Consider the following parable:
Three animal friends went to school to learn how to better be contributing citizens of the forest, and to be well-rounded in a variety of animal skills. Mr. Eagle came into the school with a large amount of confidence, but was constantly in trouble with his teachers because he tended to fly to the top of trees, rather than climb them as he was supposed to. In addition, he struggled greatly with swimming, and wasn’t particularly good at running. Three semesters into school, he became a dropout, and felt guilty for years when he would spread his wings and fly. Unlike Mr. Eagle, Mrs. Squirrel, was an excellent climber, made straight “A’s” in every climbing focused class, and was also a standout at running. She was weak, however, at swimming, and never could master flying at all. She barely graduated, but her years of swimming and flying training never actually came in handy in any of her future endeavors. Mr. Turtle came into school with great anticipation as one who excelled at swimming. For two semesters in a row, Mr. Turtle was the school’s top-rated swimmer, though he was quite weak at running, and even worse at climbing. Unfortunately, as bad as Mr. Turtle was at running and climbing, he was catastrophically bad at flying, and he ultimately was forced to leave school due to multiple near-fatal flying injuries. It would be years before he would fully recover, and some time after that before he would take any joy in swimming again.
Eagles are meant to fly, and they are at their most effective when they are flying. Squirrels, on the other hand, are gifted at climbing and running, but weak swimmers, while turtles excel at swimming, and little else. Eagles, squirrels and turtles are at their best when they are doing the things they are most gifted at. Christians are similar. According to the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 12:7), every follower of Jesus is equipped with at least one spiritual gift. At its most basic, this means that every believer has at least one area spiritually, where they are supernaturally gifted to excel, be fruitful, and glorify Christ with their lives. Unfortunately in the church today, two things militate against this truth. #1 Many (if not most) Christians do not know about spiritual gifts, and do not understand how they have been gifted by God. #2 Many (if not most) Christians (even those that are aware of spiritual gifts) do not know what areas they are spiritually gifted in!
I don’t want to sound like a motivational speaker, but it is true that, if you are a genuine follower of Jesus, you are meant to excel at something spiritual; the Holy Spirit has gifted you in at least one way that uniquely contributes to growth and maturity in the Body of Christ. Do you believe that? Don’t just believe it because I said it – let’s take a look at what the Bible says about spiritual gifts, specifically, how it actually defines the gifts of the Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:1 “Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant.”
Paul initiates the longest discussion of spiritual gifts in the Bible (1 Corinthians 12-14) with this very important declaration, “I do NOT want you to be ignorant.” Sadly, however, many in the church today are quite ignorant of spiritual gifts. At times this ignorance is because some churches and pastors just don’t teach on spiritual gifts; while other churches and pastors over-focus on one or two particular gifts at the expense of the others. During the next few weeks of writing and teaching through spiritual gifts, I hope to offer some solid and Bible-based instruction to help better understand these amazing gifts that the Holy Spirit has for the church.
So – what are spiritual gifts anyway? Let’s look at a few definitions that have been put forth over the years, and then turn to Scripture:
- Tim Keller offers what might be the most succinct definition of spiritual gifts that I’ve seen: “Spiritual gifts are abilities God gives us to meet the needs of others in Christ’s name.” Tim Keller
- Wayne Grudem, in his excellent Systematic Theology, weighs in with a definition only slightly longer, noting that a spiritual gift is, “any ability that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and used in any ministry of the church”
- Graham Cole’s book gives this definition, “Spiritual gifts are God empowering His people through the Holy Spirit for Kingdom Life and service, enabling them in attitude and action to live and minister in a manner which glorifies Christ” Graham Cole in He Who Gives Life.
- Finally, Sam Storm’s very helpful book on the gifts suggests that a spiritual gift is, “A God-given, and therefore gracious, capacity to serve the Body of Christ. It is a divinely empowered or spiritually energized potential to minister to the Body of Christ by communicating the knowledge, power and love of Jesus.” Sam Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts
Of the above definitions, I believe I like Sam Storms’ the best – it is comprehensive and biblically accurate. I will offer my own definition of spiritual gifts here, “Spiritual gifts are various supernatural capabilities of grace given to Christians by the Holy Spirit to be used to build up others and point them to Jesus.”
My definition highlights what I believe to be the four most critical components of spiritual gifts:
1. Spiritual gifts are supernatural. That is to say that they are above normal in their source, and in their empowerment. They are not natural talents, but supernatural capabilities.
2. Spiritual gifts are gifts of grace. They are not earned on the basis of merit, or always given to people of great character. Indeed, some of the more gifted people in the Body of Christ can sometimes be among the least mature, and some of the (seemingly) lesser-gifted people might be possessed of loads of spiritual maturity. I note here that the word used for “spiritual gift” in passages like 1 Corinthians 12:4, 12:9, 12:28, 12:30-31 and Romans 5 is the Greek word “charismata,” which is the Greek word for “gift” or “gracious gift.”
3. Spiritual gifts are from God the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, Paul writes no less than SIX times that spiritual gifts are directly given by the Holy Spirit and EMPOWERED (vs. 11) by the Holy Spirit.
4. The ultimate purposes of spiritual gifts are to build other believers up and to glorify God. I am quite sure that God uses spiritual gifts for a variety of purposes, but it would seem that the two primary ones involve building up and maturing other believers and bringing great glory to God. Paul challenges the Corinthians, who were very interested in spiritual gifts, to be sure to focus on, “gifts that build up the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:12) and then, while discussing spiritual gifts, notes in Ephesians 4:16 that the entire Body of Christ is built up and grows via the, “proper working of each individual part.” Peter, writing on spiritual gifts in 1 Peter 4, indicates that the ultimate result of people ministering in their individual gifts (serving with the strength of God, speaking the Words of God,) will be, “that God may be glorified through Jesus Christ in everything.”
