Concerning spiritual gifts
by David Weng
One challenge facing churches today is a lack of understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. A related issue is the confusion concerning ‘spiritual gifts’ and the purpose of these gifts which were imparted to the church by the Spirit of God.
While Charismatic churches misunderstand the role of the Holy Spirit in the church and the purpose and function of the spiritual gifts, believers in reformed churches also seem to be afflicted by confusion and a poor grasp of these matters.
There is, therefore, a pressing need for Bible believing Christians to have a correct biblical view concerning spiritual gifts. What are spiritual gifts? And what is their purpose? The answers can be found in 1 Corinthians 12 and related passages in the Word of God (references to 1 Corinthians will be given as numbers only).
The Church of Corinth had problems and Paul had to address it on many issues – including divisions, spiritual immaturity, law suits between believers, adultery and fornication, divorce and singlehood, food offered to idols, and behaviour at the Lord’s Supper. In chapter 12, the issue of concern for the apostle is spiritual gifts, concerning which he feared the Corinthian Christians were ignorant. They were unclear on certain teachings that are vital to a Christian’s spiritual growth and the worship and service of God.
I would not have you ignorant
The chapter begins, ‘Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant’. Christians need to understand what ‘spiritual gifts’ are.
There is a difference between spiritual gifts and talents. What are talents? Genesis 4:21-22 says, ‘Jubal … was the father of all those who play the harp and flute … Tubal-Cain an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron’. From the earliest human civilisation God endowed mankind with many talents – in things as diverse as architecture, tool-making and music.
However, bear in mind that not all skilled and talented people worshipped Jehovah – just as today few of the most accomplished architects, scientists, engineers and artists are Christians. Are these non-believers endowed with spiritual gifts by God? Certainly not. They possess talents or skills bestowed by God on believers and non-believers alike.
So what are spiritual gifts and how do they differ from ordinary talents? Adam Clark defines spiritual gifts (charismata in Greek) as ‘gracious endowments leading to miraculous results … these all came by the extraordinary influences of the Holy Spirit’.
There were, however, two categories of spiritual gifts – the remarkable ‘sign gifts’ like miraculous healing, tongues speaking, and prophesying; and the non-sign gifts such as preaching, teaching, administration, ‘helps’ and other unremarkable endowments (12:28).
Following the death of the apostles and the completion of the New Testament canon by the end of the first century, there was a sharp decline in the manifestation of the sign gifts, which eventually ceased completely.
Why? Because sign gifts had accomplished their purpose during the time of the apostles, and were no longer needed (we will deal with this later in detail). The non-sign gifts, however, continued to today and retain their Spirit-endowed character.
Paul did not want his readers to be ‘ignorant’. We also need to sort out and clarify some of the common misconceptions and false notions regarding spiritual gifts, especially sign gifts. What are some of the common misconceptions?
First, we must not falsely assume that sign gifts are God’s primary way to bring sinners to repentance. The gospel is the power of God that converts sinners (1:18), not miraculous signs.
Second, we must not be misled into thinking that manifestation of the sign gifts is the evidence that a person is filled with the Holy Spirit or charged with the Spirit’s power. Sign gifts can be practised by unbelieving people (12:3; 1 Samuel 19:24), while filling of the Holy Spirit does not necessarily lead to supernatural manifestation (Acts 4:8; 6:3-5; 13:52).
Third, we must not suppose that because sign gifts were given during the apostolic era, God is obligated to give them to his church today. Then the Holy Spirit was ‘distributing to each one individually as he wills’ (12:11). Why should he not do the same today and sovereignly choose to withhold such gifts?
Fourth, we must not think that sign gifts are superior to non-sign gifts. Scripture itself makes no such judgement. Many churches today glory in supernatural sign gifts, such as tongue speaking, prophesying and miraculous healing but never pause to ask why those gifts were given to the church in the first place during the time of apostles.
As a result, self-appointed ‘prophets’ and ‘apostles’ are misleading many into thinking that sign gifts are evidence of holiness and the power of God in their lives. Thus many professing Christians today assume that all seemingly supernatural phenomena are sign gifts given by God.
Yet, in reality, many of these unusual manifestations are the works of deception and trickery of man – about which our Lord warned his disciples (Matthew 24:24).Therefore, Christians must understand what spiritual gifts are and not have a defective understanding of them.
God also wants his people to be discerning concerning spiritual gifts. Thus Paul says, ‘You know that you were Gentiles, carried away to these dumb idols, in whatever way you were led’ (12:2).
The Gentiles worshipped idols. They were confused because they were led by ‘dumb idols’ to have a distorted understanding about spiritual things. Naturally, these Gentile idol worshippers were incapable of a proper and biblical understanding of spiritual gifts.
Paul reminded the Corinthian Christians that they were no longer idol worshippers blinded by Satan, but born again Christians indwelt by the Spirit of God! They must therefore learn to discern what are, and what are not, spiritual gifts. But how do we discern such things?
By biblical truth, says Paul. ‘Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed: and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit’. These are basic biblical tests which need no explanation. Yet it would appear that the Corinthians were so beguiled by ecstatic utterances that they actually accepted blasphemy against Christ rather than question the practice of seemingly miraculous gifts.
Christians should discern or test the works and manifestation of every spirit by scriptural truth. In other words, Christians must not believe just anyone who claims to be a prophet of God but must ask, ‘What is he teaching and what are its fruits? Are they compatible with Scripture truth?’
John writes, ‘Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world’ (1 John 4:1). If the apostle warned believers in the first century about false prophets, we too must beware during these last perilous days (Matthew 24:24).
Recognising false prophets
How can we recognise false prophets? What if some but not all of the prophecies made by a self-proclaimed prophet came to pass? Are they still prophets of God? Deuteronomy 18:22 sets the guideline.
‘When a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously: you shall not be afraid of him’.
In other words, in biblical times, true prophets of God always carried the message directly from God – a message that could not therefore fail. If a prophecy did not come to pass, the one who prophesies was exposed as a false prophet.
The same prin-ciples apply today to alleged prophecies, miraculous healings, casting out demons and other signs and wonders. Any ‘spiritual healer’ whose ministrations fail to heal is a false prophet.
Why God gave spiritual gifts
I explained earlier that spiritual gifts can be categorised into sign gifts and non-sign gifts, and claimed that the sign gifts had served out their purpose by the end of the apostolic era. But how can we be sure that sign gifts have ceased to exist? And if sign gifts are no longer truly present in the church, is there still a place for non-sign gifts today?
Before we can answer these questions we need to discover from Scripture itself the purposes for which God gave the church spiritual gifts in the first place. Next month I shall try to do this by looking at three reasons why spiritual gifts were given.
To be concluded