It is a wonderfully clear teaching of the Bible that our God is a giver. He is generous and his nature is to lavish good gifts upon his kids. God is kind in giving us Jesus as our rescuer and king and he gives the gift of the Spirit to empower us for service and be an ever present help to us in the struggles of life. Furthermore, God gives spiritual gifts and callings to his people to help them fulfill his ministry on the earth to build them up individually and as a community.
In this essay we are going to look at how the triune God of Scripture gifts his church. We will do this by first looking at the biblical doctrine of the Trinity and learning together about Father, Son and Spirit. We will then look at three major biblical passages on spiritual gifts and how each person of the Trinity is involved in gifting his church. Finally, we will conclude with a focus on the reason or purpose for which God gives gifts to his people. One note is in order as we begin.
Depending upon what sort of spiritual situation you grew up in, the term “spiritual gifts” could mean absolutely nothing, absolutely everything!!! or simply be a strange term of confusion. This essay is not getting into the issues which separate charismatic and non charismatic Christians. If that doesn’t mean a thing to you, no worries, just read on. If you have a spiritual gifts fight to pick about “those spiritually dead churches” or “those crazy charismatic people” drop the gloves and read on; there is something bigger going on with spiritual gifts that we all need to hear and heed. Now to something much simpler, the Trinity—uh, yeah right.
On the Trinity
The creator God is completely unique; God is holy, there is simply no one and no thing like Him. The God revealed to us in our ancient writings is marvelously one, yet a loving community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The book of Ephesians is one of the most Trinitarian writings in the Bible. Father, Son and Spirit seem to pervade all Paul’s thoughts of God. We notice this profoundly in his prayer which closes chapter three.
14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:14-19 (ESV)
The mystery of the triunity of God is one of the most precious, deep, holy and wondrous truths of our faith.1 Though this will be but a miniscule treatment of the wonder of the Trinity, please see the notes for two recent works on the subject for further reading.2 We will first briefly describe each person and role of the Triune God and then move towards how this God gifts his church.
The Glorious Father
The Bible often refers to God as “Father” and this was the preferred description used by Jesus to describe him. The Father is the initiator of creation, the sovereign sustainer of creation and the all wise ruler of all things. The Father is also the one who decreed to redeem the world through the Son. The Father is the blessed one, a spiritual being who is worshipped and praised in spirit and in truth (John 4:23,24). When the New Testament speaks of “God” in a general sense, it is usually the Father which is in view.
The Preeminent Son
The Son is second person of the Trinity and the one through whom creation came into being (Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 1:1-3). The Son is also the one who was sent by the Father into our world to be its Savior. The Son fully reveals the character of the Father (John 14:1-11; Hebrews 1:1-3), is our redeemer who died for sins and was raised from the dead by Father and Spirit (Acts 13:26-33; Romans 8:11; Galatians 1:11). The Son is the head of the church which is his body (Ephesians 4:15,16; Colossians 1:15-24) and he is LORD, God’s appointed King who will rule and reign forever. The Son is the world’s appointed judge and only savior (John 5:22-30; Acts 17:31).
The Empowering Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who was the active agent in creation (Genesis 1:2). The Spirit is given to the church by the Father and sent by the Son (John 14:26, 15:26) to teach us, help us, comfort us and empower us for service (John 14:15-26; 1 Corinthians 12; 1 John 2:26,27). The Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin (John 16:8-11), makes believers alive to God (John 3:1-8; Titus 3:5) dwells in the believer and the church (2 Timothy 1:14) and represents a foretaste of the coming Kingdom. The Spirit is a deposit guaranteeing the promise of God and our coming inheritance with him (2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:14).
This God Gifts His Church
There are four main passages in the New Testament which speak of God’s giving of spiritual gifts to his people. Interestingly enough, God the Father, Jesus the Son and The Holy Spirit are said to be the giver of these gifts to his people. We will look at these three passages in turn.
The Holy Spirit—1 Corinthians 12
In the ancient church in the city of Corinth there was a church that was a mess. People were getting drunk at communion, a dude was having sex with his Dad’s wife and the churches gatherings were a bit chaotic. People were showing off with certain spiritual gifts (Greek term—charismas) which caused Paul to address questions concerning these things . A few quick observations about Paul’s teaching are in order. First, he clearly says that the main point of the gifts is to honor Jesus as Lord. Second, the gifts should be exercised in a way that unifies and serves the common good of the church. The gifts are not to exalt the gifted person. Third, the gifts unify because they are given by one Spirit and are given out in diversity to his people. Finally, the giving of the gifts is by the will of the Spirit as he sees fit so we need not despise the gifts given to us nor covet the gifts of others. On the contrary, we should rejoice in the diversity of the body and use our gifts to build up the family of faith to serve in Jesus’ ministry and bring him glory. All of this should be done in love for God and one another otherwise we will be completely missing the point.
