Spiritual Gifts (I): Introduction

By Bruce Edwards, Jr.

Pentecostalism is a real and formidable threat to the steadfast faith of God’s people in these days. The preoccupation with the subjective and “miraculous” which has permeated the denominational world has also made in-roads among New Testament Christians. The imperative is therefore self-evident that the child of God must have a proper perspective regarding the Biblical topic of spiritual gifts. This present series of articles is not intended to be a treatise on modern Pentecostal trends and dogma. Many more abler writers have dealt with these themes in depth, adequately refuting the claims of the “Charismatic movement.”(1) Denominational scholarship has also directed its attention to the alarming Pentecostal progress within its own ranks.(2) Our purpose will be to examine spiritual gifts in their first century and thus New Testament context to determine what they were, their design in the Divine economy, and how they were used by the early brethren. Our primary text for this study will be Paul’s list of gifts in 1 Cor. 12:8-11, although other relevant texts will be consulted when they bear upon the discussion. At this point, it is in order by way of introduction to examine the following items briefly: (1) The meaning of “spiritual gifts”; (2) The Divine purpose in the bestowal of such gifts; (3) How the gifts were bestowed; and (4) The duration of the gifts.


The most commonly used word in the New Testament regarding spiritual gifts is charisma. It is found 17 times in the New Testament, only once by another writer (Peter) other than Paul. The basic meaning of charisma is that of “a gift (freely and graciously given), a favor bestowed . . .”(3) It is used of material and spiritual blessings in a general sense but in regard to spiritual gifts in a special way (Cf. Rom. 12:6; 1 Cor. 12:4, 9, 28, 30, 31). “The plural form is used chiefly in a technical sense to denote the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit bestowed on Christians for special service . . . .”(4) The basic idea is thus of a gift freely and graciously given and received without merit which enables the possessor to serve in an extraordinary way.

Another word used for these gifts is pneumatikos. Strictly speaking the word contains no inherent idea of “gift” but rather points out the nature of the gift by metonymy. Paul uses the term pneumatikos (“spirituals” or “spiritual things”) to introduce his discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Cor. 12:1 and also in 14:1, “gifts” being supplied by the translators. Pneumatikos may have been the most popular designation given the gifts by the Corinthians and possibly used by Paul in an ironic sense in view of their immaturity regarding their use. The terms charisma and pneumatikos are found together only in Rom. 1:11, translated “spiritual gifts.”

One other word used for “gift” in our context is merismos, found in Heb. 2:4. The idea here is that of a “distribution” or “apportionment” by the Holy Spirit and hence a “gift of the Spirit” in which He is the donor.

Purpose of The Gifts

“The basic New Testament purpose of signs, wonders, powers and spiritual gifts was to confirm or substantiate, by an outward manifestation or demonstration, the divine power and authority which had given a new and divine message.”(5) Heb. 2:1-4 is a passage bearing significant evidence concerning the purpose of spiritual gifts. Edward Fudge summarized the teaching of this section thusly:(6)

(1) The Lord spoke. We did not hear Him; the readers of the epistle just read did not hear Him. But some individuals did hear Him.

(2) Those who heard confirmed what He said. The Lord spoke, and those who heard Him gave sound testimony of what they heard. But that is not all.

(3) God also bore witness with those. ear-witnesses through extraordinary-in fact, supernatural-manifestations and attestations. From such corroborating passages as 2 Cor. 12:12 and Acts 2:22, 23 it is evident these “signs” or “powers” accompanied the apostolic proclamation for the precise purpose of confirming the Divine origin of their message.

This underlying rational behind the gifts raises the question of whether the message must be “confirmed” in every subsequent generation by these supernatural manifestations. The experience of the skeptical Thomas provides us with an answer. Thomas would not believe Jesus had been raised from the dead except he “see in His hands the print of the nails” and put his “finger into His side” (Jn. 20:25). Jesus makes another appearance and Thomas does believe (vss. 26-28) but notice Jesus’ evaluation of the episode: “Because thou hast seen me thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (Jn. 20:29). This mild rebuke by the Lord shows that faith can be based on the testimony of those who have seen the signs. As John adds in the very next verses, “Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, ye may have life in His name.” We do not stand in need of another confirmation, but rather need to turn to the New Testament Scriptures-in the same way that Abraham directed the rich man to the Old Testament Scriptures (Lk. 16)-obeying all that we read that we might have life in the Son.

But there is also a secondary purpose behind the bestowal of spiritual gifts with special application to the church which is an obvious by-product of this grace of God apart from apologetic value. These gifts were given for the edification and establishment of the first century church. The gifts served a necessary, though temporary, function in the infant church. All the gifts enumerated in 1 Cor. 12 (or any others) were for the establishment of those struggling new communities of believers that they might “profit withal” in their fellowship together (1 Cor. 12:7). The gifts were given for the encouragement and growth of all and thus none was ever bestowed for “private devotion” as the Pentecostal claim is sometimes registered. The public assembly (1 Cor. 14) was the Divinely sanctioned occasion for the exercising of such gifts for the edification of all.

