While serving in a small church plant during my first year of college, I remember being given for the first time something called a “spiritual gifts test” (a common step in helping people find and develop their spiritual gifts). I don’t remember the specific questions on the test, but I do remember the result. For the first time in my life, I was told that I had the gift of prophecy. It was quite surprising to me that such a simple test could reveal such a thing. But this was even more surprising to me at the time, since, having grown up in a cessationist church tradition, I had been taught from childhood that the gift of prophecy had ceased centuries ago!
A few years later, during my senior year in college, I had the opportunity to be a resident assistant on the floor of my dormitory. One of the prerequisites to serving in this role was to take a personality test. Again, I don’t remember many of the questions on the test (I just remember that several were about how I felt about injured animals). But what has stuck with me as I have looked back at that experience is how similar this personality test was to the spiritual gifts test that I had taken a few years earlier.
Questions about spiritual gifts
I share these two anecdotes to highlight just a few of the many difficulties that we face as Christ’s people when we discuss spiritual gifts.
- How are we to define the spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament?
- Which spiritual gifts are present in Christ’s church today?
- How are we to discover which spiritual gifts we have?
- How do spiritual gifts relate to personality, inclinations, or natural talents?
This list of debated questions is hardly exhaustive. But it is sufficient to illustrate that the topic of spiritual gifts is intriguing, challenging, and controversial.
I want to (briefly) define what spiritual gifts are and display which gifts are mentioned where. Second, I want to draw out a few key truths about spiritual gifts from Romans 12:3–8. And third, I want to focus in on how to develop spiritual gifts—both from the perspective of a pastor who wants to help others develop their gifts, as well as from the perspective of any Christian who wants to discover and develop his or her spiritual gifts.
- Defining spiritual gifts
- Combining the lists of spiritual gifts
- What does Paul say about spiritual gifts?
- How can we develop the spiritual gifts of others?
- Developing your own spiritual gifts
- Recommended resources
Defining spiritual gifts
The phrase “spiritual gifts” neatly summarizes the two main words used in the New Testament for these gifts. They are “spiritual” in that they come through the Holy Spirit to us; and they are “gifts,” signifying that we have not earned the gifts, nor are we owed them.1
Instead, in a similar way to the gift of salvation and the gift of the Spirit himself, God grants gifts to his children according to his own will and from his own generous heart.
What also stands out in the four key New Testament texts about spiritual gifts is that spiritual gifts are given to Christ’s people to be used for the good of the body of Christ.2
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith. (Rom 12:4–6)3
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Cor 12:4–7)
And [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Eph 4:11–12)
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace. (1 Pet 4:10)
In light of these consistent emphases in the biblical text, I commend this simple definition of spiritual gifts from Tom Schreiner.
I would define spiritual gifts as gifts of grace granted by the Holy Spirit which are designed for the edification of the church.4
Combining the lists of spiritual gifts
With this basic definition of spiritual gifts in mind, we can now turn to laying out the specific spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament. No single list is exhaustive. In fact, it may be that not every possible spiritual gift appears in these lists. But, when these lists are considered together (see Table 1), we get, at the very least, a helpful picture of the sorts of spiritual gifts with which God has blessed his people.
Synthesizing the Spiritual Gift Lists5
A few things are worthy of note from the lists in the table above.
- Some gifts appear in almost every list (e.g., prophecy), while others are mentioned only once (e.g., giving).
- Some gifts appear to be more out of the ordinary (e.g., tongues, miracles), while others appear to be more ordinary (e.g., teaching, giving).
- Peter’s mention of just two gifts (i.e., speaking and serving) may provide the simplest way to classify the gifts. Though some gifts such as faith or leading may still be difficult to classify, on the whole most of the gifts mentioned fit easily under the categories of speaking and serving.6
What does Paul say about spiritual gifts?
As one final step before turning to more practical matters of discovering and developing spiritual gifts, it would be helpful to consider Paul’s most concise treatment of spiritual gifts, which can be found in Romans 12:3–8. I’ll use bullets to make Paul’s list clear:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone 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 that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 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;
- the one who teaches, in his teaching;
- the one who exhorts, in his exhortation;
- the one who contributes, in generosity;
- the one who leads, with zeal;
- the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.—Romans 12:3–8
In the immediately preceding verses (Rom 12:1–2), Paul famously calls all believers to offer ourselves back—both body and mind—to the God who first gave himself for us. Especially in Romans 12:2, Paul highlights God’s desire to remake our minds. Put simply, God wants to change how we think. Paul knows that what is natural is for our minds to be molded by this age. But God wants to do something supernatural in each of his children. God wants to reshape our minds and transform who we are from the inside out.
But what specifically does God want to change our minds about? Paul’s first answer to that question comes in Romans 12:3–8, where he lays out several basics truths about how we are to think about ourselves in relation to the church. Instead of working through this text in detail, I will simply summarize Paul’s teaching in this passage in five statements.
