I've been preaching for the last several weeks on the subject of spiritual gifts as I make my way through Romans 12. I appreciated the post that Tim Challies had the other week, as his thoughts paralleled mine in several ways. I think that is a good thing, at least I hope so.
I had come up with a list of four questions about spiritual gifts that I wanted to answer in the course of the series-within-a-series. The first one related to the issue of the continuation of some of the miraculous gifts. I spent a Sunday explaining both the cessationist and continuationist positions and trying to explain the cessationist view that our church has held and the basis for it.
This past week I addressed the issue of the gift of prophecy, as it appears on the list of unusual (if I can use that word) gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, and also on the list of conventional gifts in Romans 12. But what was probably of particular interest - and generally is - to most of our congregation was the discussion of how we know what gifts we have and how they are to be used. I've concluded several things that might be helpful as I've tried to sort through the biblical data on this topic.
We must not treat spiritual gifts as a novelty. Often people are interested in what gifts they have much like they are interested in finding out what type of personality they fit into. It is cool to hear where you fit, but nothing much happens after that. In reality, we will give an account for the use of our gifts, since they have an important place in the life of the church.
We should be careful about splitting hairs when it comes to identifying gifts. There are four (perhaps five) lists of gifts in the New Testament. One is found in Romans, two lists are in 1 Corinthians 12, one is in Ephesians, and then possibly one in 1 Peter. Each list is different, including some gifts that are not found on other lists, and excluding some gifts that are found on other lists. I've seen books and articles that provide very precise definitions of the different gifts, but I'm not so sure we can do that, or that we need to. First of all, many of the gifts are simply mentioned. They are not shown in action, such as might be done in a narrative portion of Scripture where we have an illustration of their use. Therefore there has to be some humble uncertainty about being too fine in our definitions. For example, can anyone make a case that there is a fundamental difference between the gift of leadership (1 Cor 12) and administration (Rom 12), or that serving (Romans 12) is different than helps (1 Cor 12)?
I've encouraged our people to think more broadly, following Peter's discussion in 1 Peter 4. There are those who are gifted in communication and there are those who gifted in hands-on types of ministries. There are certainly more than two gifts, but here is a place to begin.
Many, but not all, of the spiritual gifts have corresponding character qualities. By this I do not mean that a gift is equal to a particular character quality, but rather that some gifts may involve the ability to excel in areas all should be obedient in. In Romans 12 Paul says that some are gifted to serve. Yet he also says in Galatians 5:13 that all of us are to serve each other. He identifies a gift of exhortation, but then tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:18 & 5:11 that we are all responsible for encouraging each other (same word). There is a gift of giving (contributing), but all of us are to give. There is a gift of doing acts of mercy, but Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful,” speaking about it in a way that applies to all of his followers. How does this relate to our finding out what gifts we have? It may be that as we practice the behavior of a Christian, we discover that there are certain capacities that seem to stand out, or are areas in which we excel.
The use of spiritual gifts requires involvement in more than just Sunday morning. This is a no-brainer, but unless a person is committed to the life of the church, which means that they are in some formal or informal sub-segments of the entire congregation, their gifts will not be able to be used. Most people cannot use their gift on Sunday morning.
Rather than finding out what our gift is through a survey or course of some kind, I'm inclined to suggest to our people that they need to:
1. Believe that they have a spiritual gift (or have gifts).
2. Be committed to serving the Body as servants of God (connecting Romans 12:1-2 with 12:3-8).
3. Participate in the life of the church.
4. Pursue Christlike character.
5. Look for opportunities in which they feel that they can serve and then observe how God blesses their ministry. This includes considering the desires that God places on their hearts.
While this is no magic formula, it seems to make the discovery process subordinate to getting involved in church life and making discovery about giftedness take place in the context of community.