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6 Things You Should Know about Spiritual Gifts

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Nicholas Batzig

Rev. Nicholas T. Batzig is senior pastor of Church Creek PCA in Charleston, S.C., and an associate editor for Ligonier Ministries. He blogs at Feeding on Christ.

What Are Spiritual Gifts?

More than almost anything else, children look forward to getting presents. When I was a boy, my parents gave me a copious number of gifts. Some of these gifts I overvalued (e.g., Transformers for Christmas), while others I underappreciated at the time (e.g., socks and undershirts). Regardless of my appreciation for these gifts, or lack thereof, I knew that my loving parents had hand-selected them for me. In the same way, God the Father has lovingly hand-selected spiritual gifts that he graciously gives his people. As James explains, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

One of these gifts is salvation (Rom. 3:24; 5:15–17; 6:23; Eph. 2:8). The biblical writers refer to salvation as a gift because it flows from the mere good pleasure of God in accord with the riches of his grace (Eph. 1:3–14). Because of our sinful depravity, there is nothing we can do to merit salvation (Eph. 2:8–9). It must be based solely on the free and unmerited grace of God. Salvation in Christ is the ultimate gift that God gives to those he has chosen in Christ from all eternity (John 6:37, 39; 10:29; 17:9, 11–12; Eph. 1:3–4).

Scripture also teaches that God has graciously given certain accompanying gifts, commonly referred to as the gifts of the Spirit or spiritual gifts. What are these gifts of the Spirit?

A spiritual gift is a manifestation of God’s grace in which he imparts to his people abilities and talents for the advancement of his kingdom and the edification of his people. They are spiritual because they belong to and are freely distributed by the Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:1–4). Scripture refers to the Spirit himself as a gift from God (Acts 2:38; 8:20; 10:45; 11:17). The Spirit is both the gift and the one through whom spiritual gifts are distributed among God’s people. They are also spiritual because they spiritually affect the church.

All spiritual gifts are meant for ministry. When the apostle Paul mentioned gifts in his letter to the Ephesian church, he referred to the teaching officers who build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11). God gives these teachers in order to spread the truth of his word. Likewise, every other gift of the Spirit mentioned in Scripture has been given by God to his people for ministering one to another.

What About Extraordinary Gifts?

God gave his people certain extraordinary gifts (i.e., prophecy, tongues, knowledge, etc.) to serve his unique purposes in history. During the time of the apostles, these gifts helped to lay the foundation of the new covenant church among the nations (1 Cor. 13:8; Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11). They were revelatory in nature. In other words, they accompanied the apostolic ministry and preaching as signs that God’s kingdom had come with power (Luke 11:20; Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12). The gift of tongues at Pentecost (Acts 2), for example, had two functions:

The foreign tongues spoken on the day of Pentecost were a sign of covenantal curse for Israel. No longer would God speak exclusively to them in contrast with all the nations of the world. But at the same time, tongues at Pentecost served as a sign of the great blessing of God to all the nations of the world, including Israel. Tongues were a sign of the extension of the blessing of the covenant to all the nations of the world.

The extraordinary gifts served their unique purpose throughout the time of the apostles’ ministry. These additional forms of special revelation ended once the Bible was completed. But the Spirit continues to sanctify our natural abilities and talents for the building up of his body throughout the new covenant era (Eph. 4; Rom. 12:6–8).

Ordinary Gifts of the Spirit

Though we must distinguish the fruit of the Spirit from the gifts of the Spirit, Scripture reveals that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit were never to be exercised by God’s people apart from the fruit of the Spirit (i.e., love, joy, peace, etc.; see Gal. 5; 1 Cor. 13:1–3). For this reason, many theologians have categorized the fruit of the Spirit as the ordinary gifts of the Spirit.

Just as children have a propensity to overvalue certain gifts and undervalue others, it’s not uncommon for believers to overvalue certain gifts of the Spirit and undervalue others. The New Testament makes clear that the ordinary gifts are to be more highly valued than the extraordinary ones (1 Cor. 13:13–14:1). As we consider the full biblical teaching about the gifts of the Spirit, we will better understand their function in redemptive history and the place they ought to hold in the church and in our lives today.

