Spiritual gifts are special abilities given by the Holy Spirit to equip believers to edify the local church body and to minister in the larger kingdom of God. Spiritual gifts are described as “spiritual” because they are bestowed upon those who are spiritually awakened by the Holy Spirit. And they are called “gifts” because they are freely given by God’s grace; they are not earned or merited. The Bible teaches about spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, in Romans 12:1-8, and in Ephesians 4:7-11. This article will focus on the teaching found in Romans 12.
Romans 12 opens with an earnest exhortation to first present ourselves in sanctification to the Lord (verses 1-2). Then, with the aid of God’s grace, we are to honestly evaluate how God has gifted us for His service (verse 3). This gifting equips us to fulfill His will for our lives. Finding God’s will with regards to our gifting involves offering up our lives for service, resisting worldly ambitions, and seeking His grace for discernment.
1. The Role and Development of Spiritual Gifts in the Church
All believers are given gifts whereby they can serve God and the church (1 Corinthians 12:7,11). In the New Testament we see the usage of spiritual gifts being a combination of the Lord calling individually as well as the potential calling, confirming, and commissioning by the church (Acts 13:1-3, 26:16-20; Galatians 2:7-10). When God gifts and calls us, we are to use those gifts as we have opportunity without running ahead of a possible future calling and confirmation from the church body.
Sometimes using our spiritual gifts leads the church to call us to exercise our gifts in a particular way. Nevertheless, we do not need a special call from the church to use our gifts in many areas of service. The work of the kingdom is primarily advanced by brothers and sisters from local church bodies responding to opportunities to serve. God will bring into our lives those opportunities to use our spiritual gifts if we stay focused on living a holy life, rejecting worldly perspectives, and fulfilling God’s will each day.
It is important to recognize that spiritual gifts are not the same as natural talents. Spiritual gifts are what God gives to Spirit-filled believers. God gives spiritual gifts at our New Birth which often complement the talents that He gave us at our natural birth.
Depending on our calling and the opportunities that God gives us, our gifts can be used in the local body only or in the universal kingdom of God. Regardless, the local, visible church body is the home base from which believers go forth to use their gifts to serve the larger kingdom of God (Acts 13:1-3; 3 John 1:5,8).
There are many members with many various gifts, but only one kingdom of God. Within that kingdom, God has designed spiritual gifts to be interdependent—meaning they work effectively when they are working together and when they balance each other (1 Corinthians 12:15-31). Spiritual gifts are not as effective when exercised in isolation from the other spiritual gifts in the local, visible body.
As a matter of clarification, we want to note:
2. The Distinction of the Spiritual Gifts from the Sign Gifts
In one sense, all the gifts are spiritual gifts because they are given by the Holy Spirit. And, in another sense, they are all sign gifts because they are signs of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. However, the Apostles performed miraculous signs and wonders which confirmed that their word was authoritative and that their role was distinct in the foundation of the Church and in the defining of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 5:12-13, 19:11-12; Romans 15:18-19; 2 Corinthians 12:12; Hebrews 2:3-4). These miraculous signs were primarily evident in the apostolic age and have diminished after the death of the Apostles. But the spiritual gifts are with the Church throughout the entire Church age.
The intent of this article is to focus on the seven spiritual gifts that are listed in Romans 12, and to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each. These categories are broad, and we believe they encompass most of the spiritual gifts identified in the New Testament.
3. The Identification of the Spiritual Gifts
The gift of prophecy is primarily the ability to see a current event and give direction from God’s Word.
In the Old Testament the “Word of the Lord” came to the prophets and they would give direction as the mouthpiece of God. The words which they spoke often became Scripture and gave direction for present and future events. For example, in Isaiah chapters 7 and 8, King Ahaz was given a sign that a child named Maher-shalal-hash-baz would be born to Isaiah; and, before the child could cry out his parents’ names, Assyria would spoil Samaria. Within this prophecy was a greater future prophecy of the coming Emmanuel. Israel’s current situation prompted a prophetic word from the Lord which in turn typified a greater future fulfillment. Yet the primary exercise of the prophetic gift was precipitated by a current situation in which the Lord gave direction.
The spirit of prophecy was the means by which we received the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 1:70, 24:27; Romans 16:26; Hebrews 1:1). In the New Testament era the Apostles authored and gave oversight to the development of the New Testament Scriptures (John 14:26, 16:12-15). Today, with the Canon of the Scriptures now being complete, the primary role of the New Testament prophet is to bring forth the Word of the Lord from the Scriptures to address a particular event or situation.
