In his book on the Holy Spirit, theologian Sinclair Ferguson points out that the doctrine of spiritual gifts today divides the church in a way that the doctrine of the sacraments did in the Reformation period in the sixteenth century. That might make us want to avoid the topic. Or it may cause us only to look at it from a purely dogmatic and confrontational point of view. But the verses before us argue for a different approach. Nothing is more necessary for the health and the spiritual prosperity of the church than the proper exercise of spiritual gifts. It is not necessary, in fact, to get bogged down over a few of the more miraculous gifts (like tongues, miracle-working, or prophesy) because what we see here is that many if not most of the spiritual gifts are a bit more “boring” – things like giving and serving and leadership and so on. Whatever our stance on these issues, our text compels us to find a Biblical understanding of the spiritual gifts. In our text, the apostles does three things. He argues for their necessity, for the prerequisites of the gifts, and then for the exercise of the gifts. Let us look at each of these in turn.
The Necessity of the Spiritual Gifts
The apostle begins the next section in this chapter with the word for: “For by the grace given to me I say . . .” (3). This points us back to the first two verses. There Paul had called us, on the basis of the mercies of God, to devote ourselves wholly to him, not conforming ourselves to the world but by being transformed by the renewing of our minds. Now the question is, how does that call to devotedness to God lead into the discussion of verses 3 and following? Verses 3-8 deal with spiritual gifts. Therefore the question is, how is our consecration to God connected to our giftedness for the church? In other words, he seems to be grounding our holiness in some sense in the exercise of the spiritual gifts. Why is this so?
It is this way for a number of reasons. One reason is that we cannot be wholly committed to God without being committed to God’s people. To be committed to God is to be committed to his people. Those who want nothing to do with the church have put a question mark upon their commitment to God. We cannot love God without loving his people, and loving people means serving them. This is what the apostle John said: “everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 Jn. 5:1). Note that important word whoever. It doesn’t say that we love those who are just like us. It doesn’t say that we love those whose personalities mesh with our own. It says, “whoever”: in other words, even those who can be abrasive and hard to get along with. If they are born of God, we ought to love them, and loving them, we ought to serve them. True love is not a warm, gooey feeling in the stomach but a willingness to deny yourself for the good of others, after the example of Christ: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:2). And of course serving others means using our spiritual gifts for their good.
This is in fact the way the apostle Paul talks about spiritual gifts in his first letter to the Corinthians: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (12:7). In other words, your spiritual gift is not given to you so that you can show off and advance your own interests: it is given to you for the benefit of others, in particular the church. Wayne Grudem defines a spiritual gift, therefore, in this way: it is “any ability that is empowered by the Holy Spirit and used in any ministry of the church.” Don’t interpret “ministry” there in a formal sense. Ministry means serving others. So spiritual gifts are those abilities, empowered by the Holy Spirit, by which we serve others. They are not platforms for show-offs; rather, they provide opportunities for helping and serving the interests of others. To use your spiritual gifts correctly, you must have the attitude of people like Timothy: “For I have no one like him,” Paul writes the Philippians, “who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” In contrast to others, who “seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 2:20-21).
Paul Tripp, in his book Lead, says over and over again that ministry is a call to suffering. He is writing to those who are in leadership in the church, but the reality is that all ministry is in some sense a call to suffering. Ministering our spiritual gifts for the good of others is a call to suffering, because serving others means denying yourself. If you never have to deny yourself in serving others, then you have probably never actually served or used your spiritual gifts the way they ought to be used.
But getting back to the main point: loving God means loving his people, and loving his people means serving them. One of the ways we serve them is by using the gifts he has given us for their good. And that is part of being wholly devoted to God – being wholly devoted to his people. I love the way the household of Stephanas is described by Paul to the Corinthians. May we all be like this: “Now I urge you, brothers – you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints – be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer” (1 Cor. 16:15-16). Is that like us? Are we devoted to the ministry of the saints?
