The Central Gift

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In the ongoing discussion among Christians over the validity of the “sign gifts,” those (like myself) who believe these gifts have now ceased are sometimes tempted to dismiss the question with a platitude and a wave of the hand. “We should seek the Giver and not the gifts” provides a representative sample.

But this is too simple. God has constituted the world in such a way that we cannot approach Him apart from His gifts. He has given us life and breath, salvation in Christ, wisdom through His Word, and on and on. We cannot seek the Giver apart from His gifts. We must come to Him through His gifts. We come to the Father through the Son, the one given for the sins of the world. We read the Bible with given eyes, and even the copy of the Bible we hold was given to us by our loved ones, themselves in turn given to us by God. There is no way for a creature to approach God directly. There is no such thing as raw religious experience. All is mediated, all is gift.

So the real issue concerns how we value God’s gifts, that is, how we structure and prioritize them. I have been given both the Scriptures and the pebbles in my driveway, but I must not try to find the way to eternal life through studying the daily rearrangement of the pebbles. This does not mean that I do not appreciate both gifts, but only that a right understanding of the gifts requires me to rank them.

Paul tells the Corinthians that they were not lacking in any spiritual gift (1 Cor. 1:7). A brief glance at the chapters devoted to his discussion of spiritual gifts shows this also. The church there was filled with tongues, interpretations, healings, and prophecies. Even on the supposition that spiritual gifts today are the genuine article (as they certainly were in Corinth), Paul still gives us a radically different way of looking at things. He told this ancient church, which was radically blessed with spiritual gifts, that they were all unspiritual and carnal. As he put it, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal . . .” (1 Cor. 3:1-3a). Paul appears to be functioning with a very different view of what constitutes spirituality and carnality. It is not measured or indicated by spiritual gifts at all. An ungifted man can be spiritual, and a spiritually gifted man can be carnal. The devil is a spirit and is unspiritual, and my neighbor, made out of meat and bones, is a very spiritual man.

Corinth was a city in Greece, and the Hellenistic error committed there has afflicted a good portion of the church ever since. We still tend to think of spirituality in terms of that gnostic inner spark – ethereal reason if we are rationalists, the inner light if we are mystics, a personal relationship with Jesus if we are modern evangelicals, or the baptism of the Holy Spirit if we are charismatics. Of course none of this is directed against a biblically defined approach to reason, light, covenant relationship, or the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It just means that in the down-to-earthiness of the Christian faith, all such experiences are to be considered as vaporous hoo-hah unless they result in dirt under the fingernails through glad service to my neighbor. Faith without works is dead. Religious experience or understanding or giftedness don’t mean a thing, if they ain’t got that swing.

The Corinthians were making this mistake with genuine gifts of the Spirit. We are, in my view, making the same mistake with spurious gifts. But ultimately what matters is the mistake – not the genuineness of the gifts. We debate whether the gifts are genuine because we do not really know what the gifts are for. Imagine a dinner table surrounded with small first graders, who, if left unattended, will put the beans in their ears. It does not matter, for the purposes of our thought experiment, whether or not the beans are real. In either case, that is not where they go. When we are doing the right thing with the gifts we have been given, the spuriousness of a purported gift is be detected right away. The reason it is frequently not detected in our day is that we abuse the false as the Corinthians abused the true. But the ear cannot tell the difference between a plastic bean and a real one. The “inner subjective spark,” exulting in an “experience,” cannot tell the difference either.

A contrast is frequently made between the gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit, and sometimes this contrast is made in order to establish the point being argued here. An unspiritual man might prophesy like Balaam, but an unspiritual man cannot have love, joy, and peace if biblically defined. But there is still a Hellenistic way to internalize what is called the fruit of the Spirit – this is called pietism. True piety exults in the fruit of the Spirit biblically understood, which is to say, fruit produced in the presence of particular people, places, and things. Love of Suzanne, joy in suffering under Mr. Jacobs at work, peace with Smith across the alley, patience with the loud children, and so on. By contrast, impious pietism hauls the divine fire down into the inward parts and then warms itself around the fires of self-congratulation.

But obedience involves the entire man. And so a man who divides spirit from body in any way, however much he praises this spirit now detached, is an unspiritual man. He is still carnal, a babe.

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