The Proper Service: Exercising Our Gifts
And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. (12:6–8)
No gift or ability, spiritual or otherwise, is of value if it is not used. I read the account of a retired farmer in a small prairie town in Saskatchewan, Canada, who owns a large collection of rare and valuable violins. It is highly unlikely that anyone will play those marvelous instruments as long as they are simply stored, protected, and admired. But in the hands of accomplished musicians, those violins could be making beautiful music to inspire and bless countless thousands of hearers.
It is infinitely more tragic that many Christians keep their spiritual gifts stored, rather than using them to serve the Lord who gave them the gifts.
It has been remarked that American mothers often preserve their children’s first shoes in bronze, perhaps to represent freedom and independence, whereas many Japanese mothers preserve a small part of the child’s umbilical cord, to represent dependence and loyalty. Dependence and loyalty beautifully describe the interrelationship the Lord desires for the members of His Body, the church.
The spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament, primarily in Romans 12 and in 1 Corinthians 12, fall into three categories: sign, speaking, and serving. Before the New Testament was written, men had no standard for judging the truthfulness of someone who preached, taught, or witnessed in the name of Christ. The sign gifts authenticated the teaching of the apostles—which was the measure of all other teaching—and therefore ceased after the apostles died, probably even earlier. “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance,” Paul explained to the Corinthian church, “by signs and wonders and miracles” (2 Cor. 12:12). The writer of Hebrews gives further revelation about the purpose of these special gifts: “After [the gospel] was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will” (Heb. 2:3–4). Even during Jesus’ earthly ministry, the apostles “went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them, and confirmed the word by the signs that followed” (Mark 16:20).
First Corinthians was written about a.d. 54 and Romans some four years later. It is important to note that none of the sign gifts mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:9–10—namely, the gifts of healing, miracles, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues—is found in Romans 12. The other two New Testament passages that mention spiritual gifts (Eph. 4:7, 11; 1 Pet. 4:10–11) were written several years after Romans and, like that epistle, make no mention of sign gifts. Peter specifically mentions the categories of speaking and serving gifts (“whoever speaks” and “whoever serves,” v. 11) but neither the category nor an example of the sign gifts.
It seems evident, therefore, that Paul did not mention the sign gifts in Romans because their place in the church was already coming to an end. They belonged to a unique era in the church’s life and would have no permanent place in its ongoing ministry. It is significant, therefore, that the seven gifts mentioned in Romans 12:6–8 are all within the categories of speaking and serving.
It is also important to note that in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the term pneumatikos (v. 1, lit., “spirituals”) to describe the specific divinely bestowed gifts mentioned in verses 8–10. He explains that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit” (v. 4), and that “the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (v. 11).
But in Romans 12, the apostle uses the term charisma (gifts), which is from charis (grace). In First Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the nature and authority of the gifts—spiritual endowments empowered by the Holy Spirit. In Romans he simply emphasizes their source—the grace of God.
Paul introduces this list of gifts by referring back to the unity in diversity he has just pointed out in verses 4–5. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly. Differ relates to the diversity, and grace to the unity. Under God’s sovereign grace, which all believers share, we have gifts that differ according to the specific ways in which He individually endows us. Just as verse 3 does not refer to saving faith, verse 6 does not refer to saving grace. Paul is speaking to those who already have trusted in Christ and become children of God. To His children, the apostle explains, “God has allotted to each a measure of faith” (v. 3) and has bestowed on them gifts that differ according to the grace given to each one. Grace is God’s favor, unmerited kindness on His part, which is the only source of all spiritual enablements. They are not earned or deserved, or they would not be by grace. And the grace is sovereign, in that God alone makes the choice as to what gift each of His children receives. Each believer, therefore, is to exercise his gifts accordingly.
Paul next lists some categories of giftedness as examples.
if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; (12:6b)
The first spiritual gift in this list is prophecy. Some interpreters believe this was a special revelatory gift that belonged only to the apostles, and, like the sign gifts, ceased after those men died. While it certainly had a revelatory aspect during Old Testament and apostolic times, it was not limited to revelation. It was exercised when there was public proclamation of divine truth, old or new. In 1 Corinthians 12:10 it is linked with sign gifts, supernatural and revelatory. Here it is linked with speaking and serving gifts, leading to the conclusion that it had both revelatory and non-revelatory aspects. The Old Testament or New Testament prophet (or apostle) might speak direct revelation, but could and did also declare what had been revealed previously. The gift of prophecy does not pertain to the content but rather to the means of proclamation. In our day, it is active enablement to proclaim God’s Word already written in Scripture. Paul gives no distinction to this gift among the other six, which are clearly ongoing gifts in the church, thus not limiting it to revelation.
Prophēteia (prophecy) has the literal meaning of speaking forth, with no connotation of prediction or other supernatural or mystical significance. The gift of prophecy is simply the gift of preaching, of proclaiming the Word of God. God used many Old and New Testament prophets to foretell future events, but that was never an indispensable part of prophetic ministry. Paul gives perhaps the best definition of the prophetic gift in 1 Corinthians: “One who prophesies speaks to men for edification and exhortation and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). Peter’s admonition also applies to that gift: “Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God; … so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever” (1 Pet. 4:11).
When God called Moses to deliver Israel out of Egypt, Moses gave the excuse, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since Thou hast spoken to Thy servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Ex. 4:10). Although angered at Moses’ lack of trust, God said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently.… You are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I, even I, will be with your mouth and his mouth, and I will teach you what you are to do” (vv. 14–15).
The gift of prophecy is the gift of being God’s public spokesman, primarily to God’s own people—to instruct, admonish, warn, rebuke, correct, challenge, comfort, and encourage. God also uses His prophets to reach unbelievers. “If all prophesy,” Paul explained to the Corinthians, “and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Cor. 14:24–25).
God used certain prophets at certain times to give new revelation and to predict future events, but He has used and continues to use all of His prophets to speak His truth in His behalf. They are God’s instruments for proclaiming and making relevant His Word to His world. John Calvin said that, by prophesying, he understood not the gift of foretelling the future but of interpreting Scripture, so that a prophet is an interpreter of God’s will.
In his commentary on this text, Calvin wrote:
I prefer to follow those who extend this word wider, even to the peculiar gift of revelation, by which any one skillfully and wisely performed the office of an interpreter in explaining the will of God. Hence prophecy at this day in the Christian Church is hardly anything else than the right understanding of the Scripture, and the peculiar faculty of explaining it, inasmuch as all the ancient prophecies and the oracles of God have been completed in Christ and in his gospel. For in this sense it is taken by Paul when he says, “I wish that you spoke in tongues, but rather that ye prophecy,” (1 Cor. 14:5:) “In part we know and in part we prophecy,” (1 Cor. 13:9). And it does not appear that Paul intended here to mention those miraculous graces by which Christ at first rendered illustrious his gospel; but, on the contrary, we find he refers only to ordinary gifts, such as were to continue perpetually in the Church. (Calvin’s Commentaries, v. xix, “Romans” [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991], p. 460)
In sixteenth-century Switzerland, pastors in Zurich came together every week for what they called “prophesying.” They shared exegetical, expositional, and practical insights they had gleaned from Scripture that helped them more effectively minister to their people in that day.
The book of Acts speaks of many prophets besides the apostles. Agabus, part of a group of prophets (the others are unnamed) from Jerusalem, predicted a famine that would plague Judea during the reign of Emperor Claudius (Acts 11:27–28) and later foretold Paul’s arrest and imprisonment (21:10–11). “Judas and Silas,” on the other hand, “also being prophets themselves,” gave no predictions or new revelation but simply “encouraged and strengthened the brethren with a lengthy message” after Paul and Barnabas had delivered the letter from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:32; cf. vv. 22–31). (For a fuller discussion of prophecy, see the relevant section on 12:10 in the author’s commentary on 1 Corinthians in this series [Chicago: Moody Press, 1984].)
Whatever the form his message may take, the prophet is to minister it according to the proportion of his faith. Because the Greek includes the definite article, faith may here refer to the faith, that is, the full gospel message. In that case, according to the proportion of his faith would relate objectively to the prophet’s being careful to preach in accordance with the gospel revealed through the apostles—“the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It could also relate subjectively to the believer’s personal understanding and insight concerning the gospel—to his speaking according to the individual proportion of … faith that God has sovereignly assigned to him for the operation of his gift.
Whether it relates to revelation, prediction, declaration, instruction, encouragement, or anything else, all prophecy was always to proclaim the Word of God and exalt the Son of God, because “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev. 19:10). Paul’s specific charge to Timothy applies to all proclaimers of God’s Word, including prophets: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
if service, in his serving; (12:7a)
The second spiritual gift is that of service, a general term for ministry. Service translates diakonia, from which we also get deacon and deaconess—those who serve. The first deacons in the early church were “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who were placed in charge of providing food for the widows in order to free the apostles to devote themselves “to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3–4).
Service is a simple, straightforward gift that is broad in its application. It seems to carry a meaning similar to that of the gift of helps mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:28, although a different Greek term (antilēpsis) is used there. This gift certainly applies beyond the offices of deacon and deaconess and is the idea in Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders to “help the weak” (Acts 20:35). The gift of service is manifested in every sort of practical help that Christians can give one another in Jesus’ name.
or he who teaches, in his teaching; (12:7b)
The third spiritual gift is that of teaching. Again, the meaning is simple and straightforward. Didaskōn (teaches) refers to the act of teaching, and didaskalia (teaching) can refer to what is taught as well as to the act of teaching it. Both of those meanings are appropriate to this gift.
The Christian who teaches is divinely gifted with special ability to interpret and present God’s truth understandably. The primary difference between teaching and prophesying is not in content but in the distinction between the ability to proclaim and the ability to give systematic and regular instruction in God’s Word. The gift of teaching could apply to a teacher in seminary, Christian college, Sunday school, or any other place, elementary or advanced, where God’s truth is taught. The earliest church was characterized by regular teaching (Acts 2:42). The Great Commission includes the command, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, … teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). Paul’s spiritual gift included features of both preaching and teaching (2 Tim. 1:11).
Later in the epistle just cited, Paul charged Timothy: “And the things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). Barnabas had that gift and ministered it in Antioch beside Paul, where they were “teaching and preaching, with many others also, the word of the Lord” (Acts 15:35). Likewise “a certain Jew named Apollos, an Alexandrian by birth, an eloquent man, … had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24–25).
Jesus, of course, was both the supreme Preacher and supreme Teacher. Even after His resurrection, He continued to teach. When He joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.… And they said to one another, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?’ ” (Luke 24:27, 32). Both diermēneuō (“explained,” v. 27) and dianoigō (“explaining,” lit. “opening up,” v. 32) are synonyms of didaskōn (teaches) and didaskalia (teaching) in Romans 12:7.
Regular, systematic teaching of the Word of God is the primary function of the pastor-teacher. As an elder, he is required “to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and to hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9). Above all, Paul entreated Timothy, “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching” (1 Tim. 4:16). Pastors are not the only ones the Lord calls and empowers to teach. But if a pastor’s ministry is to be judged, among other things, on the soundness of his teaching—as the passages just cited indicate—then it seems reasonable to assume that, in some measure, he should have the gift of teaching.
or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; (12:8a)
As with the previous three gifts, the connotation of exhortation is broad. Both the verb parakaleō (exhorts) and the noun paraklēsis (exhortation) are compounds of the same two Greek words (para and kaleō) and have the literal meaning of calling someone to one’s side. They are closely related to paraklētos (advocate, comforter, helper), a title Jesus used both of Himself (“Helper,” John 14:16) and of the Holy Spirit (“another Helper”; John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In 1 John 2:1, this word is translated “Advocate,” referring to Jesus Christ.
The gift of exhortation, therefore, encompasses the ideas of advising, pleading, encouraging, warning, strengthening, and comforting. At one time the gift may be used to persuade a believer to turn from a sin or bad habit and at a later time to encourage that same person to maintain his corrected behavior. The gift may be used to admonish the church as a whole to obedience to the Word. Like the gift of showing mercy (see below), exhortation may be exercised in comforting a brother or sister in the Lord who is facing trouble or is suffering physically or emotionally. One who exhorts may also be used of God to encourage and undergird a weak believer who is facing a difficult trial or persistent temptation. Sometimes he may use his gift simply to walk beside a friend who is grieving, discouraged, frustrated, or depressed, to give help in whatever way is needed. This gift may be exercised in helping someone carry a burden that is too heavy to bear alone.
Paul and Barnabas were exercising the ministry of exhortation when “they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God’ ” (Acts 14:21–22). This ministry is reflected in Paul’s charge to Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2).
It is the ministry of exhortation of which the writer of Hebrews speaks as he admonishes believers to “consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24–25). The sentiment that motivates this gift is also exhibited in the beautiful benediction with which that epistle closes: “Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord, equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (13:20–21).
In summary, it might be said that, just as prophecy proclaims the truth and teaching systematizes and explains the truth, exhortation calls believers to obey and follow the truth, to live as Christians are supposed to live—consistent with God’s revealed will. In many servants of Christ, all of these abilities are uniquely and beautifully blended.
he who gives, with liberality; (12:8b)
The fifth category of giftedness is that of giving. The usual Greek verb for giving is didōmi, but the word here is the intensified metadidōmi, which carries the additional meanings of sharing and imparting that which is one’s own. The one who exercises this gift gives sacrificially of himself.
When asked by the multitudes what they should do to “bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance,” John the Baptist replied, “Let the man who has two tunics share [metadidōi] with him who has none; and let him who has food do likewise (Luke 3:8, 11).
In the opening of his letter to Rome, Paul expressed his desire to “impart [metadidōi] some spiritual gift to you, that you may be established” (Rom. 1:11). And in his letter to Ephesus he makes clear that, whether or not a believer has the gift of giving, he is to have the spirit of generosity that characterizes this gift. Every Christian should “labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share [metadidōi] with him who has need” (Eph. 4:28). It seems certain that Paul had elements of such generosity in his gift. And nowhere is it reflected more than in his service to the saints at Thessalonica. After having ministered to them for a relatively short time, he could say with perfect humility and sincerity that the gospel that he, Sylvanus, and Timothy brought them “did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thess. 1:5; cf. 1:1). “Having thus a fond affection for you,” he continued a few verses later, “we were well-pleased to impart [metadidōi] to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (2:8).
Liberality translates haplotēs, which has the root meaning of singleness and came to connote simplicity (as in the kjv), singlemindedness, openheartedness, and then generosity. It carries the idea of sincere, heartfelt giving that is untainted by affectation or ulterior motive. The Christian who gives with liberality gives of himself, not for himself. He does not give for thanks or recognition, but for the sake of the one who receives his help and for the glory of the Lord.
Those who give with liberality are the opposite of those who “sound a trumpet before [themselves], as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men” (Matt. 6:2). Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God for lying to the Holy Spirit, and behind their lie was the selfish desire to hold back for themselves some of the proceeds from the sale of their property (Acts 5:1–10). In that tragic instance, failing to give with liberality cost the lives of the givers.
Ananias and Sapphira were exceptions in the early church, which was characterized by those who voluntarily possessed “all things in common; and [who] began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need” (Acts 2:44–45). Because the inns could not begin to house all the Jews who came to Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost, most of them stayed in homes of fellow Jews. But those who trusted in Christ immediately became unwelcome. Many wanted to stay within the community of believers in Jerusalem but had no place to stay. Some had difficulty buying food to eat. In that crisis, Christians who had the means spontaneously shared their homes, their food, and their money with fellow believers in need.
Many years later, the churches of Macedonia had an abundance of believers who exercised the gift of giving to its fullest. “In a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality,” Paul said. “For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:2–5). They gave with great liberality, believing that sowing bountifully meant reaping bountifully (2 Cor. 9:6).
he who leads, with diligence; (12:8c)
Leads is from proistēmi, which has the basic meaning of “standing before” others and, hence, the idea of leadership. In the New Testament it is never used of governmental rulers but of headship in the family (1 Tim. 3:4, 5, 12) and in the church (1 Tim. 5:17). In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul refers to the same gift by a different name, “administrations” (kubernēsis), which means “to guide.” In Acts 27:11 and Revelation 18:17, it is used of a pilot or helmsman, the person who steers, or leads, a ship.
Although it is not limited to those offices, the gift of church leadership clearly belongs to elders, deacons, and deaconesses. It is significant that Paul makes no mention of leaders in his first letter to Corinth. Lack of a functioning leadership would help explain its serious moral and spiritual problems, which certainly would have been exacerbated by that deficiency. “Free-for-all” democracy amounts to anarchy and is disastrous in any society, including the church. The absence of leaders results in everyone doing what is “right in his own eyes,” as the Israelites did under the judges (Judg. 17:6; 21:25; cf. Deut. 12:8).
Effective leadership must be done with diligence, with earnestness and zeal. Spoudē (diligence) can also carry the idea of haste (see Mark 6:25; Luke 1:39). Proper leadership therefore precludes procrastination and idleness. Whether it is possessed by church officers or by members who direct such things as Sunday school, the youth group, the nursery, or a building program, the gift of leadership is to be exercised with carefulness, constancy, and consistency.
he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. (12:8d)
The seventh and last spiritual category mentioned here is that of showing mercy. Eleeō (shows mercy) carries the joint idea of actively demonstrating sympathy for someone else and of having the necessary resources to successfully comfort and strengthen that person.
The gifted Christian who shows mercy is divinely endowed with special sensitivity to suffering and sorrow, with the ability to notice misery and distress that may go unnoticed by others, and with the desire and means to help alleviate such afflictions. This gift involves much more than sympathetic feeling. It is feeling put into action. The Christian with this gift always finds a way to express his feelings of concern in practical help. He shows his mercy by what he says to and what he does for the one in need.
The believer who shows mercy may exercise his gift in hospital visitation, jail ministry, or in service to the homeless, the poor, the handicapped, the suffering, and the sorrowing. This gift is closely related to that of exhortation, and it is not uncommon for believers to have a measure of both.
This enablement is not to be ministered grudgingly or merely out of a sense of duty, but with cheerfulness. As everyone knows who has had a time of suffering or special need, the attitude of a fellow believer can make the difference between his being a help or a hindrance. The counsel of Job’s friends only drove him into deeper despair.
“He who despises his neighbor sins,” the writer of Proverbs tells us, “but happy is he who is gracious to the poor” (Prov. 14:21); and “He who oppresses the poor reproaches his Maker, but he who is gracious to the needy honors Him” (Prov. 14:31). The key word in those verses is gracious. The genuine helper always serves with gracious cheerfulness, and is never condescending or patronizing.
Reading from the book of Isaiah, Jesus testified of Himself that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18–19). The very Son of God in His incarnation showed great mercy with gracious cheerfulness.
Would that all Christians with this gift not only would minister it cheerfully but also regularly and consistently. There would be far fewer needy who have to depend on a godless, impersonal government or social agency. And if Christ’s people patterned their lives after His gracious example, far more people would hear and respond to the saving gospel that meets their deepest need.
In regard to that gift and every other, believers should “kindle afresh the gift of God which is in [them]” (2 Tim. 1:6).
The prolific Puritan John Owen wrote that spiritual gifts are that without which the church cannot subsist in the world, nor can believers be useful to one another and the rest of mankind to the glory of Christ as they ought to be. They are the powers of the world to come, those effectual operations of the power of Christ whereby His kingdom was erected and is preserved (see The Holy Spirit [Grand Rapids: Kregel, n.d.]).
Although we obviously must pay attention to our gift, we can never faithfully exercise it by focusing on the gift itself. They can be used fully of the Lord only as “with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). We can serve Christ only as we become like Christ, and we can exercise the Spirit’s gifts only as we present ourselves as living sacrifices and submit to His continuing transformation and sanctification of our lives.
- B. Simpson’s beautiful hymn expresses what the true attitude about our spiritual gifts and all the rest of our lives should be:
Once it was the blessing,
Now it is the Lord.
Once it was the feeling,
Now it is His Word.
Once His gifts I wanted,
Now the Giver alone.
Once I sought healing,
Now Himself alone.
God’s Gifts to Christ’s Body
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. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
In the last study we began to look at the doctrine of the church as it is presented to us under the image of Christ’s body. This is a very rich image, and we saw two things it teaches. First, it teaches what it is to be a member of the church. To be a church member means to be a part of Christ’s body, and this means that a person who is a member of the church must be joined to him. It is not a question of merely belonging to an organization, though that is also important in its place. It means to be united to Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit so that we are no longer in Adam but “in Jesus.” It is a spiritual reality.
The second thing we have seen about the church presented under the image of Christ’s body is that it is a unity. That is, there is only one church just as there is only one body. You can no more have multiple churches than you can have multiple Christs or a multiple Godhead.
But the image of the church as Christ’s body also signifies something else, and that is diversity in unity. It is what Paul is chiefly talking about in Romans 12, for he has just written, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (vv. 4–5). Paul calls the parts of the body “members.” We are those members. So the image teaches that Christians have different gifts and are to function differently from others in the use of these gifts, while nevertheless being a part of the body and contributing to the body’s unity.
Diversity of Gifts
Different gifts! It is hard for many of us to recognize this and accept it, because we are always wanting other Christians to be like us and function like us, or be cogs in our machine rather than contributing to another Christian’s work. Paul knew Christians who had this trouble too, but he tells everyone that we must accept this diversity if the church is to function as it should.
This was important to Paul. Charismata, the word translated gifts, occurs seventeen times in the New Testament; sixteen of those occurrences are in Paul’s writings.
Charismata is based on the word grace (charis) and actually means “a grace gift.” It is something given to the people of God by God or, as can also be said, by Jesus Christ. Since grace is God’s unmerited favor, the word indicates that spiritual gifts are dispensed by God according to his pleasure and that the gifts will differ. Every Christian has at least one gift, like the people who received talents in Christ’s parables. Moreover, since these are given by God, they are to be used for his glory and according to his plans rather than to enhance our own glory or further our plans. This is where the thrust toward unity comes in. Each member of the body is to work toward the well-being of the whole so that when one member does well all the others do well and when one member suffers the entire body suffers.
Another way of saying this is to say that we not only belong to Christ, we also belong to one another. John Murray says of Christians, “They have property in one another and therefore in one another’s gifts and graces.” It would be correct to add that you, as a Christian, have a right to the gifts the other members of the body have been given, and they have a right to your gift. You cheat them if you do not use it, and you are poorer if you do not depend on them.
Exercising the Gifts
What these spiritual gifts are is not easy to say, because every time there is a listing of the gifts in the New Testament—five times in all (Rom. 12:6–8, 1 Cor. 12:8–10 and 28–30, Eph. 4:11, 1 Peter 4:11)—the specific items differ. Ephesians 4:11 seems to give the most basic list: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor/teachers. This is the way 1 Corinthians 12:28–30 starts too, but then it moves from what seems to be offices in the church to specific functions like working miracles, healing, helping, administering, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. Romans 12:6–8 has a bit of both. First Peter 4:11 has only service and speaking, but these two items are categories into which other gifts fit.
Nineteen gifts are mentioned in these five lists, but the number is not absolute. Different words may describe the same gift, as with serving and helping, and there are probably gifts that could be mentioned but are not. Seven gifts are mentioned in Romans 12:
- Prophesying. The first is prophesying. In 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Ephesians 4:11 this gift comes immediately after and is closely linked to the gift of “apostles.” There were no apostles in the church at Rome at this time, so Paul does not mention apostles in the Romans list.
In our day the word prophesy retains only a shade of its former meaning, “foretelling the future.” In the Old and New Testaments a prophet is one who speaks the words of God. The Greek word for prophet literally means “one who stood in front of another person and spoke for him.” An example is the relationship between Moses and his brother Aaron. Moses was unwilling to accept God’s call to go to Egypt, stand before Pharaoh, and demand that he let Israel go, because, as he said, “I have never been eloquent” (Exod. 4:10). God answered that he would send Aaron to speak for him. “You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth.… He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him” (vv. 15–16). Later this is explained by these words: “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet” (Exod. 7:1).
This is the sense in which Abraham is called a prophet in Genesis 20:7, because God spoke to him and he spoke God’s words to other people. It is the same in the New Testament (Luke 7:26–28, John 4:19; cf. Matt. 10:41; 13:57; Luke 4:24). There seem to have been quite a few such prophets in the early church, so much so that Paul devotes nearly the whole of 1 Corinthians 14 to discussing the gift of prophecy and the gift of tongues, which is closely linked to it. From this and other passages it would seem that the prophets were men who spoke under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit to communicate a doctrine, remind people of a duty, or give a warning (cf. Acts 21:10–14).
Charles Hodge expresses it this way in his commentary on Romans: “The point of distinction between them [prophets] and the apostles, considered as religious teachers, appears to have been that the inspiration of the apostles was abiding, they were the infallible and authoritative messengers of Christ; whereas the inspiration of the prophets was occasional and transient. The latter differed from the teachers (didaskaloi), inasmuch as these were not necessarily inspired, but taught to others what they themselves had learned from the Scriptures or from inspired men.”
The gift of prophecy in this sense, like the gift of apostleship, is something that is no longer with the church since, having the completed Old and New Testaments, we no longer need it. The Bible is for us the recorded testimony of these inspired men.
The really fascinating item in this mention of prophecy is the attached phrase “let him use it in proportion to his faith.” The word translated proportion is the word analogia (analogue or analogy), which has given expositors the important hermeneutical principle known as the analogy of faith. This is the only place where these words occur in the Bible, but they have been seen to teach what is usually described as the need to compare one Scripture with another so that a passage that is clearly understood throws light on one less clear. From this principle derive the additional guidelines of a necessary unity and noncontradiction in the Bible.
There is some doubt as to whether this is exactly what is meant here. But whatever Paul means, he is implying some control of or limitation on the prophet. The last words of the phrase are literally “the faith” (not “his faith,” as in the niv). So if “the analogy of the faith” is meant, it would mean that even the prophet is bound by prior revelation. He is not to propound anything contrary to “the faith” that has already been delivered to the saints. We remember that in Galatians 1:8, Paul applied this test to both the apostles and angels, insisting that even they have to conform to the standard of right doctrine: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!”
If this does not refer to the analogy of faith and means only that the prophet is to speak in accordance with the measure of his own personal faith, it still implies a limitation, because the prophet is not to go beyond what God has given him to speak. So here is a contemporary application. If that was true of the ancient prophets, how much more true ought it to be of Bible teachers today. Anyone who is called to teach must be rigidly disciplined so as not to go beyond what God has actually revealed in Scripture. Our task is to expound the whole counsels, but only the whole counsels of God.
- Serving. The next spiritual gift is serving. This Greek word is sometimes also translated ministry and applied to the “ministry [that is, teaching] of the word [of God]” (cf. Acts 6:4). But since teaching is mentioned next we should probably think of ministry more broadly here, that is, as embracing all kinds of ministry for the sake of Christ.
What is important to note is that the Greek word diakonian is the root of our word deacon. So what is being spoken of here is a diaconal, or service, ministry. Does this refer to the specific office of a deacon or deaconess in the church, as in Acts 6:1–6? Yes, but not only that. In the church all are called to serve others, though some are given this gift in special measure in order to lead others in the work. We need to remember that even Jesus was a deacon in that, as he said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28).
So let’s do it! That is what the text says. In the case of prophecy, we are told that the prophet is to prophesy according to the “analogy” of faith or “in proportion to his faith.” That is a qualification or directive. That is not the case here. Here the text just says, “If it is serving, let him serve.” In other words, just do it!
In Charles Colson’s book The Body, there are three quotations that stress service. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, said to his missionaries to India: “Go to the Indian as a brother, which indeed you are, and show the love which none can doubt you feel … eat, drink and dress and live by his side. Speak his language, share his sorrow.”
Count Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravians, told his missionaries: “Do not lord it over the unbelievers but simply live among them; preach not theology but the crucified Christ.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The church is herself only when she exists for humanity.… She must take her part in the social life of the world, not lording it over men, but helping and serving them. She must tell men, whatever their calling, what it means to live in Christ, to live for others.” In Life Together, a study of the meaning of Christian fellowship, Bonhoeffer has a whole chapter stressing the ministry of Christians to other Christians. It is, he says, a ministry of holding one’s tongue, meekness, listening, helping, bearing burdens, yes, and also speaking the truth when it is needed. Each of us has a service ministry to perform, because each of us is called to be like Jesus Christ. Where can you serve? Where can you serve that you are not serving now?
- Teaching. In one way or another, by one word or another, this gift occurs in each of the five New Testament lists. It is a critical gift, of course, the more so today since the gifts of apostleship and prophecy have ceased. I am sure that many have this gift. Ray Stedman says that in his opinion probably a third of all Christians have it and should be using it. If you know anything about Jesus and the gospel, you should teach what you know, formally if you have the opportunity but also informally by a casual word or testimony. You will be surprised what you are able to teach others.
I am a pastor. This is the preeminent gift of pastors, and this leads me to say to pastors that, having been called to teach, they must teach. No one has the opportunity a pastor has for carefully studying and faithfully expounding the Bible. What is more, if he does not do it, then in most churches it will not be done at all. Teaching is hard work, because we must learn ourselves before we teach. But what better calling can one have? So get on with it, and be faithful in it, if that is your gift. I notice that Paul handles his admonition here exactly as he handled it when he spoke of serving earlier, and as he will speak of encouraging later. No fuss. No fanfare. Just do it.
- Encouraging. Encouragement has become a rather weak word for us, usually meaning little more than giving someone a slap on the back and saying “Good job” or “Well done.” When we study the use of this word in the Bible, however, we find it is much more than this. The Greek word appears 107 times in the New Testament, and it is translated by such additional, powerful verbs as beseech, comfort, desire, pray, entreat, and console. It is the same word used of the Holy Spirit and his ministry in John 14–16. The New International Version translates it as Counselor (in John 14:15, 26; 15:26; 16:7), but the Greek is paraklêtos, which literally means “one who is called in alongside another to help out.” Counselor is a synonym for lawyer, and it is worth noting that the precise Latin translation of paraklêtos is advocatus, which also means “one who is called alongside of,” and that advocate is also a synonym for lawyer. If we put this thought into our passage, we get something like “Let the person who has the gift of getting alongside another person to help him or her, really do it. Let him stand by his friend and really help him.”
What a tremendous need we have for those who are like that. Many people are hurting, but there are not many helping, because we are all so absorbed in ourselves and our own private affairs. We are living in a narcissistic age, another “Me Decade.”
Exhortation was the gift of Barnabas, who traveled with Paul. In Acts 4:36 we are told that his real name was Joseph but that he was named Barnabas because Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement,” and that is what he was. We may remember how he stood by John Mark to help him when Paul refused to take Mark along on one of his missionary journeys because he had deserted them earlier. Barnabas got alongside Mark, lifted him up, and reestablished him as a useful servant of Christ, which Paul acknowledged later (2 Tim. 4:11).
- Contributing to the needs of others. John Calvin and some of the earlier commentators thought that this gift referred to an official church office—that is, to the diaconate that is particularly entrusted with this task. But there is no need to limit this to some official position, and most modern scholars do not. The deciding element seems to be Paul’s teaching that those who have this gift are to give “generously.” That is an appropriate thing to say if the person involved is giving out of his or her own funds. But the deacons administer the church’s funds, and if this refers to deacons, it would be more appropriate to tell them to give carefully, judiciously, or prayerfully, realizing that it is other people’s money they are handling.
Are you generous with what you have been given? Some people are so poor it is hard to imagine how they could give anything. But statistics tell us that it is the poor who are most generous in terms of proportionate giving. The very rich are the least generous. Do you have enough to eat, clothes to wear, a place to live, even money in the bank? Then think how you can best be generous with those who are needy or have nothing.
- Leadership. It is interesting that Paul includes leadership in his list of Christian gifts. The word actually means government or good administration, and it includes the task of management. This is an important quality to look for in elders, since they need to “manage,” or “take care of God’s church” (1 Tim. 3:5).
The excellent Swiss commentator F. Godet points out how important this must have been in the early church, when so many of the institutions we take for granted were lacking:
Think of the numerous works of private charity which believers then had to found and maintain! Pagan society had neither hospitals nor orphanages, free schools or refuges [rescue missions], like those of our day. The church impelled by the instinct of Christian charity, had to introduce all these institutions into the world; hence no doubt, in every community, spontaneous gatherings of devout men and women who, like our present Christian committees, took up one or other of these needful objects, and had of course at their head directors charged with the responsibility of the work. Such are the persons certainly whom the apostle has in view in our passage.
I am not sure that this is exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote this. But it is certainly one way this gift functions in the church, and it points to a similar and continuing need today. All the organizations we have require management. Those who manage well deserve honor.
- Showing mercy. The final gift is showing mercy, and Paul’s point is that this should be done cheerfully, not begrudgingly. The Greek word is hilarotêti, which gives us our word hilarious. How much we need a cheerful, hilarious spirit in the church! Too often our faces are grim and there is no spirit of joy to be found anywhere.
You and the Gift God Has Given
I close with a paragraph from Ray Stedman, who has written on spiritual gifts in a more helpful way than anyone I know. He asks in his study of Romans 12, “Who are you anyway?” It is a good question for us to ask. Stedman answers:
I am a son of God among the sons of men. I am equipped with the power of God to labor today. In the very work given me today God will be with me, doing it through me. I am gifted with special abilities to help people in various areas, and I don’t have to wait until Sunday to use these gifts. I can use them anywhere. I can exercise the gift God has given me as soon as I find out what it is, by taking note of my desires and by asking others what they see in me and by trying out various things. I am going to set myself to the lifelong task of keeping that gift busy.
Paul told Timothy, “Fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you” (2 Tim. 1:6). That is exactly what you should do. You have a gift. The rest of the body needs it. You will be accountable for what you do with it. Use it so that one day you will hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness” (Matt. 25:21, 23).
6 The “different gifts” are not gifts in the natural realm but those functions made possible by a specific enablement of the Holy Spirit granted to believers (cf. E. E. Ellis, “ ‘Spiritual’ Gifts in the Pauline Community,” NTS 20 [1973–74]: 128–44). The gifts do not contradict what God has bestowed in the natural order, and though they may even build on the natural gift, they must not be confused with the latter.
Variety in the gifts should be understood from the standpoint of the needs of the Christian community, which are many, as well as from the desirability of giving every believer a share in ministry. With his eye still on the danger of pride, Paul reminds his readers that these new capacities for service are not native to those who exercise them but come from divine grace. Every time he delves into this subject he is careful to make this clear (1 Co 12:6; Eph 4:7; cf. 1 Pe 4:10).
Though Paul has spoken of different gifts, he does not proceed to give anything like an exhaustive list (cf. 1 Co 12:28). He seems more intent on emphasizing the need for exercising the gifts and for exercising them in the right way—“in proportion to his faith.” He uses this expression only in connection with prophesying, but there is no reason to suppose it is not intended to apply to the other items as well.
What is meant by “in proportion to his faith”? Theologians have tended to favor the translation “according to the analogy of the faith” (transliterating the Greek word analogia [GK 381] and stressing the definite article before “faith”). On this construction is built the Reformed principle that all parts of Scripture must be interpreted in conformity to the rest. This is a valid principle but hardly germane to this context. Another view understands the phrase as referring to the hearers rather than to those prophesying, so that, in framing the messages given to them, those who speak should consider the stage of development attained by their audience. This view, too, may have merit, but against it is the fact that in this passage it is not spiritual gifts that are being treated for the edification of the hearers, as in 1 Corinthians 14, but the proprieties that should govern those who use the gifts.
The most satisfactory explanation is that “faith” retains the subjective force it has in v. 3 and that the whole phrase has the same thrust as “measure of faith” there. Prophets are not to be governed by their emotions (1 Co 14:32) or by their love of speaking (1 Co 14:30) but by total dependence on the Spirit of God.
Paul does not give a definition of “prophesying” here, but if we are to judge from the earlier reference in 1 Corinthians 14:3, 31, the nature of the gift is not primarily prediction but the communication of revealed truth that will both convict and build up the hearers. This gift is prominent in the other listings of gifts (1 Co 12:28; Eph 4:11), where prophets are second only to apostles in the enumeration. That Paul says nothing of apostles in the Romans passage may be a hint that no apostle, Peter included, had anything to do with the founding of the Roman church (see Introduction p. 21).
12:6–8 / In verse 6 Paul turns abruptly from the whole (the body) to its parts (the gifts). Grace not only saves and sanctifies sinners, it also equips them with gifts for ministry in the body. The word for gift (charisma, v. 6), in fact, is but a different form in Greek of the word for “grace” (charis). Charisma (gifts) is rare in Greek literature outside and prior to the writings of Paul, but it is especially characteristic of Paul in the nt. Spiritual gifts are the enactments or eventualizing of grace through human agency. Paul draws a corollary between faith and spiritual gifts. According to verse 1 faith must express itself concretely through our bodies; here in verses 6ff. grace expresses itself concretely in the church. Like parts of the human body, the gifts of the Spirit differ, though more according to purpose than value. In addition to discussing the various gifts, the following verses suggest a structure to administer such gifts through church order and government.
The gifts mentioned here, as well as in 1 Corinthians 12:27–31, are representative rather than exhaustive. Some gifts appear to be natural talents strengthened by the Spirit, whereas others are unique abilities following conversion. They are and remain gifts, however. True to their name, they are spiritual endowments for ministry within Christ’s body; they are not our possessions or status-builders.
Prophecy stands at the head of the list. Paul devoted an entire chapter to prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 and regards it as a decisive gift because of its close relationship to the proclamation of the word. Prophecy may suggest to our ears the predicting of future events, and it often entailed this element, but it primarily concerns offering guidance from the Spirit or God’s word for the church in particular circumstances. Seven examples of early Christian prophecy can be found in Revelation 2–3. Its decisive element is that of spiritual or supernatural insight into the meaning of God’s will. Genuine prophecy naturally corresponds to other manifestations of the Spirit. That seems to be the force of the corollary, let him use prophecy in proportion to his faith (v. 6). The Greek actually reads, “in proportion to the faith”—the idea being that spiritual gifts (in this case spiritual utterances) must correspond to the rule of faith as proclaimed by the apostles and believed, confessed, and taught in the churches.
The second gift, serving, is in Greek diakonia (from which “deacon” is derived). Literally meaning “to wait on tables,” diakonia encompasses a wide variety of common labors, though “indicating very personally the service rendered to another” (Beyer, TDNT, vol. 2, p. 81). How interesting that this gift would precede the prestigious gift of teaching. It is not often that table waiters are ranked above theology professors! This undoubtedly is due to the remembrance of Jesus himself who exalted service of others over self; “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45; also John 13:1–20). From the beginning Jesus’ example of humility challenged the church to “consider others better than yourselves” (Phil. 2:1–11). The gospel thus consists of an indivisible unity of word and deed, faith and life, a unity which finds expression in the first two gifts, prophecy and serving.
A third gift is teaching. The prophet interprets the gospel according to the Spirit’s direction in given circumstances, but the teacher, through knowledge of and reflection on the revelation of God, instructs the church in “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, rsv). Dunn notes, “That Paul recognizes the importance of both [prophecy and teaching], but prizes prophecy the more highly, needs to be remembered: teaching preserves continuity, but prophecy gives life; with teaching a community will not die, but without prophecy it will not live” (Romans 9–16, p. 729).
A further gift includes encouraging or exhortation (v. 8). This term literally depicts someone who is called alongside another as a helping companion. It should not be overlooked, and it is not coincidental, that the Gospel of John later calls the Holy Spirit, Paraclete (Gk. paraklētos), which picks up on this image. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16–17, 26; 15:26; 16:7).
Verse 8 concludes with virtues rather than offices. The gift of giving is to be practiced generously, by which Paul intends the spirit of giving rather than the thing given. The Greek word for generously carries the idea of freedom and “single-mindedness,” without second thoughts, ulterior motives, or divided allegiances. Likewise, leaders are to govern diligently. The Greek word might be translated “with haste,” i.e., not begrudgingly, but readily and eagerly. By ministering cheerfully the servant of God liberates those whom he or she serves.
Four of the seven gifts in verses 6–8 relate to what the church traditionally has called the diaconate. Faced with burgeoning social ills and suffering, with a gospel which is increasingly marginalized, ministries of the diaconate afford the church numerous opportunities to reach “the least of these,” i.e., those who for whatever reason no longer hear the gospel from the church. In so doing the church bears witness to the world that Jesus “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
12:6–8. The good, pleasing, and perfect will of God for the church is unity based on the contributions of its diverse members. Here Paul presents a sampling of the different ways members of the body of Christ are gifted for service and ministry in the church. He returns to the point made in verse 3 where Paul mentioned “the grace given me.” Here he expands that dynamic to the grace given us. Just as Paul was gifted as an apostle, so every member is gifted in some way to serve and build up the body of Christ. Gifts (charisma, sing., charismata, pl.) originate in grace (charis), which means they are freely bestowed according to the good pleasure of the giver, the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:11). Grace-gifts are manifestations of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit—he not only gives the gifts “just as he determines” (1 Cor. 12:11) but he also empowers their use “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7).
To the detriment of the church, “discussions” over spiritual gifts have resulted in Corinthian-like carnality in the church. How ironic that the very instruments given to manifest and encourage the unity of the body of Christ should so divide it! In Romans, Paul’s point is not to correct abuses of the gifts but to teach on their primary purpose—to meet needs in the body of Christ and to build up the body in preparation for the accomplishment of its God-given mission.
Paul’s statement that we have different gifts, according to the grace given us is amplified in 1 Corinthians: “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Cor. 12:18). And what are the parts? It appears from the New Testament that Paul’s penchant for list-making is not for the purpose of exhaustiveness as much as for illustration. For example, his lists for the qualifications of church elders are not the same in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. And he only gives qualifications for deacons to Timothy, not to Titus. Does this mean that the elders in Ephesus where Timothy was had different qualifications than those on the island of Crete where Titus was? And did the church on Crete not need deacons because Paul did not mention them?
Not at all. This question falls into the same category as the “exception” concerning divorce as taught by Jesus. Matthew records Jesus’ words concerning an exception to the “no divorce” statute (Matt. 19:9) whereas Mark (10:1–12) and Luke (16:18) do not. Does this mean that a different standard concerning divorce existed for Matthew’s Jewish readers than for Luke’s Gentile readers or Mark’s Roman readers? A final example is the list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). Does the Holy Spirit manifest himself in only the nine ways mentioned in Galatians?
Lists of spiritual gifts should be afforded the same fluidity of interpretation and allowance for human dynamics in the process of the inspiration of Scripture that is required to accommodate the alleged “inconsistencies” in the above examples. The gifts of the Spirit are mentioned in four places in Scripture. A comparison of the gifts mentioned in each passage will illustrate the point that, even by combining all four lists, the intent of Scripture is not to arrive at an airtight list. Rather, the lists indicate some of the ways the Holy Spirit manifests the grace of God in the church:
|Romans 12:6–8||1 Corinthians 12:8–11; 28–31||Ephesians 4:11||1 Peter 4:10–11|
|Teaching||Teaching||Pastor-Teacher (same as teacher?)||Speaker (same as teacher?)|
|Leadership||Administration (same as leadership?)|
|Showing mercy||Helping others (same as mercy?)|
|Distinguishing between spirits|
From these four lists, it is obvious that there is not one single list of the gifts of the Spirit—or at least one that we have in our possession. But since three of the lists are from Paul, and given that his general topic was the same in all three instances of his discussions of gifts (the unity and building up of the body of Christ), it would seem that if a codified list were to have been given, he would have done so.
The implication of a fluid approach to the matter of spiritual gifts is to reflect on Jesus’ words in John 3:8: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” While Jesus’ specific application in that context was to the new birth through the Spirit, the insight into the ministry of the Spirit is helpful regarding spiritual gifts. We know that everyone has been gifted by God, but we probably should not be dogmatic in asserting whether with one or more than one charisma. Nor should we be dogmatic about whether any or all gifts are permanent as a rule, or whether or not gifts may be given to believers according to the need of the moment. Many believers give testimony of having been aware of an unusual anointing by the Holy Spirit to meet a need in the church on a temporary basis. Was that an anointing or a gifting?
We probably should not yield to our Occidental tendencies to isolate Oriental matters into categories. The Hebrew culture was much more serendipitous than ours. “Going with the flow” was the norm. We should incorporate into our understanding the clear teaching that the Holy Spirit has gifted us and expects us to use our gifts for the building up of the body of Christ—and then be prepared to be surprised by the Spirit if and when he dispenses grace “as he determines” (1 Cor. 12:11).
The gifts Paul mentions in Romans are presented in such a way as to make them self-explanatory. It is as if Paul is answering questions from those new to the idea of spiritual gifts: “Paul, what should I do if I am a prophet?” Prophesy!—but only by faith. “What if my gift is serving?” Then serve! “What about teaching?” Teach! “Encouraging?” Encourage someone! “Giving to others?” Give generously! “Leading?” Start leading! “Showing mercy?” Stop frowning—people who need mercy also need good cheer! In other words, the implication seems to be that we are not to wait around for instructions or for a mystical move of the Spirit in order to minister to the body of Christ. We are to do that which is obvious to us and which we feel compelled and capable of doing.
That last phrase—“which we feel … capable of doing”—will raise the question of the confusion of natural talents with spiritual gifts. Teachers on this topic often insist on drawing a firm line of demarcation between the two, suggesting that a person’s natural gifts (in the area of church life and social dimensions) should not be considered when assessing spiritual gifts. This is not a biblical distinction; Paul never addresses the issue. He himself was an up-and-coming leader in Judaism on the basis of natural talent, displaying apostolic propensities as he traveled from city to city tearing down the church. Then he met Christ, was born again, and graced by the Holy Spirit as an apostle, after which he continued going from city to city only then to build up the church, not tear it down.
Paul was compelled to lead both before and after his conversion. Following his example, we should not be so quick to put a new believer on hold in ministry until it becomes clear what his or her spiritual gifts are. Who is to say that the Holy Spirit would not sanctify a carnal or profane ability and use it in the church? Plenty of mundane and profane objects in the Old Testament (knives, pots, pans, building materials, people) were sanctified (set apart and declared holy) for use by the Lord. Natural talents could fall into that same category. (See this chapter’s “Deeper Discoveries” for notes on the gifts mentioned by Paul in Romans.)
The bottom line of Paul’s move from sacrifice to a healthy body of Christ is, “Do what God has gifted you to do. Sacrifice your own likes, dislikes, preferences, and partisan positions for the sake of the one who had mercy on you.”
6–8. Moreover, having different gifts, according to the grace given us, if (a person’s gift is) prophesying, (then let him exercise it) in accordance with the standard of faith; or if (it is rendering) practical service, then let him use it in (rendering) such practical service; or if one is a teacher, (let him exercise his gift) in teaching; or, if one is an exhorter (let him use his gift) in exhorting. Let him who contributes to the needs of others (do so) without ulterior motive. Let him who exercises leadership (do so) with diligence. Let him who shows mercy (do so) with cheerfulness.
Notes on This Summary of Gifts and Functions
- It is marked by abbreviated style. The words implied but not expressed are numerous. See N.T.C. on John, Vol. I, p. 206, on Abbreviated Expression.
- Paul is describing seven “gifts,” distributed among individuals or groups of individuals who, making use of these gifts, exercise the corresponding functions.
- The seven functions are:
- rendering practical service
- contributing to the needs of people
- exercising leadership
- showing mercy.
- Among commentators there is considerable difference of opinion with respect to the meaning of some of these functions.
- Somewhat similar lists are found in 1 Cor. 12:8–10, where nine functions are mentioned; in 1 Cor. 12:28, 29 which mentions eight; and in Eph. 4:11 which lists four (as some see it five, but see N.T.C. on Ephesians, p. 197).
- It is clear that Paul believes that not only ministers, elders, and deacons have gifts, but every believer has one or more divinely bestowed gifts or endowments. The apostle shows how these charismata should be used to benefit the church and, in fact, men in general.
Note “according to the grace given us.” No one has the right to boast about his gift. Each member should bear in mind that his ability to serve others is a product of God’s grace, his love for the undeserving.
So very important did Paul consider the gift and function of prophesying that both in 1 Cor. 12:28 and in Eph. 4:11 he mentions it immediately after that of the apostolate.
The question has been asked, “How is it that here in Romans 12, where Paul is describing how persons endowed with various gifts should conduct themselves in the performance of their respective duties, there is no mention at all of the function of an apostle?” Some answer: “This proves that no apostle had anything whatsoever to do with the founding of that church or with its early history.” But such an argument is surely basing too much on too little. See also above, p. 19. Even the statement, “Paul is silent on the matter of telling another apostle how to conduct himself because it would have been very improper for one apostle to lay down the law for another apostle,” is not absolutely true, as Gal. 2:11 f. proves, though in normal circumstances it is probably correct. What is true is that Paul had already alluded to his own apostolic office (in 12:3), and also that at this particular time there was no apostle in Rome. If there had been one, would his name not have been included in the list of greetings found in chapter 16?
Returning to the subject of the importance Paul attaches to the gift of prophecy, it is to be noted that in 1 Cor. 14:1 those addressed are told, “… eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.” In verse 39 of that same chapter the writer adds, “Therefore, my brothers, be eager to prophesy.”
One important reason for attaching such a high value to prophesying must have been that the message of the true prophet was the product not of his own intuition or even of his own study and research but of special revelation. The prophet received his message directly from the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:27, 28; note, “and through the Spirit predicted”). So also in Acts 21:11 Agabus, one of these prophets—there were others, both men and women (Acts 13:1; 21:9)—is quoted as follows, “The Holy Spirit says, In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt …” (21:11).
Another reason why on Paul’s list of spiritual gifts prophesying ranked so high was its comprehensive content. It was by no means restricted to the utterance of a prediction now and then. It included edification, exhortation, consolation, and instruction (1 Cor. 14:3, 31).
However, not everyone who presented himself as a prophet was necessarily a genuine prophet. Not everything a “prophet” said was necessarily true. So in addition to supplying the church with prophets, God also saw to it that there were people who were able to distinguish between the true prophet and the false (1 Cor. 12:10; 14:29) and between truth and falsehood. In line with this, here in Rom. 12:6 Paul writes, “If (a person’s gift is) prophesying, (then let him exercise it) in accordance with the standard of faith.” Here some interpreters interpret the word “faith” in the objective sense, as if the apostle was referring to God’s revealed truth, the gospel. Others, however, accept the subjective sense, and view the word “faith” as indicating trust in God and in his promises.
Since just a moment ago (in verse 3) Paul has used this word in the latter sense, which, in the present connection, yields an excellent meaning, we need look no farther. The prophet must say nothing that is in conflict with his faith in Christ. For example, he might be tempted, for selfish reasons, to make startling statements which he himself did not believe. He is warned not to do so. He must be and remain God’s mouth to the people.
- Rendering Practical Service
The apostle uses the word diakonia, that is, practical service, ministry. Cf. 1 Cor. 12:5; Eph. 4:12. This service or ministry can be of various kinds. In the story concerning Martha and Mary (Luke 10:40) it amounted to whatever work was necessary in preparing a meal. “The diakonia” of the word is mentioned in Acts 6:4; that of reconciliation in 2 Cor. 5:18. Since in the present connection Paul is enumerating various functions pertaining to church life, it is natural here to connect the term with that particular type of work which we too ascribe to the diaconate, that is, to the office performed by the deacons. Accordingly, Paul is encouraging those who are qualified for this type of work to accept the opportunity to do so.
It may well be rather difficult for us to estimate the importance the apostle attached to the work of the deacon, the Church’s ministry of mercy. We should bear in mind, however, that in the days of the apostle many believers were anything but wealthy. Some were slaves or freedmen. In fact, in this very epistle to the Romans (15:25) the apostle states the reason why he cannot travel straight to Rome but must first visit the saints in Jerusalem. Elsewhere he says, “I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor” (Acts 24:17). See also 1 Cor. 1:26 f., 16:1 f., 2 Cor. 8:1 f. It is worthy of special attention that the very man who insisted on purity in doctrine was at least equally interested in the cause of showing generosity in aiding the poor. In 2 Cor. 8:7, 8 he most strikingly connects the “grace” of giving to supply the needs of the poor with a central doctrine of the Christian religion, namely, that of Christ’s voluntary humiliation in the interest of sinners. He says:
“But just as you excel in everything … see that you also excel in this grace (of giving) … For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich.”
So also today the diaconate is no less important than the eldership. The cause of Christ is served equally by each. In each the love of Christ is reflected.
The prophet received his message by direct revelation. The teacher derived his knowledge from the study of the Old Testament and of the teaching of Jesus, in whatever form this was accessible to him. Since direct revelations do not always occur, and besides, since the deposit of divine revelation found in Scripture—which, in Paul’s day meant in the Old Testament—is of abiding and very important significance, it is clear that also for the teacher there is a very definite and important place in the life of the church. So, “if one is a teacher (let him exercise his gift) in teaching.”
Acts 13:15 shows that in the synagogue, after a portion of the law and of the Prophets had been read, the rulers of the synagogue invited Paul and Barnabas to speak a word of exhortation. Such was the custom in those days. Here, in Rom. 12, those who have been blessed with the talent of exhorting are urged to make use of it for the benefit of all. Today the minister of the gospel is—at least should be—adequately equipped to take care of both teaching and exhorting. He not only teaches doctrine but also shows how doctrine should be applied to life so that all may be edified and encouraged. Among the laity, too, there may be excellent teachers and/or exhorters.
- Contributing to the Needs of People
Paul writes, “Let him who contributes to the needs of others (do so) without ulterior motive.”
The reasons why Paul devoted so much attention to pointing out the importance of the ministry of mercy (namely, great need and example of Christ) have been given. See above, under b. So here, at first glance, we seem to detect a repetition of point b. Nevertheless, there is a difference. The diaconate has to do with the cause of church benevolence. By means of the deacons the entire church, functioning as a unit, engages in this important work. More, however, is needed. In addition to collective there must also be private benevolence. Let those who are able to function in this capacity by all means do so! Since the Lord has blessed them so abundantly let them, in turn, be a blessing to others.
But in so doing they must be sure to contribute “without ulterior motive.” Here the giving with ulterior motive, denounced by Malachi (1:13, 14), immediately occurs to the mind, and so does that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1 f.). True givers are those who give wholeheartedly, all the while remembering what they themselves have received from their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
- Exercising Leadership
There are those who believe that by placing f. between e. and g., both of which are, in a sense, concerned with benevolence, Paul, in f., must be referring to people who are in charge of church benevolence. However, e. does not seem to have anything to do with the diaconate, and g. does not necessarily refer to what is commonly meant by benevolence.
Besides, in other passages where the same word for leadership occurs as the one used here in Rom. 12:8 the reference is to overseers, elders (1 Thess. 5:12; 1 Tim. 3:4; 5:17). And even when one makes due allowance for the fact that it is not the apostle’s intention to list every spiritual gift and function of church members, would it not seem strange if he were to include in his summary the ministry of the deacons, as he does (see point b.), but completely to omit from it that of the presbyters? With respect to their age and dignity these men were called presbyters or elders; with respect to the nature of their task they were called overseers or superintendents. Because a heavy burden rested on the shoulders of these men, and the temptation to shirk their responsibility was great, they are admonished to exercise their leadership “with diligence.”
- Showing Mercy
The sick, dying, and bereaved are in need of visits by someone who knows how to impart genuine Christian sympathy and understanding, someone who shows mercy with cheerfulness. “For as nothing gives more solace to the sick or to anyone otherwise distressed, than to see those cheerful and prompt in assisting them, so to observe sadness in the countenance of those by whom assistance is given makes them feel themselves despised” (John Calvin on this passage). I would only add to this that a brief, cheering visit by a wise and sympathetic fellow-member, who is willing to help in every possible way, is certainly of far more benefit than the almost endless recital of all the horrendous details of the operation recently performed on the caller, namely, Mr. Sad. Truly, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones” (Prov. 17:22). This holds both for the patient and the visitor.
- What Should Be the Attitude of the Justified Believer Toward Fellow-Christians
“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love”
9 Love must be genuine. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Prefer one another in honor. 11 Never come on behind in showing enthusiasm. Be aglow with the Spirit, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, enduring in affliction, persistent in prayer. 13 Help to relieve the needs of the saints. Eagerly practice hospitality.
12:6 Paul now gives instructions for the use of certain gifts. The list does not cover all the gifts; it is meant to be suggestive rather than exhaustive.
Our gifts differ according to the grace that is given to us. In other words, God’s grace deals out differing gifts to different people. And God gives the necessary strength or ability to use whatever gifts we have. So we are responsible to use these God-given abilities as good stewards.
Those who have the gift of prophecy should prophesy in proportion to their faith. A prophet is a spokesman for God, declaring the word of the Lord. Prediction may be involved, but it is not a necessary element of prophecy. In the early church, writes Hodge, the prophets were “men who spoke under the immediate influence of the Spirit of God, and delivered some divine communication relative to doctrinal truths, to present duty, to future events, as the case may be.” Their ministry is preserved for us in the NT. There can be no inspired, prophetic additions to the body of Christian doctrine today since the faith has been once for all delivered to the saints (see Jude 3). Thus a prophet today is simply one who declares the mind of God as it has been revealed in the Bible. Strong says:
All modern prophecy that is true is but the republication of Christ’s message—the proclamation and expounding of truth already revealed in Scripture.
Those of us who have the gift of prophecy should prophesy in proportion to our faith. This may mean “according to the rule or norm of the faith”—that is, in accordance with the doctrines of the Christian faith as they are found in the Scriptures. Or it may mean “according to the proportion of our faith”—that is, to the extent that God gives us faith. Most versions supply the word “our” here, but it is not found in the original.
 Harrison, E. F., & Hagner, D. A. (2008). Romans. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, pp. 186–187). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1729–1730). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.