What are spiritual gifts? To whom are they given, and for what purpose?
The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).
The great fact which Pentecost commemorates is too often regarded as if it were a transient gift, limited to those on whom it was first bestowed. We sometimes hear it said that the great need of the Christian world is a second Pentecost, a fresh outpouring of the Spirit of God and the like. Such a way of thinking and speaking misconceives the nature and significance of the first Pentecost, which had a transient element in it, but in essence was permanent. The rushing mighty wind and the cloven tongues of fire, and the strange speech in many languages, were all equally transient. The rushing wind swept on, and the house was no more filled with it. The tongues flickered into invisibility and disappeared from the heads. The hubbub of many languages was quickly silent. But that which these things but symbolised is permanent; and we are not to think of Pentecost as if it were a sudden gush from a great reservoir, and the sluice was let down again after it, but as if it were the entrance into a dry bed, of a rushing stream, whose first outgush was attended with noise, but which thereafter flows continuous and unbroken. If churches or individuals are scant of that gift, it is not because it has not been bestowed, but because it has not been accepted.
I. The universality of spiritual gifts.
Now, that is implied in our Lord’s own language, as commented upon by John the Evangelist. For Jesus Christ declared that this was the standing law of His kingdom, to be universally applied to all its members, that ‘Whoever believes in Him, out of him shall flow rivers of living water’; and John’s comment goes on to say, ‘He was speaking about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive’ (John 7:38-39). There is the condition and the qualification. Wherever there is faith, there the Spirit of God is bestowed, and bestowed in the measure in which faith is exercised. So, then, in full accordance with such fundamental principles in reference to the gift of the Spirit of God, comes the language of the above text, and of many others to which I can only refer. But let me just quote one or two of them, in order that I may make more emphatic what I believe a great many Christian people do not realise as they ought — viz. that the gift of God’s Holy Spirit is not a thing to be desired, as if it were not possessed or confined to selected individuals, or manifested by exceptional and lofty attainments, but is the universal heritage of the whole Christian Church. ‘Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have received from God?’ ‘We have all been made to drink into one Spirit,’ says Paul again, in the immediate context. ‘If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His,’ says he, unconditionally. And in many other places the same principle is laid down, a principle which I believe the Christian Church today needs to have recalled to its consciousness, that it may be quickened to realise it in its experience far more than is the case now.
God forbid that we should ever underrate that great initial gift on which everything else must be built. But I am not underrating it when I say, ‘Let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith,’ and the ‘proportion of faith’ has been violated, and the perspective and completeness of Christian truth, and of Christ’s gifts, have been, alas! to a very large extent distorted because Christian people have laid far too little emphasis on the fact that the essential gift of Christ to His people is not pardon, nor acceptance, nor justification, but life; and that forgiveness, and altered relationship to God, and assurance of acceptance with Him, are all preliminaries. They are, if I may recur to a figure that I have already employed, the preparing of the channel, and the taking away of the obstacles that block its mouth, in order to the inrush of the flood of the river of the water of life.
This life that Christ gives is the result of the gift of the Spirit. So ‘If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of His.’ The life is the gift considered from our side, and the Spirit is the gift considered from the divine side. ‘Every man that has the Son has life’; because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has made him free from the law of sin and death.
Nor is this gift a thing that a man can discover as distinct from his own consciousness. ‘The Spirit bears witness with our spirits’; and we are not to expect that we can hear two voices speaking, but it is one voice and one only.
II. The many-sidedness of this universal gift.
We must take a wider view of what that Spirit is meant to effect than we ordinarily take, before we understand how real and how visible its universal manifestations are. Take a leaf out of the Old Testament. The man who made the brass-work for the Tabernacle was ‘full of the Spirit of God.’ The poets who sung the Psalms, in more than one place, declare of themselves that they, too, were but the harps upon which the divine finger played. Samson was capable of his rude feats of physical strength, because ‘the Spirit of God was upon him.’ Art, song, counsel, statesmanlike adaptation of means to ends, and discernment of proper courses for a nation, such as were exemplified in Joseph and in Daniel, are, in the Old Testament, ascribed to the Spirit of God, and even the brute physical strength of the simple-natured and sensuous athlete is traced up to the same source.
