A Study of the Charismatic Movement


The Charismatic movement is one which is very popular in our time and society. It is a fairly new movement, begun in the late 1800's, but one which really began developing in the middle of the last century.

The word Charismatic comes from the Greek and means “gifts.” Charismatics believe that the Holy Spirit is blessing the Christian community with the same supernatural gifts that were given to believers in the early Christian church at the time of the apostles (e.g. speaking in tongues, healings, and miracles). Proponents of the charismatic movement often look at present day Christianity as lacking in the inner life and enthusiasm which was so prevalent in 1st century Christianity. As we look at these Charismatics we may be impressed by their outward attitude and zeal. They seem to have something that we don’t. Is this something that we should seek after as well? Do we need to receive “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” and the gifts of the Holy Spirit which follow such a baptism? Are such gifts today really from God, or not? How can we know?

What does Scripture have to say about such gifts? We know that miraculous gifts were given to believers in the early New Testament church. Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:16-18). Notice the miracles mentioned by Jesus in those verses: the ability to cast out demons, to speak in tongues, to be unaffected by deadly poison, and the gift of healing. These are some of the same gifts that the charismatics claim today, although they focus on speaking in tongues and gifts of healing.

As we study the New Testament we see many examples of these gifts (or what Jesus calls “signs”). During Jesus’ ministry we read that he gave power to the twelve to cast out demons and heal the sick (cf. Mark 6:7-13). There are also numerous examples of the apostles healing people after Jesus’ ascension (cf. Acts 3; 9:32-43), there are examples of healings by Paul (19:11-20; 20:9-12; 28:3-6) and there are miracles mentioned which were done by Philip the deacon (Acts 8:7,13).


But of all the gifts or signs mentioned in the New Testament, the one which is focused on the most by today’s charismatics is that of speaking in tongues (glossolalia). Speaking in tongues is also mentioned by Jesus in those final verses of Mark’s Gospel as a sign which would follow those who believe. But there are fewer examples of tongue speaking in the New Testament. Examples of believers speaking in tongues can be found in only four places in the New Testament: The sign was first given to the disciples on Pentecost (Acts 2); the second actual mention of tongues was to the gentiles in the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:46); the third reference to tongue speaking is found in Acts 19:1-7 with Paul and twelve men in Ephesus; and the final reference to tongue speaking is found in the congregation in Corinth which Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 12-14.

As we study these four sections, we should look to answer a couple of questions: First, what is speaking in tongues and second, what purpose does it serve? As we look at the first of the four examples of tongue speaking above, it becomes clear what speaking in tongues is. In Acts 2 we read: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, ‘Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs —— we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God’” (Acts 2:4-11).

The very first reference to tongue speaking in the New Testament tells us what it is - the apostles’ tongue speaking was not gibberish, or an unidentifiable made up language, but was the ability to speak in an understandable foreign language.

Tongue speaking was a gift given by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of unbelievers, not for the benefit of the one speaking in a tongue. This leads us to our second question: What is the intended purpose of tongue speaking? In Acts 2 we see that it was given for the purpose of proclaiming the message of the Gospel. The gift of tongues brought about that goal as we see in verse 41 of that chapter where we are told that about three thousand people who heard, believed.

Mark clearly reveals of the reason for the signs that would be given and that would follow believers. After he recorded Jesus’ words about the signs that would come, he concludes his Gospel with this summary: “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs. Amen” (Mark 16:20). Again the Bible tells us what the purpose of these miraculous signs were (remember that tongue speaking was included in that list) - it was to confirm the message of the Gospel which was being spoken by the believers!

This same purpose for signs was also stated by the evangelist Luke as he recorded events in the ministry of the apostle Paul: “Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3). And again the writer to the Hebrews declares: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?” (Hebrew 2:3-4).

The apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians speaks quite a bit about tongue speaking. Paul does not condemn tongue speaking in these chapters, but he does condemn the abuse of it. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 Paul lists some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to believers: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. But Paul makes it clear that already at this time, speaking in tongues is one of the lesser gifts. He says, “And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:28-31 - cf. 1 Corinthians 14:1-4,18-19,22,27-28).


The charismatics put things in the wrong order. They often seek the presence and power of Holy Spirit in their lives without the means of the Word of God; they often focus on personal feelings rather than the Words and promises of God in Christ; and they look for new and direct revelation from God, rather than looking to the inspired revelation of God in Holy Scripture. This leads to a subjective experience about the individual, which ignores sin and our need for a real savior from sin. Instead of pointing to the cross, (which was what the signs mentioned in the New Testament were given for) the signs of the charismatic movement today often lead people away from the cross.

So what about today? Does the LORD still use the same signs and miraculous works which were present in the early church? If we keep in mind the purpose for these signs, wonders, miracles, and other gifts of the Spirit, we realize that these gifts are no longer needed. We have what the believers of the early church did not have - the written Word found in the New Testament. The message of the Gospel is confirmed in the written Word, and no longer needs confirmation from signs and miracles. Our every spiritual need is met through the complete and inspired written Word of God. The history of the post-apostolic church supports this, describing that once the New Testament was completed, these gifts no longer occurred as they did during the time of the apostles. Nor is there any scriptural basis for believing that the Holy Spirit will produce another Pentecost experience, including the gift of tongues.

Let our faith and our focus be on the sure Word of God found in the Holy Scriptures!

Pastor Nathanael Mayhew

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