Category: (01) Understanding our Spiritual Gifts


First, it is important to recognize that this is not a question of whether God still performs miracles today. It would be foolish and unbiblical to claim God does not heal people, speak to people, and perform miraculous signs and wonders today. The question is whether the miraculous gifts of the Spirit, described primarily in 1 Corinthians 12–14, are still active in the church today. This is also not a question of can the Holy Spirit give someone a miraculous gift. The question is whether the Holy Spirit still dispenses the miraculous gifts today. Above all else, we entirely recognize that the Holy Spirit is free to dispense gifts according to His will (1 Corinthians 12:7-11).

In the book of Acts and the Epistles, the vast majority of miracles are performed by the apostles and their close associates. Paul gives us the reason why: “The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance” (2 Corinthians 12:12). If every believer in Christ was equipped with the ability to perform signs, wonders, and miracles, then signs, wonders, and miracles could in no way be the identifying marks of an apostle. Acts 2:22 tells us that Jesus was “accredited” by “miracles, wonders, and signs.” Similarly, the apostles were “marked” as genuine messengers from God by the miracles they performed. Acts 14:3 describes the gospel message being “confirmed” by the miracles Paul and Barnabas performed.

Chapters 12–14 of 1 Corinthians deal primarily with the subject of the gifts of the Spirit. It seems from that text “ordinary” Christians were sometimes given miraculous gifts (12:8-10, 28-30). We are not told how commonplace this was. From what we learned above, that the apostles were “marked” by signs and wonders, it would seem that miraculous gifts being given to “ordinary” Christians was the exception, not the rule. Beside the apostles and their close associates, the New Testament nowhere specifically describes individuals exercising the miraculous gifts of the Spirit.

It is also important to realize that the early church did not have the completed Bible, as we do today (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Therefore, the gifts of prophecy, knowledge, wisdom, etc. were necessary in order for the early Christians to know what God would have them do. The gift of prophecy enabled believers to communicate new truth and revelation from God. Now that God’s revelation is complete in the Bible, the “revelatory” gifts are no longer needed, at least not in the same capacity as they were in the New Testament.

God miraculously heals people every day. God still does amazing miracles, signs, and wonders and sometimes performs those miracles through a Christian. However, these things are not necessarily the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. The primary purpose of the miraculous gifts was to prove that the gospel was true and that the apostles were truly God’s messengers. The Bible does not say outright that the miraculous gifts have ceased, but it does lay the foundation for why they might no longer occur to the same extent as they did as recorded in the New Testament.

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When we speak of the biblical sign gifts, we are referring to miracles like  speaking in tongues, visions, healing, raising the dead, and prophesying. There  is no question among believers whether or not they existed, for the Bible  plainly describes them. Where disagreement arises among believers is their  purpose, as well as the question of whether we should experience them today.  Some say that these gifts are a sign of one’s salvation, while others say they  are a sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and yet others say their purpose  is to authenticate the message of the gospel. How can we know the truth? We must  search the Scriptures to find God’s purpose statements about these  things.

One of the earliest references to sign gifts in the Bible is  found in Exodus 4, when Moses is being instructed by God about the impending  deliverance from Egypt. Moses worried that the people would not believe that God  sent him, so God gave him the signs of the rod becoming a snake and his hand  becoming leprous. God said these signs were “that they may believe that the  LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the  God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (v. 5). If the people still did not believe,  God told Moses to take water from the Nile and pour it on the ground, where it  would turn to blood (v. 9). The purpose for the children of Israel was that they  would believe God’s messenger.

God also gave Moses miraculous signs to  show Pharaoh, in order that he would let the people go. In Exodus 7:3-5, God told  Moses that He would multiply His signs and wonders in Egypt, so “the Egyptians  shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and  bring out the people of Israel from among them.” God wanted the Egyptian people  to know that He was the one working to deliver the Israelites. In Exodus 10:7, Moses told Pharaoh that the final plague,  which would kill the firstborn, was to show that God distinguished between the  Egyptians and the Israelites. The signs and wonders confirmed God’s message to  Pharaoh and the Egyptians, so they would know that Moses was sent by  God.

When Elijah confronted the false prophets on Mount Carmel (1 Kings  18), he prayed for God to miraculously send fire from heaven so the people would  know “you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done  all these things at your word….that this people may know that you, O LORD, are  God” (v. 36-37). The miracles he and the other prophets performed were a  confirmation that God had sent the prophets and that God was at work in Israel’s  midst.

