What Are the Spiritual Gifts?

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In the New Testament, we see a variety of spiritual gifts given to Christians by the Holy Spirit. What are they? How do they work? Let’s explore.

Apostleship

(1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)

The word apostle can have both a general and a limited or technical meaning. In a general sense the word means “one who is sent,” or “a messenger.” The Latin equivalent is the word missionary. In a general sense every Christian is a missionary or an apostle, because he has been sent into this world for a testimony. Epaphroditus serves as an illustration, for the word apostle is used to describe him (“also your messenger”; Phi. 2:25). However, in the specialized sense of having the gift of apostleship Epaphroditus was not an apostle.

The same is true of the unnamed brothers involved in the collection Paul was taking for the saints in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8:23). In that technical sense the word is used of the Twelve and few others like Paul (Rom. 1:1), Barnabas (Acts 14:14), and James (Gal. 1:19). They were required to have seen the risen Christ, and they had special authority in the church. They were gifted to lay the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20), and they were accredited by special signs. Since this gift belonged to the earliest period the history of the church when her foundation was being laid, the need for the gift has ceased and apparently the giving of it has too. “Having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone” (Eph. 2:20). Paul lists this gift as first in importance (1 Cor. 12:28).

Prophecy

(Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:10; 14:1-40; Eph. 4:11)

This word is also used in both a general and a limited sense. In a general sense it means to preach; thus, generally speaking, preaching is prophesying, and the preacher is a prophet in that he proclaims the message from God. But the gift of prophecy included receiving a message directly from God through special revelation, being guided in declaring it to the people, and having it authenticated in some way by God Himself. The content of that message may have included telling the future (which is what we normally think of as prophesying), but it also included proclaiming God’s message for that time before the Bible was completed. First Corinthians 14:3 is not a definition of a prophet (“speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation”) but a description of the characteristics of a prophetic message. In other words, we cannot reverse the statement and conclude that everyone who speaks (or preaches) messages with those characteristics is a prophet.

This too was a gift limited in its need and use (second in importance in Paul’s list), for it was needed during the writing of the New Testament and its usefulness ceased when the books were completed. God’s message was then contained in written form, and no new revelation was given in addition to that written record.

The gift of prophecy may have been rather widely given in New Testament times, although the record mentions only a few prophets specifically. Prophets foretelling a famine came from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of these was named Agabus (Acts 11:27-28). Mention is made also of prophets in the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1), and Philip had four daughters who had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:9). Prophets were also prominent in the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 14:29).

In the coming Tribulation period, God will raise up two men and give them the gift of prophecy. And, as with other prophets, miracles of judgment will authenticate their message (Rev. 11:4-6).

Once when speaking at a prophecy conference, I received this telegram from one who thought he had the gift of prophecy today. It said that the conference could not “be meaningful without the Holy Spirit-inspired testimony of God’s only living prophet. Invite me and I will authenticate many true miracles…!” Somehow the conference was blessed anyway.

Miracles and Healing

(1 Cor. 12:28; 1 Cor. 12:9, 28, 30)

This is the ability to perform special signs. Paul exercised this gift at Ephesus when he performed miraculous healings (Acts 19:11-12). And yet, even though he had the gift of miracles, he did not consider it usable in the cases of Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-27); Timothy (1 Tim. 5:23); and Trophimus, whom he left sick at Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20). The gifts of healing (note the plural) seem to be a specific category that included various kind of healings (i.e. physical, emotional, spiritual) within the larger category of miracles. An example of the gift of miracles which was not a case of physical healing (indeed, just the opposite) was the blindness called down on Elymas the sorcerer in Paphos, Cyprus, by Paul on the first missionary journey (Acts 13:8-11).

Distinction should be made between miracles and healings and the gifts of miracles and healing. The spiritual gift is the God-given ability to perform miracles and healings for the purpose of serving Him. However, a miracle or a healing may be done apart from the exercise of those gifts. The miracle of the physical sign (the place shaken) that accompanied the filling with the Spirit recorded in Acts 4:31 was completely apart from the exercise of a gift on the part of any person. The miracle of Aeneas’s healing at Lydda was apparently a result of Peter’s exercising the gift of healing (Acts 9:34), whereas the raising of Dorcas at Joppa by Peter might not have been the result of exercising a gift but the result of God’s answering Peter’s prayer (Acts 9:40). Thus every miracle or every healing is not the result of that particular gift being exercised.

