Using Our Gifts in Proportion to our Faith, Part Three
November 14, 2004 — Sermons Edition
By John Piper
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. 4 For as in one body we have many members,and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 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.
Last time what I stressed is from this text is that the spiritual gifts of verses 6-8 are to be used in humility. Paul is continuing the exhortation of verse 3 that we should not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but to think in accordance with the measure of faith God has assigned to us. In other words, the opposite of high self-regard is faith in Christ. The opposite of high self-regard is not mainly low-self-regard, though that is a needed starting place in view of our sin and God’s holiness. The opposite of high self-regard is high regard for Christ. The opposite of pride is not paralyzing self-condemnation, but liberating Christ-exaltation. Which means that the best way to use your spiritual gifts is to forget about yourself as your joy in Christ spills over in love to other people.
Then we saw the way this looks in verse 8 when Paul described how the last three gifts were to be used. Verse 8b: “the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” I think Paul’s point is: when you don’t think too highly of yourself, but you forget about yourself and are filled with love to Christ, your ministry has the character of overflow. In giving your joy in Christ overflows with generosity. In leading your joy in Christ overflows with zeal. In mercy your joy in Christ overflows with cheerfulness. These three words (generosity, zeal, joy) are meant to show us that Christian ministry is not duty-driven or begrudging. It’s the overflow of a self-forgetting, happy relationship with Christ.
Six Gifts of the Spirit
Now, let’s take one more pass at these six gifts of the Spirit in verses 7 and 8 before we move on to verse 9 next time.
Let’s look at three things. First, let’s look at the relationships among the gifts themselves and draw out an application for how to seek the gifts. Second, let’s look at the relationship between the gifts and ordinary Christian virtue, and draw out an application for what the gifts really are. And third, lets look at how each of these gifts might look here at Bethlehem.
1. The Relationships Among the Gifts Themselves
The main observation I want to make here is that these gifts overlap with each other and even include each other, and therefore are not mutually exclusive or even rigidly defined. For example, in 1 Corinthians 14:3 Paul says, “The one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” The word “encouragement” is the same word as “exhortation” here in Romans 12:8, “the one who exhorts, in his exhortation.” So here two gifts, exhortation (or encouragement) and prophecy overlap. Another example is Titus 1:9 which (literally) says that the elders should “exhort in sound teaching.” These are the same words that we find here at the end of verse 7 and the beginning of verse 8: teaching and exhorting. Only exhorting is said to use teaching. So again the gifts overlap.
And if you just look at the list itself, how would you precisely draw a line in verse 8 between contributing generously and doing acts of mercy cheerfully? Surely the one who is joyfully merciful is a generous person. So these two gifts overlap. Or take “service” at the beginning of verse 8. How will you distinguish “serving” from “doing mercy”?
My conclusion is that Paul does not intend to give us tightly distinguishable categories. The implication of this is that in seeking to receive and use spiritual gifts (which we should surely do, 1 Corinthians 14:1), we should not think mechanically, as if there is a set number, or that they have fixed boundaries, or that they come in separate packages, so that if you have one you can’t have the other, or that they come complete and in no varying proportions or mixtures. Don’t think like that.
Instead, leave to God how he will gift you and use you. Your combination of gifts may—probably will—be utterly different from anyone else’s. I doubt that any Christian has ever had only one spiritual gift, and I doubt that any Christian has ever had the same spiritual gift in the same degree. They come in degrees, and they come in mixtures. Instead of trying to figure out the definitions and boundaries and names and differences of your gifts, do this: Go back to verse 1 and hear the call to be mercy-dependent and mercy-loving because of how much Christ has done for you mercifully on the cross. Then go to verse 3 and surrender all high thoughts about yourself and look away with joy to the glories of Christ. Then begin to let this joy overflow in love for other people in all the ways you can. And the ways of love that seem more joyful and more fruitful are your gifts, whatever you call them or whatever mix they are of mercy and service and giving and teaching and exhorting and leading.
Now I have jumped ahead to the second point of the message.
2. The Relationship Between the Gifts and Ordinary Christian Virtue
I said let your joy in Christ overflow in love for other people in all the ways you can. And the ways of love that seem more joyful and more fruitful are your gifts. Where do I get that idea?
Well think with me for a moment about the relationship between these gifts and what all Christians are supposed to be like. Take the gift of “service,” for example, from the beginning of verse 7: “if service, in our serving.” Now the word for “service” here is the same word for “ministry” in Ephesians 4:12 where the pastors are supposed “to equip the saints for the work of ministry—service.” So all Christians are supposed to be involved in “service.” Yet it is called a spiritual gift of some.
Or take the gift of doing mercy at the end of verse 8. Well, we know that all Christians are supposed to be merciful. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful” (Matthew 5:7). And he told a parable about a person who was treated mercifully by a king and then choked his brother who owed him a few dollars—to which the king responded, “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33).
Or consider the gift of contributing. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that all of us should be free and willing, liberal givers, “for God loves a cheerful giver.” And in Ephesians 4:28 Paul says, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share [same word as Romans 12:8, “contribute”] with anyone in need.” So either every converted thief should have the gift of contributing, or contributing is an ordinary Christian virtue—which it is!
Or take the gift of exhortation in verse 8 (“the one who exhorts, in his exhortation”) and compare it to the command in Hebrews 3:13, “Exhort one another every day.” This is addressed to all in the church. We all have a Christian calling to exhort one another, whether we have a spiritual gift of exhortation or not.