Gifted Leadership is the Gift of the Son—Ephesians 4:7-16
In Ephesians 4 we find that God gives grace in various forms to members of his church. In particular, he gives his church gifted leadership to help equip Christians to do the ministry of Jesus and to grow up the church towards maturity. Whereas the gifts of the spirit to individuals is the subject in 1 Corinthians 12, God’s gift of people to the church is in view in Ephesians 4. In our day where “organized religion” is the object of public and personal disdain, we should observe that leadership (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) is actually a gift of Jesus to his church. The grace of Christ is the source of leaders in the church. Furthermore, these people are gifted by God with various abilities (teaching, service, leadership etc.) to fulfill their ministry. So in a sense, gifted people, are great gifts to the church. We also want to be clear that every person God adds to his church are gifted gifts for the body and when anyone’s gifts are not exercised the church’s life and ministry will gradually become impoverished.
One note should be made at this point. Leadership in Christ’s church is an act of service and should be exercised in the way of Jesus. This means two things: proper exercise of authority in the manner of a servant. Many pastors and leaders today are passive and will not exercise humble, godly authority. They will not preach and teach the truth, confront sin or guide others because of a fear of people and a need to be liked. Furthermore, many church leaders today act as if they are little gods wearing CEO hats and do not see their roll as servants of the people. Peter’s exhortation to church leaders is so needed in our day; I’ll simply quote him here:
1So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. 4And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. 5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 1 Peter 5:1-5 (ESV)
Gifts are Measured to us by God— Romans 12
In Romans 12, Paul is encouraging Christians to think of themselves in humility and to realize that the measure of faith they have is indeed a gift of God the Father. The metaphor of a body is once again employed to urge us towards unity in the diversity of people in the church. We should use and exercise our uniqueness and our giftedness in line with the faith we have been given. Once again, the context is in a loving community where we use our lives and gifts to serve others so that God would be honored and our community would reflect his goodness in the midst of a world darkened by evil and sin.
We will now close with an all to brief discussion of who and what God’s gifts are for. Why does he gift his church and individuals therein. I do pray that some clarity is beginning to emerge from the texts we have been discussing.
Who are Gifts are For?
As Americans we are simply soaked and saturated with individualism. Even the subject of spiritual gifts has been turned into a pursuit for individuals to “discover their gifts” through personal tests and assessments. I am not saying these sorts of tests are wrong; I have used them myself. What I am saying is that they can be reflective of an excessive individualism in relation to God’s gifting of the church. Spiritual gifts are simply never to be about “me” but always about “us” and how we can honor God and fulfill his ministry on the earth. I hope you have heard the language of the Bible throughout our discussion—gifts are given for the common good, to build up the body, to joyfully serve one another in Jesus name.
Furthermore, spiritual gifts are never for some supernatural magic show where spiritual super people can show off on television. The Role of the Spirit is to bring glory to Jesus. (John 16:14) Jesus was clear he came to do the will of the Father.(John 4:34; 5:30; 6:38) The Father created the world to display majesty, glory and wonder to creatures made to worship him (Revelation 4:11). So let me give you a short, hopefully memorable, raison d’être for spiritual gifts as a bottom line in our short journey here:
Spiritual gifts are given by the Trinity, for the good of his people, to build them up so that they might display the glory of God together.
The final passage in the New Testament referring to Spiritual gifts is found in the first letter written by Peter, an early apostle and central leader of the Christian movement. His words summarize well what God would have us know about his gifting of his church. We’ll give him the last word:
10As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 4:10-11 (ESV)
- For an excellent treatment of the importance of the Bible’s teaching on the triunity of God see Chapter 1—”Beholding the Wonder of our Triune God: The Importance of this Doctrine” in Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son & Holy Spirit—Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005) 13-22.
- Two recent works we recommend for the importance of the Trinity are Bruce A. Ware, Father, Son & Holy Spirit—Relationships, Roles and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2005) and Timothy George, editor God the Holy Trinity, Reflections on Christian Faith and Practice (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). Of particular interest is JI Packer’s fine essay on the perspective of the puritan John Owen.
- I found Klyne Snodgrass’ discussion of gifts, talents and the church in Ephesians: The NIV Life Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 212-214.