What Spiritual Gifts Can I Use?

Explore the Bible Series

July 11, 2010


Background Passage: I Corinthians 12:1-14:40

Lesson Passage: I Corinthians 12;4-13, 18-19, 27-31; 14:1, 39-40




My initial experience with charismatic gifts left an indelible impression of me.  During my mid-teens my youth pastor (later to become a well-known leader in the charismatic renewal) took me to a dorm room at a Baptist college he attended.  He and another man explained to me the theological and experiential inadequacy of my traditional Southern Baptist upbringing; then they passionately persuaded me to let them pray that I might receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues.  Of course, I was way over my head in this situation.  I knelt in the middle of the floor, and these two young men prayed earnestly for me, laying hands on me and pleading with God that I might receive the Spirit. Nothing happened.


Palpable silence troubled the entire drive back home.  The failed experiment devastated me, and my youth pastor left me that night with no consolation or encouragement.  Shortly thereafter, he resigned from our church, and I never saw or heard from him again, except for his short-lived celebrity and attendant television appearances.  Later, he founded a mega-church, in Rockwall, Texas, and amassed an enormous following until a financial scandal ruined his career.  For years, I wondered how many other disillusioned young people he left in his wake.


Some years later I served as a youth pastor at a good, traditional Southern Baptist Church, in Plano, Texas.  The senior pastor, a decent and gentle man, had “Deeper-Life” tendencies, and some of the families in the church evidenced decided charismatic tendencies.  My previous experience colored my views about spiritual gifts, and my training at Dallas Baptist University, under the teaching of Dr. William Bell, convinced me of the cessationist position (that “sign” gifts ceased at the end of the Apostolic Era.  In retrospect, I feel certain I did not always respond well to those who practiced gifts like speaking in tongues. Many years have passed since my youth pastor years, and I have, of course, given this issue a great deal of thought. 


Wayne Grudem’s work, Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? seems a helpful, balanced treatment of the four positions on spiritual gifts, and I encourage reading this book (published in 1996 by Zondervan Press).  My personal pilgrimage has led me away from belief in the kind of supernaturalism that charismatic Christians espouse, but I hope I have retained an open, gracious heart toward those who disagree with my views.  My goal, in this lesson, focuses on outlining what Paul believed about the First-Century gifts, and I will, quite deliberately, avoid drawing too many conclusions about the present-day application of these gifts.  


Above all, Paul earnestly believed in the immanent power of the Holy Spirit.  Nowhere does the apostle make a clear, definitive statement concerning the doctrine of the Trinity; rather, he assumes that his readers affirm this dogma and live in the awareness of the Spirit’s presence and power.  Frankly, the work of the Holy Spirit is a profound mystery to me; yet, I remain convinced that Paul experienced a weighty, insightful relationship to the Third Person of the Trinity, an experience to which I have aspired for my entire adult life, but I have found this experience quite mysterious and elusive.  For more than thirty years, I have thought that the great need of the church revolves around the supernatural, transformative power of the Spirit. Evangelicals have, I think, often substituted “programism” and trendy faddishness for the operations of the Spirit, and we have done so, as I see it, to our own detriment.


Lesson Outline:


I.       General Introduction of Spiritual Gifts (12:1-11)

A.    The pagan background of the Corinthians (vv. 1-3): Many of the Corinthian believers came from idolatrous backgrounds (“dumb” idols” denotes “voiceless”, lifeless gods), and Paul seems to imply that idol worship involved trafficking with demon spirits).  Only through the Holy Spirit could a person profess the Lordship of Christ.

B.     The nature of spiritual gifts (vv. 4-7): Paul made four general claims concerning gifts (See Vaughan and Lea).

1.      Their common origin: All gifts come from God through the mediation of the Holy Spirit.

2.      Their rich variety: The Spirit bestows a diversity of gifts. Each serving a vital purpose in the Kingdom of God.

3.      Their one purpose: the Spirit gives the gifts to glorify Christ by the edification of the church.

4.      Their sovereign distribution: The Lord bestows these gifts as he sees fit.

C.     A partial list of spiritual gifts (vv. 8-11):  In addition to this text, Paul gave three other lists of spiritual gifts, and none of these catalogs is exactly alike.  Therefore, we must conclude that, in this passage, Paul did not intend to provide an exhaustive list of gifts; instead, he wished to demonstrate the principle of unity in the diversity of gifts.