Footnotes

  • O. Palmer Robertson, The Final Word: A Biblical Response to the Case for Tongues and Prophecy Today (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1993), 94.

Where Do Spiritual Gifts Come From?

The value of a personal gift often corresponds with the value of the person giving it. When I was a kid, our family had a close friend who was a famous rock musician. He would come to our home on St. Simons Island, GA bearing gifts, and he would drive me around the island in his DeLorean and bring me up on stage when he was performing. I treasured these experiences because of his status. He was famous! And he was sharing what he had with me!

In the same way, the value of spiritual gifts stems from their having been freely given to us by the triune God. Recognizing the source of the gifts of the Spirit raises our appreciation of them.

Just as parents thoughtfully hand-select gifts for their children, God has distributed the gifts of the Spirit to his people according to his wisdom and will (Heb. 2:4). The New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit is himself the gift of the Father and the Son to the church. As he drew near to the cross, Jesus taught his disciples that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things” (John 14:26). He told them, “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26). Finally, Jesus said that it was to their advantage that he go away: “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The Christian church has long confessed that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Just as the Son is the love gift from the Father to His people, so the Holy Spirit is the love gift of the Father and Son to believers.

The gifts of the Spirit are those blessings of God that come from the victorious, ascended Christ who has poured the gift of his Spirit out on his people. Sinclair Ferguson explains,

The correlation between the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Spirit signals that the gift and the gifts of the Spirit serve as the external manifestation of the triumph and enthronement of Christ. Paul underlines this by the way in which he cites Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:7–8.

The gift of the Spirit is intrinsically related to the person and work of the Son. Christ’s victorious death and resurrection secured the giving of the Spirit to His people.

Jesus Christ possessed the fullness of the diverse gifts of the Spirit; he received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). We see this in the miracles Jesus performed. He received and exercised the gifts of the Spirit to fulfill his messianic work. He then gave these extraordinary gifts to his people for the foundation of the new covenant church during the apostolic age (Eph. 2:20; 3:5; 4:11). In this sense, we can say that Jesus is the source of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.

However, he is also the source of the ordinary gifts of the Spirit. In the Upper Room, Jesus charged his disciples to abide in his “love” and said he would give them his “joy,” and leave them his “peace” (John 14:27; 15:9-10; 15:11; 17:13). These stand at the top of the list of the ordinary gifts of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), with Jesus as the one who grants them to all his people. Together with God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ is the giver of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit.

But God doesn’t give the same gifts to each one of his people. Rather, he distributes them for the building up of his body, the church. Still, this diversity comes from “the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:4, 8, 9–11). In 1 Corinthians 12:5–6, the apostle acknowledges that “the same Lord” and “the same God” graciously distributes these gifts to his people. In 1 Corinthians 12:12, Paul notes that “as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.”

Footnotes

  • Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, ed. Gerald Bray, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 207–208.

What Are the Different Kinds of Spiritual Gifts?

Every Christmas, my wife and I give our sons several identical gifts and some unique gifts. We select these diverse gifts to fit our boys’ respective personalities and interests. Some are for their enjoyment and some are functional—like socks and undershirts.

Similarly, there is both diversity and commonality among the gifts of the Spirit. The apostle Paul sets out a catalogue of gifts of the Spirit: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Rom. 12:6–8).

As we’ve seen, the extraordinary gifts—like knowledge, prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues—served a purpose in the founding of the new covenant church. Sinclair Ferguson notes that they all served the ministry of the revelatory word of God. He writes,

There is no comprehensive list of the gifts of the Spirit in any one passage in the New Testament. But in the lists that do exist (Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12:7–11, 28–30; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 4:10–11), it is clear enough that the ministry of God’s revelatory word is central to the use of all other gifts; it stabilizes and nourishes them; they give expression to that word in various ways.

By contrast, the ordinary gifts (i.e., love, joy, peace, kindness, and self-control) continue to function in the lives of believers throughout redemptive history. When theologians categorize these gifts, they don’t mean there is anything ordinary about their nature or function. Rather, they’re ordinary in that all believers are made partakers of them until Christ’s return.

All the gifts of the Spirit first belong to Christ and then are given by the Holy Spirit to those who are united to Christ by faith. Both the extraordinary and ordinary gifts belong to the Lord Jesus (John 3:34). From his fullness, he sovereignly distributes them in measure to his people.

