Will Speaking in Tongues Save Me?

An image of Baptism of St. Augustine by Nicolo di PietroMany Christians involved in charismatic renewal have had dramatic spiritual experiences. Some see these as “born again” experiences, and insist one must speak in tongues to be saved.

The Catholic Church maintains–as the Bible teaches–that one is reborn ordinarily through water Baptism, or “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). So, in the vast majority of cases, these charismatic experiences represent not a new coming of the Spirit, but a reawakening or new awareness of baptismal gifts already received.

The Church classifies the spiritual gifts or charismata associated with such experiences as extraordinary, meaning they are not essential for salvation (as the ordinary gift of Baptism is), but are given by God for the edification of the Body of Christ (see Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 12:7).

To argue this point, some will cite Mark 16:17-18, in which Jesus says, “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Clearly, though, Jesus’ words are not meant to describe the experience of each individual believer, but of the Christian community as a whole. If every “true” Christian, after all, is required to expel demons, speak in foreign languages, handle serpents, drink poison, and heal by touch, then the actual number of the elect would be infinitesimal, and it would be difficult to recruit new members.

Furthermore, Jesus plainly declares in the preceding verse the necessity of Baptism for salvation—“He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16)—but makes no such claim regarding the charismata.

The true purpose of the charismatic signs is to aid the Church in its work of evangelization, to “confirm the message” of the Gospel (Mark 16:20).1

In many instances, the gift of tongues has occurred not as spontaneous, unintelligible speech, but as the miraculous speaking of a real human language. For a preacher to be able to communicate in a convert’s tongue was an especially advantageous gift as the infant Church set out to evangelize people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. This is evident in the Apostles’ engagement of the multinational crowd at Pentecost, in which “each one heard them speaking in his own language” (see the Acts of the Apostles 2:6 and see, also, Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 14:21).

The charismata are signs of the universality of the Gospel. The main episodes in the New Testament in which the reception of the Spirit is manifest through outward signs involve groups set apart from the larger Jewish-Christian community—the Samaritans in the Acts of the Apostles 8:14-17, the Gentiles in the Acts of the Apostles 10:44-48, and disciples of John the Baptist in Acts 19:1-7.

These accounts were primarily designed to assist the incorporation of the members of these groups into the Church. Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) thought this was especially true in the case of the Baptism of the first Gentile converts, the one occasion in which the charismata precede Baptism. Augustine took this to be a special sign from God that they were capable of receiving the same Spirit, in the same abundance, as those at Pentecost and, thus, that Baptism should not be withheld from them (On Psalm 97, 11; cf. Acts 10:45-47).

In his first letter to them, Paul encourages the Corinthians to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts,” saying, “I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (14:1 & 5). Regardless of whether the entire assembly in Corinth did indeed receive the charismata, we know the Apostle did not expect every Christian everywhere to receive them, for earlier in the same letter he says quite plainly:

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit … gifts of healing …, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. …

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? (12:7-11, 27-30).

Early Christian historical writings, such as the Didache, which dates to the first century, suggest the charismata were given not to everyone in the Church, but to “apostles and prophets” (11:3-8). Likewise, around the year 210, Tertullian challenged the followers of the heretic Marcion to produce “some prophets, such as have not spoken by human sense, but with the Spirit of God.” And he boasted, “Now all these signs (of spiritual gifts) are forthcoming from my side without any difficulty” (Against Marcion 5:8). He stopped short, though, of claiming the charismatic gifts were given to every believer. Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407) had this to say:

“Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Cor. 12:30). For even as the great gifts God hath not vouchsafed all to all men, but to some this, and to others that, so also did He in respect of the less, not proposing these either to all. And this He did, procuring thereby abundant harmony and love, that each one standing in need of the other might be brought close to his brother (Homilies on First Corinthians 32).

Saint Augustine wrote:

In the earliest times, “the Holy Ghost fell upon them that believed: and they spake with tongues,” which they had not learned, “as the Spirit gave them utterance.” These were signs adapted to the time. For there behooved to be that betokening of the Holy Spirit in all tongues, to shew that the Gospel of God was to run through all tongues over the whole earth. That thing was done for a betokening, and it passed away. In the laying on of hands now, that persons may receive the Holy Ghost, do we look that they should speak with tongues? Or when we laid the hand on these infants, did each one of you look to see whether they would speak with tongues, and, when he saw that they did not speak with tongues, was any of you so wrong-minded as to say, These have not received the Holy Ghost; for, had they received, they would speak with tongues as was the case in those times? If then the witness of the presence of the Holy Ghost be not now given through these miracles, by what is it given, by what does one get to know that he has received the Holy Ghost? Let him question his own heart. If he loves his brother the Spirit of God dwelleth in him (Homilies on the First Epistle of John to the Parthians 6:10; cf. Baptism 3:16:21).

In the modern era, the fathers of Vatican II taught:

As all the members of the human body, though they are many, form one body, so also are the faithful in Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12). Also, in the building up of Christ’s body there is engaged a diversity of members and functions. There is only one Spirit who, according to his own richness and the needs of the ministries, gives his different gifts for the welfare of the Church (cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-11) (Lumen Gentium 7).

  1. Tongues, healing, the survival of poisoning, and other charisms appear in the historical accounts of Catholic missionaries, such as Saints Anthony of Padua (d. 1231), Francis Xavier (d. 1552), Louis Bertrand (d. 1581), and Francis Solano (d. 1610).