One of the topics that both peaks the curiosity of Christians and that many Christians find confusing and frustrating is the whole notion of spiritual gifts. Four primary sections of Scripture speak to the issue: 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4.11-13, 1 Peter 4.9-11, and Romans 12.3-8. Paul naturally addresses spiritual gifts after making the dramatic statement in Romans 12.1-2. Since we have received God’s mercy and have been made right with God by grace through faith, then we are to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, which is what it means to worship God. We are no longer to be conformed to the pattern of this world, but we are to transformed into something completely different, into the image of Christ. As part of this transformation into something completely different, we become instruments of God’s grace. Paul wrote,
3For 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. 4For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7if ser-vice, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Romans 12.3-8 ESV)
Understanding the Text
Even as Paul wrote about the different gifts that the members of the body of Christ have according to the grace given to them, his very teaching was an overflow of the grace given to him. Paul repeatedly spoke of his calling as an apostle as grace given to him by God (see Romans 1.5 and Romans 15.15). His teaching ministry was to bring about the obedience to faith, and so he was teaching about spiritual gifts by the grace given to him. From Paul’s perspective on his own calling and gifting, we learn something about spiritual gifts.
Paul warns the Romans not to think more highly of themselves than they ought, a temptation that is common to all of mankind. Instead, Christians ought to have “sober judgment,” a word which means to be in our right mind. It is the same word used in Mark 5 to describe the Gerasene demoniac after Jesus cast out the legion of demons: “he was clothed and in his right mind” (see Mark 5.15). We ought to be in our right mind according to the measure of faith God has assigned to us.
While an initial reading of the phrase “the measure of faith God has assigned to us” might cause us to think that God has measured out an amount of faith for each person and that our level of faith is predetermined by God, I think the context demonstrates that Paul is speaking of something else. We are to be in our right mind based upon the knowledge that we all gave gifts that differ according to the grace gifts measured out to us. This is exactly what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians,
4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Corinthians 12.4-11 ESV)
In both Romans and Corinthians, Paul makes the point that there are different gifts, or varieties of gifts, and that God gives to each one as He wills, or as He measures out.
When the Bible does speak to spiritual gifts, it often does so in the context of the analogy of the body of Christ. Just as our human body has many different members, each with different roles and tasks, so does the body of Christ. The body of Christ has many members, members that do not have the same function, but members that are still members of one another as well as members of the body of Christ (see also 1 Corinthians 12.12-26). Each of us has received a grace gift according to God’s measure and design, and we are to use them as members of the body.
Paul then lists seven gifts in Romans. There are five different listings of spiritual gifts in the Bible, and each of the five lists are different. There is some overlap, but no two lists agree with each other. In total, 19 gifts are mentioned in the five different lists. Most likely, the list of spiritual gifts is not exhaustive, meaning that there may be other gifts not listed in any of the five gifts, other ways in which God manifests His Spirit through the believer.
Prophecy, a gift more fully described in 1 Corinthians 14, is mentioned first. Each of the gifts listed in Romans 12 are followed with a qualifying phrase, a way in which the apostle is encouraging them to be used. Prophecy is to be used “in proportion to our faith.” This is a difficult phrase to translate and to understand. This is the only time this word is used in Scripture, and its meaning is hard to grasp. From this word, we get the English word “analogy,” which means “a resemblance in some particulars between things otherwise unlike.” Furthermore, the text literally says “analogy of faith” not “our faith” (ESV) or “his faith” (NIV). You will notice the footnote to the NIV text suggests another way to read this phrase: “in agreement with the faith.” I think this reading better captures the meaning of the word “analogy” and is in accord with Paul’s teaching on the gift of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14,
29Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. 30If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. 31For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, 32and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. 33For God is not a God of confusion but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14.29-33 ESV)
It seems that one prophesies by sharing a revelation they receive from the Lord, but that revelation is to be weighed by all. Prophets then are to prophesy in agreement with the faith, as Paul is teaching in Romans 12.
Those with the gift of serving should service, those with the gift of teaching should teach. The gift of exhortation is the same root word used to describe the ministry of the Holy Spirit in John 16.7: paraclete, one called alongside to help. The one with the gift of giving should give with sincerity, free from hypocrisy, and the one with the gift of leading should do so with earnestness and diligence. The one with the gift of mercy should do so with cheerfulness.
While it is presumptuous to try to summarize the entire biblical teachings on spiritual gifts in one sermon, let me give it a try. From Romans 12, and the other four primary teaching passages on spiritual gifts, we can make the following observations about spiritual gifts.
First, we need to make sure that we define spiritual gifts correctly. Spiritual gifts are not abilities and talents that we use to serve God. This definition leaves out a key distinction between spiritual gifts and talents. Talents and abilities are indeed gifts from God, and we all have differing measures of these talents. Some can play the piano and others can paint a mural, but there are not “spiritual gifts.” Spiritual gifts are manifestations of the Spirit for the common good (1 Corinthians 12. 7). There is something innately spiritual about a spiritual gift.
Pagans and unbelievers have talents and abilities, but only born again believers can have a spiritual gift. Indeed, one of the testimonies that a person is a Christian is that the Spirit of God dwells within them (see Romans 8.9-11 and 1 John 4.13). So, we must not miss the key distinction between a spiritual gift and an ability. A spiritual gift is a manifestation of the Spirit, a way in which the Spirit of God flows through a believer to minister to another person.
One way of thinking of this is to see the believer as nothing more than a pot. The Lord fills the clay pot with His Spirit, and then picks up the pot and pours the Spirit out of the pot and into another person’s life. It is the flow of the Spirit that makes this gift “spiritual.” Paul’s point is that the Spirit flows through each believer in a different way, but it is the same Spirit who is at work in each believer (see 1 Corinthians 12.11).
So, a spiritual gift is not something we can use independent of the Spirit of God. This is not something that we possess, but it is a way in which the Spirit flows through us. Anytime we try to exercise a spiritual gift independent of the Spirit, it ceases to be a spiritual gift and becomes nothing more than a talent or an ability.
Second, God gives spiritual gifts for a very clear purpose: to build up the body of Christ. The flow of the Spirit is not intended to end in our souls but to pass through us into the life of another.
Third, every born again believer has a spiritual gift. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit and God empowers them in everyone (see 1 Corinthians 12.4-7). If you are saved and if you have the Spirit of God, which is redundant, then you have a spiritual gift. The Spirit desires to flow through you in a God designed way to minister to others and to build up the church. Let no one despise their Creator by saying that they have nothing to offer the body of Christ. This was exactly the problem Paul was confronting in the Corinthian church, the lie that some parts of the body were insignificant. Do not say, “because I am not a hand, I don’t belong to the body of Christ” God has arranged the members in the body, each one of them, you included, as He chose (see 1 Corinthians 12.14-19). To belittle your function in the body is to despise your Creator, to call the Designer a fool. You may not know what your spiritual gift is, but every born again believer has a spiritual gift.
Fourth, God has expertly designed the body of Christ, His church, to have different members with different functions that need each other and who depend upon each other. Every one has a gift, but no one has all the gifts. While some of the gifts are more prominent than others, it is the hidden gifts that are actually more important. The speaking gifts (prophecy, teaching, etc) are more easily seen, but the serving gifts (giving, serving, showing mercy, etc) are the backbone of the body. And just as we are not to despise our Creator by thinking we have nothing to offer the body of Christ, we are not to despise other members of the body thinking they have nothing to offer the body of Christ.
What this means is that God designed the body of Christ intentionally to be a collection of saved sinners who, on the one hand, have some gifts, and on the other hand, are void of some gifts. Which means that each of us are both strong and weak, both contributors to the body and in need of the body. And we have to learn to live with each other knowing that not one of us has it all, and each one of us has a glaring weakness that will be filled by another member of the body.
Fifth, as believers, we are to have some kind of understanding of what our spiritual gifting is. This is what Paul is saying, “because you have differing gifts, use them.” How can we use them if we have no idea what they are?
While time does not permit us to completely exhaust the question of how we come to know what our spiritual gifts are, let me give you a few key points as you seek to discern them. We should resist the urge to try to force ourselves to fit one of the nineteen gifts listed in the New Testament. I do not believe those gift lists are exhaustive for even Paul never gave the same list twice. The way God flows through you may not be captured in one of these nineteen words, so don’t try to force it. Also, don’t confuse spiritual gifts with a position of service in the local church. You may use your gift in a position at the local church, but more often than not, you will not. In fact, the vast majority of Christians will exercise their gifts in such a way that they will never show up on an “organizational flow chart” of the local church. If you have the gift of teaching, you may fill the position of pastor. If you have the gift of leading, you may have the position of committee chair. But you will most likely serve, or exhort, or give, or show mercy in ways that will never be known to the church at large. So don’t confine the movement of the Spirit to positions of service in the local church.
The two keys in identifying your spiritual gift are joy and fruit. What is it that gives you joy in the Kingdom of God? If sitting around a table with four eight year olds talking about spiritual truths and helping them understand it is fun to you, pay attention to that. If you get a kick out of walking alongside people during times of crisis, don’t ignore that. God gives you the desires of your heart, and it makes sense that God would have us find joy in our spiritual gift.
In addition, if the Spirit is flowing through us, then that should be bearing fruit. Listen to the testimonies of the people around you. When someone comments on how effective you are as a teacher, or how much encouragement they received from your visit, or how effective you are as a leader, these are evidences that the Spirit bears fruit in this particular area.
Sixth, the reason that it is important that we know our spiritual gift is so that we can use them, as Paul wrote in Romans 12.6. Unfortunately, some believers have never stepped into this area of their spiritual life. They may be reading the Bible daily, or working hard to follow God as a spouse or a parent, and they may be carefully following the moral teachings of the Bible. But, they have never matured or stepped into realm of where God flows through them to minister to others. Paul is saying to us, “each of you have a spiritual gift so use it!”
By use it, Paul means that we are to put ourselves into positions where the Spirit of God can flow through us to minister to others. And don’t be discouraged by the reality that there is a maturing process in the use of spiritual gifts. You cannot wait until you magically become an expert teacher, or perfect exhorter, or perfect servant, or perfect leader, or perfect mercy giver. No. You mature and grow in these gifts as you practice them. If you think that God uses you to show mercy, then put yourself in a position where God can flow mercy through you. And in that experience, you will mature and develop and grow into a more effective instrument of God’s grace.
Finally, we should keep Romans 12.3 in mind at all times. We are to be right minded about ourselves, remembering that we are nothing but pots in the hands of God. This is to bring both a humility and confidence. It brings humility because it reminds us that we have nothing to boast about in regards to spiritual gifts. Any gift I might have, I only have because the Lord has given it to me, and if the Lord chooses to take it away, then I will once again be the nothing that I am. There is no room for pride or boasting. But there is no room for false humility either because while we are just pots, we are pots filled with the Spirit of God. We do have a treasure in the earthen vessels (see 2 Corinthians 4.7), and the fact that the Spirit is flowing through us ought to give us incredible confidence as we are used by God to minister to others.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us by God, let us use them to the building up of the body and to the glory of God!