Tongues the “Spiritual Gift” vs Tongues the “Prayer Language”

In this post, I am addressing one of the biggest points of confusion that I find when discussing the Baptism with the Holy Spirit with people.  It is the misunderstanding of the use of speaking in tongues.

There is an entire chapter devoted to this subject in the Bible, and it should not be confusing at all.  However, because of wrong teaching (or a lack of teaching) there seems to be a large number of Christians that really do not understand this very important subject.

I believe that once you see and understand it the first time you will say “…this is so simple, why did I not see this before?”

Let’s begin with a couple of definitions that will help make things clearer.

Tongues as a “Prayer Language”

(Note:  Although the term “prayer language” is not completely accurate, I am using it here because so many people are familiar with it.)

When a Christian receives the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, he (or she) receives the power and ability to speak in tongues (Acts 1:5, Acts 1:8, Acts 2:4) any time he or she wishes (1 Cor 14:14-15).  It is a new way for us to speak and to communicate with God (1 Cor 14:2) that goes beyond our natural intellect (1 Cor 14:14).  For this reason, many people also call this a “prayer language” even though it can be used for things other than just prayer.

The Bible tells us in several places that we should make use of this ability as often as possible (1 Cor 14:14-15, Eph 6:18,  Jude 1:20, etc).   It also tells us of many ways that it benefits the person that is doing it.  We are specifically told that no one will understand this language.  It is meant for communication between you and the Lord.

1 Corinthians 14:2 – For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him ; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.

This is a faith activity between you and God.  If other don’t people understand what you are saying, it is not an issue because what you are saying is not intended for them.  When you are using your “prayer language,” no interpretation is required or expected.  If someone complains, just say “I wasn’t talking to you.”

In the Bible, we are told that sometimes in our midst there will be people that don’t understand, or that don’t believe.  It says that people like this may think we are “out of our minds” when we are doing this.  The implication is that it would usually be better to avoid doing this in front of them (1 Cor 14:23).

But, on the other hand, if you are around other Christians that understand and believe the Bible, then it is OK to do it in a group setting (Acts 19:6-7) – assuming that you are doing it for the right reasons.  Personally, I don’t do it in front of non-Christians, and I don’t go out of my way to do it in front of Christians that don’t understand it.  But a group of Christians that believe the Bible should be comfortable with this.  If not, then something is wrong somewhere.

Tongues as a “Spiritual Gift”

According to 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, there are nine gifts of the Holy Spirit that are called “manifestations of the Spirit.”  These are instances where the Holy Spirit makes Himself known to us in supernatural ways.  He gives you a temporary “burst of power” to do something that goes beyond your normal ability in order to accomplish something for Him.

1 Corinthians 12:7 – But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all

When one of these “gifts” (aka manifestations) is given to a person, and that person exercises that gift in faith, then other people receive a divine benefit.  The purpose of these gifts are for the believer to cooperate with the Holy Spirit to bless others.

Included in these nine “manifestations of the Spirit” or “spiritual gifts” are three that are have been called the “speaking” or “vocal gifts.”  These are:

  • Prophecy
  • Diversities of Tongues
  • Interpretation of Tongues

These three temporary abilities only come when the Holy Spirit gives them to someone to use them (1 Cor 12:11).   The purpose of these temporary abilities is to bless other people (1 Cor 12:7).

When the gift of prophecy is given, a person will generally speak a message from God under divine influence, and the message will be given in the language of the intended audience.

In general, when the gifts of “diversities of tongues” and “interpretation of tongues” are given, a person will speak a message from God under divine influence, but it will usually be a language unknown to the intended audience.  This is “diversities of tongues.”

Then that same person (or someone else present) will be given the meaning or “interpretation” of that message by the Holy Spirit.  That person will then speak out the interpretation in the language of the intended audience.  The end result is that the people get a message from God that they understand.

In both cases, a message from God is delivered through a person to another person or to a group of people.  The message will come from God, but it will be delivered by the person(s) that received the gift(s).  The result is that others are blessed by the Lord.  God speaks through someone in order to bless another person or a group of people.

Similarities between the two

In both the “prayer language” and the “spiritual gift,” the speaker will be speaking in a language that he/she does not understand.

Both the “prayer language” and the “spiritual gift ” will require the speaker to act in faith.

Differences between the two

In the “prayer language,” you are the one that usually initiates it.  In the “spiritual gift” it is the Holy Spirit that initiates it.

In the “prayer language” the speaker is the main beneficiary.  In the “spiritual gift, other people are the main beneficiaries.

In the “prayer language” you are talking to God.  In the “spiritual gift” God is talking to others through you.

In the “prayer language” you are encouraged to do it all the time.  In the “spiritual gift” you only do it when the Holy Spirit tells you to.

In the “prayer language” no interpretation is needed or expected because God is the intended audience and He understands it.  In the “spiritual gift,” the gift of interpretation of tongues will likely be given so that the people can understand the message and receive the benefit God intended for them.


