By Thomas R. Schreiner
What are the spiritual gifts for? Why does God give them to us? The Bible tells us that God has given us gifts to build up the body (Eph. 4:12–16), to bring unity to the church (1 Cor. 12:25–26), and to edify the church (cf. also 1 Cor. 14:1–40).
The gifts aren’t meant to edify just individuals, and so we shouldn’t have an individualistic approach to them. Rather, as we will see by looking briefly at two texts, they are meant to build up the church. We read in Ephesians 4:11–16,
“And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head Christ. From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.”
Paul speaks of gifted persons here rather than gifts, but it is also the case that people are called prophets because they have the gift of prophecy, and people are called teachers because they have the gift of teaching. We recognize that Paul refers to gifted persons, but it is also legitimate to speak of the gifts themselves from this text.
Gifts were given to equip believers for ministry. We see in verse 16 that “every supporting ligament” and “each individual part” plays a role. The purpose of the gifts is “to build up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12).
The building up of the body leads to its unity and its stability and maturity. Such maturity means that the church becomes more like Jesus Christ, and at the same time the church will have a doctrinal solidity. Immature churches are also poorly taught churches. Thus, they are doctrinally unstable, blown here and there by false teachings.
We see here that the maturity of the church is both behavioral and doctrinal. The church represents the character of Christ and the thinking of Christ so that it is both godly and vigilant for the truth of the gospel.
We also see from Ephesians that the gifts were not given so that we would marvel over our abilities or covet the abilities of others. Nor were they given so that we would experience satisfaction and fulfillment in our lives.
Still further, the gifts weren’t given so that we could realize our self-potential. The gifts were given so that we would equip and strengthen other believers, and thus the gifts are others-centered, not self-centered.
A central text on spiritual gifts is 1 Corinthians 12:24–26. “Instead, God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the less honorable, so that there would be no division in the body, but that the members would have the same concern for each other. So if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
This text is quite remarkable. God gave us gifts so that we would not be divided but united. As we exercise our gifts, we demonstrate that we care about what is happening in one another’s lives, that we truly love one another.
What this means is expressed in a very practical way. If one of the members of the church is hurting, we grieve with them. And if one of our members is rejoicing, we rejoice with them. The gifts are cruciform, for as we exercise the gifts, we give ourselves for the sake of others, just as Christ did on the cross.
When pastors prepare sermons, they express their love for the flock. The person who works on the sound in the building does so to show love to the flock. When we meet with others and encourage them or admonish them, we show our love for them.
None of us can do alone what the body of Christ can do together. We need the whole body to show this kind of concern for others. This isn’t just the task of elders or of pastors, but the ministry description for each one of us. The needs are too great to be met simply by one small group of people.
If our churches show this kind of love and concern for one another, they will be built up and mature. At the same time, we will have an influence on unbelievers. People are hungry for this kind of love, for this kind of caring.
We ought not to be thinking when we join together as a congregation, Are people here loving me this way? Are my needs being met?
We should be thinking instead, Am I loving people like that? Am I reaching out to the hurting? Am I rejoicing with those who rejoice?
Spiritual gifts are exercised when we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, when we love others for Christ’s sake.
Excerpted with permission from Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter by Thomas R. Schreiner. Copyright 2018, B&H Publishing Group.
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THOMAS R. SCHREINER is a professor of New Testament Interpretation and Biblical Theology, and serves as dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.