Spiritual Gifts

It’s Not What You Think

A couple of years ago, a high school teacher at a local Christian school asked me to come in and defend my position of the “spiritual gifts,” and in particular the revelatory gifts such as prophecy and speaking in tongues. He had heard through the grapevine that I am a continuationist but “not crazy.” For 35-40 minutes, I gave my defense and then answered questions. From the questions, I deduced there were two vastly different experiences of spiritual gifts among these students. 

  1. A group of students was taught the spiritual or revelatory gifts ceased (cessationism). 
  2. Many students were a part of the church where bad theology on the spiritual gifts lead to unbiblical practices of the spiritual gifts. 

You might be reading this and able to identify with one of these categories. 

During my lecture, I contended that both extremes do not square with The Scriptures. I argued that spiritual gifts must be encouraged, especially prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1). But the exercise of spiritual gifts is done with order. A great deal of my defense comes from 1 Corinthians 12-14. If you are an avid Bible reader, you might be wondering, what does the great love chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 have to do with the spiritual gifts? Well, a lot. Love has everything to do with spiritual gifts. 

What Does Love have to Do With It?

An Atmosphere of Love

What is the right attitude for pursuing spiritual gifts? Paul says we need to pursue love. Here is how Paul tethered the Spiritual Gifts to love. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul introduces the topic of the Spiritual Gifts. We read in 1 Corinthians 12 that there are a variety of gifts given from God to the church at the discretion of God. Whatever gifts a person has to contribute to the church is valuable because each church member is valuable. After Paul dials into the Spiritual Gifts he says this at the end of chapter 12, 

And I will show you a still more excellent way.

– 1 Corinthians 12:31

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul talks about the most excellent way, love. It’s a remarkable chapter highlighting the highest Christian ethic. Under all circumstances, we are to love God and love others. I could preach a grand slam of a sermon, but I am just a talking mouth without love. The most eloquent prophecy could be given, but 1 Corinthians 13 says that a person is nothing without love. Love must abound. So, why the emphasis on love between chapters 12 and 14? I think it is because if we want the spiritual gifts to operate in a way honoring to God. There must be an atmosphere of biblical love. Biblical love cuts the legs out of trying to puff yourself up with a prophetic word. Love helps to squash pride. Love causes us to think of others before ourselves. Love is the most excellent way, which is why we always need to pursue love. Any substantive conversation about spiritual gifts – particularly the revelatory gifts – begins with the highest Christian ethic of love. 

I am sure most Christians are tracking with me thus far. So let’s now ask several questions about spiritual gifts. 

4 Questions 

  1. What are the Spiritual Gifts?
  2. Is the pursuit of the Spiritual Gifts a suggestion or a command? 
  3. Why does Paul highlight prophecy?
  4. What is the end goal of the spiritual gifts?

Question #1: What are the Spiritual Gifts?

Defining terms is essential, and so I’ll let pastor Sam Storms define spiritual gifts. 

Spiritual gifts are not God bestowing to his people something external to himself. They are not some tangible ‘stuff’ or substance separable from God. Spiritual gifts are nothing less than God himself in us, energizing our souls, imparting revelation to our minds, infusing power in our wills, and working his sovereign and gracious purposes through us…[in summary] Spiritual gifts are God present in, with, and through human thoughts, human deeds, human words, human love.

– Sam Storms

One of the main takeaways from Storms’ statement is that God is 100% involved in the Spiritual Gifts. No God. No Spiritual Gifts.

Now, here is the second question. 

Question # 2: Is the pursuit of the Spiritual Gifts a suggestion or a command?

When my cessationist friends come to 1 Corinthians 14, they seem to be at a loss. They are at a loss because their principles of interpretation are in tension with their theological belief. Cessationist have to acknowledge that Paul gives a command/imperative to use the gifts in 1 Corinthians 14:1

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.

– 1 Corinthians 14:1

Did you hear that? God commands us to desire the spiritual gifts! Ya know, when my cessationist friends come to a command/imperative in the Pauline epistles, they are banging the drum of God’s command. For example, and there are a lot of commands in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 6 God says, “Flee sexual immorality!” Do you think God is giving a suggestion? 

Counter-Claim #1

I understand all the counter-arguments regarding the cessation of the gifts. One of the most common responses is that we do not need to follow the command because the gifts stopped with the last apostle’s death – the apostle John. I have a couple points regarding this line of thinking. 

First, we know from early church history this is not true. The spiritual gifts were still at work in the life of the church. If we had time I would pull up a chair and grab a cup of coffee to tell you story after story from the early church about how the spiritual gifts were at work: Justin Martyr (2nd c.), Tertullian (3rd c.), Irenaeus (2nd-3rd c.), the great Augustine (4th-5th c.), to just name a few. They give accounts of the gifts still in use.  

