With over 40,000 members, Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is the largest church in the United States. For better or for worse, Lakewood and its leader Joel Osteen are profoundly influential. One significant area of influence is in the realm of spiritual gifts. A search of the terms “spiritual gifts” on Lakewood’s website produced (at the top of the list) a downloadable booklet called Understanding the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, from Joel Osteen Ministries, and authored by Lisa Comes. The booklet explains how and why one should speak in tongues, and cites speaking in tongues as evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (point 5, page 3). The view promoted in the booklet is not original with Lakewood, Osteen, or Comes – in fact, it is the prevailing view in Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations. But is it a Biblical view? Is speaking in tongues needed evidence that we have the Holy Spirit?
First, as we considered in the previous article, Romans 8:9 emphatically notes that “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” By contrast Osteen’s and Comes’s booklet cites Acts (2:17-19, 39), Luke (11:13), and John (7:37-39) to support the point that not every believer has the Holy Spirit. And it is true that Romans presents a very different picture of how one receives the Holy Spirit than do the Gospels and even the book of Acts. But rather than contradicting one another, these books consider different contexts – different times, and different ways in which God has worked over the ages (nothing contradictory at all). To illustrate, Joel Osteen has never (to my knowledge) advocated that believers today should present to the Lord two turtledoves or two young pigeons as is mandated in Leviticus 5:7. Presumably this is because Osteen recognizes that Leviticus was written about a different people and context than the church of today.
If we recognize there are distinctions between audiences, times, and contexts in the Bible, then we should be very diligent to recognize those distinctions in our Bible study. We should not be careless or hasty in proclaiming what the Bible does and does not say. We should not apply what God said specifically for someone else’s benefit to ourselves, unless there is direct exegetical warrant to do so, otherwise, we are saying “Thus says the Lord” when thus hasn’t said the Lord. And that’s obviously a sizable problem. In dealing with the issue of the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts we need to first understand, and not ignore, the distinctions in the Bible.
Second, if the Bible is not teaching that speaking in tongues is necessary evidence that we have the Holy Spirit, then we need to take a look at what the Bible says is evidence of the Holy Spirit in us.
Romans 8:9 describes how every believer in Christ from that time forward has the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1:13-14 describes how believers are sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit who was promised, and how He is given as a down payment (or pledge) of our inheritance. 1 Corinthians 12:13 explains that believers are all baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ – any and every believer in Christ (at least from the time 1 Corinthians was written) has been baptized by the Holy Spirit. In light of these passages, the real question is not what evidences the Holy Spirit in us – to that end, Paul’s statements are as clear as can be. No, the real question is what evidences that we are believers in Jesus Christ. Because if we are in Christ, we have His Spirit. We know that if we are in Him, He is in us. But how can we be sure we are in Him?
This question is a major reason John wrote his first epistle. 1 John 5:13 gives one of his purpose statements for writing the letter: “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” So that you may know. It is fascinating that in a letter written to believers to give them assurance – evidence – of their salvation, that never once does John mention baptism or spiritual gifts of any kind. He does, on the other hand, offer three evidences:
Evidence #1: Our Love
“By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments [love God, love your neighbor]…whoever keeps His word…By this we know that we are in Him” (1 Jn 2:3-5)… “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the brethren” (1 Jn 3:14).
Evidence #2: When Our Love Fails, He Does Not
“We will know by this [love] that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 Jn 3:19-20).
Evidence #3: The Spirit Whom He Has Given Us
“We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (1 Jn 3:24)… “By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit” (1 Jn 4:13).
In these three ways, every believer can be confident of his or her position in Christ. The expression of love, and not some mystical gift, is our visible evidence of whose we are. When our love is insufficient and fails, He reminds us that we are His anyway (e.g., see Rom 8:1, 28-39). His Spirit within us is another proof of our position in Him – not evidenced by any mystical manifestation, but simply by His presence, affirmed by the word of God.
Consequently, if we insist that manifestations of spiritual gifts are needed evidence of our salvation, then we commit at least two errors: (1) we misunderstand the function and purpose of spiritual gifts (for edification, not for evidence of position), and (2) we deprive believers of the Biblical means of assurance and certainty. Once we have believed, our position in Christ is no longer a matter of faith – it is a matter of which we can be certain, according to John. There is great encouragement in that.