Sunday, September 6, 2015

On Spiritual Gifts

At our church, we are currently going through a series on the book of Acts, and I just finished the rough draft of next week's sermon. Acts is all about God's Spirit leading ordinary people to do extraordinary things at the founding of the Church.

In addition, I recently read a very passionate (read: unhelpful, unChristian, and hateful on both sides) argument recently between a cessationist and a Charismatic. (A bit more on that later in the post.)

As such, spiritual gifts are on my mind a lot lately.

So I thought it would be valuable to go through them a bit together.

The Scripture is clear that the Holy Spirit gives each of us gifts which are uniquely qualified to aid the body of Christ (Rom 12; 1Cor 12; 1Pet 4, etc.). These gifts build up the body of Christ and lead us to be able to help the Church.

Nowhere does a passage claim to have an exhaustive list of these gifts; however, the various Scriptures do explicitly list 17, so we know there are at least this many.

Let's discuss these together today. And as we discuss each one, ask yourself--is this the way that God has gifted me? Don't try and pick the one you want--Paul says that there should be no jealousy between us on this. No gift is superior to another: God did not make a mistake when He chose your gifts for you (Rom 12:4-5).

Read them and find them in yourself. Your gift is very likely to be one of these (though, as I said, this need not be an exhaustive list). You might find more than one. You should then pray and seek out with God how to use your gifts to affect His church. He made each of us differently and we should use them.

(Note:  spiritual gifts are different from skills.  Playing the drums is not a spiritual gift, it is a skill. Just because you have that skill you are not obligated to use it in the church band. But if you have the gift of service, for example, it could be that this is one way for you to use your gift and your skill together.)

So now, let's take a look at some of the spiritual gifts explicitly listed in Scripture:

1.  Prophesy (propheteia, Rom 12:6)

When we hear the word "prophesy" today we think of fortune-telling, because some of the Biblical prophets had visions of the future. However, that is not the key meaning of the word prophesy.

Prophesy means to receive divine inspiration and use it to declare God's purpose. This is not run-of-the-mill inspiration like we all receive through the Spirit's guidance; this is the kind of inspiration that led the OT prophets to stand up to kings and to record the Scriptures.

It is, basically, the ability to speak for God. Even Paul does not claim this gift lightly, saying in parts of 1Cor 7 and 2Cor 11 that he was switching from "prophesy" mode into "Paul's advice" mode.

2.  Service/Administration (diakonia, Rom 12:6; cf 1Pet 4:10)

This is one of the "unsexy" gifts that is far too often overlooked. It is often misunderstood--this doesn't mean serving others (we are all supposed to do that). This gift of service or administration is the gift of being able to diligently and properly execute the decisions of others. 

This is a specific gift, as any preacher who has made a mess of his church's finances has learned! It takes a special gift and talent to be able to understand and capture a leader's vision and then figure out how to move the church or team from here to there and then execute this plan every day.

I could equally define this as deaconship: in the book of Acts, the apostles realize that they are failing at their office in the Church precisely due to a lack of administrators who could do the practical things which keep the church running--collecting the offerings and distributing to the poor and checking in on the shut-ins and all of those tasks which the visionary types find tedious but which are actually where the "rubber meets the road." The backroom stuff which is so critical and so overlooked.

3. Teaching (didaskalia, Rom 12:7)

Teaching is the ability to guide others in learning. This may happen during sermons or during one-on-one mentorship or in public school classrooms or at home with your children.

To teach is not for everyone, any more than service or prophesy is. Many people think they are good teachers when in fact all they are doing is reciting facts. But as Tim Keller points out in his book Preaching, it is one thing to harvest wheat and something else entirely to prepare it into a meal.

Teaching is preparing the meal--it is the ability to make a difficult lesson edible so that people want to learn it.

4. Encouraging (paraklesis, Rom 12:8)

Have you ever been around someone and they just make you feel good about yourself? No matter if you just had a bad day or a good day, a lunch with this person never fails to cheer you up. They don't seem to say anything you haven't heard or do anything particularly for you; just their very presence and conversation makes your day brighter. One of my friends, Keith, has this gift--I just feel like a million bucks if we have hung out for a half hour, even though we don't actually have that much in common.

These people have the gift of encouragement. It is the instinctive ability to console, to build you up, to give you confidence and hope.

5.  Giving (metadiomi, Rom 12:8)

Just like serving, we all are called to give cheerfully to help those in need. But some people have a special spiritual gift for giving. They are able to give far beyond what others can (not talking dollars here, but percentages). They are giving people with hearts that want others to have things.

They just aren't selfish. They don't care about "mine" but are willing to give freely and cheerfully and with amazing sacrifice.

6. Leadership (proistemi, Rom 12:8)

It is often said that management can be learned, but you have to be born a leader. There is a lot of truth to that statement. To preside or lead over people--in this case, specifically we are talking about spiritual leadership, such as an Elder of a church--is a solemn task. It is not simply given to someone with a particular skillset or resume, but to someone who is spiritually called and gifted to lead others.

It carries with it three ideas in the concordances--that of making decisions, of protecting the flock, and of maintaining or keeping-up the Church.

7. Acts of Compassion (eleeo, Rom 12:8)

Again, we all should show mercy. But some people have a special gifting for showing mercy and having compassion on the less fortunate. My sister-in-law Christi has an unbelievable patience and love and compassion for special-ed elementary kids, and that is where she serves the Kingdom in a powerful way. My friend Julie has known since she was a girl that she "had a heart" for orphans, and as a result fostered 10 children and adopted two.

Whenever you see that person who have just always had an exceptional commitment in their heart to a particular group who are in need of feeling God's compassion and mercy, this person very likely has the gift of compassion.

8 and 9. Wisdom (sophia, 1Cor 12:8) and Knowledge (gnosis, 1Cor 12:8)

I discuss these two together because though they overlap quite a bit, they are two separate spiritual gifts.

The spiritual gift of knowledge is the ability to learn an especially deep knowledge about our faith. It is the ability to learn and remember facts and theologies and ideas and how things fit together. People often ask me how I learned such-and-such or what they should do to gain so-and-so knowledge. And sure, I can point people to certain reading plans or whatever, but the truth is that this is simply a gift that the Spirit has given me, the ability to learn complex theology and draw connections between passages.

However, this is different than the gift of wisdom. You can have both, or neither, or just one or the other.

I often stand in awe when I hear a preacher like Tim Keller. It is rare that Keller gives me some new fact that I haven't read in some book or the other; but what he does that is so amazing is his gift of wisdom.

Wisdom is the ability to understand the hidden things of the world, the application of learning in the real world. I guess the best word for it is spiritual insight. Men like Keller have the ability to seem to lift up the veil of reality and see how the facts of the Bible can be applied to the world around us. That is wisdom--the insight and understanding of how the world actually is and how God's word can be applied to it.

10. Faith (pistis, 1Cor 12:9)

It goes without saying that we are all supposed to have faith. But this idea of pistis, as I've argued before, carries much more than the idea of knowledge. It is an unwavering existential commitment and loyalty to Jesus.

The ordinary Christian, I think, is much like me (i.e., lacking this as a special spiritual gift): we believe in Jesus, we are willing to risk on His behalf, we follow Him, we are believers. On occasion, we have doubts but He leads us through those.

I rather suspect those with this special gift of faith never actually have those regular doubts. They don't occasionally fall in the water like Peter, or have to feel Jesus' wounds like Thomas. They are more like the apostle John--they always believe, always trust, never waver. They are bold, "sons of thunder" who are rock-solid in their loyalty to Jesus: whether suffering from debilitating disease or having a dog at the ballpark, their faith is exactly the same.

11. Healing (iama, 1Cor 12:9)

The gift of healing needs to be treated carefully. We see in the Scripture men like Peter and Paul (and of course, Jesus) often performing miraculous physical healings, and that is definitely the most common use of this term (and its verb form iaomai). But it also includes spiritual healing, cleansing of the soul. The idea is that one who is broken is made whole.

What makes this very complicated is that we in the modern scientific world strictly enforce a difference between natural and supernatural things--so there are natural healings (like your doctor at the clinic) and supernatural healings (like Jesus and Peter and Paul did). I am in no way convinced that an ancient would make such a distinction. God is involved in every aspect and every move of creation, and it is entirely possible that there are some doctors or surgeons out there who aren't simply manipulating the natural way of things but are, via their natural means, doing literally miraculous, God-in-Acts style healings. The doctor who tries chemo and is able to help the terminal patient go into remission despite all odds would very likely indeed be said to have this gift in ancient times (or so it seems to me).

