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The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series


Definition and Purpose of Spiritual Gifts

Tue, 16 Jul 2013 - 11:01 AM CST


Part 1 in a series on Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today

By Douglas A. Oss

This series of essays will review the basic purposes and nature of spiritual gifts from a pastoral perspective. The present article sets forth a working definition of spiritual gifts and explains the primary corporate and personal benefits derived from the operation of spiritual gifts. In addition, a select bibliography is provided for readers who desire to explore the issues in more depth. Subsequent articles will examine the unity (source) and diversity (individual believers) of gifts in the church, gifts of knowledge, gifts of power, and gifts of speech.

While the outpouring of the Spirit is bringing needed renewal to our congregations, it is important to give Scripture its rightful place as God’s infallible Word. At the same time, may God continue to remind us that “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).1 Even though the words of the Bible are absolutely true, they do not themselves impart life. Only the Spirit creates within us the living reality of Jesus Christ. With this in view, let us examine the principles set forth in Scripture that help us oversee the area of spiritual gifts.

Definition Of Spiritual Gifts

Broadly speaking, a spiritual gift is any ability that the Spirit empowers for ministry in and through the church.2 This definition includes gifts that operate through natural abilities — teaching, administration, giving — as well as gifts that transcend ordinary means — healing, prophecy, miracles. The lists of gifts in the New Testament include both types (cf. Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 7:7; 12:8–10,28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:11).3

Several points need to be made concerning these gift lists.

1. The lists are not exhaustive of every gift God gives. For example, many people are gifted and empowered by God in intercessory prayer. This gift is not listed in the New Testament, and yet it is a powerful and effective gift in bringing down strongholds. It is important not to limit God where He has not limited himself. Nowhere in Scripture does God restrict His empowering work only to those gifts contained in the lists.

2. All gifts are divinely empowered. One type of gift is not superior to another (e.g., natural gifts versus. supernatural gifts). Even though one gift may operate outwardly through ordinary or natural means, it is just as Spirit-empowered as a miraculous or supernatural gift. In this sense, every aspect of the Christian life is supernaturally empowered (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13–31).

3. Giftedness is not a sign of spiritual maturity. Gifts are divine empowerments for ministry, and God distributes them as He wills. For example, the Corinthians were highly gifted people (1 Corinthians 1:7) but were immature in character, as evidenced in their divisive and jealous attitudes toward leadership and gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1–23; 12–14).

For purposes of this discussion, we want to focus on what are traditionally understood as miraculous gifts — those gifts that transcend ordinary means through a supernatural impartation by the Holy Spirit.4 Even this category is too broad for this brief series, so we will concentrate primarily on 1 Corinthians 12–14 to initiate the discussion of spiritual gifts.

Purpose Of Spiritual Gifts

• Within the setting of corporate worship, gifts are intended to edify the entire Body (1 Corinthians 12:7). For example, speech gifts must be intelligible to the congregation so that everyone is edified by the utterance (1 Corinthians 14:5–19). Otherwise the speaker may as well be speaking into the air (1 Corinthians 14:9).

• The gifts are also intended to bring glory to God (1 Corinthians 14:16,17,25). This principle is stated even more explicitly with regard to both speaking and service gifts in 1 Peter 4:10,11. According to this passage, gifts are distributed “so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ” (verse 11).

• In private settings gifts also edify the individual (1 Corinthians 14:4,18,19). There is no question concerning the application of this principle to those times when we seek solitude for prayer and worship. Neither is there any question that God communicates personally with us outside the context of corporate worship (Acts 9:1–19; 13:1–3). But casual observers of Pentecostal worship often misunderstand this particular New Testament teaching. It is a common practice in Pentecostal worship services to take time for individual prayer — what many of our forefathers called the “concert of prayer.”5 As believers lift their voices in one accord offering up praise and petition to the Lord, manifestations of the Spirit may occur. Although the concert of prayer takes place during corporate worship, it is actually a time set aside for individual communion with God. The intelligibility principle does not apply to individual communion with God or to the altar service.

Spiritual gifts operate in two different settings: corporate and private. The settings help determine the larger purpose of the gifts. But in both corporate and private settings, manifestations of the Spirit always build up. Whether by conviction or affirmation, through subtleties or overwhelming demonstrations of God’s power, manifestations of the spiritual gifts bring us into the glorious image of God, which is Christ Jesus our Lord, and exalt only Him.
Douglas A. Oss, Ph.D. is professor at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.

1.    Scripture quotations are from the New International Version (1984).
2.    Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 1016.
3.    The lists include the following: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher, miracles, healings, helps, administration, tongues, interpretation of tongues, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, word of wisdom, word of knowledge, faith, miracles, serving, encouraging, contributing, leadership, mercy, marriage, celibacy.
4.    There have been some discussions concerning the alternating usage of charismata and phanerosis in 1 Corinthians 12:4–10 and whether different categories are in view there. The evidence that these two words indicate different categories is lacking, and they appear simply to be synonyms in this context (see Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 584–586).
5.    Ralph Riggs, The Spirit Himself (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1949), p. 113–186.

Part 2, The Word Gifts

Part 3, Gifts of Power

Part 4, Gifts of Speech

Select Bibliography For Series on Spiritual Gifts
Bridge, Donald. Signs and Wonders Today. Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1985. (Third wave perspective.)

Deere, Jack. Surprised by the Power of the Holy Spirit: A Former Dallas Seminary Professor Discovers That God Still Speaks and Heals Today. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1993. (third wave perspective.)

________. Surprised by the Voice of God. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996 (Sequel to Power).

Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1987. (See Pentecostal 569–713.)

________. Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1996. (See Pentecostal 152–192.)

Gee, Donald. Concerning Spiritual Gifts, rev. ed. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1972. (Pentecostal perspective.)

Grudem, Wayne, ed. Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996. (Four authors address the issue of continuity/cessation of miraculous gifts from four different perspectives: Cessationist, open-but-cautious evangelical, third wave, and Pentecostal.)

________. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994. (Reformed charismatic/third wave perspective 1016–1088.)

Horton, Stanley. What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1976. (Pentecostal 197–283.)

Lim, David. Spiritual Gifts: A Fresh Look. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1991. (Pentecostal perspective.)

Pytches, David. Spiritual Gifts in the Local Church. Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House, 1985. (third wave/British renewal.)

Riggs, Ralph. The Spirit Himself. Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1949. (Pentecostal 113–186.)

White, Robert. Endued with Power: The Holy Spirit in the Church. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 1995. (Pentecostal Holiness tradition 85–123.)

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