On Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today (1 Cor. 12)


I heard that the librarian of one of the greatest libraries in the world remarked:

“We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

I have come to learn in my life that it is not that I need more information, but greater insight on what I have already been shown; or greater stewardship over what I have already been given.

Seminary taught me information. Seminary gave me time to study the Word of God and the mighty acts of God under the teaching of godly pastor-scholars. As great as that time was in my life, it could not give me everything I needed for ministry. And my pastoral internships, which were so valuable to me, did not give me everything I needed. Being a business-man has helped me in pastoral ministry, to know something about strategic planning and so forth, but that is incomplete. I needed the first hand experience of God’s hand on my life as I turned to Him for help to be given the necessary spiritual insights and wisdom that is needed.

I am sure that is so with mothers and fathers and homemakers and accountants and lawyers and plumbers and policemen. Information alone cannot help meet the challenges of our vocations. And even experience can’t always suffice. We need more.

Well the title of this message is “Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today” but it is not about giving you information only about spiritual gifts. For in Romans 12 it is not that more information is needed on Spiritual Gifts. It is rather that the Corinthians needed to know how those gifts relate to each other for the glory of God and the good of His Church.

Paul’s letter to Corinth dealt with the matter of spiritual gifts in order to build church health and spiritual vitality for every believer. And today it is no different:

God gives gifts to people in the Church in order to promote church health and fulfill His purposes in the world today.

In 1 Corinthians 12 we get answers.

1. Spiritual gifts are given by God but can be misused by Men (vv. 7, 1-3)

This section appears in 1 Corinthians not because Paul wanted to teach on spiritual gifts, but because he did not want them uninformed about them in the midst of a contentious church split that was about to happen. But in God’s good providence, once again, wrong living or wring teaching becomes the opportunity to teach truth. For even with permanent or ordinary gifts, if you prefer, there is misunderstanding.

The Chapters of 1 Corinthians 12-14 are a single unit in this letter. From Paul’s instructions and admonition on spiritual gifts in the Corinthian Church we can most clearly identify the problem. Spiritual gifts seems to have been used in Corinth out of pride, not love, for selfish gain, not selfless service, in a competitive, rather than complimentary way. The miraculous gifts were given special treatment over against the ordinary gifts of service. Spiritual pride followed and infected the congregation. The whole issue in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 dealt with factions created as a result of following one gift or another in the ministers who were bringing them the Word. And we will notice that they have been uninformed here about gifts. Obviously Paul’s point in linking spiritual gifts with talking about affirming of denying Jesus Christ as Lord had to do with some who were gifted by not godly.

The Spiritual gifts given by God are given for a purpose. The phrase “Spiritual gifts” simply means manifestations of the Holy Spirit, which result in service, through members, to the entire Body of Christ. But the gift of tongues, an apparently extraordinary gift given as Scripture was being written, and according to the Bible as a sign of the Spirit in those days, became prominent. And thus even today we can have misunderstandings about spiritual gifts:

(1) Spiritual gifts are not concerned with self-promotion.

This is what was happening then and can happen now. If spiritual gifts produce spiritual pride, as they can with sinfully prone people, then it is time to go back to this letter and this teaching. We do not seek spiritual gifts for ourselves. They are given by God to believers for the Church to His glory.

(2) Spiritual gifts are not concerned with institutional aggrandizement.

The gifts given are not just for the blessing of a congregation unto itself, but connected to the whole, we are being blessed to bless the rest of the Body of Christ and thus evangelize the world.

(3) Spiritual gifts are not simply personality profiles, but God wrought empowerment for God’s glory and His specific purposes.

Paul says that they are “manifestations of the Spirit” in 7. These are not fleshly gifts, but Holy Spirit endowed and empowered gifts for the Church.

I once talked to a man who looked back on his ministry and he said, “So much of what I have done has been in the flesh.”

In other words, the people had seen gifts at work, his gifts, for his own purposes or for some other thing than the glory of God. These can look like spiritual gifts. But in time, even decades may pass; they will be seen to be fleshly derived. For God’s Holy Spirit will bring spiritual fruit that brings honor and glory to God.

This morning I want R__ and R____ to remember that. Remember that you can get by, in your new ministries, on your strength and innate giftedness for a while (note: we were sending out two ministers to a new Gospel work on this day). But if eternal fruit is what you desire, if heavenly gain is what you seek, then pray earnestly for His empowerment. Pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And pray for the power of God to fall upon you lest you do ministry in your own power.

And this is something I say to each and every one of you. I would rather serve a small church that is on fire for God and His glory than lead a great army of missionaries who are trying to build an earthly empire. For that fleshly empire, built on the personalities of men, will crumble like Persia or Macedonia or Rome. But the work of God in Jesus Christ, grounded in His Word and watered by His Spirit, will endure forever.

Now we want to look at these, for this is where Paul takes us.

