Enjoying The Gifts of the Spirit (and navigating some minefields).

giftsThe bit of Christmas when we get presents shouldn’t be controversial. We should just be delighted and excited to receive and give.   But sometimes it does become controversial. We look to see who got the best present, whether the recipient showed the appropriate response, did they give me something of equivalent value etc. Joy turns to argument

God gives us incredible gifts but this can get controversial too. Here are some of the reasons why it gets controversial.

1.       Questions about whether all gifts are still available 

2.       Uncertainty about the nature of specific gifts e.g. Tongues, prophecy, Words of Knowledge

3.       Competition, priority, statement a person’s value and worth

4.       Fear of the weird and wonderful

5.       Can I tell if this is a real gift or not?

6.       Manipulation and control issues

Earlier articles have dealt with questions about protection from manipulation and abuse and how we avoid competition.  We’ve also picked up on the question of discernment. So here I want to talk about the nature and availability of the different gifts

  1. Are all the gifts still available?


It’s always helpful to know why someone thinks something even if I disagree. There could be good motives and things to learn.

Cessationists argue that several of the gifts, especially Tongues, Prophecy and healing were specifically for the New Testament Church and particularly the apostles. Why?  Primarily it’s a focus on how do we ensure that God’s Word is valued and honoured (c.f.2 Tim 3:16).

There’s also usually a concern about the issues of manipulation and pretence.  Some people end up as “practical cessationists” because of this even if they accept things can happen in theory.

Their Biblical basis for this position tends to come from two places. First of all 1 Corinthians 13:9-10.  tells us that certain things will cease when we know in full. The question is whether fullness when Scripture is complete or when Jesus comes back?  I think the latter and so I’m not convinced here.[1]

Perhaps more convincingly Hebrews 1:1-2 and 2:3-4 tell us that the fullness of Revelation is in Christ and the purpose of signs was to attest the witnesses.

These are helpful challenges –and get us thinking about how doe ensure Scripture is honoured. We also should see something distinctive in what the apostles did. However do these gifts only function as signs in that kind of way?

NB – I don’t think I’d ever see anything miraculous as intended to twist the arm and convince someone who does not want to believe but more to confirm for the hearts of those who do believe.

I think the problem comes when we have a one -dimensional view of Revelation. Scripture as God’s Special revelation but that does not exclude other aspects of revelation -such as through creation and providence. We call this “General Revelation.”  The sense then is that everything God does is a revelation of his character.  However, because we are finite and fallen and the World itself is subject to corruption there are limits to this. Also General Revelation was always intended to be understood through Special Revelation and not to do the job of telling the full story of redemption.

So we need Special Revelation to tell us about redemption but also to understand, interpret and apply what we see in General Revelation. It has authority over it.[2] This means that when people have dreams, visions, intuitions, words, insights etc. then if these are in the General Revelation category there should be no problem.

You may note that this looks at first glance similar to Grudem’s view. Grudem believed that there was a difference between the Old Testament prophets and New Testament one. Old Testament prophets were infallible and found their counterparts not in the new testament prophets but in the apostles.  The New Testament prophets were fallible (Agabus is often cited as an example).   However, I think there’s a difference in our positions. I think he confuses the issue by having two tiers of prophecy, one infallibly effective and one defective.[3] I would argue that throughout the time period of Scripture you have lots of examples of prophets and prophesy, not all of it comes under the category of Scripture, not all of it gets recorded (e.g. Saul is among the prophets). So the issue is not about what level of prophet are you but about whether what you are saying is special or general revelation.

It’s helpful then to think about how gifts might be used in discernment and decision making in the church.  A leaders’ meeting might have people with expertise in finance, medicine, engineering, project management etc. as they make decisions about mission, church life, building projects, pastoral care etc. God’s General Revelation means that they have helpful advice to give. Someone else may also have a picture/word of knowledge. This should be contributed but should not trump the other insights. All should be subjected to Scripture

  1. What are the different gifts?

I’ve found it helpful to see that there isn’t an exhaustive list. This is liberating.  The lists are for example.  So I don’t need to worry about matching something that happens to an exact label.[4]

Key things are

  1. Submission to God’s Word
  2. The heart motive of the person and their relationship to Christ
  3. What is God doing through this. Are people being challenged, encouraged, corrected, built up?
  4. Is the result that God is glorified?

This may mean that people have exercised a gift without knowing it. E.g. a cessationists may be uncomfortable to talk about words of knowledge, prophecy etc. but may share something where God powerfully speaks. The converse may be true. I guess someone could give a label to something they are doing and for all we know may be wrong but if God is at work then that’s not an issue. Though no amount of calling something a prophecy/tongue etc. is of use if the criteria above don’t happen.

My current view on the more controversial ones is as follows.


It may be helpful to think about how people are able to hear what God is saying to us now in our local church context.  This may include specific special insights, predictions or knowledge that would not otherwise have been available. I also think this includes testimony, preaching and singing.

An example of this in practice would be from a few years back. Several people reported on the same day troubled dreams about a situation, one person said they’d woken with a sense of unease and the name on their mind whilst another person had some knowledge about what was happening. This prompted prayer and a greater awareness of the spiritual dynamics involved in that situation.


