What’s so special about spiritual gifts?

Are spiritual gifts supernatural abilities, possessed by select Christians? Who has them and why? How do Christians receive spiritual gifts? What are they for and what do they show us about Christianity and ourselves? These are only a few of the frequently asked questions that this article addresses concerning the 'gifts of the Holy Spirit'.

This article originally started as a summary of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology Chapter 52 (IVP, 1994), but then grew and developed into a more specific response to some aspects of Pentecostalism and the charismatic understanding of gifts of the Holy Spirit particularly.

We know that interest in spiritual gifts is at an all-time high in modern times, since theological expositions of the New Testament in earlier times did not even contain chapters on the subject, more often than not. However Grudem observes that today, most systematic theologies will contain a specific treatment of the subject – largely in response to the Pentecostal and charismatic movements, and questions arising since interest in the subject accelerated at the end of the 1800s during the Holiness Movement in America.

Are spiritual gifts supernatural?

In his Systematic Theology, Grudem explains that the gifts are not necessary miraculous or ‘supernatural’ – it depends how you define the ‘miraculous’. If a miracle is “any direct activity of God in the world” then all spiritual gifts are miraculous because they are all powered by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:11; cf. vv. 4-6) But in this sense, everything that happens in the world would be miraculous (Ephesians 1:11; Dan 4:35; Matt 5:45). And then in that case, a miracle would not exist, because you could not find anything that was not miraculous.

Therefore, we need to define a miracle in a narrower sense. A miracle might be considered as “a less common activity of God which raises people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to God” [1]. And in this case, it becomes clearer that some gifts such as prophecy and healing fit into this category because they bring amazement at the activity of God – while other gifts such as leadership, administration, giving and encouraging, do not.

This understanding is consistent with the six New Testament passages listing spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28 Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Peter 4:11), where the NT includes ‘natural’ abilities with the more ‘miraculous’ abilities in its lists of spiritual gifts.

These passages emphasise that it is the same Holy Spirit who gives all spiritual gifts, and works them; both miraculous and non-miraculous gifts. The same Spirit may empower an act of mercy as provides a miraculous healing – and for the same purpose and ultimate effect: to build Christ’s church.

What is a spiritual gift?

Does this mean that all abilities are in fact gifts of the Holy Spirit? While it is true that all the abilities we think of as ‘natural’ are from God (1 Corinthians 4:7), not every natural ability should be considered a spiritual gift because Paul explains that all spiritual gifts must be given “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7) by the Holy Spirit who ‘empowers’ them (1 Corinthians 12:11) in order that they might “edify” the church (1 Corinthians 12:26), i.e. they must work for the building up the church – the Spirit enables them to work as part of Christ’s work, affecting his activity of building his body.

Therefore, this also means that not all abilities use by Christians for the purpose of serving the church can be considered gifts of the Holy Spirit. While the God providentially works out “all things” for the good of Christians and his church (Romans 8:28), including evil acts done in or outside the church, the gifts of the Holy Spirit always come with his special, direct and good work in and for the church: Paul says the Corinthians were “enriched” in all their speech and knowledge as spiritual gifts came to them (1 Corinthians 1:5-7).

In general when natural gifts such as teaching, helps, administration, or musical gifts are given power (‘empowered’) by the Holy Spirit they show increased effectiveness and power in their use. So, we can in a sense distinguish between doing something with ‘natural’ (i.e. human) ability and doing the same thing when it is accompanied by power given by the Holy Spirit: we see the effect of the Spirit’s sovereign work in achieving the things that only he can do through our acts of service – unbelievers turning to the Lord, believers laying down their lives for one another.

In other words, a spiritual gift is an ability of one of Christ’s people, that the Spirit himself uses by providing it with his own power, to accomplish Christ’s own work. Therefore, spiritual gifts not only must be put to work for the purpose of building the church, they also work in building up the church – that is, they have that Spirit enabled effect.

So putting that all together, a spiritual gift is simply any ability that is used by the Holy Spirit to serve the church; they are gifts of the Holy Spirit because he gives them his power for Christ’s own work of building his church – that is, they come with the ‘special effect’ of the Spirit when used in his service.

Are spiritual gifts special, or common to all?

Pentecostal teaching and the charismatic movement’s emphasis on a second experience for empowered Christian living and service has taught that the power of the Holy Spirit, including the reception of his gifts for effective ministry and service as a Christian, is only given to that subset of Christians who have received baptism with the Holy Spirit (for more about this topic elsewhere on this blog).

But the NT is clear that every Christian has one or more gifts of the Holy Spirit; that is they are common: “As each has received a gift, employ if for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (=multi-faceted / variegated) (1 Peter 4:10; see also 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11).

So being ‘gifted’ by the Holy Spirit is in fact not ‘special’ at all – it is common to all Christians; everyone is “able” because the Holy Spirit gives power to (empowers) the efforts of one or more of the abilities possessed by each and every individual in his body. In a very real sense, he uses us all to build his church by his power (Ephesians 4:4-16).