Joel was given a message of God’s judgment on Israel, and within  that message was a prophecy of mercy and hope. When the judgment came as  prophesied, and the people responded with repentance, God said that He would  then remove the judgments and restore His blessing: “You shall know that I am in  the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And  my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:27).  Immediately after that statement, God spoke about pouring His Spirit on the  people, so they would prophesy, see visions, and see wonders happening. When the  disciples began speaking in tongues on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), Peter declared, “This is that which was  spoken by the prophet Joel.” What was the purpose? That the people would know  the message brought by Peter and the others was God’s message.

Jesus’  ministry was accompanied by various signs and wonders. What was the purpose of  His miracles? In John  10:37-38, Jesus was responding to the Jews who wanted to stone Him for  blasphemy, and He said, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not  believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the  works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the  Father.” Just as in the Old Testament, the purpose of Jesus’ miracles was to  confirm God’s hand on His Messenger.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus to  show them a sign, Jesus said, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a  sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For  just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so  will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn  it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater  than Jonah is here” (Matthew  12:39-41). Jesus was very clear that the purpose of a sign was so people  would acknowledge God’s message and respond accordingly. Likewise, in John 4:48, He told the nobleman, “Unless you see signs  and wonders, you will not believe.” The signs were a help to those who struggled  to believe, but the message of salvation in Christ was the focus.

This  message of salvation was outlined by Paul in 1  Corinthians 1:21-23: “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to  save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we  preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” Signs  have their purpose, but they are a means to a greater end—the salvation of souls  through the preaching of the gospel. In 1  Corinthians 14:22, Paul states clearly that “tongues are a sign not for  believers but for unbelievers.” God used miraculous signs like speaking in  tongues to convince unbelievers that the message of Christ was true, but as the  rest of the context shows, the more important thing was the clear declaration of  the gospel message.

One thing that is often overlooked in discussions  about signs and miracles is the timing and placement of them in the Scriptures.  Contrary to popular belief, people in Bible times did not see miracles all the  time. In fact, the miracles of the Bible are generally grouped around special  events in God’s dealing with mankind. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and  entrance into the Promised Land were accompanied by many miracles, but the  miracles faded away soon afterward. During the late kingdom years, when God was  about to place the people in exile, He allowed some of His prophets to do  miracles. When Jesus came to live among us, He did miracles, and in the early  ministry of the apostles, they did miracles, but outside of those times, we see  very few miracles or signs in the Bible. The vast majority of people who lived  in Bible times never saw signs and wonders with their own eyes. They had to live  by faith in what God had already revealed to them.

In the early church,  the signs and wonders were primarily centered on the first presentation of the  gospel among various people groups. On the day of Pentecost, we read that there  were “Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem  (Acts 2:5). It was to these  Jews, who had been raised in other lands and spoke those foreign languages (v.  6-11), that the sign of tongues was first given. They acknowledged that they  were hearing in their native tongues about the wonderful works of God, and Peter  told them that the only appropriate response was to repent of their sins (v.  38). When the gospel was first presented among the Samaritans, Philip did signs  and wonders (Acts  8:13).

Again, when Peter was sent to Cornelius, a Gentile, God gave  a miraculous sign to confirm His work. “And the believers from among the  circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy  Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking  in tongues and extolling God” (Acts  10:45-46). When Peter was questioned by the other apostles, he gave this as  evidence of God’s leading, and the others “glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the  Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life’” (Acts 11:18).

In every instance, the sign gifts  were a confirmation of God’s message and messenger, in order that people might  hear and believe. Once the message was confirmed, the signs faded away. We  typically don’t need those signs to be repeated in our lives, but we do need to  receive the same gospel message.

Romans  12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians chapter 12 make it clear that each Christian is  given spiritual gifts according to the Lord’s choice. Spiritual gifts are given  for the edification of the body of Christ (1  Corinthians 12:7, 14:12). The exact timing of the giving of these gifts 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 God 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 about a  spiritual gift that Timothy would have to enable 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 us) 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 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 “greater” gifts if they already had been  given all they would be given, and there was no further opportunity of gaining  these greater 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 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. If He did, then who would serve in 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 to learn the Word and develop his teaching ability may  become a better teacher than one who may have the spiritual gift of teaching,  but who neglects the gift.

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?  First Corinthians 12:31 seems to indicate that this is  possible: “earnestly desire the best gifts.” You can seek a spiritual gift from  God 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 He knows through  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 God 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.

In God’s great gift of salvation, we have a number of benefits and  responsibilities. Most Christians are quick to point out the personal benefits  we receive with our salvation, but we are a little slower to focus on the  responsibilities that come with it. When people speak of spiritual gifts, the  focus is often on questions like, “Do you know what your spiritual gift is?” or  “Have you taken this spiritual gifts survey?” While the knowledge of one’s  gifting can be beneficial, we often lose sight of God’s design in these matters.  Yes, the particular gifts of the Spirit are benefits to each believer, but they  come with great responsibilities.

