spirit he speaks mysteries. (v. 2)
The word "mysteries" is not talking about peculiar things but about God's truth being brought into the light. It may be fresh to our minds, but it's not going to be different from what's in the Bible. To us, a mystery is something we can't figure out, but in the Greek (musterion), it is an insight or revelation that now we understand.
Often when I am studying and come across something that I just don't get, I will bow my head over the Scriptures and ask the Lord to help me tap into His Holy Spirit to see where it fits. It's important to remember that the Bible was given by the Holy Spirit. While I am praying, another verse will come to mind, and then it will all click: Oh, this connects to that. Or the Lord will whisper something in my heart, and it all becomes clear.
Spiritual language is self-edifying
He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself... (v. 4)
When we speak in tongues, there is an edifying-or building up-of ourselves. That doesn't mean that people who speak in tongues are not interested in loving the lost and serving others. The Word says: "But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life" (Jude 20-21). It goes on to say to have compassion for the lost, and reach out to those who need to be drawn from the threat of eternal loss into life in Jesus.
Spiritual language is also an occasion in which we may welcome the Encourager or the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who comes alongside to help us. (Paraclete is the term.) As we pray in the Spirit, He flows refreshing to us. There is no human explanation for the supernatural infusion of His encouragement and strength into our being when we pray in the Spirit.
Spiritual language expands the dimensions of our praise and intercession
For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us... (Rom. 8:26)
There is power in our praise when it becomes an instrument in the hands of the Spirit to drive back the works of darkness. Praise is an instrument of warfare and intercession, and it is loathed by the Adversary. The Bible in Romans 8:26-27 says that we often don't know how to pray as we should, but the Holy Spirit knows the mind of the Father pertaining to the circumstance, and He will enable us to pray exactly the way we need to, beyond our human capacities.
When we look at these benefits of spiritual language, we see in the Word why, on the day the Church was born, the Lord gave everybody a release in spiritual language. I don't believe it was to prove to them that the Holy Spirit had come; the love of God overflowing their hearts would have done that. Nor was it to demonstrate that the power of God had come. Over each of their heads could be seen fire from Heaven that had come to energize. I believe spiritual language was given not as a proof but as a resource they would need in order for the Church to be the Church.
I will never argue against the idea that tongues are an evidence of the baptism of the Spirit, because I think there is sufficient evidence for that. But the Lord did not give us spiritual language as a point of argument for the Church. He gave it as a resource to capacitate the Church. The Holy Spirit, who has come to dwell in us, wants to overflow every one of us and, in that overflow, to release His spiritual language.
Copyright © 2008 by Jack W. Hayford, Jack Hayford Ministries
Our gift of this teaching article by Pastor Jack Hayford is made possible by your gracious support of the ministry. Partner with us online or call toll-free 1-800-776-8180 to donate (within the U.S.).