So, spiritual gifts are actually common, while given special affect by the Holy Spirit who uses them to accomplish Christ’s unique work in us his church; they are both common and special at the same time – common because they are given to all, special because they all affect the Spirit’s special work in his church!

Therefore in the church, the ‘special’ is ‘common’ place!

How do you know if you have a particular spiritual gift?

How strong or effective does a Christian’s ability need to be before we could consider it a spiritual gift? Wayne Grudem points out that although the NT does not directly answer this question, Paul speaks of these gifts as useful for the building up the church (1 Corinthians 14:12), and Peter likewise says that each person who has received a gift should remember to employ it “for one another” (1 Peter 4:10); therefore, these gifts/abilities must be strong enough to function for the benefit of the church, whether for the congregation or for individuals in it.

The fact that the NT insists that every one member of Christ’s church has a gift to use should not worry Christians who feel they don’t know what gifts they possess or how to ‘discover’ (or uncover) these God given abilities. Instead, we need to remember what the NT says about the Spirit’s use of what we might consider otherwise ‘natural’ abilities: God gives us all our abilities and his Spirit can use any of our abilities to accomplish Christ’s work (= spiritual gift).

And the NT does not limit the types of gifts that Christians possess, which he uses. The six different passages (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:11) that list spiritual gifts name 22 gifts, however each of these lists are different and the only gift in each list is prophecy (if we ignore 1 Corinthians 7:7, which lists two gifts not listed in any of the other lists!).

So Paul was not giving nor aiming to give exhaustive lists. He could have listed many others; it depends entirely on how specific we want to be.

Therefore, since spiritual gifts are simply particular abilities that an individual has been given with sufficient strength for its use to be of effective service to his church, spiritual gifts are not mysterious and necessarily “supernatural”; they are more often simple strengths and particularly developed abilities that all Christians experience.

It is true that gifts may vary in strength (Romans 12:16); this is part of the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty (1 Corinthians 12:11). A persons gift (e.g. admin or teaching) may not be strong enough for the entire congregation to benefit, if the church is large enough or if others have that gift more highly developed – but that same person in a different context (a smaller younger church, or with a small group within the church, or with younger people) may find that his/her gift is relatively strong and very effective/beneficial.

And of course, gifts can be neglected (1 Timothy 4:14) and may need to be rekindled (2 Timothy 1:6). Though gifts are usually “possessed” by an individual (permanently) (i.e. “I have the gift of prophecy”; he is a “leader”), this does not mean that they can be exercised ‘at will’ – we see this with gifts such as healing or evangelism, where it is more obvious that the effect of the Spirit’s power always depends entirely on the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty: “he apportions [=continues to apportion / continually] to each one individually as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11).

Some gifts however may be given for a particular unique need or event (e.g. Stephen’s strength and vision from the Spirit when he was being martyred). And in another sense spiritual gifts are not permanent at all – this is more obvious with some gifts such as marriage, which can come to a sudden end. And in the same way the Spirit may withdraw any gift or cause it to be stronger for a time, or weaker: he is Lord.

In fact all gifts will come to an end; in the End, all the spiritual gifts will be withdrawn (1 Corinthians 13:8-13) because they will not be needed– the imperfect will disappear. [Note that in Romans 11:29, “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable” is in that context talking about God’s continuing purpose for the Jewish people – spiritual gifts are not in view].

But we are all responsible to God with what he has given us to use effectively, for the good of his church. And we are also responsible to grow in the use of those abilities he has given us like good stewards.

How do you know what gift you have?

Know your abilities! The NT writers assume you will know what gifts you have; they only talk about using them; particularly telling us to use them! (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10). If you don’t know what your gifts are, either you have not been given enough opportunities to serve/use your abilities – or you are not taking opportunities to serve/use your abilities. If it is a matter of you not getting involved/doing much – you can begin by asking what needs to be done and/or what opportunities exist in your church? And particularly, “what gifts are most needed in my church for building it up?”

You can also ask of yourself, what interests/desires and abilities to you have that could be used to build up the church? You can also ask your church/leaders to give you some advice and/or feedback about yourself and your abilities. Ask God to give you the will and commitment to find out what you can do / what needs to be done and increasingly use the abilities God has given you to help the church with that work.

Try serving in different ways in different areas of the church/ministry. (Sunday school, welfare/helps, prayer, fundraising and giving, administration, leading a bible study, organising a youth event…) Then continue to use the abilities and the opportunities that you have, which are given by God. Be content but also increase your abilities and opportunities as you are able.

Are there particular gifts that all Christians have in common?

If gifts are common to all, are some of the gifts ‘common’? (I.e. given to all Christians; e.g. Does every Christian have the gift of teaching, or prophecy)?

Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30 that everyone does not have any one of the gifts (“Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” etc) So, even though it may be true that everyone ‘can’ teach – in the sense that everyone has some ability to teach others (and the same applies to evangelism and many other abilities), we need to remember that a spiritual gift is an ability that the Spirit puts to a special affect.

