Spiritual Gifts – Their Definition, Discernment and Purpose
The Statement Of Issues
For quite a few years sincere Christians have struggled with several significant issues related to the subject of spiritual gifts. What is a spiritual gift? How can a person discern what gift or gifts he or she has been given? Is there a relationship between the possession of spiritual gifts and spirituality? Did God intend the gifts possessed by the early Church to remain in the Church throughout its history? These and other related issues will be addressed in the present and subsequent articles.
A Definition Of A Spiritual Gift
As one examines everything which is stated in the Scriptures concerning spiritual gifts (the lists of gifts, their purposes, etc.), it becomes rather obvious that spiritual gifts are God-given abilities to minister or serve. This will be noted quite clearly when the purpose of spiritual gifts is considered later.
In addition, the Scriptures indicate that the gifts are given to believers by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:7-11) and that the giving of a spiritual gift is an act of God’s grace (the major part of the word which is translated “gifts” is the New Testament word for “grace,” compare Rom.12:6 and 1 Pet. 4:10).
In light of these various factors a spiritual gift could be defined as follows: A spiritual gift is a particular ability to minister to other people which is given graciously by the Holy Spirit to a believer.
The Discernment Of Spiritual Gifts
Since spiritual gifts are God-given abilities to minister, they are designed to determine the ministry or ministries which a believer is to have. Inasmuch as spiritual gifts determine ministry, it is essential that each believer discern what gift or gifts he or she possesses.
How can one discern which gifts are possessed? When three different criteria line up in agreement with each other to point in the same direction, that alignment is a good indicator of how a person has been gifted. Those three criteria are as follows: First, what does the believer really enjoy doing by way of ministry? Usually a person enjoys doing what he or she is capable of doing. It is a chore to perform a ministry for which a person has not been given ability. Thus, the genuine enjoyment of a particular kind of ministry is a good indicator of the ability which has been given to a person.
The second criterion is what particular ability or abilities to minister do other believers recognize in a person? The body of Christ can play a key role in the discernment of possessed spiritual gifts by observing the individual believer and then pointing out recognized abilities.
The third criterion is in which particular ministries is the person most effective? Certainly a believer will be most effective in those kinds of ministries for which the Spirit has given special abilities. Thus, effectiveness can also be a good indicator of how a person has been gifted.
The Purpose Of Spiritual Gifts
Every spiritual gift is given for the purpose of enabling the gift possessor to minister to others, not to minister to himself. Thus, a spiritual gift is given for the benefit of others, not for the benefit of the one having the gift.
Several things in the Scriptures indicate that this is so. First, in 1 Corinthians 12:7 Paul stated that each believer is given a gift of the Spirit “to profit [withal].” The immediate context (vv. 12-27 where Paul emphasized that every believer is essential to the proper functioning of the Church and that believers should care for one another) and the remote context (10:24, 33 where Paul stressed the importance of believers seeking, not their own profit, but the profit of the many) of Paul’s statement indicate that, when he said that a spiritual gift is given “to profit [withal],” he had in mind the profit of many other people, not the profit of the one who possesses the gift.
Second, Paul inserted the greatest chapter on love (1 Cor. 13) in the center of the most extensive biblical passage dealing with the subject of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). The Spirit of God had a specific reason for moving the apostle to emphasize love in the middle of his great discourse on spiritual gifts. The reason was that the Corinthian Christians had been using their gifts for their own selfish benefit. Their attitude concerning the purpose of the spiritual gifts was wrong. Paul was determined to correct that attitude by stressing the importance of love, which is the attitude of being more concerned for the welfare of others than for one’s own welfare (Jn. 15:13; Rom. 5:8; 2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:1-8; 1 Jn. 3:16). Thus, he declared that love does not seek its own benefit (1 Cor. 13:5). The apostle wanted the Corinthian Christians to see that they had been given their spiritual gifts for the benefit of others, not for their own benefit.
Third, in 1 Peter 4:10 Peter wrote the following: “As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” The article “the” before the word “gift” is not found in the Greek text of Peter’s statement. Thus, Peter said: “As every man hath received a gift” and thereby indicated that every believer has been given at least one spiritual gift.
Peter stated that believers are stewards of the spiritual gifts which are entrusted to them by God’s grace. This means that God holds believers responsible to exercise their gifts in accord with their God-intended purpose.
The apostle declared that believers are to use their spiritual gifts to minister to one another. This indicates that the God-intended purpose of every spiritual gift is to enable the gift possessor to serve others. The use of a gift for any other purpose is a violation of the stewardship entrusted to the believer.
