A spiritual gift, as distinguished from natural talent (e.g., musical ability) is a special empowerment in the ability to bless and build up God’s people (others-directed, not self-exalting). Every believer is given at least one, sometimes more (I Cor. 12:7-11). Gifts are assigned by God as He desires, not according to what we crave (v. 11). Every gifted person has a proper function in the Body of Christ (the Church) and none is superior to another, only different in function (vs. 20-25). No one believer has all the gifts (vs. 28-30), so we need one another. The important thing is that each member function in the Body rather than sit and listen to sermons. A good church will provide opportunities for the use of all gifts by all members, not just the paid staff or elders. There is no clergy-laity distinction taught in Scripture. Gifts can remain as mere dormant seeds unless assisted or trained by someone to develop and use their gifts under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
One of the striking features of the early or apostolic church was the widespread participation and spiritual function within the body of believers. The work was not done by the apostles alone, nor by a small group of trained “clergymen.” An examination of such passages as Acts 2:46-47; 5:13-14; 6:2-6; 8:4 indicates that many believers were involved in proclaiming the gospel and in other activities.
There has been a rediscovery of this vision of every-member participation today and return to New Testament practice. When Jesus ascended He gave these gifts unto His followers (Ephesians 4:8, 11). The purpose was “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12 NIV). Gifts are to be used in the development of all of God’s people so that they can do the work of the ministry. Paul used the picture of the human body and its parts in teaching this doctrine in I Corinthians 12. Proper functioning of the body requires that every part or member do its assigned task. No body could work properly if it were all mouth or hands.
Nature of the Gifts
Definition. Spiritual gifts are God-given capacities for spiritual service, supernaturally bestowed upon believers only. Our English word comes from two principal Greek words. One is charismata, which has given us our word “charismatic.” The other word is pneumatika, meaning “spiritualities” or “something from the Spirit,” indicating its source is God, pertaining to the realm of the Spirit.
Gifts differ from natural talents, although both have their origin in God and may work together in certain instances. Natural talents come from the first or natural birth. Gifts come at the second birth. When spiritual gifts are properly developed and exercised, something supernatural takes place. There is an impact upon another believer in Christian growth and encouragement. Playing instruments, singing, doing artistic works are talents from God, but are not listed as spiritual gifts. The unsaved can also possess these. Gifts also differ from the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22 23). Fruit proceeds from within, pertains to character, and is part of the process of growth for all believers.
Source. Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). So it is with spiritual gifts. Every believer receives one or more gifts from the risen Christ (Ephesians 4:7-8; I Corinthians 12:7; I Peter 4:10). There is no such thing as a believer who has received no gift. In this sense, all believers are “charismatic,” whether they realize it or not. The body of believers cannot be divided Scripturally between “charismatic” and “non-charismatic” groups, although this is widely done in the Christian world. Gifts are not the property of a few ordained people. The force of this truth is to remind us of our responsibility to stir up this gift within us and make use of it (II Timothy 1:6).
What determines which gift we receive? Some believers point to I Corinthians 12:31 and 14:1 as indicating that it depends on our aspiration and asking God. Yet the first reference uses the plural rather than a singular pronoun and evidently is addressed to the church as a whole. Gifts come from the grace of God and are not a reward for holiness or striving (Ephesians 4:7). It is the Lord’s discretion, not ours, which governs the apportionment of gifts (I Cor. 12:11).
Purpose. The timing of this provision is related to the ascension of the Lord Jesus to heaven after His resurrection. It is particularly His provision for the church. The formation of the church at Pentecost makes it clear that this is a new provision for believers, not available in prior ages. Gifts are to build up other believers so that they can do the work of the ministry (I Corinthians 14:12, 26; Ephesians 4:12); to promote growth in unity and love (Ephesians 4:16); to assist in the care of one another (I Corinthians 12:25; I Peter 4:10); and to glorify God, especially in the ministry of the Word (I Peter 4:11). There is no hint in any of this of self-improvement, self-edification or self-importance as a goal. Gifts are to be others-directed. But does it not say that tongues are to edify self in I Corinthians 14:4? This verse is a comparison between prophesying to edify the church and the Corinthian practice of tongues-speaking. The comparison makes tongues the lesser. The verse does not state that self-edification is a purpose of any spiritual gift. Edifying of self is a by-product. Gifts are to build others.
