In recent months, an increasingly prominent discussion has risen among fellow believers concerning the issue of spiritual gifts in the Church. Many questions have come up regarding what is biblical, proper, and edifying about spiritual gifts, specifically those gifts which are referred to as the “sign gifts.” In this article, my intent is to provide some explanation for these things. Rather than avoiding the matter, this is something that believers should discuss. Paul himself wrote to the Corinthians, “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant” (1 Cor. 12:1). Neither should we be ignorant about spiritual gifts in the church.
Before going any further in this discussion, it is important to establish my personal belief concerning spiritual gifts: That all spiritual gifts, including the sign gifts, are readily available to believers in the Church today, and that the Holy Spirit gives those gifts to people as He chooses. My reasoning for believing this is founded upon what I perceive as solid Scriptural evidence. I will start in 1 Corinthians 13. In this chapter, Paul follows up his prior discussion in chapter twelve about spiritual gifts with a discussion about the most excellent way: love. For the purposes of our discussion, we should turn to verses eight through thirteen, in which Paul describes exactly why love is the most excellent way:
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Here, Paul describes love as being the most excellent way because prophecy, tongues, and knowledge (likely meaning words of knowledge [see 12:8 for context]) will all pass away, but love will never pass away. I believe Paul’s intention in writing this example is to imply all gifts will ultimately pass away, not just the three mentioned. Thus, it seems undeniable that spiritual gifts are designed to be temporary.
The issue that comes into question is as follows: “At what point do the spiritual gifts cease to exist?” Those who hold to the cessationist perspective would say that the gifts ceased at the end of the first generation of apostles and that they existed to help spur on the initial growth of the church, but that they are no longer necessary today. I definitely respect those who hold this position and can understand how they reach this conclusion; however, I cannot find any Scriptural evidence for their premise in the context of 1 Corinthians 12-14.
Paul did indeed say that the gifts would pass away; however, the context of 1 Corinthians 13, in my opinion, clearly indicates that the gifts will not pass away until the return of Christ for His Church. Paul writes that the imperfect things (gifts alluded to in verse 8) would not pass away until “that which is perfect has come” (v. 10). In my opinion, we are not yet living in a time when that which is perfect has come. The Church is not perfect, God’s people are not perfect, and the love that God calls us to show one another is certainly far from perfect. Verse twelve indicates that the perfection we are awaiting will come at the time when we see “face to face.” This certainly seems to point toward the time after our imperfect, fleshly lives are complete, and when we see Christ face-to-face, either at the point of our physical deaths, or at the time of His return.
To support my argument, I appeal to Wayne Grudem’s theology textbook, entitled Bible Doctrine. Based on what I know about him, Grudem writes from a Christian Reformed perspective and has been professor at a major Evangelical university. He is definitely not someone who I would say comes from Charismatic or Pentecostal circles. Yet, Grudem writes the following about this section of Scripture that we have been discussing:
In 1 Corinthians 1:7 Paul ties the possession of spiritual gifts (Gr. charismata) to the activity of waiting for the Lord’s return: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This suggests that Paul saw the gifts as a temporary provision made to equip believers for ministry until the Lord returned. So this verse provides a close parallel to the thought of 1 Corinthians 13:8-13, where prophecy and knowledge (and no doubt tongues) are seen, similarly, as useful until Christ’s return but unnecessary beyond that time. (404)
Based upon the Scriptural evidence I have found, I make the same conclusion as Grudem, that “we have a clear biblical statement that Paul expected these gifts to continue through the entire church age and to function for the benefit of the church until the Lord returns” (404). This must include all spiritual gifts, for Paul makes no distinction between sign gifts and non-sign gifts. If the gift of the teacher is available today, then the gift of tongues must also be available (both are included in the same list in 1 Cor. 12:28). If the gift of tongues is not available, then the gift of the teacher must not be available either.
Therefore, if we are operating from the premise that all spiritual gifts are for today, then the next logical question we must ask is, “So what?” Why does this matter? What is the purpose of spiritual gifts today? To answer this question, I will again return to Grudem’s book. He gives a list (page 105) of reasons for operating in miracles, but I believe this list can apply to all spiritual gifts, not just miracles. My catchy paraphrase of his list is as follows: The gifts of the spirit exist for exaltation, equipping, evangelism, and edification. Let us now briefly discuss these four aspects individually.
