The Gift and Gifts of the Spirit

When our sons were young, they would enthusiastically tear into the gifts that their mother and I gave them at Christmas. If they unwrapped a toy or game, they were elated. If it was socks or a shirt, they were evidently disappointed. Their reactions revealed that they overvalued “exciting” gifts and undervalued “practical” gifts.

Sadly, many professing believers approach the gifts of the Spirit in a similar manner. They overvalue the idea of the miraculous spiritual gifts (e.g., tongues, prophecy, healing) and undervalue the common spiritual gifts (e.g., salvation and sanctifying fruit). Holding faulty views of the miraculous spiritual gifts is usually due to a failure to grasp the redemptive-historical purpose of the gifts. When we come to understand the biblical teaching about the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit and the ordinary gifts of the Spirit, we will better value the greater and continuing gifts in the life of the church today.

The New Testament sets out a variety of spiritual gifts that God has graciously given His people. Most notably, Scripture speaks of salvation as the “gift of God” (Rom. 6:23Eph. 2:8). Salvation is the gift of God because we are dead in our sins by nature (Eph. 2:1–3) and cannot do a single thing to earn eternal life. By way of association, Christ refers to Himself as “the gift of God.” He told the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus referred to Himself as “the gift of God” because He is the incarnate Son of God who came into the world to accomplish the unmerited and undeserved redemption of sinners.

After Christ ascended and sent the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles repeatedly called the Spirit “the gift of God” (Acts 8:20; see also 3:38; 10:45). The Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to His blood-bought people (John 7:37). The Spirit applies the redemption that Christ secured for the elect. By virtue of effecting a true spiritual union between Christ and believers, the Spirit makes it possible for Jesus to be the source of regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification for those He redeems (1 Cor. 1:30). The Spirit works in conjunction with the Son. The Spirit convicts, regenerates, indwells, justifies, sanctifies, adopts, seals, and ultimately glorifies all for whom Christ died. The Spirit causes fruit to be borne in the lives of those who are united to Christ (Gal. 5:22). Through the Spirit, Christ imparts His love (John 15:9–10), His joy (v. 11; 17:13), and His peace (14:27) to His people.

Closely connected to the New Testament teaching about the gift of the Spirit is its references to the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:4)—what Paul calls “spiritual gifts” (Rom. 1:111 Cor. 12:1; 14:1Eph. 4:8). The ascended Christ communicates these gifts to His people by His Spirit. Jesus exhibited the power of the Spirit in Himself, enabling Him to perform miraculous deeds that attested to the veracity of His messianic ministry. When He ascended, Christ sent the same Spirit by which He had performed those mighty works and wonders so that His Apostolic church would carry the messianic message of the gospel to the nations. Accordingly, the extraordinary gifts are intimately tied to the victorious, ascended Christ. As Sinclair Ferguson explains, “The correlation between the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Spirit signals that the gift and gifts of the Spirit serve as the external manifestation of the triumph and enthronement of Christ.”

The primary New Testament passages in which the Apostolic teaching about these gifts is found are Romans 12:6–81 Corinthians 12:8–11, 28Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Peter 4:10–11. A brief comparison of the gift lists leads to the conclusion that the gifts were all intimately tied to the foundational ministry of the Apostles and prophets (2 Cor. 12:11–13Eph. 2:20; 3:5). Dr. Ferguson again notes:

While an eclectic grouping of these various gifts is difficult, and perhaps even the attempt is wrong-headed, a basic structure is clearly present: the revelatory word through Apostle and prophet is foundational (Eph. 2:20), while all else is informed by and flows from this.

The first list of gifts in Ephesians is that of “word-gift” offices that Christ established. Paul speaks of Christ’s gift of “apostles, . . . prophets, . . . evangelists, . . . shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). Since the ministry of the Word is the primary means by which God advances His kingdom and builds up His people, Paul lists several “word-gift” offices. In short, those whom God has called to be ministers of His Word are to be received as Christ’s gift to His church. The offices of Apostle and prophet stand at the head of this list because of their foundational function. God appointed these office bearers to lay the foundation of the new covenant church and carry the gospel to the nations (Eph. 2:201 Thess. 2:132 Peter 3:15–16). Accordingly, He appointed them to disclose the full revelation of the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:4–6). These offices were necessary only until the completion of the canon of Scripture (2:20; 3:5). The church now possesses the full revelatory Word of God (i.e., the completed Apostolic doctrine) in the pages of the Old and New Testaments.

