Rethinking the Gifts of the Spirit: Part X

Over the last four decades, a heated controversy has raged in the church over the question of spiritual gifts. It has been my experience that much of the disagreement among believers regarding spiritual gifts often finds its basis in a conflicting conversational style. That is to say, two believers may actually have similar beliefs and experiences regarding the gifts, but because they use different theological jargon, they mistakenly conclude that their beliefs and experiences are worlds apart. I liken this phenomenon to that of medicine and medicine labels.

Suppose, for example, that your doctor prescribes a certain medicine for a stomach disorder from which you suffer. Through a careless mistake, the medicine is labeled improperly. Instead of labeling it “Senna,” as it should be, the medicine bottle is mislabeled “Sopor.” Not knowing the difference, you take the medicine and it aids in your recovery. Yet when you tell others how this medicine (Sopor) has helped you, they are dumfounded because Sopor does not relieve stomach problems. 

Now shift the scenario. Suppose that your doctor tells you that you need to begin taking Valium. When you receive the prescription, you are given the wrong medicine—it’s actually Ritalin. Regrettably, the label reads “Valium.” The consequences would be disastrous. You, in effect, would be deceived by the label, thinking you were ingesting a certain medication when in fact you were taking something else.

This analogy is an apt metaphor for the conversational barriers that often bring confusion to discussions about spiritual gifts. The medicine is analogous to the gifts, while the label is analogous to how we describe and define them.

Oftentimes, Christians will actually have tasted the same medicine. But because one is using a Pentecostal label and the other is using a Reformed label to describe their experience, confusion and marginalization over the issue are the net effects. At the same time, just because a person may use Biblical language to describe his or her experience does not insure that the experience is valid. The label can be correct and the medicine wrong. Let me pose an example to illustrate how this fleshes out. Suppose Pete and Roger are carrying on a dialogue about the gift of prophecy. Pete is a Pentecostal. Roger is Reformed.

Pete believes the gift of prophecy exists today and claims to have it. Pete describes his gift with a Pentecostal label. Thus his explanation of the gift is punctuated with expressions like “revelation,” “thus saith the Lord,” “God told me,” “I felt led,” “God showed me,” etc. Roger believes that “Divine revelation” is no longer given to the church and that the gift of prophecy ceased with the closing of the NT canon. Pete shares with Roger that he has given people “personal prophecies.”

In describing these experiences, Pete uses the King James expression “thus saith the Lord.” When Roger asks Pete about the content of these “prophecies,” he discovers that they were mainly general exhortations and had no real impact on the people Pete delivered them to.

Roger is both skeptical and turned-off by this. You see, Roger rejects Pentecostal theology. And he does not employ standard charismatic jargon to describe his experiences. But he does have a vital relationship with God. In addition, Roger often receives “thoughts” and “burdens” to exhort, challenge, and direct others in their walk with God. He also senses things about people that go beyond his natural reasoning powers.

In one instance, Roger was awakened from sleep one night to write a letter to a friend who had left the Lord. After prayerfully writing the letter, he mailed it the next day. When his friend received the letter, he notified Roger and told him that it was exactly what he needed to hear. As a result, Roger’s friend was restored to the Lord.

Roger was exercising the genuine gift of prophecy through his letter (1 Cor. 14:3, 24-25), but he feels uncomfortable using the word “prophecy” to describe it. Because Roger fails to describe the letter with the charismatic accents that mark Pete’s description of prophecy, it never occurs to Pete that Roger has in fact prophesied by the Spirit of God.

The fact of the matter is that Roger has operated in the gift of prophecy. But because of his Reformed doctrine concerning the gifts, Roger fails to call it by that label.

On the other hand, while Pete may use the correct label when describing the gift (prophecy), he does not own the true medicine himself. Instead, Pete appears to have substituted his own good intentions, ideas, and zeal with the genuine gift of prophecy. In a word, Roger has tasted the correct medicine, but he has used the wrong label. Pete has tasted the wrong medicine, but has used the right label.

