What are spiritual gifts and how do we use them?

A while ago now, I share this article by John Piper explaining his view on what makes a gift a spiritual gift. The whole thing is worth reading, but I especially liked his definition of spiritual gifts and how he differentiated them from natural gifts. His basic definition was this:

[A] spiritual gift is an expression of faith that aims to strengthen faith… A spiritual gift is activated by faith and aims to produce more faith in another person. Or another way to put it would be this: a spiritual gift is an ability given by the Holy Spirit to express our faith effectively for the upbuilding of another’s faith.

That is ultimately what makes a gift a spiritual gift. It is from faith for the purposes of building up faith. Which distinguishes it from natural abilities that are neither from faith nor intended to be used for the purposes of building up faith.

What I like about that definition – quite apart from the way Piper gets to it, which I think is helpful itself – is that it stops us worrying too much about whether we are serving God from natural abilities or spiritual gifts. It stops us worrying about what our spiritual gifts might be and how we might best utilise them. Instead, it puts the emphasis where it should be. Any gift – whether it is a role, skill, ability or something else – if it is employed in faith for the purposes of strengthening someone else’s faith, then it is a spiritual gift. Faith is ultimately what makes our gifts spiritual which are given to us, as elect believers in Christ, for the purpose of strengthening and building up faith in others.

I was reminded of this definition again this week looking at the end of Moses life in Deuteronomy 34. Moses lived to the age of 120 and, according to scripture, never lost his energy or vitality. He seemed especially equipped to do the task that God wanted him to do. It is notable that Moses, initially, had no interest in leading God’s people; he actively tried to get out of doing it! he did not feel naturally equipped. But he is hailed, in Deuteronomy 34, as a great leader of Israel who was equipped by God to do what the Lord would have him do for the purposes of leading his people. Some of Moses’ leadership no doubt sprung from his natural character, personality and skill. Some of it was most clearly supernaturally empowered. But in either case, his natural skills and temperament were granted to him by God and whatever supernatural abilities he had were clearly from the Lord too. Such as Moses used either in faith for the purposes of strengthening the faith of God’s people, he was effectively exercising spiritual gifting.

I don’t think we particularly need to drive a wedge between natural and supernatural gifting. All of these things come from our sovereign God in the end. But what makes a gift a spiritual one is whether it proceeds from faith for the purpose of strengthening faith. But that matters because if all this comes from our sovereign God, and he orders these things so that we might serve his glory, and his glory is served as his people grow in their faith and Christlike character, he will surely equip us to do all that he would have us do for his sake.

Every single believer is tasked with the job of making disciple-making disciples. We don’t all do that the same way. We don’t all have the same role. Whatever role we may have, we don’t necessarily have the same role for time eternal. But all of us are called into the work of disciple-making by the Lord Jesus and all of us will be equipped to do the work he would have us do in it by his Holy Spirit. Which means the task before us is not to figure out what our spiritual gifts are and then serve by them. Our job is to serve in whatever way we are able to strengthen faith – whether by making new disciples or building up existing ones – and trust that God will equip us with whatever we need in order to do that work.

That is what it means to proceed from faith, isn’t it? Either the faith that God has given me these particular skills to serve his glory or that God will equip me with whatever I need – even though I’m not sure I am able – to serve in the particular way he is calling me to serve him. That service has the goal of glorifying God. We glorify him by obeying him in faith. We act in faith by trusting him to use our service to bring people to faith and strengthen existing faith. When we do that – whether natural or supernatural – we are using our spiritual gifts for God’s glory.