Questionable Presuppositions in John MacArthur's Cessationism
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Sunday, January 26, 2014 - 6:00 p.m.  Sermon #: 1705
Pastor Don Horban

It’s hard to get a handle on untying some of the seemingly logical progressions in John MacArthur’s anti-charismatic arguments. He is good at making his case, but his whole case only works after some of his presuppositions are accepted. And, in my opinion, some of those framework presuppositions don’t stand up in the light of Scripture.

So from this teaching onwards I want to look at some of MacArthur’s presuppositions, which, in my opinion, are at best questionable, and in a few cases, flat out contradictory to the Scriptures. We’re going to look at tongues, and the gift of tongues (a distinction which, as far as I can read neither MacArthur, nor Justin Peters, nor R.C. Sproul, nor any other of the conference speakers makes), prophets, and the New Testament gift of prophecy, and perhaps a few others.

I know this is a lot more work than typical church teaching times usually demand. But we’re into it now and there’s no backing out. I think this church can handle it.

MacArthur is emphatic that the gift of tongues is permanently defined in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. His words couldn’t be clearer - “....the only detailed description of the true gift of tongues in Scripture is found in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost - a text that clearly identifies this gift as the supernatural ability to speak genuine, meaningful, translatable languages. In Genesis 11, at the tower of Babel, the Lord had confused the languages of the world as a judgment on humanity. In contrast, on the day of Pentecost, the curse of Babel was miraculously undone, demonstrating that the wonderful words of God, including the gospel of Jesus Christ, were to be taken throughout the whole world to those in every nation.”

Justin Peters takes the exact same track. Repeatedly, in his “Strange Fire” teaching sessions he makes his position clear by identifying the gift of tongues with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter two. In fact, virtually all cessationists make the same assumption, and for good reasons. They need to define the gift of tongues by Acts 2 in order to make the rest of their arguments work.

In spite of all their arguments there is one stubborn fact that is unwilling to budge. There is not one solitary reference to the “gift of tongues” in the book of Acts. That phrase is never used, though speaking in tongues is mentioned on several occasions. Why is that?

Add to this the fact that the New Testament does designate that term very specifically and deliberately in other places means its omission from the book of Acts isn’t an oversight. Luke (the author of Acts) traveled extensively with Paul and would have appreciated Paul’s theology and teaching on the gift of tongues in the congregational life of the church. Remember, Luke wrote Book of Acts, according to most scholars, about five or ten years after Paul wrote First Corinthians. Luke knew Paul’s theology of the gift of tongues. And he knew that wasn’t what he was observing when the Holy Spirit was poured out in the book of Acts.

And I’m arguing today that’s why Luke never uses that term to describe the outpourings of the Holy Spirit in his account in Acts. Cessationists constantly read that term into the book of Acts having seen it in 1 Corinthians, but there appears to be a uniform, stubborn separation of the specific term gift of tongues from the outpouring of the Spirit in the book of Acts by the Biblical authors.

It is my argument that the gift of tongues is the specific term exclusively used to describe the public speaking in tongues - always with the gift of interpretation - in the worship gathering of the local church.

I’m going to try to show why this separation of terms is so important in just a minute. Right now the next obvious question is, “Does this separation hold up?” Is there Scriptural evidence - whatever one’s theology - that the gift of tongues described in 1 Corinthians is categorically different from the outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts?

That’s the issue we have to consider now:


This, it seems to me, is beyond debate. Consider the following instructions from Paul for the operation of the gift of tongues:

1 Corinthians 14:26-28 - “What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. [27] If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. [28] But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God.”

Forget all the theological wrangling for just a moment. Any honest reader of this passage can see the rules laid down for the gift of tongues in the corporate life of the church. Paul gives his apostolic instruction to this careless church. Notice several things:

First, only two or three are to exercise the gift. In other words, unlike the recorded outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Act 2 where everyone spoke out, this is not to be the case with the gift of tongues in the worship gathering. Two or three is plenty, according to Paul.

Second, one person was to speak in tongues at a time. In Acts chapter two they all spoke at exactly the same time. There was no requirement to take turns. But in Paul’s instruction for the public gift of tongues in the worship service, he strictly forbids everyone speaking out in tongues at the same time.

Third, and this is quite important, according to Paul, after one person spoke in tongues, either he or she or someone else was to exercise the gift of interpretation. In other words, even if “two or three” exercised the gift, they weren’t to exercise that gift back to back without the gift of interpretation coming along in between.

That there was no such requirement in Acts 2 is obvious from the fact that those who didn’t know the languages spoken were left to the conclusion that these tongue-speakers were drunk. There was no accompanying gift of interpretation to help the confused to think otherwise. Peter had to give his sermonic explanation to clarify things for them.

