March 15, 1981 (Morning)
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do
not want you to be uninformed" (1 Corinthians 12:1). I assume that applies to us also: we
ought not to be uninformed about the nature and purpose of spiritual gifts. So this final
message in our series on the Holy Spirit will deal with this subject. Instead of spreading
myself too thin across 1 Corinthians 12,13 and 14 (the major section on spiritual gifts) I have
chosen to focus on several smaller texts so that we can examine their teaching more
If you were reading through the New Testament, the first place you would run into the term
"spiritual gift" is Romans 1:11,12. Let's look at this text together. Writing to the church at
Rome, Paul says, "I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to
strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both
yours and mine." The translation "impart to you some spiritual gift" is misleading because it
sounds like Paul wants to help them have a gift, but the text actually means that he wants to
give them the benefit of his gifts. "I long to see you that I may use my gifts to strengthen
The first and most obvious thing we learn from this text is that spiritual gifts are for
strengthening others. This, of course, does not mean that the person who has a spiritual gift
gets no joy or benefit from it. (We will see differently in a moment.) But it does suggest that
gifts are given to be given. They are not given to be hoarded. "I desire to share with you some
spiritual gift to strengthen you." What does strengthen mean? He's not referring to bodily
strength but strength of faith. The same word is used in 1 Thessalonians 3:2 where Paul
We sent Timothy, our brother and servant in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen you in
your faith and to exhort you that no one be moved by these afflictions.
To strengthen someone by a spiritual gift means to help their faith not give way as easily
when trouble enters their life. We have spiritual gifts in order to help other people keep the
faith and maintain an even keel in life's storms. If there is anybody around you whose faith is
being threatened in any way at all take stock whether you may have a spiritual gift peculiarly
suited to strengthen that person.
I think it would be fair to say also from this text that you shouldn't bend your mind too
much trying to label your spiritual gift before you use it. That is, don't worry about whether
you can point to prophecy or teaching or wisdom or knowledge or healing or miracles or
mercy or administration, etc., and say, "That's mine." The way to think is this: The reason we
have spiritual gifts is so that we can strengthen other people's faith; here is someone whose
faith is in jeopardy; how can I help him? Then do or say what seems most helpful and if the
person is helped then you may have discovered one of your gifts. If you warned him of the
folly of his way and he repented, then perhaps you have the gift of "warning." If you took a
walk with her and said you knew what she was going through and lifted her hope, then
perhaps you have the gift of "empathy.'' If you had them over to your home when they were
new and lonely, then perhaps you have the gift of "hospitality." We must not get hung up on
naming our gifts. The thing to get hung up on is, "Are we doing what we can do to strengthen
the faith of the people around us?
I really believe that the problem of not knowing our spiritual gifts is not a basic problem.
More basic is the problem of not desiring very much to strengthen other people's faith.
Human nature is more prone to tear down than it is to build up. The path of least resistance
leads to grumbling and criticism and gossip, and many there be that follow it. But the gate is
narrow and the way is strewn with obstacles which leads to edification and the strengthening
of faith. So the basic problem is becoming the kind of person who wakes up in the morning,
thanks God for our great salvation and then says, "Lord, O how I want to strengthen people's
faith today. Grant that at the end of this day somebody will be more confident of Your
promises and more joyful in Your grace because I crossed his path." The reason I say
becoming this kind of person is more basic than finding out your spiritual gift, is that when
you become this kind of person the Holy Spirit will not let your longings go to waste. He will
help you find ways to strengthen the faith of others and that will be the discovery of your gifts.
So let's apply ourselves to becoming the kind of people more and more who long to
strengthen each other's faith.
Now, in Romans 1:12 Paul restates verse 11 in different words: I want to strengthen you
with my spiritual gift, "that is, I want us to be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both
yours and mine." Paul does two things here. First, he uses the old "It's my pleasure" tactic.
