What are Spiritual Gifts?

Bernini, Alabaster window from  Cathedra Petri  (1647-53), St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

Bernini, Alabaster window from Cathedra Petri (1647-53), St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

Spiritual gifts are something of a curiosity amongst most Christians. Most are not sure about the parameters of the gifting (where, when, and with whom they should be utilized) and the difference between them. Many Christians are confused as to where spiritual gifts come from and seek out spiritual gifts inventories or assessments to bring clarity. This summer at The Well, we’re preaching a series on spiritual gifts. Here’s some of what we’ll be working through.

1 Corinthians 12:1 “Now concerning spiritual gifts: brothers and sisters I do not want you to be unaware.” Thomas Schreiner defines spiritual gifts as “gifts of grace granted by the Holy Spirit which are designed for the edification of the church” (Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H, 2018), 16). In his work he shows 15 gifts mentioned between Romans 12:6-8, 1 Cor. 12:7-10, 1 Cor.12:28, and Eph. 4:11. Based on 1 Peter 4:11, Schreiner divides the groupings into two categories: gifts of speaking and gifts of serving. A question that must be addressed is the nature of spiritual gifts. Are spiritual gifts something which are inherently within people (a talent such as teaching which is then renewed and considered a spiritual gift when done with the Holy Spirit) or are spiritual gifts totally devoid of personality?

Schreiner at length: “Gifts such as teaching, helps, leading, giving, mercy, and exhortation are not as remarkable to the human eye, though they are still supernatural in the sense that they are animated by the Holy Spirit, and any good effect is also from the Spirit. It seems likely that some of the latter gifts are stitched into one’s personality in a way that gifts like tongues and miracles are not. But the supernatural character of the gift is not thereby denied, for even in this case the gift comes from God. And the good that results from the exercise of the gift comes from the Holy Spirit, not our native talent.” I personally believe that Schreiner paints too stark of a different between native talent and personality being so abjectly empty. I agree that we need the Spirit’s animating presence for our ministry to be effective however, it could be argued that because we are indwelled with the Spirit (all Christians are from conversion), that the Spirit animates my personality to be a life giving presence to others (Cf. The Relational Soul).

On this topic Sam Storms makes note that the lists in the New Testaments vary and are probably not the extent of the gifts the Spirit gives. Regarding personality he says “the lists contain an amazing mixture of what we might regard as supernatural and natural gifts.” (Sam Storms, The Beginner’s Guide to Spiritual Gifts (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2012), 38). Paul however doesn’t make a distinction between natural and supernatural gifts even if some “appear to be more overt expressions of divine powers than others.” Storms makes clear that “if there are other gifts that God gives, they must conform to the same principles and rules of practice set forth in the Bible by which all gifts are judged.”

Because we read the Bible through the lens of a more scientific and enlightenment perspective, we expect the lists to not only be the boundaries of the gifts in terms of the quantity of gifts distributed, we also expect to clearly differentiate and measure each gift listed. This is not necessarily helpful or an accurate picture of the gifts biblically. 

In determining the value and healthy expression of gifts, Schreiner comments that “the lordship of Christ is the criterion by which gifts are assessed.” The gifts must be centered, grounded, and tethered to the reality of the gospel. The gifts are given for the building up of the body of Christ, the church. Gifts should lead to a greater understanding and knowledge of God. Love is listed by Paul as a standard by which gifts must be exercised in order to be useful and effective for ministry.

Every believer has at least one spiritual gift (Rom. 12:6; Eph. 4:7). More than taking a spiritual gifts inventory or assessment to determine one’s spiritual gifts, “we will discover our spiritual gift when we pour ourselves into the lives of other believers, when we get involved in the life of the body” (Storms, 203). Storms suggests that spiritual gifts inventories and assessments are not as useful and that practice is most important in discovering your gifts. As he says “if you’re still wondering what your gift(s) might be, act first and ask later.”

