Romans 12:6 “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.”
Paul has told the congregation in Rome that in the Lord Jesus Christ the many members make up one body, but he identifies himself with that assembly. He won’t be disaffiliated from the church. ‘We’ he says; “We who are many form one body” (v.5). “I am in the same body as every one of you.” There alongside the slaves and the dying and the elderly and the teenage Christians is the mighty apostle as belonging to them. “We form one body,” he tells them. There are no divisions among them as there are in the football league. He is not in the top division. There is no seeding – he is not seeded number one while the newest convert is right at the bottom of the list, number 99. They are all equally in the body of Christ. If you are a Christian then you are in the body of Christ. You don’t become a member by application; you don’t become a member by recommendation; you don’t become a member by special attainment. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit makes us Christians and by the same Spirit we are put in the body of Christ, every single one of us, even the weakest lamb in the flock of the good Shepherd.
There was once an old lady in Scotland who was a sweet and earnest Christian, but there were few others in her family who were believers. They loved her, and they sort-of admired her for her faith, but they would tease her about it. One day she was telling them about the blessings that gospel gives and one of the younger ones said to her, “Oh, Auntie, we can’t possibly be sure that we have eternal life. What if God should let go of us? What if you came to your deathbed and he couldn’t hold you, and you slipped right through his fingers?” She looked back at the merry-eyed questioner and she said to her, “You needn’t worry about that, Moira. I won’t slip through his fingers. I am one of his fingers.” That is the truth. How can a Christian slip through his fingers when she is part of his body? We all share in the life of his body; there are signals and feelings flowing from the Head to each part of the body day by day. The most remote and insignificant part of the body – what would that be? You little toe? That also is joined to the Head. It is not just the new creation of Paul the mighty apostle who is in Christ. A new creation is anyone who is in Christ. Each one is in the body, and so there’s going to be life and sensitivity and a feeling of belonging and energy and usefulness in them all. Every Christian is given this at the beginning of the Christian life. Of every single Christian Paul says almost casually, as reminding them of familiar truths, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us” (v.6). Not, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you had a spiritual gift?” No, this verse is not the expression of a longing. We have these divinely given capacities for service. This is not a command, “Get spiritual gifts!” No. It is a statement of fact. We all have them, each of us, without exception.
- EVERY CHRISTIAN IS THE BENEFICIARY OF A GENEROUS GOD.
Let me first refer to other gifts of God which every Christian has but which Paul is not referring to in our text.
i] God extends to you a gift which enables you to believe and be saved. We are told that “by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” You might excuse your unbelief by saying half-heartedly, “I’d like to believe, but I cannot.” Hear me. I tell you that today God is sincerely offering to you his salvation. It is found in his Son Jesus of Nazareth, and Christ is freely offered to us that we take him as our teacher and protector and guide and Saviour. Take him today! Now! Receive him into your life. If you do so eternal life will be yours. You plead that you cannot. Of course, unaided by God, you will not and cannot, But doesn’t that knowledge alarm you, that your sinful heart is so resistant to God that you cannot even take the pardon and the gift of everlasting life that he is offering you? I will tell you wonderful news, that God in his love can change our desires, and can give us the faith that trusts in Jesus only. Cry to him, “Give me that faith! Help me to trust in Jesus Christ. You say that I can only be saved through a faith that is not of myself but is the gift of God. Give me that faith, please. I must have it!” You must ask him to give it to you, and never stop until you know you have received it. To lay hold of Christ; to keep hold of Christ; to recover your hold of Christ many times on the pilgrimage; to grow in confidence that this only and all-sufficient Saviour is your Saviour, that he has hold of you so that none can pluck you out of his hands – this is the greatest of all gifts and before you go one step further you must be settled in the conviction that the God who so loved the world that he gave his Son has given his Son to you. However, that is not the gift Paul is speaking about in our text. All those he is addressing in our text have already received that gift of Jesus Christ.
