When a person becomes a Christian, they are told about the grace of Jesus, the love of God, and the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit”; God the father and Jesus Christ the son are familiar and have lots of dialogue in the Bible, but the Holy Spirit is pretty quiet and often overlooked. So what does the Holy Spirit do?
In the Old Testament, the Spirit gave the leaders of Israel power to produce signs (think parting of the Red Sea), prophesy, and guide the nation. While Jesus is fully God, he lived his life on earth anointed by the Holy Spirit, receiving the power to heal people, teach with authority, and raise people from the dead. Though it’s sometimes less dramatic in our lives, the Holy Spirit shares practical gifts with us; when we serve in his name, when we worship, when we pray, the Spirit brings us closer to God.
What Are Spiritual Gifts?
From start to finish, Christians are connected to God and given power by way of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the most well-known aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work is related to spiritual gifts. But since spiritual gifts are a popular topic, the information can be overwhelming or confusing.
Spiritual gifts are abilities that we have by way of the Holy Spirit. Michael Bird, in Evangelical Theology, defines a spiritual gift as “an empowerment from God for God’s people through the Spirit for spiritual work in the church.” So what does that mean? God gives you abilities for you to use to serve others; they are “spiritual” because they are directly tied to the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:4, 7). Contrast this with abilities in general: regular abilities can be chosen and developed as a way to profit yourself; spiritual gifts can also be developed, but you don’t choose them, and they’re meant for serving others and glorifying God.
The New Testament has several lists of spiritual gifts (Rom. 12:6–8; 1 Cor. 7:7; 12:8–10, 28; Eph. 4:11; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). Some of the spiritual gifts could be described as “natural” and others appear to be “supernatural.” For example, Paul lists “gifts of healing” and “working of miracles” along with “leading” and “acts of mercy.” This is important to note because, regardless of whether a spiritual gift appears to be natural or supernatural, all gifts are equally valued, and the source for all of them is the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12).
Who Has Spiritual Gifts?
Sometimes Christians believe that only certain people have spiritual gifts, such as pastors or people who have been Christians for a long time. Not true! Every single follower of Jesus is given spiritual gifts to use. The apostle Peter wrote, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10, ESV). There truly are no “superstar” Christians who have all of the spiritual gifts. God doesn’t want anybody to sit on the sidelines. Instead, followers of Jesus have all been given the presence of the Holy Spirit to empower them to contribute their gifts to the “team” — the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
This, of course, raises another issue: who decides who gets which gifts? A few years ago a person told me that if he preached at the church I serve, he could guarantee that our congregation would receive the gifts of tongues, prophecy, and healing. (We’ll discuss these gifts in more depth later.) But this runs counter to what the New Testament teaches: all these [spiritual gifts] are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Cor. 12:11, ESV)
No person determines who gets which spiritual gifts; that is a decision that the Holy Spirit makes. So if someone tells you that they are able to impart or give away spiritual gifts at their disposal based on their will, that person is not teaching what the Bible teaches. Watch out.
What Are My Spiritual Gifts?
Many churches and individuals use spiritual gifts assessments. In these “tests,” people are asked questions that help them determine what spiritual gifts they most often function in so that they can know what they have. While this is a popular way to explore the subject and it can raise helpful questions, there’s more to it.
These assessments can give the impression that once people know what their gift is, that it is the only gift they have, or that they’re “off the hook” in areas where they didn’t have high scores.
People think they should wait to know their gifts and/or develop them before they can serve in ministry.
If test questions concentrate on where you already function most often, you may be leaving something out. For example, if you’re already involved in teaching, the test may overlook the gift God has given you for mercy.
But there is no Scripture in the New Testament that teaches Jesus’ followers that they only receive one spiritual gift. There is no Scripture that suggests they need to figure out which gift they have before they can obey God or serve others. The upshot is spiritual gift assessments aren’t evil, and they can help us identify our gifts and abilities, but it’s best to learn what the Bible teaches and consider the implications of those teachings.
We can summarize the New Testament’s approach to spiritual gifts in two ways: First, the New Testament emphasizes that as Christians we are to serve other people and God. Second, the New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit empowers us to serve–giving us the right words to say, the wisdom to know what to do and when to do it, as well as the strength to carry out the work you see before you.
In future articles I will explore other issues related to the subject of spiritual gifts. This will include some of the more controversial or confusing spiritual gifts such as prophecy, gifts of healings, speaking in tongues, interpretation of tongues, and much more. This will include more discussion on how spiritual gifts function when we’re sharing our faith as well as building up other Christians. If the Holy Spirit has been sent to empower the church for the work of ministry, having a healthy understanding of what Scripture teaches concerning spiritual gifts, which are given by the Spirit, would seem rather important! So stay tuned for our next issue to learn more about this subject!