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10 Questions about Spiritual Gifts

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[This article was first published on September 5, 2020, at www.crossway.org.]

Q: What are spiritual gifts? Where are they found in Scripture?

A: The primary texts where spiritual gifts are explicitly mentioned are Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:11-14; and 1 Peter 4:10-11. There are numerous other texts, mostly in Acts, where we read of certain gifts being exercised (see also Gal. 3:5; 1 Thess. 5:19-22; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 Tim. 1:6; Heb. 2:3-4; James 5:13-18).

Spiritual gifts are capacities or abilities imparted to Christians by the Holy Spirit to enable them to exceed the limitations of their finite humanity in order to serve other believers to the glory of God. Paul says they are a “manifestation of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:7a). In other words, the Holy Spirit himself is manifested or disclosed or displayed in some concrete and tangible way when the gifts are exercised. Spiritual gifts, therefore, are designed to draw attention to the Holy Spirit and to alert us to his presence and power.

Q: Is it possible that there may be additional spiritual gifts that are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture?

A: Yes, it is possible, but whatever additional gifts the Spirit may bestow must conform to the guidelines set forth in Scripture. Other spiritual gifts may include such things as intercession (although all Christians are to pray, some appear to possess an extraordinary energy and calling to intercede for others), deliverance (again, although all Christians have authority over the demonic, some are more effective and display an even greater power in helping people gain freedom from spiritual oppression), and interpretation (the God-given ability to make sense of dreams, visions, and other revelatory giftings).

Q: Is it important that we pray for and pursue spiritual gifts?

A: We must remember that spiritual gifts are not ours to claim. All spiritual gifts, says Paul, “are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). At the same time, God’s sovereignty in distributing gifts does not undermine our responsibility to desire them, pursue them, and pray for them (see 1 Cor. 14:1, 13, 39).

Q: Can your spiritual gifts change with time?

A: Whereas all Christians have at least one spiritual gift bestowed at the time of their conversion (Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:7, 11; and especially 1 Peter 4:10-11), it is also the case that a believer can continue to receive additional gifts throughout the course of their Christian life (1 Cor. 12:31; 1 Cor. 14:1, 13, 39; 1 Tim. 4:14).

We can undoubtedly grow in the facility, accuracy, and effectiveness of our spiritual gift(s). Virtually all who have the gift of teaching will testify that they have improved in the use of this gift over time and with continual practice. The same may be said of most of the other gifts (such as leadership, evangelism, prophecy, etc.). Thus, the gifts themselves don’t change, but the individual believer can mature and become more effective in the exercise of his or her gifts.

Q: How many spiritual gifts might a Christian ultimately be given?

A: It is clear that no Christian has every spiritual gift (1 Cor. 12:28-31). And no one spiritual gift is given by God to every believer. But there is nothing in Scripture that explicitly says how many gifts a person may receive. Paul himself clearly had the gifts of apostleship, prophecy, teaching, healing, word of knowledge, speaking in tongues, working of miracles, evangelism, and exhortation. But in the case of every believer, we must remember that it is the “will” of the Holy Spirit who determines which gifts are given to whom (1 Cor. 12:11).

Q: Do unbelievers have spiritual gifts?

A: Spiritual gifts are consistently portrayed as the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in and through God’s people. Thus, it would appear to be unlikely that non-Christians could be granted the charismata. However, we do read of unbelievers operating in supernatural displays of power (see Matt. 7:21-23; 12:24-27; 24:24; Mark 9:38; 13:22; 2 Thess. 2:9; and possibly Rev. 2:20-23).

These displays of spiritual power are likely examples of God’s common grace at work among those who do not know Christ. In other words, it is entirely possible that by means of his bountiful display of common grace toward an unbelieving world that, at times, the Spirit mercifully bestows on the non-Christian at least some capacity to operate in supernatural power that may bear some degree of resemblance to the charismata. If true, this would certainly account for what we see in the life of Judas Iscariot as well as in the experience of those we read about in Matthew 7:21-23. But the charismata themselves are reserved for God’s children, those who have also been made the merciful recipients of God’s saving, special grace.