There are two Greek words that are  primarily used to describe the gifts of the Spirit. Pneumatika refers to  their source, the Holy Spirit (pneuma) of God, and charismata refers to the fact that they are granted as an act of God’s grace  (charis). Since they are given by grace, we are reminded that they are  not based on our worthiness or personal abilities, but on God’s sovereign  choice. Since they are given by the Spirit of God, they are a part of the new  life granted to us in Christ (and may be drastically different from our  perceived capabilities or desires prior to salvation). A brief examination of  three key texts (Romans  12:6-8; 1  Corinthians 12:4-11; 1 Peter  4:10-11) will show us God’s design regarding His gifts.

One of the  first things that becomes clear in these passages is the diversity of the gifts.  When Paul listed the gifts in Romans 12, he identified different gifts than what  he wrote in 1 Corinthians 12, and when Peter spoke of them in 1 Peter 4:10-11, he  didn’t even bother specifying them. Among the things listed are prophecy,  ministry, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, teaching, exhorting, giving,  ruling, showing mercy, speaking in languages, and interpreting languages.  Whatever the specific use of each one was, they each fit together as the parts  of the body work together to make a functional whole (Romans 12:5).

There are varying opinions  regarding the number of spiritual gifts, as well as what the gifts are. Romans  12 lists at least seven, and 1 Corinthians 12 lists nine. There is some overlap  in these, and there are certainly indications that God has more that He gives  His children. What are some of these gifts? First Corinthians says God gives the  word of wisdom and knowledge to some. This would seem to identify a particular  ability to grasp spiritual truths in the Word of God and apply them to life.  Prophecy is the ability to proclaim divine revelation to the church. As it is  used in the New Testament, this gift seems more focused on determining God’s  will in particular circumstances than on foretelling future events. Discerning  of spirits seems to be connected with the gift of prophecy, and refers to  checking the authority and validity of the message, in order to prevent false  prophecy. Healing and miracles are often referred to as “sign gifts,” since they  were part of the validation for the ministry of Jesus and the apostles. God  certainly still heals and does miracles, but these gifts to the church have  largely ceased with the completion of the Bible and the validation of its  message.

One of the most misunderstood gifts is that of language and  interpretation. “Tongues” in the KJV is simply a translation of the Greek  glossa, which is the normal word for any language. In Acts 2:6-11, the people who were gathered in Jerusalem  marveled that, even though the disciples were all untrained Galileans, they  heard the “wonderful works of God” in their own languages. Whatever else people  might teach, two things here are clear: 1) The people in the crowd heard and  understood what was being said about Jesus Christ, and 2) we are told what  languages the message was received in. Other gifts mentioned are faith, serving,  encouraging, giving, ruling, and showing mercy. These are fairly  self-explanatory. Whatever gift we look at, one common denominator is always in  place—gifts were given by God Himself and are to be used for His glory in His  church.

We can certainly learn of the gifts from these lists, but if we  limit the gifts of the Spirit to those few that were enumerated, we miss the  point. In all three passages, we are given a specific purpose of the gifts, and  that is where we should direct our attention. In Romans 12:8,  we are told to use the various gifts according to the character of God and His  revealed will “…with simplicity…with diligence…with cheerfulness.” In 1  Corinthians 12:25, we are told that these gifts were given “so that there  should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern  for each other.” In 1 Peter  4:11, the purpose is “that in all things God may be praised through Jesus  Christ.” The best way for us to understand spiritual gifts is to know how we can  care for and serve one another to the glory of God. Whether we do that through  teaching, feeding, healing, or any other method, we have a responsibility to God  and to one another to offer ourselves as servants (2  Corinthians 4:9).

There are actually three biblical lists of the “gifts of the Spirit,” also  known as spiritual gifts. The three main passages describing the spiritual gifts  are Romans  12:6-8; 1  Corinthians 12:4-11; and 1  Corinthians 12:28. The spiritual gifts identified in Romans 12 are  prophesying, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leadership, and mercy. The  list in 1  Corinthians 12:4-11 includes the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge,  faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits,  speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues. The list in 1 Corinthians 12:28 includes healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. A brief  description of each gift follows:

Prophecy – The Greek word translated  “prophesying” or “prophecy” in both passages properly means to “speak forth” or  declare the divine will, to interpret the purposes of God, or to make known in  any way the truth of God which is designed to influence people. The idea of  telling the future was added sometime in the Middle Ages and is in direct  contradiction to other scriptural passages that condemn such fortune-telling or  predicting the future (Acts  16:16-18).

