In Spirit & In Truth: For the past year or so, I’ve been working through the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life, and specifically the practice of the spiritual gifts. I want to invite you to think through this with us. This is one of the most important aspects of our lives as believers. The gift of the Holy Spirit is one of the fundamental changes that takes place in us when we become believers. Most of us live like nothing ever changed. The Bible calls us to something more than that.
So far in this series, we’ve spent most of our time on two gifts, prophecy and tongues. These are the contentious gifts between charismatics and cessationists, but there are many other gifts listed in the Bible. It’s probably fitting that most of the gifts are not controversial at all. The Holy Spirit often works in the normal, otherwise boring moments of the life of the church. This is a great reminder of the purpose of the gifts. There are times when the gifts serve to demonstrate the amazing power and wisdom of God, but most of the time, the gifts subtly empower the church to continue to do the work of God in the world.
Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 13, the very center of his teaching on spiritual gifts in the Bible, that the greatest thing we possess is love. It is more important than any of the gifts, more enduring than anything we’ll ever do for God, and the thing we should seek above everything else. In the middle of his discussion on the gifts, Paul proclaims, but the greatest of these is love.
It’s encouraging to remember that every believer has spiritual gifts, because every person has a role to play in the church. God will equip you to accomplish the goal, making disciples of all the nations and filling the earth with the knowledge of his glory, in ways you may have never imagined. It’s important that we study all of the gifts so that we can trust God for the things he’s promised to provide for us as a body.
People argue about the lists of gifts. There are only 6 places in the New Testament where the gifts are mentioned. 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 12:8 are the longest lists. Romans 12:6-8 adds a few more. Ephesians 4:11 lists roles and offices given as gifts to the church. 1 Corinthians 7:7-11 discusses the gifts given to single and married people. 1 Peter 4:11 groups the categories into two groups, speaking and serving. Wayne Grudem counts 20 different gifts among these passages. Because the groups don’t align exactly, many commentators believe that the lists we have in the NT are just a sampling of the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gives. There are undoubtedly more ways the Spirit empowers the church, but these lists provide a template for the kinds of things we should expect.
Of course, Christians have taken this too far in places. Craig Keener shares a hilarious story of someone who claimed to have a “bee-anointing” in his book, Gift and Giver. Where there’s freedom, there’s always the chance (likelihood) for excess, but that shouldn’t cause us to do away with the freedom we’ve been given.
Because some of the gifts are only mentioned once in the Bible, there are a lot of questions that surround the practice of the gifts in the church.
What’s the difference between a spiritual gift and an aptitude? Several of the gifts commonly exist outside the church, like teaching and hospitality, and others are things that all believers are called to exercise, like faith and evangelism. How do you know when someone has the gift of prayer or they’re just really good at it? When the Spirit gives gifts to people he often uses their skills and attributes. If we believe God creates every single person, and sees their entire life before they ever take a breath, then it’s perfectly consistent to say that aptitudes and skills can be spiritual gifts. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are always in perfect agreement with each other.
There are times when God takes someone’s natural gifts and amplifies them for his purposes. There are also times, like we see with Bezalel and Oholiab in Exodus 31:3-5, where God miraculously gifts people with new skills and abilities in his own timing. He’s free to do both. He calls us to give everything we have to him, and if there’s something else we need to accomplish the tasks he’s given us, we can trust he’ll give those things to us as well.
Do people have one specific gift for their whole life? If I have the gift of healing, does that mean I can heal any person at any time? If not, then why is it considered a gift? These are really good questions, and they can be answered by looking at the context of the lists, specifically 1 Corinthians, and the words themselves.
The Corinthian Church
The context of 1 Corinthians 12-14 is extremely important in this discussion. The entire letter can be read through the lens of spirit versus flesh, or godly wisdom versus the wisdom of the world. In chapters 1-4, Paul contrasts human wisdom, clever words, and worldly power with the foolishness of the cross. Paul renounces the strength of worldly systems and calls the Corinthians to trust in the wisdom and power of the Spirit. For the rest of the letter, he answers questions from the Corinthian churches and applies the distinctly Christian worldview he established in chapters 1-4 to everyday life. He deals with sexual immorality, lawsuits, singleness and marriage, food sacrificed to idols and rights, and a final section on worship that contains head coverings, communion, and spiritual gifts. The discussion on the gifts sits within the larger context of the letter.
The spiritual gifts are a regular part of the churches in Corinth; in fact, the problem there was an overabundance of spiritual gifts. There were too many people speaking in tongues and giving prophecies in the services. People were getting drunk during communion. They celebrated worldly demonstrations of power and eloquence. The Corinthian church was a disaster, but Paul believed that God had called them, sanctified them, and would continue working in them through the Spirit.
Sometimes you’ll hear people say we need to be more like the early church. If you study what the Bible says, you realize the honeymoon phase of the early church lasted about 30 seconds. Acts 2-4 paints a picture of things going well and then everything goes crazy. The church then and the church now are the same. Many things have changed, but one really important thing remains the same; the church is a group of sinful people who are working together to be transformed by the Spirit of God into the image of the Son of God. The gifts are the catalyst in this reaction.
Let’s look at a few of the gifts we haven’t covered yet:
The gift of teaching is one of the most prominent gifts in the church. Most people get to experience this gift on a weekly basis, others wish they did. The Corinthians were in love with rhetoric. In fact, they didn’t really like Paul’s teaching because he wasn’t as polished or authoritative as the teachers they were accustomed to listening to. They expected Christian preachers to impress. But Paul had something else in mind. In chapters 1-2, Paul reframes the goal of Christian teaching;
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. 1 Corinthians 2:1-5
The spiritual gift of teaching does not rely on worldly standards of rhetoric or human displays of power. Teaching aims to honor Christ, not the preacher. The content of teaching is the Word of God, explaining the Scriptures and applying them to the lives of believers. This is what Paul and Barnabas were doing in the church at Antioch (Acts 15:35). A lot of teaching today depends on stories and illustrations, emotional appeals, and clever packaging, but in the Bible, teaching always rests on the power of God’s Word. Those who have the gift of teaching rely on the power of God to reach the hearts of the people listening.