Prophetic, Priestly, and Kingly Gifts

All the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit helped the saints spread the gospel and establish the church throughout the nations, but there were distinctions among them. Vern Poythress explains:

All the gifts mentioned in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4 can be roughly classified as prophetic, kingly, or priestly. For example, gifts of wisdom and knowledge are prophetic, while gifts of administration, miraculous powers, and healing are kingly. But some gifts could easily be classified in more than one way. For example, healing could be seen as priestly, since it is an exercise of mercy toward the person healed. . . . This classification is nevertheless useful in reminding us of our relation to the work of Christ.

The natural gifts of believers that the Spirit still sanctifies today—such as administration, hospitality, and mercy (Rom. 12:6–8)—also fall under the categories of prophetic, priestly, and kingly. For instance, many seventeenth-century Puritans associated the forth-telling (i.e., proclamation) of God’s word in preaching with prophecy. The gifts with which God equips certain individuals to teach and preach are prophetic in nature. The gifts of faith and mercy are priestly in nature; the gift of administration is kingly in nature.

Common and Special Gifts

Theologians have also made distinctions between common and special gifts of the Spirit. Common gifts are those which are exercised by believers and unbelievers alike (Num. 24:1–9; John 11:51; Heb. 6:5, 9). The writer of Hebrews speaks of professing believers who “tasted the powers of the age to come” yet who ultimately apostatized. They had the external working of the Spirit of God upon them, enabling them to exercise certain extraordinary gifts. However, they were not savingly united to Christ. This makes the extraordinary gifts common, whereas special gifts are those which God reserves only for true believers.

The special gifts of the Spirit are primarily the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) and other virtues of saving grace—such as faith and hope (1 Cor. 13:13). God makes true believers the recipients of the special gifts of the Spirit. Jonathan Edwards teased out this distinction when he wrote,

The distinction of the gifts of the Spirit into ordinary and extraordinary, is . . . different from the other distinction into common and special; for some of the ordinary gifts, such as faith, hope, charity, are not common gifts. They are such gifts as God ordinarily bestows on his Church in all ages, but they are not common to the godly and the ungodly; they are peculiar to the godly.

This distinction is meant to encourage believers to seek God for “the greater gifts” and to follow “the more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). In his book, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard F. Lovelace explains that God always intended believers to value the ordinary gifts of the Spirit above the extraordinary gifts. He writes, “The graces and fruits of the Spirit are to be sought more earnestly than spectacular gifts. Gifts which edify the minds and hearts of others are to be given priority over those which nourish our own emotional experience.”

Footnotes

  • Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, ed. Gerald Bray, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 208.

  • An excerpt from Vern Poythress, “Modern Spiritual Gifts Analogous to Apostolic Gifts,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 39/1 (1996): 71-101: https://frame-poythress.org/modern-spiritual-gifts-as-analogous-to-apostolic-gifts-affirming-extraordinary-works-of-the-spirit-within-cessationist-theology/

  • Jonathan Edwards Charity and Its Fruits (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1852), 30.

  • Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 1979), 127.

Why Do We Need Spiritual Gifts?

Our second-born son, Eli, is a talented artist. But to produce a work of art he needs the right materials, so we buy him watercolors, charcoal sticks, paintbrushes, paint, and other artistic tools. In the same way, the members of the church need the various gifts of the Spirit to minister to one another. God joyfully gives his people spiritual gifts so they will use them to care for the needs of the saints in the body of Christ.

Using our spiritual gifts is necessary for the health and growth of the church. John Owen wrote,

If any shall undertake this work without this provision of abilities for it, they will . . . not be of the least use in the employment they take upon them. A ministry devoid of spiritual gifts is sufficient evidence of a church under a degenerating apostasy.

The apostle Paul highlights this point in Romans 12:4–8 when he addresses the need to exercise the various gifts God has given his people:

As in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Reflecting on these verses, John Calvin explained:

Paul . . . reminds us that according to the wise counsel of God everyone has his own portion given to him; for it is necessary to the common benefit of the body that no one should be furnished with fulness of gifts, lest he should heedlessly despise his brethren. Here then we have the main design which the Apostle had in view, that . . . the gifts of God are so distributed that each has a limited portion, and that each ought to be so attentive in imparting his own gifts to the edification of the Church, that no one, by leaving his own function, may trespass on that of another . . . By this most beautiful order, and as it were symmetry, is the safety of the Church indeed preserved; that is, when everyone imparts to all in common what he has received from the Lord, in such a way as not to impede others.

