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© Rosemary Bardsley 2009


The term ‘spiritual gifts’ does not occur in the Greek New Testament. What contemporary Christianity commonly calls ‘spiritual gifts’ are, in the Scripture, most commonly simply called ‘gifts’ which God [Father, Son and Spirit] gives to his people in his church, or, on no more than two occasions, are referred to by the plural form of the adjective ‘spiritual’, without the noun ‘gifts’.



The table below contains the ‘gift’ lists from the New Testament.

1Corinthians 12:8-12, 27-29

Romans 12:6-8

Ephesians 4:11 

1Peter 4:8-10  

Teaching gifts







Teachers, knowledge












Sign gifts





Gifts of healings




Workings of miracles




Distinguishing between spirits




Diversity of languages




Interpretation of languages




Service gifts






Those able to help others

Showing mercy









Date: cAD55

Date: cAD56-57

Date: cAD60

Date: cAD63-64


A glance at these lists clearly indicates four facts:

[1] that there is no fixed list of gifts.

[2] that only the earliest list [Corinthians] contains the ‘sign’ gifts.

[3] that the teaching gifts are given most attention

[4] that many of the gifts involve activities or attitudes that are elsewhere the focus of biblical commands and the biblical commission, either to the church generally, or to people or groups with certain roles and responsibilities within the church.

This variation in the lists indicates that the gifts are not limited to those actually mentioned in these lists, but to any God-empowered use of God-given abilities in the ministry of his Kingdom. For instance, in the Old Testament artistic ability and craftsmanship were referred to as the coming from the Spirit of God [Exodus 31:1-5] and instructions were given for the employment of those gifts in the construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings.

When we read these passages discussing the gifts we learn:

[1] About their source: God [Father, Son and Spirit] is the giver of the gifts

What do these references teach about the source of the gifts?

1Corinthians 12:4-11




Ephesians 4:7-8,11




[2] About their distribution:

  • God decides their distribution and appointment [Romans 12:6; 1Corinthians 12:11,28; Ephesians 4:7,11]
  • Every individual has his/her allotted proportion or endowment [1Corinthians 12:7; Ephesians 4:7]
  • Some people may have more than one gift [Romans 12:6; 1Corinthians 14:13]
  • In any local church it is possible that there will be several people with the same gift [Ephesians 4:11]
  • It is possible to receive gifts in addition to those one has [1Corinthians 14:13].
  • No individual is so multi-gifted as to live independently of other believers [1Corinthians 12:12-26; Romans 12:3-6].

Study each of the Bible passages in the dot points above. How do these passages affirm or conflict with the contemporary Christian beliefs and practices listed below?

Belief that a particular gift is mandatory for either salvation or spirituality


The exaltation of a particular gift over and above other gifts, and a parallel quest for that gift.


Pride over the possession of a specific gift or gifts. Feeling of inferiority if lacking specific gifting.


Over-emphasis and over-use of a specific gift or gifts.



Neglect or disregard of a wide range of gifts.



[3] About their role and purpose:

Although they are obviously given to individuals, their purpose is not focused on the individuals to whom they are given but on the body of which the individuals are part, that is, the church.

  • They are appointed by God ‘in the church’ [1Corinthians 12:28] – their role is not personal, but ecclesiastical.
  • They are other-directed; specifically, they are to be used for the good of others in the church – the instruction, encouragement and strengthening of other believers [1Corinthians 12:7; 14:1-19, 26-31; Ephesians 4:11-16].
  • They are not intended for individual personal use but for use within the body [Romans 12:4-8; 1Corinthians 12:14-27; 14:16-19]. In fact, they are meaningless if they are not exercised towards others; they are meaningless exercised in isolation apart from the body context. The speaking gifts imply an audience; the sign gifts imply that there are observers; the service gifts imply that there are people being served. The gifts simply have no point in isolation. Paul likens the presence of various gifts in the church to the various parts of the physical body; he indicates that ‘each member belongs to all the others’ – in other words the various gifts within the church exist for the support, benefit and proper functioning of all the individuals who comprise the church. Hence Paul’s condemnation of the Corinthian use of languages in a way that had no possibility of impacting the body. The gifts are for the body, the church, not the individual.
  • Similarly, Peter commands the use of the gifts within the church for the mutual benefit of those who comprise the church [note the phrases ‘each other’ and ‘one another’] results in praise to God [1Peter 4:7-11].

In addition:

  • In 1Corinthians 14:20-22a the role and purpose of the gift of languages is specified. Here Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11,12, a prophecy spoken to the unbelieving Israelites at the time of their widespread national idolatry, and states that languages are a fulfilment of this prophecy – that they are evidence of God’s indictment against the unbelief of Israel.


