A biblical perspective on what they are and who has them

According to the New Testament, the Church is the body of Christ. That body has a built-in unity; its members, having been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, have by that process become a part of the same body. This body cannot be identified with a single group, whether Methodist, Lutheran, Roman Catholic or any other. It includes all Christians whatever their denominational labels, and it certainly can and does include persons who have no label at all but who have indeed been born of God’s Spirit.

The Apostle Paul describes Christ’s body as analogous to the human body. The human body has different parts, and each part has a different function. The body is not complete when any part is missing. The parts of the body are not of equal importance. The loss of the fourth finger is quite different from the loss of a thumb. One can live without a gall bladder but not without a heart or a liver. But to say that some parts are more important than others is not to disparage the lesser parts. The perfect body must have all the parts.

The Church, like the body, is made up of different parts. In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul says that the differences among believers, members of the body of Christ, occur not by accident but by design. A Church made up of all fingers or all toes would be a monstrosity. God has ordained that the Church shall be made up of many people, to whom are given spiritual gifts that vary in kind as well as degree. But there is no member of the body who does not have some gift, however minor it may appear to be and however limited in quantity. Some have great gifts, and others have the same gifts but in smaller degree. Yet no one is without a gift.

Paul makes it clear that gifts given to the people of God come from “the same Spirit,” “the same Lord,” “the same God.” They come from the triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But there is a special sense in which it may be said that the gifts spoken of in First Corinthians 12 come from the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been sent by the Father and the Son. He is, in this age, the vicegerent of Jesus Christ. The work of Jesus Christ for man’s salvation was completed at Calvary. The Son of God has risen from the dead, has ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. Christ’s work is a finished work; his being seated at the Father’s right hand is a symbol of that completed ministry. So now we are in the age or dispensation of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives gifts to his people and does so for several purposes: to edify the body, to perfect the saints, to proclaim the Gospel, and to bring in the kingdom of God in all its fullness. The gifts of the Spirit are talents and abilities given by him to strengthen, help, and serve the Church.

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Interest in the gifts of the Spirit is running high in contemporary Christianity. This has been expressed in the “charismatic movement,” which has attracted followers in all the major Protestant denominations and is widespread in the Roman Catholic Church also. Like the Pentecostal denominations, today’s charismatics emphasize two of the charismata or divine gifts: tongues and healing.

It is important to understand what Paul has in mind when he speaks about the gifts of the Spirit. He uses—in First Corinthians 12:4–11—the Greek word “charismaton,” and he has in mind all of the gifts, not just some of them. Moreover, he seems to classify them in order of importance. We must remember that when the Corinthians were pagans they were accustomed to witnessing ecstasies and other manifestations associated with the religious ceremonies in their temples. They had known of the claims of some who were thought to be possessed by the gods and who spoke prophecies. It was not unexpected that the Corinthians who had become Christians should still be intensely interested in these spectacular happenings. Just as the magicians of Egypt simulated the miracles of Moses, so the pagans of Corinth experienced extraordinary manifestations that bore similarities to the gifts of the Spirit to believers.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians to tell them what the gifts of the Spirit were, how they were to be used and what their purposes were in the church. When he specified the “charismaton,” the gifts, in the passage indicated above, he divided them into three classes, corresponding with the three aspects of man’s nature. The first group is associated particularly with the intellect, the second with the will, and the third with the emotions or feelings.

The Gifts Of The Intellect

Paul begins with the two gifts that have to do with the mind. This approach contrasts strongly with that of modern movements that stress feelings, emotions, intuition, and the subjective above the objective and the propositional. The mind is important in Christianity. No one has ever been saved without knowing something about what he was doing, and no Christian can serve God in the Church without using his mind. Through the intellect perception occurs, opinions are formed, and opportunities are opened for decision by the will. Feeling is a poor master. The mind, redeemed by grace and renewed by the Spirit, should be in charge of the life.

