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Sunday, July 03, 2016

Where Did Those Gifts Go?

Yesterday I tried to establish that of the eighteen spiritual gifts listed in Romans and 1 Corinthians, at least half seem to have gone missing in our churches somewhere in the last two millennia.

Most Christian commentators agree this is at least partially true. We may argue about how to recognize the various supernatural abilities on the Holy Spirit’s gift list and about the nuances of a few of the Greek terms Paul uses. But in the end, most Christians acknowledge that unless we describe the gifts of tongues or prophecy very differently from the way we see them occurring in the book of Acts, or wildly dilute the concepts of miracles and healings, some of the Holy Spirit’s gifts are unaccountably absent today.

Very well then, let’s do some accounting.

Possible Explanations

There are not really that many options:

 Christians today are horribly untaught.  This appears to be A.W. Tozer’s conclusion, though it dates back a few years now. I suspect little has changed. He believed he didn’t see much gift exercised in the churches of his day because they didn’t acknowledge spiritual gifts and therefore didn’t make use of them. Tozer blamed the post-WWII surge in what he calls “textualism”:
“For a generation certain evangelical teachers have told us that the gifts of the Spirit ceased at the death of the apostles or at the completion of the New Testament. This, of course, is a doctrine without a syllable of biblical authority behind it.

The result of this erroneous teaching is that spiritually gifted persons are ominously few among us. When we so desperately need leaders with the gift of discernment, for instance, we do not have them and are compelled to fall back upon the techniques of the world.

This frightening hour calls aloud for men with the gift of prophetic insight. Instead we have men who conduct surveys, polls and panel discussions.

We need men with the gift of knowledge. In their place we have men with scholarship — nothing more.”
Unlike Tozer, I do not believe that the teaching about gifts since the last World War, either pro or con, has a great deal to do with missing or underutilized gift. Many churches of my immediate acquaintance still teach that (with a few notable exceptions) most of the Holy Spirit’s gifts to the church are still being given. Most mature Christians of my acquaintance even recognize a personal obligation to find out how the Lord has equipped them to serve his people and do so.

  Christians today are horribly unspiritual.  Alternatively, Tozer suggested that a general failure to be filled with the Spirit of God is responsible for the absence of gift among God’s people, and that repentance is the solution.

I readily acknowledge that, by and large, Christendom today is a fissured, confused, ineffective Laodicean mess, but possessing and using spiritual gifts is not the same thing as being spiritual, a fact with which I’m sure Tozer would have agreed. It is quite possible to exercise a spiritual gift very unspiritually, a problem 1 Corinthians 14 addresses at length. One can use a spiritual gift in a disorderly, selfish, unloving, unprofitable way, and we have hard evidence that gifted Christians did so.

Unspirituality in the churches is a concern, but does not explain everything. It cannot be the primary reason we do not observe many of the spiritual gifts in action today.

  Some of the gifts are no longer being given.  This is not the precise theological position Tozer deplores, but a variant he might find slightly less odious:
“For a generation certain evangelical teachers have told us that the gifts of the Spirit ceased at the death of the apostles or at the completion of the New Testament. This, of course, is a doctrine without a syllable of biblical authority behind it.”
Notwithstanding my respect for Tozer, I have to disagree. There’s quite a bit more than a syllable:
“As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”
Unless we arbitrarily assign the time “when the perfect comes” to the end of the Church Age (a separate argument I am happy to explore if our readers are interested), this statement would seem to be evidence that both the prophetic gift and the gift of tongues were given to the early churches as temporary fixes to the problem of an incomplete revelation, a problem that was thoroughly addressed with the acceptance of the New Testament canon.

There are two common themes among the gifts I listed yesterday as missing:
  1. Sign gifts (healing, miracles, tongues). Many others have made the case, as Paul did, that the purpose of tongues was “as a sign to unbelievers”. Paul reminds the Corinthians that the Old Testament prophets warned Israel about coming judgment:
  2. “In the Law it is written, ‘By people of strange tongues and by the lips of foreigners will I speak to this people, and even then they will not listen to me, says the Lord.’ ”
    Each of these sign gifts was a similar testimony primarily to unbelieving and unrepentant Jews. After the promised judgment of Israel arrived in AD70, these gifts became obsolete. The judgment of which they spoke had already arrived.

    That doesn’t mean the sign gifts didn’t matter in their day. They certainly did. But if their purpose is correctly understood as being not primarily for the benefit of the Church, their absence today should come as no surprise.

  3. Gifts that performed the same functions later performed by NT scripture (prophecy, utterance of wisdom/knowledge, apostleship, interpretation of tongues). When the “perfect” (or the “complete thing”) finally came, it was promised that which was partial would vanish. If the “complete thing” is the canon of scripture, the absence of direct revelation from God in the churches today makes perfect sense. It is clearly redundant, and Paul anticipated this.
More on this subject tomorrow, including a suggestion that might explain the differences between the Corinthian and Roman gift lists I noted yesterday.

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