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The Practical Christian Life

Jacob Ninan

Chapter 23

Spiritual gifts and ministry

The universal church is greatly and sometimes passionately divided on the subject of whether the spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit and mentioned in the Bible were only for the days of the apostles or even for now. There are major denominations on both sides of the argument. Books have been written and debates have been held on the subject, with neither side yielding to the other. (There is also a third group of Christians who hold that since everyone who is born of God is born of the Holy Spirit, they have already been baptised in the Holy Spirit and endowed with spiritual gifts at that time itself. Their objection is only against a second experience with the Holy Spirit.) This was one controversy, concerning the work of the Holy Spirit, that I faced in my personal life after I had come to a conclusion on the subject of water baptism and got baptised. In the same way that I studied the Bible with respect to water baptism – with as much of an open mind as I could muster and willing to go either way whichever the Lord would show me – I studied this subject too. Once I was convinced of the truth concerning the baptism in the Holy Spirit and His gifts, I began to seek the Lord personally for the experience. I am now writing this on the basis of the doctrine as well as experience.

The objection to the present day operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit arises mainly from three angles.

The first objection comes from a misunderstanding concerning the sufficiency of the word of God. ‘Sufficiency’ of the Bible should be understood as the Bible being the sole and final authority on all matters pertaining to the revelation of God and His dealings with man. It does not mean that we do not need anything else for our life here. The first premise for the above misunderstanding is taken from 2 Peter 1:3 which says that God has given to us everything that is needed for a godly life. The error is in assuming that everything here refers to the giving of the inspired word of God in the form of the books of the Bible. It does not say that in this verse. God has also given us other things apart from the Bible, such as the Holy Spirit dwelling inside us, the church, family life, and the fellowship with the others. It is therefore not right to assume that the Bible is the only thing we need – that it is wholly sufficient – for our life. When Peter wrote this, the Bible as we have was not even complete! He was just stating that God has given us everything we need, and was not specifically referring to the Bible.

Another passage that is misunderstood is from 1 Corinthians 13:8-12. This is the place where Paul exalts the value of love above ministry, spiritual gifts, etc. He is saying that now, when we see and understand things imperfectly, we need spiritual gifts, mentioning specifically prophecy, tongues and the word of knowledge. He points out that when the perfect comes, we shall not need these gifts anymore because we shall be able to see things clearly. The mis-application of this passage is to imply that when the complete set of books in the Bible becomes available to us and the revelation of God is complete, we shall find no more need for these spiritual gifts. But it is very easy to see what Paul means by ‘when the perfect comes’ is our life in eternity when we stand face to face with the Lord (v.12). He is not referring to any time here on earth. So this passage is not saying that when the Bible comes, spiritual gifts will cease. Spiritual gifts are to be operated along with the Bible!

The second objection is taken from the fact that when Jesus did miracles, they were signs indicating who He was, the Son of God (Jn.20:30,31). It is then extrapolated that when the apostles did miracles in the early days of the church, they were again to show the people that they were from God. Then the argument goes on to say that once the Bible came and there was no more new revelation of God coming, the churches could depend entirely on the Bible, and there was no more need for spiritual gifts. This comes from a misunderstanding of the operation of the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy, tongues and the word of knowledge. We shall see that these gifts operate now, not to bring extra-biblical revelation concerning God, but to give specific instructions to the people of God totally in line with the revelation already given in the Bible.

This objection is supported by noting that church history stops referring to supernatural gifts after the time of the apostles. However, even though the mainline churches declined and became mainly religious setups, there were several smaller churches in the side-lines who carried the torch of the testimony along with miracles.

The third objection is that what are being touted as spiritual gifts nowadays are merely human manipulations or even demonic counterfeits. We have to admit that there is a lot of truth in this statement. However, that does not prove that there are no genuine gifts working among the people of God. Human counterfeits are coming up because people would like to claim and behave as if they have spiritual gifts, in order to impress and take advantage of gullible people for their own advantage. Demonic counterfeits are operating to confuse people and to make them believe they have spiritual gifts from the Holy Spirit when they actually have only counterfeits. Someone has said that Satan is interested in producing counterfeit gifts because there are genuine gifts from God he wants them to miss! This only compels us to be very careful to ensure that we receive only the real ones.