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Paul says the Holy Spirit grants the gifts of wisdom and knowledge. By these he means first the gift of the discovery of truth and then the gift of applying that truth to one’s life. Truth in the highest sense of the term cannot be discovered by the human mind. Insofar as it concerns spiritual things, truth must come from revelation. The Holy Spirit informs the Christian’s mind with truth. But truth that is not applied to life is not good enough. Wisdom must be taken into the arena of life and made real to the heart. Some of God’s people have great gifts of spiritual discernment by which they can know the deep mysteries of God’s Spirit. But this is not always accompanied by the gift of making that wisdom practical and applying it to the affairs of life. Sometimes this means that the one who is best able to make wisdom real to men is not the one who got it first but rather he or she who through the gift of knowledge was able to take wisdom from others and apply it to the people of God.

A specific example of these gifts and their use can be found in the life of Stephen. The Scripture says that when Stephen disputed with those who were antagonistic to the Gospel, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” In his defense, Stephen manifested the gift of wisdom (revelation) and knowledge (illumination) so as to bring conviction to the minds and hearts of the listeners. In the Book of James, believers are encouraged to ask for the gift of wisdom with the promise that if they do so in faith they will receive it. If all had it, there would be no need to ask for it. It is clearly the gift of God and comes as the Holy Spirit imparts it. It appears to have limitations in the sense that wisdom is not given to cover all aspects of life but has reference to specific episodes or instances in the life of the Christian.

The Gifts Of The Will

When Paul speaks of the gift of faith, he is not referring to saving faith nor to the grace of faith, which all Christians have. The gift of faith is that special faith which removes mountains; it is a special gift of God. It is a sin for a Christian not to exercise the grace of faith, that is, not to believe that God will do whatever he has specifically promised in Scripture. But often matters arise on which God has not spoken, yet the Holy Spirit gives the believer the gift of faith that God will do a certain thing. The absence of this gift is not sin, because its presence is a special gift of the Holy Spirit. Some Christians are given it and some are not. Some have it for one situation in life but do not have it for another.

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The life of George Müller illustrates the gift of faith. The Holy Spirit gave him faith to believe that God would provide for the orphans he took under his care. Müller noted that the gift he received for this purpose was such that he eventually could believe God for a million dollars as readily as he could for five cents. Another illustration comes from the life of Charles E. Fuller of the “Old Fashioned Revival Hour.” He wrestled with God in the upper berth of a Pullman car. The Holy Spirit gave him faith to believe that God would use him to preach the Gospel around the world by radio, and it was done. But the gift of faith is not something that comes to cover all circumstances. It comes in regard to specific matters. There may be thousands of other things in the life of the same person for which no gift of faith is given.

The gift of healing, the miraculous ability to cure different sorts of diseases, is not one that is given freely. Yet there have been those with this gift throughout the history of the Church. Paul speaks of the gift of miracles, by which he means raising the dead, expelling demons, and even inflicting punishment upon adversaries as Paul himself had done. Gifts of healing and the performing of miracles are self-attesting. When the dead are raised and the sick are healed, the power of God has been manifested. The New Testament gives a number of illustrations of healing. Peter healed the lame man at the Beautiful Gate in Acts 3. Aeneas (Acts 9:32ff.) was paralyzed and bedridden for eight years; at a word from Peter he was instantly healed. Peter raised Tabitha (Dorcas) from the dead (Acts 9:36ff.), and Paul raised Eutychus from the dead after he fell from a window (Acts 20:9ff.).

In the gift of prophecy, the power of God takes over a person and masters him in proclaiming the Word of God. It is a power independent of the speaker that masters his mind and makes him speak in order to act on others. But this can be counterfeited. There are false prophets as well as true ones. Jeremiah had the gift of prophecy and foresaw the ultimate ruin of the Jews, who would go into captivity. Mastered by the Holy Spirit, he spoke the prophetic word. When Hananiah gave prophetic predictions that were exactly the opposite of what Jeremiah had spoken, Jeremiah exposed Hananiah and even foretold his death.

