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Spiritual Gifts: Listed by Paul, Motivated by Love

  • Stanley Ward Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
  • Updated Mar 02, 2011
Spiritual Gifts: Listed by Paul, Motivated by Love

Christians love spiritual stuff. We discuss spiritual gifts, spiritual fruit, and spiritual disciplines. But do we really understand what we are talking about? We should, because Paul urges believers in 1 Corinthians 12:1, “concerning spiritual gifts . . . I do not want you to be uninformed” (ESV). So let us make some distinctions.

The fruit of the spirit refers to a set of attitudes found in Galatians 5:22-23. Spiritual disciplines refer to a set of habits that help us stay connected with God, renewing our whole person - mind, body, and soul.[1] And as for spiritual gifts, they are referenced throughout scripture, and they deserve our consideration today. To better understand the gifts, we will start with a Biblical definition, considering three major lists of spiritual gifts.


Please indulge me for a moment, and let me be a Greek geek. The New Testament uses the term charismata to reference the spiritual gifts. This term comes from the same  word family as charis, which means “grace.” According to the New Bible Dictionary, spiritual gifts are “the concrete expression of charis, grace coming to visible effect in word or deed.”[2] That definition helps us see the same gift-giving spirit in both Old and New Testament.


Although the term “spiritual gift” is not used in the Old Testament, the concept is there. Notice how the Spirit of God empowers people for specific acts at specific times. For example, in Exodus 31, Oholiab and Bezalel are Spirit-empowered craftsmen. Also, in Judges 14:6, “the spirit of the LORD” empowers Samson to kill a lion. These two examples are different from the spiritual gifts referenced in the New Testament, but they show that spirit-empowered people are not limited to the New Testament alone.

The Old Testament also prophesies a coming era of Spirit-empowerment. The book of Joel prophecies that God will “pour out [his] spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (2:28-29). Peter references this promise during his Pentecost speech in Acts 2.


The New Testament contains multiple references to spiritual gifts, both explicit and implicit. These gifts fall into two categories: miraculous gifts (like healing and tongues) and practical gifts (like teaching and giving). Paul’s letters provide three major lists of gifts in Romans, Ephesians, and 1 Corinthians.[3] Let’s consider one list at a time, starting with Romans.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome played a significant role in Church history, its message inspiring Church Fathers like St. Augustine, and reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. Paul’s Roman letter starts with theory, and then moves on to discuss practice. Chapters 1-11 build a strong argument for why believers can be redeemed only by God’s grace, and then chapter 12 marks a practical turning point.

Paul begins chapter 12 urging Christ-followers to live a new kind of life, the life of a “living sacrifice” (v. 1), that will be a “spiritual act of worship” (v. 2). He later explains that this new life of the redeemed should be filled with genuine love (v. 9) - a love so powerful that it overcomes evil with good (v. 21). And in the middle of these practical instructions, Paul lists “gifts that differ according to the grace given us” (v. 6). This list includes prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and mercy. Paul’s specific exhortation about these gifts: “let us use them” (v. 6). Notice how God gives different gifts to different believers, and no one gift is listed as more important than another.

Ephesians 4 provides a list of practical gifts. The book of Ephesians encourages believers to build up the body of Christ, and Ephesians 4:11 provides a list of gifts (or offices) that build up the church. Paul specifically lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. Their purpose: “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (v. 12). Since this list does not include deacons, it does not appear to be an exhaustive list of church offices. And since this list does not mention  the more miraculous gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12, it does not appear to be an exhaustive list of spiritual gifts.

The longest list of spiritual gifts occurs in 1 Corinthians 12, and Paul spends chapters 12-14 discussing these gifts and their proper motive and use. Paul begins chapter 12 telling believers that they should not be ignorant about spiritual gifts (v. 1). Paul wants believers to understand that although there are a variety of gifts, the same spirit of God empowers them, and they serve the same Lord (vv. 4-5). God gives these gifts “for the common good” (v. 7). Here Paul lists wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracle working, prophecy, the ability to distinguish between spirits, various kinds of tongues, and their interpretation (vv. 8-10). These gifts are distributed according to the Spirit’s sovereign will (v. 11).

Paul then repeats this list in chapter 13, after 26 verses discussing unity in Christ.[4] I suspect the differing gifts within the church at Corinth caused divisions, because verses 21-26 make the point that one part of a body can not dismiss the others. All parts of the body are meant to care for each other. If one part suffers, all suffer; and if one part celebrates, all celebrate.

And smack-dab-in-the-middle of these three chapters mentioning spiritual gifts Paul writes 1 Corinthians 13 - often a favorite chapter for believers because of its focus on God-honoring love. Many commentaries describe the faith, hope, and love mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:13 as the three theological virtues. Given their broader context in Paul’s instructions on spiritual gifts, I believe these virtues are the guidelines for spiritual gifts. All gifts should be motivated by faith and hope. And above all, all gifts must be motivated by love. For more on the relationship between spiritual gifts and love, see Napkin Theology #16, “Spiritual Gifts.”


Chapter 14 then returns to tongues and prophecy. I realize tongues have been a divisive issue in the western church. One group of Bible-loving believers says tongues is no longer a valid gift. At the same time, one group of Spirit-loving belivers says unless you speak in tongues, your salvation is not legitimate.[5]

To be honest, I lack the gift of tongues. Yet I don’t doubt Christ’s gift of salvation in my life. At the same time, I have faithful Christ-serving friends who practice the gift of tongues. So my solution to this vexing theological problem is more pragmatic than philosophical, yet I believe my solution is firmly grounded in Scripture.

Here it is: as long as Paul’s admonition for orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14 is followed, quit attacking each other and focus on practicing your gifts motivated by faith, hope, and above all, love.

[1]For those interested in studying the Spiritual Disciplines, a wealth of resources are available. I suggest looking for material by Richard Foster and Dallas Williard. My wife and I also have enjoyed the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun.

[2]Tongue, D. H. “Spiritual Gifts.” New Bible Dictionary. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.

[3]Most of the sources I consulted suggested these lists are not exhaustive.

[4]Those verse numbers were not original with Paul. English Bibles did not contain chapter and verse divisions until the 16th century.

[5]Of course both groups love both the Bible and the Holy Spirit, it’s just a matter of emphasis.

Stanley J. Ward serves as the Biblical Worldview Director at The Brook Hill School (www.brookhill.org) and frequently speaks at conferences (www.stanleyjward.com). He is also a PhD candidate and napkin theologian (www.napkinvideo.com).

Publication date: March 1, 2011