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« The Ministry of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12-14 | Home | Spiritual Gifts as “Momentary Empowerments” for Ministry »

Defining “Spiritual Gifts”

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Part 4 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
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In my last post I asked the question: What are spiritual gifts? I explained that Paul does not define the phrase “spiritual gifts” in his writings. In fact, the phrase “spiritual gift” (charisma pneumatikon) does not actually appear in the Greek text of 1 Corinthians 12-14. Instead of providing a definition, Paul offers a list of representative gifts from the Spirit. From this list and the surrounding discussion we can formulate a reasonable definition of “spiritual gift.”

Paul’s list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 is representative only, since it doesn’t include all possible gifts. Paul mentions those gifts that fit his particular argument right here; elsewhere he mentions others (see Rom 12:6-11 or 1 Cor 12:28, for example). The list doesn’t give us a definition of “spiritual gift,” but merely some illustrations. Nevertheless, this list helps us to discover Paul’s notion of spiritual gifts:

To one person a word of wisdom is given through the Spirit; to another a word of knowledge is given according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another workings of powers; to another a prophecy; to another discernments of spirits; to another kinds of tongues; to another an interpretation of tongues (1 Cor 12:8-10, my translation).

This translation is awkward because I have tried to represent Paul’s own words very literally. Many common misunderstandings of his teaching depend up inaccurate English translations of the Greek which mislead the reader.

Spiritual gifts include: a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, faith, workings of power, a prophecy, discernments of spirits, kinds of tongues, an interpretation of tongues. Notice the variation in Paul’s language. “A word of wisdom,” singular, can be a gift. Or gifts can be spoken of in the plural, “workings of powers.” If we put aside our preconceptions about spiritual gifts, what is Paul describing here? He seems to be talking about spiritual empowerments provided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives extra bits of grace, some of which are spoken (messages of knowledge and wisdom, prophecy, kinds of tongues, an interpretation of tongues), others of which are experienced without words (faith, workings of powers). All are given for the common good (1 Cor 12:7).

There is plenty of debate among commentators over the precise nature of these gifts. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure this side of heaven exactly what Paul means. But I do think examples from elsewhere in Scripture can help us figure out his basic sense. In Acts 14, for example, we encounter the following incident from Paul’s life:

While they were at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas came upon a man with crippled feet. He had been that way from birth, so he had never walked. He was listening as Paul preached, and Paul noticed him and realized he had faith to be healed. So Paul called to him in a loud voice, “Stand up!” And the man jumped to his feet and started walking (Acts 14:8-10).

Two spiritual gifts function here. First, Paul realized that the crippled man had the faith to be healed, apparently without discovering this by ordinary means (asking questions of the man, for example). Paul knew it because the Spirit revealed it to him directly, giving him what might be called a “word of knowledge.” Second, the lame man was enabled to walk as the Spirit gave him a gift of healing through Paul. (Photo: The so-called Spring of St. Paul at Lystra, in modern Turkey. Photo from

As the story of Acts continues, Paul was journeying back to Jerusalem. Along the way he stopped in the city of Tyre where he stayed with some Christians for a week. Some of these “told Paul through the Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:4, my translation). Here we have another example of a spiritual gift. The Spirit gave a particular piece of information and counsel to Paul through some other believers. He would have called this a “word of wisdom” (or perhaps a “prophecy”).

In both of these stories, spiritual gifts are momentary empowerments provided by the Spirit to promote the work of God. This seems to me to be the best way to talk about spiritual gifts. When the Spirit reveals information, or heals one who is sick, or provides counsel, the revelation, healing, and advice are bits of grace or spiritual gifts.

I didn’t always think of spiritual gifts from this perspective. As a youth I was taught that the gifts are not situational bursts of power for ministry but indwelling abilities given by the Spirit at the moment of conversion. “When you accepted Christ,” I was told, “the Spirit gave you a spiritual gift. Your job is to discover it and to use it.” But this way of thinking always confused me. I wondered why Paul never actually told us to discover our gift and use it, if this was the key to ministering in spiritual gifts. I couldn’t see how the “one gift for one person” view was consistent with Paul’s teaching that “there are varieties of energizing, but the same God, who energizes everything in everyone” (1 Cor 12:6, MDR). This verse doesn’t assign one gift for one person, but seems to imply that one person can experience all of the gifts (so also 1 Cor 14:26).

Moreover, it seemed very difficult to distinguish spiritual gifts from natural talents and abilities. I was told by my youth leaders that I “had the gift of teaching,” but I knew that my ability to teach also reflected my natural endowments, education, and family culture. (There are many teachers in my family.) When I raised this point of confusion with my leaders, I was told that a spiritual gift is “a talent offered to God for ministry.” But I couldn’t find that description anywhere in Scripture. It seemed to turn spiritual gifts upside down, as something we offer to God, rather than as something the Spirit gives us.

In my next post I’ll say more about what I believe spiritual gifts are, and what they are not.

Topics: Spiritual Gifts |

5 Responses to “Defining “Spiritual Gifts””

  1. Todd Says:
    November 11th, 2008 at 9:43 am

    It is refreshing to hear this view from someone else. The “you-get-a-gift-at-salvation-and-it-never-changes-ever” view seems to permeate churches and frustrate many Christians. Thanks for your insight!

  2. Mark D. Roberts on spiritual gifts | The Daily Scroll Says:
    November 11th, 2008 at 11:27 am

    […] 11/11) Part 4: “Defining ‘Spiritual Gifts‘” Related posts:“Women’s Ministry: Why Ethics Matters” Sarah […]

  3. Peter La Prade Says:
    November 11th, 2008 at 1:51 pm

    I believe that one of a translator’s goals is a language flow that is as natural=fluent as possible, but if a free-flowing language stream is not possible, that the translation be at least intelligible to the reader. But when a pastor/preacher/scholar says this translation is simply inaccurate, I always have a “huh?” reaction.

    Did the translator tell himself, “the writer says, “x” , I don’t like that, so I am going to put down, “y”, instead?”

    If the translator knows the literal translation, but the literal rendering is obscure, why not put down something like: “it says (this) which makes incomplete sense to me,”… “I think he (the writer) means this, because…”(see footnotes below)?

    Also, what assumptions do you have to make to ever deviate from a word for word literal rendering if you wish to preserve accuracy? Or, put differently, how do ever you know that your sense of “it’s obvious he, the writer, said x, but meant y, is correct?

  4. J Falconer Says:
    November 11th, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    Rev. Mark Roberts, Thank you so much for the series on the Spirit & gifts. Thanks again for the lovely photos. J

  5. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    November 11th, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Peter: Your questions are very good ones. I have answered these (and many more) in a long blog series I did a couple of years ago. You can find it at:

    The translation I’m using in this particular series is very literal, almost word for word. Sometimes this makes for inelegant English, but it helps to convey the sense of the original Greek, I think.


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