Spiritual gifts can be controversial and overwhelming. The basic concepts are clear in Scripture, but we are often worlds apart in our understanding of how those concepts should be borne out. Some people practice spiritual gifts too little, others seemingly too much. Before we can properly practice spiritual gifts, we must understand what they are.
Josh helpfully sketched spiritual gifts in his previous article, and I’d like to dig into them some more. Spiritual gifts are taught in three main passages: Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. In each case, the apostle Paul portrays the church as a body in which every part works so that everyone benefits. The goal of spiritual gifts is the growth of the church. Gifts are not to be flaunted, but used to benefit others.
Spiritual gifts seem to be uniquely given for the Church Age. That doesn’t mean none of these characteristics were evident before, but since they are given to those who have the Holy Spirit—and He didn’t fill every believer before then—it follows that these gifts are uniquely evident in Spirit-filled Christians (i.e. those in the church). So our discussion of spiritual gifts stems primarily from our understanding of the early church and the New Testament.
The Bible leaves some things open ended when it comes to spiritual gifts, so holding various beliefs about them is understandable. I want to be careful that I don’t just overlay my preconceptions onto the Bible. I do think, however, that Scripture gives us some indicators that direct our understanding of these gifts. The following categories are an attempt to understand these gifts based on the meta-narrative of Scripture.
In my study, spiritual gifts seem to fall into three categories. The first is the Revelatory Gifts: apostles, prophets, words of wisdom, and words of knowledge. Succinctly, these are those gifts which were given for the revelation of new truth, truth outside of the Word of God.
Crucial to our understanding of these gifts is understanding the New Testament canon (the canon is the list of the writings that have been identified and accepted as Scripture). The early church developed in a period when a recognized collection of authoritative writings about Christ didn’t exist. The New Testament was still being written. God gave apostles and prophets to proclaim the truth—about Christ and about His gospel—in a time when no other authority was available. They were commissioned to speak truth about God, to reveal His will, His gospel, His Salvation, His truth. But when the New Testament was established, they were no longer necessary. These apostles and prophets were replaced by a greater authority—the written Word of God.
Because of this, I don’t believe these revelatory offices are active today. We do have those who claim the apostolic authority hear from and speak for God, but I don’t find that to be consistent with Scripture. Three things lead me to believe that these revelatory gifts are no longer active:
- Ephesians 2:20 says the church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets. That foundation is not the apostles and prophets themselves, but is the message they preached—Christ. Here we learn the reason for these gifts: to build the foundation for the church by preaching the gospel. Paul fills this out in 1 Corinthians 3, where he says he has laid the foundation, and that “no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” And, since the foundation has already been laid (through the New Testament), no one can add to it.
- The Bible gives us everything we need. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:17 that through Scripture the man of God, the Christian, may be complete. If we claim that God has given us a new revelation, we directly oppose this passage. We say that God’s Word is not enough, when in fact it is. A supposed apostle or prophet who claims to speak from God denies that Scripture is sufficient.
- We don’t find the apostles establishing other apostles. “When the apostolic age came to an end, the apostles did not appoint new apostles to lead the church. Instead, they appointed elders (Titus 1:5; cf. 2 Tim. 2:2).” And the church didn’t expect new apostles to come along. Granted, we might say that the office of apostle is still active today since each time we read the New Testament we are reading their own writings and other writings that they verified.
I will call the second category the Miraculous Gifts. This includes healing, working miracles, and speaking in and interpreting tongues. These gifts break the established laws our world operates by, and as such are the most phenomenal and exhilarating—they’re tangible exhibitions of God’s power. That’s also why they are the most hotly debated gifts. But should we expect to see these practiced today?
Yes, and no. I believe these gifts were originally given to validate the truth against lies and error, especially in areas where God’s Word is not known or accepted. When the apostles preached the gospel, God verified their ministry by signs and wonders (cf. Heb. 2:4). God worked miracles through them in order to show the watching world that they had been sent by Him and that they indeed preached the truth.