Some would consider this stated purpose of spiritual gifts to be a contradiction of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:4. In that passage the apostle declared that the believer who speaks in a tongue edifies himself. On the basis of that statement some believers, who claim to have the gift of tongues, are convinced that it is legitimate to use that gift for the purpose of self-edification. They claim that they exercise the gift of tongues only in their private devotions for their own spiritual edification.
Several things should be noted, however, concerning Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 14:4. First, in the context Paul was talking about the exercise of the gift of tongues in a public church worship service, not in private (vv. 4-6, 9, 12 indicate this). Thus, the passage is not dealing with the use of the gift in private, and Paul was neither approving nor advocating speaking in tongues in private.
Second, a close examination of Paul’s statement and its context indicates that the apostle was actually rebuking the Corinthian Christians for exercising the gift of tongues in a way that did not benefit others. Paul was saying that the gift of tongues should never be exercised in a church worship service apart from the exercise of the gift of interpretation, because by itself the gift of tongues would never edify the rest of the church. Others in the church would not benefit, because the tongues speaking would be foreign to them. God would understand what was said through the tongues speaking, for God understands all languages, but other people in the church would not understand (vv. 2, 5-6, 9, 11-13, 16-19). In light of this rebuke, Paul was neither aproving nor advocating speaking in tongues for the purpose of self-edification.
Actually the use of the gift of tongues in private for one’s own edification would be wrong for several reasons. First, such usage would violate the God-intended purpose for all spiritual gifts in general. As noted earlier, the purpose of all spiritual gifts is to enable the gift possessors to minister to others. Private tongues speaking for self-edification would not be a ministry to other people.
Second, such usage would violate love, which is the attitude of being more concerned for the welfare of others than for one’s own welfare. As noted earlier, Paul wrote his great chapter on love in the middle of his extensive discourse on spiritual gifts, because he wanted the Corinthian Christians to see that they had been given their spiritual gifts for the benefit of others, not for their own benefit. Private tongues speaking for self-edification would be a selfish exercise of the gift, not an expression of love.
Third, such usage would violate the specific purpose of the gift of tongues. Only one passage in the Bible identified the specific purpose of the gift of tongues. In 1 Corinthians 14:22 Paul wrote: “Wherefore, tongues are for a sign.” The apostle thereby indicated that God intended tongues to be a sign gift, not an edification gift. Private tongues speaking for self-edification would be an attempt to use tongues as an edification gift, not as a sign gift. This would be contrary to God’s intended purpose.
In addition, the New Testament usage of the word which is translated “sign” (it is also translated “miracle”) indicates that signs are intended to be public, to be seen by numbers of people. For example, the New Testament talks about signs appearing (Mt. 24:30), being shown (Mk. 13:22) being seen (Jn. 2:23; 6:2, 14; Acts 8:6, 13) and being done before people (Jn.12:37), in the midst of people (Acts 2:22) and among people (Acts 15:12; 2 Cor. 12:12). Thus, signs are designed to enable the sign performer to communicate something to others. The very nature, purpose and function of a sign demand that it be public. In light of this, since God intended tongues to be a sign, then that gift was always to be exercised in public, not in private.
Fourth, private tongues speaking for self-edification of the believer would violate the God-intended beneficiaries of the gift. In 1 Corinthians 14:22 Paul said: “Wherefore, tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.” Tongues speaking was to be a sign of something to unbelievers, not to believers. The apostle, therefore, was asserting that God intended the gift of tongues to benefit unbelievers, not believers. The private use of the gift by a believer for his own benefit would not benefit unbelievers.
Some would declare that this understanding of the specific purpose of the gift of tongues is in conflict with Paul’s statement in Romans 8:26. There the apostle wrote: ”Likewise, the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” On the basis of that statement some believers, who claim to have the gift of tongues, assert that, when they speak in tongues in private devotions, it is the Holy Spirit who is controlling them and praying through and for them with a prayer language in fulfillment of Romans 8:26.
There is a major problem, however, with this approach to and understanding of Romans 8:26. The word in Paul’s statement which is translated “which cannot be uttered” means “unexpressed, wordless.”1 It is related to the word which means “mute, dumb.”2 A very literal translation of the root of both words is “no speaking.” The meaning of these terms indicates that Paul was referring to a totally silent praying of the Holy Spirit on behalf of believers. This praying involves no sound audible to the human ear. By contrast the biblical gift of tongues did involve audible sound. Otherwise it could not be a sign to unbelievers.
Other issues related to the subject of spiritual gifts will be examined in the next article.
- William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon Of The New Testament (4th rev. ed.; Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 34