William Carey, tongues and mission
On 28 October 1800, William Carey baptised his first Indian convert in the river at Serampore. This happy event took place seven years after Carey landed in India.
Not surprisingly, Carey and his fellow missionaries were overjoyed. The convert was a high caste Brahmin Hindu, a 35-year-old man called Krishna Pal. He remained a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ to the end of his life.
But William Carey, ‘the father of modern missions’, would never have embarked upon his epic missionary work if he had listened to some within his denomination, back in Northamptonshire.
It is said that Baptist minister John Ryland senior had responded to Carey’s urgent plea to his fellow Baptist ministers that something should be done to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, with these words:
‘Nothing can be done before we enter another Pentecost, when an effusion of miraculous gifts, including the gift of tongues, would give effect to the commission of Christ, as at the first’.
If William Carey had listened to that piece of distorted eschatology, he and the other heroic souls with him would never have left the shores of Britain. Indeed, he would never have translated the Scriptures (or portions of it) into 35 Asian languages — all without the aid of computers and other modern helps.
Today, as over 200 years ago, there remains much confusion within churches both about Christian mission and the Pentecostal gift of tongues. Perhaps these areas of confusion are not unrelated?
Let’s consider first the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. Because the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead and because his great work is to bear witness to Christ’s glory, there is still much about the Spirit that remains mysterious to us.
But there is also much about him revealed in Scripture. Pentecost in Acts 2 was the special occasion when the Spirit’s work was dramatically highlighted by God. The Lord poured out his Spirit on 3000 souls, who were converted, baptised and added to the church.
The noise of rushing wind, the sight of the fiery tongues and the hearing of the speaking in tongues (glossalia) had all manifested to the world the vindication of Jesus from the accusations his enemies had made against him.
They and the other evidences of the poured-out gift of the Spirit became the triumphant finale to Christ’s resurrection, ascension and enthronement at the right hand of the Father.
The result that day was that thousands were converted under one sermon, and very many more were saved in the succeeding months and years. Pentecost initiated powerful inundations of the Spirit, leading to a widespread witness to Jesus Christ and an ingathering from many nations into the church (Acts 1:8).
But the effects of that first ‘great day of the Holy Ghost’ to the unconverted were initially neither comforting nor soothing, but deeply challenging and highly disturbing (Acts 2:7,12).
Four things struck the crowd. First, they were being addressed boldly by ‘Galileans’, who had previously hidden in fear. Second, these apostles were clearly under a power greater than themselves; ‘new wine’ hardly explained the phenomenon (v.13)!
Third, the people were hearing the ‘wonderful works of God’. And, fourth, every one listening, whatever their background, was aware that they were being spoken to in their own heart language. This created surprise, awe and fear.
The apostles address the astonished people from Joel 2:28-32, explaining that they had just witnessed no less than the fulfilment of this prophecy of God’s Word. The Holy Spirit had been poured out to demonstrate that God had exalted the same Messiah whom they so recently had crucified. As this realis-ation dawned on them, it brought thousands into a piercing conviction of sin (Acts 2:37).
Let’s now examine the meaning of the gift of tongues. We need first to go back to the division of tongues brought about by God at the tower of Babel, as described in Genesis 11.
That confusion of languages was God’s judgement on all humanity. It served partly to hinder the further development of sin, and partly to inhibit the communication of saving truth from Shem’s line to the rest of the world (not totally though, as shown by Jonah’s mission to Nineveh).
But now the Pentecost event in Acts 2 marks the beginning of a dramatic, divine reversal of that ancient judgement. It is the beginning of the regathering of the scattered human race into one spiritual family from all nations, conveyed through a new, universal ‘heart language’ of love, namely the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Even though the forces of sin, depicted as mystical Babylon, continue to unite a godless world under antichrist, yet the Lord Jesus Christ will build his church ‘and the gates of hell will not prevail against it’.
Pentecostal tongues inaugurated the communication of profound gospel mercies to a world under profound judgements.
Second, consider Isaiah 28:9-12. Here foreign tongues are portrayed as a sign of God’s judgement (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:21-22).
Because Israel mocks God’s prophets, Isaiah says, even though the prophets are speaking to them in a language they can understand (Hebrew), one day they will have to listen to a language they cannot understand — from the harsh tongue of cruel, foreign invaders.
Yet, the contrast is that, on the day of Pentecost, God was not ‘invading’ Jerusalem with soldiers intent on pillage and violence, but with the gospel of peace brought by the ‘beautiful feet’ of his messengers, empowered with the supernatural gift of tongues.
Any unrepentant Jews who, at Pentecost, witnessed this astonishing display of divine mercy to other peoples and still rejected the Messiah, would have been forced to witness Gentile proselytes receiving the gospel as it was divinely translated into native languages.
Moses’ words would have been fulfilled, ‘I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people [Gentiles], and by a foolish nation [Gentiles] I will anger you’ (Deuteronomy 32:21).
If John Ryland and others had had greater theological light concerning the gift of tongues, they might not have cavilled at Carey’s urgency. They would have realised that the gift of tongues in Acts 2 signified that the era of worldwide gospel proclamation had begun then. No further eschatological event is awaited.
The glossalia were blazing lights that illuminated the gateway into the era of missionary outreach in which Christians now live.
Finally, we need to realise that the gift of tongues had fulfilled its God-given task by the time the New Testament Scriptures were completed.
That supernatural gift was not there to help William Carey master his 35 languages in India. And when, in March 1812, a catastrophic fire in the print room destroyed much of his translation work, there was no angel on hand to dictate it back to him. He had to start all over again.
This writer does not know of any reliably documented case in post-apostolic church history of a people who speak another language being evangelised by cross-cultural missionaries employing a supernatural gift of tongues.
Nor is he aware of even one Pentecostal or Charismatic missionary amongst the hundreds of millions of Pentecostals and Charismatics today who have been able to skip language school or language study before engaging in cross-cultural mission!
However, let all evangelicals take great encouragement from this fact. Only one man spoke at Pentecost; that was Peter. And the gist of his one message (translated supernaturally into many different languages) was grasped by everyone listening in whom the Spirit was at work.
We don’t need a different ‘gospel’ for each culture and ethnic group. Every human being can grasp what the gospel of Christ is about, when properly explained and spiritually grasped. The glorious message of salvation has universal human resonance.
That was certainly the case for William Carey’s Krishna Pal, way back in 1800. The ‘mantra’ Dr Thomas and Joshua Marshman taught, which had such a profound effect on Krishna, was the same gospel truth that can save men and women from any nation.
That verse of Krishna’s went like this: ‘Sin confessing, sin forsaking, Christ’s righteousness embracing, the soul is free’. We might even entitle it as ‘The wonderful works of God’!