But again, we see another sphere of the Spirit’s working in the manifestations of it in the experience of the primitive Church. These are, as we all know, accompanied with miracles, speaking with tongues and working wonders. In the context we have a whole series of manifestations of this Divine Spirit, some of them miraculous and some being natural faculties heightened, but all concerned with the Church as a society, and being for the benefit of the community.
But there is another class. If you turn to the Epistle to the Galatians, you will find a wonderful list there of what the Apostle calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit,’ beginning with ‘love, joy, peace.’ These are all moral and religious, bearing upon personal experience and the completeness of the individual character.
The plain fact is that everything in a Christian’s life, except his sin, is the manifestation of that Divine Spirit, from whom all good thoughts, counsels, and works do proceed. He is the ‘Spirit of adoption,’ and whenever in my heart there rises warm and blessed the aspiration ‘Abba! Father!’ it is not my voice only, but the voice of that Divine Spirit. He is the Spirit of intercession; and whenever in my soul there move yearning desires after infinite good, child-like longings to be knit more closely to Him, that, too, is the voice of God’s Spirit; and our prayers are then ‘sweet, indeed, when He the Spirit gives by which we pray.’ In like manner, all the variety of Christian emotions and experiences is to be traced to the conjoint operation of that Divine Spirit as the source, and my own spirit as influenced by, and the organ of, the Spirit of God. If I may take a very rough illustration, there is a story in the Old Testament about a king, to whom were given a bow and arrow, with the command to shoot. The prophet’s hand was laid on the king’s weak hand, and the weak hand was strengthened by the touch of the other; and with one common pull they drew back the string and the arrow sped. The king drew the bow, but it was the prophet’s hand grasping his wrist that gave him strength to do it. And that is how the Spirit of God will work with us if we will.
III. The purpose of all the diverse manifestations of the one universal gift.
Now, that involves two plain things. There have been people in the Christian Church who have said, ‘We have all the Spirit, and therefore we do not need one another.’ There may be isolation, and self-sufficiency, and a host of other evils coming in, if we only grasp the thought, ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man,’ but they are all corrected if we go on and say, ‘for the common good.’ For every one of us has something, and none of us has everything; so, on the one hand, we want each other, and, on the other hand, we are responsible for the use of what we have.
We get the life, not in order that we may plume ourselves on its possession, nor in order that we may ostentatiously display it, still less in order that we may shut it up and do nothing with it; but we get the life in order that it may spread through us to others. ‘The least flower with a brimming cup may stand, And share its dew-drop with another near.’ We each have the life that God’s grace may fructify through us to all. Power is duty; endowment is obligation; capacity prescribes work. ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man for the common good.’
We can regulate the flow. We have the sluice; we can shut it or open it. The only condition, of possessing the fulness of God’s Spirit is faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the more we trust the more we have, and the less our faith the less the gift. We can get much or little, according to the greatness or the smallness, the fixity or the transiency, of our desires. If we hold the empty cup with a tremulous hand, the precious liquid will not be poured into it — for some of it will be spilt — in the same fulness as it would be if we held it steadily. It is the old story — the miraculous flow of the oil stopped when the widow had no more pots and vessels to bring. The reason why some of us have so little of that Divine Spirit is because we have not held out our vessels to be filled. We can diminish the flow by ignoring it. We can diminish it by neglecting to use the little that we have for the purpose for which it was given to us. Does anybody profit by our spiritual life? Do we profit much by it ourselves? ‘The manifestation of the Spirit is given to’ us, if we are a Christian man or woman, more or less. And if we shut it up, and do never an atom of good with it, either to ourselves or to anybody else, of course it will slip away; and, sometime or other, to our astonishment, we will find that the vessels are empty, and that the Spirit of the Lord has departed from us. ‘Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby you are sealed unto the day of redemption’ (Eph 4:30).
Let us ask the Lord to send us His Spirit with the song “Send Us Your Spirit”: