Category Archives: spiritual gifts

I am who I am by the grace of God

Yesterday I started talking about how we view our innate characteristics, the things we were born with. In the church, it’s become popular to downplay our natural traits and build up what are considered to be our spiritual gifts.

Basically, the idea is this:

  • The talents we have to use in the church are things that were given to us by the Spirit when we became Christians.
  • These things, like speaking ability or worship leading skills, are seen as superior to things that are natural in us, specifically our gender. One is a spiritual gift; the other is an accident of birth.

I see several problems with this reasoning.

  • It misunderstands spiritual gifts, failing to see them as ministries instead of talents. Basically, we’ve conflated natural talents and spiritual gifts.
  • It stems out of neo-Platonic ideas that seek to separate the physical and the spiritual, disdaining all things physical.
  • This reasoning leaves God out of the birth process, reducing it to animal reproduction.

God made us. Some of us He made with innate leadership skills; go to the nursery school playground, and you’ll see that these things are in us from very young. Some He made with speaking skills, others with enhanced sensitivity and compassion. There are introverts and extroverts. And, since this is the hot button these days, some are male and female. I don’t think gender is a choice; I think God created us a specific way. None of us are superior to the others, but all of us different, according to the design of a loving God.

When we become Christians, God uses who we are in new ways, for His glory. Peter was a spokesman and a leader before receiving the Spirit. He was a spokesman and a leader after receiving the Spirit, but his ministry was channeled and led by the Spirit. Paul was an well-educated influencer before becoming a Christian; after becoming a Christian, Paul allowed the Spirit to use him in a ministry to the Gentiles. According to Paul, that was a gift from God (Romans 15:15-16)

We are who we are because God made us to be just who we are. There is no accident of birth involved. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, knit together by a loving God. That God has destined us for good works, done through His Spirit, by the ministries He gives us by His grace.

Fearfully and wonderfully made?

I’ve been noting a tendency in many religious discussions. More and more people are treating our physical self as a product of nature and our spiritual self as God’s work. I saw an extreme example of this in a recent email conversation where someone said that if we took a certain stance we would be saying “baptism does not matter more than the accident of birth.”

Questions about God’s providence are always difficult to address, unless we take the extreme position of saying God determines everything or the position that He determines nothing. What I’m seeing also seems extreme to me. Basically the idea is that what we are as humans is worldly, while the gifts we receive as Christians are spiritual.

Here are some of the passages that seem to support that position:

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. (Romans 7:18)

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Galatians 6:15)

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)

However, there are also passages that seem to indicate an intentionality in our creation:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. (Psalm 139:15-16)

Your hands fashioned and made me;
and now you turn and destroy me.
Remember that you fashioned me like clay;
and will you turn me to dust again? (Job 10:8-9)

Did not he who made me in the womb make them?
And did not one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:15)

But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:7)

How do you see it? Is our physical nature, as a friend stated recently, merely “the accident of birth”? Are our innate characteristics all irrelevant to our spirituality? Do natural talents account for anything or is Christian living only accomplished through spiritual gifts? Is there any importance to who I was before baptism?

Hope you can find enough clarity of thought in this to shed some light on the discussion. If nothing else, feel free to say, “What in the world are you talking about?”

Grace and gifts

As I studied a bit the terms charisma/charismata, I noticed another word that is sometimes used similarly in the New Testament: charis. We typically translate charis as grace, yet there are some instances in the New Testament when it seems to be a ministry.

Like Romans 15:15-16

But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

Or, in the passages we read in this study, Ephesians 4:7, which precedes a discussion of different roles in the body of Christ:

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

There’s even a hint of this meaning in Romans 12:6

Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith;

Doesn’t add a lot to this study, but I find it interesting.

Why I’d rather lead people to seek ministries than abilities

What does it matter if the Greek word charisma refers to a ministry instead of a gift? I see several things:

  • Too many people spend excessive time and worry trying to discover their spiritual gift. They seek a mysterious hidden talent or miraculous awakening of this special gift. It seems to me if we help people see that they are part of a body and will be expected to find a way to serve within that body, it takes some of the mystique out of the process. For many, the end result will be the same, but the way of getting to that result will be less stressful and more understandable.
  • To my way of thinking, understanding that charismata are ministries helps us see that they are always for building up the body and never merely for personal edification. That’s stated clearly in the New Testament, but seems all the more obvious when we realize that we’re looking for an activity or a ministry and not just some mysterious ability.
  • Our schools have a “Gifted and Talented Program.” It focuses on kids with a natural ability for learning. When we speak of spiritual gifts, we’re often talking about the same thing: a talent. We say things like “He’s a gifted song leader.” Where it gets complicated is when we begin to attribute those gifts to something the Christian received post conversion. If he’s a gifted song leader and that gift is seen as coming from the Holy Spirit, then we are sinning against the Holy Spirit if we don’t let that person lead singing. Sometimes a talented singer is not a good worship leader. Or sometimes there are other issues in the person’s life that get in the way. When we recognize that talent is not a Spirit-given charisma, we can look at things more objectively.

Those are some basic thoughts. What do you see?

Higher gifts, greater ministries

Getting back to our discussion of gifts and ministries, I want to look at the end of 1 Corinthians 12. Starting in verse 27 we read:

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.” (1 Corinthians 12:27–31)

The word “gifts” in verses 28, 30, and 31 is “charismata,” the word we’ve been looking at. In this chapter, Paul uses the phrase “gifts of healing” three times. I’m guessing that’s to make clear that he wasn’t talking about someone being healed but rather the gift/ministry of healing others. Someone better versed than I in Greek might shed some light here.

Verse 31 then stands apart, with a charge to seek the “higher gifts.” He would seem to be referring to this list, with apostles*, prophets, and teachers heading the list. Can you see how these would refer more to ministries than special abilities? That makes sense to me. Even looking at the list, “gifts” like helping and administrating seem to describe roles more than abilities.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that charisma/charismata in the New Testament refers to a ministry that God has given us to perform rather than special abilities for performing those ministries. That said, there’s a lot of truth in the old saying: “God doesn’t call the equipped. He equips the called.”

*Paul generally uses the term “apostle” in a broad sense, referring to those sent out to establish new churches; when he’s talking about the original apostles, he usually says “the twelve.” You can see this clearly in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 where both terms are used