The first, and most important, reason for believers to use spiritual gifts today is to bring exaltation to the Lord. Every use of every spiritual gift must be glorifying to the Lord. If it is not, then we are operating against the Scriptures and ultimately operating in sin. After all, if we are not exalting God, then we must be exalting something else: either the works of the enemy or our own selves. The beautiful thing about the gifts, particularly gifts such as healings, miracles, prophecies, and tongues and interpretations, is that, when done properly, only God can get the glory! We can try to take credit for healing someone, but we are severely lying to ourselves if we think there is something special about us for performing such a miracle. It’s all about God and His glory! Acts 3:8–9 provides an excellent example of how a miraculous sign should bring glory to God: “So [the lame man], leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them—walking, leaping, and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God.” The proper use of spiritual gifts must lead people to direct all glory to God.
Second, spiritual gifts exist for the purpose of equipping members of the body of Christ to do the work of the ministry. Following the list of gifts in Ephesians 4, Paul writes in verse twelve the purpose that God gave these gifts: “For the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” He goes on to say much more, but suffice it to say that the gifts exist to equip the Church to do what Christ has called her to do. Thus, operating in the gifts within the body of Christ is a great way to “practice,” or learn how to use them, in a safe environment where one can grow, be encouraged, and be mentored by other seasoned believers. Doing this equipping process within the four walls of the church is healthy and prepares believers for the third reason to use spiritual gifts.
Closely tied in with equipping the saints, the gifts also exist for the purpose of evangelism. Equipping deals with matters within the Church; evangelism deals with matters outside the Church. When believers are equipped to exalt the Lord through operating in their gifts, then they will encounter opportunities to point unbelievers to Christ through the gifts in which they are operating. To put it simply, watching or experiencing a miracle take place is a great way for someone to be led to the Lord. But it is not just for sign gifts. Watching someone operate in the gift of serving can be equally as impactful to point unbelievers to Christ. Acts 9:32-35 provides an excellent example of how two entire villages were led to Christ because of a miracle performed there:
Now it came to pass, as Peter went through all parts of the country, that he also came down to the saints who dwelt in Lydda. There he found a certain man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years and was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus the Christ heals you. Arise and make your bed.” Then he arose immediately. So all who dwelt at Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord.
Wow! If operating in the gifts God has given us can bring about such amazing results by leading whole villages to Christ, then count me in on it! Spiritual gifts are powerful tools for evangelism.
Finally, the fourth purpose of spiritual gifts is for the purpose of edification and unity in the body of Christ. We looked at Ephesians 4:12 above, but let’s read it again, as well as verse thirteen, for emphasis: “For the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” We discussed above how gifts can be used for evangelism, but the gifts can also be used to edify current believers and to help bring them into a closer walk with Christ. When believers use the gifts of the spirit amongst themselves, there must be edification taking place, and it must promote greater unity. If people are not being edified, and if divisions are rising up, then something has gone dreadfully wrong. When operating in spiritual gifts, we must keep the word edify in the forefront of our minds. If we are not edifying others, then we are either using our gifts improperly, or people are greatly misinterpreting our intentions. Either way, if confusion arises, steps must be taken to restore unity and to resume edification and the building up of fellow believers. Spiritual gifts are for building up, not tearing down.
To recap where we have been so far, we have discussed the biblical evidence for spiritual gifts in the church today, as well as the biblical reasons for operating in those gifts. One more item must now be discussed before we let this matter rest. It is the topic of why spiritual gifts are so controversial in the Church today if they are supposed to be both biblical and beneficial. The answer to this question is multi-faceted, but I will simply summarize some of the main points.