ii] God enables you to grow in the graciousness and knowledge of our Lord Jesus. What a gift that is, the gift of maturity and progress and development in wisdom and love! What a gift. What a gift to a family. What a gift to a congregation. Here is someone who overcomes the enticements of the world, and is daily appropriating the pardon, peace, righteousness and love of God in Jesus Christ. This is the result of God working in him day by day and year by year. Think of a Grand Master in painting, an artist like Vermeer, or a Leonardo da Vinci choosing a young apprentice for special favour, taking him into his studio and training him day by day and year by year, absolutely freely, providing for all his creature comforts and developing all his talents until finally he is as great a painter as his teacher. I am saying to you that this is what the Lord Christ does to every one of his people. He takes full responsibility for us, and he works away at improving us until we are like him. So, as this must be so, then be a diligent apprentice; make sure that you’re listening to what your Master is saying and learn his lessons each day. Put them into practice. Develop heavenly routines and holy habits. However, the divine gift of progressive sanctification, is not what Paul is speaking about in our text.
iii] God enables you to walk in a wise and mature manner before the watching world, keeping yourself unspotted by its corruptions, taking a prudent and sensible course through life, avoiding temptation, and in all the entanglements of your job and the various relationships you have with the people you meet God keeps you meek and quiet. What a gift from God, when all around there are distractions, worrying petty cares, the irksome duties of every day life with household drudgery and the mundane familiarity of your job, yet, in all of that, you are delivered from desperate cares and anxieties. You are as wise as a serpent and as harmless as a dove. In quietness and in confidence you trust in God. You love your neighbour as yourself. B.B. Warfield tells the story of an off-duty American army general who was in a great city in the USA during a time of riot and public demonstrations. The streets were daily filled with dangerous cro
wds. One day the general observed walking towards him a man of great calmness and strength. His very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing, amidst all the surrounding uproar, that when he’d passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. They looked at one another for a moment and then this impressive stranger came back to him, and touched his chest with his forefinger, and said, “What is the chief end of man?” The general said, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” “Ah!” said the stranger, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking about you,” came the rejoinder. Here are two Christian men who have been given by God maturity and strength of character, and an obvious nobility. What a gift! “Quit you like men,” says Paul. “be strong.” But however enviable and desirable such a gift from God is that is not what Paul is speaking about in our text when he says that we have different gifts.
2. THERE ARE OTHER SPECIAL ENDOWMENTS GIVEN TO GOD’S PEOPLE.
There are gifts from God that are different from those I have mentioned, but all of them serve the end of maturing and strengthening all the body of Christ. This is what Paul is writing about in our passage. In other words there are qualifications, and endowments that result in Christians being useful and indispensable in the congregation. There are basically four different words used in the New Testament to describe the Spirit’s gifts.
i] There is the word meaning ‘a Spirit-gift’ and this comes from the New Testament word for the Holy Spirit, the Greek pneuma, ‘breath,’ ‘wind’ (from which we get our English word, ‘pneumatic’). What is it saying to us? There are enablings that come to us equipping and strengthening us, and the only explanation for their presence is that God the Holy Spirit has activated and produced them in our lives. See a fisherman standing on top of a raised wall in the courts of the temple in Jerusalem preaching most convictingly to thousands of people changing their lives. How can a young fisherman speak so eloquently and profoundly? The Holy Spirit has gifted him with a Spirit-gift. Here is a young woman and she is working in a leper colony and washes and binds the wounds and running sores of these lepers. She comes from a genteel family far away in England, but now she can nurse these men and women, working long hours. As a child she would feel faint if a worm was accidentally cut in half by her father as he was gardening. What is the explanation for this change in her? God the Holy Spirit have given her a new strength and gumption for this task. The only reason for her behaviour is that she has received a Spirit-gift.
