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30. Thinking Straight About Spiritual Gifts (Romans 12:3-8)

Introduction

Gifts are given and received in various ways. One of my Christmas memories is of my grandmother who often made the presents she gave to her family. The only problem was that my grandmother never quite finished anything. When we passed out our presents, we often were not able to take them home with us. If she had made a shirt for me, the buttons might not have been sewed on quite yet. If it was a dress she had made for one of my sisters, it was not hemmed. When my grandmother died a number of years ago, her house was filled with unfinished presents which never quite made it to completion.

The spiritual gifts God gives to every believer are not like those my grandmother gave. God’s gifts are complete. Not only does God give to each of us spiritual gifts by which the body of Christ is supported and sustained, He also gives us all that is needed to carry out those functions vital to the health and ministry of His body, the church. With those gifts, God gives to each of us not only a measure of grace to empower us for service, but a measure of faith as well. Our text will teach us more about these two endowments.

I have yet another Christmas memory of a relative who seldom kept the gift he was given. If we gave him a new shirt for Christmas, he was as likely to give it away as to keep it. He might very well turn to a relative beside him and ask, “Do you like this shirt? Here, take it.” This was frustrating to watch and difficult to accept. And yet, in a sense, he was an example of the way God wants us to receive and share the gifts He has given to us. Spiritual gifts are not to be hoarded and kept only for our own benefit. They are to be used for the benefit of the body. Spiritual gifts are to be given away, in service.

We should first agree that the subject of spiritual gifts is relevant and vitally important to Christians today. Some evangelical Christians believe and teach that spiritual gifts are no longer applicable, that spiritual gifts were given for the church in its infancy. If this is so, why does Paul choose to speak first of spiritual gifts in this portion of Romans? Why does a matter of minimal importance have such a prominent place in this Epistle? If these spiritual gifts are necessary for the functioning of the church, how could they now be extinct? Elsewhere, Paul explains why spiritual gifts have been given and when these gifts will no longer be needed:

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now abide, faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.” (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:7-16).

If I understand Paul’s teaching correctly, spiritual gifts are needed as long as we are living on this earth as members of the body of Christ. Spiritual gifts are those endowments of power which enable us to carry out the vital functions of our body life in Christ as members of His body. These endowments are a supernatural enablement so that supernatural results are produced. It is only when our Lord returns, when the church is taken up into glory and fully perfected, that the need for spiritual gifts will cease. While some may differ as to whether all the gifts are necessary in this age, it is very difficult to understand how none of the gifts are needed. Paul’s teaching assumes that teaching about spiritual gifts is both basic and fundamental to Christian living.44 Peter likewise looked at the exercise of spiritual gifts as a crucial matter.45 We should take spiritual gifts no less seriously than did the apostles.

Let us therefore approach our text with a deep sense of the importance of this teaching on spiritual gifts, observing closely so that we might learn well. May we then be obedient to that truth which we learn, by His grace and to His glory.

The Context of Our Text

In chapters 1-11, Paul laid the doctrinal foundation for the lifestyle he now calls upon all Christians to adopt and to manifest in day to day living. In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 12, Paul has characterized the lifestyle which God’s mercies motivate and which God’s grace enables. The Christian is expected to respond, motivated by the mercies of God. Grace should beget gratitude, and it is on the basis of gratitude that Paul bases his appeal to Christians. Paul calls for a lifestyle characterized by worship, worship expressed in self-sacrificial service. This service must first and foremost be to God, expressed through service to others. Our service of worship should be the logical outflow of God’s Word and His work in our lives. It is a reasoned worship, not at all like the frenzied, sensual, self-indulgent worship of the heathen. To practice this kind of worship, we must cease being shaped by the world around us, and have our minds renewed and transformed so that we look at all things from a divine perspective.

The verses which follow spell out the exercise of this renewed mind in greater detail. Paul outlines in verses 3-8 the Christian way of thinking concerning spiritual gifts. In verses 9-21, Paul describes the Christian’s relationship with others as the outworking of love. This new mind relates differently to human government, realizing that it has been given divine authority (13:1-7). The new mind relates to others out of the obligations required by true Christian love (13:8-14), realizing that strength is given by God to minister to those who are weak (14:1–15:6). It requires Jews and Gentiles to relate in an entirely different way than they have done before (15:7-13).

The Structure of Our Text

Our text divides into three main sections. In verse 3, Paul introduces the subject of spiritual gifts with a call to clear thinking. In verses 4 and 5, Paul calls Christians to think corporately. Spiritual gifts must be understood and practiced in the context of the body of Christ. Paul illustrates Christian thinking in verses 6-8 by focusing on the attitudes and actions appropriate to specific spiritual gifts. We can therefore outline the structure of our text:

(1) A call to straight thinking about spiritual gifts — verse 3

(2) A call to corporate thinking about spiritual gifts — verses 4-5

(3) A call for practice consistent with spiritual gifts — verses 6-8

A Call to Straight
Thinking About Spiritual Gifts
(12:3)

3 For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.

Paul begins to address the subject of spiritual gifts by first telling his readers that in the process of teaching on this subject, he also is exercising his own spiritual gift. He speaks through the “grace” given to him, that “grace” to which he referred at the beginning of this Epistle:

Through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles, for His name’s sake (Romans 1:5).

Paul exercises his spiritual gift of apostleship (and perhaps other gifts as well) as he writes these words of instruction and exhortation. Having been prevented from being physically present with these saints for the time being did not keep Paul from exercising his gift “by mail.” This he did not only to the profit of the Roman saints, but to all those who have been blessed by this Epistle down through history. This Epistle to the Romans is an illustration and evidence of the gifts God gave to Paul for our edification.

Paul’s teaching here is universal. His teaching is not addressed to any one individual, nor to some small group, but rather “to every man among you.” These principles apply to every believer. Paul’s words assume that every Christian has been given at least one spiritual gift which is to be exercised for the edification of the church,46 the body of Christ.47

Paul calls for sound thinking and judgment. He has already informed us that we must not be “conformed to this age”; we must instead “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Paul warns of the danger of “overthinking” (Greek) or “thinking too highly of ourselves.” Our day regards low self-esteem as the great evil, the cause of all sorts of maladies. But here Paul warns of the opposite—we must not have too high an estimation of ourselves. Low self-esteem is never mentioned. As fallen, sinful creatures, we are great lovers. Among other things, we are lovers of money and lovers of pleasure, evidences that we are lovers of self (see 2 Timothy 3:2, 4).

Thinking too highly of ourselves may be illustrated in the matter of spiritual gifts. First, we may think too highly of ourselves because of the gifts God has given to us. Spiritual gifts are gifts of grace. “Grace” is the root (CHARIS) on which the term “spiritual gifts” (CHARISMATA) is built. Spiritual gifts are sovereignly given as gifts of grace. Spiritual gifts are unmerited and not an evidence of our spirituality. Neither are they a barometer of our worth. Yet when given one of the more visible, more prominent and prized gifts, we may be tempted to take credit for that which God has given us and which He is accomplishing through us.48

Second, our response to being given a less prominent gift may reveal an inflated estimation of ourself. Consider these words of Paul recorded in 1 Corinthians:

For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body (1 Corinthians 12:14-16).

At first I was inclined to think that the “foot” and the “ear” did not regard themselves highly enough, but this is not what Paul is saying. The “foot” does not say, “Because I am a foot, I am not a part of the body.” He says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body.” The “foot” does not think too little of himself; he thinks too much of himself. He (wrongly) thinks that being a “hand” is more important (prestigious?) than being a “foot.” If he cannot be a “hand,” the “foot” refuses to function as a part of the body at all. The “foot” thinks he is better than the gift he has been given. He thinks too highly of himself. There is no sacrificial service of worship here but only self-seeking ambition. The “foot” needs not more self-esteem but more humility and gratitude. The “foot” needs to “die” to himself and to fleshly desires and ambitions.

Paul calls for sound thinking which is based upon humility and faith. Whenever our ego is involved in our thinking, our thinking becomes distorted. Because of our natural self-love, we will always think too highly of ourselves.49 Self-love distorts our perception of reality. As frequently mentioned in the Bible, especially Proverbs, “humility” leads us to see and to accept the truth. Humility is seeing things as they are; pride is seeing things in a puffed-up way, which feeds our ego and our self-love. Grace should lead to humility, and thus we find in our text a consistent emphasis upon that which God has sovereignly given to us as a gift of His grace.

Faith is the basis of sound thinking. This statement needs further consideration, because most of us do not really believe it. We tend to think “rational thinking” is that which the natural man does. We conclude that thinking on the basis of faith must therefore be unreasonable—that thinking by faith must involve the setting aside of the rational mind and acting apart from rationality, apart from sound judgment. Thinking in accordance with faith is thus thought to be at odds with sound judgment. But Paul tells us that thinking by faith is sound judgment, and that “overthinking” is outside the realm of reality, faith, and reason. Sound thinking, according to Paul, involves the mind—it is rational, it is accomplished by the exercise of faith, and it does not go beyond the realm of what is proper and right—it does not overthink.

How can this be so? Let us consider this matter further. To the unbeliever, faith is mere foolishness; it is believing what is not true. To the Christian, faith is believing what is not seen but is true nonetheless:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible (Hebrews 11:1-3).

Sound thinking is based upon those truths which God has revealed to us, which are unseen, but true. The foundation for mere human thinking is that which is seen or that which appears to be. The foundation for Christian thinking is the Word of God—that which is revealed and which is believed by faith. Sound thinking is thinking based upon the revelation of God, contained and communicated by His Word, and illuminated by His Spirit.

Abraham was thinking soundly when he chose to obey God, even if it involved the sacrifice of his son, Isaac (see Genesis 22). Abraham acted out of faith when he sought to obey God’s command, even though it was the most difficult test of his life. His faith was a reasoned faith, based on “sound judgment.” He had come to realize that God is able to give life to the dead. This is what God had done to enable Abraham and Sarah to have a child, even though they were “as good as dead” with regard to child-bearing (see Romans 4:16-21; Hebrews 11:17-19). Abraham’s obedience was based on sound judgment, and his sound judgment was based upon that which God had revealed which he believed by faith.

But why is faith necessary in relation to spiritual gifts? Why does Paul tell us that we are to think “so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith”? There are several reasons. First, we live and walk by faith. Faith is essential in our service and in the exercise of our spiritual gifts, just as it is in every other aspect of our lives. Second, the results of our ministry may not be evident or apparent to us, or even to others. The results of the ministry of spiritual gifts are spiritual. They may not be revealed until eternity. We must act on the basis of faith, even though the results are not visible to us. The results of our ministry may be unseen, and faith deals with the unseen.

The prophets of old faithfully ministered, and yet most of them appeared to fail in their own lifetime. They did not see many repent and turn to the Lord. They were rejected, persecuted, and even put to death. The results were not immediately evident. Even the prophecies they gave concerning the Messiah were perplexing to them (see 1 Peter 1:10-12). Yet they faithfully persevered with no evidence of success. They served by faith, knowing that God’s Word would not return unto Him void (Isaiah 55:11).

Because the exercise of a spiritual gift may be unseen, faith is required. Most often the ministry of spiritual gifts is described in terms of the function of the human body. In the human body some members are visible and prominent such as the hands and the eyes. But there are other unseen members like the heart and lungs. These unseen members are the “vital” organs. Likewise, the vital members of the body of Christ may very well be unseen; thus faith is necessary.

The analogy of the body should be pursued even further. The work of God is carried out through the body of Christ, the church. God’s work is achieved corporately, as a team, and not just by individuals working independently of others. The hand cannot function alone nor can any other member of the body. God’s work is not achieved directly by any one member but by the body as a whole. The function then of any given member of the body may seem insignificant, even unspiritual, unless viewed in the light of the function of the body as a whole. The one who has the gift of helps may not seem to be doing much in the way of evangelism, but if they are serving in a way that edifies the body of Christ, they have a part in the ministry of the body as a whole. Faith enables us to understand this proper functioning of the body of Christ.

