After the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, of all the other gifts given to mankind by God, there is none greater than the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has many functions, roles, and activities. One of His roles is that of gift-giver. First Corinthians 12 describes the spiritual gifts given to believers in order that we may function as the body of Christ on earth. All these gifts, both great and small, are given by the Spirit so that we may be His ambassadors to the world, showing forth His grace and glorifying Him. 1
Spiritual gifts are given by God to believers for the purpose of ministry within the church. The English term comes from two Greek words, charismata and pneumatika. The root of charismata is charis, which means “grace” and speaks of something undeserved or unearned. The second word, pneumatika, means “spirituals” or things given by the Spirit of God.2
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul describes the church as the body of Christ. All believers are joined into one body, stressing its unity, even as the physical body works as one. In this context, the Holy Spirit administers spiritual gifts for the good of the whole body: “The manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7). The body of Christ is the place where the Holy Spirit teaches a new Christian to grow, learn and serve.
Through the work of the Holy Spirit, “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit. There are differing gifts but the same Spirit… the same Lord… the same God, works in all men. (Romans 12:4) There are four lists of gifts given in the New Testament, showing some differences and some overlap. Each Christian has at least one gift, others more, but always, gifts are the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.3
In the New Testament, the first place we would run into the term "spiritual gift" is in Romans 1:11, 12. Writing to the church at Rome, Paul says, "I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine." The translation "impart to you some spiritual gift" is misleading because it sounds like Paul wants to help them have a gift, but the text actually means that he wants to give them the benefit of his gifts. "I long to see you, that I may use my gifts to strengthen you."
The first and most obvious thing we learn from this text is that spiritual gifts are for strengthening others. This, of course, does not mean that the person who has a spiritual gift gets no joy or benefit from it. But it does suggest that gifts are given to be given. They are not given to be hoarded. "I desire to share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you." What does strengthen mean? He's not referring to bodily strength but strength of faith. The same word is used in 1 Thessalonians 3:2, where Paul says,
We sent Timothy, our brother and servant in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you in your faith and to exhort you that no one be moved by these afflictions.
To strengthen someone by a spiritual gift means to help their faith not give way as easily when trouble enters their life. We have spiritual gifts in order to help other people keep the faith and maintain an even keel in life's storms. If there is anybody around you whose faith is being threatened in any way at all, take stock whether you may have a spiritual gift peculiarly suited to strengthen that person. 4
The Nature of Spiritual Gifts
A. Who is the source of spiritual giftedness?
1 Corinthians 12:11
1 Corinthians 12:28
B. Who is the source of spiritual giftedness?
1 Peter 4:10
C. What is the purpose of spiritual gifts?
1 Corinthians 12:4-7
1 Corinthians 14:12
1 Peter 4:10-11
Spiritual gifts referred to in Scripture.
1 Corinthians 12:1-14
1 Corinthians 12:27-30
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The Gifts Defined
Gifts of the spirit are clearly distinguished from the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22). Jesus predicted the occurrence of false gifts, particularly in the end time (Matthew 24:24, 7:22,23). Hence while spiritual gifts are very important for a Christian, the fruit of the spirit is a better test of the genuineness of a person.
Apostle: One sent by God with a holy mission to fulfill; and the supernatural power and spiritual gifts to fulfill the mission. Known by the fruit of the spirit overflowing. Apostolic ministry involves laying foundation. In the case of Paul and Barnabas, we see this expressed in 'church planting' by preaching the Gospel in new areas. Apostles in scripture worked in teams. An apostolic team shared a 'measure of rule' in churches started through their ministry in regions where they are the first to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. (II Corinthians 10.)
Prophet: One who speaks, or communicates a message, authoratively, as moved by the Holy Ghost. Known by their good fruit.
Evangelist: Someone who desires that all should come to know the truth that God loves everyone so much that He sent His Son Jesus Christ to die for their redemption, or someone who is gifted to proclaim this message.
Pastor: A word that means 'shepherd.' Pastors are gifted to lead, guide, and set an example for other Christians.
Teacher: Someone able to understand the more difficult things of God and explain them in a way that is easy to understand and live by in daily life.
Service: Supernatural ability to do for others whatever needs to be done. Divine ability to carry another burden or task without notice or earthly reward.
Exhortation: the ability to motivate Christians to do the works of Christ.
Giving: being blessed by God with resources or time and being able to give them where and when they are needed with a cheerful heart.
Leadership: God-given insight into when something needs to be done, who can do it, how it can be completed, and how to lead those people to get it accomplished.
Mercy: A heart to care for and encourage those who are not able to care for themselves and whom no one else would care for. Knowing who to help and when to help.