You remember my sermon on Christian Hedonism and humility? I argued that when we say,
"It's my pleasure," after doing someone a favor, it is an expression of humility. It is like
saying, "Don't get too excited about my self-sacrifice; I'm just doing what I like to do." When
Paul rereads Romans 1:11 he probably says, "Hmmm, that may sound a bit presumptuous,
as if I'm the great martyr doing all for their sake, when in fact I look forward to a great
encouragement from them for myself." So as he restates verse 11 in verse 12 he adds that
he, too, and not just they, is going to be helped when they meet. That is the first thing he
The second thing he does is show that the way he will strengthen their faith by his spiritual
gift (verse 11) is by encouraging them with his faith. In verse 11 he aims to strengthen them;
in verse 12 he aim to encourage them. In verse 11 he strengthens faith by his spiritual gift; in
verse 12 he encourages by his faith. The conclusion I draw from these parallels is this: a
spiritual gift is an expression of faith which aims to strengthen faith. It is activated from faith
in us and aims for faith in another. Another way to put it would be this: A spiritual gift is an
ability given by the Holy Spirit to express our faith effectively (in word or deed) for the
strengthening of someone else's faith.
It is helpful to me to think about spiritual gifts in this way because it keeps me from simply
equating them with natural abilities. Many unbelievers have great abilities in teaching and in
administration, for example. And these abilities are God-given whether the people recognize
this or not. But these would not be called "spiritual gifts" of teaching or administration
because they are not expressions of faith and they are not aiming to strengthen faith. Our
faith in the promises of God is the channel through which the Spirit flows on His way to
strengthening the faith of others (Galatians 3:5). Therefore, no matter what abilities we have, if
we are not relying on God and not aiming to help others rely on Him, then our ability is not a
"spiritual gift." It is not "spiritual" because the Holy Spirit is not flowing through it from faith to
This has tremendous implications for how we choose church staff and church officers and
board members. It means that we will never simply ask, "who has the skill to be efficient?"
We will always go beyond that and ask, "Do they use their skill in such a way that you can
tell it is an expression of their hearty reliance on the Lord? And do they exercise their skill
with a view to strengthening the faith and joy of others?" A church where the Holy Spirit is
alive and powerful will be a church very sensitive to the difference between natural abilities
and spiritual gifts.
Now let's go on to Romans 12:3-8, a unit dealing in a bit more detail with spiritual gifts,
though they are only called "gifts" here.
By the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly
than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of
faith which God has assigned him... (v.3). Having gifts that differ according to the grace given
to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith, if service, in our serving; he who
teaches in his teaching; he who exhorts in his exhortation; he who contributes in liberality; he
who gives aid with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness (vv. 6-8).
I will only draw your attention to two things. First, I believe this text confirms the earlier
point that we shouldn't get too lathered up about whether we can label our gifts or not.
Spiritual gifts are not a limited and defined group of activities spelled out in the New
Testament. Rather, spiritual gifts are any ability the Spirit gives you to express your faith in
order to strengthen another person. Notice the last four mentioned in verse 8, "exhorting" (or
comforting, encouraging -- it's the same word used back in 1:12), "contributing" (or sharing),
"giving aid" (may mean "presiding" ) and "acts of mercy." The remarkable thing about these
(with the possible exception of "presiding") is that all believers are called to do these: exhort,
give, be merciful. So the "gift" must be that some are enabled by the Spirit to do it more
heartily and effectively and frequently than others. So any virtue at all in the believer's life
which he is enabled to do with zest and with benefit to others can be called his gift.
The second thing I want to point out from this text is that both the gifts we have and the
faith to exercise them are given to us by God in varying measure. The reason Paul teaches
this truth is to help us think soberly about ourselves and not too highly. The gifted are always
in danger of pride -- it was a terrible problem at Corinth (and perhaps at Rome, too). So Paul
uncovers a profound truth that is intended to blow away all pride -- all self-reliance or
boasting. He says in v. 6 that we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. In
other words, any distinction that sets you off from others in ability is owing to grace -- i.e., it
is freely given and not earned or deserved. So you can't boast in it.
But someone might say, "O.K., I can't boast in what gift I have but I can boast in the zeal
with which I use it." That's like the person who says, "Well, I can't boast that I was born in
America, but I can boast that I used my freedom to be productive and get rich." Both of those
statements are wrong. Moses said to Israel in Deuteronomy 8:17,
Beware lest you say in your heart, 'My power and the might of my hand have gotten me
this wealth.' You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get
(And He, incidentally, will hold us accountable for using it to help the disadvantaged rather
than padding our lives with luxury.) And in a similar way Paul says here in Romans 12:3,
Don't think of yourself more highly than you ought to think but think with sober judgment
each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned to him.
So not only the gift but the measure of faith we have to exercise the gift is a gift from God.