[4] About their use:  

  • They are to be used with diligence, cheerfulness and faithfulness [Romans 12:6-8; 1Peter 4:10-11].
  • They are to be used in an orderly and fitting way [1Corinthians 14:26-33,40].
  • Although given by God, how and when they are used is under the direction and control of the individual who is accountable to God for his/her use of their gifts [1Corinthians 14:26-33,40]. This personal responsibility/control factor is in contrast to the ecstatic spirituality of the Corinthians prior to their conversion [1Corinthians 12:2].
  • The verbal content expressed in their use will express genuine acknowledgement the deity of Christ [1Corinthians 12:3].
  • They are to be used for the good of the church [1Corinthians 14:5b, 1Peter 4:10].
  • The possession of a specific gift should never be a cause of personal pride, boasting, individualism or isolationism [Romans 12:3; 1Corinthians 12:14-26].
  • The possession of a gift does not provide an excuse for disobeying God’s commands [1Corinthians 13:1-8a; 1Peter 4:7-11]

[From this it is clear that the possession of a gift does not automatically mean that gift will be used, or that that gift will be used appropriately in line with its God-given purpose and role. Indeed, it is obvious in the Corinthian passage that these gifts were capable of being used in a way that was far from the Giver’s intention. It is also clear from the Corinthian passage that there were counterfeit gifts [1Corinthians 12:1-3].]


[5] About their nature:

The gifts can be categorized into three groups, which we will look at in the following study:

  • the teaching gifts
  • the ‘sign’ gifts.
  • the service gifts

We should keep these facts in our minds when thinking about the gifts as they apply to us personally. Some sections of the church lay great stress on ‘finding your spiritual gift’, but this attitude is not found in Scripture. The fact that the lists are variable should give us liberty to recognize as God-given gifts abilities that are not mentioned in these lists. In addition, the Biblical focus is not about me and my gift(s), but about the edification, encouragement and instruction of the church by appropriate use of my gift(s) in serving the church.


B.  A QUESTION: Do all Biblical ‘gifts’ occur today?

We need to be aware that there is diversity of opinion in the Christian church about which ‘spiritual gifts’ are permanent and which, if any, ceased at the end of, or soon after, the apostolic age.

About the ‘sign gifts’:

[‘Sign gifts’ usually refers to the gifts of miracles, healings, languages and the interpretation of languages. Some Christians believe that apostleship, prophecy, discerning of spirits, words of wisdom and words of knowledge were also temporary gifts confined to the apostolic age. This depends on one’s understanding of what each of these gifts actually is.]

The three dominant views are:

The ‘strong’ cessationist view

This view believes that the ‘sign’ gifts were only intended by God for the apostolic age; they were given as confirmation of the message of the apostles, and did not persist beyond the generation of people to whom the apostles ministered. Once the message of the gospel was committed to writing by the apostles or their associates the sign gifts ceased. This view considers all modern occurrences of these ‘gifts’ to be non-genuine, and to have a source other than God.

Some extreme expressions of this view deny that God still works miracles today.


The ‘weak’ cessationist view

This view parallels the ‘strong’ cessationist view up to a point, believing that the sign gifts, as a general rule, ceased with the end of the apostolic age; but, out of respect for God’s sovereignty, it does not rule out the possibility that God may again grant such genuine manifestations of these gifts according to his sovereign will if and when he chooses in a given circumstance. The expectation is that this will be rare, rather than the norm. Thus this group thus has serious reservations about stating categorically that God will never again grant sign gifts beyond the New Testament/apostolic era.

While denying the validity of much or most of what is designated ‘spiritual gifts’ today and the ‘miracles’ reported from the use of those supposed ‘gifts’, this view believes that God continues to work miracles today by his own sovereign power and mercy throughout all ages, without requiring the involvement of human agents possessing ‘sign gifts’.

The presence of the sign gifts and the ability of God to perform miracles are two distinct things. While the New Testament sign gifts were of necessity dependent on the ability of God to work miracles through human agents, the historic and continuing ability of God to miraculously intervene in our lives and in our ministry does not necessitate or depend on the presence of the ‘sign gifts’.


The perpetual view

This view understands that all gifts, including the ‘sign’ gifts, were God’s intention for the church of all ages. It understands the modern occurrences of the sign gifts to be genuine and to be the norm. It considers the re-emergence of these gifts to be a restoration of genuine New Testament church life.

[Some extreme expressions of this view believe that possession of one or more specific gifts, most frequently that of speaking in ‘tongues’, is essential proof that one is either [1] saved, or [2] baptized with the Spirit. This is written into some denominational/church/organization doctrinal statements.]


