Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
The subject of spiritual gifts has not received the attention it deserves in our churches. If we speak of gifts at all we tend to focus on ministers and their qualifications as preachers and pastors. "Rev. X is a gifted speaker," we say, or "Rev. Y excels in pastoral gifts." It is a fact that we Reformed people are generally more interested in the special offices than in the office of all believers. What J.I. Packer says with reference to the Puritans is also true of our Dutch Reformed forefathers: "Puritan attention when discussing gifts was dominated by their interest in the ordained ministry, and hence in those particular gifts which qualify a man for this ministerial office, and questions about other gifts to other persons were rarely raised." The Puritans, as the Reformers before them, were mainly concerned about securing high standards in the ministry in order to educate the common people who were steeped in the superstitions of Rome.

All this has changed, however. During the last 50 to 75 years there has been a tremendous emphasis on "laymen's gifts." This has resulted in a shift away from interest in the special offices in the church to the participation of the ordinary members in the affairs of the congregation. Also, Pentecostals and charismatics claim to have rediscovered neglected gifts which were prevalent in the early church, such as tongue-speaking, prophesying and faith healing.

Also non-charismatic churches talk a great deal about "gifts" today. A whole new "Gift Theology" has sprung up and seminars are being conducted all over the continent to teach Christians to discover and utilize their special gift or gifts.

What are we to think of this sudden interest in special gifts? Must we reject it out of hand or is there something here that perhaps we have missed all these years? Packer, while warning against excesses in this movement, nevertheless feels that this emphasis on laymen's gifts is wholesome and much needed. He also mentions some Puritan authors who did address the issue of special gifts, even though their emphasis remained on ministerial gifts. John Owen, for instance, wrote a treatise dealing with gifts in the church. In his Duties of Pastors and People Distinguished, he states that "Christians, not just ministers, but ordinary Christians, should stir up the gifts that are in them, and that they should use their gifts for their mutual benefit." In another work, Discourse of Spiritual Gifts he wrote, "all believers receive gifts by the use of which they are all to admonish one another, to exhort one another, to build up one another in their most holy faith." Owen then adds this comment: "It is the loss of those special gifts which has introduced among many an utter neglect of these duties, so as that they are scarce heard of among the generality of them that are called Christians."

Owen is alluding to a situation which is also familiar to us, where people come to church and passively take it all in, admiring perhaps the minister, but leaving all the work to him and the elders, while never taking part in any church activities themselves. John Owen is very blunt but correct, I'm sure, when he says,

Without spiritual gifts and their exercise there can be no
authentic church life. Gifts of the Spirit are that without which
the Church cannot subsist in the world, nor can believers be
useful to one another and the rest of mankind, unto the glory of
Christ, as they ought to be.

Our Heidelberg Catechism also makes it clear that spiritual gifts are essential for the well-being, if not the very being of the church, when in Answer 55 it states that "everyone must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts for the advantage and salvation of other members."

More importantly, the New Testament itself pictures the local church as a body in which every member, i.e., literally every "limb," has its own part to play in promoting the welfare and growth of the whole. Especially the apostle Paul has given us clear instruction in this area. Spiritual gifts are discussed in such passages as Ephesians 4:11-12, Romans 12:4-8 and I Corinthians 12-14.

Let us first look at I Corinthians 12. Here we have the clearest exposition on the subject of spiritual gifts. Paul wrote this epistle because of certain problems that had arisen in this church. One of these problems had to do with spiritual gifts and their use. Apparently the Corinthians were making the wrong use of these gifts and Paul had to set them straight on this issue. He does not deny that they have gifts. In fact he congratulates them for having so many of them (1:7). The sad thing was, however, that they got carried away with their gifts. Those with great gifts looked down on others with seemingly less important gifts. Pride entered in and jealousies arose, causing friction and disunity in the congregation. Instead of using these spiritual endowments to glorify God and for their mutual enrichment, they used them for their own glory and advantage.

Paul reminds them how wrong this is and he does this by using the analogy of the body. Just as there are many different members in the human body which all work together for the good of the body, so the church which is the Body of Christ, is made up of different members, each having its own contribution to make to the health and proper functioning of the Body. Some of the members of our body are very important; others less so, but none are useless. Each member, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, has its own function. Each member needs the other if the body is to function as a healthy organism.

The point Paul is making is that every believer has his or her own gift, and that gift is a supernatural gift. It is not a talent. Talents are given to believers and unbelievers alike. They are gifts of common grace, but special gifts are given to believers only. Many people have the idea that if a person is very gifted in some area before his conversion, he will be able to use this gift better in the Lord's service after he has been changed. That is not necessarily true. God does indeed often make use of natural talents as raw material. But we should never think that natural talents are a pre-requisite for service in the Church of Christ. God is able to confer special gifts upon those who previously were quite devoid of natural abilities. Examples are John Bunyan, Huntington, and in Holland, Wulfert Floor, the farmer of Driebergen. Often these men had only very little formal education but they were eminently useful in the work of the Lord despite this handicap. In all such cases God sovereignly bestows His gifts upon the instruments He wants to use. Much of what passes for spiritual gifts is nothing more than natural talent dressed up in religious garments. Churches today are not lacking in talented speakers, efficient organizers and competent managers, but where is the unction of the Spirit which manifests itself in powerful preaching that produces holy living? John Owen already observed in his day that there was so much of the flesh present in the church of Christ. Speaking of spiritual gifts he says, "they can neither be bought, nor attained by natural abilities and industry. Some will do those things in the church by their own abilities which can never be acceptably discharged but by virtue of those free gifts which only the Spirit of God can bestow."