Another reason why using our spiritual gifts is a ground for devotedness to God is that we cannot grow spiritually without them. And here we need to make the point that the exercise of spiritual gifts is something than can only be done in the context of community, where we are not only using our gifts but are also being blessed by the gifts of others. You will perhaps note the emphasis upon the unity of the church in verses 4 and 5. We need that unity for precisely the reason the apostle gives in verse 4: “and the members do not all have the same function.” God has not given one person in the church all the gifts. You and I need the gifts of others.
When you look at the parallel passages, those passages in the NT that also deal with spiritual gifts, you will notice this recurring theme (cf. 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4:8-12; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). It is by the exercise of the spiritual gifts that the church grows. For example, Paul says this in Ephesians 4: “And [Christ] gave [the spiritual gifts which are listed in verse 11] to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (4:11-12). To be built up means to grow spiritually and to become more Christlike, as the context makes clear. God has given the gifts in the church so that we might grow in grace. But he has not located all the gifts in one person. This goes for the pastor or pastors. This is a case for a multiplicity of elders, but it is also a case for a multiplicity of avenues of service in the church so that all, men and women, have an opportunity to use them for the mutual edification of the body of Christ.
But the point is this: if you want to obey verses 1-2 of this chapter, you also have to obey verses 3-8. And that means living in community with the church, having fellowship with the people of God, so that we can exercise our gifts on their behalf and they can exercise their gifts on my behalf, so that we are building one another up in love. The use of spiritual gifts is not supplementary to the church, they are a necessity, they are essential.
However, this leads naturally to the question: if they are necessary, what are the prerequisites for their use? What must be true of us if we are to use them properly and in a way that is going to build up the church. This is an important question, as the case of the Corinthians demonstrates. They were a very gifted church, and yet they used their gifts in ways that actually undermined the spiritual health of the church. Corinth was in many ways the very kind of church you would have wanted to avoid, and yet they had all these gifts. So it’s not enough that we are gifted; there must be a certain mindset for their proper use. And that leads us to the next point.
The Prerequisites for Spiritual Gifts
The very first thing the apostles does is to give an exhortation to humility: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (12:3). In chapter 11 (ver. 18, 25), the apostle had warned against pride in spiritual status; now he warns against pride in spiritual giftedness. When you look at Corinth and all the problems they had, you can see pretty easily that one of their main problems was spiritual pride. They were puffed up (1 Cor. 5:2), boastful of their spiritual giftedness, and treating them as if they had developed them on their own (1 Cor. 4:7).
The remedy for this is to not think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, which shows me that our tendency is to do exactly the opposite. This is not a problem that some people have; it is a problem we all have, which is why the apostle directs his exhortation “to everyone among you.” We tend to think we are better than we really are, more gifted than we really are, and to think more of our ability to serve than our giftedness warrants.
Now this goes even for people who belong to the spiritual Eeyore camp: people who don’t want to exercise their giftedness in the church because they don’t think they will be of any use to anyone. But if you look more carefully at this attitude, it really is often an attitude of pride. Unfortunately I say this from experience. It is a refusal to serve others because we are afraid they aren’t going to appreciate our gifts as we want them to. It reminds me of the cook Mark Twain described somewhere in one of his writings, who was always putting down her cooking in order to fish for compliments. There are people who won’t exercise their gifts unless they are constantly being complimented and supported by affirmations. They don’t want to do anything unless they have this praise. But that is not humility; it is pride in a beggar’s outfit. Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t affirm and encourage each other. Certainly we should! But if we have to constantly be affirmed, could it not be because we are not satisfied with God’s approval and need the approval of men instead? Again, that is not humility, it is idolatry and pride.
How do we defeat the attitude of arrogance, the pitfall of pride? We do so by paying attention to the last part of verse 3: “each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” Measure here implies that there are varying levels of faith – some have more than others, and this of course shows itself in the manifestation of their spiritual giftedness. But all the faith we have ultimately is a gift from God, and not just the faith we have at the new birth but also the faith by which we receive and exercise our spiritual gifts. Just a note here: the faith Paul is referring to in verse 3 is not the spiritual gift of faith (cf. 1 Cor. 12:9), but the faith that is exercised in our spiritual gift. What this means is that our spiritual gifts do not come from ourselves. They are not something that we produce on our own. We cannot claim to have created them. They are gifts from God. Though Paul doesn’t use that word in this context, he does so in others (cf. 1 Cor. 12:1-11), and he makes it clear from this language that these abilities are something we originate outside of ourselves. They are given to us by the Spirit of the risen Christ (Eph. 4:7-11). In fact, in this latter text, they are called by the name of “grace.” And the fact that Paul in Romans 12 links the spiritual gifts with faith shows that they are to be received by God’s grace, not created by our ingenuity.