At any rate, this gift is the gift to heal -- especially the body but also spiritually. If a strict modern natural/supernatural dichotomy is taken then this refers only to supernatural healings and thus is obviously not so common today.

12. Miracle Working (energema dynamis, 1Cor 12:10)

To put it simply, this is the spiritual gift of being a vessel or conduit for exhibiting God's power. We see this with the casting out of demons, prayers that lead to earthquakes to free people from prison, calling down fire from heaven, and the like.

Along with healing, it is safe to say that this is not the norm in modern Christianity.

13. Judging Spirits (diakrisis pneuma, 1Cor 12:10)

We are all asked to be discerning and ensure that what we are being taught is in accordance with apostolic teaching. Some, however, have a special gift for spiritual discernment. Hebrews 5:14 associates this with those who are very mature in the faith--they simply have an innate ability to know if what they are hearing is truth. Call it a spiritual BS detector--something we all wish or think we have, but which actually very few possess.

People with this gift are always rock-solid theologically, and are not easily dissuaded by clever arguments or changing emotions.

14. and 15. Various Languages and Interpretations of Languages (genos glossa and hermeneia glossa, 1Cor 12:10)

This is a gift which brings a lot of controversy today over what it even is: the Bible discusses speaking in tongues on multiple occasions, but it is not clear whether it is speaking human languages which are not understood (such as what happens in Acts 2) or glossolalia, the speaking of words which sound like nonsense but which are said to be part of a sacred or prayer language.

The context is not particularly helpful to either case--Paul says that it is confusing if in public and should only be done by one or two people at a time, and only if someone there can translate for others. Such a statement would be applicable either to speaking a foreign language or a sacred/heavenly language.

So it is difficult to say whether this is the same thing which is reported as an experience by millions of Charismatics, or something altogether different and which is much more rare historically. Likewise, interpreting unknown languages is also a spiritual gift.

(FWIW--My opinion, and I stress opinion, is that this spiritual gift is the speaking and interpreting of foreign human languages--an undoing of the curse of Babel, rather than a speaking of unknown sacred languages. This is what we see in Acts 2--the people were astonished that Galileans were speaking their personal tribal languages. I see no plausible reason in the Charismatic argument that this somehow refers to something different in Corinthians. Likewise, I do categorically deny that this is a universal gift, as many Charismatics argue, saying that everyone who receives the Spirit must do this; Paul is clear that not everyone has the same spiritual gifts and therefore none can be universal.)

16. Speaking (laleo, 1Pet 4:10)

This one is a very very tough one, because Peter uses this very vague term of "speaking"; for example, elsewhere in his letters he refers to Paul's letters as 'speaking' and also to the prophesy of the Old Testament prophets as 'speaking'.

I am using it here to mean something akin to "public speaking"--standing on a stage and delivering a talk, though others associate it more with one-on-one mentorship. A teacher (gift 3 above) might be great at developing a lesson plan or curriculum but only capable of sharing it in small groups, or as a mentor, or in a classroom. Standing up on stage and delivering a sermon would be terrifying and frankly they wouldn't be good at it.

17. Celibacy (1Cor 7:1-7)

Though often overlooked in 1Cor 7:7 Paul seems strongly to indicate that the topic he is discussing is a spiritual gift as well--and that topic is celibacy. Paul is saying that it is good for someone to not have sex at all--it is a gift which both witnesses to God because of the self control and also allows one to focus fully on doing His will. Paul says that he wishes it is a gift which everyone could have.

But he says--some have one gift, some have another. Not everyone has the gift of celibacy, but those who do should cherish it. We all of course have this for a time, but very few can even hope to retain it throughout all of life. To do so, Paul says, is a spiritual gift.


So, let me ask--of these 17 gifts, do any really hit you? Are you particularly gifted by the Spirit in a certain area or the other?

I would say that I have been gifted with two of the 17 gifts--leadership and knowledge. Also, maybe public speaking. I have always been a natural leader and always had an insatiable thirst for knowledge, which only grew when it encountered theology. I have skills as a public speaker but I'm not totally sure this is a full out "spiritual gift"--that is, if I wasn't speaking I'm not sure I would feel that I was not using my gifts, but I definitely would feel that way if I wasn't learning and communicating about Jesus and if I wasn't leading in some way.

Please note that there is no arrogance in admitting your gifts--God gave them to you for a reason. You have a role to fulfill, and it does you no good to pretend that you don't have that gift.

It is important that you realize this, because our churches make it easy to know how to use some gifts and not others. Someone has a gift of Teaching? Make them a small group leader. Someone has the gift of giving? Put them on the finance committee or missions team so they can help give and use their gifts well. The gift of wisdom? Let them mentor and counsel young believers. Knowledge? Put them in front of a Bible study class.

But many of these have a key role to play in the church that isn't associated with a particular position as we usually think of it--gifts like celibacy and encouragement and discernment are just as critical as any others but often we forget to use them intentionally. We should do so.

Postscript--On Cessationism/Charismaticism.

I mentioned earlier a fight between a hard cessationist and a Charismatic.

Basically here is what it comes down to.

Cessationists (and I used to be one) generally argue that certain ones of the above gifts stopped working after the apostles. They were only given to validate the apostles' ministry, so things like healing, prophesy, tongues, and miracle-working no longer exist and to claim that they do is tantamount to blasphemy. I used to feel this way as I certainly never experienced anything like those, but as I have grown wiser I tend to reject this for a couple of reasons: (1) my lack of experience doesn't mean God doesn't use it; (2) the fact that it is exceptionally rare in history is not the same thing as not existing; (3)  there is no good textual reason to say that some of the gifts in these lists by Paul and Peter stopped while others continue; (4) Jesus says blaspheming the Holy Spirit--that is, attributing the work of God to the Devil--is unforgivable and no opinion I have is strong enough to take that risk; and (5) numerous of the early Church Fathers refer to precisely these kinds of gifts as continuing after the apostles times.* These reasons seem to me devastating to the cessationist case.

Nevertheless, the Charismatic case is no better, also for several reasons:  (1) they choose some gifts as universal despite Paul's explicit statement that they are not; (2) their explanation of the gift of tongues seems to me to be not at all what is shown in Scripture; (3) they claim tens of thousands of miraculous healings and yet (to my knowledge) none withhold scrutiny; (4) the teachings of Charismatics are frequently lacking in spiritual discernment and are unwilling to denounce their brethren even when they are shown to be false teachers who are stealing money; and (5) they insist that what the Bible showed to be rare miracles even in apostolic times are now supposed to be widely commonplace.

So both sides seem very strange. Like kids on a schoolyard at recess who are arguing violently and staking out territory, when really both look silly and wrong.

As I have matured, here is where I have come on this debate: I would consider myself a continuationist but not a Charismatic.

That is:  I see no Biblical reason whatsoever to believe that the Spirit put an "expire by 100 AD" label on any of His gifts, nor does that explain the overwhelming statements from the early church fathers of some of these gifts continuing. Furthermore, we all agree that others in this list continue today.

I instead read it as it is most plainly stated:  the Spirit gives us diverse gifts as needed to bring about the glory of God. This by logical definition means that some gifts will be rarer than others, some will be useful in some cultures but not others, and that the Spirit can decide precisely how and when and to what extent to give these gifts.

To use Paul's analogy of a body--parts like the eyes are pretty rare, while parts like hairs and skin and brain cells are far more common, right? As such, we should not be surprised if we have more of one gift than another. And likewise, at some times some gifts may be more widespread and yet become less common later (like, say, a receding hairline).

I find this continuationist approach much more Biblical and much more likely, and avoiding either the arrogant dismissals of the cessationists or the free-willing craziness evident in so many Charismatics.

* Examples include but are not limited to: Justin Martyr Dialog with Trypho chapters 82 and 88, Novatian Concerning the Trinity chapter 29, Hilary of Poitiers On the Trinity vol 8 ch 33, Irenaus Against Heresies Book V Chapter VI, Tertullian Against Marcion Book V chapter VIII.

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