Fourth, Paul insists that the gift of tongues be used in an orderly rather than random fashion - 1 Corinthians 12:40 - “But all things should be done decently and in order.” In Acts 2 the outpouring of the Spirit had the appearance of randomness to the point that some of the onlookers who didn’t know the languages spoken attributed the tongues to drunkenness.

My point here is there is no confusing these two experiences. The Biblical explanation and description of the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians can’t possibly be equated with the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. Neither Paul nor Luke allow for it.

All of this leads me to wonder, why does MacArthur continue to equate Acts 2 with the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians when there is no textual likeness whatsoever? And the answer is, he has to. There is no way to make the rest of MacArthur’s case valid if Acts 2 isn’t the gift of tongues.


1 Corinthians 12:29-30 - “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? [30] Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?”

And the answer Paul expects from those rhetorical questions is obvious.“No, Paul. Of course not everyone speaks in tongues in the sense of the GIFT of tongues in the congregational life of the church at worship with the accompanying gift of interpretation.”

This makes sense when we remember all of the instructions given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 through 14 have to do with worship of the congregation when the church comes together. That’s why, when Paul asks the question whether everyone speaks in tongues his immediate follow-up question is about the gift of interpreting those who speak in tongues. Paul’s question is about the gift of tongues (along with the gift of interpretation) in the worship service of the church. And the obvious answer to Paul’s question is “No. Not everyone has this public gift of tongues, or the gift of interpretation.”

The same could be said about his mention of teachers and prophets. The focus of his question is the congregational life of the local church. Even a casual examination of the context of his question makes this obvious. It would take a lot of theological bias to miss it.

The difference with the book of Acts is apparent. In every case where the Spirit is poured out everyone in the group speaks in tongues/and/or/prophecies - and all at the same time. But MacArthur doesn’t want everyone speaking in tongues. In fact, he doesn’t want anyone speaking in tongues. So MacArthur - and virtually all cessationists - takes Paul’s question dealing with the public gift of tongues and pretends Paul is talking about the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2. That way MacArthur can reverse the clear teaching of Acts 2 that, yes, this happened to all on whom the Spirit was poured out. And he tries to undo this experience by the way Paul says “No, not everyone has the corporate gift of either tongues, or the interpretation of tongues. And not everyone is an Apostle, or prophet or teacher either.”

Another problem text for MacArthur and all cessationists is 1 Corinthians 14:5 - “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.”

Paul clearly says he wants everyone in the church at Corinth to speak in tongues. But MacArthur doesn’t want everyone to speak in tongues. So what can he do? He uses those same verses we just studied in 1 Corinthians 12:28-29 to say, “See, tongues isn’t for everybody!”

In fact, let me quote John MacArthur directly as he explains Paul’s specific statement that he - the Apostle Paul - wanted all the Christians at Corinth to speak in tongues in 1 Corinthians 14:5:

MacArthur says: “Charismatics often point to 1 Corinthians 14:5 [“....I want you all to speak in tongues”] as a proof-text for their insistence that all Christians ought to practice glossolalia. In so doing, they fail to recognize that the apostle was not stating an actual possibility, but rather using hypothetical hyperbole”(p.145).

Isn’t that convenient? Paul was just exaggerating. When he says he wants them all to speak in tongues the “all” doesn’t reflect a literal “all.” But where shall we go with this logic? What about some of the other “all’s” in Scripture? What about “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”?


I’m dealing with this point after showing how cessationists always equate the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 with the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians for a specific reason. I’m following up on my point that it is this first faulty presumption that leads to all the other cessationist conclusions.

MacArthur fits this pattern with precision. Listen as he describes the languages spoken in Acts 2 and links this up with the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians:

“But the only detailed description of the true gift of tongues in Scripture is found in Acts 2 (there’s the foundational false presupposition)on the day of Pentecost - a text that clearly identifies this gift as the supernatural ability to speak genuine, meaningful, translatable languages.”

Please make a mental note of MacArthur’s term, “translatable languages.” We’ll come back to that.

MacArthur continues: “That the disciples spoke authentic languages is not only confirmed by the Greek word “tongues” (“glossa”, a term that refers to human languages), but also by Luke’s later use of the word “dialect” (6-7) and his inclusion of a list of the foreign languages that were spoken (9-11).”

Next, like all cessationists, MacArthur connects Acts 2 to 1 Corinthians: “A simple word study effectively makes that point, since both passages (Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians) use the same terminology to describe the miraculous gift. In Acts, Luke used “laleo” (“to speak”) in combination with “glossa” (“tongues”) four times (Acts 2:4,11; 10:46; 19:6). In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul uses forms of that same combination thirteen times....”

