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or What is a Spiritual Gift?

Chapter 1

Descriptive Words

To understand the nature of spiritual gifts we must first look at the words which the writers of Scripture used to describe them. I Corinthians 12 lists them for us. Each word, it seems, views the gifts from another standpoint, showing another aspect of their purpose, function, or source. Viewing these terms together yields a more complete description of the gifts they are describing.


In verse 1 the Authorized Version (KJV) mentions "spiritual gifts." The Greek simply reads "spirituals" (ton pneumatikon), meaning "things characterized or controlled by the Spirit." Spiritual gifts, then, are first of all things controlled or characterized by the Spirit.


In verse 4 we find the word "gifts" which translates from the Greek word charisma; hence, our term "charismatic." The root word (charis) means "grace." So now if pneumatikon tells us that spiritual gifts are things characterized by the Holy Spirit, charisma teaches us that they are gifts of God's grace. They are not something we earn or deserve. They are gifts of grace. Regardless of what the term "charismatic" has come to mean and imply today, there really is no such thing as a non-charismatic gift. All gifts are charismatic; that is, all gifts are freely given by a gracious God.

This term is used also in Romans 12:6 and I Peter 4:10. (It should be noted that when Paul speaks of gifts in Ephesians 4:7-8, he employs another term, dorea, which stresses virtually the same truth; i.e., that spiritual gifts are just that -- gifts, not rewards.) This is further emphasized throughout the first half of chapter 12. For instance, verse 7 tells us they are given; again in verse 8 is the same. Verses 11 and 18 declare that the gifts are given sovereignly by the Spirit of God: He distributes them as He sees fit.

With this truth recognized, a basic principle begins to emerge, a principle which we shall develop later in more detail. We naturally tend to think that a very gifted man must be a very godly man. A pastor, for example, who is especially gifted in several areas (such as preaching, teaching, leadership, counseling, etc.) is almost instinctively assumed to be spiritually mature and further advanced in holiness than the "ordinary" believer. "What else could explain his great giftedness?" we think. The simple fact of the matter is that he may or may not be spiritually mature. His giftedness really has nothing to do with the question, for gifts are not given in proportion to holiness or anything else. Gifts are given freely and sovereignly by God to whomsoever He wills. They are gifts of grace, not merit, and so they are not at all indicative of a person's sanctification. They prove nothing but that God gives gifts freely. Spiritual gifts are "charismatic" -- gifts of grace.


In verse 5 Paul calls them "administrations." The term in the Greek is diakonia, "service," the same word from which we get the word "deacon," which means "servant." The next fact about spiritual gifts, then, is that they are services to be performed. Their primary function is for others. Gifts are for serving.


Verse 6 calls them "operations." This is the Greek word from which we get our English word "energy" (energema). Spiritual gifts are also energizings. It is likely that this word emphasizes the divine energy enabling us to perform the service. Peter has this very idea in mind when he says to "minister" (serve) with the "ability" (strength) which God gives (I Peter 4:11). God gifts us to perform service in His strength.


Finally, verse 7 refers to them as "manifestations." The Greek word (phanerosis) means "to make visible," or "to display." Spiritual gifts, then, are visible displays of service to others. Spiritual gifts are not abilities given to do something for yourself, alone. That is selfishness. They are visible "services" performed for others. They are to be exercised in love, Paul teaches in chapter 13, and "love seeketh not her own" (13:5).


Putting together all these terms, we find that a spiritual gift is a God-given ability to serve the church effectively. There are longer definitions which can be made, but this seems to say it all. God has graciously, undeservedly equipped each of us with the ability to minister to others within the body of Christ. A spiritual gift, then, more than being a possession, is a channel through which the Holy Spirit ministers to His church. This is the means He has chosen to edify the Church.


Gifts and Gift

At this juncture, some distinctions are in order. The gifts of the Spirit are not the same as the gift of the Spirit. In Acts 2:38 Peter says to those who inquired about salvation, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." The "gift" (singular) of the Holy Spirit is simply the Holy Spirit Himself. The Holy Spirit Himself was the promised Gift to all who believe on Jesus. Jesus spoke of this on several occasions. John 7:38-39 records one such occasion. Jesus said, "He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." Then John added the interpretive comment, "This spake he of the Spirit which they that believe on him should receive." John 14:16-18, 26; 15:26; and 16:7 also speak of the same promised Gift, as does Acts 1:4-5. As will be developed later, the Holy Spirit is Christ's Gift to His church, and this is basic to receiving the gifts (plural) of the Spirit: when we receive Him, we then also receive what He gives; i.e., spiritual gifts. For example, since I married my wife, I have jokingly told her many times, "what's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine!" That may be a little one-sided, but you see the principle -- when I received her, I received also what was hers. All that was hers became mine as well when we became united in marriage. And the same was true for her. Likewise, when I received the blessed Spirit of God, I received Him in all that He had to offer. Among the wonderful ministries of the Spirit in the believer's life is the ministry of gifting for service. This we received when we received Him.

Perhaps it would be helpful to pause here and explain another point in this verse (Acts 2:38). When Peter said to "repent and be baptized for the remission of sins" he was not teaching that baptism is a requirement of salvation. The Greek preposition translated "for" in this verse (eis) carries the idea of "because of." "Repent and be baptized because of the remission of sins." It's like those posters in the police station, "man wanted `for' robbery" -- they are not asking for volunteers! They are declaring that someone is wanted "because of" his crime already committed; he is not wanted in order to commit it! The same is true here; we are to be baptized in obedience to Christ because of our forgiven sins not in order to gain forgiveness.

Gifts and Fruit

Nor should we confuse gifts of the Spirit with fruit of the Spirit. Gifts are services to be performed for others; "fruit" speaks of the graces or character traits of a person indwelt by the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit of God takes up residence in a man, He not only enables him to serve, but He also begins to cultivate holiness, the evidence of which is a deep-seated "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Galatians 5:22-23). Both the fruit and the gifts are essential. Both are manifestations of the indwelling Spirit. But the two are not the same.

Gifts and Talents

Finally, a word about talents. What is the difference between a gift and a talent? It is often said that we are born with certain talents, natural abilities, but when we are born again we are given spiritual gifts -- talents being natural and gifts being supernatural. It is interesting that such sharp distinction is never drawn in Scripture. It is often inferred or just assumed, today, but never is it so stated in Scripture. And with all the facts examined, it seems that this distinction is needless and difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate.

Let me explain. Galatians 1:15-16, for example, declares, in effect, that Paul was gifted to preach at birth. But that gift, obviously, was not exercised until many years later. To be sure, he no doubt preached and taught before he believed, but that preaching or teaching received an entirely new dimension when he was saved. He had the gift (talent) all along; it became "spiritual" when he became spiritual. (A "spiritual" man is a Christian. This is Paul's terminology in I Corinthians 2:14-15.) His "natural" giftedness (which, of course, was sovereignly given also) became spiritual simply because he himself became spiritual. Or to look at it another way, what is the difference between what your Sunday School teacher does each Sunday morning and what your college professor did for you? The difference is obvious: the teaching of your Sunday teacher, or your pastor, although that same talent, gift, could be used in a secular classroom, has an entirely different dimension. That teaching is spiritual and ministers to the church. The talent is the same but has been given a new dimension and a new capacity -- a capacity for spiritual things. Many a teacher has become "spiritual" and so gained the ability to minister to the church with the same talent, the same gift, he had all along. That talent simply became enhanced in its ability to serve the church effectively. It became spiritual. So the contrast is not absolute; nor are such distinctions necessary. God wisely and providentially equips at birth; the spiritual dimension is added at the new birth, but the talent itself is basically the same.

An Observation

Before leaving this matter of definitions, one more observation is in order, and that concerns that word "manifestations." Just what is it that is manifested? What is made visible? It is the Holy Spirit Himself! A spiritual gift is a "manifestation of the Spirit" (I Cor. 12:7, italics added). This is how the Holy Spirit is seen -- in the exercise of spiritual gifts. One of the greatest displays of the Holy Spirit is a church in which the members are exercising their gifts for one another. A church functioning as a gifted body is a beautiful display of the Spirit. So a spiritual gift is not only an ability to serve; it is the channel through which the Holy Spirit ministers to the body. This puts the discussion on a much higher level of importance! When you exercise your gift in the service of other believers, it is to be recognized as the manifestation, the display of the Spirit of God. God has chosen to minister to his people through us! Few things can match the blessing of knowing and experiencing that.

So ask the question of yourself: how has the Holy Spirit ministered through you this week? How will He next week?

Spiritual Gifts