Archives / 1983 / October


Spiritual gifts: using or misusing?

Skip Bell


The scene is a Seventh-day Adventist church. A small group of members is having a lively discussion following a fellowship dinner. One man, obviously frustrated by the lack of member involvement in outreach ministries, wants to know, "How can we get more people to take part?"

Another answers, "I understand there's a test you can take to tell what your spiritual gift is."


Quickly a plan of action develops. The church will give everyone a test, determine his spiritual gift, and then assign him an appropriate task. I watched this scene unfold, and it troubled me because I suspect it is being repeated in Adventist churches in many places—perhaps in yours. This sort of quick remedy for congregational inactivity causes me to wonder whether the church takes very seriously the Biblical teaching of spiritual gifts. We misunderstand spiritual gifts, I believe, if we see them simply as a means of enlisting and activating church members.

At present a good deal of emphasis and study on spiritual gifts is apparent at certain levels of the church. It surfaces in our educational institutions, church publications, and ministerial training. The church's current interest in spiritual gifts is commendable, but I would be more encouraged if a desire to know the Holy Spirit, to surrender to His presence, and to experience His power in our ministry were leading us to prayer and thorough Bible study on this important truth.

After the dialogue on the church's fundamental beliefs at the 1980 General Conference session in Dallas, Texas, the editors of the Adventist Review published a special issue containing brief presentations of each of those doctrinal positions. On spiritual gifts, the editors stated: "With the same kind of compassion and consideration that had characterized His entire life, Jesus, of course, had foreseen their needs, and had made full provision for them [the disciples]. Just before He ascended He said, 'Behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you: but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be endued with power from on high' (Luke 24:49). Through the Holy Spirit Jesus would provide every gift and talent needed by the disciples for their ministry." After quoting several scriptural references, the editors continued: "Two facts are worth noting: (1) The Spirit decides which gifts to bestow. He takes this responsibility because He alone knows which gifts are needed by the church; He alone knows which gifts each Christian will utilize. (2) Not everyone receives the same gift, nor are all the gifts available to everyone. Thus, for example, no one has the right to insist that the Spirit give him the gift of prophecy, the gift of healing, or the gift of tongues. The true Christian will surrender fully to Christ, lay his natural talents on the altar, and ask God to give him the specific gifts of the Spirit as He deems best (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Peter 4:10, 11)."—Adventist Review, July 30, 1981, Special Issue on Bible Doctrines, p. 18.

Both the local congregation and the entire denomination will benefit from granting the teaching of spiritual gifts its Biblical authority. The first step is to attempt to understand what Scripture reveals about spiritual gifts through careful exegesis of the several major passages on the subject (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4; 1 Peter 4:8-14). Then the church must build a theological framework upon that exegesis, seeking the unity of Scripture regarding the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit, assessing the significance of spiritual gifts for the gospel commission, and harmonizing other great Bible teachings.

One benefit of understanding the doctrine of spiritual gifts is that it enables us to understand the church. Scripture tells us that we Christians are all one body in Christ. "And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Eph. 1:22, 23, N.I.V.).* The church, then, is the living body of Christ, and the people of the church are a part of His body.

The church is a creation of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin and the righteousness of God, leads us to repentance, and plants us in the body. The body lives because the Holy Spirit is the breath that animates it.

Christ is the ruling and guiding force in the body—its head. "He is the head of the body, the church . . . that in all things he might have the preeminence" (Col. 1:18).

Just like the human body, which is a single entity yet with many parts, so the body of Christ contains diversity. There is a tremendous variety of character and background among the people who make up the body of Christ. Ellen White wrote, "From the endless variety of plants and flowers, we may learn an important lesson. All blossoms are not the same in form or color. Some possess healing virtues. Some are always fragrant. There are professing Christians who think it is their duty to make every other Christian like themselves. This is man's plan, not the plan of God. In the church of God there is room for characters as varied as are the flowers in the garden. In His spiritual garden there are many varieties of flowers."—Evangelism, p. 99.

An understanding of spiritual gifts places this diversity in perspective. Ellen White wrote to D. T. Bourdeau and his wife in 1870, "There is diversity of operation of gifts and all by the same Spirit. These diverse gifts are illustrated by the human body from the head to the feet. As there are different members with their different offices, yet all of the body, so the members of Christ's body all center in the head, but have different gifts. This is in the economy of God to meet the varied organization and minds in the world. The strength of one servant of God may not be the strength of another."—Letter 25, 1870, p. 1.

The church is to be the body serving. It is to serve the Lord in praise, serve one another in love, and reach out to the world in service. Every member of the body of Christ is a minister. "But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light" (1 Peter 2:9, N.I.V.). Each member is incorporated into the body of Christ and empowered for ministry through the baptism of the water and the Spirit (Acts 11:15-17, 1 Corinthians 12:13).

Every believer is given some spiritual gift to contribute to the building up of the church (Ephesians 4:12). Peter Wagner offers this summary definition of spiritual gifts: "A spiritual gift is a special attribute given by the Holy Spirit to every member of the body of Christ according to God's grace for use within the context of the body."—Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow, p. 42.

Apart from these gifts, we would be unable to contribute to the growth of the church. "Without the presence of the Spirit of God, no heart will be touched, no sinner be won to Christ. On the other hand, if they are connected with Christ, if the gifts of the Spirit are theirs, the poorest and most ignorant of His disciples will have a power that will tell upon hearts."—Christ's Object Lessons, p. 328.

