The Gifts of the Holy Spirit: Then and Now

From the very beginning of the Church, the gifts of the Holy Spirit were a remarkable and wondrous occurrence. Even as the Apostles were endowed with a miraculous measure of the Spirit in the form of tongues, healings, prophecy, miracles, and inspiration; the early Christians were also given individual gifts that seemed to follow along the same lines: tongues, healings, prophecy, and inspiration to name just a few. Now, as one sits 2000 years removed from that early Church, questions arise about the nature and transmission of those gifts; the difference between talents, ordinary, and miraculous gifts; and the use of gifts in the in the contemporary work and direction of the Church. Often a discussion centering on the gifts of the Holy Spirit deteriorates into interpersonal wrangling resulting from denominational and personal theological bias, but every Biblical topic should be able to be examined under the rubric of sola scriptura so that one may feel confident in their conclusions. Even those that appeal to extra-biblical sources for their authority still recognize that the inspired Scriptures carry the weight of God’s authority. Therefore, let us humbly proceed on (1) a brief examination of the language used to describe the work of the Spirit of God in the Scriptures, (2)  a consideration of how the gifts of the Spirit were manifested and distributed in the 1st century, and (3) a reflection upon how those various and wonderful spiritual gifts apply today.

The Spirit in the Scriptures

With that being said, one can look into the pages of the Old Testament and find the Spirit of God participating in the lives of the children of God, and Jack Cottrell points to several different areas that the Spirit of God played a role; three of which are important for our study.[i] First, one can find the Spirit of God acting in the initial creation and working providentially in the lives of the Israelites. In the first pages of the Scripture one finds the Spirit of God “hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:2);[ii] being part of the “Us” in whose image man is created (Gen. 1:26); part of the providential control of the earth (Gen. 6:3); and taking part in the events that shape Israel as a people (Neh. 9:20, 30; Isa. 30:1; 63:10-11, 14; Zech. 4:6). Second, the gifts that were given by the Spirit of God were used to enable people to perform special tasks in the service of the nation as a people. Of course, one can readily see the gift of miracles being bestowed upon Moses, Elijah, and Elisha; and the gifts of prophecy being given to those known as the Major and Minor prophets. Further there are other prophets such as Balaam (Num. 24:2), Nathan (2 Sam. 12:1), or Jahaziel (2 Chron. 20:14) who were used to proclaim a specific judgment as the mouthpiece of God. Other men are also recorded as having that ineffable Spirit of the Lord coming upon them for leadership such as the seventy elders (Num. 11:25), Joshua (Num. 27), the Judges (cf. Jud. 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25), Saul (1 Sam. 10:6), and David (1 Sam. 16:13). Even those men acting as artisans for the building of the Tabernacle were noted to be working with the Spirit of God (Exo. 31:1-2; 35:16, 31; 36:1-2).

Finally, the Holy Spirit certainly acted upon people to equip them for a particular service, but the language appears to point to a specific sense not a general sense. Those in the Old Testament that received power through the Spirit of God were given a task of vital importance to the plan of God and His people;[iii] but, for every person the Spirit of the Lord came upon, how many “normal” Israelites only experienced the Spirit of the Lord via the results that were produced or the messages that were given? The sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit and its participation in the moral nature of the mass of humanity is significantly less important in the Old Testament than what will eventually be seen in the New Testament. Under the Mosaical system the sanctification of the people in general was referred upon them by their peripheral engagement in the Temple practices. An individual may be able to bring a sin or thank offering to the Temple for example, but it was someone from the Priesthood (the Levites alone) that performed the sacrifice. An individual may pray and acknowledge their own failings and be justified before God, as the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector illustrates (Luke 18:9-14); but, the individual was still under the obligation to perform the duties of the Law as instructed by the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:2-3).

It has been noted that the above observation is true since the Old Testament deals more with the material nature and outward actions of men, whereas the New Testament focuses on the spiritual nature and inward actions of men.[iv] This New Testament focus, that the Spirit has a more immanent relationship with all the children of God, can be seen in the slight change in the language of the New Testament. We find Jesus telling Nicodemus that “unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). When Nicodemus presents the logical inconsistency of man entering the womb a second time, Jesus refocuses Nicodemus’ mind on the role of the Spirit by saying that the birth takes place “of water and the Spirit” (3:5). Nicodemus’ thoughts immediately went to a physical birth while Jesus was commenting on a person’s spiritual nature. One also sees a similar refocusing in John 4 when Jesus meets the Samaritan Woman. When she finally perceives Jesus as a prophet a theological question is posed regarding the place of worship, and in answer to her question He indicates that worship will be removed from the physical realm to a realm of “spirit and truth” (v.23).

