Understanding Spiritual Gifts: 4 Lessons from J.I. Packer

Ask your average churchgoer what their spiritual gifts are, and you may get a blank stare. Not many of us can say with certainty what God has supernaturally equipped us to do. And yet the Bible is clear that spiritual gifts are not just for pastors (Rom. 12:4–8).

Perhaps it feels audacious to claim discernment as our gift and no less prideful to claim wisdom or mercy. For others, defining their gift puts pressure on them and they’d rather leave ministry to the “professionals.” Still others simply have no idea how to begin to discover what our gifts actually are.

Theologian J.I. Packer’s book Keep in Step with the Spirit has been immensely helpful for me in bringing clarity to this issue. While the gifts function more like a footnote than a main theme in this book, his insight on the topic is invaluable.

What I Learned

1. Every believer has a gift.

According to Packer, “All Christians have gifts and tasks of their own within the church’s total ministry.” Ministry is not just for the pastors and clergy, it is “a necessary part of everyone’s discipleship.”

Many of us have wondered whether our spiritual gifts really matter. We see the highly visible gifts of preaching, teaching, and evangelism as “real ministry” and feel no compulsion to practice our “lesser” gifts with equal zeal. This logic may seem sound, but it is profoundly unbiblical.

The apostle Paul said that Christ gave us the “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:11–12, emphasis added). In other words, your pastor equips you for the ministry of your local church.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that Paul is so eager to have Christians exercise their spiritual gifts. He warns Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have” (1 Tim. 4:14) and seems no less eager to have every member of the Body of Christ participating in their various roles (1 Cor. 12:14–19).

While it may not be essential to nail down with certainty the shape and boundaries of our giftings, it is helpful to have some idea. With so many things rallying for our time and attention, a defined spiritual gift helps us know what to prioritize.

2. Spiritual gifts must be defined as Christ’s work in our midst.

The reason many of us feel presumptuous in claiming a spiritual gift is because we have wrongly assumed that our spiritual gifts are about us. But as Packer points out, “spiritual gifts must be defined in terms of Christ, as actualized powers of expressing, celebrating, displaying and so communicating Christ in one way or another, either by word or by deed. They would not be edifying otherwise.”

They are not natural abilities and skills, nor on the other hand, a sort of “supernatural novelty,” as Packer puts it. Spiritual gifts are given “in Christ” (1 Cor. 1:4, 7), and they are for the common good and edification of the church (1 Cor. 12:7; Eph. 4:12, 16).

We don’t need to feel embarrassed about naming and exercising our spiritual gifts because they are not about us. Instead, our gifts display, celebrate, express, and communicate Christ.

3. It is only a gift if and when God uses it to edify.

This point is closely connected to the last one. There must be outward, visible edification of the church when you exercise your spiritual gift. If there is none, it’s not a spiritual gift. An inward prompting and desire is important, but we must also have outward confirmation that others see and recognize God’s work through us.

Packer says, “We need to draw a clear distinction between use of our abilities rather than the abilities themselves that constitute charismata [spiritual gifts]. If no regular, identifiable spiritual benefit for others or ourselves results from what we do, we should not think of our capacity to do it as a spiritual gift.”

Getting input from pastors, small group leaders, and others in your church is essential. Just because you are a great orator doesn’t mean you have the gift of teaching. And just because you think you have the gift of discernment doesn’t mean you do.

On the flip side, God may empower you to serve the church in ways unexpected and perhaps against your natural inclinations. I will never forget reading about John Piper’s intense fear of public speaking. In his book Future Grace, he recounts how he made a vow to God before he had to pray publicly: “Lord, if you will bring me through this without letting my voice break, I will never again turn down a speaking opportunity for you out of anxiety.” Thank God that his fear of public speaking didn’t cause him to dismiss the idea that he could be gifted in speech!

4. Gifts of speech and gifts of service are theologically equal.

Many of us imagine a false hierarchy between the gifts of speech and what Packer calls “Samaritanship,” that is, “the loving helpful response to others’ physical and material needs.”

When our giftings fall into the realm of Samaritanship, they are often less visible and prominent than gifts of speech. For this reason, we tend to view them as less important. But the church is not like the world in how it assigns value.

Packer says, “From heaven Christ uses Christians as his mouth, his hands, his feet, even his smile; it is through us, his people, that he speaks and acts, meets, loves and saves here and now in this world.”

Is Christ’s smile any less important than His words? Are His hands and His feet? As Paul says, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?” (1 Cor. 12:17). Even those who seem to be weaker are essential members of the Body (v. 22).

We are all “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). When we feel uncertain about our spiritual gifts, the best thing we can do is start serving in our local church and see what God does. When our internal desires line up with external affirmation and identifiable spiritual benefit, we are on our way.

About the Author

Christel Humfrey

Christel Humfrey

Christel Humfrey is a pastor’s wife and mom to three boys. She serves in music and women’s ministries at her church in Calgary, Canada. In 2013, Christel was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition, but she is thankful that no trial … read more …

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