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Through the Holy Spirit, God gives us "gifts," abilities that come from Him, to do his work and to edify the Body of Christ. Romans 12 sets forth a list of what are commonly referred to as "motivational" gifts -- abilities which characterize our individual functions in the body. The "motivational" gifts specifically listed are prophecy, ministry (serving or "helps"), teaching, exhortation, giving, administration and mercy.
I Corinthians 12:4-11 gives another list of gifts, but, in context, this appears to be a list of abilities the Spirit may give to anyone in the Body, as He wills, to meet the needs of an occasion. They do not appear to be abilities which permanently characterize the person exercising them. The list of these gifts given for specific occasions includes words of wisdom, words of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues.
Finally, I Corinthians 12:27-28 gives a list of some gifts, which includes some from both of the other two lists, which God has "set in the Church: first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers; after that miracles, then gifts of healing, helps, governments, diversities of tongues." This language suggests that there are people whose ministries are regularly characterized by manifestation of some of the gifts on the earlier list of gifts given to meet the need of specific occasions, such as miracles, healing and tongues. It also suggests that the boundaries between these gifts are not sharp, that the gifts overlap to some degree and that a range of manifestations is possible -- a conclusion which only makes sense given the great diversity of the needs which they are given to meet. However, as both Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 through 14 make abundantly clear, these gifts are all given for the single purpose of edifying the Body of Christ.
Traditionally, the organized Church has limited the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit rather sharply. The traditional limitations fall into three categories. The first is an outright denial that certain of the gifts, particularly those which involve God speaking directly to us or intervening directly in the physical world, still function at all. It is argued that these gifts were given only in the First Century and for the sole purpose of authenticating the message of the Apostles. Since the Apostles are now gone and the Scriptures are now complete, it is said, these gifts are no longer needed. Since they are no longer needed, God no longer gives them, because (it is tacitly assumed) God never gives us by supernatural means anything more than the minimum His work presently absolutely requires.
This assumption that God is stingy with His power is absurd, but it underlies the argument that some of the gifts have "passed away." Furthermore, to the extent that the argument is based on the observation that the miraculous gifts were manifested in the New Testament only to authenticate the words of Jesus and the Apostles, it is based on an inaccurate observation. The Word of God is self- authenticating. Isaiah 55:12; John 6:63, 7:16, 8:47 and 12:48-49. To be sure, there are a few instances on which miracles were seemingly used to prove the speaker's authority to an unbeliever who had challenged that authority. Matthew 9:2-6 and 12:9-16; Luke 5:17-26 and 7:11-24. But much more often, miracles were used to get the attention of an individual or of a crowd. See, for instance, Luke 4:33-41; Acts 2:4 ff., 3:1 ff., 5:15-16 and 28:7-10. And there are also instances in which healings or miracles were manifested in private for the direct benefit of an individual, with no message- authenticating or attention-getting purpose evident. Matthew 8:14, 9:18-31 and 12:15-16; Luke 9:49-55; Acts 9:36-41 and 18:11.
An argument that certain gifts have passed away is also commonly derived from some obscure language in I Corinthians 13:8-12, which states:
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail: whether there be tongues, they shall cease: whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake 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 through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
The argument from this passage for the cessation of tongues and the other communicatory gifts posits first that it is "obvious" that the "perfect" thing, the completion of all knowledge referred to in verse 10, is the completed canon of the Bible. It then asserts that, since the "perfect" came when the Bible was completed, prophecy, tongues and wisdom became unnecessary at that instant and, therefore, necessarily ceased. It is also commonly argued that, because, by assumption, the gifts of healing, miracles and miraculous faith served only to authenticate the message of the Apostles, these gifts also became unnecessary after John died and at that time passed into permanent disuse.
However, "that which is perfect" in verse 10 cannot be the Bible. When the perfect comes, we will see God face to face and know as perfectly as He knows us (v. 12). Manifestly, this has not yet occurred. Rather, it appears that the "perfect" thing spoken of here is Jesus himself, and that it comes when he returns. Indeed, John uses very similar language which plainly speaks of Jesus' return:
Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure.
I John 3:1-3
Thus, it would appear that, until Jesus returns, the communicatory gifts -- along with the other gifts of the Holy Spirit -- retain their validity and their purpose of building us up as a Body.