2. Spiritual gifts are diverse but complimentary.

It is interesting to see what Paul addressed first. In verse 4, having talked about the misuse of spiritual gifts, Paul begins to correct and set them in right perspective. So Paul spoke of various gifts but the same Spirit, various kinds of service, but the same God. Wesley wrote of this passage, that is teaches the gifts are “Divers streams, but all from one fountain” (Wesley’s Comments on 1 Corinthians). Paul mentions a host of what appear to be both ordinary and extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit. Some are easily understood by us and some are not (For instance, we must admit with Bruce Metzger that we simply do not know exactly what Paul is talking about in some of these gifts, i.e., “Paul presumably intends some distinction between sophia and gnosis, but the distinction is not clear to us.” See the study at this link). And Paul writes, in verses 12-31, about the Body and members. In fact, the concept of church membership comes from Paul’s use of the word members. We are all members of One Body. And One in not more important than the other. There is unity and diversity in the same body. Public gifts are not holier than private gifts. In fact, the lesser gifts are given special honor by the Lord. I have always felt, and I mean this, that as preacher here I sacrifice an honor in heaven, which shall be afforded to the one who taught me the Bible, my Aunt.

So John Donne preached:

No man is an island, entire of itself

every man is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less…

We all need each other in the Body of Christ. One member, thus the use of one gift in one person, is not more important than the other.

Think about that even in the world. In March of 19981 President Reagan was shot. But the government went on. But after that there was a garbage strike in a great city and the whole city was almost shut down! There is a difference between the President of the United States and a garbage man, but in that case who was more important? Or at least who affected daily life the more? The garbage man!

No. All of the gifts that God gives are important. But we must live in concert with each other. And this is the other thing that needs to be said.

God’s gifts are given to compliment each other. The gifts of wisdom and knowledge, and the gifts of faith, and healing and all of the rest are to be lived out in concert with each other. And this is not a comprehensive but a representative list. There were and are more gifts of God. He is not limited, but gives gifts to men according to what He desires to do.

There is a chemical in the roots of trees that allows these roots, in thick forests, to inhibit competition for water. God has put it into these trees to allow for others to get close to them, to drink from the same water source, so that all can be built up.

And so too there are many gifts in the church today. But my gifts exist in concert with yours. And we are all seeking the same source, the Holy Spirit, for growth. And we are all growing towards the sky, towards our goal! May God make some great red woods here! May God establish your tree next to mine and mine next to another’s. May God build a great forest of faith in our world today!

3. Spiritual gifts are given for the Sake of Others

Paul says that the gifts of God are given to men for the common good. And the common good was to build up the church in order to go out and reach the world for Jesus Christ, for the glory of God. There are no other purposes shown in the Bible except for those. But thank God, as Augustine prayed, what He commands, He provides for.

This passage mentions offices that were at work in the Church then and now. And in Ephesians 4, we read that God gave certain offices of the church, extraordinary one time offices like apostles and prophets, as well as the ordinary, continuing offices of evangelist and pastor-teacher, for the building up of the Church so that the Church can reach towards maturity in Christ and fulfill her calling, the Great Commission, until Jesus comes again. That is why we have pastors. That is why we are sending Ron to Covenant College and Rankin to do church planting in LA: to build up the people of God so that they can do the work of ministry. Our gifts are to be given to others. So that others may be equipped to go and give their gifts to others. It is an unending circle of service to God for His kingdom until He comes again.

4. Spiritual gifts must be expressed in love.

Now maybe the big question in the room is this: well how do I know what my spiritual gift is? And that is a good question. It is a good question but is not a question that Paul deals with. Nor is it addressed in Romans 12 or Ephesians 4. It is assumed that we will all know it when we see it. God will give us what we need.

There have been a lot of good instruments for understanding your spiritual gifts. Sometimes I am concerned that these test actually foster exactly what Paul is trying to get out of the church: self-centeredness. Calvin helps us greatly at this point. No expositor cast a wider net on the whole counsel of God’s Word than the Genevan Reformer. And he speaks of “inner calling” and “outer calling” and how the two must meet. The inner calling is that “woe unto me if I preach not the Gospel.” The outer calling is the voice of the Macedonian saying, “Come help us!” The two must work together and one calling without the other invalidates the whole. For instance, if someone says they have a gift of teaching, and says in his heart, “this is what I am called and gifted to do, to understand and publicly teach the Scriptures.” But your wife tells you, “Honey, I am going to be going to the other Sunday School class” you may have an inner calling, but not an outer calling! In other words, your passion and the Body of Christ’s need and response must match.

So, No. That is not the biggest question in this passage. The biggest ques-tion here is, “What does love have do with it?” Because love is the power that must be at work within the gifted person.