What, then, are spiritual gifts? Again Owen's definition is very helpful. A spiritual gift, according to him, is "an ability, divinely bestowed and sustained, to grasp and express the realities of the spiritual world, and the knowledge of God in Christ, for the edifying both of others and of oneself." This definition, while helpful, is not quite complete. Owen seems to limit spiritual gifts to intellectual endowments. The apostle Paul, however, includes also such non-intellectual abilities as "helping," "giving" and "showing mercy." When one examines carefully the three main passages in the New Testament which deal with gifts, it will become clear that the category of spiritual gifts as listed by Paul includes graces of character and practical wisdom as well as intellectual abilities.

Let us now briefly look at some of the gifts mentioned by the apostle, not only in I Corinthians 12, but also Romans 12 and Ephesians 4. When you compare the three lists presented in these chapters you will notice that there is some overlapping and sometimes slightly different names are used for the same gift. Based on these three lists, the early church must have possessed about 19 or 20 different gifts. Some of them were temporary gifts, such as healing, miracles and tongue-speaking. Their purpose was to serve as signs to confirm the Word of God as spoken by the apostles until the time when the Scriptures became available in written form and a closed canon was established.

Among the more permanent gifts are the following:

The word of wisdom. Here the reference is to the gift of applying truths discovered in Scripture to various life situations. Included is revelation of new truth during the entire apostolic era.

The word of knowledge. This gift has to do with a believer's unusual ability to understand God's Word and to communicate this knowledge to fellow Christians.

Faith. The reference here is not to saving faith but to an unusual ability to trust God in the face of overwhelming obstacles. An example is Paul, who, when the ship on which he was travelling to Rome was about to founder, was able to believe that all on board would be spared.

Prophecy. Bible students disagree whether this gift was temporary or permanent. If seen as a revelatory gift, it must have been temporary, but "prophecy" can also mean "speaking forth" or proclaiming God's Word. As such, it is a gift that is still with us today.

Discernment. This is the gift of distinguishing truth from error, a special ability to recognize lying spirits and to evaluate preachers and teachers. This gift can easily be abused and degenerate into negative criticism. Rightly used, it helps to protect the church against false teachings.

Helps. In its broadest sense this gift consists of helping and supporting others in day-to-day situations. It is the same gift as serving (Rom.12:7). The Greek word means literally taking a burden off someone and placing it on oneself. Epaphroditus was such a "help" (Phil.2:25,30).

Administrations. This is the gift of leadership. Literally the word means to steer or pilot a ship; thus the reference is to one who steers the ship of the church and keeps it on the right course. Pastors especially need this gift, but so do elders and others in leadership positions.

Romans 12 mentions a few additional gifts: Giving or liberality over and above what is normally required. Mercy or compassion for others in need. Continence or the ability to remain single and thus serve the Lord full time. Ephesians 4 lists apostles, prophets, pastors and teachers.

All of the above mentioned gifts are still found in the church today, although we do not necessarily refer to them by these names. These permanent endowments are certainly not limited to ministers and other church leaders. Both men and women are endowed by the Spirit with one of more of these gifts. Therefore we should try to find out what our gift is and then "stir it up," so we may use it to the best of our ability, for the good of the church. Whatever gift I have the church is in need of it; it is not complete without it. That is what Paul is saying in I Corinthians 12. The motive should always be to serve the Lord and His Church. Provided that is our concern, we must ask the Lord to show us where our particular gift lies.

Usually it is fellow Christians who will recognize the gift in you before you do. This is the best way. When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles they did not see tongues of fire on their own heads but only on the heads of others. If you think you have a gift, say of teaching and no one recognizes it, it is safe to conclude that you are mistaken. By the same token, if the church, especially the consistory, sees gifts in certain members they should be encouraged to develop their gifts and to use them. This is very important in connection with the selection of office- bearers. Sometimes men with obvious gifts are passed by in favour of others who are much less gifted but who happen to be "safe" choices. It is especially the task of church leaders is to be constantly on the lookout for gifted young men who have potential for the ministry (2 Tim.2:2).

Of course, caution needs to be observed here. There are always people, who, like the Corinthians, are very impressed with their own gifts. Possession of gifts alone is no solid evidence of godliness. Special gifts, though usually only given to believers, are not the same as spiritual graces. Only the latter are marks of the new birth. It is possible, therefore, to be very gifted and useful in the church and still be a stranger to grace. In John Owen's words:

The gifts change not the heart with power, although they may
reform the life by the efficacy of light. And although God does
not ordinarily bestow them on wicked persons, nor continue them
with those who after the reception of them become wicked. Yet
they may be in those who are unrenewed and have nothing in them
to preserve men absolutely from the worst of sins. Gifts alone do
not change the heart, renew the mind or transform the soul into
the image of God.

Christ's infallible test for spirituality, therefore, is not "by their gifts you shall know them," but by their fruits. As Paul reminds us in Galatians 5:22: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance [self-control]." Let us be concerned, then, both with the graces and the gifts of the Spirit, but always in that order. For only then Christ's church and kingdom will truly benefit from our gifts to the glory of His Name and the edification of His people.

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