THE GOAL OF our spiritual growth is to become more and more like Jesus (see Romans 8:29). We tend to think of this as becoming more like Him in His character, but we need to remember that Jesus came to work—to do the will of the Father. On the eve of His crucifixion, He could say in His prayer, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).

So, if we are going to become like Jesus, we also must do the work God has given us to do. In fact, Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:10 that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” God intends for all believers to be active workers in His kingdom.

To this end God has assigned every Christian a function in the body of Christ. There are no exceptions to this; every member has a function to fulfill. Warren Myers, in his book, Pray: How to Be Effective in Prayer, tells of two remarkable people: William Carey, missionary to India, and Carey’s bedridden, almost totally paralyzed sister. William Carey accomplished a Bible translation work unequaled in missionary history and has been called “the father of modern missions.” We don’t even know his sister’s name. She is mentioned only as Carey’s sister. But while Carey labored in India translating and printing parts or all of the Bible into forty languages, his sister lay on her back in London and prayed hour after hour, month after month, for all the details, problems, and struggles of her brother’s work. In telling this story of Carey and his sister, Myers asks the question, “To whose account will God credit the victories won through this remarkable man?” We all know that Carey’s sister shared in his ministry. In fact, she was a very vital part. Without her ministry of intercession on her brother’s behalf, the work would not have gone forward.

FUNCTION IN THE BODY

The point of this story is to emphasize that God assigns to every believer an important function in the body. He assigned William Carey to do Bible translation work in India, and He assigned his sister to pray for that work as she lay paralyzed in her bed in London. William Carey’s function was highly visible, at least it is to us today; his sister’s function was probably unknown except to a few people. Yet both had a vital part to play in the missionary enterprise in India. God assigned each of them a specific function and enabled them by His grace to fulfill it.

Just as God assigns to each of us a function in the body of Christ, so He equips each of us to fulfill that function. In the New Testament this equipping is called a “gift.” A spiritual gift is an ability given by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform the specific function within the body that God has assigned to each of us. Spiritual gifts are distinct from natural abilities, although the gifts frequently incorporate some natural ability. While both gifts and abilities are endowments from God, gifts are related specifically to the function God has assigned to us in the body.

In his discourse on spiritual gifts in Romans 12:3–8, Paul, using the analogy of the physical body, said, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body.… We have different gifts, according to the grace given us” (verses 4–6). Note the relationship between function and gift. We all have different functions and, consequently, different gifts that enable us to fulfill those functions.

Our gifts are always consistent with our functions. If we view the church of Jesus Christ as His body, then we recognize that we are members of that body, sharing together a common life in Christ and using our spiritual gifts to serve one another, mutually building each other up in the faith. If we view the church as a spiritual enterprise engaged in carrying out Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples in all nations, then we have been called by God to be a team of dedicated partners actively involved in that effort. Whether it’s building up the body of Christ or reaching out to those without Christ, each of us has a function to fulfill, and we have received the necessary gifting to fulfill it.

PRINCIPLES OF SPIRITUAL GIFTS

Having seen that all of us have a function in the body and the corresponding gifts to fulfill it, we need to consider certain basic truths or principles regarding spiritual gifts.

(1) The purpose of all spiritual gifts is to serve others and to glorify God. Consider 1 Peter 4:10, along with verse 11: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others.… so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.” According to Peter, there are two objectives in the use of our gifts: serving others and glorifying or praising God. He also referred to us as stewards in the use of our gifts: “Use [your gift] to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (l Peter 4:10, ESV). When used in this sense, “steward” refers to a person who manages someone else’s property, finances, or other affairs. Our gifts are not our property to use as we please; they are a trust committed to us by God to use for others and for His glory as He directs.

There is no place in the use of spiritual gifts for the seeking of recognition, fame, or self-fulfillment. Some gifts by their nature are more public than others, and thus they are more prone to result in recognition. This would be true, for example, of the gifts of teaching and music. These people exercise their gifts “up front.” Everyone knows who they are. There are others who exercise the gift of service in seeing that the physical aspects of a church or campus ministry setting are in place and properly functioning. Hardly anyone ever sees the work they do. In fact, as long as they do their job properly, few people even think about it; their work is taken for granted by most people.

As long as we keep in mind the purpose of gifts, however, we will not be concerned about recognition or fame. We will seek to use our gifts as stewards entrusted with the grace of God to be used to serve others and to glorify Him. Whether ours is a public gift like teaching or a less noticeable gift like serving, the end objective is “that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ.”

(2) Every Christian has a gift and every gift is important. As has already been stated, God has assigned every believer a function in the body of Christ and has consequently gifted every member to fulfill that function. We need to underscore this point. God has given a spiritual gift to every individual believer in the body of Christ. Paul expressly says, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). It is important we acknowledge this fact because so many Christians seem to have the attitude that they do not have a gift.