I think this gets mystified by the use of the word “Tongue”.  Remember that literally this can be translated as languages.

It is possible that there are a few different things being referred to even in the NT such as experience in prayer life as well as evangelism across cultures.

I personally would see the ability to grasp a language, preach in it and translate as  a gift of languages. The gift bit is that God gives people to the Church who can do this. This might happen through someone learning a language. It may be that God gives them a particular ability to pick up the language. It may be that God supernaturally enables someone to speak or understand in a language they could not previously use.

Some people have experienced occasions when they have found themselves speaking in unknown words whilst praying. I remember one person describing the sensation as being trying to express something to God and running out of the words to say then finding themselves speaking “in tongues.”  Now, I think this is a helpful example of not getting hung up on labels.  Is tthis the gift of tongues or is it my explanation of language interpretation above.  Could both of these things come under the same heading?  Isn’t the important thing at this stage to ask what is happening, what the fruit is. Does the use of a language I’ve learnt or been given instant ability to understand enable me to translate and communicate God’s Word? Then it is a gift. If however I just become proud of my language skills then it isn’t. If the person “praying in tongues” find that thy have a greater sensitivity in their prayer life and pray with greater awareness and understanding, then this is surely good. If however, the “tongue” simply becomes the thing that I need to give me an experience, a spiritual buzz and if this replaces thoughtful prayer with my mind engaged then clearly it is a distraction from Christ and the Gospel.

Words of knowledge and Words of Wisdom

I wonder too with these gifts whether the way we phrase this can either mystify or demystify.  Remember that when we use the phrase “word of knowledge” that’ actually unusual in English, it’s a very literal and perhaps wooden attempt to render the Greek genitive.  A genitive may be functioning adjectively -so perhaps we could simply talk about “wise words”

It’s helpful as well to think about the context.  In Corinth, the Christians were proud of their knowledge and believed themselves to be wise. There were two problems. First of all, their knowledge caused them to be puffed up and secondly they confused true godly wisdom with worldly wisdom that was no wisdom at all.[5]

It might be helpful to see these two paired. [6] The church needs both knowledge and wisdom. I think this is the difference between the medical student who knows his text book and the doctor who knows how to diagnose and to advise the most appropriate treatment.  The wisdom comes in for the doctor of knowing what is appropriate for that particular patient and to pick up on all the other factors that might be having an impact.

Think about the Corinthians -many of them had knowledge about God’s Law and also about the freedom of grace.  They knew their theology.  This was in a great sense a gift of “words of knowledge.”  However, lacking love and concern for others led to a lack of wisdom about how and when to deploy and apply that knowledge. They desperately needed the gift of wise words too!

So, a gift of words of knowledge may actually encompass a whole array of knowledge.  The preacher needs to know their Bible; this might include the ability to memorise verses.  We also will need people who know their doctrine and the gift of knowing Greek and Hebrew is also an advantage.  However, that knowledge on its own will just create a cerebral church and we will become puffed up with knowledge. We need wisdom, this will enable genuine pastoral care and discipleship.  We want preachers who don’t just exegete the Word but also exegete the congregation and are aware of how the message will be heard by different people in the congregation.   We want people who know when is the right time to share a verse of Scripture and when is the right time just to put an arm around someone and say “I care.”  We need to be able to help apply the Scripture and say “this means in this context that we need to do x.” Knowledge and wisdom go hand in hand.

And yes, I also think that knowledge will from time to time come not from learning and memorising but through intuition and through the Holy Spirit giving insights that we would not have got by ourselves.  Again, the wisdom gift is helpful. What do we do with that insight? Have we interpreted things correctly?  Who do I share it with?   Is the insight something I need to tell that person or is it something for me to help me love them and pray for them more. The wise word helps me not to use this special knowledge to control, manipulate, judge or gossip.[7]

Developing Gifting

I knew some incredibly gifted footballers at school. I’m only aware of one person from the 1500 in our school that went on to play professional football. He did play in the Premier League. I didn’t know him well enough to make it a claim to fame!

Those who make it to the top in sports, the arts, indeed any profession, don’t just rely on having the gift. They develop it. This means that they study the theory behind the practice, they train and practice hard. They use the gift for real when it counts. They take risks. They get feedback, they reflect. They seek to improve.

Whether I see my gift as something that was there naturally or whether I see it as something given at a specific time by the Holy Spirit in an unexpected way, I still have the need to develop it by learning, training and practice. I still need feedback so I can improve.

In church life, we should be seeking to help people discover and use their gifts. We should also be helping them to develop and grow in their gifts.

[1] On this see  Calvin, 1 Corinthians, 280-281. See also Ciampra and Rosner, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 656-57.

[2] For more on this see Dave Williams, How Do You Know? The Doctrine of Revelation (2015) available on our publications page. Also helpful here is John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 233-3238.

[3] See Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1049-1061.

[4] Cf. Fee, 1 Corinthians, 590.

[5] Cf Fee, 1 Corinthians, 592.

[6] Fee, 1 Corinthians, 593.

[7] So Fee sees these as “spiritual utterance of some revelatory kind.” Fee, 1 Corinthians, 593