ii] There is the word meaning ‘a gift that is through divine grace’ and this comes from the New Testament Greek word charisma. We get our word ‘charismatic’ from it and it means a gift whose whole origin lies in God’s distinguishing grace. The word charis is the Greek for ‘grace.’ So again the emphasis is on the work of God in our lives, but now we are being reminded that the spiritual gift is utterly undeserved, unearned, unpurchased. The sheer vertical sovereign power and mercy of God has given this enabling to us, and nothing else can explain it. We have nothing at all to boast about. What else could explain the former bigot and torturer, Saul of Tarsus, becoming a preacher of the Lord he once hated? What else could explain a slave trader captain like John Newton becoming a leading abolitionist? The explanation is the mercy of God homing in on these men, and nothing else.
iii] There is the word meaning meaning ‘a service’ or ‘doing the work of a servant.’ This word comes from the New Testament Greek word diakonia and we get the word ‘deacon’ from it. It means a ministry of service to others. It is telling us that these gifts of the Holy Spirit (that come upon us through grace alone) they are not given to us to promote ourselves but they are for the well-being of the congregation. You remember the origin of the deacons in the New Testament church, that many Greek and Aramaic speaking widows had become Christians and were members of the church in Jerusalem. It was such a burden for the congregation to care for them in their penury, frailty and old age. There were accusations of favouritism towards the Jewish women by the Greeks and the church was getting divided. It was eating up the apostles’ time, and then gifted men were appointed to take charge of the ministry of mercy in the congregation. They are men full of faith and the Holy Spirit. They were men with servants’ hearts whose task it would be to provide food and supervise care day after day for a growing crowd of women that nobody else in the city wanted. Some of them had been thrown out of their homes when they confessed that Jesus Christ was their Lord and Saviour. Only supernatural power by the Holy Spirit could make seven young men devote themselves to such work, endlessly serving old women. There was nothing romantic about it at all, nothing to boast to your girl-friends about what you did. It was mundane and demanding toil. It was a ‘service.’
iv] There is the word meaning ‘a working’ or ‘a toil’ and it comes from the New Testament Greek word energema and we get the word ‘energy,’ and ‘energise’ from it. In other words, when God gives these spiritual gifts to us they wake us up. They deliver us from lethargy and we discover a new energy in serving God’s people. You think of the cobbler William Carey who went out to India in 1793 and he never returned, dying there over forty years later. This cobbler worked untiringly throughout India supervising and editing translations of the Scriptures into thirty-six languages, producing a massive Bengali-English dictionary and founding the Agricultural and Horticultural Society of India. He did work that ten men today – armed with lap-tops – wouldn’t find easy. What explains this extraordinary happy busy life of Carey? The gifting, energizing work of the Holy Spirit in his life. So those are the four words that define for us the New Testament’s thinking about spiritual gifts. You will see that there is no hint of ecstasy in any one of them.
- SPIRITUAL GIFTS ARE MULTITUDINOUS.
You ask me, “How many spiritual gifts are there?” I ask you in return, “How many parts are there in the body?” You say, “I guess hundreds,” but if we think of the brain and the nervous system and how all that works in the body that number certainly multiplies. Or if we calculated how many cells were in the brain, or in the entire body, and what lies within each cell we are thinking in figures of billions. The human body is quite extraordinary. We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
So I am reminding you that spiritual gifts are similarly multitudinous. Think big! Look at the little list Paul gives us here in the next four verses (and there are three or four other lists like it in the New Testament). He starts, you see, with ‘prophesying.’ Paul defines that in I Corinthians chapter 14 and verse 3; “But everyone who proph
esies speaks to men for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort.” Now think of the number of ways that happens. Officially here and now; I am prophesying to you for your strengthening, encouragement and comfort. Then I do it in a home, at a hospital and as I travel. I do it in articles and books and letters. I do it in telephone conversations. I do it to members of my family and to individuals. That is just the range of one gift with me, and then there are all of you, speaking to your children, to your spouses, to friends in need and to strangers. There are Bible studies and Sunday School and Young People’s meetings. There is the Christian Union and Bible groups and evangelism and the defence of the faith, and trying to help someone who has grown cold and fallen away. We are talking about one, just one single spiritual gift and we are seeing its implications, but have we exhausted this one gift? What of the written word, and the Book Shop and keeping that going with staff and ordering and seeing who are the best authors? Then there are the CD’s and the website and the printed sermons each week. Then there are conferences and special gatherings. There are calendars and greetings cards which speak to men and women for their strengthening, encouragement and comfort. Have we finished yet? What of the world wide mission of the church and the support of missionaries. What of addressing the powers that be, speaking to our law-makers and politicians and educationalists? What of controversy with atheists, and signs on buses, and Darwinism? Are there not men and women gifted in all these spheres to defend the faith? Have we finished yet with one gift? What of Bible translation and distribution? What of chaplaincies in the services and in prisons and hospitals? When will this end? Just one gift and we can see how much is involved in its outworking in the church which Christ is building.