Although it does not state it directly, the New Testament does give some indication that the sign gifts generally have a limited, confirmatory, evidential purpose, which rules out understanding them as the everyday ‘norm’ intended for every church in every age. Indeed it does not seem that even in the apostolic age they were the everyday norm. Consider: 

[1] Acts 10, 11, and 15, where the sign gift of speaking in languages was powerful evidence convincing the Jewish Christians that God’s message of salvation was salvation through Christ alone without adherence to Jewish ritual law, and was meant not only for Jews, but also for Gentiles who neither possessed nor kept Jewish ritual law [see Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-18; 15:6-11]. In referring back to this incident Peter clearly stated that what occurred was what happened to the apostles at the beginning, that is at Pentecost, not something that occurred whenever anyone was converted.

[2] Hebrews 2:1-4, where ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ are included along with ‘signs, wonders and miracles’ as God confirming the apostolic message. Once the message is confirmed it does not have to be repeatedly confirmed.

[3] Romans 15:17-19, where ‘signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit’ accompanied Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel.

[4] 1Corinthians 13:8-12, which indicates that, while the teaching gifts [for example, prophecy and knowledge] will be brought to an end [passive voice in the Greek text] by the perfection of knowledge [inferred to be the perfect knowledge that comes at the final coming of Christ], the sign gift of languages will cease in and of itself [middle voice in the Greek text]. [For a detailed discussion of these verses, see the Analytical Study on Corinthians.] [Note that the NIV translation swaps the middle and passive verbs, making the two that are passive in the Greek, middle in its translation, and the one that is middle in the Greek, passive in its translation. See Analytical Study on Corinthians.]

[5] 2Corinthians 12:12 where ‘signs, wonders and miracles’ are described as ‘the things that mark an apostle’.

[6] The fact that, apart from the apostles, only Philip, Stephen, Ananias and Barnabas [all close associates of the apostles], are reported to have performed miracles.

[7] The fact that miracles done by false teachers have the power to deceive [Matthew 24:24; 2Corinthians 11:13-15]. If miracles were commonplace, and not specifically given by God to identify an apostle and confirm the apostolic message, then the false teachers’ miracles would have no power to deceive people into thinking they were genuine apostles, or that their messages were affirmed by their miracles. A commonality of the miraculous removes their significance.

It would appear from these scriptures that the ‘sign gifts’ had a confirmatory role. Such confirmation was necessary in the New Testament era because of the revolutionary nature of that message, which, as Paul stated, was foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews [1Corinthians 1:23]. 

In the New Testament era this confirmation applied at three levels:

  • Confirmation of the apostles themselves as authentic apostles commissioned by Christ [the 11, plus Matthais, plus Paul].
  • Confirmation of the apostolic message preached either by the apostles, or by their close associates.
  • Confirmation of the validity of the message by the presence of the miraculous in the churches founded by the apostles. This is mentioned in reference to the churches in Galatia [Galatians 3:1-5]; it is evident in the church in Corinth [1Corinthians 12-14]; and is stated generally in reference to the apostolic ministry [Hebrews 2:4]. This Hebrews reference is unique in that it mentions ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ as God’s affirmation of the validity of the message.

Christians who hold to the strong cessationist view above limit this confirmatory role of the sign gifts to the apostolic and immediate post-apostolic eras. Christians holding view the weak cessationist view extend this by stating the possibility that God could, according to his sovereign will, grant similar confirmatory sign gifts in any era.


About apostles:

Separate from the differing opinions regarding the permanence of the ‘sign gifts’, there are also questions about the gift of apostleship. Obviously the original 11, plus Matthais, plus Paul, are foundational apostles, and as such cannot be followed by more foundational apostles. Their role as foundational apostles is unique and unrepeatable. Yet there are some influential Christian people today who believe there are present day apostles of at least equal calibre and authority as these foundational apostles; and, in the perception of some, more power and authority. [See next study.] Such denial of the uniqueness of the foundational apostles has built in dangers, particularly dangers relating to our view of the finality, completeness and authority of the Scripture.



We might ask: Why are they designated gifts?

The simple answer is ‘Because God gives them to the church’. This could be extended to read: ‘Because God gives them to individuals in the church for the benefit of his church.’

But under this question there are a number of sub-questions:

[1] In what way do the gifts differ from a God-given calling or a commission? Paul’s letters clearly reveal that he viewed his apostleship [the commission he received from Jesus Christ] as a gift, even terming this commission a ‘grace’. There is obviously a merging here in which that which is God’s appointment or calling is also God’s gift, and that which is God’s gift is, or, at the very least, may well be, also his appointment or his calling.