These various texts also point to the fact that spiritual gifts are not natural gifts; they are not abilities you are born with. Now that does not mean that the Spirit can’t use our natural gifts and make them into spiritual gifts, but the reality is that nothing is a spiritual gift that is not empowered by the Holy Spirit. So these are not abilities we can take credit for – they are gifts of the grace of God. And that being so, how could we be prideful? How can we take credit for something only God can do?
Moreover, the fact that not only the gift itself but the measure of the gift is determined by God ought to lead to a sober and humble judgment of our gifts. Some have said that having a greater measure of a particular gift than others would naturally lead to pride. If it were your talent, maybe so. But if we take this to heart, we cannot be proud, for even the measure of our gift is not owing to our own resourcefulness but to the sovereign grace of God. One believer may be a more effective encourager than another, but that does not give that person bragging rights. It only means they should use this gift in gratitude and humility to the God who gave it to them.
This is not only a preventative against pride, but also against discouragement. For our gifts are not something we have to go looking for, like some kind of spiritual Easter egg hunt. They are sovereignly dispensed to his people by God. This not only means that if I am in the body of Christ that I am gifted, but it also means that those whom God gifts, he uses. Those whom he calls to service he uses. It may not be in the great way that we might have envisioned, but to be used as an instrument in the Redeemer’s hands is far, far more important than being recognized by the greatest of men. And surely that should deliver us from a discouraging outlook.
Unity in Diversity
However, not only is humility important; unity is also indispensable in the exercise and practice of spiritual gifts. Coming back to the case of Corinth, Paul immediately spends the first four chapters rebuking them for division in the church. They had all these gifts, but they ruined them by disunity. Now the source of their disunity was their pride. The corollary to this is that humility ought to lead to unity, which is why Paul would write this to the Ephesians: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). Pride leads to disunity because it carries with a false perception of self-sufficiency. On the other hand, a humble and honest heart recognizes that I need others to achieve the fullness of what God wants me to do in this world.
Therefore Paul grounds his exhortation against pride in the unity and diversity of the church: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4-5). As in other places where the apostle speaks to spiritual gifts, Paul refers to the church as the body of Christ. One member cannot function on its own, each member of the body can only function in conjunction with every other member. To imagine that we can grow in grace and exercise our gifts on our own is like imagining that an eye can lift weights, or that a hand can digest food, or that a toe can think thoughts.
The body is a great analogy because it shows that we need both unity and diversity. Without unity, the diversity of gifts can never be deployed for the benefit of the whole. Without diversity, the unity becomes crippled by the lack and want of gifts. So we need to work for both. We need to create an environment in which the gifts can be exercised. We strive for unity through forbearance and humility and patience and love. And we strive for diversity by not insisting that every gift has to look like what we possess and by being willing to look to other believers for help in running the race.
We cannot of course do this if we cut ourselves off from the church! If every believing family becomes their own island, we will inevitably undermine the vision the apostle is setting out in these verses for the people of God. Let us remember what it says in the epistle of Hebrews: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).
The Exercise of Spiritual Gifts
We now come to the specific gifts which the apostle lists here. This list is clearly not meant to be exhaustive; this becomes clear when we compare this list with the others in the NT. I think Tom Schreiner is correct when he writes, “The gifts itemized are representative, showing the diversity of the unified body of Christ.” So I don’t think the purpose of this list is to communicate the idea that these are the particular gifts that are needed for a healthy church, and that you have to have all of them to function correctly as a church. Rather, when we read the list more closely, what we see is that we are being encouraged to (1) devote ourselves to our particular gift (whatever that is), and (2) to use it properly (in accordance with the nature of the gift).
Devote yourself to the gift God has given you.
