Spiritual gifts are those qualities and empowerments that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit give to the people of God in order to make them effective in ministry. When God’s people use these gifts in service to one another, the entire church is built up in faith, hope, and love.
Under the old covenant, God by His Holy Spirit gifted individual believers for ministry, but He did not gift everyone. This is evident in texts such as Numbers 11:29, where Moses expresses hope that one day the Lord would put His Spirit on all His people so that they would all speak God’s Word as prophets. Likewise, Joel 2:28–29 predicts the outpouring of God’s Spirit in the last days and the empowering of God’s people for ministry.
All believers under the old covenant enjoyed the Spirit’s work of regeneration. They also experienced the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, albeit in a lesser degree in comparison to new covenant believers. Only a few believers were gifted for ministry, however. Spiritual gifting was limited mainly to old covenant prophets, priests, and kings.
With the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, a new era dawned for the people of God. Having ascended to heaven, Christ poured out His Spirit in a fresh way on His people. The initial signs of this outpouring were the wind, fire, and speaking in tongues that occurred on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Since the end of the Apostolic era, however, such dramatic signs do not accompany the reception of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul talks about the gifts of the Holy Spirit more than any other Apostle. His teaching on this subject can be found chiefly in Romans 12:3–8, 1 Corinthians 12–14, and Ephesians 4:1–16. These texts tell us that the main purpose of the gifts (and offices) that the Father grants to the church of Christ by the Holy Spirit is to build up the church in love and unity until the entire body of Christ attains maturity. Any use of the gifts of the Spirit to other ends is illegitimate and not in keeping with God’s intent in gifting His people for ministry. First Peter 4:10–11 also addresses the topic of spiritual gifts. This text reminds us that we are but stewards of what God has given us and that we are use our gifts to glorify God in Christ and serve His people.
Many individual gifts are mentioned in the aforementioned passages. There is significant overlap between the lists, but there are also some differences. This suggests that while we can find many gifts of the Spirit listed in Scripture, the Apostles never intended to list every possible way the Holy Spirit can empower us for ministry. While we should be hesitant about calling any particular talent used for ministry a spiritual gift if it is not named as such in God’s Word, we should also understand that when such talents are used to the glory of God, the Holy Spirit is at work as well.
The gifts of Spirit fall into two general categories: continuing gifts and gifts that have ceased. Continuing gifts include such things as wisdom, knowledge, distinguishing spirits or discernment, faith, mercy, service, teaching, exhortation, and generosity. Importantly, all believers are to exercise each of these qualities to some degree. For instance, all of us must have faith in Christ (Rom. 3:21–26) and all of us can teach, even if only informally in singing hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). Those who have specific spiritual gifts in these areas typically find it easier to exercise these qualities or are able to exercise them with greater depth and skill than other believers.
Spiritual gifts that have ceased include tongues, prophecy, and miracles. These gifts were granted during the Apostolic age for the purpose of authenticating the Apostles as messengers from God who were delivering new revelation for His people. With the death of the last Apostle, these gifts passed from the church.
Finally, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given according to God’s sovereign will and are all important to the healthy functioning of the church. Some gifts, such as teaching, are more public and are particularly apt to be noticed by others. Other gifts, such as service, are often more private, and few may ever acknowledge them. However, God values equally the gifts that are used publicly and those that are exercised more privately. He uses both the teaching gifts of the preachers and teachers as well as the service gifts of those who volunteer in the church nursery to advance His kingdom. He uses the wisdom exercised by church elders as well as the faith of the prayer warrior who quietly intercedes regularly for others. Thus, we should not envy the gifts of others but should be content with what the Lord has given us. All Christians, with the help of other believers, are to endeavor to discern their gifts and use them not for themselves but for the glory of God and the good of our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
The Spirit of God, therefore, distributes [gifts] among us, in order that we may make all contribute to the common advantage. To no one does he give all, lest any one, satisfied with his particular portion, should separate himself from others, and live solely for himself.
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 12:11
[Spiritual gifts] are given through the Spirit of Christ to equip believers to serve one another in the body of Christ and thus to set on display the unity of the church in the context of its diversity, and vice versa. For this, love is essential.
The Spirit gives these gifts to Christ’s church to empower the people of God to carry out the mission that Christ gave to His people—to bear witness to Him to the uttermost parts of the earth.