Not only do we each have a gift, each one of our gifts is important. Again we tend to recognize the more public, noticeable gifts as important and the low profile gifts as perhaps not so important. The apostle Paul anticipates this tendency when he envisions the foot saying, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” and the ear saying, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body” (1 Corinthians 12:15–16). Here Paul has in mind the person with the less noticeable gift comparing himself with the person with the more noticeable gift and then feeling that he has no gift at all.

Of course there is also a danger that those with the more public gifts will secretly disregard or belittle the contribution to the body of those who have the less noticeable gifts. Again Paul anticipates this tendency in 1 Corinthians 12:21 when he says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ ” We all need each other’s contribution in the body. Just as some functions in the human body are in a sense more important than others, so it is with some gifts in the body of Christ. Paul seems to recognize this in verses 28–31 of 1 Corinthians 12. But this does not change the fact that all gifts are important. Some may be more important than others, perhaps, but none are unimportant. So whether we have the less important or the more important gifts, let us not envy the one or despise the other. We need to recognize each gift is necessary in the body and is important to God.

(3) Gifts are sovereignly bestowed by God. Just as God assigns us certain functions in the body, so He bestows our gifts. Speaking of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:11, Paul says, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” Again using the physical body as an analogy, Paul states in verse 18, “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” The obvious inference is that just as God sovereignly arranged the parts of the physical body, so He sovereignly arranged us as individual parts in the body of Christ.

Perhaps this principle seems too obvious to state, but consider the implications and the applications of it. You possess the gifts you have because the sovereign God of the universe wanted you to be that way. He ordained a plan for your life before you were even born, and He has gifted you specifically to carry out that plan. Never disparage your gift. If you do, you are disparaging the plan of God and perhaps complaining against Him. Similarly, never look down on the gift of another. If you do, you are scorning the plan of God for that person.

God not only determines what gift (or gifts) each of us has; He also determines the measure or extent of that gift. Two people may have the same gift but in different measure. Consider two teachers of the Word equally gifted—one laboring in obscurity and the other enjoying widespread recognition. Why the difference? I believe the usual explanation is that the two people are gifted in the same area, but one is more gifted than the other. Both gifts are being carried out under the sovereign providence of God.

Jesus spoke of three servants receiving different amounts of “talents,” each according to his ability (see Matthew 25:14–30). A biblical “talent” was not a mental or physical ability but an amount of money, something more than a thousand dollars. Each of the servants was to invest a certain sum of money in order to earn interest. Apparently each servant had the same calling to invest money. But they had different degrees of ability within that calling, and so they received different degrees of responsibility according to their abilities.

It is the same way with spiritual gifts. God gives us not only the particular gift we have, but also the measure of that gift. Then He holds us responsible to use our gift to its full measure. The person who has a greater measure of a certain gift has greater responsibility for it. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). The three servants in the parable of the talents were judged not in relation to each other but according to how they used what had been entrusted to them.

(4) Every gift is given by God’s grace. The Greek word for a spiritual gift is charisma, which means “a gift of God’s grace,” whether it is the gift of eternal life as in Romans 6:23 or the gift of a spiritual ability for use in the body. Paul said, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us,” and Peter said, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (Romans 12:6, 1 Peter 4:10, emphasis added). None of us deserves the gift we have been given. All the gifts are given by God’s undeserved favor to us through Christ.

In Ephesians 3:7–8, Paul testified freely that he did not deserve to be an apostle of Jesus Christ:

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.

According to this principle, the most worthy and the most unworthy of all Christians both receive their gifts on the same basis. The unworthy person surely does not deserve his gift, but neither does the most worthy. They both receive them as unmerited favors from God. The highly gifted person should not think he is so gifted because of his hard work or his faithfulness in previous service to God. Likewise, the person who feels he has wasted a good part of his life and is consequently undeserving of any spiritual gift should not despair. Paul said he received his gift despite the fact that he was the least of all God’s people. Worthy or unworthy, it makes no difference. All gifts are given by God’s grace.

(5) All gifts must be developed and exercised. Even though gifts are given by God’s grace, it is our responsibility to develop and exercise them. Paul exhorted Timothy to rekindle or “fan into flame the gift of God,” and elsewhere Paul told him, “Do not neglect your gift” (2 Timothy 1:6, 1 Timothy 4:14).

In order to exercise our spiritual gifts effectively, even though they are sovereignly and graciously bestowed, we must develop and use them. The effective use of our gifts does not occur without diligent effort on our part. Timothy already had the gift of teaching, yet Paul did not hesitate to urge him to be diligent to present himself to God as a workman who could correctly handle the Word of Truth. And in 1 Timothy, after exhorting Timothy not to neglect his gift, Paul said, “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them” (1 Timothy 4:15). Timothy’s use of his gift was not a matter of indifference. He was accountable to God for his development and use of it.