Consequently, then, it does not follow that if one considers the gifts of miracles and healings temporary, he also is saying that God does not perform miracles or heal today. He is simply saying that the gifts are no longer given because the particular purpose for which they were originally given (i.e., to authenticate the oral message) has ceased to exist. The historical proof for the cessation of the gift of miracles and the gift of healing with the accreditation of the message has been ably stated by B. B. Warfield in his book Counterfeit Miracles. The miracle of living epistles, he concludes, is the proper accreditation of the message of the gospel today (2 Cor. 3:1-3).

If the giving of these particular gifts was limited to the early church, how shall we evaluate the question of healing today? Here are some issues to consider in finding the answer to that question.

  1. As has been stated, God can and does heal apart from the exercise of the gift of healing. He does answer prayer, and He answer it with respect to physical problems; but such answers to prayer are not the exercise of someone exercising the gift of healing.
  2. It is obviously not the will of God to heal everybody. For example, it was not God’s will to heal Paul of his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-9).
  3. Miracles and healing must not be equated with supernaturalism in general. It is a favorite pressure approach of faith healers to say that if you believe in the supernatural power of God, then you must also believe in His power to heal in the case at hand. This is simply not true, for it is a non sequitur. God does not have to use His supernatural power to prove that He possesses it. Furthermore, any gift given once has been given to the whole church.
  4. To disregard human means in the matter of healing and simply pray for a miraculous cure is like praying for a harvest and then sitting in a rocking chair without planting or cultivating. God more often than not uses human means in the accomplishing of His purposes. This is true in matters of health too.
  5. Those who claim that the gift of healing is exercised today have to admit that the gift is limited in its effectiveness, for they do not claim to heal decayed teeth or suddenly mend broken bones or grow hair on bald heads.
  6. Reports of miraculous healings (within the limitations already stated) may be true (though not necessarily related to the gift), may be false, or may be the cure of something that was psychosomatic.

Naturally all of these six considerations do not apply to every case, but they are germane to the whole question of healing today.

Tongues and Their Interpretation

(1 Cor. 12:10)

Tongues are the God-given ability to speak in another earthly language. Interpretation is the ability to interpret messages given in tongues in a language the audience present can understand. In the recorded instances in the book of Acts the languages of tongues were clearly foreign languages. There is no doubt that this was true at Pentecost, for the people heard in their native tongues; and it seemed to be the same kind of foreign languages that were spoken in the house of Cornelius (for Peter says that this was the same thing that occurred at Pentecost; Acts 10:45-47; 11:15).

The addition in some translations of the word “unknown” in 1 Corinthians 14 has led many to suppose that the tongues displayed in the church at Corinth were an unknown, heavenly language. If the word is omitted (and it is in the Greek text), then one would normally think of the tongues in Corinthians as the same as those in Acts; i.e., foreign languages. This is the natural conclusion. Against this view stand 1 Corinthians 14:2 and 14, which might seem to indicate that the Corinthian tongues were an unknown language.

However, both verses refer to uninterpreted tongues, which would be unknown to the audience and the speaker. In any case, the gift of tongues was being abused by the Corinthians, and Paul was required to lay down certain restrictions on its use. It was to be used only for edifying, only by two or three in a single meeting and then only if an interpreter were present, and never in preference to prophecy. The gift of tongues was given as a sign to unbelievers (1 Cor. 14:22) and especially to unbelieving Jews (v. 21). If the need for the sign ceased, then of course the gift would no longer need to be given.

“We must not lose sight of our responsibility to be good stewards of whatever abilities and skills the Holy Spirit has given us.”

Clearly, the teaching that tongues are the necessary accompaniment and proof of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is not valid. Too, the emphasis of Scripture is not on the use of this gift. The longest passage about tongues (1 Cor. 14) concerns the misuse of the gift. Also, one should remember that the fruit of the Spirit does not include tongues, and Christlikeness does not require speaking in tongues, for Christ never did.

