October 1, 2014

3 truths about spiritual gifts

by Jesse Johnson

Tragically—and ironically—one of the casualties of the modern charismatic movement is a biblical understanding of what spiritual gifts actually are. By emphasizing only a handful of gifts (the sign gifts) many Christians have lost sight of the less glamorous yet more common spiritual gifts.

With a focus on tongues, signs, miracles, healings and the like, it is easy to be confused about how God through the Holy Spirit has actually equipped the church. That confusion isn’t limited to charismatic churches–in fact because of an avoidance of the sign gifts, that confusion is often seen even inside of cessationist and continuationist churches too. People think “those sign gifts are not what we do…” and the question of gifts never really gets around to “so what do we do?”

With that in mind, here are three truths about spiritual gifts. Understanding these truths will not only help you serve in your church, but will restore the wonder that God uses us to do his will:

  1. Spiritual gifts are unique in the NT age

Even the most ordinary gifts are extraordinary in redemptive history. In the OT there were no spiritual gifts like we think of today. God was not working through a group of people sealed with his Spirit, and God was building a nation—not a church.

In OT Israel God used his Spirit to equip particular people for particular tasks. But there was no real corollary to the church. There was no organization that crossed cultural and ethnic lines to advance the good news of the kingdom to the earth. There was no body of believers, both Jews and Gentiles, held together by only the working of God’s Spirit.

This means that when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, he brought more than fire. He brought the power to not only hold disparate people together in one body and focused on one task, but to actually edify one another through the giving of the gifts.

So lest you tire of the ordinary nature of gifts of teaching, serving, mercy and the like, remember that in the OT there may have been teaching, serving and mercy; they just were not the means used by the third member of the Trinity to advance God’s kingdom on earth.

  1. Spiritual gifts are not mutually exclusive.

Thee NT has at least four lists of spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6, 1 Cor 12:8, 1 Cor 12:28, Eph 4:7-12; also 1 Cor 7:7 and 1 Peter 4:11). But these categories aren’t meant to be a “choose the one that most applies” kind of list. Lyndon wrote about this point here, but the gist is that we shouldn’t stress over finding which gift from which list most matches us.

And people do stress about this. There are spiritual gift tests you can take (or this one here). There are programs you can go through. There are hand-wringing conversations with Christians really confused about their gifting.

Please don’t get me wrong—these all come from good motives. It is good to want to find your gifting, and it is good to want to serve your church. But so much of this comes from a wrong understanding of the gifts to begin with. You don’t have to decide between teaching and helping, or between serving and administrating. You don’t even have to know what the gift of administration is!

The lists in the NT weren’t given to be a menu, but rather to be a starting place. They represent a good place for you to begin if you are a new Christian, and you really just don’t know what you are supposed to do in church.

If you take these first two points together, you should come away with this: God is doing something new through the church, and he is using people in the church to do it. How? By giving us gifts that we can use to build the church.

So then, how do you know what your gift is?

  1. Spiritual gifts essentially come down to doing what you like, and what you are good at

By all means, take a gifts test. But the truth is those tests boil down to these two questions: what do you like to do, and what are you good at?

Do you like teaching others? Are you good at it? Then I’ll hazard the guess that you have the gift of teaching. Do you like giving money to advance the gospel? Do you have money to give? We call that the gift of giving.

If you are a Christian, then you like serving other believers. When you do that in the context of the church, that is your spiritual gift.

This is not an excuse for believers to neglect obedience by claiming gifting in other areas. I’m sure we’ve all met the person who says “I don’t’ evangelize because that’s not my gift.” Ryrie pointed out many years ago that all of the gifts given to the church are also commands given to every believer.  Every Christian is supposed to practice all of the gifts! But every believer is also better at some things than others, and it is in that area where he finds his gifting.

What this boils down to: in this present age, God is building his church by using us, and he uses us by giving us unique desires and abilities. We in turn use those desires and abilities in the church, and the church is strengthened, which is our spiritual act of service.

What about you? Have you seen a loss of focus on the “ordinary” gifts in the church? Do you see people confused about how to identify or use their gifts in the church?

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Yohanan

    good and weak points..
    good to mention that there are commandments and it is often too easy to hide behind the “gifts” question!
    “But the truth is those tests boil down to these two questions: what do you like to do, and what are you good at?” This may often match. If we live by the spirit, is Jesus is alive in us, if we get smaller and He gets greater in us. If this is not the condition I’m sorry to say that your statement doesn’t make any sense. In these wrongly understood charismatic circles the prayer is often: “Holy spirit, give ME the gift / the strength to do this or that”. The Bible states: “The Holy Spirit IS the strength IN You” !