[2] In what way do the gifts differ from God’s command? Many of the ‘gifts’ – teaching, evangelizing, encouraging, speaking, loving, helping, showing mercy, etc – are also things that God commands all believers to do. Again there is a merging of meaning: that which God gives is also that which God commands; that which he commands may also be that which he gives to an individual as a specific ability and responsibility.

[3] In what way do they relate to the fruit of the Spirit? When we look at the ‘service gifts’ listed we see that these, for the most part, seem to require the presence of at least some of the fruits of the Spirit – love, kindness, patience, goodness, for example. However, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, it is possible to exercise gifts from any of the three gift categories and yet to exercise them without love, without this fruit of the Spirit which to a large extent embraces all the fruit of the Spirit. Such an occurrence renders the use of the gifts of no personal spiritual significance at all, irrespective of how much was physically done or achieved.

[4] In what way do they differ from God-given natural talents or from learned abilities? Or is there no difference at all? Does, for example, a person who has a natural talent for teaching, and has learned the methodologies of teaching, also need the gift of teaching to be an effective teacher in the church? Or, do the first two somehow become ‘spiritualized’ or sanctified by God for his use when that person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit? Or, was God already working in this person, right from the womb, as he was with Jeremiah and Paul, in anticipation of his/her conversion and ministry in the church? If this is the case, and given God’s sovereignty it most probably is, then every natural talent and learned ability is holy or potentially holy, and can, through the operation of the Spirit of God, be transformed into a ‘spiritual gift’. [Example: Paul, who excelled in Judaism pre-conversion, and post-conversion was a spiritually gifted apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher of the Christian faith.] Note: the above statement does not infer that a person’s spiritual gifts are limited to, or will always coincide with, their natural or learned abilities.


We might also ask: why are they called spiritual? [Although, as we have seen above, the Greek text does not contain the exact term ‘spiritual gifts’.]

The answer is not immediately clear, because we can readily observe most of the activities involved in the gift lists being done, outside of Christianity, by people who are not Christian believers. Pagans speak in tongues. Clairvoyants accurately predict the future. New Agers by means of creative visualization exercise great faith. False teachers perform great miracles. Atheists have great gifts in teaching, encouraging, speaking, leading, administrating, giving, and so on. It is clearly not the actual ability that is in itself ‘spiritual’.

Is the only difference between the biblical ‘gifts’ and the gifts observed in non-believers a difference in their source? [But this answer, while valid in relation to, for instance, the supernatural ability to work miracles, would deny that God is the source, for example, of a ‘natural’ ability of teaching, or a ‘natural’ generosity of heart, in an unbeliever. God is actually the giver of every good gift. Every human being is the work of his hands, the product of his creative oversight within the womb – Psalm 139.]

Or, is the ‘spiritual’ factor in the purpose for which the gifts are exercised? That, when God gives these gifts to believers he has a specific spiritual purpose in mind – the edification of his church? or, in the case with the sign gifts, the confirmation of the apostolic message?

Or, is the ‘spiritual’ factor in the content or truth expressed by the gifts? That these gifts exercised by these people of God are being used to express in word, action and attitude the deep and powerful spiritual truths contained in Christ and his gospel?

Or, is the ‘spiritual’ factor in the commission to serve that employs these gifts in the service of God and his people and his kingdom – a spiritual service, not a secular service, even when the gift itself, such as the gift of administration, might sound seriously secular?

Or, does the ‘spiritual’ factor reside in the fact that the Spirit of God is at work in and through believers when they exercise their gifts for his purpose and within his boundaries?


All of these above questions are posed to help us to move beyond popular perceptions and to come to a Biblical understanding in this whole area ‘spiritual gifts’.  It is, for the most part, popular church tradition, not the Bible, that makes us refer to them ‘spiritual gifts’, with the emphasis on the ‘spiritual’. They are specifically ‘spiritual’ only because of their spiritual function and purpose in the church, by which the Holy Spirit edifies, instructs and encourages the church, but they are not inherently spiritual in and of themselves. Perhaps the church has done itself a disservice in focusing on the word ‘spiritual’ rather than on the word ‘gifts’.



Irrespective of where we stand in respect to spiritual gifts, let us each one be committed to use whatever ability or gifting we have not in a self-promoting, self-centred, self-focused way, but for the glory of God and the well-being of his church. God’s grace, God’s gifts, were not meant to be a burden or a bondage – not something we have to sustain and strive to maintain at an expected level in order to be seen to be ‘spiritual’, but rather to be a source of abundant joy.

Word derivation:

Charisma = free gift

Charis = grace 

Chara = joy

Chairo = to be full of joy.