Word of wisdom: A message, concept, or bit of wisdom that God reveals supernaturally to the recipient. It may or may not be shared with others.
Word of knowledge: A message, concept, or bit of knowledge that God reveals supernaturally to the recipient. It may or may not be shared with others.
Tongues: First use is a supernatural ability to speak another language not known by the believer speaking it. Second use is a supernatural ability to speak another language not known by the believer speaking it; to build up the body of Christ when the message is interpreted. It is the language of the Holy Spirit.
Interpretation of tongues: Supernatural ability to make tongues a clear message to all that are present to edify, exhort and comfort the body of Christ.
Prophecy: Supernatural ability to receive a message from God to edify, exhort and comfort the body of Christ or a believer. To speak as moved by the Holy Spirit. Not all prophecies contain predictions about the future.
Working of miracles: The ability to perform supernatural acts by the Spirit of God.
Gifts of healing: Supernatural ability to bring or release healing to a person in their body or soul.
Ability to distinguish between spirits: Supernatural ability to know what is from God and what is not from God. Divine ability to reveal a demonic spirit or influence and bring God's power (Jesus' blood) and God's love (Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection) in its place.
Faith: Knowing what you hope for, having a conviction about things you cannot see, trusting God, believing God’s words (in the Bible), and obeying God. (See Hebrews 11)
How does God distribute spiritual gifts?
Answer: Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12 make it clear that each Christian is given spiritual gifts according to the Lord’s choice. Spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of the edification of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:12). The exact timing of when these gifts are given is not specifically mentioned. Most assume that spiritual gifts are given at the time of spiritual birth (the moment of salvation). However, there are some verses that may indicate that God sometimes gives spiritual gifts later as well. Both 1 Timothy 4:14 and 2 Timothy 1:6 refer to a “gift” that Timothy had received at the time of his ordination “by prophecy.” This likely indicates that one of the elders at Timothy’s ordination spoke under God’s influence of a spiritual gift that Timothy would have as an enablement for his future ministry.
We are also told in 1 Corinthians 12:28-31 and in 1 Corinthians 14:12-13 that it is God (not we) who chooses the gifts. These passages also indicate that not everyone will have a particular gift. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that if they are going to covet or long after spiritual gifts, they should set aside their fascination with the “spectacular” or “showy” gifts, and instead strive after the more edifying gifts, such as prophesying (speaking forth the word of God for the building up of others). Now, why would Paul tell them to strongly desire the “best” gifts if they already had been given all that they would be given, and there was no further opportunity of gaining these “best” gifts? It may lead one to believe that even as Solomon sought wisdom from God in order to be a good ruler over God’s people, so God will grant to us those gifts that we need in order to be of greater benefit to His church.
Having said this, it still remains that these gifts are distributed according to God’s choosing, not our own. If every Corinthian strongly desired a particular gift, such as prophesying, God would not give everyone that gift simply because they strongly desired it. Why? Where would be those who are needed to serve all of the other functions of the body of Christ?
There is one thing that is abundantly clear, God’s command is God’s enablement. If God commands us to do something (such as witness, love the unlovely, disciple the nations, etc.), He will enable us to do it. Some may not be as “gifted” at evangelism as others, but God commands all Christians to witness and disciple (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). We are all called to evangelize whether or not we have the spiritual gift of evangelism. A determined Christian who strives after learning the Word and developing his teaching ability will become a better teacher than one who may have the spiritual gift of teaching, but who neglects the gift.
In summary, are spiritual gifts given to us when we receive Christ, or are they cultivated through our walk with God? The answer is both. Normally, spiritual gifts are given at salvation, but also need to be cultivated through spiritual growth. Can a desire in your heart be pursued and developed into your spiritual gift? Can you seek after certain spiritual gifts? 1 Corinthians 12:31 seems to indicate that this is possible - “earnestly desire the best gifts.” You can seek from God a spiritual gift and be zealous after it by seeking to develop that area. At the same time, if it is not God’s will, you will not receive a certain spiritual gift no matter how strongly you seek after it. God is infinitely wise, and knows with which gifts you will be most productive for His kingdom.