And God has revealed this to us not to lessen our hunger and yearning for great faith but to
humble us and cause us to look to him for everything. God has done all things "so that no
human being might boast in His presence.... Let him who boasts boast in the Lord" (1
Corinthians 1:29,31). Few things keep our pride quelled and our thinking about ourselves
sober and humble like the awareness that the Spirit of God is absolutely sovereign and gives
both the gifts and the faith to use them to whomever He pleases in whatever degree He
pleases for the upbuilding of His body. The church should be the humblest and happiest
fellowship on the earth.
And now, finally, turn to 1 Peter 4:10,11, one of my favorite texts. I want to make four brief
observations about spiritual gifts on the basis of these two verses. Let's read them.
As each has received a gift, employ it for one another (or serve it up to one another) as
good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God;
whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order
that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ...
First, note that "each has received a gift." Gifts are not for a few but for all, and every
believer has abilities which the Holy Spirit has given and can use to strengthen others. And it
is the supreme joy of life to discover what they are and then pour yourself out to others
through these gifts. And you will find them if you really desire to be God's instrument in
bringing about faith and joy in other people. That, you recall, is the fundamental problem.
Second, the picture we have in verse 10 is of a house with variously talented stewards who
are given the owner's funds to administer. The house is the church, the stewards are all of
you, the various talents are all our varied gifts, the funds are God's grace and the
administration is the exercise of our gifts. The most striking part of this comparison is the
analogy between the owner's funds and God's grace. Grace is the currency in the household
of God. We are called to be stewards of grace. We have a board of stewards in the
Minnesota Baptist Conference and they are given the responsibility to receive and disburse
thousands of dollars for the household called the Minnesota Baptist Conference. That's the
way we should think of our responsibility in the church - all of us. We are recipients of grace
and it is our duty to disburse this grace for others. The vehicle by which we make these
disbursements is our spiritual gift. So now we have another definition of spiritual gifts: they
are abilities by which we receive the grace of God and disburse that grace to others.
This fits beautifully with our earlier definition of spiritual gifts as the abilities given by the
Spirit which express our faith and aim to strengthen the faith of others. They fit together
because faith is what the house owner wants in all his stewards and grace is the only
currency that can purchase faith. Or, to change the image, faith feeds on grace and is
strengthened by grace. God gives us his grace in Christ and all the promises that are Yes in
him, and our response is faith; then we, in the exercise of our spiritual gifts disburse that
grace to others and thus feed their faith. It is the free and precious grace that strengthens the
heart in faith (Hebrews 13:9). So, what should be happening at Bethlehem Baptist Church is
that all God's stewards -- all of you -- should be waking up to more and more of God's grace
that you have in Christ, and finding more and more ways to creatively disburse that grace to
each other and to those outside by the use of your spiritual gifts. O, that the Spirit might
cause a wheeling and dealing in the currency of grace at Bethlehem Baptist Church!
The third observation from 1 Peter 4:11 is that grace can be disbursed through gifts which
are word-oriented or deed-oriented. "Whoever speaks (let him do it) as one who utters oracles
of God." If your gift involves speaking do not rely on your own insight, but look to God to give
His words through you. We impart grace to our listener only if we give them a word of God. It
may not be an exact word of Scripture, but a word prompted and guided by God so that
attention is directed to him, not us. Our aim is to strengthen faith and He is the infinitely
trustworthy hope-giver, not us.
Then it says, "Whoever renders service (let him do it) as one who renders it by the
strength which God supplies." So, if your gift involves practical deeds of service do not try to
do them in your own strength. For then your gift will cease to be a "spiritual gift." It must
come from faith and reliance on grace in order to be a "spiritual gift." So then grace can be
disbursed to other people either by gifts of word or gifts of deed, if we speak with the words
and act with the strength that God supplies.
The final point from this text, and my final one this morning, is that the aim of all spiritual
gifts is "that in everything God might be glorified through Jesus Christ" (v. 11). This means
that God's aim in giving us gifts, and in giving us the faith to exercise them, is that his glory
might be displayed. He wants us and the world to marvel at him and think he is fantastic. The
stupendous reality of God is all encompassing. "For from Him and through Him and to Him
are all things" (Romans 11:36). And there is nothing more thrilling, more joyful, more
meaningful, more satisfying than to find our niche in the eternal unfolding of God's glory. Our
gift may look small but as a part of the revelation of God's infinite glory it takes on
© COPYRIGHT John Piper