Spiritual Gifts Are For The Church
The apostle Paul was one whom God used not only in explaining the doctrines and applications of the Gospel in detail, but also in laying down the guidelines and instructions for the churches. Evangelical Christians recognise that the inspired word of God not only spoke to the readership that the epistles immediately addressed, but also the churches that were to come up later. Paul explains the doctrines of spiritual gifts and their application mainly in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, interspersing Chapter 13 to explain the right attitude of love that we must have in desiring for and exercising spiritual gifts (1Cor.12:31). Nothing in these chapters suggests that they were written for the short duration till the apostles all passed away! It is also not right to dismiss these chapters saying they were written only to address certain problems in the Corinthian church! (Will we ignore Chapter 13 also?) Remember these letters of Paul were circulated to many other churches for their instruction, and that was how they came to be recognised as a part of the revelation of God to be included in the canon of the New Testament.

Spiritual gifts are supernatural endowment of power from the Holy Spirit for people to fulfil their roles in the body of Christ. No one who has recognised the impotence of the best human efforts to accomplish the work of God all by themselves will say that they do not need divine empowerment. It is not that the Holy Spirit does not make use of the natural abilities that God has created each one of us with, but we know that to accomplish spiritual tasks we need more than natural strength; we need supernatural strength. This supernatural power is what the Holy Spirit wants to give to us in order to equip us for the particular ministry He has in mind for us.

Take the example of teaching the Bible. This can be done, and this is what sadly appears to be done many times, just as someone teaches a secular subject using his natural abilities and skills. But such a transfer of knowledge can only go from the teacher’s intellect to the intellect of the hearers or students, and then they can get academic degrees as a result. But this does not necessarily change their lives more than superficially. But now imagine a teacher who is anointed with the gift of teaching by the Holy Spirit. When we listen to him we can ‘feel our hearts burning within us’ (Lk.24:32), and something grips us inside and our life begins to change. How can one say we do not need the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

There are those who object to this saying that the kind of supernatural work described above happens even in the case of many teachers who do not claim to have been baptised in the Holy Spirit and even those who are opposed to the doctrine of the baptism! This can be explained easily. What God looks for essentially is our heart. If He finds that there is a sincere seeking after the truth and for power to serve others more effectively, He grants them that power even if they are intellectually in error concerning the doctrine of the gifts of the Spirit. In other words, such people actually get baptised in the Spirit without recognising their experience as such! Doctrines are more connected with the intellect than to the heart – many saints will be up there in eternity with God whose doctrinal understanding had many flaws. It is the heart that matters. However, if their doctrines had been right, they could have received more than what they have, and they could also have helped many others to experience what they have.

Use And Abuse
A major confusion among those who believe in the baptism in the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts is that some people insist that the proof of someone receiving the baptism is that he speaks in an unknown tongue. It is true that most of the incidents described in the Acts of the Apostles mention people speaking in tongues. But a general principle we need to use when defining doctrines is not to base them merely on experiences, but they must be based on the teaching in the Bible. What the Bible teaches us concerning the question whether everyone who receives the baptism in the Holy Spirit speaks in tongues, the answer is a clear no (1Cor.12:30). This should settle the confusion on this issue.

When people believe that they have to speak in tongues if they receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and God has not chosen to give them that gift, they try desperately to speak in tongues somehow! Then there can be human and demonic counterfeits. Speaking in tongues is a good gift, and there is nothing wrong for anyone to ask for it. Paul said that he wished everyone would speak in tongues (1Cor.14:5), recognising that not all did! But he also mentioned there were better gifts to pursue after!

Paul mentions two types of speaking in tongues. One is speaking in tongues in a church meeting. We are to do this only when there is someone there who has the complementary gift of interpreting tongues (vv.27,28). In this case, the first person speaks a specific message from God to that church in an unknown language that the second person interprets. Without this interpretation being present, it would only be like babbling, which is to be discouraged. The other way of speaking in tongues is privately between us and God. This was how Paul spoke in tongues more than everyone else, even though he was very particular about speaking in the church more in a known language (unless, of course, there was an interpreter available) (vv.18,19). When we speak in tongues privately before God, it builds us up (v.4). We do not understand what we are saying to God because we do not know that language (v.2) but we speak in faith knowing that the Holy Spirit inside us is communicating something to God. Sometimes, for example, it could be the Holy Spirit conveying the groaning in our heart that is too deep for words (Rom.8:26,27), or it could be an overflow from our heart of the praise and worship that we feel in our heart but are unable to put into words. Certainly it is a good gift to have, and there is nothing wrong in asking God for it.

What Jesus promised the apostles what would happen when the Holy Spirit came upon them was that they would receive power (Acts.1:8). As we see later in the Book of Acts, many who receive the baptism speak in tongues. But power is a much broader thing. How it may come in experience to different individuals may vary in the details. But each one can know for certain when it happens to them.

