What is the Difference?
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you to be ignorant.” So, begins the 12th chapter of Paul’s first epistle to the assembly at Corinth, introducing three chapters of timeless essential ministry for Christians everywhere. With the greatest chapter on motives in the Bible as the centerpiece (Chapter 13), he methodically instructs these dear saints about the true nature of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the proper human spirit with which they are to be exercised.
In just three or four years from this time, Paul would write to the church at Philippi, and provide personal details about his own previous credentials in religious matters. For our purposes here, we are compelled to compare a decidedly human evaluation of abilities, with those abilities with which God enables every believer. It is obvious and tempting to look upon individuals with impressive credentials and above average abilities, and to perhaps wonder: “I wonder what God could do with such a person as this?”
We may need to recall that our God is not at all confined to our smallish peer comparisons and ratings. He is the One Who has chosen the foolish and weak things of this world to confound the wise, mighty, and noble things of our own estimation. And when we look for the reason why, we are left with His one absolute purpose: “That no flesh should glory in His Presence” (1 Cor. 1:29). May this be indelibly inked on our minds, hearts and spirits, governing all that we think, say, and do.
We may then ask, of what real value are earth-earned credentials? I will confess to being relieved when I see that the doctor who will be operating on me has certificates of completion on his clinic walls. And I will sleep better knowing that a chartered professional accountant has prepared my income tax return. In things which pertain to Caesar these credentials are necessary. However, can they be of use to God?
Of course, there are material matters of stewardship where practical abilities are quite useful. Having a plumber in fellowship is useful when a washroom needs repairing and having an electrician in the meeting is important when the lights conk out. I also would not mind if there were a nurse or a doctor on hand, if a beloved brother or sister were to keel over suddenly. In spiritual matters, however, these quickly fade to the background.
Primarily listed in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, the gifts of the Spirit which are given to each Christian, are abilities of an altogether different source and sort. In 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 we learn that our God has enabled each believer to do something extraordinary—in the literal sense of the word—to benefit the others in our fellowship. Some of what the passage goes on to say are versions of what we would consider natural talents. He speaks of teachers, healers, and those with significant language skills. We all know people from everyday life with these abilities. However, in the context of the local church these natural abilities are quite different from spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are abilities that come from God Himself, not from an education degree, medical school, or Dale Carnegie course. And they are typically given to those who seem the least necessary and the feeblest, so that—at the risk of being redundant—no flesh should glory in His Presence.
There are two hazards related to this, which can affect all of us. First off, there can be a tendency to put highly-educated saints on a pedestal of sorts, somehow thinking that their PHD, CPA, or P.Eng designation makes them a more capable asset to the assembly than others. We see this propensity manifested at Lystra (Acts 14:6-18) where the locals attempted to deify Paul and Barnabas because of the works they had witnessed. And we see the immediate reaction of these two faithful servants, to denounce passionately and forcefully what they were doing, and to correct their assumptions.
Paul’s treatise in Philippians 3 gives us a second angle. The apostle’s own credentials from his life as a Pharisee were indeed impressive. It would be understandable for anyone to think that such a person would be quite useful to God. He was well-versed in the Scriptures, accustomed to leadership, an apt teacher, and a devoted follower of what he believed to be God’s will. Anyone might think these things were useful. Anyone but Paul, that is.
In his self-evaluation presented to the saints at Philippi, he not only denounced the worth of these things, but identified them as potential obstacles to his own spiritual growth and usefulness. Not only were his credentials and talents of the wrong sort for use in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ, but they could also easily become shackles to make him of no use. In this respect, he counts them as refuse to be abandoned, so that he could serve unfettered. Those things which were once assets by human evaluation, were now repulsive to him, and happily discarded so that he could gain Christ, and all the power and fulness of a life lived for Him.
This is a new life we have. This is not a renovated old life, nor an enhanced version of what we were before, minus the baggage of sin. This is a different kind of life, a higher form of life. This life has its source in the finished work of Christ, has it’s enabling in the Person of Christ, and has as it’s one purpose to be the glory of Christ. If someone expresses a thank you occasionally, or a word of encouragement, we return thanks to our Lord and Master because of it. It is proper, and it is really just plain honest. We know what we are and what we were; but by the grace of God—only the grace of God—we are what we are now. May our gifts be used for Him, and by Him.
“For of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things: to Whom be glory for ever. Amen.” (Rom. 11:36). Rick Morse