Are all spiritual gifts described in the Bible still active today? Christians vary widely in their answer to this question. In fact, more division and controversy ensue here than in any other area of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. And yet we must arrive at a biblical perspective on this crucial issue while recognizing that not all Christians will agree on everything.
Here’s a helpful rule of thumb for responsible Bible interpretation: the plain things are the main things, and the main things are the plain things. The “main things” are the basics of Christianity. These are doctrines like the full deity and humanity of Jesus, the authority of Scripture, the Trinity, etc. To affirm these tenets is to be Christian; to deny them is to break with orthodox Christian belief. But we should also acknowledge that in other areas, like spiritual gifts, Scripture isn’t so dogmatic.
So, did God intend for all of the New Testament spiritual gifts to continue unabated in the church today? We’ll examine the biblical evidence with humility, asking the Lord to give us understanding as we go (2 Tim. 2:7).
The Twofold Purpose of the Gifts
It’s vital to our question that we understand the biblical purpose of spiritual gifts in the first place. From the point of the church’s inception at Pentecost, the gifts were given to attest to and authenticate the apostolic Gospel and to establish and strengthen the emerging church as it moved toward maturity.
When it comes to interpreting Scripture, the plain things are the main things, and the main things are the plain things.
We see the first dimension—the gifts attesting to and authenticating the Gospel—displayed prominently in the early church period. Paul described this time as foundational in the church’s formation, explaining how “the household of God” was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:19–20). Importantly, whenever we see apostleship and prophecy mentioned in the New Testament, it’s in this foundational sense. And as the apostles proclaimed the Gospel, the Spirit equipped them with charismata (Greek for “gifts of grace” or “spiritual gifts”) to lend credibility to their message (Acts 14:3). Simply put, while they certainly brought blessings, the miraculous signs and wonders the apostles performed were never ends in and of themselves, but they served to authenticate the Gospel in the church’s formative years.
And what about the second purpose for which gifts were given—to strengthen the emerging church? Paul had this aspect in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Spiritual gifts are given to individuals, but they aren’t individualistic in nature, like groceries on the supermarket shelf that believers can take and use at whim. No, they’re given for the common good, for the building up of Christ’s body (Eph. 4:12).
The logic seems clear enough. What’s the problem, then? Primarily, problems arise in the difference between two opposing views. The first view, the Pentecostal/neo-Pentecostal view, is that all the gifts were intended to endure throughout the church age and until Christ’s return and are being experienced today without exception. The second view is the traditional conservative evangelical position: that certain gifts were limited to the apostolic age, and they specifically ceased when the New Testament biblical canon was established.
Dealing with the “Problem Areas”
Of the many spiritual gifts identified in the various New Testament lists of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6–8, 1 Cor. 12:8–11, Eph. 4:7–12, and 1 Peter 4:10–11), most debate centers on the gifts of healing, tongues, apostleship, and prophecy.1 For now, we’ll consider just the latter two. Are these gifts operative in the church today, and if so, to what extent? Understanding the biblical basis for these two gifts in particular will help us gain some clarity on the issue of spiritual gifts at large.
The word apostle comes from the Greek word apostello, which means “to send.” The definition has ties to the modern concept of a missionary, the word for which comes into English from the Latin root of apostle. An apostle, in other words, is a missionary in the sense that he is sent. But the New Testament narrows this definition considerably. In the biblical period, the apostles were a fixed number of men appointed once for all in the history of the church. If we wish to understand apostleship on biblical grounds, it’s crucial that we acknowledge the office’s uniqueness.
Spiritual gifts are given to individuals, but they aren’t individualistic in nature.
Several features set the apostolic office apart from others in church history. First, the apostles were chosen from a larger group (Mark 3:13–14). Jesus had numerous disciples, or followers, but chose from among them only twelve apostles (Mark 3:13–14). Second, these men were entrusted with a proclamation of the kingdom (Luke 9:2). A crucial aspect of their proclamation was in the origination of the New Testament Scriptures, much of what they preached being inscripturated into the Bible we have today.
