Giftedness, Part 3: The Present Work of the Spirit in Christians

Share This Post

dove_fireThe missing Holy Spirit

I couldn’t help but notice that Matthew’s article, arguing that giftedness does not provide authority, never once mentions the Holy Spirit or even uses “Spirit” or “spirit” in any form. How can someone write an article dealing with the question of giftedness and omit the member of the Holy Trinity — that part of God — who gives gifts?

Matthew tells me that he accepts the teachings of H. Leo Boles in The Holy Spirit: His Personality, Nature and Works (1942) (I can’t find an electronic version), a book that, along with J. W. McGarvey’s commentary on Acts (free download), has had a huge influence on Church of Christ thinking regarding the Spirit.

The present work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian

I want to spend a few words addressing the theory that gifts of the Spirit are received solely by the laying on of hands of the apostles, and therefore died out in the late First or early Second Century. This theory is not unique to the Churches of Christ, but likely has found more adherents among us than anywhere else.

    1. The best source on this question is Frederick Bruner’s A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Any questions I don’t cover are covered there.
    2. In the OT, there was no requirement that gifts of the Spirit be dispensed by laying on of hands.
    3. The church in Corinth, Paul carefully refrained from baptizing members so that no one would feel better than other Christians because they were baptized by an actual apostle. Selecting some members for gifts and not others by apostolic hands would have been an ever greater source of division — and yet Paul never mentions laying on of hands as a potential basis for division, although he does discuss baptism. If gifts came by the choice of the apostle, it’s hard imagine the Corinthians, who boasted over who baptized them, not boasting even more over who gave some but not all miraculous gifts of the Spirit!
    4. No apostle had ever been to Rome, and yet that congregation was filled with members who had gifts of the Spirit (Rom 12:6-8).
    5. 1 Cor 12 says that every member in Corinth has a spiritual gift — and yet Paul had not been to that congregation in many years and surely some had been baptized after Paul left. See 1 Cor 12:6 (“in everyone”); 12:7 (“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit.”); 12:11 (the Spirit “apportions to each one as he wills”); 12:13 (“all were made to drink of one Spirit”); 12:18 (“God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”).
    6. There is no record in the Early Church Fathers of an end of spiritual gifts when the apostles died or when the generation after the apostles died. In fact, the history we have reflects continuous actions of the Spirit for centuries after the apostles. The earliest record of the theory that gifts ended the generation after the apostles is from Augustine in the Fifth Century — but he later recanted when he found overwhelming evidence of an active Spirit four centuries after the apostles.

On the other hand, if we read the NT accounts in chronological order, we do find that the earliest books (1 Cor is the first or second earliest book written) have more spectacular miracles recorded than that later books. 1 Cor speaks of “healings” and “miracles” (1 Cor 12). Ephesians speaks of the gifts of pastors and teachers (Eph 4). The gifts of the Spirit in Rom are along the lines of encouragement, liberality in giving, and leadership. So it appears that the Spirit chose to begin with a splash, to help in the founding of the church, and then later chose to focus on gifts that are less spectacular but of the essence for a healthy congregational life. A church without liberal givers, encouragers, and leaders will not thrive, no matter how many healings might take place.


Now, I need to pause here to talk about “miracles” and “gifts.” In the modern vocabulary, we would generally not consider the “gift of leadership” as miraculous. A “miracle” to us requires an obvious violation of the laws of nature — such as a healing or moving a mountain. But this is an Enlightenment perspective that neither Jesus nor Paul would have agreed with. If God chooses to give someone the gift of encouragement, then the laws of nature have been violated even if it’s not easily measured by laboratory equipment. In fact, even the laws of nature are “laws” solely because Jesus, the Logos, wills them to be true. Hence, there’s no bright line difference between a sunrise and the earth standing still — both are acts of God — and we need to re-learn the wonder of it all.

Nonetheless, when the scriptures say that someone has, by the hand of God, the gift to be a pastor (elder, shepherd, overseer), then we should see a miracle — that this person has become the person he has become because God has willed it — not just merely because of heredity and environment. 1 Cor 12 could not be more clear that the choice of who receives which gifts of the Spirit is made by the Spirit — not an apostle. And because this is an act of will by God the Spirit, it’s something that would not have happened had nature run its course. The Spirit changed things — and it’s true even though modern science is incapable of measuring and testing such things.