Transmission of The Gifts

It is evident from a study of the New Testament that there are only two possible ways one could receive a spiritual gift: (1) The direct outpouring from heaven of the Holy Spirit, administered by Jesus Himself (see Acts 2:33); or (2) The impartation by the laying on of the apostles’ hands.

Concerning the former, there are only two instances of this “outpouring” occurring in the New Testament. The first involved the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, enabling them to speak in foreign languages (Acts 2). The second involved the household of Cornelius, a Gentile, with the same observable effect (Acts 10). In both cases the “outpouring” and the attendant spiritual gift served the same purpose: confirming the Divine origin of the apostolic message. In Acts 2, the supernatural manifestation was necessary to show decisively that the Jewish theocracy was terminated and that the “last days” had been ushered in, in fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32. In Acts 10, the supernatural manifestation was necessary to overcome Jewish prejudice regarding the right of Gentiles to come into the kingdom (See Acts 11:1-18; 15:6-11). These two occasions were an integral part of the Divine economy in establishing the new Messianic order. Neither case came about as a result of being sought or pursued. Both cases were in fulfillment of prophecy and promise and thus neither were designed to be nor could be repeated.(7)

The other manner in which one could receive a spiritual gift was through the laying on of an apostle’s hands. In Acts 8, Philip the evangelist had successfully established a community of believers, baptizing them into Christ (vs. 16). However, none of those new Christians had received a spiritual gift. Though filled “with the Spirit” (Acts 6:5), Philip was apparently unable to bestow such gifts. Hence the apostles, Peter and John, journeyed to Samaria for the express purpose of imparting some gifts (Vss. 14, 15). The action involved in the impartation included prayer (vs. 15) and the laying on of hands (vs. 17). That it was through this manner that the gifts were transmitted is established by Luke’s testimony in vs. 18, “Now when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money.” If there had been another group of persons capable of bestowing the gifts or another means or manner for reception of the gifts, then Peter and John would not have come to Samaria. The work and writings of Paul (Acts 19:1-7; Rom. 1:11; 2 Tim. 1:6) confirm the conclusion that the apostles, that body of men possessing the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18), were the only ones capable of imparting the gifts.

Duration of the Gifts

Keeping the foregoing discussion in mind regarding the purpose and transmission of spiritual gifts, one must accept the inescapable conclusion that it is impossible to receive a spiritual gift today. Most refutation of the Pentecostal position over past years has centered upon the text of 1 Cor. 13, involving a word by word and point by point examination of Paul’s oracles in vss. 8-13. Indeed, Paul’s declaration that “prophecies . . . shall be done away . . . tongues . . . shall cease . . . knowledge shall be done away” demonstrates that such gifts were temporary; this writer, however does not believe that this evidence, formidable though it is, is the strongest argument against the continuance of spiritual gifts today. We would suggest that an accurate appreciation of the purpose and means of transmission of these gifts represents a more powerful challenge to the “Charismatic movement.”

It is logical to conclude that if the only two “outpourings” of the Spirit were in specific fulfillment of prophecy and promise, that such could not be possible modes of reception today. Again, it is logical to concluo that if the only other possible manner of obtaining spiritual gifts was through the laying on of the apostles’ hands and there are no living apostles, that also this source of such gifts is defunct. Aligning this data beside the New Testament purpose behind such supernatural manifestations, one has a formidable case for the cessation of those manifestations. Nevertheless, it is certainly in order to use 1 Cor. 13:8-13 as corroborating testimony, demonstrating that the apostle’s end in view is the completion of the inscripturated revelation.

Our conclusion then is that spiritual gifts must not be divorced from their context within God’s whole plan of redemption. When properly understood, one realizes that these gifts were at best temporary measures to confirm the apostolic message as Divine and to establish the primitive church, terminating with the culmination of the apostolic mission.



2. One publication, Present Truth, has been started by a group of conservative Protestants for the express purpose of combating Pentecostal subjectivism arid curtailing its influence.

3. William F. Ardndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 887.

4. W. G. Putman, ‘Spiritual Gifts,” New Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1962), p. 1212.

5. Edward Fudge, Speaking In Tongues (Athens: The C. E. I. Pub. Co., 1971), p. 7.

6. Ibid.

7. For a fuller treatment of this theme see James Bales’ The Hub of the Bible and The Case of Cornelius.

Truth Magazine XVIII: 4, pp. 12-13
November 28, 1974