This illustration demonstrates how disagreements over the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are often rooted in varying conversational styles. The principle of the medicine and the medicine label lies at the root of many other controversies regarding Christian experience. Such divergent labels that are commonplace are as follows:

“The baptism of the Holy Ghost” vs. “the fullness or empowering of the Spirit.” “Illumination” or “spiritual insight” vs. “revelation.” “Faith healing” vs. “Divine healing.” “Delivering a message” vs. “bringing a word from the Lord.” Feeling “burdened” or “exercised” vs. being “led.” “Following a spiritual instinct” vs. “following the Spirit.” Having an “unction” vs. having “an anointing.” “Ministering life” vs. “giving Christ” or “bringing the Lord.”

These are some of the semantic differences that Christians have when describing spiritual experiences. The common mistake of confusing the label with the medicine ought to urge us to re-evaluate the language we use when discussing supernatural phenomena and spiritual experiences. Rather than hone in on the specific rhetoric that one employs, it’s wiser to seek to hear and understand the reality of another’s experience—realizing that the person may describe it in a way that is foreign (and sometimes irritating) to our ears. As we seek to do this, we can better learn Jesus Christ from one another.

Note: I sketch out the three major spiritual conversational styles that Christians use in Revise Us Again.

Read Part IX

Stay tuned for Part XI

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  1. Ruth Thomas says

    JUST A THOUGHT: But it would be really interesting if ONE DAY, we discover that gifts were never in the ORIGINAL INTENT of God, but simply living a life in COMPLETE union with Him; speaking His language and doing things His way (only partaking of the fruit of LIFE). Perhaps there is a HIGHER LEARNING. JUST A THOUGHT, BUT…. Love you all. Ruth

  2. Teague McKamey says

    This is right on. My Pastor & I (who have charismatic backgrounds) hang out with a Southern Baptist Pastor from time to time. We think he operates in gifts he wouldn’t theologically accept. For example, when praying for us, sometimes he “reads our mail;” God gives him words of knowledge. There are other instances as well. I have no doubt he is gifted by the Holy Spirit! It is important not to get hung up on jargon. As Paul says, we should avoid arguments about words (1 Tim. 6:4).

  3. Angela says

    To AkaGaGa: Although I too have strong issues with any groups that practice infant baptism/confirmation like the Reformed, and although many people have the same experience as you, there are many people who do meet the Lord growing up in such an environment and whose confirmation is meaningful to them. You don’t have to know or use the label ‘born again’ to BE born again in Christ.

    What is needed in ALL branches of the church in America is more focus on the Lord. If He is exalted, He will draw people to Himself in spite of the doctrinal errors. But it is always a bad idea to exalt a specific action or ceremony to the level of ‘magic’ (even the ‘sinner’s prayer’!) without emphasizing that there has to be a reality to it. We on the more charismatic end of the spectrum can be just as bad.

    • akaGaGa says

      You make good points, Angela, and I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. There were, in fact, “real” Christians at the Reformed church, although few in number. Mostly, though, they were people who went to church once a week and considered their “Christian duty” done. And you’re right that the Pentecostals/Charismatics have their problems, as well.

      God, of course, can and does meet people wherever they are, whether in a church with bad doctrine or a whorehouse.

      What I can’t seem to get passed is teaching that keeps hidden what is truly needed to live with the in-dwelling Christ. For myself, I do not have peace endorsing (by my presence) such teaching.

      This has all become moot, though, as my husband and I left the institutional church, whatever flavor, a few years ago.

  4. Donna Winrow says

    I was raised in the Charismatic church, and have recently left it behind and joined the reformed church. To say that the difference between the two is a difference in “varying conversational styles” could not be any more false. I think that it’s very irresponsible of an author to write an article like this when he has clearly not been involved deeply enough in the cult of the Charismatic to understand the abuse and utterly false teachings that they impose on their congregations on a regular basis. I urge you to spend a couple of months enmeshed on the “signs and wonders” or the “prosperity gospel” movements, and watch people mindlessly give away their savings as a direct result of extra biblical revelation, or spend hours meditating on their “personal prophecies” while their bibles sit on the shelf collecting dust before you claim to have any understanding of this topic in the future.