    • Good point Yohanan. This is all predicated on living a life submitted to God’s Spirit.

  • Alan

    With the lack of discernment and the low biblical literacy in the church today, this prescription seems inadequate and dangerous–if that’s not too strong a word to use. What Ryrie rightly pointed out was that obedience is primary, not seeking after gifts or self-perceived assessments. Just as the heart is wicked and deceitful, so too is the weak-minded Christian unable to make a healthy assessment about his/her giftedness. What we like or what we do well is not the barometer we might think it is. We might be happy and able to do things that are not even listed as gifts, and could even be bad (sinful) habits or self-aggrandizing (poor) character traits. (i.e. we might like to talk a lot and be really good at it, but we might be poor theologians or even fools and it would be better to keep silent than to assume that our glibness or gregariousness equates to spiritual giftedness)
    It is good to remember what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:7 where he reminds us that believers have been given the “manifestation of the Spirit” (what we call spiritual gifts) for the common good (of the body). Hence it is the Spirit’s manifestation that is of utmost importance and not our (mere) perception of what we think we like or what we think we are good at. Instead, if one were to compare the fruit of the Spirit with the gifts/manifestation of the Spirit and consider obedience the basis for the exercise of the Spirit’s manifestation, we would be closer to a practical realization of God working out His manifestation in our daily lives. If we walk by the Spirit, we will not carry out the desires of the flesh. If we walk in the Spirit then we will be exercising obedience and thereby removing any hindrance(s) to the Spirit manifesting Himself through our daily living. By not quenching or grieving the Spirit, we will be filled with the Spirit and in a sense, give full range of the manifestation of the Spirit.
    Jesus commanded us to make disciples…teaching them to observe/obey all the He has commanded. Once obedience has assumed its proper place, there will be no need to “search” for spiritual gifts (an interesting command that is not found in Scripture). Instead, in the midst of obedience, and carried about by the Spirit, the believer will be working out his salvation, obediently exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit and at the same time demonstrating the manifestation of the Spirit as He wills. While others in the body will recognize the obedient Christian’s giftedness, there is no need to “search”.
    Notice in Romans how Paul assumes that giftedness will be obvious… “in your teaching… in your leading… etc. Obedience will provide opportunity for giftedness.
    I suppose that once the believer is obeying, then the handy little “what you like doing/what you’re good at” would work. But let’s not assume that obedience is the given for most Christians.
    This is a great discussion and one that needs practical application. Keep up the stimulating interaction

    • Thanks Alan. And I totally agree with you when you say that the search for gifts actually is a sign that something is askew. In fact (and I’ll write on this tomorrow) that is one of the stronger arguments for cessationism.

  • Karen

    I know this is a cessastionist blog. I was raised to believe that certain gifts of the Spirit ceased, but I don’t think that is biblically supported anymore. The verses I think for supporting the spiritual gifts continuing are Joel 2:28-32, which I believe show that prophecy, dreams, and visions will continue to the end times. I also found a passage in Revelation (I am currently studying Revelation in my quiet time) that seems to show that prophecy will be in the end times. What about the two witnesses in Revelation 11 who will prophecy for 1,260 days, and have the spiritual power from God to shut the sky so it won’t rain? It seems that in the end times there will be false prophets and false signs by the beast and the anti Christ spirit as well as true signs from people of God, and as the people of God we need to use discernment to see what it from the Spirit.
    I’m sure that you have your own interpretation on those passages, I just don’t think it’s cut and dry from a biblical standpoint that the gifts have ceased.

    • Thanks Karen. Tomorrow I’ll give my reasons that I’m a cessationist.

      • Karen

        Looking forward to it!

        • Not Charismatic


    • Jas25

      I’ve been doing a lot of answer seeking on this, having come out of a Pentecostal congregation of which I was a very active member for 2 years that was only just started to get into the most glaringly unbiblical practices.

      My conclusion is that “the perfect” in 1 Cor. 13:10, when taking in the original language, seems to be talking about a completeness of the gifts themselves. Which means that we really can’t know with certainty that a gift will never *ever* happen again.

      For instance, when there are believers who speak a language needed for evangelism the gift of tongues becomes pointless (the “perfect” or completion of tongues being when we have sufficient ability to witness in every needed language), however the supernatural gift was absolutely necessary when the only disciples in the entire world knew less than a fraction of the languages of those they were called to witness to.

