Is every believer guaranteed at least one spiritual gift?
—Tracie N. Moore, Springfield Gardens, New York
The short answer is yes—at least one, perhaps more. But let us be clear what we are talking about. What are spiritual gifts? None of the New Testament passages that speak of them (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4:11-16; 1 Pet. 4:10-11) define them. Since these passages all come from letters to churches where gifts were already in use, and the only question was whether they were being used well, that need not surprise us. But constructing a definition is not hard.
Gifts are manifestations of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4-11), given to build up the church (12:7, 14:4) and the individuals within it. It is only through Christ, in Christ, and by learning and responding to Christ that anyone is ever edified. Therefore, gifts should be defined in terms of him—as powers of expressing, celebrating, displaying, and obeying Christ. Gifts communicate his reality through word or action in service of God and others (fellow believers and non-Christians too).
Gifts vary. There are gifts of speech and of Samaritanship; Paul's flitting to and fro between the two kinds in his gift lists (Rom. 12:6-8; 1 Cor. 12:8-10) shows that there is no scale of values attached to them. There is no pecking order between helping, serving, giving, administering, encouraging, and being kind, on the one hand, and preaching, teaching, leading, and exhorting, on the other, let alone such "sign-gifts" as healing, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues.
The key truth is that in the church, which is one body in Christ, we're all members—that is, body parts of Christ, and, in him, of each other.
Among the variety of God's gifts, some are natural abilities and character qualities sanctified, while others correspond to nothing that was previously seen in the person's life. That the gift is from the Holy Spirit is more evident in the latter case than in the former, but the reality is that all our capacities for expressing Christ are spiritual gifts. By means of them, Christ from his throne uses us as his hands, feet, and mouth, even his smile, and speaks, meets, loves, saves, and sustains.
As the test of whether you are a leader or teacher is that others follow you or learn from you, so the test of whether you are exercising a spiritual gift is that people in the church feel the influence of Christ through what you say and do. Natural abilities, however spectacular, are not spiritual gifts as such, whereas diffident clumsiness of word and gesture is no sign that a spiritual gift is not in action.
That the indwelling Holy Spirit imparts to every Christian believer at least one gift appears both from Paul's image of the body growing toward the full stature of Christ, its head, "when [and clearly only when] each part is working properly" (Eph. 4:16), and from his emphatic declaration: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor. 12:7, cf. 11). It is plain that every-member ministry in the body of Christ is Paul's, and therefore Christ's own, ideal.
The church is not to be like a bus, where passengers sit quietly and let someone else do the driving, but like an anthill, where everybody is at work. Not everyone who thus ministers will be a church officer, nor will the service they render always be appreciated. But just as every bit of that fabulous complex, the human body, has a job to do, so it is with each of us who believe.
How can Christians identify their own gift or gifts? By trying themselves out in paths of service that attract them, or that others, who know them well enough to discern their potential, urge upon them. The presence or absence of a gift will quickly become apparent.
When, as sometimes happens, all attention focuses on the spectacular "sign-gifts" that, over and above their benefit to the church, specifically authenticated the apostles' personal ministry, the truth about gifts is skewed. God seems to have given some renewal of "sign-gifts" in recent years (though some doubt this), but it is clear that, as in New Testament times, not all Christians become channels of these manifestations (see 1 Cor. 12:29-30). Most are gifted in less eye-catching and more unobtrusive ways.
Paul told the Corinthians to seek the best gifts. Other things being equal, the best gifts will always be those that express most love and do most good to most people.
J.I. Packer is Board of Governors' Professor of Theology at Regent College and an executive editor of Christianity Today.
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