What IS a Spiritual Gift?


I write this post because I have not seen it written anywhere else. I’ve been thinking about spiritual gifts for years. I’ve seen debates like the Strange Fire position by John MacArthur. I’ve seen debates on cessationism and continuonism about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and I don’t like what I hear. So, just like I tried to redefine the election vs. free will debate, I’d like to try to do the same with the spiritual gifts.

Pointed Questions on Spiritual Gifts

Let me ask a simple but pointed question: What IS a spiritual gift? I’m not asking if the spiritual gifts have “ceased” or if they “continue.” I’m asking WHAT IS the thing that either cased or continued?

In other words, what does someone with the gift of “evangelism” even have? If someone (even an apostle like Saint Peter) has a “gift” of evangelism, how does this fit with what we read in Romans:

For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:15-18)

So if God has mercy on some and hardens others, and it all depends on his will, WHAT IS the spiritual “gift” of evangelism?

Or take another example:

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21)

If the will of man doesn’t produce prophesy, then WHAT IS the gift of prophesy? I’m not asking if the gift of prophesy ceased with the apostles or continues to our present day. I’m asking that whatever “it” is, WHAT IS IT?

To rephrase the question, let’s go to the very strange incident that happens when Peter heals a paralyzed person in Acts:

Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. And Peter said to him,Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. (Acts 9:32-35)

So here’s a rather basic question: WHO healed Aeneas? Did Peter heal him? Did Jesus Christ heal him? Did the Holy Spirit heal him? Did God heal him?

Be precise: what happened?

Understanding the Language

Let’s change gears for a moment, and just talk about words.

In high school, I was a very good student in Spanish. I had an excellent teacher named Mrs. Casanave… excuse me… Señora Casanave, who helped me create actual speech in another language. Basically all of my Spanish knowledge is what I originally picked up 17 years ago in high school. It’s still with me.

But there’s a problem. I can easily ask “Donde esta el baño?” to get directions to a very important location. I can add descriptions of the urgency of this request with other sentences like “Yo necesito el baño ahora! No tengo ninguna tiempo! El tigre esta a mi puerta! Me gusta mis pantalones cuando los estar limpia!” (As Spanish speakers can see, my language skills are still firmly entrenched in high-school.)

But there is a problem. Even though I know the Spanish vocabulary of “left” and “right” as directions, even though I know “there” and “over there” as descriptions, and even though I know “walk” and “turn” as verbs, I have an extremely difficult time hearing and understanding people who speak Spanish. Even though I can easily connect Spanish words in my mind to speak them out of my mouth, a first grader who speaks English at school and Spanish at home would be able to find el baño easier than I could.

In other words, though I may have a gift of tongues, I do not have a gift of interpretation.

Now, that might sound like a highly controversial theological point that I just made about charismatic Christianity. And it is. But it is also a straightforward, ordinary, and non-theological statement that uses the ordinary, straightforward, and non-theological English words “interpretation” and “tongue” (which in both English and Greek also means “languages”).

What happens when we read what the Bible says about the spiritual gifts in an ORDINARY way? A lot, actually.

The Gifts, Miracles, and the Gift of Miracles

Let’s return to the confusing passage in Acts and ask some more pointed questions.

Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, bedridden for eight years, who was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. (Acts 9:32-35)

This is obviously a miracle. And I won’t get into the controversy of whether or not miracles are still available to the church in this paragraph. Instead, I’m going to ask a basic question about language and interpretation of scripture:

  • WHO received the gift of healing in this interaction?
    • Did Peter receive the gift of healing by doing a miracle?
    • Did Aeneas receive a gift of healing by receiving a miracle?
    • Did the residents of Lydda and Sharon receive a gift of healing by observing the whole thing?
    • Did some combination of the above options receive the miracle of healing?

These are very good questions, and I won’t plant my flag on any particular answer. I won’t even pretend that I’ve phrased the question in the right way.

Instead, I’ll just point out that the LEAST likely person to have received the “gift” of healing in this interaction is Peter. Read it again if you don’t believe me. How is it possible to say that Peter either did or received anything?

So even assuming that Peter DID the miracle (even though he explicitly states that Jesus Christ is the one who heals him), the one who RECEIVED the miracle was not Peter.

Once again, though I understand that this might have some theological implication, all I’ve done at the moment is make some observations of grammar and the meaning of words.