      Teaching will be necessary until we have direct access to the ultimate Teacher. Nobody would think of arguing that evangelism isn’t necessary in today’s world. Similarly, pastors will be needed to guard against false doctrine as long as those doctrine are around (and especially as abundant as they are today). However, some gifts are no longer necessary as the church has grown and matured and the Bible says that as that happens we can know they will cease.

      Then there’s the matter of the purpose of some of the sign gifts being redefined. For instance, healing wasn’t for the sake of people being healthy (despite what every prosperity teacher has to say). If God had wanted people well in this life those people would be well. It was an authority granted specific people (who neither had to wait for special permission nor had to contend with the faith of the person they were to heal) for the purpose of validating their message.

      Similarly, prophecy wasn’t for the sake of fortune telling. It was to give necessary guidance and correction to an immature church that lacked all the God inspired writings that we now use to determine the purpose and direction of the church and which describe events all the way up to the second coming of Christ.

      With that said, we can never say, with absolute certainty, that a gift is completely gone, never to return. Should the need return, so will the gift. As you mentioned, some pretty flashy signs will be shown through the witnesses to validate their message.

      HOWEVER, the modern “gifts” that bare no resemblance to those practiced by the church up to this point nor fulfill the godly purpose for which they were originally intended should be exposed for what they rightly are. Those who spend all their energy seeking them are no different than those Jesus rebuked in Matthew 12:39.

      Furthermore, we should fully expect that, as the clock ticks down, we will see a great deal of wonders performed by false teachers. Also, there will be many who believe they are saved because they believed they were casting out demons, prophesying, and performing many miracles who will be told Jesus never knew them (Matthew 7:22). It’s scary to think how these false doctrines are convincing people not to reach out with the true gospel because those who are lost claim they’re already saved!

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  • Karen

    I attended a Charismatic church for awhile, and they didn’t just talk about the “sign” gifts, they also talked about serving, showing mercy, leading, exc. There were a lot of sermons about 1 Cor. 12 about how we are one body with one Spirit. I know there are probably charismatic churches that focus too much on the sign gifts, but that isn’t every charismatic church.
    But couldn’t the flip side be true for the cessationist–that they only focus on the “common” gifts as you put it and put aside the sign gifts completely?
    What if the Spirit wants to move in both ways?

    • Totally Karen. And my concern here is not with the charismatic churches, but with the cessationist churches. My experience has been that the Holy Spirit and his gifts get defined by what they are not (“not like that!)” to the extent there is missing a positive view of how he is moving in the church.

  • Jesse:

    Thanks for this, very clear. On this topic, have you interacted at all with Berding’s What Are Spiritual Gifts? Much of your thought is trying to get at the same issue, I think.

    But where I think Berding’s exegesis helps us is getting past the question of “how do I discover my gifts?” by saying it misses the point – we need to return to a more (biblically) fundamental understanding what the gifts are to begin with. Gifts are not hidden abilities that Christians “discover,” but grace-given opportunities for Christians within the sphere of their local church (an indispensable context often [usually?] overlooked in this whole discussion, as you know).

    I think this reassessment helps us deal with some of the inherent difficulties that are presented when we use the two questions you propose – what do you like? and what are you good at? Not that they’re bad questions absolutely, but approaching gifts solely with desire and ability has created some of the issues we face in many of our churches. These would include the phenomena of Christians who think that “ministry” (= serving!) is solely doing what they like and what they feel aptitude for. There’s often little self-denial or discovering God’s power (gift!) in their weakness in this. Also the absence of character-qualification in many Christians’ assessment of ministry. Take, for example, the guy who loves to teach and thinks he’s good at it, but has a horrible commitment pattern, is a negligent husband and father, and is just roaming the churches in his area to find one that won’t ask questions and give him a Sunday School class (let’s be honest, we’ve all met this guy at least twice. And it’s the same for the guy who wants to lead singing, etc.). When we approach gifts solely with what do I like and what am I good at, it tends to feed the very self-centered American mentality of “I want to do what I find personally fulfilling,” which is hard to find in the NT as a motivation for ministry in the church. And the very strange expression, “my ministry,” as though it’s something Christians possess and then bring into a particular local church that the pastors and leaders are bound to accommodate.