There is, within the Churches of Christ, a strong bias against the present, direct, supernatural working of God among us. Oddly enough, this is the same position taken by the true liberal theologians, such as Rudolf Bultmann, who worked to “demythologize” the scriptures, removing the supernatural elements. These Church of Christ preachers only differ with Bultmann in that they allow miracles to have happened pre-100 AD, but their worldview is too Enlightenment to believe that God gives gifts of the Spirit today. We’re too modern to believe such things, I guess. And it’s always a bad sign when our preachers are lining up with the atheists and theological liberals.

But what about …? 

Don’t the scriptures say that gifts of the Spirit are given by laying on of hands?

Well, not exactly. Here’s an alternative theory proposed by Bruner —

  • In the early church, baptism was routinely followed by the laying on of hands — not just those of an apostle but the leaders of the church or the person doing the baptizing (Act 8:17 (apostles); 1 Tim 4:17 (elders)).
  • The apostles and Cornelius and his household received the gifts of the Spirit separate from apostolic hands. The Samaritans received the Spirit (and gifts of the Spirit) when the apostles laid hands on them well after baptism. Each of these events represents one of the major steps of the movement of the gospel — to the Jews first (Pentecost), then to the Samaritans (Acts 8), and finally to the Gentiles (Acts 10). In each case, God broke his normative pattern (water baptism/laying on of hands/receipt of the Spirit) to push the gospel to the next stage.
    • The outpouring of the Spirit in Acts initiated the Kingdom.
    • The apostles were told to go to Samaria, but it was Phillip, a deacon, who converted the Samaritans while the apostles remained in Jerusalem among the Jews. By refusing to give them the Spirit (The text speaks of the Spirit, not gifts of the Spirit, here. Acts 8:16.), the apostles were forced to go to Samaria and endorse the conversion of the Samaritans (hated by the Jews).
    • Finally, it’s clear from Acts 10-15 how reluctant the apostles and other Jews in Judea were to accept Gentiles as converts, especially without requiring them to first become proselytes by circumcision. It was God’s giving the Spirit (not “gifts of the Spirit”) to Cornelius before he was baptized that forced Peter to command that they be baptized and that was later the evidence needed to demonstrate that God himself demonstrated that the Gentiles may be saved without circumcision at the council of apostles and elders in Acts 15.
  • That is, the disconnection of the Spirit from baptism in these three cases each time served to further God’s mission to save the world. These accounts aren’t about “measures” of the Spirit (a term used by Boles of these events but not used by the Bible of these events) but about the mission of the Spirit to spread the gospel to all nations, as God had promised Abraham.

But aren’t there other examples of gifts of the Spirit coming when hands are laid on a Christian?

Actually, every example we have, other than the three mentioned above, have to do with gifts being received immediately after baptism, which is when hands were laid on the convert. For example, the Ephesians in Acts 19 began to speak in tongues and prophesy immediately after baptism and the laying on of hands. These sorts of accounts are very parallel with Numbers 11, when Moses appointed 70 men to serve as judges, and God confirmed their appointment by giving them the Spirit, evidenced by their prophesying. This was a temporary phenomenon (Num 11:25). Evidently, to demonstrate the presence of God’s Spirit, God gave them an immediate but temporary gift of ecstatic utterance. It sounds very much like Acts.

Notice that there is no example of the apostles (or anyone else) laying hands on someone to give gifts of the Spirit other than immediately after baptism. And the gifts were inevitably tongues and prophecy — not healing, leadership, the ability to be an elder, generosity, etc. It was gifts that were obvious and spectacular enough that there could be no doubt that these people had been accepted by God and saved.

Isn’t it hard to imagine an apostle laying hands on a new convert to give the gift of leadership or shepherding? And given that apostles were hardly in ready supply in most churches, how would God adequately equip each church with spiritual gifts if gifts were to come only by the hands of the apostles? If so, very few congregations would have had spiritual gifts, and yet churches such as Rome, never visited by an apostle, were filled with spiritual gifts.

Now, it’s not necessarily an either-or sort of thing. God may well have empowered apostles to give gifts through their laying on of hands (consider Rom 1:11; 2 Tim 1:6), but that hardly means that this is a limitation on how God may give gifts through the Spirit. If God wants a certain person to be gifted to be an elder, what law says he must do so through an apostle?

Consider —

(Eph. 4:8-12 ESV) 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”  …  11 And he [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers,  12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

Shepherds and teachers are themselves gifts of God, given to the church to equip them for the work of ministry. We immediately see that apostles and prophets are specially empowered by the Spirit for their gifted roles. But Paul says the same is true of evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. Just because their gifts aren’t as spectacular as those of an apostle or prophets, we can’t impose an Enlightenment assumption that evangelists, shepherds, and teachers are made by heredity and the environment rather than by God through his Spirit. Surely Paul is making exactly the point these church members are given this task — and should be honored and allowed to fill the roles assigned to them by God.