So what shall we conclude from this observation that some spiritual gifts are things that God expects in some measure from all believers? Service, mercy, contributing, exhorting—they are all ordinary Christian virtues.
My conclusion is this: Some of these virtues come more joyfully and are more fruitfully for some than for others. When that happens I think we can call it a spiritual gift. In other words, it seems to me that some take unusual spiritual delight in serving, or giving, or doing mercy, or teaching, or leading, or exhorting. The Holy Spirit has shaped their hearts so that they find themselves unusually drawn to these things.
Or it may be that only for a specific season God may come upon a person for an unusual ministry of church leadership or financial contribution which is simply extraordinary. Then after that season the gifting (anointing, unusual inclination and empowerment) may subside. So I say that a spiritual gift in this sense is one of the Christian virtues that one has unusual joy and satisfaction in doing—either over a lifetime or for an unusual season.
Then I also use the word “fruitful.” If your activity is not bearing fruit in helping other people grow in faith, it’s probably not a spiritual gift. Spiritual gifts are not just natural abilities used in church. Spiritual gifts are Spirit enabled forms of love that over time build up other people. If you think you have the gift of exhortation but no one is helped by your words, you probably don’t. If you think you have the gift of teaching, but no one is growing in joyful grasp of the ways of God, you probably don’t. If you think you have the gift of service, but in your attempts you make others feel insulted, you probably don’t. In other words, one of the measures of our spiritual gifts is that others are spiritually helped. A spiritual gift is a fruitful form of love.
So my conclusion is that mercy and service and contributing and exhorting, as well as others, are ordinary Christian virtues that we should all have. But they become spiritual gifts when we find the virtues pouring out with unusual joy and with unusual fruitfulness for others.
So I think the way to seek these gifts is to pray broad, earnest prayers that God would make you joyful and fruitful in every form of Christian love. Lord help me to overflow joyfully in mercy and service and giving and exhorting, as well as in the more role-specific gifs of leading and teaching. Help me to be joyful and fruitful in all the manifold ways of love.
And I think it would be totally fitting that some of you would have a special burden to become especially gifted in one or the other. And so specific prayers would be fitting. Lord, grant me the gift of mercy. Make me delight more and more in acts of mercy and make me more and more fruitful in seeing others come to Christ as I show them mercy.
Or: Lord, I feel a great burden to be more and more fruitful in teaching and in exhorting. I want to see people profoundly changed in my teaching and in every exhortation that I make. Please grant me to overflow with more and more joy and power in teaching and in exhortation.
Which brings us to the last point.
3. How Would These Gifts Look Here at Bethlehem?
Here is one snapshot for each of these gifts.
Service, verse 7a: “if service, in our serving.” I suspect Paul has in mind here the practical, often lowly, ordinary needs of people. So my prayer is that God may continue to raise up a small army of people at Bethlehem who don’t seek the limelight, but have the gift of service: who joyfully and fruitfully serve. Who say: Is there a need I can fill? Is there a need for a dreamer and lover and mobilizer in the service of parking, to stand with a band of hearty souls in the winter wind and help guests and members find their way to a parking place? I would love to serve.
Teaching, verse 7b: “the one who teaches, in his teaching.” I pray two things. First, I pray that everyone who learns anything about God and his ways at Bethlehem would seek the gift to teach it to another. And second, I pray that all leadership at Bethlehem would lead by teaching and persuading, not by power and compulsion. May all leaders at every level pray for the gift of teaching.
Exhorting, verse 8a: “the one who exhorts, in his exhortation.” Amazingly in Philemon 1:8-9 Paul, the great apostle, who teaches with divine authority, writes to his friend, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal [literally “exhort”] to you.” In other words, if the gift exhortation abounds in this way, Bethlehem will be motivated by love and not coercion. May the gift of exhorting abound and may all our ministry be love.
Contributing, verse 8b: “the one who contributes, in generosity.” The only way that this church survives and thrives with its $4.5 million church and mission budget and its $10 million campus-multiplying, church-planting Global Diaconate strategy for spreading a passion for God’s supremacy (called Treasuring Christ Together)—the only way we survive and thrive is that God does two things: he causes hundreds of you to delight in the ordinary, radical Christian virtue of proportionate, regular, sacrificial, cheerful giving. And, second, he give dozens of you the spiritual gift of contributing with extraordinary joyful and fruitful generosity (some are poor who have this gift, and some are rich). God knows who you are. And in the last day the books will be opened and you will see the fruit.
Leading, verse 8c: “the one who leads, with zeal.” Very simply, I pray that God will continue to give to this church a pastoral staff and a council of elders who have the gift of zealous leadership, that is, who lead with a burning zeal for Christ and for his word and for the mission of this church to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. Oh, may the Lord spare us lazy, coasting, sluggish, elders and staff. May he grant to us leaders with the gift of burning zeal to see the Twin Cities and the nations Treasuring Christ Together!
Doing mercy, verse 8d: “the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.” May the Lord make us all merciful. May we be a mercy-dependent, mercy-loving church that treasures Christ together above all. But also may the Lord raise up among us, as he is doing, more and more people who find their special joy and their unusual fruitfulness in showing mercy to the poor in Jesus’ name.
Lord, for your great name’s sake and for the good of the church and for the joy of all peoples, grant these gifts to abound. Amen.
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