Then you come to the next gift on the list and it is ‘serving’. We will not do the same here just now, and exhaustively list the responsibilities for serving one another, though we could. Just think of the various needs in the congregation and around us in the world and the varieties of service all of us are engaged in on a personal, family, church, neighbourhood and worldwide level as we serve mankind in the name of Jesus Christ, young and old, men’s bodies and souls. Gifts are given by God for all kinds of service.
What is the next gift? ‘Teaching’ and that could be expanded too from the university to the mother and her toddler. The next is ‘encouraging,’ and the next is ‘contributing to the needs of others’. Then Paul raises the issue of ‘leadership,’ and he ends with the gift of ‘showing mercy.’ He selects seven gifts, and we can see the enormous variety and demands that they suggest to us, formally and informally. Congregations are ravenous bodies that cry out, “More, more, more.” Its leaders are always seeking for more helpers. Yet I am saying to you that there are many more gifts than these seven. Some gifts are single words that explode out of the pages of the New Testament like a hand-grenade. Let me pull the pin out of one bomb and lob that into the congregation . . . “Wisdom” (I Cor. 12:8). That’s what the apostle says, and he gives no explanation of it as a gift, but you hear it and your mind goes into overdrive and you think of the situations in the world, in the church, in the family and certainly personally when you need wisdom, you individually and all of you together. Ernest Reisinger, when he managed his construction company, prayed every morning that God would give him wisdom. Then Paul lobs out another word like a bomb, without any explanation of what he means, “knowledge” (I Cor.12:8). Immediately he says it you are aware of the trouble you’ve got into caused by sheer ignorance and you cry to God for that gift: “I must have knowledge, ethical and theological and historical and experiential and general knowledge. I don’t want to be a foolish man.” Then he throws out another bomb; he tells us that “faith” (I Cor. 12:9) is a spiritual gift alongside wisdom and knowledge, and that makes the canvas extraordinarily high and wide. We begin to glimpse the sheer scale of spiritual gifts; they pervade everything. All the life of the Christian and all the life of the church depends on our having and nurturing spiritual gifts. Then you read a book on this subject of spiritual gifts and they have sections on singleness, and voluntary poverty, and martyrdom, and there is no area of life for any Christian that is not structured, strengthened, tested and enriched by spiritual gifts of all kinds.
- THERE ARE WISE GUIDELINES FOR THE OPERATION OF THESE GIFTS.
I will give you ten statements or attitudes towards spiritual gifts;
i] God will determine which Christian is going to receive any combination of gifts. If we learned anything from those four words that define for us what spiritual gifts are then one thing was paramount. God bestows them. They are not earned or merited but freely given by him. God makes the choice of the gift and the recipient, and then he makes the application. He lays them on us.
ii] No Christian can give a spiritual gift to anyone else. It was a little different in apostolic times. The apostles could arrive in Samaria and lay their hands on the believers there and they would be given gifts. Paul and the elders could lay hands on Timothy at his ordination and he would have the gift of proclamation, but even then it was rare. Paul does say, “I would that you all have a certain gift.” He does not say, “Receive it!” The apostle could not bestow it on them all. Dr. Lloyd-Jones said, “It is the Spirit alone who decides which gifts to give, and it is the Spirit alone who can give the gift. And if you start trying to help, you come near to sinning in a very serious manner against the Holy Spirit himself” (D.M Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter Twelve: Christian Conduct, p.221, Banner of Truth, 2000).
iii] No Christian is permitted to ‘claim’ any gift for himself or others. A preacher can’t pass on his pulpit and his religious empire to his son simply because he is the boy’s father He may have better gifts than his father; he may be far weaker. This follows on from the first two points. You can ‘name it and claim it’ until you are blue in the face. You can claim the gift of evangelism that you might become a second Whitefield – and many have – but no Whitefield has arisen. You and I must never do anything in any way to produce a gift in ourselves or in anyone else. We can desire, but we cannot produce. We cannot help in any way at all. These gifts come by the Spirit not by man or by the will of the flesh.
iv] No Christian lacks gifts of the Spirit. Not one. You can see that in the informal way Paul introduces the subject here. “We” he says, standing in solidarity with them, “have different gifts, according to the grace given us” (v.6). We have them; every Christian has many gifts, and we have seen today just what an extraordinary range of spiritual gifts there are both in ministering to others and in receiving ministry from them. In showing kindness and praying and giving and listening and counseling and serving and supporting and exhorting and speaking – and never stopping all one&r
squo;s life through – we all possess gifts in a range of combinations. Not having gifts is never the problem. It is in using and maturing the gifts we have that we are found wanting. We must not be self-conscious about our gifts. You will discover what are your own gifts by providence, in other words, what responsibilities and work God is giving you in the relationships you have in the congregation. You will have duties and challenges that don’t go away, and then God will gift you for them. Philip started off as a deacon and he did well. So then God sent him to Samaria and the whole city was affected by his preaching. I started off in the Christian Union in Cardiff University praying and leading meetings, and in time moved on from that to a congregation.
v] No Christian has all the gifts. Only the Holy Spirit has all the gifts. We are creatures and he is the Creator. There is a Creator-creature distinction established by God. There is a great gulf fixed between the two and no man has ever crossed it or ever will. The Holy Spirit will give to some men in abundance – Luther, Jonathan Edwards, Bunyan, Hodge, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, Sinclair Ferguson. All of them might be extraordinary men with an abundance of gifts, but they’re not God! The Spirit is not miserly with his gifts; we all receive many gifts from him, but no one has all his gifts.
vi] Every Christian has different gifts. The church is like a body and its members are as different as are members of the human body. The body needs all its different kinds of members. We appreciate a wide range of gifts in our congregation. There’s the old nursery rhyme about how different people like their tea to be brewed;
“Some like it hot;
Some like it cold;
Some like it in the pot
Nine days old.”
We are given different gifts to minister to one another and receive ministry from one another. Let me remind you of what I have often told you concerning the difference between the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. The gifts are what make us different from one another. Remember those eight staccato questions that end that chapter on gifts, I Corinthians twelve; “Are all apostles? What is the answer? ‘No.’ Are all prophets? The answer again is no. Are all teachers? No. Do all work miracles? No. Do all have gifts of healing? No. Do all speak in tongues? No. Do all interpret? No. But eagerly desire the greater gifts” (I Cor. 12:29-31). On the other hand, the fruit of the Spirit is what makes us the same as one another, especially the fruit of love. By this the world will know that you are indwelt by Christ not by any gift, but by the love of God in your lives.
vii] Every Christian’s gifts are bestowed to serve the church. They are not given to adorn you, and give honour and fame to your name, but to exalt the name of Jesus Christ by supporting and strengthening his people. Gifts are called ‘exciting’ only by the immature. In truth they are a fearful responsibility. We can never set them aside. We have a solemn stewardship of our gifts to assist the needy people of God while life, and thought, and being last, or immortality endures. Often we are weary serving our local congregation, and then we have to ask God to refresh and revive us, never to take from us our gifts. “Help me O Lord.”
