A cardinal mistake that many believers make is to confuse spiritual gifts with spiritual life. God’s highest aim for His children is that they grow and develop in spiritual life (1 Pet. 2:1-2). As we grow in the life of Christ, we move closer to realizing the Divine Purpose of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28-29; 2 Cor. 3:18). We also begin to function in ministry. And effective functioning requires the exercise of spiritual gifts.
Stated simply, spiritual gifts are the tools by which we express spiritual life and spiritual power. Put another way, gifts are the utensils by which we supply spiritual food to others.
Now I ask you, which is more important—gift or life? Obviously, life is more important than gift, for food is more important than the utensil. Would it really matter if you were served a piece of steak with a spoon rather than a fork? Although it is easier to serve steak with a fork, the substance of what one is served is of greater significance than the utensil by which it is served.
While it is tragic to stress spiritual gifts over spiritual life, it is a grave mistake to stress spiritual life at the expense of spiritual gifts. Due to the over-emphasis that some have placed on spiritual gifts and the abuses that have followed, some have opted to down-play and even ignore the role of spiritual gifts in the life of the church.
While spiritual gifts are certainly not a measure of spirituality, they are essential to the full expression of spiritual power and indispensable in spiritual service. To use a metaphor, we should not let the sloppy table-manners of some prevent us from using the sanctified utensils that God makes available to us at His table.
Although the food may be more important than the utensil, it is a mistake to toss the utensils. Note Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to exercise spiritual gifts:
But COVET EARNESTLY the best gifts . . . (1 Cor. 12:31) . . . DESIRE spiritual gifts, but rather that you may prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1) . . . Forasmuch as you are ZEALOUS of spiritual gifts, SEEK that you may excel to the edifying of the church (1 Cor. 14:12) . . . How is it then, brethren? When you gather together, every one of you has a psalm, has a doctrine, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation . . . (1 Cor. 14:26) . . . COVET to prophesy, and FORBID NOT to speak with tongues. (1 Cor. 14:39)
Although the Corinthians were guilty of abusing spiritual gifts, Paul never told them to stop exercising them. Quite the contrary. Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their excesses. But he followed that rebuke with solid instruction on the proper use of the gifts. Paul’s central point was that spiritual life (which is expressed through love) is to be held preeminent over spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor. 13:1-8).
According to Paul, spiritual gifts ought always to be used for the sole purpose of edifying the Body of Christ rather than ourselves. This is why Paul discusses the centrality and supremacy of love in 1 Corinthians 13 in the midst of his discourse on spiritual gifts in Chapters 12 and 14. Gifts are to be governed by love for our brothers and sisters. They are to be used to build up the Body in spiritual life.