Just what are “spiritual gifts” anyway?

Just what are “spiritual gifts” anyway? October 16, 2018
Image: B&H

If you’ve been a part of the Evangelical world for any time at all, you know there’s a low-burning civil war between two views of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Christian life. (No doubt this civil war extends beyond the Evangelical world, but I know less about that side of Christendom.) On the one hand are the “cessationists”, who argue that certain gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Bible have ceased. On the other hand are the “continuationists,” who argue that some of the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in the Bible (specifically tongues and prophecy) continue to this day. And that is a necessarily vague introduction, because even the question of what those gifts are and what they look like in practice is a part of the ongoing discussion. Just what is a “tongue” anyway? The answer to that question in part will depend on which side of the discussion we fall.*

Thomas Schreiner’s short new book Spiritual Gifts: What they are and why they matter is an excellent and gracious addition to this ongoing conversation. And you’ll notice that I’ve shifted metaphors from “civil war” to “conversation.” That is on purpose. What Schreiner has given us is indeed a part of a “conversation.” He presents the other side fairly and largely in their own terms. He gives ground in places where he thinks the other side has reasonable interpretations of Scripture, and willingly admits that the other side (the continuationists) may very well be right. If I were reviewing John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference (or, I assume, the book—which I’ve not read), I’d stick with the language of “civil war.” MacArthur pulls no punches—which is fine. But he also lumps together all continuationists and judges them as a whole by the actions of the weirdos on the extremes. There is none of that in Spiritual Gifts, and as a result I suspect it will be a much more effective addition to the Evangelical theological corpus.

It should also be noted that this discussion is only a part of this book. An important part, to be sure, but only a part. Much of the book is focused on exploring the nature and purposes of spiritual gifts in general. Any reasonably orthodox believer, whether continuationist or cessationist, will be blessed by Schreiner’s meditations on Scripture in these chapters.

Especially important are his reflections on the role of the gifts in serving the church as a whole? For example, one chapter explains that

“First, all gifts are to be exercised under Christ’s lordship… Second, we are to think reasonably about our gifts… Third, the gifts given by God are remarkably diverse, and such diversity is to be celebrated… Fourth, our gifts don’t make us inferior or superior to others… Fifth, we must remember that our gifts are sovereignly appointed by the Holy Spirit, by God himself.” (45)

Schreiner also discusses the nature of prophecy and tongues. He considers what these meant in their New Testament usage, and with that usage in mind, whether they have ceased in our time or are ongoing. These chapters are also useful and will be useful for anyone who is wanting to think Biblically and carefully about these issues.

Overall, this little book is excellent and I’m delighted to recommend it.

*For what it’s worth, I’m largely a cessationist. But I hope a friendly-ish one. I once interviewed for a job at a Pentecostal school and was asked what I think about the ongoing gifts of the Holy Spirit. I said that I believed that the Holy Spirit continued to work in the world in saving sinners through regeneration, sanctifying those saved sinners, and nudging the history of the world forward according to God’s providential plan through common grace. I then said that I believe that some gifts have ceased. For example, I do not believe that the Holy Spirit inspires anyone to slay a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. He has never been used to slay a thousand Philistines, but he has definitely been called an ass.

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