Examination of the Spiritual Gifts in Scripture Using Ordinary Words

So let’s think about this. How does this apply to our own lives? Have you or someone you’ve known ever had a heart transplant? That’s a miracle of healing. I’m not making a theological claim. I’m just saying that according to the definition of “miracle” and “healing,” that is a miracle of healing. A miracle is just something amazing that is a great work of feat, strength, power, or wisdom (either divine or human). Don’t let familiarity breed contempt. You take a heart out of a dead person and put it into a dying person and the dying person lives. That’s a miracle.

So when we want to know if someone is a “healer” according to the Bible, how would we know? Well, are you a doctor? Okay. Maybe so. Follow-up question: Are you bad at your job? Just because you have a medical license, that doesn’t mean you have the ability to work miracles of healing.

Are you a lawyer? Auditor? Accountant? Maybe you have the gift of discernment. Are you pithy? Then maybe you have been given an utterance of wisdom. Are you rich and content, like to donate your money? Then maybe you have the gift of generosity. (Warning: Don’t believe that just by having abilities this makes you a tool of the HOLY Spirit. The Bible talks about EVIL spirits, too. Even the priests of Pharaoh did miracles, too.) Are you in early childhood education? Maybe you have the gift of patience. Do you hate your job? Okay, maybe you don’t have that gift. Maybe you’ve just got a job.

This type of thinking becomes even clearer when we understand that at one time there was no “Rosetta Stone” language learning technology. There was no high-school Spanish classes. How did you learn a language? You lived among people who spoke the language you were trying to pick up, hoping that you eventually received the “gift” of that language.

A Critical Look at the Gift of Prophesy

These days, many people think of “prophesy” as some sort of mystical forward-looking idea that is given through supernatural means. And yes, there is definitely some of that there. But there is also something much more mundane at play.

When Nathan the prophet calls out David the King for killing Uriah the Hittite, let’s think about the story. Let’s review the facts:

David sees Bathsheba. David asks who Bathsheba is. David (in a time before texting, phones, and “the mail”) sends messengers to Bathsheba to his palace. She comes to the palace. They do their thing. And then in a time before Uber and when guards keep watch over entrances and exits of royal palaces, she goes home. Then she sends a message to David that she’s pregnant. Then Uriah the Hittite comes back from the battle field. David weirdly throws him a feast to get him drunk hoping he sleeps with his wife. He doesn’t. Then in an amazing coincidence, Uriah dies in battle. Then Bathsheba marries David after the traditional mourning period for her husband is over. Nathan the prophet can count months.

So let me ask a question: Do you really think Nathan got ALL of his information in this situation through a voice from heaven? I don’t. Now, of course there are some things that Nathan didn’t know. Only David and Joab know about David’s order to kill Uriah. Nathan also prophesies that bad things will come to David because of what he has done. He prophesies that the child will die. That’s all forward-looking. But even if he didn’t say these future-looking things, Nathan would still be prophesying to David.

You don’t need a “gift” of prophesy to know what Nathan knew and say 95% of what Nathan said. You don’t need divine revelation. You only need the “gift” of ordinary discernment. You will need courage. You will need conviction. You will need to realize that when you speak the truth about what displeases the Lord, the person you’re speaking to may very well kill you just like he killed Uriah when he did not cooperate. But you don’t need divine revelation. You only need an ordinary view of the truth.

So contrary to what is generally accepted in my evangelical Christian circle, I take a different view of prophesy. I believe the overwhelming majority of “prophesy” in the Bible is ordinary knowledge and wisdom about how righteous people should act. It is as Moses said to the Israelites about the Law of the Lord before they went into the promised land:

For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Deuteronomy 30:11-16)

Most Old Testament prophesy is a rather ordinary repetition of a consistent theme:

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

Sure, God may add a miracle to get people’s attention and to be clear that he is the one speaking, but the miracle isn’t the point. The purpose of God wasn’t fulfilled when David and Bathsheba’s son died according to Nathan’s prophesy which required supernatural knowledge. The purpose of God was fulfilled when David said “I have sinned against the Lord.”

The point of prophesy isn’t the miracle of prophesy. It is to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

How God Works and Speaks

Speaking of “walking humbly,” we also need to cover the fact that most people think prophesy is not only supernatural wisdom, but something that comes through certain “special” people who are “gifted.”

However, as Peter wrote above, it is not the prophet who speaks. It is only those who are carried along by the Holy Spirit. Additionally, we need to take note of this rather shocking example of a prophesy that we find in the gospel of John:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. (John 11:47-52)

Here is the mind-blowing thing this shows: When God wishes to speak by his Spirit, he does it even when the speaker means the opposite of what is said. It is God who speaks, not man. So be careful, just because you have an “utterance of wisdom” that is “of the Spirit,” that doesn’t mean you are to be praised or admired.