MacArthur’s point is to discredit what he sees as non-language tongues in the gift of tongues exercised today. By linking Acts 2 - where we know tongues was recognized as knowable languages by many of the visiting bystanders - by linking this with 1 Corinthians (by saying the very same word for “tongues” is used in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians - that is, “languages” - then his conclusion is what we see today of the gift of tongues is fake. That’s the net effect of MacArthur’s argument.

That’s a lot to deal with in the remaining minutes. I have two closing points:

a) First, it is exegetically unwise to automatically assume that because the same word is used in two or three or four places that it means the same thing.

Donald Carson deals with this in his excellent book “Exegetical Fallacies.” He makes the point - these are my words, not a direct quote - that just because a given Biblical word occurring in different places has exactly the same root meaning doesn’t mean the word means the same thing in different contexts.

I know that’s an involved concept. Let me give a ridiculously simple example. Look at these two Bible verses:

Acts 12:13 - “And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer.”

John 10:9 - “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”

The obviously same word is “door.” And it’s not only the same in our English translations. It’s exactly the same word in the Greek. It’s not just similar or of the same family. It’s exactly the same Greek word - Greek letter for Greek letter - “thoo-ra.”
But while the word is exactly the same, the meaning isn’t. Jesus isn’t made of wood. There are some similar concepts in terms of an opening or way. But there are also major differences in meaning in spite of the fact that is it exactly the same word.

Carson’s point is the meaning of a term needs the setting of the context in order to give its accurate sense or meaning. Just because MacArthur proves the repetition of the same word doesn’t establish the same meaning. I pointed out the many, many differences in Paul’s discussion of the gift of tongues and the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2.

b) Having said all that, I have no problem with MacArthur pointing out his own view that tongues should always be an actual language.

Let’s assume he’s right. That still doesn’t take us very far. Linguists estimate (they don’t actually know with certainty) that there are presently about 7000 languages in the world today. That’s today. How many tens of thousands of languages have come and disappeared no one knows.

Of these languages, many hundreds have no capacity to be known beyond the handful of people who speak them. They are not written in any way. They are virtually untrackable. Outside of a very small handful of isolated peoples, they are, to use MarArthur’s words describing charismatics, “jibberish.”

Here are the results of a simple Google search. “....the exact number (of languages) is still unknown today. This is because there are still many undiscovered languages. These languages are mostly spoken in remote regions. One example of such a region is the Amazon. There are still many people living in isolation there. They have no contact with other cultures. Despite this, they all have their own language, of course. There are still unidentified languages in other parts of the world as well. We still do not know how many languages there are in Central Africa. New Guinea hasn't been thoroughly researched from a linguistic standpoint either. Whenever a new language is discovered, it's always a sensation. About two years ago scientists discovered Koro. Koro is spoken in the small villages of northern India. Only about 1,000 people speak this language. It is only spoken. Koro doesn't exist in written form.”

“Researchers are puzzled by how Koro has survived for so long. Koro belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese language family. There are about 300 of these languages in all of Asia. But Koro isn't closely related to any of these languages. That means that it must have a history all its own. Unfortunately, minor languages die out quickly. Occasionally a language disappears within a single generation. As a result, researchers often only have a little time to study them....”

My question is this. Supposing MacArthur is right and God uses only “real languages.” Which ones can He use? Is He limited to existing languages? Does He have to use a common language? Wouldn’t most of the languages sound like “jiberish” to us? Are they, by that alone, disqualified?

I have heard many of our African missionaries describe the present language of the people as a series of clucks and clicks with the tongue and the roof of the mouth. How would this language sound in a tongue in one of our worship gatherings? Would we then despise the gift altogether?

Someone might respond - I think MacArthur would - that the purpose of the sign gift of tongues is to validate the presence of God in a visible, obvious way. Therefore, God would use a language known to someone in the setting where the gift was used. In that way there would be a way of verifying that this was actually God at work, and not just people making stuff up.

I think it’s always a bit tricky organizing how we think God should do things. How many would have voted for circumcision?

Regarding how God manifests the gift of tongues I think we should at least be humble enough to consider that it’s unlikely it’s all that important to God that we recognize the language spoken. If that is what the gift of tongues is all about in 1 Corinthians it is strange to me that whatever language was spoken, the only hope for the congregation getting the meaning of what was said was a supernatural miracle of the gift of interpretation. Why wouldn’t God just pick a language already known to someone in the assembly. Wouldn’t the sign impact be greater that way?

Clearly, God doesn’t consult regarding His gifts. Then and now the reminder from God’s Word is the same - 1 Corinthians 12:11 - “All of these (the gifts) are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”