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The last of this series of gifts is the gift of discerning spirits. Certainly Jeremiah knew that what Hananiah said was not from God. Peter discerned that the spirit that motivated Simon the Sorcerer was not genuine (Acts 8:9ff.). Multitudes of voices today claim to be speaking the truth for God but speak falsely. The Holy Spirit gives some believers the gift of discerning error from truth and making it clear that some of these so-called prophetic voices are false and not to be heeded.

The Gifts Of Emotions

Speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues come at the end of the list. This does not necessarily mean that Paul did not think these gifts to be as important as the ones that preceded them. Indeed, they played a large role in the Corinthian church. Some of that church’s problems sprang from the fact that many had been given these gifts. Since they were ecstatic in nature and since they could be counterfeited, the door was open to misuse. Such gifts as miracles and healings were apparently not as prominent as tongues and were therefore less likely to cause difficulties among believers.

The tongues here spoken of were evidently not identical with those that occurred at Pentecost, where the tongues spoken were actual languages known to the people who heard them. Here the tongues were ecstatic utterances unknown to the listener and not necessarily known to the person who had the gift. In this passage at least (1 Cor. 12), tongues are not dealt with as a baptism. Although verse 13 says, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body,” that can hardly be applied to tongues, which are regarded by some to be the sign of such Spirit-baptism.

We must realize that Paul is concerned with the disunity of the body that these spiritual gifts produced. So he urges upon the Corinthians the need for unity. He carefully stresses that each part of the body is important, and that even that which may appear to be less important is not necessarily so. Indeed, it should be self-evident that the gifts of the Spirit could never be intended to produce schism or to introduce the party spirit among believers. Spiritual gifts can be a great aid to the spiritual life of the believer; they ought to make believers more, not less, spiritual.

At the end of the twelfth chapter Paul speaks again of gifts, and the list is not the same as that contained in verses 8–10. The gifts here mentioned are concerned more directly with the ongoing work and building up of the Church itself.

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First there is the office of the apostle. The apostles were persons who had seen the risen Lord. The early churches had the benefit of their presence as long as they lived, but once they were gone there could be no more apostles.

Second, there were prophets, those who proclaimed the truth in an inspiring and enthusiastic way. This prophetic gift is essential for the preaching ministry; ideally no one ought to be a minister of the Gospel who does not have it. This gift can be possessed to a greater or lesser degree, and it should be fostered and superintended so that it can be developed to its fullest. But the absence of this gift disqualifies a person for the preaching ministry.

The third order in the Church is that of teacher. There is a difference between preaching and teaching. The function of teaching is to inform. It does not carry with it the aspect of exhortation or of calling for a decision. Teaching is a building ministry to confirm the saints in the faith, inform the intellect, establish an apologetic, and make it possible for the saints to give other persons a reason for the faith that is in them.

Fourth, there are gifts of powers (miracles), cures, and helps. Under these headings falls much of the ministry of a church in the world. Included are works of service to those in need, concern for the ills of society, the application of the principles of the Gospel to the social milieu, the witness and service of the Christian in the community as a member of Christ’s body.

Fifth is the gift of governments, which has to do with the ruling and operation of the Church. Churches need direction, and people who have the gift of prophecy or the gift of teaching do not necessarily have the gift of government also. The ministers of a church may be far less capable of governing the congregation than laymen who can neither preach nor teach.

But Paul does not stop with the enumeration of these gifts, important as they are. He makes it clear that all these gifts mean nothing if love is lacking. So he moves into First Corinthians 13 by asserting that the right way to seek after and to exercise the gifts of which he speaks is the way of love. Tongues, miracles, prophecies, and all the rest are of little value if love is lacking. In the presence of love these gifts become exalted tools for advancing God’s work, building up the saints in the holy faith, and spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

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Paul does not speak of these gifts as though they are limited to men. It is clear that the Holy Spirit conveys these gifts on men and women as he chooses; and the only criterion set forth is that they be members of the body of Christ through faith. He does his work sovereignly, according to the divine purpose. Some gifts are permanent; others are given at a particular moment and for a particular purpose. It is the business of the believer to find out what his gifts are, and then to develop and use those gifts for the glory of God and the good of the congregation.

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