Friday, August 28, 2009

Spiritual gifts-- some thoughts

I’ve had a few recent conversations on spiritual gifts, and I thought I would offer some thoughts.

I don’t claim to represent the views of the PCA on this, although to the best of my knowledge my views are not out of accord with the PCA. (The predominant view of PCA pastors on spiritual gifts, especially on the apostolic or “sign” gifts,
can be found in this Pastoral Letter, which is a good summary.)

  • I am a “Cessationist” when it comes to the apostolic or “sign” gifts. That is, I believe that they have “ceased” to manifest. These were, from everything I can tell from Scripture, gifts given to evidence the presence of the Holy Spirit in the churches, primarily so that New Testament-era believers could discern when the teaching they were receiving was orthodox or not. Two things convince me that such signs are no longer necessary: first, that we have the Bible-- and therefore we have a different, and better, measure of orthodoxy; second, that we have the completed Bible-- which means that ongoing revelation (which appears to have been the immediate content of the manifestation of these gifts) is unnecessary and, in fact, contrary to our views of Scripture. Also, I don’t hold that against others-- I’ve had good friends who have believed in the continuation of the apostolic gifts, and it hasn’t been reason to break fellowship.
  • I expect that the exercise of spiritual gifts is to be done in a biblical manner. One of my professors from seminary mentioned in class once (in an appropriate context) that he was not a Cessationist, but that he looked for, not the gifts of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit as evidence that someone is a believer. This view comes out of a right understanding of what Scripture-- and especially the New Testament-- says regarding how we might be confident in someone’s faith. It also happens to fly in the face of the practice of many, who claim that someone who has not evidenced one or more certain gifts (and they are always the apostolic or “sign” gifts) must not have the Holy Spirit present in their lives. Not surprisingly, there are other biblical manners by which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are prescribed to be exercised, which are ignored by many who engage in their practice. For example, 1 Corinthians 14 clearly requires that, in the case of speaking in tongues, an interpreter must be present-- and if one is not present, then the speaker should keep quiet. It also stipulates that, at most, two or three people should offer prophecy, and not more; whereas, I have known of times when dozens of people have claimed to have prophecies in some Charismatic churches. As I mentioned above, I don’t have a strong conscience about other Christians’ belief in the continuation of these gifts; my problem is with the unbiblical exercise of them.
  • I believe that, in general, it is helpful to consider spiritual gifts. For a while in the 80s and 90s, you couldn’t swing a dead skunk without knocking someone’s “spiritual gift inventory” off of a table-- there was great fervor for spiritual gifts, and frequently what seemed to me to be an over-emphasis on them. In our typical “all-or-nothing” way, many Christians summarily rejected spiritual gifts as unimportant, mainly out of reaction to the zeal. I don’t think either is appropriate; it seems clear from Scripture that there are spiritual gifts that are present in the lives of believers, and therefore it seems right that we should investigate and consider our spiritual giftedness-- but not in isolation or to the exclusion of other aspects of how God has made us. There is nothing wrong with completing a “spiritual gift inventory” and learning more about your spiritual gifts. In fact, we have some information about these in the Resources section of the HWPC website.
  • I think that spiritual gifts are connected to “natural” gifts. It seems to me that what it means for someone to receive a spiritual giftedness in a certain way simply means that they already had some natural talent, ability, or giftedness that was "sanctified" in their conversion for spiritual usefulness. There are plenty of people who are gifted teachers, for example, who are not believers; when they get converted, however, the Spirit appropriates their natural talents for teaching for Kingdom-usefulness. I don't believe that, ordinarily, one should expect his/her spiritual gifts to be altogether different from something that they already had some capacity for. I've never known it to be the case, for example, that someone who stammered and stuttered, and who was terrified to the point of hyperventilating to stand before a crowd, upon conversion suddenly becomes a preacher. If it has happened, then it is extraordinary, not ordinary. (Before you tell me that John Piper was afraid to speak, remember that he was already converted long before he overcame that fear.) This also means that there is spiritual gifting that includes more than simply what is listed in the New Testament letters, because there are areas of natural giftedness beyond these areas. For example, one spiritual gift inventory I saw listed "music" as a spiritual gift-- appropriately corresponding to the obvious natural abilities that some have (though not others) for musical skills. I think this is right, even though there is no mention of music at all in Paul's lists.
  • I have found that investigations of spiritual gifts are helpful to "connect the dots" for some. Someone recently asked me why spiritual gift inventories are valuable, especially if they are simply extensions, if you will, of natural gifts. In my experience, there are two ways. First, someone may not immediately or intuitively recognize how their natural talents and abilities are useful for Kingdom purposes; for whatever reason, they may have a misunderstanding that some interest, ability, passion, or talent that they have is not holy and profitable for Christ's service. A spiritual gift inventory may open their eyes to the contrary, and help them see how their unique giftedness fits into Christ's transforming work. Secondly, Christians often affect a self-effacing denial of their own value, believing that it is the path to humility; consequently, they begin to believe that they are worth little, and eventually their identities as children of the living God are squelched by this false view. A spiritual gift inventory can counteract this by directly exposing the aspects of a person's character and being that are useful and valuable to God.
  • I am convinced that spiritual gifts are just a part of who we are. One of the results of the enthusiasm toward the spiritual gifts craze of recent years was that some began to understand their identity in Christ primarily by way of their spiritual giftedness. This had two consequences, both negative. It suggested a hierarchy in worth, because some people obviously had more spiritual gifts than others; thus, some became envious of others' gifts, or simply became depressed because they weren't all that. Also, it denied the many other aspects of who someone is, and how Christ might transform them into His image; this even, at times, had the unfortunate result of creating large "blind-spots" in someone's spiritual growth, because the focus was so much on the spiritual gifts. God has made us as complex creatures, and the more we might know about ourselves, the better. In my experience, there is wisdom to be gained from considering, not only spiritual gifts, but also temperament, communication style, natural talents and abilities, leadership style, key life experiences, major influences, and even passions and dreams. (A good book to look at these comprehensively, by the way, is Aubrey Malphurs's Maximizing Your Effectiveness: How to Discover and Develop Your Divine Design.)

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