And don’t think that the foolishness and evil of Caiaphas was some exception to the general rule. Instead, we read the following about the pattern that God has put forth:

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

Notice that that verse doesn’t say “God chose what LOOKS foolish in the world to shame the wise.” It doesn’t say “God chose what LOOKS weak in the world to shame the strong.” Nope. It says “is foolish.” It says “is weak.”

You want to do something great for God? I bet you do not know what you are asking, but good luck with that anyway. Let me know how it works out, and we’ll swap stories.

Paul on the Spiritual Gifts

So now that we’ve got some background on what things like “prohpesy” and “miracles” and such are, let’s go to the most famous passage on the Spiritual gifts in the Bible:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to 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. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.

And I will show you a still more excellent way. (1 Corinthians 12:1-30)

Do you notice how “gifts” are made parallel to “service”?

Do you notice how the one who does the service for the common good has a “manifestation” of the Spirit and not a “gift” of the Spirit?

Do you notice how there is a parallelism that works with someone who speaks and someone who hears with “utterance of wisdom” and “utterance of knowledge”? The Greek shows that the first has a “word” (λόγος) of “wisdom/insight/skill/intelligence” (σοφίας). At that moment, another gets a “word” (λόγος) of “knowledge/doctrine/wisdom” (γνώσεως). And beyond that second person, we see yet another person who now has “faith” by that same Spirit.

We could pretend that this is some liver-shiver magic-message from a divine dream that is shared through a charismatic congregation, or we could recognize that this is how everyone throughout all time has come to the Christian faith: First there is Jesus, then >Spirit >Apostles >Scripture >Parents/Teachers/Friends >You. You have faith because of the utterances of wisdom, skill, insight, and intelligence of Jesus Christ and his Spirit working through others right down throughout 2,000 years down to you.

Additionally, to solve our complicated Peter-healing question, we see that one receives “gifts of healing” but at the same time, someone else is “working miracles.” So what did Peter do? He worked a miracle. Who received the gift of healing? The paralyzed man. What did that lead to in the observers? An understanding of faith. Who healed? The same Spirit that did all of that: the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.

If you are a Christian, then you have received a GIFT, and I am not talking about some special ability that is poured out on your mind or body. The word “gift” in that passage is distinct from “workings” and “utterance” and “ability” which are connected to service. It might be helpful if we say that the gift you received is not FROM the Spirit (even though it is). Instead, you should know that the gift IS the spirit.

The Spirit is MANIFESTED in others, and that is how you received your gift. The Spirit is not like steroids which enlarge whatever muscle is there. The Spirit is like fire which burns what is there and spreads more fire to what it touches.

You received the Spirit, and it was Christ who gave. It was you who received. It was the person who preached or spoke or healed or comforted or discerned or defended or instructed you that can boast IN THE LORD, and not in themselves.

The Analogy of the Body to the Gifts

Let’s also notice that without the non-inspired headings that may appear in your copy of the Bible, Paul goes straight from the spiritual gifts to the analogy of the church as the body of Christ as if they are one in the same. What is the significance here?

Remember that Christ is the head of the church. Does that mean he’s the boss of the church? No! It means he’s the HEAD. He is Lord! He is the thing that commands and directs and moves! The analogy of “the body” is not the analogy of “the corporation.” It’s the analogy of a human person.

You may be the hand of Christ, but does a hand play a piano, or does a person with a hand play a piano? Doesn’t it need a head to command? You may hear and understand an important revelation from God, but does an ear both hear AND understand? Doesn’t it need a head to comprehend? You may be the swiftest and strongest pair of legs in the world, ready for any service and able to bear any burden, but do feet or legs alone offer anything good? Don’t they need a head and the rest of the body?

That Which is Better Than the Gifts

To have the Spirit of Christ is not to be able to miraculously heal people. It is not to comprehend all wisdom and knowledge. It is not to be a polyglot who can not only preach to the entire world, but also to angels in heaven. It is not being the biggest philanthropist in the history of philanthropy. It is not the ability to move mountains, raise the dead, send rockets to the Moon, or do any other “miraculous” thing.

To have the Spirit of Christ means to feel what Christ feels, be motivated by what motivates Christ, and therefore do what Christ does. Or as Paul says in the very next chapter:

But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13)

What is better than every spiritual gift? It is to have faith and believe as Christ believed. It is to hope as Christ hoped. And most of all, it is to love a Christ loved.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14)

Leave a Reply