During the Apostolic age, God imparted both ordinary and extraordinary spiritual gifts. The ordinary gifts were those that are common for all believers. They include conviction of sin, conversion, sanctification, and assurance of salvation. The extraordinary gifts are those supernatural gifts that God distributed to individuals at certain times for specific purposes in redemptive history. Jonathan Edwards explained this distinction:

The extraordinary gifts of the Spirit are the same with miraculous gifts; such as gifts of prophecy and working miracles, and others mentioned by the Apostle. . . . These are called extraordinary gifts of the Spirit because . . . they are bestowed . . . only on extraordinary occasions, as they were bestowed on the prophets and apostles to enable them to reveal the mind and will of God before the canon of the Scripture was complete. . . . But since the canon of the Scripture has been completed, and the Christian church fully founded and established, those extraordinary gifts have ceased. The ordinary gifts of the Spirit are such as are continued to the church of God throughout all ages; such gifts as are granted in conviction and conversion, and such as appertain to the building up of saints in holiness and comfort.

The extraordinary (i.e., miraculous) gifts of prophecy, tongues, and healing authenticated the divine message proclaimed by the Apostles among the nations (Acts 1:8). These gifts validated the Apostolic revelation of Christ. Tongues were “sign-gifts” to attest to the fact that God was carrying His kingdom from old covenant Israel to the nations. Accordingly, tongues testified that the blessing of the gospel had come to the nations. As O. Palmer Robertson explains:

The foreign tongues spoken on the day of Pentecost were a sign of covenantal curse for Israel. No longer would God speak exclusively to them in contrast with all the nations of the world. But at the same time, tongues at Pentecost served as a sign of the great blessing of God to all the nations of the world, including Israel. Tongues were a sign of the extension of the blessing of the covenant to all the nations of the world.

Miraculous healing was another authenticating sign-gift. Miraculous healing attested to the resurrection power of the gospel. The extraordinary sign-gifts ceased when the gospel spread to the ends of the earth and the church was established on the foundation of the completed Old and New Testament revelation. Likewise, there would be no further need for prophecy when the Apostles completed the written revelation of Christ and the canon of Scripture was closed.

First Corinthians 12–14 contains the lengthiest treatment of spiritual gifts in the New Testament. Here the Apostle Paul addresses what had become a widespread misuse of the gifts in the church. Members of the church were exalting lesser gifts over greater gifts, while others were making use of them in disorderly and self-aggrandizing ways. The members of the church failed to rightly understand the purpose for which God had given gifts. After comparing the importance of the gifts of tongues and prophecy, Paul contrasts the temporary function of the extraordinary gifts and the continual operation of the ordinary gifts. He does so to help his readers understand that the ordinary gifts of the Spirit are to be favored above the extraordinary (1 Cor. 12:31).

In 1 Corinthians 13:8–13, Paul contrasts three extraordinary gifts with three ordinary gifts (faith, hope, and love). He notes that the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit would eventually cease while the ordinary gifts would remain (vv. 8, 13). Paul says that while the extraordinary gifts would come to an end, the ordinary gifts would continue until the end of time. The need for extraordinary gifts ceased with the completion of God’s written revelation, but the need for the ordinary gifts remains throughout the gospel age (v. 13). Although faith and hope would outlast the extraordinary gifts in time, they will not outlast love in eternity. Faith and hope will continue to operate in the lives of believers until the consummation. Love is the greatest gift because it continues to function through all eternity: “Love never ends” (v. 8). When Christ returns, faith will be turned into sight and hope will be fulfilled (Rom. 8:24), but love will be the prevailing grace in the communion that believers will have with God and each other for all eternity. John Calvin concluded from Paul’s teaching in this section:

We should eagerly desire an excellence that will never come to an end. Hence love must be preferred before temporary and perishable gifts. Prophesyings have an end, tongues fail, knowledge ceases. Hence love is more excellent than they on this ground—that, while they fail, it survives.

Even when the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit were still operative in the Apostolic church, Paul’s message was simple: Without the accompanying exercise of love, the use of other spiritual gifts is vain (1 Cor. 13:1–4). This principle holds as true for those of us living in the twenty-first century as it did for believers in the Apostolic age. Love must always be the guiding motive behind the exercise of whatever gifts God has given us.

Although the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit have ceased in redemptive history, God continues to give His people a variety of gifts for service in the church, such as teaching and preaching, mercy, hospitality, generosity, and administration. He distributes these diversely to the members of His body so that they will, in turn, use them to build up others in the same body in love (Rom. 12:6–8Eph. 4:11–16). When gifts are exercised in love, the members of the body of Christ are unified and edified.

The ascended Christ has given His people the gift of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. The extra­ordinary gifts of the Spirit served the purpose of authenticating the divine origin of the Apostolic message. They accompanied and served the progress of revelation in Scripture and the foundation of the new covenant church. Accordingly, they ceased with the completion of the canon of Scripture. The ordinary gifts of the Spirit are those operations that are common to His saving work in the redeemed. The Spirit causes holiness and fruit to be borne in the lives of believers. While the extraordinary gifts were operative only during the Apostolic age, the ordinary gifts remain until the end of the age. Since love was to be the guiding principle by which believers exercised their spiritual gifts during the Apostolic age, it must be so whenever we exercise any gift for the edification of God’s people.

*This was first published in the January 2024 edition of Tabletalk Magazine.

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