The second common error is to take too narrow a view of the "Body" of Christ, and therefore limit the exercise of the gifts to the worship services or other formal programs of a local church. There is no indication anywhere in Scripture that we are to limit the exercise of our gifts either so that they occur only as a part of organized programs of our local church or so that they benefit only members of our local congregation.
To be sure, I Corinthians 14 provides regulations for the exercise of a few of the gifts (prophecy, tongues, interpretation and teaching) during organized worship in the local church. However, nothing in this chapter states that even these gifts are to be exercised only in organized worship events, and New Testament examples indicate that they were frequently exercised outside of "church," on the streets.
The Book of Acts is full of spontaneous street preaching. In Acts 7, Stephen taught the Sanhedrin the meaning of the Jewish Scriptures -- not in church but at his own trial. Similarly, in Acts 9, Ananias acted on a prophecy he had received in his own home and went to the house of an enemy -- the murderous Saul of Tarsus -- to lay hands on him. So also, at the end of Acts 8, Philip taught the Ethiopian eunuch the meaning of a passage about Jesus while riding in his chariot.
Paul is said to have "taught" in several places, including the school of Tyrranus and several private homes which became meeting places of churches (but not until after Paul began his work there). Finally, in Acts 27, as a prisoner Paul prophesied on three separate occasions to the centurion guarding him and the master of the ship in which they were sailing.
As for the gifts not explicitly regulated by I Corinthians 14, it will be observed that, when they are seen in Acts, it is almost always outside of an organized worship service. For example, only one of the many healings mentioned in Acts occurred during a worship service, and even that one occurred during a service only because someone was rude enough to die while Paul was preaching. Acts 20:9- 10. Similarly, only one of the notable miracles of Acts occurred in anything which could even arguably be called a church service, and that event -- the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost -- very quickly moved out of the "house" where it started to the street where it could be observed by thousands of people. Acts 2:1-6, 41.
Moreover, there is nothing that would logically limit the exercise of a gift of service, administration or leadership, knowledge, wisdom, faith or even giving to being used or useful only as a part of a worship service or organized local church program. And the occasions for exercise of a gift of exhortation or mercy would, it seems, seldom arise during a worship service or an organized program, but would, quite literally, occur during everyday life, precisely "as the need arises."
The third common error is to limit the scope of the gifts by taking an overly narrow view of what it means to "edify" the Body of Christ. The traditional view tends, unfortunately, to insist that the only activities which "edify" are those which contribute in some immediate and fairly obvious way to some statistical measure of success e.g., "conversions" or "decisions" (expressed as a number), baptisms, attendance or offerings. The key words here are "immediate and fairly obvious" although it may in general be a good thing to help Christians lead deeper or better lives, it is believed that for any effort to truly "edify" it must have improving the statistics as one of its goals and must actually result in better numbers within a relatively short time. Indeed, this author has actually heard it preached that the only way one can know whether his or her spiritual gifts are being properly used is by looking at the numbers!
Of course, when he inspired the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit stated no such limitation on his work or his gifts. Neither Romans 12 nor I Corinthians 12-14 contain a single word suggesting that we should judge the effectiveness of the Spirit's work at all, let alone that we should judge it by the number of "decisions" or baptisms it produces or by the size of the offering collected. (Indeed, the need to compare ourselves to others using some outward, "objective" measure is a work of the flesh, and the insistence on measuring "effectiveness" using church statistics arises partly from this need and partly from a rejection of the idea that individual communion with God even matters).
Instead, these chapters repeatedly stress yieldedness, obedience, exercising the gifts and offices given us by the Spirit to the full measure of those gifts. We yield, and the Spirit is responsible for the results.
Ian Johnson & Jonathan Brickman
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© 2003 and 2016 Ian B. Johnson and Jonathan E. Brickman
Next Page: The Question of Healings and Miracles.
Have some gifts passed away?
Some discussion of history and the present day.
Early Pentecostals, Spirit baptism, Racism and the Wesleyan Second Blessing
A historical discussion as to why the Pentecostal movement, at least in the US, accepts the gifts but tends to over-emphasize speaking in unknown tongues.
on God Reaching Out
Speaking in Unknown Tongues
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