Classification of the Gifts
Bible scholars disagree as to the exact number of gifts. As few as nine and as many as twenty-two are recognized. Moreover, there is no agreement as to whether those listed in Scripture represent a complete catalog. Many believe that the major gifts are mentioned, but there could be others that are not listed in Scripture.
The question is intensely debated as to whether some gifts passed from the scene with the apostolic church. Many conservative writers believe that the sign gifts, such as healing, were for the times of the apostles primarily. Others vigorously deny this and say that the proof is lacking Scripturally. Many leaders have claimed that they are apostles of God, even possessing the powers and authority of the original Twelve. But apostles could only be with us in the secondary sense of the word, since none today could be a witness of the Resurrected Christ as was required (I Corinthians 9:1; Acts 1:21-22). The matter of whether some gifts yet remain with us or whether others have now been added is still debated. It is beyond the scope of this lesson.
Various ways of classifying gifts have been used. Examples are (1) according to their nature (speaking, serving, signifying); (2) according to their sphere (church at large or church local); (3) according to their aspects (motivations, ministries, manifestations); (4) according to their duration (permanent or temporary).
Utilization of the Gifts
Each of us is responsible to function as a servant of the church by using our gift. The New Testament does not present the picture of a few workers doing most of the service for God while others merely attend, enjoy the ministry and help a little financially. Remember the parable of the talents and our coming reckoning before God (Matthew 25:14-29). Each Christian is to be vitally involved in a body of believers and ministering according to God’s plan. How are we to go about doing this?
Discovery of Gifts. This is not directly commanded in Scripture. However, there are many commands to serve the Lord in the fellowship of His church. Thus we can begin by serving in whatever way we can help. We need not wait until we discover our own particular gift before serving. We are commanded to function in many gift areas, without having that gift. These areas include serving (Galatians 5:13), exhortation (Hebrews 10:25), giving (II Corinthians 9:7), faith (II Corinthians 5:7), evangelistic work (Acts 1:8), discerning or distinguishing spirits (I John 4:1), teaching (Col. 3:16), and shepherding (Phil. 2:4). The special blessing of God in one of these areas of ministry is a sign of spiritual gift. But who would limit giving, faith, and helping others only to the gifted? It appears that one person may have more than one gift (Paul, Philip). In any event, there should be no occasion for claiming spiritual superiority (I Corinthians 12:21-24).
Development of Gifts. Normally this comes when we are actively using them for God. They do not seem to be conferred in full bloom. Growth in the use of spiritual gifts seems to be governed by the same principles governing all areas of spiritual development. The command to present our bodies to Christ for His service that we might be a living sacrifice precedes a passage on gifts (Romans 12:1-2). A plea to walk worthy of our calling precedes another such passage (Ephesians 4:1). Such factors as obedience, effective prayer, diligent study of the Word, sharing our faith, active local church fellowship and a desire to do God’s will affects the development of our gift(s). No short cuts or speed-up processes exist to develop gifts. As in other areas of spiritual progress, there must be gradual growth.
Guidelines for Recognizing Gifts. The following guidelines may be helpful:
a. Be Others-Directed. Spiritual gifts minister to others, particularly in building them up so that they also can serve in the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). Do not concentrate on yourself.
b. Look for “Open Doors” of Service (Galatians 6:10). Do not wait to discover your gift before serving. It may not be what you had in mind, but there is a need and you could do it if you made the effort. When needs and opportunities abound, it is not spiritual to be waiting around to “discover my gift first.” Jesus said, “I am among you as He that serveth” (Luke 22:27). Trying to concentrate on one area too soon may be a handicap.
c. Pray for Opportunities to Serve the Lord Jesus. Do not wait for someone to come and seek you out. Part of taking the whole armor of God is to be prayerful (Ephesians 6:18). Ask God for wisdom (James 1:5) to understand where He wants to use you. Review the list of gifts and seek to find some opportunity to serve. Do not underestimate your capacity to do what God opens up for you. Appropriate His sufficiency (II Corinthians 12:9).
d. Seek the counsel of mature believers who know you (Proverbs 11:14). We are often not the best judge of our own gift (I Corinthians 14:29). Our personal desires may be utterly at variance with the mind of the Spirit. This section draws on materials in Intermediate Christian Training by this author (Walterick Publ., Kansas City, MO)