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The Gift and the Gifts of the Spirit

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When our sons were young, they would enthusiastically tear into the gifts that their mother and I gave them at Christmas. If they unwrapped a toy or game, they were elated. If it was socks or a shirt, they were evidently disappointed. Their reactions revealed that they overvalued “exciting” gifts and undervalued “practical” gifts.

Sadly, many professing believers approach the gifts of the Spirit in a similar manner. They overvalue the idea of the miraculous spiritual gifts (e.g., tongues, prophecy, healing) and undervalue the common spiritual gifts (e.g., salvation and sanctifying fruit). Holding faulty views of the miraculous spiritual gifts is usually due to a failure to grasp the redemptive-historical purpose of the gifts. When we come to understand the biblical teaching about the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit and the ordinary gifts of the Spirit, we will better value the greater and continuing gifts in the life of the church today.

The New Testament sets out a variety of spiritual gifts that God has graciously given His people. Most notably, Scripture speaks of salvation as the “gift of God” (Rom. 6:23Eph. 2:8). Salvation is the gift of God because we are dead in our sins by nature (Eph. 2:1–3) and cannot do a single thing to earn eternal life. By way of association, Christ refers to Himself as “the gift of God.” He told the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus referred to himself as “the gift of God” because he is the incarnate Son of God who came into the world to accomplish the unmerited and undeserved redemption of sinners.

After Christ ascended and sent the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, the Apostles repeatedly called the Spirit “the gift of God” (Acts 8:20). The Holy Spirit is Christ’s gift to his blood-bought people (John 7:37). The Spirit applies the redemption that Christ secured for the elect. By virtue of effecting a true spiritual union between Christ and believers, the Spirit makes it possible for Jesus to be the source of regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification for those he redeems (1 Cor. 1:30). The Spirit works in conjunction with the Son. The Spirit convicts, regenerates, indwells, justifies, sanctifies, adopts, seals, and ultimately glorifies all for whom Christ died. The Spirit causes fruit to be borne in the lives of those who are united to Christ (Gal. 5:22). Through the Spirit, Christ imparts his love (John 15:9–10), his joy (v. 11; 17:13), and his peace (14:27) to his people.

Closely connected to the New Testament teaching about the gift of the Spirit is its references to the gifts of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 2:4)—what Paul calls “spiritual gifts” (Rom. 1:111 Cor. 12:1; 14:1; Eph. 4:8). The ascended Christ communicates these gifts to his people by his Spirit. Jesus exhibited the power of the Spirit in himself, enabling him to perform miraculous deeds that attested to the veracity of his messianic ministry. When he ascended, Christ sent the same Spirit by which he had performed those mighty works and wonders so that his Apostolic church would carry the messianic message of the gospel to the nations. Accordingly, the extraordinary gifts are intimately tied to the victorious, ascended Christ. As Sinclair Ferguson explains, “The correlation between the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Spirit signals that the gift and gifts of the Spirit serve as the external manifestation of the triumph and enthronement of Christ.”

The primary New Testament passages in which the Apostolic teaching about these gifts is found are Romans 12:6–81 Corinthians 12:8–11, 28Ephesians 4:11; and 1 Peter 4:10–11. A brief comparison of the gift lists leads to the conclusion that the gifts were all intimately tied to the foundational ministry of the Apostles and prophets (2 Cor. 12:11–13Eph. 2:20; 3:5). Dr. Ferguson again notes:

While an eclectic grouping of these various gifts is difficult, and perhaps even the attempt is wrong-headed, a basic structure is clearly present: the revelatory word through Apostle and prophet is foundational (Eph. 2:20), while all else is informed by and flows from this.

The first list of gifts in Ephesians is that of “word-gift” offices that Christ established. Paul speaks of Christ’s gift of “apostles…prophets…evangelists…shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). Since the ministry of the Word is the primary means by which God advances his kingdom and builds up his people, Paul lists several “word-gift” offices. In short, those whom God has called to be ministers of his Word are to be received as Christ’s gift to his church. The offices of Apostle and prophet stand at the head of this list because of their foundational function. God appointed these office bearers to lay the foundation of the new covenant church and carry the gospel to the nations (Eph. 2:201 Thess. 2:132 Peter 3:15–16). Accordingly, he appointed them to disclose the full revelation of the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:4–6). These offices were necessary only until the completion of the canon of Scripture (2:20; 3:5). The church now possesses the full revelatory Word of God (i.e., the completed Apostolic doctrine) in the pages of the Old and New Testaments.