What is the purpose of spiritual gifts? The New Testament shows they are given to strengthen the church and are a picture of divine unity in the body of Christ. In light of this, it should grieve us when they become a point of division in our fellowships. Yet there are few areas of biblical doctrine that are more prone to produce mistrust and judgment among us than this one.
These issues aren’t anything new. Writing to the Corinthian church in the first century, Paul corrected their misuse of the spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians 12:1–11, Paul clarifies an often-misunderstood doctrine, offering three considerations pertaining to the gifts and their application in the church.
A Word of Warning
Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. (1 Cor. 12:1–3)
Paul begins by giving the Corinthians a word of warning concerning the existence and exercise of the gifts. Addressing their ignorance, Paul writes, “I do not want you to be uninformed.” Their lack of knowledge surrounding the doctrine of the Spirit had produced fear and confusion, leading ultimately to disorderly worship (1 Cor. 14:26–33). Many of us can relate to the Corinthians’ context, having been in situations where there exists an ignorance of the Spirit’s work and a misapplication of the gifts. This produces not godliness but fear, confusion, and mistrust.
Importantly, the issue for Corinth wasn’t that the gifts existed but that they were wrongly exercised. This is why Paul reminds them of their lives before Christ, distinguishing between their having been carried away in pagan worship and them now being brought under control of God the Holy Spirit (12:2). Their pagan ways had no place in Christian worship (v. 3).
Paul’s warning against ignorance in these verses is a vital reminder that God’s people are thinking people. We should be leery of any approach to the Christian life that suggests laying aside the mind to embrace emotionalism under the guise of faith. Mindless faith is absolutely counter to New Testament Christianity. Concerning the existence and exercise of spiritual gifts, then, we can’t afford to be ignorant.
Different Kinds of Gifts
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. (1 Cor. 12:4–6)
Next, Paul points out that there are a variety of gifts in the church, as evidenced by the various New Testament words for spiritual gifts. Two of them are especially helpful in shedding light on the different aspects of the gifts and how they should function in the church.
The first is charisma, which means “grace,” “favor,” or “kindness.” This term points to the gifts’ unearned and undeserved nature. Spiritual gifts are given by God’s grace. That is, in bringing us into His family, God hasn’t left us poverty-stricken but has equipped us with every good work necessary for the church’s function. The second word for gifts is pneumatikos, a word meaning “spiritual.” The emphasis here is clearly that the gifts are spiritual, not natural. Any effort to serve God apart from His enabling Spirit is futile. Exercising the gifts requires divine power.
We should be leery of any approach to the Christian life that suggests laying aside the mind to embrace emotionalism under the guise of faith.
That there are different kinds of gifts is clear not only in the diverse terminology employed in Scripture but also in the various passages in which the gifts are listed. There are four of them: Romans 12:6–8, 1 Corinthians 12:8–11, Ephesians 4:7–12, and 1 Peter 4:10–11. These lists aren’t necessarily definitive, covering every spiritual gift the Lord gives His church, but they illustrate the many functions He grants us.
As it pertains to the diversity of the gifts, we should acknowledge two truths. First is that each believer has a function in the body (1 Peter 4:10). So it isn’t the case that some Christians have gifts and others don’t. Every believer has a Spirit-given function that he or she is to contribute to the church’s well-being. Second, there’s a plain link between the gift itself and the function of that gift (1 Cor. 12:28–30). In other words, the New Testament doesn’t picture the gifts as disembodied powers available to believers on their own initiative; rather, it’s the Spirit who equips people with gifts in the church (v. 28). In this sense, every fellowship is by definition charismatic, the gifts being part and parcel of every genuine church.
Principles for Spiritual Gifts
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Cor. 12:7–11)
Having warned the Corinthians against ignorance and instructed them on the various kinds of gifts in the church, Paul then outlines four principles for spiritual gifts.
First, he explains that the gifts are given for the common good (v. 7). Contrary to this principle, many use the gifts to draw attention to themselves rather than to develop the whole body of believers. While gifts are given to individuals, they are corporate in nature. To view them strictly in individualistic terms is to misunderstand their purpose altogether.
Next, Paul points out that the gifts are in and of themselves diversified (v. 8–10). This fact refutes the idea that one or two gifts ought to be isolated and elevated above the others. Whether it’s tongues, prophecy, miracles, teaching, etc., God’s Word denies any framework that associates one particular gift alone with the experience of spiritual fullness (1 Cor. 12:29–30).
Every believer has a Spirit-given function that he or she is to contribute to the church’s well-being.
Third, the gifts are sovereignly bestowed (v. 11). The Spirit gives gifts “as he wills.” It’s a crucial truth, liberating us from the notion that gifts can be obtained or induced by our own power. The believer who rests in God’s sovereign bestowal of the gifts opens his heart to want everything God has for him, fearing nothing that the Spirit may do and trusting that he is equipped to the degree God would have him. So we rest in God’s sovereignty, knowing that the infinite God won’t be manipulated by finite men. God has given us all we need (2 Peter 1:3).
Finally, we recognize that the gifts do not indicate the spiritual health of the possessor. This principle is implied in verses 7–11 but is most clearly stated in chapter 13: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (v. 1). Simply put, however spectacular a person’s giftedness may be, the loveless Christian is marked by failure. Spiritual gifts are not the ultimate test of our spiritual well-being.
Having examined Paul’s treatment of the gifts, we would be remiss not to heed Jesus’ teaching on the subject also. Here’s what He says in Matthew 7:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matt. 7:21–23)
Paul’s view was no different than that of our Lord’s: spiritual giftedness doesn’t equal spiritual health—and it certainly isn’t indicative of a right relationship with God. Jesus Himself warned that a person can teach false doctrine while displaying all kinds of giftedness.
If gifts are neither the indicator of spiritual health nor the pathway to peace with God, then what is? The answer is faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. It’s the only way we can enjoy spiritual well-being and true peace with God (Rom. 5:1). We don’t put our faith in the gifts but in the Giver of those gifts, submitting ourselves to the Spirit’s work through us for the sake of the church.