Note how the apostle puts it in verses 7-8a. He says that we are to use our gifts (ver. 6) in the sphere of our particular giftedness. Those of us who are particularly gifted to serve, are to use our giftedness “in our serving;” those who teach, “in our teaching,” and those who exhort, “in our exhortation.” Now he isn’t saying that if you are gifted to teach, you are off the hook in other areas. He isn’t saying that a teacher doesn’t have to serve! But he is saying that if you are gifted in a particular area, you are to be devoted to the development and exercise of that gift.
I think this means at least a couple of things. First, it means that I am not constantly looking over my shoulder at other believers whose gifts are different from mine and trying to make my gift just like their gift. I am to be content with the gift or gifts that God has given me. I am not to be envious of others, nor am I to be jealous because my gift is not as good as someone else’s. I am not trying to copy others. God has given you and me particular gifts and we are to recognize that and to use what God has given us.
Let me illustrate this with a movie illustration and a Biblical example. In the movie Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams loses a race to Eric Liddell because he looks over his shoulder to see where Liddell is on the track. That look cost him the race. If he had just concentrated on his own race he might very well have won. That is what I mean by looking over our shoulders at the gifts of others. God may have given you the gift of service and someone else the gift of exhortation. You don’t try to act as if you have their gift, but use your gift as extensively as you can. The more time you spend wishing you were like someone else, the more time you waste not using your gift. And when we do this, God is dishonored and the church is not ministered to as it should be.
Here’s the Biblical illustration. Paul says in Gal. 1:7-8 that everyone recognized that Peter was given the responsibility of bringing the gospel to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles (which Paul calls a grace in verse 9), and so Paul went to Gentiles and Peter to the Jews. Now that doesn’t mean that Paul stopped ministering to Jews; the book of Acts shows that he didn’t. But it also shows that he devoted most of his efforts towards the Gentiles. Why? Because that is how God had gifted him. In the same way, we don’t have to try to be what others are or do what others do. We are to do what we can with the gifts which God has given to us.
Second, it means that we try to use and refine and grow in the gifts God has given. Let’s say that I am gifted in leadership. Then I am to devote myself to using and growing in that gift. If I am gifted in serving others, I am to devote myself to using and growing in that gift. If I am gifted in teaching, I am to devote myself to using and growing in that gift. Again, what that means is that I am to be wise about the resources of my time and abilities – I need to leverage them for the use of the gift God has given to me. As a teacher of the Word, my time needs to be primarily devoted to studying God’s word and teaching it to others. It’s what Paul was getting at in his exhortation to Timothy who served as a pastor in the church (1 Tim. 4:13-16) and to widows who served in the church (1 Tim. 5:9-10).
Use them properly
This comes across in the gifts Paul mentions in verses 6 and 8: “if prophesy, [use it] in proportion to our faith . . . the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” In other words, there is a right way and a wrong way to use our gifts. We are to use them wisely. To those whom God had given the gift of prophesy, they were to exercise it in a way that was consonant with the faith God had given them: they were not to prophesy any further than they had permission to do so. If God has given you a heart for giving (and it doesn’t have to be only the giving of money), then the proper way to use that gift is by giving generously. If God has given you the gift of leadership, and you are at the top of the food chain so to speak, then you may be tempted to squander away your time through lack of accountability. Don’t do that, the apostle says, don’t be slack but be zealous in the exercise of your gift. If God has given you the gift of mercy, don’t show mercy as if it were a burden and give people the impression that they’re a pain in the neck. No! show mercy with cheerfulness.
In other words, we are to use our gifts in a way that brings the most glory to God and good to his people. Gifts are not given to us for our own advancement. They are not pedestals for personal achievement. Rather, they are instruments God has given us to bless others. We are to use in a way that accomplishes such a purpose and end. If we do, we will use them properly and rightly and in so doing we will please God, bless others, and find joy in the service of the Lord.
Let me end on that note. How do you know you have a spiritual gift? If the exercise of it blesses and builds up others and I find special joy in the performance of it, then I would say that is good evidence that you have that particular gift. If you find this to be the case, then don’t sit on it! Don’t bury your talent, but go use it for the glory of God and the good of his church.