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How Do Spiritual Gifts Work?

By Bryan Carraway
Guest Writer Some slight difference of opinion exists among teachers in the church over whether Christians actually possess certain spiritual gifts over a lifetime or whether they just manifest different gifts at different times as need arises. Some of the men and women whom I greatly admire hold a different view from me on this issue, so it is with the utmost respect for them that I offer you my alternative view.

Those who teach that all Christians receive a gift or gifts by the Spirit that they retain possession of throughout their lifetime are said to hold the “constitutional view.” Those who teach that we don’t retain ownership of any gifts, but rather simply manifest whatever gifts are needed for each situation, hold the “manifestational view.” Besides these two views, the most popular view in the church today is a hybrid of the first two views. I call it the “motivational view,” and Bill Gothard popularized it in the 1970s.

Other popular authors adopted the motivational view such as Don and Katie Fortune, as explained in their excellent book, Discover Your God Given Gifts, and soon it became the dominant view regarding the gifts. The motivational view holds that the gifts listed in Romans 12:6-8 are given to God’s people as permanent possessions and that every Christian has at least one of the seven gifts listed there.

The gifts of 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 are seen as manifestational in nature and are therefore not given as permanent gifts. This view sees those gifts as being resident in the Holy Spirit and only manifested through believers for limited amounts of time and for specific occasions as determined by the Spirit. Lastly, this view sees the spiritual gifts listed in Ephesians 4:11, not as spiritual gifts per se, but as “gifts of people” given to the universal church.

Paul’s Language When Describing Spiritual Gifts

The basic reasoning for the motivational view originates from the fact that the apostle Paul used three different Greek words to describe the gifts when he mentioned them in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, and Ephesians 4:11. I don’t believe Paul was trying to make rigid distinctions or highlight three separate classes of gifts just because he used three different words for the gifts. As a matter of fact, technically speaking, Paul actually used five Greek words interchangeably in his writings to describe the gifts. No teacher that I am aware of, however, suggests that there should now be five classes of spiritual gifts based on the five Greek words used.

Paul had various reasons for using different words to describe the gifts. These reasons ranged from using terms preferred by others (pneumatikon), using an Old Testament term (domata), using a term he actually preferred (charismata), and using the most common word in the Greek language of his day for “gift” (dorea).

In the book of 1 Corinthians Paul is answering a series of questions put to him by the church at Corinth. One of the questions concerned what a faction of the church was calling pneumatikon (“spiritual things” or “spirituals”). Our English Bible correctly translates this word “spiritual gifts.” Paul starts off in 1 Corinthians 12:1 talking about these pneumatikon and tries to correct the Corinthians who are using the gifts as signs of how spiritual they must be because they’re able to prophecy, speak in tongues, and perform miracles.

Paul validates their experiences but introduces a corrective by renaming these endowments charismata (gifts of grace) because he wants to emphasize that the gifts are given by God’s grace, not by man’s inherent spirituality. He also emphasizes that these gifts the Corinthians are so excited about (tongues, prophecy, miracles, etc.) are actually a manifestation (phanerosis) of the Spirit, not a manifestation of their own spirituality! It is due to Paul’s use of this term “phanerosis” (manifestation) in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that some teachers see the gifts listed here as a separate class of gifts that they call “manifestational gifts” and which are believed to be different from those listed in Romans 12:6-8 where the gifts are called charismata. However it is often not noted that right after Paul speaks of these “manifestations” he also begins using the term charismata throughout the rest of 1 Corinthians chapter 12; the same term he later uses exclusively in Romans 12:6-8!

Years later when Paul was teaching the Ephesian Christians about spiritual gifts, for the sake of variety in Ephesians 4:7 he used the common Greek word for gift, the word “dorea.” And in Ephesians 4:8 Paul quotes the Old Testament book of Psalms and uses yet another word for “gift,” domata, because that is the word used in Psalms 68:18. Therefore in summary, Paul used five words in the New Testament for what we call “spiritual gifts.” Those words were pneumatikon, phanerosis, charismata, dorea, and domata. These words were used for specific reasons but were never used by Paul to highlight distinct classes or types of gifts.