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9 Responses

  1. Brother, really enjoying this website. Regarding your comment about not praying in tongues around nonbelievers or the unlearned. What about where Paul points out in 1 corinthians 14:20-33 “Tongues then are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers” Paul goes on to explain that this sign will provoke the unbeliever into an unrighteous judgement thinking they are all mad. But if everyone is also prophesying then the secrets of the unbeliever heart will be revealed and they will be convicted. When tongues are a regular part of a meeting those that dont operate in it are exposed. They need to be because they are missing out on Gods precious gift. Unbelievers need it and uninformed Christians need it even more so. Paul is pointing out that exposing them to the gift serves as a sign and a way of bringing them to repentance when prophecy is added to the situation. Your thoughts?

    1. Thanks for your comment! To clarify something…in my post when I referred to speaking in tongues around people that don’t do it, I was not referring to a meeting of believers. I was talking more about when I am at work or in a store or other public setting.

      I agree that people need to find out about this because of what an amazing blessing it is. One of the best places for people to be exposed to this is in a Christian group with mature believers who are experienced in the things of the Spirit and who walk in wisdom and maturity. When it is demonstrated properly, it should stir a hunger in those who are open but have not received it yet.

      As far as what point Paul is trying to make in the passage you referenced…I have read many commentaries on that over the years and I have yet to find something that seems to fit 100% correctly in my mind. So I do not have a dogmatic opinion either way. Your interpretation is definitely one of the ones I have seen, and I see no problems with it.
      Be blessed!

      1. Thanks Neal, looking forward to reading more of your materials. Great work and thank you for posting this stuff!

  2. Hey I just discovered this post. I just gotta ask…

    How do you discern the gift of tongues? Like, how do you discern whether the so-called “tongues” you have are authentic and are from God? Is it really just “random gibberish” that is uttered or does it have a certain structure to it?

    And how about the Holy Spirit’s gift of earthly tongues?

    And how do we discern the Holy Spirit of God from different spirits?

    I’m a little doubtful because all these things that we claim to be from God, if we don’t discern carefully, might be the devil’s counterfeit?

    1. Thanks for your questions!

      In Luke 11:9-13, Jesus makes a very clear and definite promise that if any child of God asks for something good regarding the Holy Spirit, there is absolutely no way that he/she would receive something bad or demonic.

      Therefore, since we believe that Jesus is telling the truth here, as He always does, then we can be absolutely certain that what we received is from God and not from the devil. Otherwise, we would be believing more in the power of the devil to deceive that in the power of God to keep His promises. God is faithful, and infinitely more powerful than the enemy, so there is no need for anyone to fear or doubt in this area.

      Since there is no human that knows all of the thousands of languages and dialects in existence, it is literally impossible to determine, just from a logical standpoint, the “validity” of a language…whether it is real communication or just gibberish. There are multitudes of real languages out there that sound like absolute gibberish to me…but they are not gibberish, they are real forms of communication.

      It comes down to faith. Is Jesus trustworthy? If so, then you have to take a step of faith, believe it, and take action.

      As to your question about discerning…there are times where there is demonic activity going on, and yes that is something we can and do discern. The Holy Spirit is well able to make that clear to anyone who is in communion and communication with Him. And this would come through revelation rather than suspicion.

      But, back to my original point…the Christian who is acting in faith to receive the Baptism with the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues never needs to be afraid of receiving something demonic instead. Or else Jesus was not telling the truth in Luke 11.

      I hope that helps!

  3. Hello Neal,
    Thank you very much for the work you are doing on this blog. I hope you will continue by the grace of God. My question regarding this article comes from criticism I’ve heard by many theologians and Pastors who insist that the tongues spoken of in 1 Corinthians 14 or Acts 2 is merely languages of human origin instead of something divinely given by God like the prayer language. Could you perhaps speak a bit on this to help me out in some doubts I have about tongues being for a private prayer language. Thank you very much for reading my comment, God bless you.

    1. Thank you for your question. If I understand correctly, you are asking me of the “tongues” mentioned in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 are of human origin.

      The “tongues” or “languages” mentioned in these passages (and other passages like them) can be either of human origin, or of angelic origin (1 Cor 13:1). Sometimes when you are speaking in tongues, you are speaking a human language, but it is a language that you as the speaker do not understand. Other times, it may be a language that is an angelic language. The important point is that the language is unknown to the person who is speaking it. It is supernatural. When you speak in tongues, you are speaking supernaturally from your spirit, not from your natural knowledge of a language.

      1 Corinthians 14:14 says “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my understanding is unfruitful.” That means that when you speak in tongues, you are speaking in a language that you do not understand. You are not speaking from your mind or your intellect, you are speaking from your spirit.

      Consider also 1 Corinthians 14:2 – For he who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for

        no one understands him

      ; however, in the spirit he speaks mysteries.

      So to summarize: when you speak in tongues, you are speaking a real language that can be either human or angelic in origin. But it will be a language that you do not understand or know. You are only able to speak in this “unknown” language by using a supernatural ability that is given to you by the Holy Spirit.

      I hope that helps. If not, feel free to reply with any follow up questions.

      Be blessed!

      1. Hey Neal,
        So sorry to have responded late. Thank you for this great comment. God bless you and your ministry.


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