- Christians are not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; instead, we are to keep a humble, realistic view of ourselves.
- Christians are to remember we are interdependent, not independent, and that we are interconnected, not disconnected from one another.
- Every Christian has been granted gifts from God to help his or her local body flourish. No one in Christ’s body has been forgotten.
- The gifts God grants to us differ. This is not to say there will never be people in the same church with similar gifting. But not every person in the body will have the same gifting. This is because God loves us. After all, what would our bodies be if we were all mouths and no ears, or all hands and no feet?
- Our focus when it comes to gifts should be on using them for the good of others. This is clearly Paul’s emphasis here, and it should be ours as well.
How can we help develop the spiritual gifts of others?
We now turn directly to the topic of developing spiritual gifts, a topic that I would like to approach from two points of view. From a more pastoral perspective, I want us to consider how we help others grow in the awareness and utilization of their God‑given spiritual gifts. And then—from a more personal point of view—I want us to consider how you can grow in the awareness and utilization of your own spiritual gifts.
Pastors, how can we help those in our congregations discover and develop their spiritual gifts for the good of the body of Christ and the glory of God? Four words of counsel:
1. Teach about spiritual gifts
Pastors need to teach (and keep teaching) about life in the body in general and spiritual gifts in particular. Our people need to be reminded again and again of their need for the body of Christ and of the body’s need for them. Especially in cultures where independence is prized, we must keep casting Paul’s vision of interdependence in the body:
Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. (Rom 12:5 NIV)
But we must also keep before our people the teaching of the New Testament about spiritual gifts. It can be easy, perhaps especially in churches that tend toward cessationism (whether theologically or practically), to neglect the topic of spiritual gifts altogether—or to examine the subject exclusively from the angle of which gifts do or do not continue in the church today. This is not to say that discussions about continuationism versus cessationism are unhelpful or unnecessary in the context of the local church. But if we want to help others develop their spiritual gifts, we need to teach about the topic and to keep the emphasis in our teaching on what the New Testament writers actually emphasize.
2. Talk with prospective and current members about their gifts
Pastors should talk with their members about their gifts and desires. Of course, depending on the size of church, number of pastors, and overall approach to membership and ministry, this may look different in different congregations. My intent here is simply to encourage those in pastoral ministry to bring the topic up with members. Some of the best times for doing so are often in membership interviews, shepherding visits, or during informal gatherings around the dinner table. Here are a few questions that might be helpful to ask, especially to those who have been following Jesus for a while:
- Have you ever thought about the specific ways Christ has gifted and equipped you to serve his body?
- What are one or two areas of church ministry or service that have you found the most joy in?
- What are one or two areas of church ministry or service that you have seen the most fruit from?
- Is there any area of ministry that you have not been serving in lately but that you feel the Lord is pulling you toward?
3. Provide opportunities to exercise spiritual gifts
Pastors should, where possible, provide opportunities to the members of their church to utilize their gifts for the good of the body. To be sure, certain spiritual gifts may be deployed without much organization or pastoral involvement. For example, if someone’s gift is that of giving, he or she may exercise that gift regularly with little pastoral involvement. In addition, we should always remember that many of the most important activities in church life do not happen on Sundays or in the context of the gathered church.
On the other hand, the exercise of many spiritual gifts does require more organization and pastoral involvement. For example, someone who is particularly gifted in teaching may need some help getting an opportunity to utilize that gift within the body. Another who is gifted in exhortation may be the perfect person to connect with a struggling brother or sister who just came to you in need. The point here is that it is wise for pastors to match up people’s desires and giftedness with the most relevant ministries of the church and then to seek to provide opportunities for them to put those gifts to good use.
4. Give feedback
Pastors can help their members develop their gifts by offering constructive feedback. Words of encouragement often fan the flame of the gifts God has given. I would suppose that many of us who are serving in pastoral ministry today can look back and remember words of encouragement and affirmation from pastors, friends, and fellow church members who helped us find our way. I still receive encouragement to this day from the words of affirmation I received as a young man from a few dear elderly saints, and later, at my ordination, from pastors who had watched me and invested much in my life. When we see our brothers or sisters utilizing their God‑given gifts for the church’s good, may we be quick to praise.
At the same time, constructive feedback may also be given in the form of gracious but honest critique. The church should be a safe place for members to discover their areas of giftedness. But a difficult part of that process often involves finding out that they are not as gifted in other areas. This can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Yet, it is for our good to discover both our strengths and our weaknesses. Pastors would do well to help their members both by offering words of praise but also charitable critique. After all, we want our members to put their greatest energy into their areas of greatest giftedness.
Developing your own spiritual gifts
Lastly, I want us to consider, from a personal point of view, how we can grow in the awareness and utilization of our own spiritual gifts. Below are five words of counsel.