Next, the apostles were vested with power to heal and cast out demons (Matt. 10:1). These gifts belonged to the apostles to validate their message. Fourth, the claim to apostleship could be tested (2 Cor. 12:12). In other words, the office possessed an objective dimension; one could apply the tests of apostleship to a man and determine whether or not he fit the bill. Finally, the apostles were witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 15:6). All twelve apostles had a physical encounter with the resurrected Christ, the original eleven having accompanied Him during His public ministry and Paul having met Him on the Damascus Road.2
The big problem with rejecting this teaching is with the notion that God’s revelation is incomplete. Those who advocate for the modern-day gift/role of apostleship are indicating that we would be better served by either closing our Bibles and moving into a new dimension of revelation or adding new proclamations to what God has already revealed and sealed in Scripture.
As to no other person, the essential message of revelation through Christ was entrusted to the apostles. They alone were set apart for the Gospel in a unique, unrepeatable manner. So, to the question of whether the gift of apostleship is at work today in the church, the answer must be a definitive no, it is not.
Prophecy is a spiritual gift that’s related to, but ultimately distinct from, teaching. It’s related to teaching in that it involves expounding God’s Word but distinct in its ecstatic, or extemporaneous, nature. In other words, prophecy in the biblical period—the Old and New Testaments—involved direct revelation from God, spoken through an individual to an historic occasion. It’s different from someone today saying, “Open your Bibles to Joel 1,” and then explaining what it means. That’s teaching. But a prophet giving a word of prophecy would say, “Thus says the Lord; this is God’s Word for this occasion.”
Prophecy, in a sense, is second in rank only to the gift of apostleship in the New Testament. The two functions are inextricably linked (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). The apostles, who were entrusted with the Gospel message, functioned prophetically as they proclaimed and preserved God’s Word—the New Testament Scriptures being a direct result of that (2 Peter 1:21). Their Spirit-inspired words completed the teachings of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
Based on the biblical evidence, it’s clear that while Spirit-filled preaching and teaching today should have a prophetic ring to it, these activities are distinct from the New Testament gift of prophecy. Because we have the Scriptures, the prophecy as we find in the apostolic period is no longer operative in the church. We don’t need twenty-first-century voices filling in alleged gaps in God’s revelation, tickling the ears of untaught or misguided Christians.
Biblical prophecy involved direct revelation from God, spoken through an individual and to an historic occasion.
In its revelatory sense, the gift of prophecy has ceased with the close of the New Testament canon. But is there any place for giving or receiving a “prophetic word” today? Oftentimes the Spirit will impress upon our hearts a burden or piece of counsel for a brother or sister in Christ. This isn’t the same as the gift of prophecy per se but simply an occasion for Spirit-filled encouragement. Even so, in these circumstances, we’d be wise to offer concrete biblical evidence to that person rather than a word loosely based in Scripture, lest people attach more importance to our words than to God’s written Word. In short, anytime we say, “Thus saith the Lord,” we ought to have a chapter and verse to back it up.
A Both/And Answer
We return to the central question before us: Are the gifts for today? The answer, on the strength of the biblical evidence, must both yes and no. It is yes in that the gifts are vital to the health of any church. If we are to reach people for Christ and build one another up in love, we require spiritual gifts. But we do not need the foundational gifts, like apostleship and prophecy, to attest to and authenticate the apostolic Gospel, for the foundational phase of establishing apostolic doctrine and the church has long since passed.
Nevertheless, Christians of all stripes would do well to hold their view on this matter with an open hand, having hearts that beat with both charity and humility toward those who believe differently. After all, as Paul reminds us even as he discusses the use of gifts in his days, those who have repented and placed their faith in the true Christ belong to Him, and us to one another, having all been baptized into one body (1 Cor. 12:13)—and beyond all the gifts, God has offered us “a still more excellent way” (v. 31) to display His power and glory.
Some argue that Matthias, not Paul, ought to be considered the twelfth apostle, as he was chosen to replace Judas. (See Acts 1:23–26.) Paul, some would contend, was a special apostle to the gentiles. What matters most, though, is recognizing that the Twelve were a uniquely appointed, ordained group of people. When we get to heaven, we’ll discover whose name is on the foundation (Rev. 21:14).↩︎