What Makes My Gift a Spiritual Gift?
Welcome back to the podcast. On Monday we looked at what distinguishes our lives from the lives of non-Christians around us. There, in APJ 1858, we touched on spiritual gifts. And then in the episode before that, we asked, “What are my skills worth?” That was APJ 1857, and it was a fascinating discussion because in many churches you have a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, a carpenter, an auto mechanic — someone who makes money from their skills. And sometimes those skills can be exploited by people in the local church for free. Maybe you have experienced that very thing yourself. Piper’s conclusion in that episode was, “Be willing to pay for the service. If the skilled person wants to make a special gift to you, that’s his or hers to decide, not yours to expect.”
So if skilled Christians in the church share the same skills you will find among non-Christians outside the church, what makes a spiritual gift spiritual? As we will hear today, “many unbelievers have great abilities” — abilities to lead and administrate and teach — but those gifts are not automatically spiritual gifts. What makes a spiritual gift spiritual?
In a sermon, Pastor John turned to Paul’s testimony in Romans 1 for the answer. There Paul writes, “I long to see you [the church in Rome], that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11–12). Here’s Pastor John to unpack and apply it.
The basic problem is becoming the kind of person who wakes up in the morning and thanks God for life and for salvation and then says, “Lord, oh how I want to strengthen people’s faith today at work. Lord, let me come to the end of this day and be able to look back and say, ‘Somebody has more confidence in your promises today because I crossed their path. Somebody is more happy in your grace because I crossed their path.’” That’s the main problem, waking up and being that kind of person.
“Let’s apply ourselves to becoming the kind of people who more and more long to build up each other’s faith.”
The reason I say that’s the basic problem and not the discovery of spiritual gifts is because, if there were 550 people in this church waking up and saying that and praying that and meaning that, the Holy Spirit would not leave you frustrated in finding ways to do that. He will not let a person whose heart is earnestly desirous of building other people up go without building them up. He will help you find those ways, and the finding of those ways will be the discovering of your gifts. It doesn’t matter whether you can find a name for it or not. Let’s apply ourselves to becoming the kind of people who more and more long to build up each other’s faith, to make each other happier in the Lord, and to make each other more confident in his promises.
Now there are really interesting insights that come from comparing Romans 1:11 with 1:12. Paul restates Romans 1:11 in different words; that’s what you do when you start a sentence with “That is.” You’re restating what you just said. “I [want to] impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:11–12).
Now, Paul does two things here. The first thing he does is the old “it’s my pleasure” tactic. You remember that sermon back in the fall that I preached called “It’s My Pleasure: Christian Hedonism and Humility”? Paul is doing that right here. Notice that when we say, “Oh, it’s my pleasure” after we do a benefit for somebody, a favor, what we’re doing is trying to be humble. We’re saying, “Well, don’t get too worked up about my self-sacrifice because I just did what I wanted to do.” You cut off too much praise. You try to humble yourself after having done a good deed.
Now that’s what Paul is doing here, I think. Paul rereads verse 11, and he says, “Hmm, I sure don’t want to give the impression that I’m coming on strong there as the great benefactor who’s going to do them all this good and get no benefit.” See? So he backs off and he restates his goal to say, “It’s going to be a two-way street in Rome. I am going to get encouraged, and you’re going to get encouraged. It’s my pleasure. Don’t give me too much praise. I’m just doing what I like to do when I go around preaching and getting encouraged by other people’s faith, as well as encouraging them.” That’s the first thing he does in this text.
Now the second thing he does is to show that the way he’s going to strengthen their faith by using his spiritual gift is by encouraging them with his faith. Now notice the parallel between the two verses. In verse 11, he aims to strengthen them. In verse 12, he aims to encourage them. So those two words are parallel. In verse 11, he aims to strengthen them by his spiritual gift. In verse 12, he aims to encourage them by his faith.
Of Faith, for Faith
Now I think you can draw as the conclusion, therefore, this definition of spiritual gifts: a spiritual gift is an expression of faith that aims to strengthen faith. Wouldn’t that be a fair definition, having put those two verses together and seeing that verse 12 is an explanation of verse 11? A spiritual gift is activated by faith and aims to produce more faith in another person. Or another way to put it would be this: a spiritual gift is an ability given by the Holy Spirit to express our faith effectively for the upbuilding of another’s faith. That’s what a spiritual gift is, I think, from these two verses.
“A spiritual gift is an expression of faith that aims to strengthen faith.”
Now that to me is very helpful because it helps me distinguish and keep separate natural abilities and spiritual gifts. They aren’t the same. Many, many unbelievers have great abilities — administration and teaching, for example — and these are given by God. Everybody has what he has from God, whether they acknowledge it or not, but they’re not spiritual gifts in the New Testament sense, are they? Why? Because they do not come from faith, they’re not expressions of faith, and they’re not aiming to strengthen faith.
Our faith is the channel through which the Holy Spirit flows on his way to building up another person’s faith. Therefore, for any ability that we have to be a channel for the Spirit and therefore spiritual, it has to flow from faith in him and aim toward faith in another person. No matter what abilities we have, if we’re not relying on God (having faith) and we’re not aiming to help others rely on God (produce faith), our ability is not spiritual. It’s not a spiritual gift because the Holy Spirit is not flowing through it from faith to faith.
Now that has tremendous implications for a church in the selection of its staff, the choice of its officers, and its board members. The implication is this: It means that we will never simply say, “Who has the ability to efficiently do this job?” Never. That’s a wholly inadequate criterion for determining a person’s suitability for staff or for office in the church. We will go on and ask, “Does this person use his skill or her ability to express their lively and hearty dependence on the Lord?” And we will ask, “Does the exercise of that skill aim always to be helping other people believe more, or does the way they go about doing their work always manage to put people down or make people feel unbelieving rather than believing?”
A church where the Holy Spirit is alive and powerful will always be sensitive to the difference between natural abilities and spiritual gifts.