What are spiritual gifts?

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Simply stated, spiritual gifts are “gifts” that the Holy Spirit gives to Christians for the building up, strengthening, and maintaining of the Church. For most Christians their conception is formed by various passages in the letters of the Apostle Paul (mainly 1 Corinthians 12.8-10, 28; Romans 12.6-8, and Ephesians 4.11), but the concept is actually much larger than these passages. In fact, we can even find examples of spiritual gifts in the Old Testament.

Spiritual Gifts in the Old Testament

Now, it’s important to note that the general view of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament among Christians is that he was given to specific people for specific tasks. This is different from the New Testament where the Holy Spirit indwells every Christian. In any case here are a couple of examples (i.e. this is not an exhaustive list) of spiritual gifts in the Old Testament:

  • The skill and ability to make the Tabernacle and priestly garments: Exodus 28.3; 31.3; 35.31
  • Empowering various political leaders: Numbers 11.16-17, 24-29; Judges 3.10; 6.34; 11.29; 14.6, 19; 15.14-15; 1 Samuel 10.1-11; 16.13; 19.20
  • Giving direct revelation from God to the Prophets: Ezekiel 11.5; Micah 3.8; Isaiah 48.16; Zechariah 7.12

On that last point it should be mentioned that the Old Testament Prophets do anticipate a time when all God’s people would receive direct revelation from God. Perhaps the most well known of these passages is Joel 2.28-29:

And it shall come to pass afterward,
that I will pour out my 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 servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

Other passages, such as Ezekiel 11.19-20; Isaiah 32.15, and Zechariah 12.10 also anticipate such a time. Christians believe that this time started on Pentecost (Acts 2.1-4) and continues until the present day.

Spiritual gifts in the New Testament

The Holy Spirit did not go on hiatus after Malachi, the last Old Testament prophet. He continued working and continues to work to this day. As far as the New Testament itself is concerned the Holy Spirit is present from the start in that he plays a role in the conception of Jesus (Matthew 1.20; Luke 1.35). Later, he confirms Jesus as God’s Messiah at his (Jesus’) baptism (Matthew 3.16-17; Mark 1.10-11; Luke 3.21-22; John 1.32-34). During Jesus’ ministry it is by the Holy Spirit that exorcisms (Matthew 12.28) and healings (Matthew 11.2-5) are performed.

In the book of Acts the reception of the Holy Spirit is an indispensable part of the conversion experiences. I have already mentioned Acts 2.1-4, but he also shows up in the conversion experiences of others, including Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews): Acts 2.37-42; 8.14-17; 10.44-48; 15.7-9; 19.1-6. It is important to note that only some of these experiences are accompanied by speaking in tongues and prophetic speech, not all. In fact, not even in the account of the Apostle Paul’s conversion (Acts 9.1-19) are speaking in tongues and prophetic speech mentioned. This means that speaking in tongues and/or “prophetically” are not required to prove that someone has truly converted and become a Christian. There are groups who believe this is the case, but it is a blatantly wrong and false belief. Most people do not have such experiences when they become Christians and these things are certainly not and have never been necessary to prove that your “conversion” or whatever was authentic.

Now, we finally come to what Paul has to say about spiritual gifts. He has a lot to say about them, more than any other NT author in fact. Peter does mention them briefly in 1 Peter 2.5; 4.10-11, but most of the discussion is done by Paul. Here is a breakdown of the three major spiritual gift lists that Paul gives:

1 Corinthians 12.8-10, 28 Romans 12.6-8 Ephesians 4.11
Word of wisdom Prophecy Apostles
Word of knowledge Serving Prophets
Faith Teaching Evangelists
Healing Exhortation Pastors
Miracles Giving Teachers
Prophecy Leading
Discerning of spirits Showing mercy
Interpretation of tongues

There are a few things to note about these “lists.” First, they do not all have the same gifts. This is likely because the lists are not intended to be exhaustive, that is, they do not contain all the possible spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit might give. Second, there is not a distinction between the miraculous gifts (e.g. prophecy) and the more mundane ones (e.g. giving). This is likely because they are all necessary for the proper functioning of the church (1 Corinthians 12.7-27) and thus one is not inherently greater than the other. In any case, whatever the gift, they all have the same source: the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12.4-6).

Now, Paul does indeed seem to teach that every Christian gets a spiritual gift so that they contribute to the overall health and progress of the church (1 Corinthians 12.7). However, as I have stated above, the lists are likely not exhaustive. So, just because you don’t happen to be able to find your spiritual gift on one of the above lists does not mean that you aren’t truly a Christian, it just means that it isn’t listed. I will also mention in this regard that it might be the case that you just haven’t discovered what your spiritual gift is yet. This might especially be the case for young people with not a whole lot of life experience. Although I would argue that knowing what specific gift you have is not really necessary; the primary thing is to be obedient to where God is leading and to what he is calling you to do. In fact, obsessing about this too much can lead to a form of analysis paralysis. So, don’t obsess about this, just do what God has called you to do.

I will mention one last thing before moving on. Remember, a spiritual gift is something given by the Holy Spirit to a Christian for the building up, strengthening, and maintaining of the Church. It is not a certain position in a church, ministry, or other religious organization. Just because you might have the position of teacher or pastor does not mean you have that spiritual gift. This also does not mean that you cannot be effective in such a role without that spiritual gift. It just means that spiritual gifts and your position in a church or ministry or whatever do not need to line up perfectly for others to benefit from your gift.


For most Christians their conception of spiritual gifts is formed by the writings of the Apostle Paul and specifically the three major gift lists mentioned above. However, the concept of spiritual gifts is much larger than these passages. The craftsmen who built the Tabernacle, some of Israel’s political leaders, and the Prophets also received spiritual gifts. Not to mention that the Incarnation (the 2nd person of the Trinity taking on human flesh) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in every Christian are themselves spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has given many more gifts than those mentioned in the three lists above for the building up, strengthening, and maintaining of the church. So, don’t obsess about finding your spiritual gift. Just be obedient to what God has called you to do.

Photo by Felipe Giacometti on Unsplash

Tom Ferguson ThM 2018, Dallas Theological Seminary