We should have a realistic assessment of our own giftings and potential. This comes through feedback in community and through trial and error. “Our gifts come from the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, showing that the source of our gifts is the Triune God” (Schreiner, 37). Here, Schreiner is referencing 1 Cor. 12:4-6 where Paul is highlighting the Trinitarian equality and differences in the distribution of gifts. “Some gifts are better functionally, in that they build up and strengthen the body, but it doesn’t follow from this that the persons with such gifts have more value, dignity, and worth than those who don’t have the same gift.”

Sam Storms sums up spiritual gifts in the following way: “They are the manifestation and power of God the Holy Spirit through which he intends to lead the Church into the fullness of its ordained end.” “Spiritual gifts are not God bestowing to His people something external to himself. They are not some tangible ‘stuff’ or substance separable from God. Spiritual gifts are nothing less than God Himself in us, energizing our souls, imparting revelation to our minds, infusing power in our wills and working His sovereign and gracious purposes through us.” “Knowing what the gifts are is only half the story. We have to possess the practical wisdom, the spiritual skill, in knowing how and when and for whom the gifts are designed to operate.” Discernment is an essential component of a healthy expression of spiritual giftings. Discernment itself is something we must seek from the Spirit.

Everyone has spiritual gifts not just people in official ministries positions or with certain experiences. “Spiritual gifts are not roles. Roles are those opportunities for ministry common and available to everyone.” Everyone is called to evangelize even if not all have the specific gift of evangelism. Paul commands the church at Corinth to pursue spiritual gifts. What makes a gift spiritual? That it is done in the Spirit. They are gifts animated by the Spirit. Boyd Hunt says that “Spiritual gifts are God empowering His people through the Holy Spirit for kingdom life and service, enabling them in attitude and action to live and minster in a manner which glorifies Christ” (Made use of in Graham Cole’s He Who Gives Life, 249). Cole warns that “there is no reason for thinking that the lists of gifts in the various passages are meant to be exhaustive.”

The Holy Spirit is essential in mission. There is no mission of God in the world without the Spirit working. “Without the gifts, guidance and power of the Spirit, our mission is mere human effort” (“The Cape Town Commitment” 1.5, March 27, 2011, www.lausanne.org/ctcommitment). This is not to downplay effort but to emphasize that effort must be informed by the Spirit’s work. “God’s Spirit has a penchant for using God’s people to accomplish God’s purposes” (Gary Tyra, The Holy Spirit in Mission: Prophetic Speech and Action in Christian Witness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 12.).

If there was any doubt about the essential nature of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, Gary Tyra has made the following list for the ways that the Holy Spirit fills or indwells human beings:

  • Convicting them of sin and their need for a savior (Jn 16:7-11)

  • Enabling them to experience the “new birth” (Jn 3:3-8)

  • Assuring them that they have become God’s children (Rom 8:15-16)

  • Leading them into a deeper understanding of Christ (Jn 16:12-15)

  • Serving as a guarantee of their heavenly inheritance (Eph 1:13-14)

  • Inspiring among them a vital, joyful, prophetic worship experience (Eph 5:18-20)

  • Manifesting his presence and power in their lives in. Various edifying, community-building ways (1 Cor 12:4-8)

  • Empowering them to actually obey God’s moral commands (Rom 8:1-4)

  • Producing within them the very personality and character traits of Christ himself (Gal 5:22-25)

  • Enabling them to pray according to the will of the Father (Rom 8:26-27)

  • Empowering them to boldly and effectively bear witness to their risen Lord (Acts 1:8)

  • Providing them with an amazingly precise degree of ministry guidance (Acts 16:6-10)

  • Enabling them to stand firm in the faith and to intercede for others in this regard (Eph 6:10-18)

  • Enabling them to experience a dynamic, despair-defeating sense of hope (Rom 15:13)

A missional church must be a Spirit filled church. It must be. In fact in could be argued that what makes a church a church, is that it is filled with the Spirit. The hope of this series is that people would have a better understanding of spiritual gifts. This better understanding of spiritual gifts will enable people to love and serve one another and our community. By placing a consistent emphasis on the Spirit’s work preceding and informing our efforts, we hope to see our church grow in being Spirit led.