It is true that every Christian does have, in a sense, some ability related to all of the gifts – for example, we can all pray for healing, we can all serve, and lead or teach in the right context to a degree etc. But those with a spiritual gift, in one area of ability, are those who have been given a particular strength and effectiveness in that area by the Holy Spirit for service to his church.

And this is what he chooses to vary across each member of his body (1 Corinthians 12:4-31). He gives to each as he wills (1 Cor 12:11); he arranges the body as he chooses (1 Cor 12:11). Not all are apostles, teachers, preachers and pastors!

What do gifts show us about Christ?

Gifts express Christ’s sovereignty and varied grace! This should humble us; Christ’s sovereign provision of the Spirit’s gifts to his church should give us contentment, not discontent with what we’ve been graciously given! God gives his church an amazing variety of gifts which expresses the variety of his grace. So, we should appreciate and recognise people who have gifts that differ from ours and also differ from our expectations of what gifts should look like.

And a healthy church will have a great diversity of gifts, and this will not lead to fragmentation, but to greater unity (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). This is of course counter-culture to the world, which creates unity by joining together with people similar with like abilities. But the Holy Spirit’s expression in the church is a community of people who are different from each other; God’s wisdom is expressed in this by creating a community of diversity, because this requires us to depend on one another for unity (1 Corinthians 12:12-26).

Therefore, God gives us our differences so that we will have to depend on one another. So, we shouldn’t be actually trying to create homogenous, isolated, self-sufficient and self dependent communities in the first place – but diversified and inter-dependent ones.

What do gifts show us about the Church?

Gifts should unify the church, because they are a common work of one Spirit that we all share! The same Spirit gives and works all gifts, whether they amaze people or not (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). So, we should be cautious of thinking of some gifts as supernatural and others as natural. The NT does not make this distinction but emphasises the opposite: they are all gifts given by the same Spirit who works them all in every one of us.

Therefore, the Pentecostal and charismatic understanding that considers some gifts as being more ‘from the Spirit’ than other abilities, devalues and deemphasises those other good, effective abilities that the Lord gives for his church.

However we shouldn’t swing the other way either, overemphasising the ‘natural’. After all, if we believe that God is really among us, we will know that he can and may do anything “supernatural” among us at any time. The natural/supernatural divide is really a false dichotomy; the NT worldview is a continuous interaction between the physical and spiritual world, between the visible and the unseen realm behind it.

What do gifts show us about ourselves?

Gifts of the Spirit really show up where our hearts are at as individuals; they do this by revealing what motivates us in our Christian service. The NT commands us to seek gifts in order to show love, not to show off! Seeking after gifts for this purpose is good since they are abilities for the common good, for serving the church (Recall: they are abilities empowered by the Holy Spirit in service of the church).

It follows then that if our hearts are in the ‘right place’, we will seek the most useful gifts that will enable us to serve the church the best/most (1 Corinthians 14:12). In fact, the NT says that the greatest gifts are the gifts that build up the church the most (1 Corinthian 12:31). E.g. The Corinthians were told to seek prophecy most of all because it would build up and benefit the congregation the most (1 Corinthians 14:1-5).

So, as Christians we should be seeking to identify which gifts are most needed in our churches and praying that God would give those gifts to us and/or to others. Our motivation should not be affected by how impressive or amazing we think one gift is over another; our motivation should be the needs around us (within our church/of the church).

We mustn’t forget that Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:19) and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) came under judgment for motives of self-seeking and self-glorifying. This is because Jesus who gives the gifts of the Holy Spirit is also Lord. If we have the greatest gifts but not love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1); is it really out of love that you desire what you are seeking?

What do gifts show us about Christianity?

We get judged on the effort we put into the task, not the tools we get put into our hands! Gifts are only tools we’re given; we get judged on our effort and faithfulness in our task as Christ’s servants. We all have the same task, and that is to obey Christ in serving his church until he returns. It’s our godliness and obedience that will be rewarded, not the tools he has given us on the job.

In fact, spiritual gifts have little to do with spiritual maturity. The Corinthians were incredibly gifted, but were “worldly” (1 Corinthians 3:1). Since gifts are given to all, it follows that even the most immature Christian may be the most gifted! We must never forget that God works in all things, including through unbelievers and enemies of Christianity too! (Matt 7:22-23). So whatever we do – we mustn’t evaluate ourselves or any other Christian on the basis of ability / giftedness!

The whole purpose of spiritual gifts is obedience to Christ with the aim of doing our best to love others, caring, building the church, and living as a holy community. If God chooses to give us one gift or another, what does it matter? It is his decision to direct what he wants his church to receive and benefit from. And we know that when he comes again, he will “give to each one according to what he has done.” This will be an individual judgment based not on what was given but on what we did with what he gave us; it’s not the effect we have had on others or the result we have achieved that matters (as this comes from him, not us!) – but it’s the effort that we gave to him (arising from our faithfulness to him), which is the gift that will please him on that Day.

No comments: