Mark D. Roberts

Part 5 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
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In my last post in this series I sought to define spiritual gifts as they are explained in 1 Corinthians 12-14. I suggested the following definition:

Spiritual gifts are momentary empowerments provided by the Spirit to promote the work of God.

The notion of momentary empowerments differs from the most common understanding of spiritual gifts. According to this perspective, a spiritual gift is something you have if you are a Christian. If, for example, you are good at teaching the Bible in a church group, it is often said that you “have” the gift of teaching. I find it more accurate to say that you are often given gifts of teaching which, combined with your natural abilities surrendered to the Lord and your careful study of Scripture, enable you to be an effective Bible teacher. I don’t think a spiritual gift is something you have so much as something you use in a given situation when it is needed.
The whole idea of “having” or “possessing” spiritual gifts, language Paul rarely uses, by the way, seems to have peculiar implications (Rom 12:6; 1 Cor 7:7; 1 Cor 12:30). For example, when I was a teenager, my youth leader claimed to “have” the gift of teaching. Usually the empowerment of the Spirit was evident in his teaching. But, every now and then, like most teachers, he would have a bad day. His explanations were hard to follow. His illustrations were duds. What happened to his gift? Did it disappear? Did he fail to use it? Did it conk out just when he needed it? If spiritual gifts that we have can fail to work when they are needed, how can we rely upon them?
Years ago, when I was struggling to understand spiritual gifts, I was helped by two outstanding Christian teachers. Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie, my pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church when I was a teenager, taught that the Spirit gives gifts to new Christians, but that the process doesn’t end there. Yes, we should discover and use our gifts, Dr. Ogilvie advised, but we should also be open to yet more gifting by the Spirit. This fit 1 Corinthians 12-14 better than the “one gift for one person” model. Dr. Ogilvie still talked about “having” spiritual gifts, but his use of the verb “to have” was much more fluid than the traditional model allowed. (Photo: Lloyd Ogilvie at my installation as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church)
When I was in my twenties, I heard John Wimber, pastor of the Anaheim Vineyard, teach a lesson on spiritual gifts. He began by speaking of the gifts as momentary empowerments for ministry. I’m not sure if he used this exact phrase, but that was the gist of his teaching. All of a sudden everything clicked for me. Even without hearing the rest of Pastor Wimber’s message, I knew that he had supplied the key that unlocked Paul’s original meaning.
Let me to summarize this meaning in a nutshell. Spiritual gifts are situational, momentary empowerments given by the Spirit in specific situations of need. Gifts are not badges of honor or demonstrations of spiritual maturity. They are not resident abilities or added talents. They are bursts of divine power given when the Spirit decides that one who ministers needs some extra help. If you are praying for someone to be healed, for example, you need a gift of healing from the Spirit. If the Spirit happens to give that gift through you, it doesn’t mean that you now “have the gift of healing.” That might be the only time in your life when a gift of healing flows through you (although if you continue to pray regularly for the sick, it’s likely that you will be the conduit for gifts of healing again).
Certain spiritual gifts are closely correlated with natural abilities and talents. Gifts of teaching or knowledge, for example, help those with the ability to teach to be even more effective in their work of teaching. But gifts of teaching are also given to those who have little natural ability when they are called upon to explain something about God. Many people experience this gift without realizing that it is a spiritual gift of teaching. I think of parents in my church in Irvine, for example, whose children asked them really tough theological questions. The parents’ initial response was usually something like: “Oh my goodness! Where did that come from? I have no idea at all!” But in many cases parents reported to me that “all of a sudden” they had great answers to tricky questions. Where did these answers come from? They were gifts of teaching, given by the Spirit to help parents minister to their children.
In my seminary classes I have taught this situational or need-based understanding of spiritual gifts. Some of my students, especially those who have embraced the “possession and use” view of gifts, have been troubled. One raised this objection: “You’re telling me that I don’t ‘have’ the gift of preaching. Yet I’m going to stand up this Sunday and preach. If I don’t ‘have’ the gift of preaching, then I have no business pretending to preach God’s word. I shouldn’t even try.” What encouragement can I give to a man who feels like I have just pulled the spiritual rug out from under his ministry?
First of all, I believe that what the Spirit has done in the past is a good indication of what he will do in the future. If a person has been regularly empowered in the past with gifts relevant for preaching (knowledge, wisdom, prophecy, teaching), this tells us something about how the Spirit will continue to work through that person.
Second, if God has called a person to the ministry of preaching, then God will also supply the spiritual power needed for that ministry. That’s one of the main reasons God has given the gift of the Spirit, to empower us for that to which he has assigned us.
Third, and most important of all, those of us who dare to preach may not “have” the gift of preaching, but we have something far better: the gift of the Holy Spirit. Within us resides the Giver of all gifts, the source of unlimited spiritual power. When I step up to preach, I am not relying on my gift, but on the third person of the Trinity, on God the Holy Spirit. What could be better and more inspiring than this? What would you rather have if you’re a preacher? A gift of preaching or the very Spirit of God? I’ll take the Spirit. More importantly, I think this is what Scripture teaches about the nature of spiritual gifts.
Of course, when I preach I also utilize my own natural abilities, my talents, and my educational background. Although these are not spiritual gifts in the narrow sense, they are gifts from God in a broader sense. As Paul reminds the Corinthians: “What do you have that God hasn’t given you?” (1 Cor 4:7). You and I need to use everything God has given us, every talent, every opportunity, every relationship, every dollar – everything for God’s purposes. We are to be faithful stewards or managers of all that God has entrusted to us, including creation itself! Spiritual gifts come along when we need some additional help to do that which God places before us.

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