As I’ve established in Parts I – III, spiritual manifestations are real, important, and they should function in the Body today. But they must be held in proper balance.
Interestingly, spiritual gifts operate non-personally. This means that they function regardless of the spiritual stature of the person who functions in them. Gifts can be thought of as an outside power that God places upon an individual for a specific task.
Accordingly, the Bible gives us many instances where newborn babes and even carnal Christians functioned in powerful gifts (Acts 19:1-6; 1 Cor. 3, 14). God’s ultimate purpose, however, is intensely personal. It is not outward, but inward. God’s highest aim for His children is the inward formation of Christ within them. It is not the outward manifestation of the Spirit that temporarily abides upon them.
The essence of the gospel is conformity to Christ. The abiding purpose of God is that Christ be formed in us (Rom. 8:28-29; Gal. 4:19). Gifts are called “spiritual” simply because they come from the Holy Spirit, not because the recipients are spiritual people. As I’ve put it elsewhere, the closer a person is to Jesus, the less self-righteous, the less judgmental, the less harsh, and the less self-absorbed he or she will be.
Samson was one of the most gifted individuals in history (his power was virtually unlimited). Yet Samson was found lacking in character and spiritual understanding. Due to his foolishness, he was of little account to the Lord. He was raised up and gifted to fulfill an immediate purpose and nothing more.
Samson (the judge), Saul (the king), and Balaam (the prophet) are summary witnesses to the fact that the possession of impressive gifts does not insure spiritual maturity. The gifts of God can never be revoked. So a person can live ungodly and still have a power gift operating in their life.
This has been the cause of untold confusion in the church. It is hard to understand how a person can operate in the most extraordinary gifts yet practice gross sin. Such people are eventually shelved, even though their gifts remain. I’ve seen this happen to several people over the years. Samson, Saul, and Balaam were eventually put out of commission because of their deficit in spiritual life and character.
So it’s a grave mistake to gauge the spirituality of a person by the presence or absence of spiritual gifts. In themselves, gifts are a flimsy basis for a person’s usefulness to God. While they do have their value, there is something in God’s heart that is far greater—the formation of Christ within one’s character. How do they react under attack and persecution? Do they attack back or do they bear the cross and take on the spirit of the Lamb, trusting God to vindicate? Do they believe the worst of others or the best? Are they merciful or self-righteous? Do they lift others up or do they lift themselves up constantly?
A person can be tremendously gifted and still fail here. God’s goal is to have Christ’s character wrought in us . . . which is found in the fruit of the Spirit . . . . treating others the way we want to be treated in every situation.
While some people are in love with “spiritual work,” God is more interested in what we are than in what we do. He is more concerned with our being rather than in our doing. This does not imply that we are to be quietists and pacifists. It rather means that a person can be busily engaged in spiritual works and in the exercise of spiritual gifts, yet be lacking in any real value to God due to a dearth in spiritual life. In the words of T. Austin-Sparks,
“There is a difference between spiritual gifts and spiritual persons. The gifts—what are they? The result of the Spirit coming upon a person. The spiritual person—what is he? He is spiritual as a result of the Spirit forming within. There is a lot of difference between inward formation and merely outward action.”
As the Lord Himself becomes more precious to us, all other things—even spiritual “things” like gifts—become less important as things in themselves. We begin to seek the Lord’s face rather than His hand. And we realize that He is the incarnation of all gifts and graces.