Being a Pentecost Christian: The Gifts and the Gift

People love lists, from the Billboard Top 20, to 9-things-you-should-know-about-this, to 16-reasons-you-should-never-do-that. Perhaps this is why churches sometimes seem to obsess over lists of “spiritual gifts” (abilities the Spirit works in people),[1] even to the apparent neglect at the Giver, the Spirit, who is himself the Gift above all gifts, and the fruits of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace,” etc. (Gal 5:16-26) – which his “spiritual gifts” are meant to promote. Yet there are such lists to be found in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4. And, as with all the Spirit teaches in the Bible, they are for our benefit (2Ti 3:16), if properly employed. Without repeating what others will write about who the Spirit is and what he does, I will seek to treat “spiritual gifts” in the context of the gift of the Spirit and the Spirit’s fruits.

Comparing lists, 1 Corinthians 12 presents markedly miraculous powers. These range from speaking abilities, such as prophecy (most likely in the sense of uttering direct, often predictive communications from God) and a supernaturally acquired capacity to speak other languages (“tongues”), to action-abilities, such as “faith” to work miracles or to convey healing to others beyond doctors or medicine. Many have held that these so-called “sign-gifts” faded with the close of the church’s foundational era.[2] The apostle Paul confronts the divisive abuse of these gifts and of other current practices in the church at Corinth, and stresses that even such powerful abilities, which he calls “manifestations of the Spirit”, were Divinely intended “for the common good” (1Cor 12:7).[3]

Ephesians 4 actually describes official positions, roles, or functions in the church community, rather than various abilities. Many have held that some of these are unique to the foundational era of the church (e.g., apostles), while others are generally recognized as continuing (e.g., pastor-teachers). Certain abilities would of course be necessary for these various roles.

Romans 12, in contrast to 1 Corinthians, can be seen as detailing abilities of a less pronouncedly supernatural character. However, these too are attributed personally to the Spirit of God as “the Lord and Giver of Life,” and not merely to natural causes. After all, the Spirit of God is even responsible for animal and vegetable life (Psalm 104:29-30). The gifts again range from action-abilities, such as serving, to speaking-abilities, such as teaching, but this time of a kind that is generally recognized as remaining in the church (though there are debates about the precise nature of such items as “prophecy”).

By all means, examine these lists, particularly that in Romans 12 which is generally acknowledged as being in active, global currency, and consider what abilities the Spirit may have proportioned to you (1Cor 12:11). But do so with the following firmly in mind.

First, God the Spirit himself is the indescribable Gift from God the Father and God the Son (John 14:16). The Spirit’s chief work is to illumine our minds so that we understand the truth about Jesus Christ that he also first inspired to be proclaimed (John 14:26; 16:13), to renew our hearts so that we embrace this saving truth (John 3:5; Matt 3:11), and to powerfully join us to Christ and each other as we partake of him together as Savior and Lord (1Cor 6:9-11; 12:3,13).

Second, the gifts of the Spirit are for the edifying of the body of the church, which the surrounding contexts of the three lists emphasize. In 1 Corinthians, for example, a discussion of “spiritual gifts” (12:1) gives way to the emphatic urging of “faith, hope, and love” (13:13) as “the still more excellent way” (12:31) the Spirit works. “The greatest of these is love,” which Paul says, “never ends,” though prophecies, knowledge, and tongues “pass away.” (13:8,13) This is because the gifts – both those of a more decidedly extraordinary character, and those of a seemingly more mundane nature – were all given to promote the Spirit’s overarching project of producing faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ, hope for the future completion of his work in us, and love for him, the Father, and, indeed, the Holy Spirit.

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Walton, NY, a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA, and a Th.M. student in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI. He lives with his wife and three children in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.

[1] Perhaps “spiritual” should have a capital “S”.

[2] E.g., Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit: God’s Perfecting Presence in Creation, Redemption, and Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 235-243.

[3] Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016).


Steven McCarthy


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