We have at this time a large number of troops in the Middle East. The one peeling potatoes, hauling water, or building outdoor toilets may not seem to be doing much for the cause of world peace. But apart from these vital functions being done, no army could survive, much less win, a military conflict. Each army member has a vital role. Each member of the body of Christ plays a part in the work of the body, as a whole. This the Christian believes by faith.

Only a renewed, transformed mind can think of spiritual gifts as Paul has exhorted here. Our culture would convince us to do the opposite of what Paul teaches. Paul warns us not to “overthink” and not to “think of [ourselves] more highly than we ought to think.” The world tells us we do not have a good enough estimate of our own worth. In the secular way of thinking, we need to think more highly of ourselves. Many tell us there are no limits placed on our abilities except those we impose on ourselves. The solution, we are told, is to believe that within us (not apart from ourselves, enabled by the Holy Spirit) there is unlimited potential for success and achievement. We are told that if we but think more positively, more highly of ourselves, then success is guaranteed—the higher our thoughts and goals, the higher our performance.

The world looks inward to what is within man and finds unlimited potential. The Bible instructs us to look Godward, to look to the Holy Spirit and His enablement, to live our lives in a way that will sacrificially serve God and men. The world believes we cannot think too much of ourselves; Paul warns that thinking too much of ourselves is our natural, sinful, inclination, and that this must be put aside. The world tells us that faith is unreasonable; Paul tells us that faith enables us to think soberly and soundly in a world where our perception of reality is distorted by sin. God’s ways are far from man’s ways.

Thus we are challenged to consider the subject of spiritual gifts with our minds thinking clearly and straight. This is to be accomplished by means of true humility, recognizing that all that we have and are, all that we will ever accomplish, is by the grace of God, and not of ourselves. We will think in accordance with reality, and in accordance with the faith we have been granted. Our thinking must be based upon that which God has revealed in His Word, upon those unseen realities which are not only true, but vastly more reliable than the appearances seen with the human eye. Further and more specific manifestations of this straight thinking are given in verses 4-8. Let us look further, to see how straight thinking manifests itself in the life of the Christian and in the realm of spiritual gifts.

Thinking Corporately About Spiritual Gifts
(12:4-5)

4 For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.

We live in a very independent, self-centered age. In many ways, we are teetering on the brink of anarchy. The winning governor-elect in a recent state election boasted that people could live without government looking over their shoulder, restricting or condemning individual freedom and choices, choices which clearly included abortion and homosexuality. Marriage is being redefined, because neither the husband nor the wife wish to give up their independence. “Self” is the watchword of our culture. The public good seems to be eagerly sacrificed to individual freedom. Being independent and self-sufficient is viewed as the goal for many. The new evil of our day, from which people need desperately to be delivered, is “co-dependency.”

Paul teaches that Christians must think quite differently. The watchword of our text could be “inter-dependency.” Spiritual gifts are God’s means for sustaining His body, the church. Spiritual gifts mean that I am both weak and strong. I am strong in the area of my gift; I am weak in the areas where others have been gifted. Thus, I must minister to the body of Christ and others out of my strength, and I am dependent upon the ministry of the rest of the body in my areas of weakness.

For the proper functioning of spiritual gifts, we must cease thinking individualistically and begin to think corporately. We cannot look at ourselves as an island, independent of all others. We must see ourselves as a member of the body of Christ, with certain gifts or special enablements which equip us to carry out functions necessary to the equipping and ministry of the body. There is individuality within the body, because there are many members, all with a different role to play. But there is no room for individualism, for we are inter-dependent as members of one body. We must rely on other members of the body just as they must rely on us.

While we have been individually chosen, called, and justified, we have been joined to a body, the body of Christ. We must therefore think and act as members of this body. Spiritual gifts are one of the means by which the body of Christ is sustained and through which the life of our Lord is manifested. Thinking straight necessitates thinking corporately.

The Spiritual Use of Spiritual Gifts
(12:6-8)

6 And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; 7 if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; 8 or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Paul’s expressions, “according to the grace given to us” in verse 6 and “as God has allotted to each a measure of faith” in verse 3, point to an important truth to consider before pressing on in our study. Spiritual gifts have nothing to do with ambition. The spiritual gifts mentioned here and elsewhere are not a shopping list from which we make a choice and then seek to gain that gift. The gift(s) we have received have been sovereignly bestowed by God. We already possess the gifts. God gives to us not only the gift (the grace), but also the faith by which they are to be exercised. When we belittle the gift we have been given, we quibble and question the sovereign will of God which determined the gift given to us, along with the place of ministry and measure of success (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

Each of the gifts given to us, and to the rest of the body, are given in such a way as to provide all that the body of Christ needs to function properly. Given these different allocations of grace and faith, each of us must exercise our gifts in a certain way if we are to please God and be consistent with His purposes. If verses 3-5 emphasize proper thinking about spiritual gifts, verses 6-8 stress those attitudes and actions vital to the proper exercise of these gifts. Verses 6-8 emphasize what we are to do and how we are to do it in the context of spiritual gifts.

The structure of verses 6-8 seems to be indicated by Paul. This is somewhat evident in the English translations and more clearly evident in the Greek text. Allow me to arrange Paul’s words according to the structure I think he intends us to recognize:

And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,
let each exercise them accordingly:
if prophecy — according to the proportion of his faith;
if service — in his serving;
or he who teaches — in his teaching;
or he who exhorts — in his exhortation;
he who gives — with liberality;
he who leads — with diligence;
he who shows mercy — with cheerfulness.

Paul’s words in the first half of verse 6 tie what follows with what he has just said in verses 3-5. The last words of verse 6 seem to distinguish two major categories of gift: (1) spoken gifts (prophecy) and (2) serving gifts (service). This same distinction is found in 1 Peter 4:

As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Teaching and exhorting both fall under the category of spoken gifts (or prophecy). Giving, leading, and showing mercy, all fall in the category of serving gifts.

The spoken gifts as a group are given one major word of exhortation, one fundamental guideline: “Keep within the boundaries of the revealed Word of God.” The New American Standard Bible and many other translations seem to stress the need to stay within the boundaries of the faith God has allotted us. This is certainly consistent with Paul’s words in verse 3, but why should Paul need to repeat this again? The rendering is also consistent with the lexical definition of the term employed. There is, however, a second meaning, one that seems more appropriate. This meaning is, “in agreement with,” rather than “according to.” This first, more restrictive meaning is totally consistent with the second, more general meaning. I think Paul is cautioning all who speak to do so in a way completely consistent with Scripture. Paul seems to be saying the same thing to the Corinthians when he writes,

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, that in us you might learn not to exceed what is written, in order that no one of you might become arrogant in behalf of one against the other (1 Corinthians 4:6).

Notice that in Paul’s words to the Corinthians the danger of going beyond “what is written” is arrogance, the very thing Paul is warning us about here in Romans 12.

Those who serve are given the exhortation to be diligent in their service. If those who speak are in danger of wandering beyond the prescribed boundaries of God’s Word, those who serve are in danger of wandering outside the context of the service they have been given. Servants are tempted to critique and correct their fellow servants when their God-given calling is to perform their own service (Romans 14:4).

Having given a general exhortation to everyone whose gifts fall under one or the other of the categories he has used, Paul now gives more specific exhortation. He first addresses those in the category of the speaking gifts in verse 7b and 8a, specifying the gifts of teaching and exhorting. He then turns to those who serve in verse 8b, specifying the gifts of giving, leading, and showing mercy.

Those with gifts of service have already been urged, as a group, to diligently devote themselves to their areas of service (verse 7a). In verses 7b and 8a, Paul urges those who have the speaking gifts to likewise devote themselves to doing that which they have been gifted to do. The one with the gift of teaching should devote himself to teaching. The one with the gift of exhortation, to exhortation.50

But why would the teacher need to be exhorted to teach and the exhortor to exhort? Is this not their natural tendency? Our natural tendency is to be self-centered and self-serving. Our service to God is to be self-sacrificing. When our service does not appear to be successful and when our ministry is not self-serving, our tendency is to resign. We, like Elijah and Jonah, want to turn in our badge and give up. Paul urges us to stick with that which God has given us to do, to persevere, because he knows that in the flesh we would give up. Here is where faith and obedience evidence our perseverance.

Those who fall under the speaking gifts category have been urged to stick with it, as those who serve have also been exhorted. Now Paul turns to those in the category of serving gifts to encourage them to exercise their gifts and ministries with spiritual attitudes and motivations which are befitting and edifying.

The one who has the gift of giving is encouraged to give “generously” or, as the marginal note in the NASB indicates, with “simplicity.” I think it is this second sense which is prominent in Paul’s words. Those who give may be tempted to give in a way that “works both ends against the middle.” Giving, in other words, might be done in a way that appears to be generous and sacrificial but which is actually self-serving. Ananias and Sapphira (see Acts 5:1-11) seem to have given with multiple motives and thus became deceptive and dishonest. They were not as generous as they wished to appear. One’s giving should be done for the benefit of the recipient, not the gain of the donor. The emphasis of “giving in order to get” appears to be in contradiction to Paul’s teaching here. Giving, as with the exercise of all other spiritual gifts, is to be a self-sacrificing act of worship and service (see 12:1).

The one who leads is to do so “with diligence.” Because spiritual leadership may not enhance and promote the leader (as spiritual leadership is marked by servanthood, and not lording it over others), he may be tempted to back off of spiritual leadership. Because the rewards of spiritual leadership come from God and not men, and they come at His return and not immediately, Christian leaders may be tempted to exercise their leadership in more “fulfilling” and “self-serving” causes. They may be tempted to go about their tasks casually and half-heartedly. This is not the manner of exercising the gift of leadership in which God takes pleasure.

The one who shows mercy is to do so “with cheerfulness.” All of us have attempted to show mercy at various times. Showing mercy is acting graciously toward those who need mercy. Often, such people are not pleasant to be around. All too often, such people are not even grateful for the mercy they are shown. It may not take long for the one showing mercy to be tempted to have a cynical, sour grapes attitude. Spiritual gifts are gifts of God’s grace, and they are to manifest God’s grace to those whom we serve. The gift of showing mercy (and every other gift as well) must be exercised in a gracious way so that God’s grace is neither distorted nor disfigured by our service.

Paul sees two great dangers in the exercise of spiritual gifts. The first is in not devoting ourselves to doing that which we are gifted to do.51 The second is exercising our gifts in a way inconsistent with the grace of God which is to motivate them and be manifested by them. We are therefore challenged to devote ourselves to the function for which God has gifted us and to the ministry to which He has called us. And we are to do so in a manner pleasing to Him and consistent with the goal of the task in the overall plan and purpose of God.

Conclusion

Paul’s words raise some important questions I call to your attention, for they require answers which only you can give. I will conclude by raising the questions, and I urge you not to leave this text without arriving at some answers.

Paul is speaking to believers about the spiritual gifts God has bestowed upon each of those who have become His children, by faith. First, have you received God’s gift of eternal life? Have you been born again? If not, then the subject of spiritual gifts is but an academic exercise, a purely hypothetical question. If so, then you have received, along with the gift of eternal life, a special enablement to serve God through His body, the church.

Second, is your pursuit and interest in spiritual gifts one of personal ambition motivated by self-interest? Or do you, out of gratitude, wish to offer up your body to God in sacrificial service to others? If you wish to sacrificially serve God by serving others, then spiritual gifts are the means God has provided for you to do so.

Third, have you discovered the special abilities God has given to you and the place of service where these can be employed for His glory? Paul teaches that every believer has a special enablement, a spiritual gift, by which to serve God. You are to be a steward of that gift. Do you know what it is that God has entrusted to you? Have you found a place of service where your gift can be put to good use? If not, why not?

