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Understanding Spiritual Gifts

By Dale A. Robbins

The ministry of Spiritual Gifts originates in the New Testament, commissioned by our Lord Jesus Christ. After He established His church on the earth and ascended to Heaven, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to equip His church with power and spiritual gifts (Greek -- charismata) so that His disciples could continue to carry out His ministry objectives. While there are certain gifts of a spectacular nature that are often given greater attention, the New Testament mentions at least 21 that are provided to the church. These gifts are listed in Eph. 4:11, Rom. 12:3-7, and 1 Cor. 12:1-12,28, and are generally assigned to one of three categories, as listed below:

  • Ministry (office) gifts: Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher.
  • Motivational (practical) gifts: Service, Exhortation, Giving, Leadership, Mercy, Helps and Administration.
  • Charismatic (spiritual) gifts: Wisdom, Knowledge, Discernment, Prophecy, Tongues, Interpretation, Faith, Healing and Miracles.

Most churches and denominations accept some variation of the "motivational " and "ministry" gifts (perhaps with controversy over the office of apostle and prophet). However others completely reject the modern day operation of the 9 charismatic gifts listed in 1 Cor. 12:1-12. In brief, their view is taken from an interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8-10, claiming that such spectacular gifts were only intended as a short-lived, supernatural lift to help the early church get started -- that they vanished after the last Apostles of Jesus died, when the scriptures took their place.

Charismatic Gifts in History

Church History clearly refutes any notion that charismatic gifts faded away after the apostolic era. Other than diminishing somewhat during the middle ages (probably due to the inaccessibility to scripture by the common people), it is obvious that spiritual gifts were never completely absent from the church. Scores of statements to this effect were recorded by church leaders such as Irenaeus, who wrote around A.D. 150 "...we hear many of the brethren in the church who have prophetic gifts, and who speak in tongues through the spirit, and who also bring to light the secret things of men for their benefit [word of knowledge]..." Elsewhere he said, "When God saw it necessary, and the church prayed and fasted much, they did miraculous things, even of bringing back the spirit to a dead man." (Refutation and Overthrow of False Doctrine, Pg. 174). Near the close of the second century, Tertullian cited similar incidents, describing the operation of prophecies, healings and tongues, and in 210, Origen reported many healings and other charismatic gifts, as did later writers such as Eusebius, Firmilian, Chrysostom and others throughout many centuries.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says that spiritual gifts such as glossalalia (speaking in tongues) has occurred in Christian revivals of every age. In the same vein, Souer's History of the Christian Church (Vol 3, Page 406) cites a reference to the famed leader of the protestant reformation of the 16th century, stating, "Dr. Martin Luther was a prophet, evangelist, speaker in tongues, and interpreter, in one person, endowed with all the gifts of the Spirit."

In recent years, a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit brought about what was called the "Pentecostal movement" in the early 1900's, where many churches experienced a revival of the Holy Spirit's power and spiritual gifts. Later in the 1960's, spiritual gifts began to emerge in all kinds of churches and mainline denominations throughout the world, in what was called the "charismatic renewal." Spiritual gifts were suddenly manifested wherever believers or congregations were receptive and opened themselves to the inner workings of the Holy Spirit.

Today, the charismatic gifts remain available as a part of God's plan for His church, and are increasingly being manifested within fellowships and believers around the world. They are sometimes called God's "power tools," given to the body of Christ as valuable helps to accomplish works of ministry.

The 9 Charismatic Gifts

1 Cor. 12:7 "But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:

12:8 for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit,

12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit,

12:10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

12:11 But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually as He wills."

These gifts might be well defined as "A temporary, supernatural intervention of natural laws, bestowed by the Holy Spirit where His presence is invited and accommodated." Individually, each gift is defined as follows:

(1) Word of Wisdom -- A Word refers to "a supernaturally imparted fragment," while wisdom, which generally means prudence, decision making.

(2) Word of Knowledge -- A supernaturally inspired utterance of facts.

(3) Faith -- A supernatural impartation of assurance in God.

(4) Gifts of Healings -- Supernaturally ministering health to the sick.

(5) Working of Miracles -- A supernatural intervention of natural laws. The Greek describes it as "works of power" and implies instantaneous results.

(6) Prophecy -- A supernaturally inspired utterance from God. A genuine prophetic utterance never contradicts, neither is equal to, the written Word of God. To forthtell or foretell. To speak from the mind of God. Prophecies are to be judged (1 Cor. 14:29, 1 Thes. 5:20-21).

(7) Discerning of Spirits -- This is a supernatural ability to discern a person's spiritual character and the source of his actions and messages, such as from the Holy Spirit, demon spirits, the human spirit or from the flesh.

(8) Different Kinds of Tongues -- A supernaturally imparted utterance in an unlearned language which is interpreted as a prophecy to the body for their edification. (This is distinguished from "praying" in tongues, which is intended to edify one's own spirit -- 1 Cor. 14:14.) A message in tongues to the body is always to be interpreted (by another gift), and is limited to three within a gathering (1 Cor. 14:27).

(9) Interpretation of Tongues -- This is the supernatural interpretation of a message in tongues into the understandable language of the hearers. It is not a "translation" but an interpretation.

The Application of the 9 Gifts

It should always be remembered that the purpose of all the gifts are to edify the church, and their distribution within the body is completely dependent upon the discretion of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:11). The scriptures imply that it's appropriate to seek specific gifts, however, one's motive must be for the building up of the church, not for self gratification. "...since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel" (1 Cor. 14:12).

There is a difference between spiritual gifts and fruit. Gifts are the Spirit's manifestation through a vessel, but fruit is the offspring of one's spiritual character. Spirituality cannot be measured by gifts, but by fruit (Gal. 5:22-24). Love is the predominate feature of spirituality (1 Cor. 13:13), without which, charismatic gifts cannot function effectively (1 Cor. 13:1-2). Paul expressed that the church should have a desire for spiritual gifts, but it should follow the foremost pursuit of love. "Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts," (1 Cor. 14:1).

The service where spiritual gifts function may likely take on a less structured, more spontaneous environment that may seem peculiar to some. But in 1 Corinthians 14, the Apostle Paul established specific guidelines for their use so to remove the potential for confusion and disorder. Rather than banishing the operation of these gifts entirely as some churches have done in fear of mayhem, they should seek to understand and implement the prescribed order, as the Apostle admonished: "Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor. 14:39-40).

Victor Bible Sourcebook
Gifts of the Spirit, Gordon Linsey
Souer's History of the Christian Church
Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians, Lawson


This article (VL-164) is copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2024 and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. In some references to real persons, pseudonyms may have been used to preserve their privacy. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple use permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us. If you have appreciated these online materials, help us reach the world with the Gospel by considering a monthly or one-time tax-deductable donation.