No matter how much we have been gifted with one gift or another, we are all called upon to develop a number of areas mentioned in the lists of spiritual gifts...to be hospitable, to show acts of mercy, to serve one another, to evangelize, etc. As we seek to serve Him out of love, for the purpose of building up others for His glory, He will bring glory to His name, grow His church, and reward us (1 Corinthians 3:5-8; 12:31-14:1). God promises that as we make Him our delight, He will give us the desires of our heart (Psalm 37:4-5). This would surely include preparing us to serve Him in a way that will bring us purpose and satisfaction.5
The difference between a talent and a spiritual gift
There are similarities and differences between talents and spiritual gifts. Both are gifts from God. Both grow in effectiveness with use. Both are intended to be used on behalf of others, not for selfish purposes. 1 Corinthians 12:7 states that spiritual gifts are given to benefit others...not one's self. As the two great commandments deal with loving God and others, it follows that one should use his talents for that purpose. But talents and spiritual gifts differ in whom they are given to and when. A person (regardless of his belief in God or in Christ) is given a natural talent as a result of a combination of genetics (some have natural ability in music, art, or mathematics) and surroundings (growing up in a musical family will aid one in developing a talent for music), or because God desired to endow certain individuals with certain talents (for example, Bazeleel in Exodus 31:1-6). Spiritual gifts are given to believers by the Holy Spirit (Romans 12:3, 6) at the time of their placing their faith in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. At that time the Holy Spirit gives to the new believer the spiritual gift(s) He desires the believer to have (1 Corinthians 12:11). There are three main lists of spiritual gifts...
Romans 12:3-8 lists the spiritual gifts as follows: prophecy, serving others (in a general sense), teaching, exhorting, generosity, leadership, and showing mercy. 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 lists the gifts as: the word of wisdom (ability to communicate spiritual wisdom), the word of knowledge (ability to communicate practical truth), faith (unusual reliance upon God), the working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, tongues (ability to speak in a language that one has not studied), and interpretation of tongues. The third list is found in Ephesians 4:10-12, which speaks of God giving to His church apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. There is also a question as to how many spiritual gifts there are, as no two lists are the same. It is also possible that the Biblical lists are not exhaustive, that there are additional spiritual gifts beyond the ones the Bible mentions.
While often one may develop his talents and later direct his profession or hobby along those lines, spiritual gifts were given by the Holy Spirit for the building up of Christ's church. In that, all Christians are to play an active part in the furtherance of the gospel of Christ. All are called and equipped to be involved in the "work of the ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). All are gifted so that they can contribute to the cause of Christ out of gratitude for all He has done for them. In doing so, they also find fulfillment in life through their labor for Christ. It is the job of the church leaders to help build up the saints so they can be further equipped for the ministry that God has called them to. The intended result of spiritual gifts is that the church as a whole can grow, being strengthened by the combined supply of each and every member of Christ's body.
To summarize the differences between spiritual gifts and talents: (1) A talent is the result of genetics and/or training, while a spiritual gift is the result of the power of the Holy Spirit. (2) A talent can be possessed by anyone, Christian or non-Christian, while spiritual gifts are only possessed by Christians. (3) While both talents and spiritual gifts should be used for God’s glory and to minister to others, spiritual gifts are focused on these tasks, while talents can be used entirely for non-spiritual purposes.
How do I know what my spiritual gift is?
There is no magic formula or spiritual gift test that can tell us exactly what our spiritual gifts are. The Holy Spirit distributes the gifts as He determines (1 Corinthians 12:7-11). At the same time, God does not want us to be ignorant of how He wants us to serve Him. The problem is that it is very easy for us to get so caught up in spiritual gifts that we only seek to serve God in the area in which we feel we have a spiritual gift. That is not how the spiritual gifts work. God calls us to obediently serve Him. He will equip us with whatever gift or gifts we need to accomplish the task or tasks He has called us to.
Identifying our spiritual giftedness can be accomplished in various ways. Spiritual gift tests or inventories, while not to be fully relied upon, can definitely help us understand where our gifting might be. Confirmation from others also gives light to our spiritual giftedness. Other people who see us serving the Lord can often identify a spiritual gift in use that we might take for granted or not recognize. Prayer is also important. The one person who knows exactly how we are spiritually gifted is the gift-giver Himself – the Holy Spirit. We can ask God to show us how we are gifted, that we might better use our spiritual gifts for His glory.
Yes, God calls some to be teachers and gives them the gift of teaching. God calls some to be servants and blesses them with the gift of helps. However, specifically knowing our spiritual gift does not excuse us from serving God in areas outside our gifting. Is it beneficial to know what spiritual gift(s) God has given us? Of course it is. Is it wrong to focus so much on spiritual gifts that we miss other opportunities to serve God? Yes! If we are dedicated to being used by God, He will equip us with the spiritual gifts we need.
1 Ryrie, Charles - The Holy Spirit as quoted in http://www.gotquestions.org/Spirit-today.html
2 McArthur, John – Fundamentals of the Faith p. 67
3 Little, Paul – Know What You Believe p. 87
4 Piper, John – Spiritual Gifts - http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Sermons/ByDate/1981/288_Spiritual_Gifts/