First, major problems with spiritual gifts arise out of the sad truth that there are those who abuse the gifts. We have all seen or heard of the televangelists who sell prophecies for $100 a piece or the preacher who pushes people down as he prays for them, giving the appearance that they were touched by God, when in reality, they were pushed and knocked over by man. I could go on to list many ways that people abuse the gifts, but I think that I am getting the point across. Unfortunately, these cases of abuse tend to stand out much more than the many legitimate experiences that people have. As the saying goes, it only takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch. Unfortunately, that is just the way it is, not just with Charismatics, but with any particular people group. But when considering this, we have to remember not to judge the entire group based on the actions of a few. That is called stereotyping. There are many, many people who try their hardest to follow the biblical doctrines of the gifts of the Spirit and to obey the Scriptures in those areas. I believe they far outweigh the extreme cases of abuse that seem far too often to make it to the frontlines. Does this mean that the majority of Charismatics always do it right? Certainly not. We all make mistakes and go outside the realm of Scripture from time to time, but as long as we allow the Holy Spirit to guide us to return to the goal of glorifying God and edifying one another, I believe we will most assuredly find ourselves back on the right track.
Another thing that causes division and controversy is the question of why so many seeming failures seem to happen. For instance, if someone truly operates in the gift of healing, why do all people not get healed? In fact, why do many people not receive healing? I do not have an answer for this, except to return to 1 Corinthians 13:9: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part.” Everything we do on this earth is subject to imperfection. Operating in spiritual gifts is a learning process, and when learning something new, it is important to focus on the successes and accomplishments being made, not the failures. Therefore, the question should not be, “What about the people who did not get well?” but, “What about the people who did?” We must focus on the positive, for I believe the more we do that, the more glory we will bring to God, and the more we will learn how to walk in the gifts of the Spirit in the future.
In addition to these things, problems also arise out of a general overemphasis or lack of balance concerning the gifts. Yes, the gifts of the Spirit are important. No, they are not first-tier theological issues. Charismatics and Pentecostals, whether intentionally or unintentionally, sometimes tend to communicate a message that if a person does not believe in the sign gifts or flow in that way, there must be something wrong with that person. While I believe every Christian has access to any spiritual gift if the Holy Spirit should lead him to use it in a specific instance (this is a whole other teaching that I do not have space to share here), we must recognize the truth of Paul’s rhetorical questions in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” The answer to each of these questions is an implied no, but some are! I believe every Christian has some sort of spiritual gift(s); however, not every believer has one of those out-in-front, demonstrative sign gifts. Some have the gifts of healings, miracles, and prophecy; but others have the gifts of serving, helps, and administration. No gift is greater than any other, so we must learn to value all spiritual gifts, not just those that are prominently displayed in public.
Finally, one more source of controversy arises: fear. Fear takes on a variety of forms for a variety of reasons, but a main reason that it exists is because people have had bad experiences with the sign gifts. Either they experienced the abuse of those gifts, or they experienced a time when the desired result did not happen (i.e. they did not get healed, did not have an accurate prophetic word spoken over them, no interpretation for the corporate exhortation of tongues, etc.). Again, this comes back to the bad apple concept. If people have one bad experience, that is often enough to turn them off for months, years, or potentially a lifetime. This is why it is so important for believers to be as careful as possible to operate biblically regarding the gifts of the Spirit. How should we respond to the fears that arise? First John 4:18 provides an excellent answer: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” This brings us full-circle again to 1 Corinthians 13:8, which begins by stating, “Love never fails.” The way to respond to those dealing with fear is simply to love them like Jesus would. This means showing a love with no strings attached, no hidden agendas to change their minds, and no condescension. We are called to love out of pure hearts. This, according to Paul, is the most excellent way.
I know I have unloaded a ton of weighty information in this article because I tried to summarize in a single blog entry what entire books have been written to discuss. There is much more I could say about this topic, but I hope that you, the reader, were encouraged as you read this and that you learned some practical ways to interact with and respond to the gifts of the spirit in the Church today. One final valid evidence for the gifts of the Spirit being used today is the validity of the testimony. If I had the time and space, I could tell you stories of miracles that I have witnessed, healings that have taken place, and prophecies that have come to pass. When these things happened, they brought glory to God, edification to the body, and in some cases, the gospel message to the unsaved. This is why I believe the way that I do: because I have seen God work in these ways, and I cannot deny what I know He has done. We serve a big God, and we cannot put Him in a box. He works miracles, signs, and wonders, and I like to believe that He chooses to use us as vessels to demonstrate His supernatural power to the world.
Grudem, Wayne A. and Jeff Purswell. Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999. Print.
The Holy Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print. New King James Version.