    • says

      Donna: First, the post never stated that *all* disagreements on this issue are based in a diverging conversational style. But many are. I’ve been part of *both* Reformed churches and Charismatic churches in the past and as you can see from the comments, what I’m saying here is reality for many.

      Second, your comment characterizes all Charismatics and Charismatic churches with the worst elements of the movement. Your description of Charismatics do not fit people like Adrian Warnock, Francis Frangipane, and a host of others. It would be like someone coming on here and denigrating *all* Reformed people and churches because of the abuses of *some* neo Reformed churches today.

      I hope that clarifies things.

  5. susan says

    Great teaching using the metaphors. I hate, as I am sure that Jesus hates as well, the camps/denominations that the Church has divided itself into. It grieves my spirit to see and experience the divisions when many things that divide her are from the lack of understanding or love of one another.

  6. Yuri says


    This is a helpful way to navigate through the theological minefield. Thanks for the analogies.

    These days I don’t rely much on labels instead I ask what you mean by conservative/liberal/Reformed/Pentecostal, etc., and generally proceed from there.

    I use NVC (non-violent communication) as a tool when communicating with people I know are going to have different opinions from my own.

    Historically, it’s a shame that having one’s jargon/catechism/confession at odds with another could have cost one’s life.

  7. akaGaGa says

    This is personally interesting to me as I’ve walked in both camps. I was nominally raised in a small Reformed church, but drifted away from God as a teenager. At age 39, I was born again (over the internet!) and then spent several years in a Pentecostal church.

    Then I returned to the Reformed church for a few years. While I was there, I determined, as you have, that many of the differences were largely semantics. I saw the gifts of the Spirit operating in a limited way, but they were never identified as such.

    After some research, reflection,and prayer, however, I discovered that some of the differences are more substantial. The most important from my perspective is being “born again.” That phrase AND that concept were never heard in the Reformed church, neither when I was a child nor as an adult. Consequently, when the Lord was calling me to make a commitment to Him, my human help didn’t come from that church, but from a man 2800 miles away using the internet.

    I puzzled over this for years, and didn’t understand how we were required as third graders to memorize John 3:16 – yet we completely ignored John 3:3 and being born again.

    On digging through church documents on the internet, however, I discovered that the Reformed church believes we are “born again” into the church (althought they don’t use that phrase) when we are baptized as infants. We then “confirm” our commitment as young teenagers by becoming church “members.”

    For myself, this is not an issue of semantics. I know that before I was born again at 39, I did not have Christ in me. I have only to look at the things I did and thought before then. I know the exact moment that the Holy Spirit entered me to take up residence, and began the process of making me more like Christ.

    If left to the Reformed church, I would never have known that I needed to repent and turn my life over to Jesus. No one ever told me there was something I had to do. It was simply assumed that I was a “Christian” because I was baptized as an infant.

  8. says

    This is an excellent way of clarifying the issue. In fact, I believe this whole issue extends far beyond the subject of spiritual gifts. It includes the ways the Body of Christ describes it’s belief systems. Every “camp” has their insistence on what’s “biblical” or “scriptural” and it boils down to using words in different ways and meaning the same thing in the end. Although I’m a strong proponent of accuracy with God’s Word, I think much of the strong debates and divisions are fostered by the pride of leaning on our own understandings (what we think we know…or KNOW we know). It seems to me alot like “new phariseeism” Great teachings, Frank!

  9. says

    That is the best anaology of the cross-denominational argument inherent in gifts teaching today. thanks for this series, it’s been a great read and i look forward to teaching a small group study on it soon.

  10. Kalil says

    “Rather than hone in on the specific rhetoric that one employs, it’s wiser to seek to hear and understand the reality of another’s experience—realizing that the person may describe it in a way that is foreign (and sometimes irritating) to our ears. As we seek to do this, we can better learn Jesus Christ from one another”

    That’s real good stuff. Thanks for the illustrations, they do a really good job of bringing home the point. Great post.

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