1. Look down at the text
When it comes to discovering your own spiritual gifts, it is wise first to look down at the text of Scripture. Have you really considered what the Bible says about spiritual gifts? How do these sections of Scripture relate to you and God’s mission for your life? There can certainly be good debates about which gifts are still normative in the church today and whether these lists of gifts are exhaustive; but the first step toward gaining awareness of your own giftedness is to look down at the text of Scripture.
2. Look back at your own life story
When it comes to discovering your gifts, it is wise to look back: How has God already been working in you and through you for the good of his people? What areas of ministry have brought you the greatest joy and have led to the greatest fruit? While it can be challenging to explain exactly how spiritual gifts relate to previous experiences or “natural” talents,7
it is certainly worth considering how God has sovereignly orchestrated your life, personality, and inclinations to bring you to this point in your life. Looking back at your life story—and especially your story since becoming part of the family of God—can be a great way to gain insight into your own giftedness.
3. Look up to God in prayer
Since God sovereignly grants us gifts specifically for the good of the body, we can be sure of this: God is not trying to hide our gifts from us. This is not to say that we will know from the moment of conversion what all of our spiritual gifts are, but it is a reminder that God wants us to know and use the gifts he has given. In light of this, if you are unsure how God has gifted you for the sake of Christ’s body, look up to God in prayer. Ask God to lead you both personally and also through your pastors and church family into a greater knowledge of how he has wired you and gifted you for his glory.8
4. Look around at your local church
As you seek to discover your own giftedness, look around for the current needs of your local church. Each church has its own strengths and weaknesses. You probably could list easily and quickly some of both! When you see gaps or deficiencies within your local body, at least ask whether God may want you to step in and, by his grace, fill those needs. Doing so is often temporary, until God leads someone more gifted into that role. But perhaps, as you take a step of faith like this, God will grant you abilities you did not have before or reveal capacities for service that were lying hidden within for years.
5. Look out for the opportunities God sends
Look out for the opportunities that God sends your way. Here I am thinking especially of those young in the faith who have not yet had much experience in serving Christ within the context of the local body. Though there may be times when you simply need to say no to a request to help, let your default be to say yes to new opportunities to serve—especially if those service opportunities are limited, specific, and temporary. The more chances that you have to serve and the more areas in which you serve, the better.
Perhaps you have never taught the Bible before. How will you know if God has gifted you in teaching if you never try? Perhaps you are new to the faith and have never been involved in a mercy ministry. How will you know if your heart will overflow with joy as you feed the poor if you never try? Especially early in your walk with the Lord, let your default be to say yes to the opportunities God sends your way. The best way to discover and develop your gifts is very simple: just serve.9
For further study on the broader topic of spiritual gifts (from both continuationist and cessationist perspectives), see especially:
What Are Spiritual Gifts?
Regular price: $1.99
Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14
Regular price: $21.99
Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter
Regular price: $8.99
Understanding Spiritual Gifts Video Study
Regular price: $79.99
- In the New Testament, both πνευματικά (pneumatika) and χαρίσματα (charismata) are used frequently in discussions of the gifts. The former points to the role of the Spirit in distributing and empowering the gifts, while the latter highlights the gracious nature of the gifts.
- The four primary discussions of spiritual gifts are found in Rom 12:3–8; 1 Cor 12–14; Eph 4:7–16; and 1 Pet 4:7–11.
- All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the ESV.
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2018), 16. For other helpful definitions of spiritual gifts, see esp. Max Turner, “Spiritual Gifts,” in New Dictionary in Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2000); Christopher Zoccali, “Spiritual Gifts,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
- Note that these gifts are not listed in the same order that they appear in the relevant texts. Instead, they are rearranged where possible to line up with the same or similar gifts in the other lists.
- For another approach to classifying the gifts according to Christ’s three offices (prophet, priest, and king), see Vern S. Poythress, What Are Spiritual Gifts?, Basics of the Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 13.
- For helpful discussion on the difficulty of differentiating between “talents” and “gifts,” see Turner, “Spiritual Gifts,” 790. For discussions on the “natural” versus “supernatural” character of the gifts, see esp. D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 37; Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, 88. Schreiner notes well that all good things are gifts from God. “And the good that results from the exercise of the gift comes from the Holy Spirit, not our native talent” (88).
- In addition to asking God for wisdom and discernment, in light of texts such as 1 Cor 12:31 and 14:1 where we are called to pursue spiritual gifts, it would also seem appropriate to ask God to grant us whatever spiritual gifts would be most helpful for the local body to which we belong.
- Schreiner says it well: “We will discover our gift when we pour ourselves into the lives of other believers, when we get involved in the life of the body.” Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts, 82. Similarly, Poythress comments: “In practical terms, we are to seek Christ, and all he has to give, and then to serve his people. In so doing, gifts will come to light.” Poythress, Spiritual Gifts, 11.