Serving – Also referred to as “ministering,” the Greek  word diakonian, from which we get the English “deacon,” means service of  any kind, the broad application of practical help to those in need.

Teaching – This gift involves the analysis and proclamation of the Word of God,  explaining the meaning, context and application to the hearer’s life. The gifted  teacher is one who has the unique ability to clearly instruct and communicate  knowledge, specifically the doctrines of the faith.

Encouraging – Also  called “exhortation,” this gift is evident in those who consistently call upon  others to heed and follow God’s truth, which may involve correction or building  others up by strengthening weak faith or comforting in trials.

Giving –  Gifted givers are those who joyfully share what they have with others, whether  it is financial, material, or the giving of personal time and attention. The  giver is concerned for the needs of others and seeks opportunities to share  goods, money and time with them as needs arise.

Leadership – The gifted  leader is one who rules, presides over or has the management of other people in  the church. The word literally means “guide” and carries with it the idea of one  who steers a ship. One with the gift of leadership rules with wisdom and grace  and exhibits the fruit of the Spirit in his life as he leads by example.

Mercy – Closely linked with the gift of encouragement, the gift of  mercy is obvious in those who are compassionate toward others who are in  distress, showing sympathy and sensitivity coupled with a desire and the  resources to lessen their suffering in a kind and cheerful manner.

Word  of wisdom – The fact that this gift is described as the “word” of wisdom  indicates that it is one of the speaking gifts. This gift describes someone who  can understand and speak forth biblical truth in such a way as to skillfully  apply it to life situations with all discernment.

Word of knowledge –  This is another speaking gift that involves understanding truth with an insight  that only comes by revelation from God. Those with the gift of knowledge  understand the deep things of God and the mysteries of His Word.

Faith  – All believers possess faith in some measure because it is one of the gifts of  the Spirit bestowed on all who come to Christ in faith (Galatians 5:22-23).  The spiritual gift of faith is exhibited by one with a strong and unshakeable  confidence in God, His Word, His promises, and the power of prayer to effect  miracles.

Healing – Although God does still heal today, the ability of  men to produce miraculous healings belonged to the apostles of the first century  church to affirm that their message was from God. Christians today do not have  the power to heal the sick or resurrect the dead. If they did, the hospitals and  morgues would be full of these “gifted” people emptying beds and coffins  everywhere.

Miraculous powers – Also known as the working of miracles,  this is another temporary sign gift which involved performing supernatural  events that could only be attributed to the power of God (Acts 2:22). This gift was exhibited by Paul (Acts 19:11-12), Peter (Acts 3:6), Stephen (Acts 6:8), and Phillip (Acts 8:6-7),  among others.

Distinguishing (discerning) of spirits – Certain  individuals possess the unique ability to determine the true message of God from  that of the deceiver, Satan, whose methods include purveying deceptive and  erroneous doctrine. Jesus said many would come in His name and would deceive  many (Matthew  24:4-5), but the gift of discerning spirits is given to the Church to  protect it from such as these.

Speaking in tongues – The gift of  tongues is one of the temporary “sign gifts” given to the early Church to enable  the gospel to be preached throughout the world to all nations and in all known  languages. It involved the divine ability to speak in languages previously  unknown to the speaker. This gift authenticated the message of the gospel and  those who preached it as coming from God. The phrase “diversity of tongues”  (KJV) or “different kinds of tongues” (NIV) effectively eliminates the idea of a  “personal prayer language” as a spiritual gift.

Interpretation of  tongues – A person with the gift of interpreting tongues could understand what a  tongues-speaker was saying even though he did not know the language that was  being spoken. The tongues interpreter would then communicate the message of the  tongues speaker to everyone else, so all could understand.

Helps –  Closely related to the gift of mercy is the gift of helps. Those with the gift  of helps are those who can aid or render assistance to others in the church with  compassion and grace. This has a broad range of possibilities for application.  Most importantly, this is the unique ability to identify those who are  struggling with doubt, fears, and other spiritual battles; to move toward those  in spiritual need with a kind word, an understanding and compassionate demeanor;  and to speak scriptural truth that is both convicting and loving.

There is no magic formula or definitive 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). A common problem for Christians is the temptation to  get so caught up in our spiritual gift that we only seek to serve God in the  area in which we feel we have been gifted. That is not how the spiritual gifts  work. God calls us to obediently serve Him in all things. He will equip us with  whatever gift or gifts we need to accomplish the task 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 in order to 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.