All of this is a cheery on top of the ice cream because if someone is going to tell me the gifts of the Holy Spirit are no longer for today, then you have to show me overwhelming support from the Bible. Here is a lousy attempt at explaining the gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased. 

Counter-Claim #2

When I was in college, I took a Systematic Theology class, and my professor was a cessationist. His evidence that the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit have ceased came from 1 Corinthians 13:8-10.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

– 1 Corinthians 13:8-9

1 Corinthians 13 has been used to say that the arrival of “the perfect” (v. 10) is the Bible. This interpretation is utterly dishonest with the historical development of the Bible, and sadly, dishonest with the Bible. The only understanding of this text is that when Jesus, the Perfect, comes back, there will be no need to prophesy or speak in tongues. The partial will pass away because we will see Jesus face to face. God’s Word says a few verses later,

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

– 1 Corinthians 13:12

When we see Jesus face to face, the mirror will no longer be dim. We will know fully. However, until then, God gives spiritual gifts to his people to have a taste of the spiritual realities of heaven. 

The biblical and contemporary question isn’t are the gifts are for today? The gifts are for today, and God commands us to desire the gifts earnestly.

I could say more, but I’ll attempt to keep this blog post from turning into a dissertation. So here is the next question from 1 Corinthians 14.

Question #3: Why does Paul highlight prophecy?

In chapter 14, Paul calls out two particular gifts. Prophecy and speaking in tongues. There are a multitude of gifts in the New Testament (see Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12), but prophecy and tongues become a touchpoint for Paul. Throughout the entire chapter, Paul shows how these gifts are to operate in the context of the gathered church. So Paul tells us to desire the spiritual gifts, especially that we prophesy. Prophecy is highlighted because prophetic words can be a source of great encouragement for the church. Here is verse 3.

 . . .the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.

– 1 Corinthians 14:3

So let’s talk about prophecy for a moment. Prophecy, along with speaking in tongues, is the spiritual gift highlighted in the 21st-century church more than others. What is prophecy? 

  • First, the New Testament prophecy is not speaking more Scripture into existence. No one should give a prophetic word and say, “Thus saith, the Lord.” The canon is closed. None of you will ever be another prophet, Isaiah. We have God’s revealed Words in the Bible. We do not need to add to God’s Word. However, the New Testament does include prophets and prophecy that fall under the authority of God’s Word
  • Second, prophecy is not necessarily preaching or teaching. The New Testament does make a distinction between teaching and prophecy. Prophecy has its own category in Scripture. I mention this because an objection to prophecy is that prophecy and teaching are the same, which is simply not true. They can be equivalent but are not necessarily equivalent.
  • Third, God can use anyone, at any time, to give a prophetic word.

I’ll phone the same friend to define prophecy. 

When I use the word prophecy I’m not referring primarily to the prediction of future events. A simple definition would be that prophecy is the human report of a divine revelation (adapted from Wayne Grudem). Prophecy is the speaking forth in merely human words something God has spontaneously brought to mind.

– Sam Storms

God continues to use men and women to speak what God has brought to mind spontaneously so that the church can be encouraged. I think this is the New Testament pattern. Now, can a prophetic word be wrong? Yes. Therefore, prophetic words are tested. These passages help guard the church against false prophecies.  

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

– 1 John 4:1

And here is 1 Thessalonians 5, 

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good.

– 1 Th 5:19–21

And later in 1 Corinthians, 14 Paul says, 

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

– 1 Corinthians 14:29

Not the Wild Wild West

It’s not the wild wild west when prophetic words are given. The judging and testing of a prophetic word is vital. Paul is affirming prophecy while at the same time ensuring order within the local church. Here is an overlooked verse that screams, order!

Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.

– 1 Corinthians 14:29

It seems that for the sake of order, Paul is limiting the number of prophetic words. Here is the bottom line for Paul. When prophecy is in operation in the local church, the objective is to build up and encourage the church while at the same time maintaining order. Now, the last question.

Question #4: What is the End Goal of the Spiritual Gifts?

What happens when the gifts of the Holy Spirit operate in order and in an atmosphere of love? The church is built up. We have already seen this but let’s look at it one more time. 

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit. On the other hand, the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolationThe one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up.

– 1 Corinthians 14:1–5

Three times in verses 1-5, Paul says the goal is to build up the church. The goal is to be built up so that you can love Christ and others more. When a prophetic word is given, or a tongue with interpretation is provided, the goal is to build up the church to greater faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing less will do.

More to the Story

I have not given an exhaustive defense of the spiritual gifts, but I hope that looking at a smattering of passages from 1 Corinthians 12-14 helps to remove the stigma that comes from real-world abuse of the spiritual gifts. I also hope to move my cessationist friends to consider their principles of biblical interpretation, and from good exegesis, arrive at sound theological conclusions.