The first time Christians spoke in tongues (Acts 2), three thousand people believed the gospel. But, though the listeners were likely impressed by the tongue-speaking, that wasn’t what changed them. Instead, they were transformed by the message that was preached. In fact, it seems that the tongues were secondary to the gospel message. Tongues were given only so language wouldn’t keep anyone from hearing and understanding the gospel.
These gifts empower and validate the spread of the true gospel. But, as the Word takes root, these gifts fade away and are replaced by a greater power and authority—the Bible. We sometimes think the miraculous is greater than the mere written Word, but the Bible shows a different pattern. The miracles always fade into the background as the Word of God is proclaimed, understood, and received.
The same pattern holds true today, as exemplified in frontier missions. It’s not unusual to hear of healings and miracles when the gospel penetrates a new country or people. The fact that we don’t see those gifts in America doesn’t mean we aren’t spiritual enough. And the fact that we do see them in frontier areas doesn’t mean missionaries don’t care about the written Word. Scripture allows for these miraculous gifts in places untouched by the Word, so that the gospel is spread. But it also seems to teach that those gifts are secondary to the truth of the Word. If we have the Bible, we have a reality and a power greater than any miracle.
What about within the church, then? What about speaking in tongues, for instance? Again, not everything is spelled out in Scripture but two things are clear from 1 Corinthians 14:
- Tongues are for validating the gospel. They are not for validating one’s salvation. Scripture nowhere says that tongues are a necessary evidence of true salvation. It also never indicates that every Christian will speak in tongues. In fact, it speaks of diversity and of various gifts given to each Christian.
- Tongues are only appropriate if they are understandable. That’s abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians 14:27-28. If someone’s speech in another tongue cannot be interpreted and understood, it has no place in the church. The mindless babble sometimes passed off as tongues is directly opposed to the Bible’s teaching of tongues.
These miraculous gifts did play an important part in church history. We are forced to deny much of the Bible if we deny their reality. But we also disrespect and disobey Scripture if we overemphasize those gifts or practice them in a way contrary to what it teaches.
The third group is the Ministering Gifts. They are the most necessary but least appreciated gifts. They are: preaching, teaching, exhortation, service/helping, leading/administrating, giving, mercy, faith, spiritual discernment, evangelism, and shepherding/teaching. These gifts are given for the protection, encouragement, and growth of the church.
Ephesians 4 describes this:
“But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. . . . And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Though this passage only lists some specific gifts, from the very beginning it talks about the gifts we all have. And it gives us the reason for these gifts—equipping the saints and edifying the church. God gave gifts so those in the church would become like Christ. The main reason for gifts is our sanctification. As we together use the gifts we’ve been given, we together become more like Christ.
This is true of all the gifts, but it is particularly true of the ministry gifts. The revelatory gifts teach the truth about Christ and His church, the miraculous gifts testify to the truth and draw people to Christ, and the ministering gifts strengthen and sanctify those who have accepted Christ and have become a part of His body. These ministerial gifts are central to the church’s growth. Through their use we all mature in Christ-likeness.
For additional study, I would highly recommend John MacArthur’s new theology book, Biblical Doctrine. Though I don’t agree with everything he says, the section on spiritual gifts is quite helpful. You might also want to read Strange Fire, also by MacArthur.
|Julian Stoltzfus currently resides in Elnora, IN with his lovely wife, Ruthie. He has had the privilege of attending several semesters at Elnora Bible Institute since 2014, has a Christian Ministries certificate from the same, and is currently part of a pastoral apprenticeship program under Truth and Grace Mennonite Church. When not working, he enjoys tinkering around his house, diving into a good read, or fortifying relationships with family and friends. The 5th of 6, he has greatly benefited from the wisdom and influence of his parents and siblings. He longs to see authentic Christianity thrive as God transforms hearts through the gospel.|
- The Holy Bible: NKJV, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017. Print.
- MacArthur, John. Biblical Doctrine: a Systematic Summary of Bible Truth. Crossway, 2017, pg 808.
- The Holy Bible: NKJV, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2017. Print.