Did Paul Teach There Were “Motivational” and “Manifestational” Gifts?

Another fact to consider is that when Paul spoke of spiritual gifts in his letters he would always name off a few and then present a little teaching about them. Each time he wrote about the gifts he mixed them altogether and in no way attempted to confine them to “manifestational gifts” and “motivational gifts.” For example, he lists “prophecy” in Romans 12:6 and calls it a charisma while naming that same gift among the phanerosis in 1 Corinthians 12:10. Likewise, he lists the gift of “teaching” in Romans 12:7 as a charisma, and then lists the “teacher” among the domata of Ephesians 4:11.

The motivational view is so named because the gifts of Romans 12 are said to produce motivating tendencies for ministry within the believer. I wholeheartedly agree. But isn’t this true for all spiritual gifts, not just those in Romans 12:6-8? For those who have the gift of discernment, which is listed in the 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 list, is there not a motivational urge within them to carefully evaluate the spiritual state of things? What about the gift of evangelism listed in Ephesians 4:11? A primary characteristic of someone with that gift is a strong urging to share the gospel that very much motivates and colors everything they do. The same can be said for the gift of intercession, helps, etc.

Lastly, are the gifts given in 1 Corinthians 12 really manifestational in nature, not residing within us? Take the gift of tongues for example. Believers who have the gift of tongues don’t just speak in tongues in occasional manifestations, but rather can exercise that gift anytime they want as a volitional act of their will, as the apostle Paul confirms in 1 Corinthians 14:27-28.

This is because this gift is resident within them. Those who are endowed with the word of wisdom are given that anointing all of their life. Paul assumes that after time, people in the church know who those folks are and that others should bring their disagreements to them because they are known to “possess” that gift (see 1 Corinthians 6:5).

There have been many in the church who were widely known to possess other so-called “manifestational” gifts like the gift of healing in such people as Kathryn Kuhlman and John Wimber in times past, or Francis McNutt today. These individuals had a resident anointing that was within them all their life, not a manifestational, occasional experience. The same could be said with all of the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10.

Experience aside, I think the most convincing argument for the constitutional view is Scripture itself. When the apostle Paul is discussing the gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, he uses an analogy of a human body to illustrate his point. He instructs the Corinthian believers that although they all have different gifts (as symbolically represented by body parts) they are to all have the same respect and love for one another.

He states in verse 21, “and the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you: or again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” Paul did not say, “Quit being jealous church, you may be an eye today, but tomorrow you may manifest as a foot. Oh head, do not be proud for you may cease to be a head and turn into a toe tomorrow.” As a matter of fact, a few verses down in verse 28 Paul states that we are all to accept our place where God has appointed us. He then starts a series of rhetorical questions in which the implied answer to each is “no!” These questions are to illustrate that God assigns each Christian certain spiritual gifts that we possess for our whole life and that it is not to be expected that we will ever all have the same gift.

The very analogy of permanent body parts that Paul appeals to makes no sense if gifts constantly fluctuate from part to part. And where does Paul choose to employ the body part illustration? Not in Romans 12:6-8, but in 1 Corinthians 12, in the direct context of the so-called “manifestional” gifts! Paul seemed to be heavily implying here that each Christian has his or her own gifts and that they need to accept where the Lord has placed them within the body of Christ.

Order your copy of Bryan's new book: Spiritual Gifts: Their Purpose & Power

Other articles from Bryan Carraway on

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Bryan Carraway holds a master's degree in Practical Theology from Regent University. Over the last ten years he has served churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. He ministers in churches today via his teaching/preaching ministry with his message of sanctification and the fuller life in Christ. Send Bryan your e-mail comments.

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