1.      “word of wisdom” (v. 8a): Both Morris and Vaughan think the first two gifts (wisdom and knowledge) should not be sharply distinguished.  Both gifts involve an ability to express excellency of knowledge.

2.      “word of knowledge” (v. 8b)

3.      “faith” (v. 9a): All Christians, of course, possess the gift of faith, but some persons, according to Paul, enjoy a higher degree of faith, a belief that makes possible some of the miraculous manifestations Paul listed next.

4.      “healings” (v. 9b): This term denotes a supernatural ability to heal disease.

5.      “working of miracles” (v. 10a):  Miracles other than healing

6.      “prophecy” (v. 10b): Leon Morris believes this gift enabled a person to speak an inspired massage, the word of God to a given situation or person.

7.      “discerning of spirits (v. 10c): A remarkable ability to discern between truth and error

8.      “tongues” (v. 10d): Scholars differ on this gift.  Some see this as the ability to speak in ecstatic, unknown languages (the extended context seems to favor this view).  Other scholars think this was a supernatural facility to speak extant languages.

9.      “interpretation of tongues” (v. 10e):  This, of course, is the capacity to interpret the languages spoken in unknown tongues.

D.    The analogy of the body (vv. 12-31): In this paragraph, the apostle expands on a fitting analogy for the unity and diversity of the church, the human body.  He made these important points with his analogy.

1.      The Holy Spirit inaugurates, in the church, a marvelous unity just as the various parts of the body create a harmonious whole (vv. 12-14).

2.      Despite the variety of gifts, the church functions as the agreeable, complementary parts of a body, each part necessary for the wellbeing of the congregation (vv. 15-24).

3.      The diversity of gifts must produce love, empathy for the body (vv. 25-26).

4.      The “best” gifts (vv. 27-31): Some, within the body, enjoy a more prominent role than others, and it is only natural that many might aspire to these gifts: apostleship (most Protestants have seen this a First-Century, temporary gift), prophets, teachers (those who instruct the church in the teachings of the Old testament and the words of Jesus), and miracles, gifts of healings, helps (a special gift for helping and encouraging others), administrations (the ability to organize), and varieties of tongues.


II.    Love: The More Excellent Way (13:1-13): This chapter may seem like a departure from the overriding theme of the lesson, but, indeed, it serves a critical purpose in Paul’s argument concerning spiritual gifts.  Apparently, the Corinthian church experienced some controversy over spiritual gifts, and Paul included this section to correct the divisions. Vaughan and Lea outline the chapter under three heads.

A.    The necessity of love (vv. 1-3): No Christian can properly exercise a spiritual gift without the essence of love.  You may speak in tongues, prophecy, possess the gift of faith, and evidence extraordinary generosity (the gift of helps); however, you will have no profit from these gifts if you don’t love people.

B.     The excellence of love (vv. 4-8a): The apostle lists several qualities of Christian love (I quote here from the NKJV and draw some expository comments from Leon Morris).

1.      “love suffers long” (v. 4a): “Love has an infinite capacity for endurance… The word points to patience with people…”

2.      “is kind” (v.4b): Love responds to ill-treatment with gracious forgiveness and compassion.

3.      “does not envy” (v. 4c): “Love is not displeased with the success of others.”

4.      does not parade itself” (v. 4d): Love is not ostentatious, pretentious, or filled with empty flattery.

5.      “is not puffed up” (v. 4e): Love is not swollen with self-promotion. 

6.      “does not behave rudely” (v. 5a): Love does not behave in an inappropriate, disrespectable, or dishonorable manner.

7.      “does not seek its own” (v. 5b): This admonition echoes a similar principle as “is not puffed up.”

8.      “is not provoked” (v. 5c): “Love is not touchy… not easy to take offence.”

9.      “thinks no evil” (v. 5d): “love is always ready to thing the best of people… it does not impute evil.”

10.  does not rejoice in iniquity” (v. 6a): “Love takes no joy in evil of any kind.”

11.  “rejoices in truth” (v. 6b): “Even love cannot continue when truth is denied.”