As a bit of an interlude, I love this quote from Jerry Bridges that traces God’s grace from salvation to the bestowing of spiritual gifts to Heavenly rewards:
This is the amazing story of God’s grace. God saves us by His grace and transforms us more and more into the likeness of His Son by His grace. In all our trials and afflictions, He sustains and strengthens us by His grace. He calls us by grace to perform our own unique function within the Body of Christ. Then, again by grace, He gives to each of us the spiritual gifts necessary to fulfill our calling. As we serve Him, He makes that service acceptable to Himself by grace, and then rewards us a hundredfold by grace. Jerry Bridges, Holiness Day By Day.
Let’s close this introductory post with three foundational Bible passages on spiritual gifts. The three passages below are not the only passages on spiritual gifts, but they offer a good, basic overview of scriptural teaching on the topic:
- Scripture A: Romans 12:4-9, “For just as in one body we have many members, and not all the members serve the same function, 5 so we who are many are one body in Christ, and individually we are members who belong to one another.6 And we have different gifts according to the grace given to us. If the gift is prophecy, that individual must use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is service, he must serve; if it is teaching, he must teach; 8 if it is exhortation, he must exhort; if it is contributing, he must do so with sincerity; if it is leadership, he must do so with diligence; if it is showing mercy, he must do so with cheerfulness.” (New English Translation) Takeaways: A. Christians actually belong to each other. This is quite a challenging thought in individualistic Western countries, but it fits perfectly with Paul’s use of the “body” metaphor to describe the church. B. God has given each Christian different/various gifts of the Spirit. C. Whatever your gift is, you “MUST” use it! The use of and operation in spiritual gifts is NOT an option for Christians (see also 1 Peter 4:10-11). This is a command – Christians who are gifted in exhortation MUST exhort; those gifted in showing mercy MUST do so cheerfully; and those gifted in teaching MUST teach! These gifts are a privilege and a joy – but they are not optional.
- Scripture B: Hebrews 2:3-5, “How will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (New English Translation) Takeaways: One of the purposes of spiritual gifts is to confirm the Good News of Jesus. In the first century, the Holy Spirit distributed various gifts of the Spirit (and signs, wonders and miracles) to demonstrate that those who were testifying about Jesus were actually telling the truth. Some (cessationists) believe that this particular purpose of the gifts ceased in the first century, but I am what is called a “continuationist,” which means that I believe that God still confirms His message, according to His will, with gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can see here in Hebrews that one of the major purposes of the spiritual gifts is related to evangelism; God uses these various gifts, spread throughout the Body of Christ, to bring lost people to salvation. What might that look like? It could look like a gentlemen talking with people at a bus-stop and sharing Jesus with them in such a way that those listening actually respond more readily to him than others – this is the gift of evangelism. Perhaps it could look like a young lady so powerfully and convincingly showing mercy to somebody who has just lost a loved one, that the bereaved person is somehow led to Jesus through that impacting ministry of mercy. In our next post on spiritual gifts, we will see a situation where God used some type of miraculous revelation given to Charles Spurgeon, himself a cessationist, to bring a person to Jesus.
- Scripture C: 1 Corinthians 12:12-21, “12 For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body—though many—are one body, so too is Christ.13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.14 For in fact the body is not a single member, but many. 15 If the foot says, “Since I am not a hand, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. 16 And if the ear says, “Since I am not an eye, I am not part of the body,” it does not lose its membership in the body because of that. 17 If the whole body were an eye, what part would do the hearing? If the whole were an ear, what part would exercise the sense of smell? 18 But as a matter of fact, God has placed each of the members in the body just as he decided. 19 If they were all the same member, where would the body be? 20 So now there are many members, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor in turn can the head say to the foot, “I do not need you.” (New English Translation)
Takeaways: Just as there are no useless or unneeded parts of the human body, there are no useless or unneeded members of a local church fellowship. All of the body parts mentioned above have an important role and use in the body, and all saved members of a local church fellowship have an important, even indispensable, role and function.
I love Paul’s illustration here (and in Romans 12 and Ephesians 4) of human body parts as metaphors for the gifts of the Spirit – it is an absolutely perfect illustration! The church is an organism made up of many diverse and different members, each with diverse and different giftings, roles and functions, that nevertheless are ONE single organism. It is not a good idea to try and improve on a perfect metaphor, but nevertheless, recently while teaching on spiritual gifts, I used a very IMPERFECT metaphor to describe spiritual gifts, that of the Transformer’s toy called The Constructicons. When I was a kid, I wanted the Constructicons set so badly that I couldn’t stand it. If you’re unfamiliar, the Constructicons were a group of transforming robots that had the ability to combine themselves and form one giant, super-powerful robot called “Devastator.”***
Yes, I was being a bit silly, and also reaching out to Generation Xers, but the the metaphor holds water in at least one place. When the Body of Christ comes together as One Body, with many different parts functioning together in their spiritually empowered roles, we are far more powerful and fruitful than when we are functioning individualistically and not in harmony. I believe that this is the overall thrust of Ephesians 4, one of the most powerful and magisterial chapters of the Bible. Scroll down past the silly picture below to read it, and be sure to stay tuned for part 2 in this series, which will take a look at examples of spiritual gifts in church history, in modern times and in the Scriptures. Thank you for reading!
Ephesians 4:11-16, New English Translation, “It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love.”
*** Yes, I am well aware that the Devastator was “bad,” or a Decepticon. Had I ever owned the Constructicons, they would have immediately changed sides. Perhaps Voltron is a better illustration, since they were good guys – but their individual robots all looked the same and had the same roles/powers.