Special Gifts for a Special Age

Much has been written about the special gift of speaking in tongues, so that another article on the subject may seem wearisome and superfluous. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to say anything on the subject which has not been said before, but it may nevertheless be of use to stress an aspect of the subject which is of very great practical importance today.

The aspect which in the writer’s judgment might profitably be emphasized again is that the gift (or gifts) of speaking in tongues which was bestowed by the Holy Spirit in the apostolic age was a special charismatic endowment which we have no warrant to believe has been continued in the church. Like the other special or extraordinary gifts of the Spirit in the apostolic age it was granted for the special purposes which God had for that age and has not been perpetuated in the church. Claims have of course been made since to gifts or powers which might seem to resemble these special apostolic gifts of the Spirit. But however sincere the claims, justification cannot be found for identifying these gifts with the apostolic charismata.

The Special Day of Pentecost

A special gift of speaking in tongues or foreign languages was conferred on the apostles by the Holy Spirit on the unique occasion of Pentecost. The Lord after his resurrection had commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, of which he had spoken to them (Acts 1:4). This promise had to do with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. “For John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days hence” (Acts 1:5).

On Pentecost there suddenly came a sound from heaven like that of a rushing of a mighty or violent wind, and the house where they were sitting was filled with the sound. Tongues as of fire then appeared to them, dividing and resting on each of them. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues or languages as the Spirit gave them utterance. Men of diverse national backgrounds heard them speak in their own tongues the wonderful works of God. As Peter explained, this was in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy of the outpouring of the Spirit. Jesus of Nazareth, as David had foretold, had been raised up by God. Now at the right hand of God exalted and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus poured forth what was seen and heard.

The day of Pentecost was the unique day of the promised coming of the Holy Spirit. The dramatic and spectacular gift which he bestowed in his coming was manifestly appropriate for attesting his coming and for the beginning of the period of the universal diffusion of the gospel and the world-wide extension of the church. It would be w}warranted to suppose that the supernatural, miraculous gift of speaking in foreign languages would continue in the church thenceforth. The Holy Spirit himself would remain, but the gift which on that day broke down Babel’s impediments was not promised as a perpetual gift for the church. Christians of a later day can find no grounds in what then happened for expecting to be relieved of the necessity of studying foreign languages; missionaries cannot rightfully expect to receive a Pentecostal gift of speaking in the languages of the countries to which they would carry the gospel.

Special Gifts Among Believers

On another unique occasion, often called the Gentile Pentecost,1 a gift of speaking in tongues was also conferred by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:24–48). In response to the specially disclosed will of the Spirit Peter had gone to Caesarea and had entered into the house of Cornelius. While Peter spoke, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word in a way that made his presence clear (Acts 10:44); “And they of the circumcision that believed were amazed, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Spirit. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized. who have received the Holy Spirit as well as we?” (Acts 10:45–47).

Later in Jerusalem Peter reported how it had been the divine will that he should go to uncircumcised Gentiles and that the Holy Spirit had fallen on the believers in Caesarea “even as on us at the beginning” (Acts 11:15). Peter continued; “And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized in the Holy Spirit. If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I, that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:16–17). We further read that “when they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).

At Caesarea the Holy Spirit clearly indicated that Gentiles who believed were to be baptized and received into the church without being required to be circumcised and to observe other customs (Acts 15:7–11 ). He imparted to them on this extraordinary occasion an extraordinary gift of utterance, a gift at least similar to that which he granted to the apostles on the day of Pentecost. We are not given any warrant to suppose that the special gift which was conferred at Caesarea for a special purpose would be conferred on all who thereafter believed the gospel or that even in the early church such a gift was an inseparable accompaniment of Christian faith. It would indeed be precarious to maintain without express warrant that what happened on a unique occasion for a special purpose might be expected to become ordinary and normal.

We have, in fact, clear indications in the book of Acts that such a gift of speaking with tongues, the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit or charismata, were not found always when Christian faith was present. In the nineteenth chapter we read of certain disciples who had not received the special gifts of the Holy Spirit when they believed (verse 2). They had received only John’s baptism, and had not even heard of the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. But even when they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus, they did not at once and automatically receive the special gifts of the Spirit. It was not until Paul laid his hands on them that the Holy Spirit came upon them they then and in a manifest and convincing way spoke with tongues and prophesied (5–6). The gift of utterance which the Holy Spirit gave them, whatever its relationship to the gifts of tongues bestowed on Pentecost and at Caesarea, had not come at the time of their conversion, nor simply with their baptism into the name of the Lord Jesus, but it came in connection with the special apostolic action of the laying on of hands.

Another important passage of a similar kind is found in the eighth chapter of Acts. There we read of disciples in Samaria who had been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus, but who had not received the special gifts of the Holy Spirit (verses 14–16). The apostles Peter and John came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. They then laid their hands on them, with the result that they received the Holy Spirit (14–17). When Simon the sorcerer saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Spirit was given, he offered money that he might be given the power that on whomsoever he would lay his hands he might receive the Holy Spirit (18–19).

Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield has outlined the significance of this passage:

“This case of the Samaritans was of great importance in the primitive church, to enable men to distinguish between the gifts of grace and the gilts of power. Without it there would have been danger that only these would be accredited as Christians who possessed extraordinary gifts. It is of equal importance to us, to teach us the source of the gifts of power, in the Apostles, apart from whom they were not conferred: as also their function to authenticate the Apostles as the authoritative founders or the church. It is in accordance with this reading of the significance of this incident, that Paul, who had all the signs of an Apostle, had also the power of conferring the charismata, and that in the entire New Testament we meet with no instance of the gifts showing themselves after the initial instances of Pentecost and Cornelius—when an Apostle had not conveyed them. Hermann Cremer is accordingly quite right when he says that ‘the Apostolic charismata bear the same relation to those of the ministry that the Apostolic office does to the pastoral office; the extraordinary gifts belonged to the extraordinary office and showed themselves only in connection with its activities.’”2

In the light of these passages in the eighth and the nineteenth chapters of Acts, it is not at all surprising to find references to the possession of the gifts of the Holy Spirit by members of churches founded by an apostle. It would seem that the Galatians had received extraordinary as well as ordinary gifts of the Spirit (Gal. 3:2–5). One of the special gifts bestowed on Christians in Corinth was that of speaking with tongues (I Cor. 12–14). Opinions have differed as to whether or not this gift in Corinth was a speaking in foreign languages like the gift received on the day of Pentecost. Whatever may have been its precise nature, it was, as Paul’s treatment of it makes clear, a special or extraordinary gift of utterance bestowed by the Holy Spirit. It may have seemed ecstatic, rhapsodic, ejaculatory, and unintelligible, but nevertheless susceptible to interpretation by those who had received a special gift of interpretation from the Holy Spirit.

The Uniqueness of the Apostolic Ministry

The special privileges and gifts of the Spirit which the apostles received enabled them to perform the special work of authoritative witnessing and planting and governing for which Christ had appointed them. The Lord, for example, promised the Spirit to them to teach them all things and to bring to their remembrance all that he had said unto them (John 14:26). He also told them, “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he shall guide you into all the truth: for he shall not speak from himself; but what things soever he shall hear, these shall he speak: and he shall declare unto you the things that are to come.” (John 16:12–13) Just before his ascension he told them, “…ye shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Chosen and appointed directly by Christ, taught by him, witnesses to his ministry and to his resurrection (cf. Acts 1:21–22), endued with special gifts of the Spirit, they were uniquely qualified and enabled to perform the work of their unique office. No one in future ages would possess the qualifications for their office, and their office would necessarily be discontinued.

Such signs and wonders and special gifts of the Holy Spirit which accompanied the ministry of the apostles provided, by God’s design, a confirmation of their testimony. Jesus of Nazareth was truly, as Peter told his hearers on the day of Pentecost, “a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as ye yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22) The signs which Jesus performed provided a divinely appointed basis and encouragement for Christian faith (John 20:30–31 ). It was not strange that he as the exalted Lord, continuing his work through his apostles (cf. Acts 1:1–5), supported them in their ministry by many wonders and signs (Acts 2:43).

Paul could write to the Corinthians, “…in nothing was I behind the very chiefest apostles, though I am nothing. Truly the signs of an apostle were wrought among you in all patience, by signs and wonders and mighty works.” (II Cor. 12:11–12; cf. also commentaries by Calvin and Charles Hodge.) Likewise Paul could make reference to the things which Christ wrought through him, “for the obedience of the Gentiles, by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Holy Spirit; so that from Jerusalem, and round about even unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.” (Rom. 15:18–19)

The author of Hebrews puts it very clearly: “…how shall we escape, if we neglect so great a salvation? which having at the first been spoken through the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard: God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders, and by manifold powers, and by gift of the Holy Spirit, according to his own will.” (Heb. 2:3–4)

Similarly Acts tells us that when Paul and Barnabas were in lconium they spoke boldly in the Lord, “who bare witness unto the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.” (Acts 14:3; and cf. 1 Peter 1:12 and the textually questioned Mark 16:20). The significant connection made in a number of passages in the New Testament between the witness to the word of God’s grace and the signs and wonders and distributions of the Spirit which abundantly confirmed the apostolic testimony must not be neglected.

Warfield calls attention to an important principle, “of which the actual attachment of the charismata of the Apostolic Church to the mission of the Apostles is but an illustration. This deeper principle may be reached by us through the perception, more broadly, of the inseparable connection of miracles with revelation, as its mark and credential; or, more narrowly of the summing up of all revelation, finally, in Jesus Christ. Miracles do not appear on the page of Scripture vagrantly, here, there, and elsewhere indifferently, without assignable reason. They belong to revelation periods, and appear only when God is speaking to His people through accredited messengers, declaring His gracious purposes. Their abundant display in the Apostolic Church is the mark of the richness of the Apostolic age in revelation; and when this revelation period closed, the period of miracle-working had passed by also, as a mere matter of course.”3

Warfield appropriately quotes Bavinck: “According to the Scriptures: Herman Bavinck explains, “special revelation has been delivered in the form of a historical process which reaches its end-point in the person and work of Christ. When Christ had appeared and returned again to heaven, special revelation did not, indeed, come at once to an end. There was yet to follow the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, and the extraordinary working of the powers and gifts through and under the guidance of the Apostolate. The Scriptures undoubtedly reckon all this to the sphere of special revelation, and the continuance of this revelation was necessary to give abiding existence in the world to the special revelation which reached its climax in Christ -abiding existence both in the word of Scripture and in the life of the church. Truth and life, prophecy and miracle, word and deed, inspiration and regeneration go hand in hand in the completion of special revelation. But when the revelation of God in Christ had taken place, and had become in Scripture and church a constituent part of the cosmos, then another era began. As before everything was a preparation for Christ, so afterward everything is to be a consequence of Christ. Then Christ was being framed into the head of his people, now his people are be being produced, now they are being applied. New constituent elements of special revelation can no longer be added; for Christ has come, his work has been done, and his word is complete.”4

The Way God Works Today

When the work of the apostles was done, and they had confirmed the salvation which the Lord began to attest in his earliest ministry, when the church had been planted, the apostolic foundation provided (Eph. 2:20), and the New Testament had been written, there was no further need of the apostolic office and of the signs and gifts which had so notably accompanied it.

The apostles had proved “the link between the Lord himself and the Scriptures of the New Testament.5 With the death of the apostles and of others who in the apostolic age had received special gifts, these special gifts died out. Revelation and inspiration such as had been given to the apostles or others were no longer necessary. For the new period there remained the Holy Scriptures, the canon now being complete. The God-breathed written word with its inspired message from the apostolic age was designed to be for men in later times the only infallible rule for faith and life. Its glorious perfections render any new special revelatory gifts of the Spirit unnecessary for the accomplishment of God’s purpose for us. As the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” (I:vl)

If there should appear to be some phenomena today which in certain ways resemble the special gifts imparted by the Holy Spirit in the apostolic age, we should be warned by such considerations as we have been adducing not to identify them with those gifts. Men recover from illnesses today in answer to prayer, but their recovery does not prove that a miracle in the New Testament sense has occurred on their behalf. God’s people may in our times experience remarkable deliverances from danger, but this does not establish the fact that the directly supernatural or miraculous rather than the natural or at the most preternatural has been at work for them in God’s providence. Men today speak in an ecstatic and unintelligible fashion, but this does not furnish proof that they are experiencing a supernatural gift of tongues such as was granted by the Holy Spirit in New Testament times. In the case of the signs and wonders and special gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the New Testament we have divine authority, the testimony of the inerrant word of God itself, as to their nature. But no such infallible authority can be cited to establish a supernatural character for certain present·day phenomena. Indeed, on the contrary, as we have seen, the Scriptures give us no warrant to suppose that the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit would be continued beyond the apostolic period. God gave his special gifts, his special signs, for a special age.


1. Dr. N. B. Stonehouse in Paul before the Areopagus (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1957), p. 77, says that “in spite of certain parallels with Pentecost, the development in Caesarea is undoubledly viewed as somewhat subordinate to it, and as actually intimating the significance of Pentecost for the salvation of the Gentiles.”

2. Miracles Yesterday and Today: True and False (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953, p. 23. The reader is referred to the entire book.

3. Ibid, pp. 25f.

4. Ibid, pp. 27.

5. N. B. Stonehouse, “The Authority of the New Testament,” in The Infallible Word (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Guardian Publishing Corporation, 1946), pp. 110.

Again we take pleasure in presenting an article deals with the growing interest in “speaking in tongues” which challenges the Christian churches today. Professor John H. Skilton of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA, discusses what Scripture has to say on this point.