Look at Paul’s last words:

“But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse in his The Message:

And yet some of you keep competing for so-called ‘important’ parts. But now I want to lay out a far better way for you. 1Corinthians 12.31

And that way was and is love. Chapter 13, the great “love” chapter is not only appropriate for weddings, but for sending out ministers to do a new work. Or for teaching a class here at First Presbyterian. Or pre-paring a meal, or visiting the sick, or preaching a sermon, or bringing flowers to the shut in, or singing in the choir, or giving money. God has given great gifts to His people, but how will we use them?

The human body is miraculously complex,

With 60 million cells,
With 36 million heart beats every year,
With 300 billion red cells produced every day,
With 60,000 miles of blood vessels in each body.

But the miraculous complexity is bound together with a single, simple yet infinitely profound power: life. A power beyond this world wills the heart to beat and life to be sustained.

The Church is also miraculously complex. There are many gifts working at once. But when the heart is beating right and life is flowing, you can be sure the singular, simple yet infinitely profound power that is making it happen is love. The love of God in Jesus Christ embedded in the heart of one Christian, ten Christians, a hundred Christians, 50 million Christians.

There is an old spiritual that has this line:

I may not preach like John or Peter
I may not pray like Paul
But I can tell how love can heal us
How love can heal us one and all

The issue is not your gift but God’s gift through you to others in Christ’s love.


I want to end with a story I once read. The story is about a gentleman from New York who went down the Mississippi on a business trip. Now he went in style. He had a big, fine Cadillac. It was in the days where those things were like yachts floating down the road! And he was riding through the country at a high rate of speed, enjoying the views of the rolling hills and farmhouses when all of a sudden a rain storm came. And that big old Cadillac got out of control and he went in the ditch. Well, he tried to get that thing out that ditch, but the tires were spinning and mud a flying and it was just sinking deeper. So he got out and realized that he needed help. So he started walking down the road. Pretty soon, he spotted a farmhouse. This man walked down the gravel road and walked right up on the front porch. He knocked on the door and a farmer came to the door. “How can I hep you?” The farmer asked. The New Yorker told him the story and then asked, “Do you have a tractor that can pull me out of there?” The farmer smiled. “No, ain’t got no tractor round here. But I got Warrior.” “Who is Warrior?” He old farmer pointed, with his head, toward the pasture by the house. And there stood an old mule eating grass. Well, the farmer walked out there and put the harness on old Warrior and off he went down the lane, down the road to where that Cadillac was in the ditch. He hooked her up to the big fine car and then the farmer began to shout, “Go Warrior, Go Willie, God Red, Go Nellie!” Sure enough, old Warrior pulled and that big old heavy automobile just came up out of that ditch as easy as pie. The New Yorker thanked the old Mississippi farmer. He was about to leave and he turned around: “Say, how come you called out those other names, Willie and Red and Nellie? There are no other mules but that one.” The old farmer smiled, “Warrior is blind. She doesn’t know that the others stopped pulling their part a long time ago. So I don’t tell her. And she thinks they are with her. And so she still thinks she is pulling together with the others.”

Beloved, are we pulling together? We pull stronger when we know others are with us.

Edmund Clowney wrote:”Christians in community must again show the world…the bond of love in Christ.”

We are bound together. We are gifted by God for building up the Body of Christ and fulfilling the Great Commission.

Let’s pull…together.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This sermon was originally given on Sunday, August 6th, 2006, at First Presbyterian Church, Chattanooga, TN, on a day when our church sent two of our assistant pastors out to answer calls to new ministries.

About Michael A. Milton, Ph.D.

Michael A. Milton, Ph.D., MPA (University of Wales; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), is an American Presbyterian pastor, theologian, and author.
This entry was posted in 1 Cor. 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Bible, church health, complimentary gifts, Devotional, Devotions, Dr. Michael A. Milton, Dr. Michael Milton, Dr. Mike Milton, English Standard Version, Eugene Peterson, Faith, First Presbyterian, First Presbyterian Church, First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, God, God's Word, Gospel, Gospel of Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, information, Jesus Christ, John Donne, knowledge, Michael A. Milton, Michael Anthony Milton, Michael Milton, Michael Milton Presbyterian Minister, Mike Milton, Missions, no man is an island, Pastoral Theology, Pastorate, PCA, PCA Ministers, Preach, Preacher, Preachers, Preaching, Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church in America, Presbyterian Churches, President of RTS, Proclaiming the Word, Protestant, Protestant Theology, Reformed, Reformed Theological Seminary, Reformed Theology, Religion, sermon, sermon on 1 corinthians, Spiritual gifts, Spirituality, St. Paul, The Apostle Paul, The Church, The Great Commission, The Message. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to On Spiritual Gifts in the Church Today (1 Cor. 12)

  1. Hampers says:

    Thanks for sharing the information on spiritual gifts. It was nice going through it. Keep it up the good work. Cheers 🙂 happy blogging 🙂

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