Fourth, how closely are you linked to a local church and to the broader body of Christ, so that your gift may benefit others and so that you may draw from the strengths and gifts of others? Spiritual gifts are not given so that we may set ourselves above or apart from the rest of the body. Spiritual gifts are to be employed by serving the body, and they also cause us to be dependent upon the body for those areas in which we are not strong (gifted).

Using the analogy of the Book of Nehemiah, I ask you very practically, “What is your piece of the wall?” What are you contributing to your local body and to the body of Christ at large? What are you doing in obedience to this passage to fulfill your responsibilities to the body of Christ?

Allow me to assume that you cannot satisfactorily answer my question, and that you are uncertain about what your spiritual gift is and the ministry where your gift can be employed. Spiritual gifts are not intended to be a mystery. The teaching of spiritual gifts is both fundamental and elementary. If you do not know your spiritual gift and ministry, God is not hiding it from you, if you are seeking to be obedient to Him. Three practical suggestions may help you identify and exercise your spiritual gift.

(1) Offer yourself to God as a living sacrifice, out of gratitude for His mercies to you. Give yourself to serve Him sacrificially, selflessly, through serving others. This is the starting place Paul specifies in Romans 12:1-2. It should also be our starting place.

(2) Study the Scriptures which not only name the spiritual gifts, but also describe their function. The gift of exhortation, for example, is illustrated by the life of Barnabas, the “son of exhortation.”

(3) Be obedient to the commands of Scripture. We are commanded to give (verse 13). Pray for wisdom and insight as to how you may give in a way that pleases God. I am convinced that for every vital spiritual gift there is a corresponding command to perform this function. Ask God to open your eyes as to how He wants you to obey in each vital area. As you begin to obey, take note of those things in which God’s blessing is confirmed by others and becomes clear to you. Develop this particular ability further, and seek different ways to implement this gift.

(4) Look for needs, and seek to meet them. Look for those who are weaker than you, and serve them from your strength. Spiritual gifts are given in order to meet the needs of others. Others needs are all about us. We need but the eyes to see them and the obedience to respond to them by God’s grace and power. Look in your church bulletin. Who are those in need this week? What needs are going unmet in the church? Is there a need for Sunday School teachers? What an opportunity if you have the gift of teaching.

I am convinced that the matter of spiritual gifts is not as mysterious as some suggest and as it might seem at first. If you have first given yourself to God, and you are seeking to obey Him in the strength He supplies, you will know what He has given you to do, and you will have the faith and the grace necessary to do it.


44 In addition to Romans 12:3-8, see 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:7-16; 2 Timothy 1:6-7.

45 See 1 Peter 4:10-11.

46 See 1 Corinthians 12:7, 11; 1 Peter 4:10.

47 When I speak of the church here, I am referring not only to the local church, but to the broader body of Christ of which the local church is but a small part. Each individual believer is thus conceived of as a member of the church universal and as a member of a local congregation of believers. Our ministry should not to be restricted only to the local church. Paul’s ministry, for example, was much broader, although he did minister to the local church.

48 Two serious errors are the root of pride over the possession of our spiritual gifts. First, we may believe we deserve the credit for what God has given us and what He is doing in and through us. We dare not take credit for grace, neither saving grace nor serving grace. Second, the most visible and prominent gifts are not necessarily the most important gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12:22-24). Our vital organs are not visible. So too the vital members of the body of Christ may be the least visible.

49 Even so-called “self-hate” is really “self-love.” We “hate” ourselves because we fail to live up to that which we think we are worthy of and deserving. We hate ourselves for failing to live up to that which our self-love desires and demands.

50 This is not intended to mean that the teacher only teaches and the exhortor only exhorts. All of us are to give, to teach, to encourage, to show mercy, and so on. But the one with the gift of teaching ought to make teaching a priority. One should do most what God has enabled him or her to do best. This is good stewardship (see again 1 Peter 4:10-11).

51 Could this also be because we do not gratefully accept the gift God has given to us, but stubbornly seek to do that which we think is more important, more spiritual, more fulfilling, and self-serving?

Related Topics: Spiritual Gifts