Are you a prophet? Does God work miracles of healing through you? Perhaps the Spirit inspires your teaching or preaching. According to 1 Corinthians 12, these are just some of the gifts the Spirit bestows upon us, “for the common good.”
I know that some faiths believe that the Spirit no longer gives gifts. I disagree, but it’s a familiar controversy. But I was recently surprised by someone insisting that spiritual gifts are also given to unbelievers, those who don’t have the Holy Spirit indwelling them. I had never even considered this possibility. Could it be true?
I first pulled out my Bible and re-read the verses that mention spiritual gifts. Then I Googled the topic and read what others had to say. Apparently, this is yet another controversial topic in the church. After some study, I really don’t see why. The Bible is clear.
First, let’s clarify some terms. I believe that everyone is born with innate talents and abilities. Some are amazing singers. Others are whizzes at math. My husband is very good at solving problems. These abilities are natural. God added them when He created us, perhaps through the power of the Holy Spirit, but they aren’t what the Bible calls “spiritual gifts.”
By spiritual gift, I’m referring to supernatural abilities that the Holy Spirit bestows on people for the ministry and encouragement of the church.
Lists of gifts appear throughout the epistles. Romans 12:4-8 discusses prophesy, service, teaching, encouragement, giving, leading, and showing mercy. Ephesians 4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as being commissioned by Christ. (As Paul doesn’t specifically mention “gifts” in this verse, some exclude it.)
Best known are the lists in 1 Corinthians 12. Verses 8 through 10 mention wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues. Verse 28 has a slightly different list: apostles, prophets, teachers, [workers of] miracles, and the gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues.
From elsewhere in Scripture, some people add celibacy, hospitality, martyrdom, missionary, voluntary poverty, and more.
Scholars disagree on the exact number of spiritual gifts (learn more). Additionally, some differentiate between motivational, ministry, and manifestation gifts. I’m not sure having an exact or perfect list is necessary, at least for the point I’m making today. The question is, do non-Christians have any of these gifts? Or, to put it another way, does the Spirit need to indwell a person in order to empower these abilities?
One way to answer this question is to ask whom these verses address, believers or nonbelievers? It’s quite clear:
- “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters… ” (Romans 12:1)
- “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.You know that when you were pagans, … ” (1 Corinthians 12:1-2)
- “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body … and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
- “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.And God has placed in the church … ” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28)
- “… how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” (Hebrews 2:3-4, italics mine)
In this last verse, the writer of Hebrews explains that gifts of the Spirit confirm our salvation!
According to Ephesians 4:12-13, the gifts are given “to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
It’s clear to me. Spiritual gifts are only found in the church, and they exist for the church. They require the working of the Holy Spirit through us.
If we want to include nonbelievers as recipients of any gift, we are forced to pick and choose. For example, we might say that everyone can give, show mercy, or offer encouragement while speaking in tongues, prophesying, and working miracles require the Holy Spirit’s power. However, I’m always highly suspect of any interpretation that requires us to select which verses apply. Besides, if we’re doing these things in the flesh, they aren’t spiritual gifts, are they?
Finally, the Bible argues against the idea that we’re born with whatever spiritual gifts we will have during our lives. In 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul encourages us to “eagerly desire the greater gifts.” If we receive all our gifts at birth, what good does it do to desire any of them?
I’ve settled this question to my satisfaction, and I hope you find my reasoning helpful. This exercise is a reminder that we shouldn’t take our beliefs at face value, but imitate the “Bereans, “and examine the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”