12.  “bears all things” (v. 7a): Love does not easily fail.  It endures despite hardship and trial.

13.  “believes all things” (v. 7b): Love retains its faith in others.

14.  “hopes all things” (v. 7c): Love does not see the failure of others as final.

15.  “endures all things” (v. 7d): “Love is not overwhelmed, but manfully plays its part whatever the circumstances.”

16.  “never fails” (v. 8a): Love never falters or collapses.

C.     The perpetuity of love (vv. 8-13): Eventually, all of the spiritual gifts will perish, love endures forever.  These gifts serve a “childish” purpose, but, when Christ returns, all things will reach maturity, and, when this occurs, only love will endure.


III. The Superiority of Prophecy (14:1-40)

A.     Paul’s general principle (v. 1): Apparently, among other disputes in the church, the Corinthians divided over the relative usefulness of prophecy and speaking in tongues.  Paul valued all spiritual gifts, but he gave priority to prophecy, the ability to speak under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

B.     A comparison of tongues and prophecy (vv. 2-25):

1.      Tongues are unintelligible to men, but the prophet speaks words of edification and encouragement that all men may clearly understand (vv. 2-12).  This paragraph seems to indicate that “tongues” refers to ecstatic speak understood only by God.  While such speech served an important role in the early church, Paul reasoned that it had only limited value because no one understood the language.

2.      The church should only allow tongues when someone can interpret the words to the entire congregation (vv. 13-19).  In public worship, tongues were permissible, but only if someone, possessing the gift of interpretation, could translate the words for all to hear.

3.      God gave the gift of tongues in order to convince unbelievers of the truth of the gospel (vv. 20-25): Tongues, when utilized properly, provide a token of the supernatural for unbelievers, a sign that would convince the lost to believe.

C.     Practical directions for public worship (vv. 26-36)

1.      The need for order (vv. 26-33): The public worship of the church must afford ample opportunity for each to exercise spiritual gifts.  Persons should only speak in tongues in the presence of an interpreter.  Even prophets must discipline themselves to orderly worship, each checking the veracity of the other’s message.  Above all, peace and order must characterize worship.

2.      The silence of women in public worship (vv. 34-36): This prohibition seems in contradiction to Paul’s earlier statements in I Corinthians 11:5.  I’ve read several interpretations of this apparent contradiction, and none seem plausible to me.  Perhaps Paul intended a meaning that the Corinthians understood, but it remains an enigma for contemporary readers.

D.    Concluding summary (vv. 37-40): Paul anticipated some challenge to his thoughts, and he asserted, in these verses, the Lord commands as his authority.  The apostle does not give the source for these words of Christ.


Personal Note: Chapter Thirteen is the most elevated, noble description of Christian love contained in all of Scripture; yet, some readers may feel discouraged about their own failures to live up to the high standards Paul expresses.  I encourage all of God’s people to strive for these dignified principles, but I also encourage a careful balance to the thoughts expressed in this chapter


Surely, Paul was no hypocrite.  He lived by his own counsel, but there were times when even the apostle dealt with adversaries in a strident manner.  I list a few examples.


1.      Paul’s conflict with Barnabas (See Acts 15:36-41)

2.      Paul’s confrontation with Simon Peter (See Galatians 2:11-14)

3.      Paul’s anathema on those who preached a different gospel (See I Corinthians 16:21) and Galatians 1:8)

4.      Paul’s condemnation of Phyletus, Hymenaus, and Alexander (See I Timothy 2:20; II Timothy 2:17, and 4:14)


Look, I have no interest in promoting church divisions or conflict; nor, however, do I think the Bible requires Christians to submit to certain types of behavior.  Again, I list an example or two.


1.      The Bible, in my judgment, does not require Christians to condone or tolerate blatantly sinful behavior. 

2.      I have come to believe that the Bible does not demand that Christians submit themselves to the demeaning, abusive, demoralizing, or dehumanizing behavior of others. 

3.      In summary, experience has taught me that love is a two-way street.  It’s difficult to live by Paul’s principles unless others agree with this covenant of love and all order their lives according to these directives.  In fact, that seems the point of Paul’s observations—these principles govern the community of faith, a community committed to treating one another with mutual respect, dignity, forgiveness, and grace.