When people speak of spiritual gifts today, the discussion tends to revolve around the seemingly more miraculous gifts of speaking in tongues, physical healing and words of prophecy. And while it’s understandable to focus on these phenomena, the church often disconnects this discussion from a broader understanding of gifts in the New Testament. If we speak about the so-called “charismatic gifts” within a broader context of the general gifts (charismata) that God gives to the church, it allows us to better understand the relationship between fundamental Christian identity and its expression in gifting, and we can see clearly the relationship between individual gifts and their use in building up the Church.
At the most basic level of the Christian life, the scriptures clearly speak of salvation itself as a gift (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8). The message of the gospel is God gave us a restored relationship with Him that we did not deserve and could not obtain on our own. Through faith in Christ, we are brought into a new reality, we are literally “In Christ”, and in him we have every spiritual blessing, forgiveness of our sins, and the hope of eternal life with him (Ephesians 1:3-14). As a sign that we have been brought into this new reality, we have been given the Holy Sprit to dwell within us. On the day of Pentecost Peter speaks of the Spirit coming as a gift from God to dwell in those who repent and place their faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38). The Scriptures are clear that the Holy Spirit is given to all those who come to faith and repentance in Jesus Christ, and that it is the work of the Holy Spirit in us that convicts us of sin (John 16:8), teaches us how to understand and apply the wisdom of scripture (John 14:26) and to turn from sinful habits and grow in holy living (Romans 8:12-14).
But the gifts of God don’t end there! When Paul is unpacking a statement from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men,” Paul understands the gifts that the Risen King Jesus gave to his people as “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:1-16). In this way, Paul shows that God has gifted the church with different types of leaders who possess different skills and temperaments so that each Christian might be equipped for their own ministries. And God’s gifting is oriented towards “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” (Ephesians 4:12-13). Leaders exercise their ministries for the sake of the body of Christ, the community of Christians. From this we see that individual Christians are spiritually gifted not for their own personal fulfillment, but for the healthy growth and strengthening of the Christian community. As the Apostle Peter reminds us, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:10-11). Every member of the body of Christ has something to give to bring to the community, and God is faithful to give us the gifts we need to accomplish His purpose together.
While the New Testament notion of “gift” includes far more than what are often called the “charismatic gifts,” the Apostle Paul himself speaks of “spiritual things” and “gifts” in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. He refers to speaking in tongues, the interpretation of tongues, prophecy, healing and other “supernatural” things you would expect. But Paul also speaks of the gift of faith, of service, of teaching, of administration and mercy, things that we often think of as “natural” gifts. There are two things here that help us understand the nature of spiritual gifts. The first is that sometimes the Spirit gifts us in ways that we may not think are “spiritual” because our notion of the variety of gifts is too limited. As someone without it, I can assure you that the gift of administration is a profound spiritual gift! But likewise, Paul clearly acknowledges that God gifts the church with things that are impossible to explain by “natural” means such as prophetic knowledge, the discernment of spirits and miraculous healing.
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul gives counsel and teaching on the nature of the more spiritual gifts and how they ought to be expressed in the worshipping congregation. He is responding to a congregation that seems to have manifested spiritual gifts in a disorderly fashion leading to questions and disputes about gifts and whether they ought to be practiced in the church at all. Three major aspects of his teaching are noteworthy. First, Paul affirms that the spiritual gifts are given by God for the edification of the congregation and ought to have expression in their communal worship. Different gifts are given to different people for the common good, and all people will not have the same roles and spiritual gifts (12:7,11, 27-31). Second, He requires that spiritual gifts be expressed in an orderly fashion, and that congregants ought to practice discernment and self-control in their use. The image he offers of a worshipping congregations is neither chaotic frenzy nor the forbidding of dynamic expression of spiritual gifts, but one in which the gifts are expressed in an orderly way for the building up of the congregation. Orderly worship is thus not the absence of gifts, but the self-controlled and orderly expression of the gifts (14:26-33). Finally, he encourages the Corinthians to “earnestly desire” spiritual gifts and warns not to forbid their expression in the worshipping community (14:1, 39-40). Paul gives a vision of corporate worship which is simultaneously orderly and open to the dynamic “breaking in” of the Spirit through a speaking in tongue or word of prophecy, where the gifts are expressed for the edification of the community, and where different members of the congregation are recognized as having different gifting that together weave a rich tapestry of God’s activity in shaping them as a community.
From this brief survey of the notion of gifting we can develop a few conclusions. First, any theology of spiritual gifts which limits the possession or work of the Holy Spirit to the “charismatic gifts” must be rejected, as the Scriptures are clear that the Holy Spirit indwells all who come to true faith and repentance. The Holy Spirit is at work throughout the Christian life, convicting us of sin, empowering us to obey God, and growing love of God and neighbor within us. Therefore, the modern language of “being filled with the Holy Spirit” is problematic if it implies that the Spirit of God does not dwell in Christians prior to functioning in “charismatic gifts.” Second, the claim for the continuation or cessation of the charismatic gifts cannot be simply made by appeal to Scripture. The Apostle Paul seems to treat the “charismatic gifts” as an expected reality of Christian worship, yet the Scriptures offer no insight into whether they will continue perpetually. Christians ought to act in charity and respect towards brothers and sisters in Christ who have different understandings of the charismatic gifts and whether the Spirit works in these ways today. Third, Paul’s understanding of spiritual gifts is rooted deeply in the notion that different members of the church receive different gifts for the edification and strengthening of the whole community. This means that a congregation ought to expect that there would be diverse gifts among them that each bring something unique and beneficial to the community, and ought to be at work discovering those gifts and finding ways they can be expressed. This also means that the community is called to welcome diversity of gifting, recognizing that the possession of a gift doesn’t give elevated status but obligation to service, and that all Christians have their own gifting and purpose in the body of Christ.