All of the gifts serve as a glimpse of things to come in the kingdom of God. The gift of healing is the perfect example. We will not be totally healed until we come face to face with Christ in the resurrection. But for now, God has given us a taste of his divine power to heal us. We have to understand that there is a spiritual component to what happens to us physically. This does not mean that every illness comes from some unconfessed sin or demonic activity, but the spiritual and the physical are linked.
It shouldn’t be surprising that God tells us to be sensitive to the spiritual realities of our physical illnesses. We’re called to pray, lay hands, anoint with oil, and repent that we might be healed. The Bible is full of miraculous healings, and the gift of healing today looks a lot like what we see throughout the Scriptures. Sometimes people are healed and sometimes they aren’t. God does not guarantee that he will heal us in this life. Even the disciples couldn’t heal a demon-possessed boy in Mark 9. Healing power comes from God, and he is the one who decides when to heal and when not to. We have to trust his wisdom.
There is a tradition in the church, mostly in charismatic word of faith circles, that locates the power of healing in your faith. They take passages out of context and claim that the level of your faith determines the success of your healing gift. Nothing could be further from the truth biblically. Sam Storms makes this clear in Practicing the Power; “Faith itself carries no power; but it is instrumental, deriving its significance from the role it plays in relating to God who answers our prayers.” Faith is important in exercising the gifts. James says to ask in faith, without doubting, but this is not because our lack of doubt somehow bolsters up the power to heal. It is because faith without doubt brings us closer to God, to know him, trust him, and discern his will.
There is one other important thing to remember about the gift of healing. God doesn’t always need to heal us through what we would consider miraculous means. The physical and the spiritual are both important. Modern medicine is a gift from God (sorry Tom Cruise!). While should always pray and seek God’s will in our sickness (see 2 Chron. 16:12-13), we should also use all of the means God has provided for us. I believe Christian doctors often have the spiritual gift of healing.
Words of Wisdom and Knowledge
These two gifts might be the most mysterious of the whole bunch. They only appear in 1 Corinthians 12:8, and Paul doesn’t give us any explanation of what he means. Some commentators think this might be because the Corinthians would have been familiar with miraculous words of knowledge. The ancient Greeks and Romans frequently consulted oracles, looking for predictions about the future. It seems reasonable that Paul would have taken this practice of the world and contrasted it with the power of the Spirit. The Spirit gifts believers with insights into God’s purposes in the world. Oracles predicted things that would bring glory to kings and nations, but God gives his Spirit to his people to speak about things that reveal his glory to the world.
These two gifts are closely related to prophecy and teaching. Words of wisdom and knowledge could be encouraging, they could uncover sin, or they could reveal God’s plans in a specific situation.
Discerning Between Spirits
People often claim to have the gift of discernment, but it often seems as though they’ve just been blessed with shrewdness - or cynicism. In the context of 1 Corinthians, the gift of discernment probably relates to prophecy. When people are discerning between the spirits, they’re doing what all believers are encouraged to do in 1 John 4:1; they’re testing things that have been said and done to see if they are from God. Keener takes 1 Corinthians 14:29 to indicate that interpretation and discernment are the same gift. The word for discernment is used in reference to prophecies several times.
Others take this phrase to denote the process of discerning between the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of anyone or anything else. People with the gift of discernment can recognize where the Spirit might be at work in a way that makes no worldly sense. They might also be able to identify false motives, or demonic forces in disguise.
Roles and Offices
In Ephesians 4:11, Paul lists a different kind of gifts. While the lists in 1 Corinthians consist of qualities, skills, and aptitudes given to believers, this set of gifts is comprised of roles given to the church. Scholars dispute whether there are 4 or 5 gifts in this list; apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherd-teachers (or shepherds and teachers.) Paul tells us these roles have been given to the church for a specific purpose;
“To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16
Cessationist believe this list is in chronological order. This makes sense given what Paul says in Ephesians 2:20 and the way the church began to grow in Acts. Charismatics believe all of these roles are still operative in the church today. The office of apostle can be tricky, because Paul spends so much time defending his apostleship in his letters. It appears as though Paul uses the word apostle in two different ways. He defends his status as an Apostle, pointing to his encounter with the risen Christ, the commission he received from God, and the consistency of his message. In passages like 2 Corinthians 8:23, he calls Titus an apostle, for his work carrying the Word of God to the churches.
This is a hotly contested passage, but in the context of the other gifts, we can settle a couple of the disputes. The offices of the church have been ordained and given by God for the building up of the church, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry themselves. Anything that leads people to glory in their authority, talent, or position is opposed to the work of the Spirit. Second, there are other passages in the NT like 1 Timothy 2 and Titus 1 that teach us about the roles in the church.
This passage in Ephesians gives us the perfect picture to wrap up our study of the gifts of the Spirit. When everybody comes together and uses their gifts, we grow up in him who is the head of the church, Jesus Christ, who holds the whole body together, every joint and tendon. And when we all grow up together and play our roles, it builds the entire church, and love holds us all together.
Next week will be our final post in this series! Share some of the things you’ve learned in this series, resources you’ve appreciated, or things you’d like to add.
Check out the other posts in this series:
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.
Like the content? Support the site and get more at patreon.com/sowespeak!