Last weekend we went on a retreat with our church to beautiful Groesbeek in the east of Holland. Next to it being a great refreshing and fun time, the theme of the retreat was “Unique Design” and one of the things we did was take a spiritual gifts questionnaire together to get better inside into how God has uniquely made us and for what purpose. At the beginning of the retreat I took the opportunity to say a couple of things about spiritual gifts in general (sort of a high-level overview of what the Bible has to say about this) as often the topic of spiritual gifts can be seen as vague and controversial, and so a little bit of a framework can always help to give some guidance. I am planning to do a much larger series on the individual gifts, of which this serves as an introduction. I call the series “Gifts of Grace” because the Greek word used for spiritual gifts (charismata) means grace-gift.
If I would have to give you a definition of what a spiritual gift is, I would go with this one: “A spiritual gift is any ability that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and used in ministry of the church.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1016).
Now this holds a couple of elements. First, it’s any ability. This means it can include natural abilities (for instance: teaching, showing mercy, hospitality, administration, etc) as well as more miraculous abilities (for instance: prophecy, healing, distinguishing between spirits). Second, it’s empowered by the Holy Spirit. In the opening chapter of the book of Acts, right before Jesus’ ascension back into heaven and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the whole church, Jesus told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,…” (Acts 1:8). And Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” (1 Cor. 12:11). In other words, any gift (or ability) only becomes a spiritual gift when it is empowered by the Holy Spirit. And third, it’s used in ministry of the church. Spiritual gifts are given to equip the church to carry out its ministry as the church until Christ returns (1 Cor. 1:7). Paul is quite explicit in this on a number of occasions. Listen to what he says: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor. 12:7) “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.” (1 Cor. 14:26) “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” (1 Cor. 14:12). In other words, any gift (or ability) only becomes a spiritual gift when it is used to build up the church.
Its Number and Use
The Bible does not give us any definite number of spiritual gifts, but it does say that God gave the church an amazing variety of spiritual gifts, and they are all tokens of His varied (rich and diverse) grace, “in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 4:10-11). This means that no two people’s gifts are exactly alike. We are all unique, not only in our combination of spiritual gifts, but also in how God uses our spiritual gifts to build the church up.
The practical outcome is that we should be willing to recognize and appreciate people who have gifts that differ from ours and whose gifts may differ from our expectations of what certain gifts look like. There is often, not always – as God apportions as He wills – a great diversity of gifts, and this diversity should not lead to fragmentation but to greater unity among the believers in the church (1 Cor. 12:12-26) as through these differences we are to depend upon each other.
Unity rather than disunity is to be the outcome of using our spiritual gifts. Unfortunately churches are often imbalances in their view, ranging from totally ignoring spiritual gifts and never talk about them, to being completely obsessed about spiritual gifts and compare and contrast members’ gifts, rank-ordering them, and trying to outdo one another. Now, although Paul does say to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), which are those that build up the church more and bring more benefit to others, “especially that you may prophesy.” (1 Cor. 14:1), this should never lead to disunity (like saying that a person only has been filled with the Holy Spirit when he or she is able to speak in tongues – the Bible makes no such statements.
Within our church, we hope to strike a balance in which we neither ignore nor obsess about spiritual gifts, but rather meaningfully engage with these gifts, and use them in such a way that they build up the church, glorify God, and bring joy to you.
Paul and Peter are the ones who primarily talk about the different types of spiritual gifts, and you can read about them in:
- 1 Corinthians 12-14
- 1 Cor. 12:8-10 (word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues)
- 1 Cor. 12:28 (apostle, prophet, teacher, miracles, kinds of healings, helps, administration, tongues)
- Ephesians 4:1-17 (apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher)
- Romans 12:1-8 (prophecy, serving, teaching, encouraging, contributing, leadership, mercy)
- 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 (marriage, celibacy)
- 1 Peter 4:7-11 (whoever speaks, whoever renders service)
A Call to Strengthen
Gifts are given to every believer (1 Cor. 12:7, 11; 1 Pet. 4:10). They are given to the new believer as well as to the mature believer. Hence, spiritual gifts in and of themselves are not a sign of spiritual maturity. Yet the Bible does exhort us to use them (Rom. 12:6), and to seek to grow in their use that church may receive more benefit from the gifts of which God has allowed us to be stewards. In Paul’s letters to Timothy he exhorts us to “do not neglect the gift you have” (1 Tim. 4:14) and is reminding us “to fan into flame the gift of God” (2 Tim. 1:6). Why? Because it’s only a spiritual gift when it is strong enough to function for the benefit of the church; to build up the church.
Discovering, Seeking, and Applying Spiritual Gifts
I think that regardless if you know or don’t know what your spiritual gifts are, it is good to pray and seek the LORD for wisdom with regards to spiritual gifts. And it could be for a variety of reasons:
- It could be to get more insight into what your spiritual gifts are;
- It could be to get more insight into how God wants you to use your unique gift combination;
- It could be to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), which are those that build up the church more and bring more benefit to others
It also could be to check if your motives are right. Paul says, “since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church.” (1 Cor. 14:12). It’s good to be eager for manifestations of the Spirit, but remember they are given to you to build up the church; not to build up your self-esteem. And, conversely, be content if God chooses not to give more. It is the Spirit, “who apportions to each one individually as he wills.” (1 Cor. 12:11)
We should strive simply to excel in loving others, caring for their needs, building up the church, and living a life in conformity to the pattern of Christ’s life. If we do that, and if God chooses to give us spiritual gifts that equip us for those tasks, then we should thank Him for that, and pray that He would keep us from pride over gifts that have been freely and graciously given, and which we do not earn.