This means hard work. The person with the gift of teaching must study zealously to learn God’s truth and must then labor diligently to communicate it in a clear and inspiring manner. The person with the gift of service must strive to become competent and proficient in his particular area of service in order to ensure that the results of his labors reflect a standard of excellence that glorifies God. There is no place for either shoddy teaching or shoddy service in God’s kingdom.

The believer with the gift of mercy must study how to use that gift in a way that best relieves the sufferings and miseries of others. The person who has the gift of leadership must study the principles of leadership in order to use his gift most effectively, and then, as Paul said, he must govern diligently. Simply having a spiritual gift does not mean we can automatically fulfill our function in the body without diligent effort. Rather, we are responsible to develop and use the gifts God has given us.

(6) The effective use of every gift is dependent on faith in Christ. Although gifts are sovereignly bestowed and their effective exercise involves hard work and diligent effort, it is also true no gift is exercised apart from faith in Christ. We cannot assume God’s blessing on our efforts even though we are laboring within the bounds of the gifts He has given us. The necessity of conscious dependence on Christ for His enabling power is a fundamental fact for every aspect of the Christian life, whether in spiritual growth in our own lives or in service within the body. “Apart from me,” Jesus said, “you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Speaking of his own diligent efforts, Paul wrote to the believers at Colosse, “To this end I labor, struggling with all [Christ’s] energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). Paul labored diligently in the exercising of his gifts. In fact, as we have already seen, he described his labor as “struggling.” Yet he also relied on Christ. The persevering apostle struggled with the energy that Christ infused in him as he labored in dependence on Him.

To maintain the proper perspective of diligent personal responsibility and a sincere attitude of total dependence on Christ for His power requires constant vigilance in two directions. On the one hand, we can be guilty of slothfulness in the development or use of our gifts under the pretext that we are “trusting in the Lord.” On the other hand, we can presume on God’s blessing as we attempt to use our gifts in the strength of our own abilities or in the fact that we have “done that so many times.”

(7) Only love will give true value to our gifts. In any discussion of spiritual gifts we should give careful attention to the fact that the classic Scripture passage on Christian love, 1 Corinthians 13, is set right in the middle of the Bible’s most extensive treatment on spiritual gifts. We have already looked briefly at 1 Corinthians 13 in chapter 11, but here I want us to look at it in relation to the exercise of our gifts. In the first part of chapter 13, Paul tells us that even if we possess the greatest of gifts, have the most extraordinary faith, and display an amazing amount of zeal and courage yet have not love, we are nothing and we accomplish nothing.

It is not that Paul sets love over spiritual gifts or Christian zeal as if love is more important than gifts, faith, or zeal. Rather, he says it is love that gives all these other areas value and worth. The gifts and character traits Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3 are not insignificant or commonplace. Whatever we may think about the bestowal and use of some of these gifts today, the fact is that in Paul’s day the gifts of tongues and prophecy were the most coveted of gifts. And who of us would not desire the faith that can move mountains or the sacrificial spirit that would prompt us to give our goods to the poor or the spiritual courage that enables martyrs to endure the flames?

Yet Paul very plainly said, not once but three times, that only love gives value to our gifts, our faith, and our zeal. If we set our hearts only on the exercising of our gifts, the increase of our faith, and the promotion of our zeal and courage, without seeking to grow in love, we will be as nothing and accomplish nothing. We may generate a lot of Christian activity, gain some measure of fame, and even appear to accomplish something for God. But if we have not love, it all amounts to nothing.

Write down, either in your imagination or on a sheet of paper, a row of zeros. Keep adding zeros until you have filled a whole line on the page. What do they add up to? Exactly nothing! Even if you were to write a thousand of them, they would still be nothing. But put a positive number in front of them and immediately they have value. This is the way it is with our gifts and faith and zeal. They are the zeros on the page. Without love, they count for nothing. But put love in front of them and immediately they have value. And just as the number two gives more value to a row of zeros than the number one does, so more and more love can add exponentially greater value to our gifts.

Notice how Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7. Each description of it is in the arena of interpersonal relationships. We would expect from the larger context that Paul might want to instruct us on how to prophesy in love, how to exercise faith in love, and how to give sacrificially in love, but he does not do that. Instead he talks about exercising patience and being kind to one another. He talks about love eliminating envy and boasting, rudeness and selfishness; He says that love is not easily angered and keeps no record of wrongs. Paul has thus passed from the subject of gifts to the subject of relationships.

What is Paul saying to us through this subtle change in subject matter? Just this: Love must permeate and govern every aspect of our lives. Love is not to be exercised only in the use of our gifts and in the performance of our various Christian duties. Love is to be exercised in the home or at the office or in the classroom where our gifts are not a particular consideration. Love is to be exercised all the time in the most mundane duties of life, not just when we are engaged in Christian work. On the other hand, the absence of love in the ordinary duties and relationships of life can undermine and destroy the effective use of our gifts.

Bridges, Jerry. 2004. Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.


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