The gift of prophecy enables us to bring out what God specifically wants to tell the listeners or readers according to their situation. A prophet, in simple terms, is one who is a spokesman for God. In the Old Testament, many prophets spoke and wrote what God wanted to tell people about what was going to take place in the future. They also brought rebuke or warnings from God. In the new covenant, one who prophesies generally speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation (1Cor.14:3), even though sometimes a prophet may warn the church about things that are going to happen (Acts.11:28). He brings forth what people need to hear from God according to their situation. We can see that a gift of prophecy that operates in this manner will be very useful in many different ministries, e.g., for the preacher, writer, teacher, pastor, counsellor, etc., to be able to say just the right thing at the right time.

The Bible tells us not to despise or ignore prophecies, but to test each one (to see if they are in line with what the Bible has revealed) (1Thes.5:20,21). This is another instance that tells us that prophecies are valid. This was not written to the Corinthian church (as some people say about 1 Corinthians 12-14)!

Even though we can see this gift of prophecy working through many people, we also see a lot of misuse. People are appointing themselves as prophets and giving personal instructions to people they meet, seeking to dominate and gain prominence. Misunderstanding the context in 1 Corinthians 14:31, people say everyone can prophesy. Based on this people even conduct workshops for everyone on ‘how to activate’ the gift of prophecy! This is in spite of the clear teaching in the Bible that all are not prophets (1Cor.12:29). The context in the earlier passage is a meeting of the church where Paul is emphasising the need to keep order as people prophesy (speak for edification and exhortation and consolation) one by one!

The gift of evangelism enables us to be burdened about those who have not heard the good news of Jesus, and to touch people’s hearts supernaturally so that they become convicted of their sins and receive faith to put their trust in God. Without this anointing, we may use all kinds of techniques for presentations, put forth convincing arguments, display emotionally moving songs, drama or videos, etc., and see the audience going away without being born again. How sad it is to see many innovative attempts being made to ‘market’ the Gospel, only to end up with superficial changes and deceptive experiences!

How good it is to receive a ‘word of wisdom’ that tells us how to deal with difficult situations, or to supernaturally get extra information (a ‘word of knowledge’) about a situation when we are trying to help someone! How good to be able to discern when evil spirits are at work and cast them out! How good to bring supernatural healing or miracles in naturally impossible situations!

The Bible says that as the end of the world draws near, Satan will increase his attacks and multiply his deceitful ways (Rev.12:12). Do you think the Lord who gave His people supernatural abilities to deal with the enemy and to help His people in the early days will now withdraw all such supernatural gifts when things are becoming more difficult to handle, naturally speaking?

The Way To Receive And Use Gifts
We have seen that all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are given mainly to minister to and serve the others (1Cor.12:7), except for one use of speaking in tongues that builds oneself up. The right attitude for asking for these gifts is to seek them for the purpose of serving others better. Jesus illustrated this very clearly in the story of a man who went to his neighbour asking to borrow some bread in order to give a friend who had dropped in (Lk.11:5-13). Think of doing any ministry and not seeing any fruit coming out of it! Would we not ask God to anoint us and give us supernatural help in order to be able to bless the others betters? Would we not own up our own inability to serve God with our natural strength and cry out to Him for divine intervention? That is when God gives us spiritual gifts. The same passage tells us to ask, seek and knock till we receive, if we have this kind of an attitude. Then God promises us that He will give us the genuine gift and not any counterfeit.

Can we not imagine what will happen if we ask with selfish motives, to impress others, or to make ourselves great or rich? What will happen if we ask only for the purpose of experiencing supernatural thrills and not for helping others? Deceiving spirits will only be very eager to ‘help out’ such seekers with counterfeit gifts.

Lastly we may note that sometimes God gives us some spiritual gifts that define our ministry. In other words, a man who teaches with anointing recognises and continues with his ministry of teaching, the man who has a ministry of delivering people from evil spirits is known for that, or the man whose ministry is in physical healing keeps doing that. But there may be situations where any of us may receive a special gift, e.g., casting out demons or healing the sick, for a specific situation or time, and may not practise that gift at other times.

Yes, there are many extreme and excessive things happening in the name of spiritual gifts. While we need to keep away from the counterfeit, shall we not pursue earnestly after the genuine gifts (1Cor.14:2)? Shall we not humbly acknowledge before God how we are limited in ourselves to do anything significant in His kingdom, and how we need His supernatural anointing on us? Shall we not thank Him that He has gifts suited for our different needs in ministry that we can ask for, receive and use for blessing others and glorifying His name?

Go to Chapter 24. The Christian and giving.

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