When spiritual gifts are studied in the proper Biblical perspective, the church recognizes just how dependent it is upon the Holy Spirit. This doctrine is not something we can use and exploit at our will—even for such a worthy goal as church growth. The Holy Spirit, the author of these gifts, must be allowed to utilize them in the church as He sees fit. It is the Holy Spirit, not we, who makes the church what it is, then guides it in what it does. Howard Snyder states, "The principle and power by which you were saved is the principle and power by which you serve. The church operates by grace (charis) through the gifts of the Spirit (charismata). The church is charismatic because it is saved by grace and serves by grace. . . . God's fullness in Christ is not exhausted by the new birth; it includes abundant resources for ministry through the charisma or gifts given to the body."—Liberating the Church, p. 173.

This divine Person and His gifts do not come as the result of any elevated status in a Christian's life after justification. The Holy Spirit is given, not attained, and He is received by faith. The Holy Spirit ministers to each Christian, even if that individual hinders His work through complacency or ignorance. Spiritual gifts are received by the grace of God.

I believe at least three factors contribute to our neglect of a thorough study of this vital truth and to our lack of preparation to cooperate with the Spirit's leading. The first is that the sense of urgency in Adventist mission theology encourages haste. It is important, of course, for us to retain this eschatological sense of urgency; the imminent return of Jesus Christ is central to our mission. Certainly it is appropriate for us to organize and move in a rapid manner. However, this sense of urgency presents dangers. It fosters an inadequate foundation for our ministry. We may neglect thorough study simply because we are in too much of a hurry to accomplish God's work. Also, our haste to form concrete plans and procedures carries with it a danger that we depend upon organization rather than upon the operation of the Holy Spirit gained only by seeking the will of God.

A second factor that leads us to neglect thorough study and preparation is the appeal of brevity. Today's world is anxious to reduce all things to their most concise form. The possibility of discovering one's spiritual gift by the use of a simple test appears to be a quick and attractive solution. The danger in this is the possibility of error. In spite of the interest and study in spiritual gifts at the institutional levels of the church, the discomforting fact is that a void exists on the local church level. It is not sufficient that professional theologians or church leaders take the necessary time and involve themselves in proper study. Every member of the church is a minister and must devote himself to seeking the will of God in his life through prayer and proper study. This is the greatest protection we have against error and the very real possibility that spiritual gifts may become simply another fad. When for the sake of brevity we fail to do the necessary work, the Biblical truth will not become a lasting part of our relation ship with the Lord.

The third factor is our inherent hesitancy to surrender ourselves to the control of the Holy Spirit. We are comfortable in the realm of the natural. Especially in the matter of spiritual gifts, we seem to use the natural as a protection against counterfeit gifts or being thought of as fanatical. These concerns are valid, but they may lead us to never experience the joy of surrender to the Holy Spirit. True surrender is a giving away of one's self. Jesus demonstrated true surrender in His own life of ministry and His death. His ministry led Him not to earthly glory but to the cross.

A Christian really experiences the true meaning of surrender when he begins to exercise his spiritual gifts. Ministry by the Spirit is to the glory of God; ministry by our own strength independent of the Holy Spirit is to the glory of man. The natural self must die (crucifixion), and the new creature experience life (resurrection) through the Spirit. Thus recognized, spiritual gifts are not self-centeredness but self-giving. It is when a Christian does not experience a full surrender, but chooses to work for the church in his own strength and natural capacities, that he seeks to do his own will. When we ask God what His will is for our life through discovery of our gifts, we must give up our own will. Discovering one's spiritual gift opens the way not to boastful service, but to self-denial. This is the true joy of surrender to the Holy Spirit.

In order to understand properly the Biblical teaching on spiritual gifts and discover our spiritual gift or gifts, I believe each Christian needs to follow at least eight steps.

1. Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We should not pray casually for a revelation of our spiritual gifts but with continual devotion, opening our heart to the voice and prompting of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is a searching of the will of God and a surrender to His leading.

2. Conduct a thorough exegesis of Scripture passages dealing with spiritual gifts. Each passage should be studied in context and with its original setting in mind. Focusing on what the writer was saying to the early church places spiritual gifts in their proper perspective of service through the body of Christ.

3. Do theological work. Commentaries and other study aids can be used to harmonize the doctrine of spiritual gifts with the great themes of Scripture. Especially should the function of the Holy Spirit be studied in conjunction with spiritual gifts. The writings of Ellen White may help us in this formative process.

4. Consider the definitions of specific spiritual gifts and whether you have experienced them. Further reading and a church teaching event on spiritual gifts are helpful at this point.

5. Use die spiritual gifts inventory avail able from the Institute of Church and Ministry at Andrews University and produced by Roy C. Naden and Robert J. Cruise for self-analysis. This testing procedure is a proper step in the process of discovering your gifts when preceded by prayer and thorough study. This excel lent instrument was developed to be a vital part of the process of discovering your gift, but must not stand alone in that inquiry.

6. Seek affirmation and evaluation from others in the body of Christ. You should expect confirmation from the body, since the gifts are given to build up the body of Christ.

7. Experiment with gifts you feel you may have in a small group formed around a call to ministry. Experimentation is vital to an assurance of God's leading in the process of discovery, and the group can provide the community of encouragement and evaluation you need. Ministry groups function with all the marks of the church: fellowship, nurture, worship, and ministry.

8. Look for fruitfulness from your ministry (aid to individuals or the church) as an affirmation from God of His will.

I believe the church is experiencing a renewal in the work of the Holy Spirit today. Members are finding their personal ministry a joy because they are doing what is best suited to the gifts God has given them. It is God's will for us to know and employ our spiritual gifts. As we truly understand that our spiritual gifts are the grace of God operating in our life, we will experience fruitfulness in our ministry, and the church of God will be built up in preparation for His coming.


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* Texts credited to N.I.V. are from The Holy
Bible: New International Version. Copyright© 1978
by the New York International Bible Society. Used
by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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