How ill-equipped would the church be if all the members of the body of Christ had the same gifts and talents? How inefficient would it be if everyone only exercised the gift of teaching? How truncated the body would be if every member sought to lead! The church would be unfit for full-orbed ministry if every member only carried out acts of mercy or hospitality. All these gifts are necessary for the building up of the other members of the body. Without each member doing its part, the body will not grow in a healthy way.

When Paul highlights the teaching and preaching gifts Christ gave to the church, he notes that one goal of their exercise is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry,for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). In this, we see the goal of the teaching and preaching gifts God has given ministers in the church: to encourage the use of the other gifts among the members of the same body of believers, so that “the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).

Footnotes

  • John Owen, The Works of John Owen (vol. 4) (London: Richard Baynes, 1826), 315.

  • John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Romans (Edinburgh, 1849), 459.

How Can We Discern Spirtual Gifts?

When I was 10 years old, a professor from Westminster Theological Seminary came to visit our family. I had learned about Constantine in my fifth-grade world history class that day, and when I came home I immediately began telling my parents and the seminary professor everything my teacher had taught me. At one point, my dad stopped me and said that I didn’t need to relay everything I had learned in school. The professor, a family friend, turned to my dad and said, “Be careful not to quench the teaching gift God has given your son.” I have often reflected on this when approaching the subject of discerning gifts among believers. How are we to know what gifts God has graciously given us? The Scripture gives us several guiding principles to help us discern our gifts and their function.

Believers sometimes struggle to identify their God-given gifts because they misunderstand the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit. In the apostolic age, there was no question about the extraordinary gifts’ existence. The question was not about whether they were operative; rather, it was about how believers were to put them to use in an orderly and appropriate way (1 Cor. 14:26–40). With the burgeoning of the twentieth-century Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, many American Evangelicals have become confused about the continuation or the restoration of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit today. People wonder about the gifts and talents God has given them because they’ve never spoken in tongues or prophesied.

Cessationism is the theological position that the supernatural gifts of the Spirit only functioned for a time until the completion of the biblical canon. This position is supported by the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13. The witness of church history is important regarding the cessation of the extraordinary gifts. Sinclair Ferguson writes:

Restorationism provides no generally convincing theological explanation for the disappearance of certain gifts during the greater part of the church’s existence. To attribute this to lack of faith is surely inadequate (if not spiritual and theological hubris) in view of the quality of faith possessed by many Christians of former eras, not to mention the
principle . . . that the Spirit distributes his gifts freely and sovereignly.

When we embrace the biblical teaching about the cessation of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, we’re free to focus on the work of the Spirit in putting our natural gifts and talents to work in the church. The Holy Spirit takes what is a unique personal talent and sanctifies it to the service of his people.

However, even in congregations that hold to cessationism, believers can find it difficult to identify and utilize their gifts and talents. This may be due, in part, to the way in which some cessationist congregations have a proclivity to elevate the teaching and preaching ministry to such a place of importance that it gives the impression that no other gifts are needed in the church. Paul makes clear in Ephesians 4:11 that the gifts of pastors and teachers are necessary for “equipping the saints;” but it’s equally clear that every member of the body is to do his or her part so that the body is built up and edified in love (Eph. 4:16).

Identifying Marks of Spiritual Gifts

Every gift and talent God gives his people has certain identifying marks. There are internal and external indications of God’s gifts. Internal marks are often identified by one’s desires. If someone enjoys opening their home to believers and unbelievers, it’s almost certainly the case that they have a gift of hospitality. If another believer loves to help organize ministry events and schedules, he or she likely has a gift of administration. If yet others enjoy teaching God’s word in Sunday School or various other settings and they excel at it, they probably have a gift of teaching. If certain believers enjoy caring for the material or physical needs of others in the body, they may have a gift of mercy. The qualifiers “almost certainly,” “likely,” “probably,” and “may” safeguard against giving someone who doesn’t have these gifts a false sense of encouragement. Many have sought roles in the church they weren’t gifted to fill. Much harm has been done when a man who doesn’t have the gift of teaching or preaching seeks to stand in a pulpit and minister God’s word to his people.

This leads to the importance of external marks. While the internal desire to minister in some particular way in the church is good and right—and an important part of discerning the gifts God has given us—the external acknowledgement by officers and members of a church plays a role as well. When a believer has an evident gift of teaching or preaching, the people of God should recognize and encourage the use of this gift. When another believer is particularly hospitable, others in the body will almost certainly acknowledge this gift with gratitude. When the internal desire to use a gift in the service of other believers meets the external affirmation of others in the body, we’ll be more apt to rightly discern the gifts God has given us for edifying the body of Christ.

Just Serve

Sometimes, it’s important for believers to simply observe the needs of a local church. There are always more needs than there are resources in the life and ministry of a local church. While it’s important for believers to identify and utilize their specific gifts, it’s equally important to be willing to serve wherever there is a need. This may take the shape of asking those in leadership about the specific needs in the body. It may look like ministry team leaders identifying members who would be a good fit in a particular ministry. It may be that a local church has a greater need for someone to serve in the nursery or help with the youth ministry or greeter team than teach. Just because someone has a gift of teaching doesn’t mean that he or she can’t jump in wherever there is a need in the life of the church. The people of God need to be prepared to assist in whatever way they may be needed.

Footnotes

  • Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, ed. Gerald Bray, Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 223.

How Should We Use Spiritual Gifts?

If someone gave you a golf driver for Christmas and you used it to hammer a nail into a wall, you wouldn’t be using your gift in the way it was intended. In the same way, believers can misuse the gifts God has given them. There are several ways Scripture addresses the use and misuse of spiritual gifts.

First, spiritual gifts must be attended with humility.

In Romans 12:3, Paul writes, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” This doesn’t mean that we are to walk around saying, “I’m a nobody who has nothing to offer anyone else.” In fact, that would be a denial of sober judgment about what God has given us. Instead, we’re not to draw undue attention to ourselves or think we’re more important than we are. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Cor. 4:7). Wilhelmus à Brakel explains,

The graces, gifts, beauty, strength, riches, and whatever else you may have, God has but granted you on loan. Would you then put these on display as if they were your own? Therefore, consider yourself, and judge aright; you will then be small and insignificant in your eyes and not seek great things.

Humility is essential if we’re going to build others up with the gifts God has given us.

Second, the use of spiritual gifts must be accompanied by love.

Believers have frequently responded to the notion of spiritual gifts with misplaced enthusiasm for the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit while undervaluing the ordinary gifts of the Spirit. Paul’s treatment of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12–14 deals with the problem of believers exalting one gift set above another in the church. Many were exalting the gift of tongues above the other extraordinary spiritual gifts of the apostolic era while failing to recognize the importance of the lasting ordinary gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 13:1–13). Love is the greatest of all the spiritual gifts of God (1 Cor. 13:13).

Third, Scripture calls believers to minister their spiritual gifts with zeal.

Paul writes,

Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Rom. 12:6–8)

If someone has the gift of leading but leads reluctantly, the members of the body won’t benefit from this gift. If someone cares for those in need without cheerfulness, the recipients won’t sense the mercy supposedly behind the action.

Believers can get tired of serving. This is why Paul charged the members of the Galatian churches: “Let us not grow weary of doing good. . . . So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:9–10). Zeal and diligence in using spiritual gifts for the benefit of others is a vital accompanying grace.

When spiritual gifts are attended to with love, humility, and zeal, the members of the body of Christ will reap the maximum benefit from them. When believers are blessed in the execution of these gifts, a reciprocal joy will resound to the one ministering with his or her spiritual gift. Mutual joy, edification, and love result from this cooperative combination (Rom. 1:11–12).

God hasn’t given believers spiritual gifts to parade in pride, assert in lovelessness, or languish in idleness. Rather, he has supplied these diverse gifts for the mutual edification of his people. As we discern the gifts God has given us and are zealous to serve him in humility and love, the church will grow in love.

Footnotes

  • Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service (vol. 4) (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1995), 75.