Evangelism

(Eph. 4:11)

The meaning of the gift of evangelism involves two ideas—the kind of message preached (i.e., the good news of salvation) and the places where it is preached (i.e., in various places). The message is the gospel and the evangelist’s ministry is an itinerant one, done both publicly and privately. In Paul’s ministry, the length of stay in one instance lasted two years or more (Acts 19:10) and in another only a few days (Acts 17:10-14). Those examples were public ministries. Onesimus is an example of a private witness. Apparently a person may do the work of an evangelist even though he may not possess the gift, for Paul exhorts Timothy, who was a pastor, do “do the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5).

Pastor

(Eph. 4:11)

The word pastor means to shepherd; therefore, the gift of pastor involves leading, providing and caring for, and protecting the portion of the flock God committed to one’s care. In Ephesians 4:11 the work of teaching is linked with that of pastoring, and in Acts 20:28 the duty of ruling the flock is added. The words elder, overseer, and shepherd are all used of the same leaders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:17 and 28).

Serving

(Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:12)

The gift of serving is the gift of helping or ministering in the broadest sense of the word. In the Romans passage it is called the gift of serving; in 1 Corinthians, the gift of helps; in Ephesians we are told that other gifts are given for the purpose of helping believers to be able to serve. This a very basic gift that all Christians well assume they have and then use it for the Lord’s glory.

Teaching

(Rom. 12:7; 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11)

Teaching is the God-given ability to explain the harmony and the detail of God’s revelation. Apparently the gift is sometimes given alone (Rom. 12:7), and sometimes it is given along with the gift of pastor (Eph. 4:11). Clearly the gift of teaching needs to be developed by study and discipline. If we may assume that Peter had the gift, then it is clear that he had to do some studying of Paul’s epistles before he could explain to others (2 Pet. 3:16).

Faith

(1 Cor. 12:8-10)

Faith is the God-given ability to believe God’s power to supply needs in the many circumstances of life. Every person has been given a measure of faith (Rom. 12:3) and all believers are expected to walk by faith (2 Cor. 5:7), but not everyone has been given the gift of faith. Everyone may believe God, but this cannot be the same as possessing the gift of faith—otherwise there would be no significance to its being listed as a separate spiritual gift.

Exhortation

(Rom. 12:8)

Exhorting involved encouraging, comforting, and admonishing people. Note that this a separate and distinct gift from the gift of teaching. In other words, someone may have the gift of teaching but not of exhortation and vice versa. What a great blessing a person who has both gifts can be to the church.

Discerning of Spirits

(1 Cor. 12:10)

Discerning spirits is the ability to distinguish between true and false sources of supernatural revelation when it was being given in oral form. It was a very necessary gift, for there were those who claimed to bring revelation from God who were not true prophets. When the Bible was completed, false prophets could be tested against that written standard.

Showing Mercy

(Rom. 12:8)

This is akin to the gift of ministering, for it involves succoring those who are sick and afflicted.

Giving

(Rom. 12:8)

The gift of giving concerns distributing one’s own money to others. It is to be with generosity and with no thought of return or gain for self in any way.

Administration

(Rom. 12:8; 1 Cor. 12:28)

This is the ability to rule in the church. Although it is true that all believers have equal standing before God as priests, there is a hierarchical rule in the church (Heb. 13:7, 17).

An Important Reminder

Amid all the discussion and debate about various aspects of the doctrine of spiritual gifts, we must not lose sight of our responsibility to be good stewards of whatever abilities and skills the Holy Spirit has given us. If you do not believe that God is giving spiritual gifts today, then by all means use your natural talents and acquired skills to the fullest. If you believe all the gifts are being given today and you are tempted to seek the spectacular ones, don’t neglect the basic ones like helping and giving. If you think some gifts were temporary, then by all means use the ones that are clearly not.

Remember: “It is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” and “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” (1 Cor. 4:2, 7).

For Further Reading:

The Holy Spirit

by Charles C. Ryrie

Teachings on the Holy Spirit, from one of America’s greatest living theologians All students of Scripture can benefit from this...

book cover for The Holy Spirit