    But if we return to gifts as opportunities to serve that are given (!) by God, we can more easily understand their relationship to obedience (that you rightly point-out), as well as sacrifice, character, the local church as the venue in which the gifts are to function, and knowing His power in our weakness(es).

    Hope that’s helpful on some level. Be curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks, brother, these posts are helpful.

    • Thats really helpful Steve. I have not read that work, and am not familiar with it beyond what you quote above. Hook me w a book/place to start!

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  • Adam

    Great post! I left a charismatic church less than a year ago because of the abuse of the sign gifts. At this point I left still being a countinualist because I had never even heard of the argument for cessationism. There was just a conviction that something wasn’t right in the church and what they were turning the Holy Spirit into was wrong. Anyways I became a cessationist about 6 months ago, and have loved this blog. It has been such a blessing! This and John Macauthur’s strange fire conference have strengthened my faith so much. Thanks for illuminating the need for the greater gifts… faith, hope, and love.

  • tovlogos

    Yohanan made a good point; but I assumed from knowing you, Jesse, that you predicated this essay “on living a life submitted to God’s Spirit.” So, I see no conflict.
    Yes, the Spirit is with the true believer always; and it is about growing in grace. Yes, I’ve seen and experienced miracles; but primarily when I wasn’t looking for them.
    I was always skeptical about people announcing they were prophets, healers, etc. If someone is actually what he says, it should always be apparent by action, and the glorification of Jesus; especially concerning dramatic spiritual phenomenon, which I very rarely see. This stands to reason because man’s heart grows increasingly colder, and faith today is like a rare pearl.

  • Heather

    Oh my, thank you so much for this article, Jesse. So helpful, insightful, and refreshing to read. Sometimes I get so disheartened on hearing what we SHOULDN’T do with spiritual gifts. I have often struggled with this topic of spiritual gifts. One of my pastors has always taught that we shouldn’t try to figure out what our spiritual gift is, but that we should just serve the Lord in the church and the Spirit will manifest it through us, and we will end up naturally exercising our gift, perhaps, never even know we are doing it.

    Something that I’ve come across that disturbs me is when people get prideful about their “gift,” and set themselves up over people as an authority in it, because they think the Spirit “gave it to them.” Or, they will focus all their attention on that one thing, and think they are free from having to do anything else for the Lord in the church (ESPECIALLY evangelism). It is a scary thing…we’ve been bought at such a high price that the Lord deserves nothing less than all of our devotion to building His church, no matter what the cost or how uneasy it makes us. If someone’s gift is evangelism, they will naturally spend more time devoting themselves to it, but that should never stop EVERY other church member from doing it also, or at least assisting that person in doing the work of the Gospel (Phil 1:3-6). Jesus never boasted about what He did, but He did it humbly and often times He did it in a way where it wouldn’t draw attention to Himself, I think, so all the glory would go to the Father and not Himself. What a beautiful characteristic in Christ, and one, I think, Jesus wanted us to especially imitate Him in.

    In my humble opinion, I think it’s OK if we don’t know our gift, we should just keep devoting ourselves to serving the Lord in the church in whatever ways we can, and perhaps one day in heaven, the Lord will tell us what our gift was 🙂

    Thanks again, Jesse.

  • brad

    This is really a great post – for those not on mission. I have noticed that when you are mission, you don’t think about what is my gift or not. Instead, you are on mission and you simply trust God to give you the gifts that are necessary.

  • Short, sharp, pointed read on a subject that is all too often so poorly understood in its simplicity. Thanks for this!

    Loved the body of Christ graphic! ..and the dunce cap one.. 😀

  • Not Charismatic

    Now you’re blaming this on the Charismatic movement? What next, ISIS? Don’t you guys have something else to bang the drum about on here? If you want to be taken seriously by anyone outside the compelled-to-grind-the-ax-that-the-charismatic-movement-is-evil-at-every-turn camp you need to see a little beyond this issue.

    • Kofi Adu-Boahen

      Are we really denying that the Charismatic Movement of relatively recent years hasn’t served to introduce trepidation to the issue of spiritual gifts at best and downright confusion at worst? In 2014, really? I’d go so far as to say the neglect in some circles (“We’re not charismatic so we ain’t gonna talk about that”) and the hyper-emphasis in other circles (“The Church lost the Holy Spirit and we’re bringing Him back”) is because of the Charismatic Movement. An unpopular opinion but I fear not a solitary one.

    • It used to be that you saw how shallow a person’s view was by how quick they jumped to Hitler. I suppose reducto ad ISIS is the new benchmark.

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