Jesus said that there was no greater prophet than John the Baptist, and yet John performed no miracles and made no predictions (other than to proclaim that the Messiah had come). This illustrates that it is not necessary to make future predictions or to perform miracles to be a prophet.
Prophets typically see more clearly what others struggle to understand. They are often discerning. And they are a voice of conscience against sin in the church. As a result, in a lax or apostate church, they will typically be unappreciated. For example, Stephen said to the Jews, “Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted?” (Acts 7:52).
Prophets tend to bring issues sharply into focus in order to bring people to a firm decision point—like when Elijah asked, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” or when John the Baptist proclaimed, “Now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees.” One measure of the spiritual life of a church is how it interacts with the gift of prophecy.
But prophets can become critical and impatient with lethargy or opposition. Elijah called fire down from Heaven to destroy his adversaries (2 Kings 1:10). He saw himself as the only faithful person left in Israel and did not recognize that there might be others who had not bowed to Baal (there were 7,000 faithful; 1 Kings 19:14,18). Moses reacted in anger at the people when he struck the rock (Numbers 20:10).
Prophets can become discouraged by how long it takes people to move forward with direction and purpose (Moses in Numbers 11:10-15; Elijah in 1 Kings 18:21), by the lack of results for their labors (Elijah in 1 Kings 19:14; Jeremiah in Jeremiah 20:7-18; Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3:7), by doubting the validity of their ministry at times (Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4; John the Baptist in Matthew 11:2-3), or by being frustrated because of the mercy and patience which God extends to undeserving sinners (Jonah in Jonah 4:1-3).
Present-day prophets should be cautious of speculations which go beyond the Scriptures—they are to prophesy according to the proportion of their faith. And they should not give in to doubts and discouragement because of a lack of response. Their faith must be solidly anchored to the Word. By the power of the Holy Spirit the strong prophetic spirit can be tempered to speak the truth to the edification, exhortation, and comfort of the Body (1 Corinthians 14:3).
The prophetic gift, when rightly used, helps to provide guidance in the present and vision for the future. We have given more space to this gift than the others because it is often misunderstood.
The primary and overarching definition of ministry is “service that is commissioned to meet needs.” The minister may or may not be a speaker. Preaching, teaching, humanitarian aid, healthcare, counseling, and responding to a need can all be forms of ministry. Ministers see needs and respond to them because they believe that is their responsibility. Whether they perform their service willingly or somewhat reluctantly, they typically recognize needs and feel compelled to respond.
Those with the gift of ministry are often focused on their work and they desire to see action and progress. They will often sense or notice needs before others notice them.
But those who are gifted to minister can become frustrated with prolonged discussion of ideas about what could be done. They prefer to act on what is already known rather than try to determine what plans should be in place in case something goes awry. They may not be inclined towards study or meditation as much as being doers of good deeds. Sometimes they need to exercise patience while more in-depth details are being considered.
The gift of ministry helps to move plans into action so that people’s needs are served.
The Greek word for teaching means “to provide instruction with a moral or spiritual purpose.” There are examples in Scripture of teaching occurring in a personal conversation, an interactive group discussion, or a presentation. Jesus used all of these methods in His teaching ministry.
Good teachers have the ability to explain and illustrate difficult concepts in ways that are easier to understand. They can give practical applications to theoretical concepts. Teachers promote sound doctrine and guard against false doctrine. They tend to be careful and analytical.
A prophet senses and foresees things; a minister performs things; and a teacher analyzes, understands, and explains things. These three gifts, when working together, are very complimentary and beneficial to one another. For example, if the prophet conceives an acceptable plan, the minister will implement the plan, while the teacher will ask for time to first refine and detail the plan.
But sometimes a teacher can deliberate too long trying to determine all aspects, risks, and plans that should be in place to safeguard against surprises, and he can struggle to move ahead before everything is figured out. A teacher may tend to place a high value on education, presentation, and reasoning—sometimes to the neglect of seeking divine guidance and then proceeding in faith.
Teachers play an important role in providing careful evaluations of doctrinal understandings and practices, and they give important structure to project planning.
Exhorters are people who inspire, encourage, and motivate others. They stir up people to action. Prophets are sometimes negative in their approach (warning against sinful behavior), whereas exhorters tend to be positive in their approach (encouraging right behavior). Exhorters are generally optimistic and, seeing the good in others, try to encourage them to develop their spiritual gifts. They want to see people’s gifts recognized, appreciated, and used. They are often good counselors because they see the strengths that others can build up to help them overcome their weaknesses.
But sometimes exhorters are perceived as pushy or intrusive when they seek to motivate people to action. Exhorters should be sensitive to the danger of their actions being perceived that way. But neither should they avoid exhorting simply because they might be perceived negatively.
