There is much confusion about spiritual gifts in today’s churches – whether charismatic or reformed. There is disagreement about the biblical evidence (if any) that gifts like speaking in tongues or healing are in use today – and how we can best glorify God with respect to these things.
It seems obvious that we should first define what spiritual gifts actually are. The New Testament Greek word for spiritual gifts is ‘charismata’, which means ‘grace gifts’ – gifts from God to be used for the building up of the body of Christ, so that in everything God might be glorified (Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Peter 4:11).
The gifts themselves
Looking in 1 Corinthians 12:4-31; Romans 12:3-8; and 1 Peter 4:7-11, you can see that the varieties of spiritual gifts fall into two categories – speaking and serving. The speaking gifts include wisdom, teaching and exhortation. The serving (non-verbal) gifts are such things as leadership, giving, mercy, administration, helping and discernment.
There is general agreement that all the gifts named above are evident in the church today. The disagreement arises over the gifts of tongues, miracles and healing, and over the definition of prophecy. Do these ‘miraculous’ gifts exist in the church today or did they cease when the apostolic church ended and the New Testament was completed?
If these miraculous gifts have ceased, why are they experienced in some churches today? Well, experiences are not to be counted evidence for our faith and belief. We are told to test all things by the Bible (1 John 4:1-6).
Tested by Scripture
So if the Bible points toward the cessation of those gifts – or suggests that they should still be practised today – this should be the sole basis for our conclusion. After all it is God’s word to us, so surely we should be turning to him in areas of confusion?
People I have discussed this with say that tongues, prophecy (in the sense of new revelation) and miracles still exist in abundance and often quote 1 Corinthians 14 in support. Yet the general theme of 1 Corinthians 12-14 is one of warning about the misuse of spiritual gifts and of correcting the behaviour of the church of Corinth.
So it’s probably not a good idea to use such a passage as an example of the right way to do worship and use gifts – especially as 1 Corinthians 13:8 says prophecies will fail, tongues shall cease and [the gift of] knowledge will vanish away.
Apart from 1 Corinthians, there is no mention of miraculous gifts in any of the New Testament epistles – not even in the three letters specially written by Paul to tell Timothy and Titus how their churches should be run. Also, reports of the miraculous gifts taper off towards the end of Acts, which is the story of the early church.
Some say that prophecy, tongues and miracles were ‘sign gifts’. Just as a place-name on a signpost points us towards our destination, so too the sign gifts pointed to who Jesus was – and authenticated the apostles and their message as the true word of God (see Hebrews 2:3-4).
Since we now have the complete New Testament the sign gifts have ceased – we don’t need them any more to authenticate what is clearly written in God’s completed Word.
But doesn’t this limit how God can work? No, because we’re not saying God cannot give miraculous gifts today – just that he doesn’t, because they are no longer needed. The complete Bible is a powerful tool and is more than adequate to authenticate the person and message of Christ.
The Bible is clear that the secret ways belong to God (Deuteronomy 29:29). Perhaps we are not supposed to know why he no longer works in that way.
When tackling controversial issues like this we must earnestly seek to do whatever brings him the greatest glory. The danger is to just agree with the most popular view, but this is not the biblical approach. Rather, we are told that if we seek God with all our heart, mind and soul he will draw near to us.
And what ultimately matters is not what others think of us and our opinion on such matters, but what God thinks of us and whether we have followed the ways he sets before us whatever the cost.