Then why don’t we have gifts of healing and tongues and such like in our church?

As we’re going to study in more detail in the next post, the Spirit decides these things. Gifts are given as God, through his Spirit, wishes for the benefit of each church. We don’t need a law that says that God may no longer do miracles to explain the absence of miracles. There are two really good explanations that stand on their own two feet —

  • It’s God’s choice. If we don’t have miraculous powers today it’s simply because God has chosen not to give them. No further explanation is needed.
  • Perhaps it’s also our lack of faith. Maybe God won’t do miracles among a people who work hard at not seeing miracles. I mean, we in the Churches of Christ begin our studies very much wanting to find a way to make certain there are no miracles being done today. We are eaten up with the Enlightenment worldview. Like the atheists and theological liberals, we are just not comfortable with a God who is alive and active today. We want him in a box and the box in a closet and the closet in someone else’s house.

But here’s the thing. God still answers prayer. And every answered prayer is a change in what would have happened if we’d not prayed. And therefore it’s a violation of the laws of nature and supernatural — and a miracle. That means that everyone of us who’s ever uttered a prayer only to see God answer “yes” — well, God did a miracle at our request, and if that’s not a gift of the Spirit, I don’t know what is.

And in every church I’ve ever attended, if you could just get the members to feel like they’re in a safe place, they’ll tell stories of answered prayers, visits by angels, and miracles that will build your faith and encourage you far more than anything I could ever write. We don’t tell each other these stories because we’ve been told they can’t happen. We think we’ll be laughed at. Scorned. Thought crazy. But they do happen. I know. I listen to my brothers and sisters when they tell me, and I believe them. You should, too.

But aren’t there bogus gifts done by charlatans and con artists?

Absolutely. There are con artists, and we are taught to test the spirits, and we should. We should not be naive. Neither should be so cynical that we can’t see God working among us when he really is.

I remember when I was at Lipscomb, a Bible student had attended a charismatic event and he quoted some biblical koine Greek to the crowd, only to hear it mistranslated by a “translator” present. He concluded that tongues are bogus. He might have been right. That’s a very scientific approach to the problem. Or maybe the tongues are ecstatic utterances that aren’t languages at all but nonetheless given by God. Read —

(1 Sam. 19:19-20:1 ESV)  19 And it was told Saul, “Behold, David is at Naioth in Ramah.”  20 Then Saul sent messengers to take David, and when they saw the company of the prophets prophesying, and Samuel standing as head over them, the Spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also prophesied.  21 When it was told Saul, he sent other messengers, and they also prophesied. And Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also prophesied.  22 Then he himself went to Ramah and came to the great well that is in Secu. And he asked, “Where are Samuel and David?” And one said, “Behold, they are at Naioth in Ramah.”  23 And he went there to Naioth in Ramah. And the Spirit of God came upon him also, and as he went he prophesied until he came to Naioth in Ramah.  24 And he too stripped off his clothes, and he too prophesied before Samuel and lay naked all that day and all that night. Thus it is said, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

This sort of “prophecy” that took control of the prophets doesn’t sound much like they were saying the words of God. No one wrote down what they said and called it “scripture.” It sounds like ecstatic utterance very much like modern tongues, doesn’t it? And it came from God. And we learned this from scripture. So it’s true.


I’m not reaching a conclusion. I’m just saying that before anyone reaches a conclusion, he should —

  • Read his Old Testament and see the background that Acts and the rest of the NT were written against.
  • Shed any Enlightenment bias that God is no longer allowed to violate the laws of nature. That’s crazy talk. In fact, that’s taking the atheists’ and liberals’ side of the case.
  • Be careful to test the spirits, but don’t prejudge the spirits. When credible Christians tell you they saw something, test their testimony against the scriptures, not against an anti-supernatural bias taken from the spirit of a godless age.
  • Have a little faith. If God wants to answer prayers, give him the credit — even if it means he had to bend or break a law of nature to do it. If someone says he saw his infant’s guardian angel, test that according to scripture, not science. God is much bigger than science. We teach that, you know. Accept it. Certainty is not always possible, but we are supposed to be open to the working of God in our lives — as Christians — not deniers with closed minds.
  • Get your grip. If you become open to the Spirit’s work, he may surprise and challenge you. Be ready to say, “I am the Lord’s servant,” not “I know better.”

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn from the best

More To Explore

Do You Want To Boost Your Business?

drop us a line and keep in touch

%d bloggers like this: