In the life of the local church there are two major problems related to the subject of spiritual gifts. The first is that far too few Christians are involved in any kind of ministry. They conceive of themselves as spectators rather than participants. None of these ‘spectators’ have the joy of being actively involved in ministry and of seeing God work through them in the exercise of their spiritual gifts. We shall assume that on the basis of our study in Ephesians 4:16 you would no longer consider this a viable option.
A second problem is with those who are actively involved in the ministry of the local church, but who are not functioning in a ministry which corresponds to their spiritual gifts. Their dilemma is illustrated by the story of a certain sea captain and his chief engineer who were having an argument as to which one of them was the more important to the ship. Failing to agree, they resorted to the unique idea of swapping places. The chief ascended to the bridge, and the captain dived into the engine room. After a couple of hours, the captain suddenly appeared on the deck covered with oil and soot.
“Chief!” he yelled, wildly waving aloft a monkey wrench. “You’ll have to come down here; I can’t make her go!”
“Of course you can’t,” replied the chief. “She’s aground!”
Perhaps one reason why so many have chosen to do so little or nothing in the way of ministry in the local church is because they have seen how frustrated those are who are striving to accomplish tasks they were never intended to attempt. The primary qualification for most tasks in the church is a willingness to try, or at least too little fortitude to turn down the job.
The solution to both these problems is a proper understanding of the subject of spiritual gifts. You will understand that many books on the subject of spiritual gifts have been written and that no one message will deal with every important issue. But it is my contention that Bible expositors have often made of this subject something far more mystical and mysterious and complicated than it really is. And you know that if there is anyone who can look at a matter with simplicity, it is me. My friends often remind me how simple I really am!
For various reasons, many have played down the importance of knowing your spiritual gift. Let’s begin our study of spiritual gifts by suggesting several reasons why it is imperative for every Christian to know his gift.
1. The prominence of spiritual gifts in Scripture. One of the ways we can measure the importance of a principle or a doctrine is to determine the amount of space devoted to it in the Bible. Subjects or doctrines which are merely implied are surely of less significance than those clearly stated. Matters mentioned infrequently should not be regarded as crucial as those frequently dealt with. Using this standard of measurement, the subject of spiritual gifts is a vital one, for we find gifts addressed specifically in four major portions of Scripture: 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14; Romans chapter 12; Ephesians chapter 4; and 1 Peter chapter 4. In addition to these central passages, spiritual gifts are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible. Spiritual gifts must be important to the Spirit of God Who inspired the writing of the Word of God and thus they should be important to us.
2. The elementary nature of spiritual gifts. When the book of First Corinthians was written, it was addressed to those who were obviously not very mature in the faith. There were many forms of carnality cited by Paul in this epistle. The things of which Paul wrote in this book were not matters of the ‘deeper life,’ but rather the elemental truths of the Christian life. Due to the emphasis on spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians, we conclude that the doctrine of spiritual gifts is important and that it is foundational and fundamental to the Christian life.
3. Spiritual gifts are a matter of individual stewardship. When Peter spoke of spiritual gifts in his first epistle, he considered them a matter of personal stewardship:
As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God (1 Peter 4:10).
Peter meant that just as we must give account of our use of the material things God has placed under our control, and just as we must give account of the use of our time, so we must also be accountable for the use of our spiritual gifts.
Now it is very hard to be a good steward of something we know nothing about, and of something which we do not even know we possess. If you were given the responsibility of managing the assets of someone else, the first thing you would do is to take inventory of what resources were at your disposal. You would demand to know what assets you were to use wisely. So, also, the Christian cannot be a good steward in the matter of spiritual gifts without knowing what his gifts are:
Knowing your spiritual gift(s)will enable you to find your place of ministry in the local church. Since every Christian has a particular function in the body of Christ, and since your spiritual gifts equip you to carry out this function, knowing your gifts help you to plug in to the ministry of a local church.
Knowing your spiritual gift(s) will enable you to determine your priorities. One of the most common problems we all face is having more things to do than we have time to do them. Paul indicates in Romans chapter twelve, verses six through eight, that we should make the use of our spiritual gifts a priority in our lives. In simple terms, when we have too many things to do we must choose to function in the area of our spiritual gifts. You must know your spiritual gifts to set these priorities.
Knowing your spiritual gift(s) will be of great help in discerning God’s will. To extend our last point just a little bit further, knowing your spiritual gift(s) can be of great help in discerning the will of God. The choice of your occupation, whether ‘secular’ or ‘religious,’ should take into account whether or not it will help or hinder the exercise and development of your spiritual gift. If you are not gifted to teach, you have a valuable insight into God’s will when you are offered a teaching position. There is a very distinct relationship between knowing the will of God (Romans 12:1-2) and understanding your spiritual gift (Romans 12:3-8).
Probably the simplest definition of a spiritual gift would be this: A spiritual gift is the God-given capacity of every Christian to carry out his function in the body of Christ.
The thrust of the first half of Ephesians chapter four is that the effective functioning of the body of Christ is dependent upon the contribution of each individual part of the body. Spiritual gifts enable us to carry out our task within the body of Christ in a way which no one else can. Using the analogy of the physical body in 1 Corinthians chapter twelve, Paul reinforced this same concept. Every part of the body is essential to the well-being of the body. When one member fails to do his part, the body suffers.
There are two important corollaries to this truth that spiritual gifts equip the Christian to carry out his unique contribution to the body.
First, spiritual gifts are not primarily given to benefit the individual, but the entire body. Anyone who seeks a spiritual gift and employs it in order to give himself a kind of spiritual ‘high’ is missing the point of spiritual gifts. Perhaps this is the most serious criticism of the contemporary tongues movement. Not only has one gift been exalted above all the others, but the primary purpose of this gift seems to be self-edification.
Second, if spiritual gifts are given to enable us to carry out every essential function of the body then we should expect spiritual gifts which correspond to every function described in the Scriptures. This is precisely the case.
While we can see that all are to engage in the exercise of these functions, there are gifts which overlap these functions. It is those who are gifted in these various capacities who will excel in this particular function. If for every area of ministry there are those specially qualified for that ministry, it is vital to that ministry that those specially gifted in that area should be involved in that ministry.
In order to accurately describe the nature of spiritual gifts we will make two major assertions, both of which appear paradoxical. Until we understand the truths contained in these paradoxical statements, we shall not understand spiritual gifts.
Spiritual gifts intertwine the Divine and the Human. To view spiritual gifts in a merely human dimension leads to a gross misunderstanding of their divine element. Likewise, to view the gifts only from a ‘spiritual’ perspective will lead to a distorted appraisal. Spiritual gifts are ‘spiritual’ in nature for they are given by the Holy Spirit to every believer (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). Each gift is a manifestation of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7). Spiritual gifts are ‘spiritual’ in that they are given only to those who are believers in Jesus Christ. Also, spiritual gifts differ from human talents and abilities in that they result in ‘spiritual’ fruit.
In addition to the divine element in spiritual gifts is the human counterpart. The gift of helps will involve some form of human involvement whether it be in the bringing of a meal, the fixing of a flat tire, or in cleaning up someone’s house. The gift of teaching involves the study of the lesson and the preparation of what is going to be taught. Administration involves sitting down and making plans, calling meetings and evaluation of progress. The gift of giving includes the making of the money, the choice of where it is to be distributed and the actual follow-through of giving.
It has been said that spiritual gifts must not be confused with natural talents, and surely we must agree. But we must also insist that spiritual gifts not be divorced from natural talents and abilities. In Psalm 139, we are reminded that it was God who fashioned us in the womb. Whatever our capabilities or weaknesses, they were given to us by the omniscient God who designed us not only in the matter of spiritual gifts, but also in the matter of talents and abilities to carry out a certain task. Human abilities alone will never produce eternal fruit, but our abilities when empowered by the Holy Spirit can bring about spiritual fruit. It is no accident that Billy Graham is a gifted speaker in the human sense. But there are countless gifted speakers who have never seen a soul won to Christ.
Finally, spiritual gifts should be viewed on the human plane in that they, just as natural talents and abilities, must be developed. One may have the gift of teaching but that gift needs to be developed, perhaps by seminary studies, certainly by some kind of training and much experience. Paul told Timothy,
… kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands (2 Timothy 1:6).
Perhaps the best analogy of this interweaving of the divine and the human in the matter of spiritual gifts is that of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was fully human and yet at the same time He was fully God. Divinity and humanity in one person. So also the Scriptures are the work of both God and men. Men spoke and wrote, revealing their backgrounds, education, personalities and styles, and yet these men were moved along by the Holy Spirit in such a way that every word these men wrote was the Word of God (2 Peter 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Spiritual gifts produce unity through diversity. Most Christians have failed to grasp the great diversity revealed in spiritual gifts. The key text is found in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).
Most Christians would agree that there is diversity in the gifts which are given to men. One may have the gift of helps, while another the gift of administration, and so on. I am no longer completely convinced that the New Testament necessarily records every possible spiritual gift, so perhaps there is even greater diversity in gifts than we have thought. But the point I wish to underscore is that even among those who possess the same gift there is great diversity. This is what Paul meant in verses 5 and 6 when he said that there are varieties of ministries and effects.
There are infinite possibilities for ministry for those who possess the gift of teaching. “Ministries” in verse 5 refers to the sphere in which the particular gift is to be exercised. One may use his gift of teaching in a pastoral role in the local church, while another teaches in a seminary. One may teach a junior Sunday school class while another may teach informally around the lunch table at his place of work. One may teach in Africa, while another will teach in North Dallas. When we think of the gift of teaching, all too often we have some stereotyped concept of what the sphere of this teaching will be, but Paul tells us we must keep an open mind to infinite possibilities for exercising this gift.
I have heard it said that there is no such gift as the gift of teaching young people. I would have to agree that there is only one gift of teaching, but that the sphere of ministry for a given individual may be teaching young people, while for another gifted individual that sphere of ministry may be teaching the aged in a retirement home. If we are to properly use our spiritual gifts we must not only identify the gift we possess, but also the sphere of ministry God has ordained for us.
There is yet another dimension of diversity in spiritual gifts. Even when two men have the same gift of teaching, and employ that gift in almost identical situations, there will be diversity in the ‘effects’ or results of that teaching. One man may be exceptionally gifted, while the other only moderately so. One evangelist may win hundreds to Christ and another thousands, while another wins only several dozen. The effectiveness of each man’s gifts will vary. The practical implications of this are many and we shall deal with some of them later.
All of this diversity and variety contributes to Christian unity rather than contradicts it. The very fact of such diversity necessitates unity and interdependence. This interplay between diversity and unity is illustrated by the story told by Donald Grey Barnhouse:
Several years ago, two students graduated from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. The highest ranking student in the class was a blind man named Overton, and when he received his honor, he insisted that half the credit should go to his friend, Kaspryzak. They had met one another in school when the armless Mr. Kaspryzak had guided the blind Mr. Overton down a flight of stairs. This acquaintance ripened into friendship and a beautiful example of interdependence. The blind man carried the books which the armless man read aloud in their common study, and thus the individual deficiency of each was compensated for by the other. After their graduation, they planned to practice law together.24
Before we go on to the subject of discovering your gift, I want to take a moment to deal with some of the most common errors we make related to spiritual gifts.
The great error of the carnal Corinthian church was to confuse spiritual gifts with spirituality. Those who spoke in tongues thought themselves to be several notches higher on the spiritual scale than those who did not have this gift. The Corinthian church was apparently an exceptionally gifted church, but it was also one of the most carnal churches in the New Testament. My friend, you may not be comforted in hearing this but the man who has the gift of pastor-teacher may be far less spiritual than the one who has the gift of helps. The one with the gift of giving may be far more spiritual than the evangelist who is winning thousands to Christ. We need only recall the Old Testament figure, Sampson, to be reminded that while he was performing great feats of strength he was living a life devoted to the flesh.
The watchword of the Christian sluggard is ‘that’s not my gift.’ My pet peeve is the pastor-teacher who maintains that his sole obligation is to prepare for sermons. He has no time for counseling those who are struggling with life, no time to visit the sick, no time to comfort the mourning. That mentality is an abuse of the biblical teaching concerning spiritual gifts.
We have demonstrated that every gift relates to a function that is the responsibility of every Christian. Although some are gifted to give, all Christians are to give cheerfully to the Lord. While some are gifted to be leaders or administrators, every man is to be a leader in his home, and every woman needs to lead as well (cf. Proverbs 31). While our spiritual gift necessitates that we establish priorities, we are never excused from the responsibilities of all Christians. We are foolish to spend great amounts of time as the chairman of a committee if we are not gifted as an administrator. We would spend our time much more profitably in the area of our gift. But let us be careful about excusing ourselves from tasks for which we are responsible. We may not be gifted at leading people to Christ, but we are to be witnesses for our Lord Jesus.
Although I have already stressed the importance of knowing our spiritual gifts, I want to make it clear that knowledge is not so important that we neglect service. There is in my estimation far too much intellectualism in the Christian church. Such was the case in Corinth as well. Paul had to say to them, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1, my translation). Many Christians insist upon knowing what their spiritual gifts are before they begin to serve God in any capacity. They are more interested in studying and knowing than in serving. It is no wonder that Paul had to insert his chapter (13) on love in the midst of his teaching on spiritual gifts. It is my contention that we learn our spiritual gifts as we serve. If we devote ourselves to the service of others, we will inevitably learn what our gifts are. I am not negating the importance of study or doctrine; I am simply saying that our motive should be to learn to serve, not to study simply to learn.
One of the things which distresses me most about spiritual gifts is the way we define the various gifts by the use of giants of the faith. The gift of teaching is the gift of Dr. Robinson, the gift of faith is the gift of George Müeller, the gift of giving is the gift of Le Tourneau, the gift of evangelism is the gift of Billy Graham. We have made two serious mistakes. One is that we have focused upon extraordinary gifts, and most of us are not going to get close to their level of effectiveness. A person who wins several to Christ in a year would not dare to suggest that his gift was the same as that of Billy Graham. A woman with the gift of faith who is trusting God to get her husband through seminary would not think of claiming to possess the same gift as George Müeller.
In addition to confusing the effectiveness of different individuals with the same spiritual gift, we also ignore the different spheres of ministry which God has for the same gift. We erroneously suppose that evangelism must take place in a coliseum, rather than around a coffee table. We think teaching must be done behind a pulpit, rather than on the back porch. It is no wonder that many Christians seriously question whether or not they possess some spiritual gift. It is often because they are trying to measure their gifts against the giants. Far more reasonable is the approach of measuring our abilities and gifts against the average Christian.
Drawing all that we have said together, let’s consider how one can learn what his or her spiritual gift may be.
First, I hope you have concluded that this matter is not the great mystery we have made it out to be. God has given you a gift or gifts and He intends for you to know your gift, to develop it and to use it for His glory. Gifts are not classified or top secret material intended only for the spiritual elite.
Second, arrive at a simple and concise definition for each of the spiritual gifts recorded in the Scriptures. The gift of faith is the supernatural ability to trust God. Faith is both active and passive. The housewife, for example, may demonstrate active faith by trusting God to establish a coffee-type Bible study for the gals in the neighborhood. The husband may exercise active faith in stepping out into a new type of business venture that will bring additional opportunities for ministry. Passive faith is faith which hangs on for dear life. The seminary wife with the gift of faith may demonstrate her passive faith when all the obstacles point to her husband throwing in the towel and quitting seminary, but she keeps encouraging him to trust. These kinds of faith benefit the body by encouraging others to trust the Lord both actively and passively.
Whatever you do, do not define the gifts in terms of the spectacular. Rather, define the gifts as they relate to you and your situation. Consider how the gift of faith would manifest itself in your situation, on the job, at home, in your responsibilities in the church?
Third, and most important, obey the Scriptures. Corresponding to every spiritual gift is an imperative or instruction to every Christian to carry out that function. The reason why most Christians don’t know what their spiritual gift is, is that they have never tried to do it yet.
If you were to ask me what I thought your natural abilities were, the first thing I would do is to ask what you have tried. Have you ever tried to play baseball, to water ski, to bowl, to sew? If you haven’t you will never know. You may study sewing, baseball, bowling or whatever, but you will never know if you are good at it until you have made a genuine effort to do it. The general imperatives of the Scriptures have made it easy for us. They command us to do everything which corresponds to some spiritual gift.
In your obedience to the Scriptures, do the things which you see need to be done. I believe it is almost impossible for one with the gift of teaching not to show his hand at a discussion-type Bible study. There is virtually no way you can keep a gifted teacher quiet. He senses a need to teach, and, if given the chance, he meets that need by sharing what he knows to be God’s answer. The one with the gift of giving is the one who is most sensitive to financial needs. He senses needs that go over every one else’s heads. The same is true of the administrator. He will sense the lack of organization and immediately move in to meet that need. It is my contention that with every spiritual gift comes the complimentary ability to discern the need as well as the ability to meet it.
It is Bill Gothard who suggests that individuals react to given situations in the light of their gifts. If a waitress spills someone’s meal all over the restaurant floor and a group of Christians are sitting nearby, each individual will react in accordance with this spiritual gift. The gift of mercy responds by concentrating on cleaning up the mess, the gift of giving offers to pay for another meal, the gift of exhortation seeks to cheer up the waitress. The gift of administration delegates and organizes the whole matter to avoid confusion. The gift of teaching suggests some ways to avoid a recurrence of the problem. Your spiritual gift makes you sensitive to certain needs that others may not perceive. Do what you see needs to be done.
Fourth, devote yourself to what you do best. When you once begin to meet the needs which you see you will quickly discover that you do some things better than others. As I have said before, the fact that you do not do some things very well is no indication that you are to cease altogether in that area. But this will be a clue as to where you should concentrate your efforts. On the basis of your own evaluation and the suggestions of those you respect, begin to devote more time and energy to the things you do best. This leads to the development of the gifts which you possess. Whatever opportunities come up which will aid you in enhancing your spiritual gifts, make the most of them. You may learn that a job change will help you develop your gift. For example, if your gift is teaching, you may well consider a teaching occupation that will enhance your abilities in teaching. If you are particularly skillful in counseling, you may be able to find a job that gives you additional opportunities to develop this ability.
Now let’s try to draw all that has been said together. Spiritual gifts are no mystery. They are not spiritual meat, but baby food. You can know your gift; indeed, you must know your gift to be a faithful steward. You must recognize the great variety and diversity not only between gifts, but within individuals who possess the same gift. There is diversity not only in the kinds of gifts, but also in the sphere of ministry of your gift and in the degree of success you will have with your gift. Don’t make the mistake of measuring yourself with the superstars of spiritual gifts. And don’t confuse spirituality with the greatness of your gift (or the lack of it). If you would discover your gift, simply obey the Scriptures by doing the things which you see need to be done, and devote yourself to what you and others agree you do best.
The greatest danger in my opinion of the exceptionally gifted person is that they will let their gift go to their head. The greatest danger for those whose gifts seem insignificant is to despise the abilities that God has given them, and to fail to use their gifts thinking they will never be missed (Matt. 25:24-30). The success of the body is proportional to the effective working of each and every member (Ephesians 4:16).
It is possible that you are considering spiritual gifts, when in reality you have never come to receive the gift of salvation through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. All of God’s gifts are gifts of grace in that we do not earn them; they are given in spite of us, rather than because of us. You cannot receive spiritual gifts until you have first received the gift of salvation. You must accept the verdict of God that you are a sinner in rebellion against God and deserving of eternal punishment. You must come to the point where you recognize that nothing you can ever do will ever merit God’s eternal salvation. God’s gift of salvation is made possible through the sinless life and sacrificial death of Jesus Christ in the sinner’s place. If you trust in Him as the one who died for you, who took your punishment and exchanged your sin for His righteousness, you, too, can receive the gift of salvation. When you have done this, you will also discover that God has also given you the gift of His Spirit and the spiritual ability to contribute to the ongoing work of His body, the church.