First Corinthians 14:3 indicates that prophets are to exhort—in other words “to learn to speak in a way that encourages others to the right course of action.” This illustrates how the spiritual gifts are interwoven and blended together—because they were designed to work together. The exhorter is an example to the prophet of how to use the gift of prophecy to motivate right behavior. Conversely, since the exhorter is usually optimistic, the prophet can be a good example to the exhorter of how a message of warning against sin can also be an exhortation to right behavior. Whether in the form of positive encouragement or of negative warning, God’s truth spoken in love edifies the Body.
There are some people that are gifted with finances. God blesses them and they in turn bless others. These people are examples of Luke 6:38—their giving keeps coming back abundantly to them so that they can give more.
All of us are called to labor to have in order to be able to give to others in need (Ephesians 4:28). Some are blessed with greater financial resources than others. However, those who have the gift of giving may not always be wealthy. Paul commends the churches of Macedonia because they gave out of their deep poverty (2 Corinthians 8:1-7), and he holds them up to the Corinthian congregation as an example of giving. Jesus commends the widow who gave her last two mites because she gave all she had. Sometimes God uses the significant finances of wealthy givers to underwrite work which otherwise might not happen. Other times God takes a small gift of five loaves and two fish from an insignificant giver and multiplies it to meet a much greater need.
The spirit and gift of giving is choosing to live with less in order to give more. The Bible has instructions for givers: give cheerfully as God directs, give anonymously when it is possible, and give with simplicity (without ulterior motives). There are many temptations for givers to ignore these guidelines and get recognition for their giving.
Ruling in Romans 12:8 means “to exercise oversight and protection.” It also involves the ability to organize and delegate responsibilities. This gift is also referred to in Scripture as the gift of “governments” (1 Corinthians 12:28). The phrase rule over used in Hebrews 13:7,17,24 also includes the idea of “going before as a leader.” The idea of “going before” illustrates the concept of “leading by example.”
It is interesting to note that in 1 Corinthians 12:28 the gifts of apostle, prophet, and teacher are listed ahead of governments in the importance of the spiritual gifts. In a carnal view of an organizational structure, the office of ruling comes first and has the power to dominate everything else. In the ranking of gifts in the church, the nurture of the church (through the roles of the apostle, prophet, and teacher) is held in higher regard than the rule of the church.
In Romans 12:8 the gift of ruling is to be exercised with diligence (attention and vigilance). And in 1 Peter 5:1-4 we are warned that it is not to be exercised with lordship or dominance. The first responsibility is to feed the flock. Sheep will typically want to gather where there is food and safety. God calls leaders to primarily feed and nurture. The gift of ruling provides the example, protection, and oversight that is essential to the beneficial exercise of the roles of the apostle, prophet, teacher, and all the other spiritual gifts. Ruling is never an end in itself, but rather it serves to bring opportunity and efficiency to the exercise of all the spiritual gifts in the Body.
Mercy is often thought of within the context of God showing us compassion and withholding from us a just punishment. In the context of the church, the application is a little different since we are not exercising God’s role of justice and punishment. The gift of mercy is the ability to demonstrate genuine compassion and relieve a hurt or a need, even when it might seem that the recipient is not worthy of such mercy.
Mercy often works in conjunction with the gift of ministry. The marked distinction between the two gifts is that the gift of mercy is exercised with more empathy and compassion. Those who have this gift can feel what others feel. They can more accurately imagine what it is like to walk in another’s shoes. They have a keen awareness of the Golden Rule.
The gift of prophecy is listed first and the gift of mercy is listed last. There is typology in that order. They represent the outer boundaries of the gifts at opposite ends of the spectrum, and, as such, they can tend to clash with one another. Prophets can view those with the gift of mercy as too emotional, and the merciful can view the prophets as too uncaring. God designed these gifts, not that they clash, but that they temper and balance each other. God uses prophets to forge ahead in faith navigating uncharted seas, and He uses the gift of mercy to follow behind and calm the rough waters.
The admonition in this passage is to show mercy with cheerfulness. Mercy should not be overshadowed by resentment or anger over a hardship. Empathizing with those who are suffering can sometimes make us downcast and discouraged, but our acts of mercy are to be marked by cheerfulness. Cheerfulness joining with mercy not only alleviates a need, but it restores hope and revives a fallen spirit.
Putting the spiritual gifts together, we note that a prophet will conceive a plan, the minister will want to implement it, the teacher will want to carefully refine it, the exhorter will want to generate support and enthusiasm for it, the giver will want to finance it, the ruler will oversee it, and the mercy will care about the people involved with the plan.
In order for spiritual gifts to work for good—they need to work for good together!