Q: Does God still work through supernatural gifts such as tongues, prophecy, and healing?

A: The first thing that must be said is that all spiritual gifts are “supernatural” in that they are the “manifestation” of the Holy Spirit in and through the believer (1 Cor. 12:7). All gifts—be it teaching, mercy, helps, tongues, or evangelism—are the work of “the same Spirit” and “the same Lord” and “the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

But certain gifts are more overtly miraculous in nature. Those who identify as cessationists contend that such supernatural gifts were primarily designed to confirm and attest to the truth of the message and ministry of the apostles. When the apostles passed from the scene in the latter years of the first century AD, the gifts that bore witness to their identity and ministry likewise ceased.

Those who identify as continuationists agree that these gifts function in that way. But they contend that all spiritual gifts, even the more miraculous ones, also serve to build up the body of Christ and contribute to the progressive growth of believers throughout the course of the present church age (see 1 Cor. 12:14-26; 14:3-6, 12, 26, 31; Eph. 4:11-16).

Q: What spiritual gifts can women have?

A: Women on the day of Pentecost prophesied and spoke in tongues (Acts 2:17-18). Philip had four daughters who prophesied (Acts 21:9). Paul approves of women praying and prophesying in the corporate gathering of the local church (1 Cor. 11:4-5). Aside from the gift of apostleship (but what do we make of Romans 16:7?), there isn’t anything in the nature of any spiritual gift that would confine them to men. Whereas there may be restrictions on when, where, and to whom a woman might make use of her gifting (1 Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2:11-15; Titus 2:3-4), spiritual gifts may well be equally imparted to both genders.

Q: How do you know what your spiritual gift is?

A: The New Testament nowhere gives us explicit guidance on how to identify or discover our spiritual gift(s). Whereas many have been helped by taking a spiritual gifts inventory test, my recommendation is that Christians stop indulging in introspective navel-gazing and simply step out and begin to love and serve others in concrete acts of ministry. In doing so, I’m confident your gift will find you.

Open your eyes and look for those who are weeping. Ask the Spirit to guide your steps to those who are weak, afflicted, and destitute. And as you go, listen for the voice of God to grant you a prophetic word that will encourage and console the suffering. Take your hands out of your pockets and lay them on the sick, beseeching the Lord of mercy for a gift of healing. Look for those in financial straits and give to them generously. Identify the despairing and speak words of encouragement. When people are drifting, open your Bible and teach them truth.

Identify those who are unable to do long overdue yard work, or whose garage desperately needs deliverance from piles of clutter, or perhaps an elderly widow who simply needs someone to do their laundry and fold and put away their clothes. You may well discover in the midst of your efforts that a glorious joy in serving and showing mercy has erupted in your heart.

Instead of first asking, “What is my gift?”, ask the question, “Who is in need?” If God’s people would look outward before they look inward, they will encounter the charismatic and empowering presence of the Spirit to equip them for every good deed. If you’re still bewildered by what may or may not be your spiritual gift, act first and ask later.

If we would devote ourselves to praying, giving, helping, teaching, serving, and exhorting those around us, the likelihood greatly increases that we will walk headlong into our gifting without ever knowing what happened. God will more likely meet us with his gifts in the midst of trying to help his children than he ever would while we’re taking a spiritual gifts analysis test.

Q: Is it possible to overemphasize the spiritual gifts?

A: Yes. Spiritual gifts are not the end or goal of our lives as Christians, but the means by which the Spirit enables and empowers us to help one another grow up in conformity to the image of Jesus. We must never forget that spiritual gifts are not the badge of godliness or the measure of God’s love for any particular believer. They are tools for the building up of the body of Christ. They serve to enhance and expand the fruit of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others.

2 Comments

This post, along with many of your other posts, have been very helpful in challenging the strong cessationist position I have held for many years. Please pray that the Lord will help me grow in my understanding and that I lead my family well in the process. I am looking forward to getting your new book!
Excellent, Sam. Thank you.

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