We have to think of the body before we take any decision about leaving a congregation and stopping exercising any of our gifts. Consider what impact will this have on the body? Think, “If I leave this church now what will happen to it?” I heard of a ship that went down and there were a group of people in a lifeboat. The waves were breaking over it and the life-boat was filling with water and they didn’t have enough buckets to bale it out. One of the passengers got the idea that if he bored a hole under his seat the water would drain out. So he proposed the idea and everyone shouted at him, “Oh no. Don’t even think of it.” He got very sniffy; “Don’t get so worked up. It’s not your business. I’m just going to bore the hole under my seat, not under yours.” You see the folly of that man, thinking that he could take such a decision and that it would only affect him. How we use or don’t use our gifts will affect everyone. They have been given to us – for the church.
viii] Every Christian is given the gifts he needs for the work God is calling him to either on the front line or staying at home. There is an incident in the Old Testament that puts this in a graphic manner. It was at a time when David when he was an outlaw, on the run from King Saul. We are told in I Samuel 30 that while David and his men were away, some of the Amalekites sacked the town of Ziklag where David had been living. They carried away the wives of the men and their children and possessions. David came back and determined to do something about this, so he collected six hundred men, and chased after these Amalekites. But after they had gone a certain distance, two hundred of David’s men became quite exhausted and couldn’t go any further, so David said to them, “You stay here and look after the supplies while I and the other four hundred go on and fight.” And they went on and attacked the Amalekites and recovered everything.
Then we read this, “He took all the flocks and herds, and his men drove them ahead of the other livestock, saying, ‘This is David’s plunder.’ Then David came to the two hundred men who had been too exhausted to follow him and who were left behind at the Besor Ravine. They came out to meet David and the people with him. As David and his men approached, he greeted them. But all the evil men and troublemakers among David’s followers said, ‘Because they did not go out with us, we will not share with them the plunder we recovered. However, each man may take his wife and children and go’” (I Sam. 30:20-22). How did David respond? “David replied, ‘No, my brothers, you must not do that with what the LORD has given us. He has protected us and handed over to us the forces that came against us. Who will listen to what you say? The share of the man who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All shall share alike.’ David made this a statute and ordinance for Israel from that day to this” (I Sam. 30:23-25). How our fathers understood this. We’re all in this together. One person is on the front line while the other is guarding the supplies at home and he is as essential as the fellow on the front line. I remember a man in a prayer meeting at times of evangelism who would always pray for those guarding ‘the stuff’, as well as those who were knocking on doors, or preaching on the beach, or in the open air.
ix] A Christian’s effective use of his gifts depends on a growing relationship with his head, Jesus Christ. The instructions as to how we Christians are to behave always come from the Head. Muscles wait for orders from the head sent to the nerves before the muscles respond. If you touch something hot, the fingers send a message up through the nerves to the brain. The message says, “It’s hot down here” and then waits until the message comes back from the brain
that says, “Get out of there!” So you get out of there. You move! The muscle does not act on its own. It waits for orders from the head. How perfectly God has designed our bodies to illustrate this truth in the church of Christ. We’re to wait until we get orders from our living head as to where we are to move, what direction our work is to take. Let’s all keep in close fellowship with Jesus Christ our head.
x] A Christian’s gifts are to be stirred up and exercised. True gifts of the Spirit mature. We grow wiser and more patient and more loving. We preach better, and we pray with more spirituality. We grow in graciousness as we go on in the Christian life. We are to stir up the gifts we have. That’s where what is called today ‘speaking in tongues’ is a total failure. There is no maturation. No one says, “Remember when Johnny first spoke in tongues; it was immature, but now . . . what glories of Christ and the Kingdom of God does he bring.” No. There is nothing like that. It fizzles out.
It’s an amazing calling and a fantastic identity being the body of Christ and individually members of one another. There is more to be discovered about yourself in Christ than you ever dreamed, and Christ will be increasingly honoured by every discovery that you make.
15th February 2009 GEOFF THOMAS