Almost as markers for the stages of growth for the church in the book of Acts, the Spirit of God is noted as taking an overall active part in the fledging movement (cf. Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:4; and 19:20). In conjunction with the overall working, there is also the working of the Spirit of God in the individual so that the men and message of the early Christians might be established (cf. Acts 2:4; 3:6; 5:4, 5; 8:6; 10:44; 13:11; etc.). So, in both the general growth of the Church and the personal witness of the messengers, we find the Holy Spirit taking an important role in the will of God and the forward progress of the Church.[v] While this may appear similar to the working of the Spirit in the Old Testament period, it is the application of the prophecy of Joel by the Apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost that definitively notes the distribution of the Spirit unto all people (Acts 2:16-21; Joel 2:28-32). We understand from these and other passages that the Spirit was working in the lives of those of the 1st century in both a providential and miraculous method.

The examples given in this first section are not meant to be exhaustive for there are references in the Old Testament to the Spirit of the Lord being “in” someone (Num. 27:18; 2 Sam. 23:2; Isa. 59:21; Ezek. 3:14) and times in the New Testament when the Spirit was referred to as being “upon” someone (Matt. 12:18; Luke 4:18; Acts 2:17; 1 Pet. 4:14). Further, there are times in the Old Testament when the heart of the individual is noted to be significant in God’s eyes (Ps. 51:10, 17; Jer. 33:31-34; Ezek. 25-26) and times in the New Testament when adherence to commands are emphasized (John 14:21; 15:14; 1 John 5:3; 2 John 6, 9). Yet there has been a significant change noted between the Testaments as to the method of the Holy Spirit, a change that is certainly part of the fulfillment of the prophecy expressed in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (cf. Heb. 8:13).

Spiritual Gifts in the 1st Century

Regarding the method of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament scriptures, a difference can be drawn between an ordinary and an extraordinary measure of the Spirit. Some measure of the Spirit appears to have been given to all those that followed the pattern set by Peter on the day of Pentecost. Those present were admonished to repent (for they had been convicted of their part in the death of the Messiah), to be baptized for the remission of their sins, and then they would receive the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). There are varied positions regarding whether the gift is something dispensed BY the Holy Spirit or the gift IS the Holy Spirit Himself, but the language employed by Peter immediately following that declaration makes one point abundantly clear – the same condition experienced by those on the day of Pentecost would continue (2:39). Not only was the gift of the Holy Spirit promised to all who would repent and be immersed, but that promise was inclusive of “as many as the Lord our God will call” or, as noted by McGarvey in his commentary on the book of Acts, “… every individual who should, at any future time, be a subject of the gospel call.”[vi] For this linchpin verse, the immediate context certainly points to the miraculous gifts being exhibited by the Apostles on this occasion,[vii] yet one cannot ignore the truth that there is a non-miraculous presence of the Spirit in “the life of every Christian (cf. Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 6:19; Gal. 4:6).”[viii]

To further clarify the ordinary measure of the Holy Spirit it is prudent to examine other passages from the book of Acts to fortify the point. After Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost we find that three thousand souls added to the fledgling movement (Acts 2:41), but no mention is made of that mass of people performing any special signs or wonders. In fact, “fear,” or awe, was noted to have come upon “every soul” because of the “wonders and signs” that were being done by the Apostles (2:43). This in turn begs a question, “Why would every person have awe at the extraordinary power in the Apostle’s hands if everyone had that same extraordinary power?” In short, they would not. Even as we continue with the narrative into Acts, we find that the Apostles were performing “signs and wonders” to such an extent that “none of the rest dared join them” (5:12-13), and yet still no mention of any others besides the Apostles exhibiting extraordinary power.

A turning point appears to take place in the resolution of the first dispute of the early Church. When the Hellenistic widows were being neglected in the daily distributions, the Apostles made the decision to have “seven men” which had the respect of all and were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:1-3) appointed over those distributions so the Apostles could focus on more spiritual responsibilities. Two of those men, Stephen (specifically noted to be “full of faith and the Holy Spirt” [6:5]) and Phillip, after having the Apostles lay “hands upon them” (6:6) become prominent figures in the next few chapters. Stephen, the first Christian Martyr, at the end of his defense was noted to be “full of the Holy Spirit” and is granted the ability to “gaze into heaven,” seeing the glory of God with Jesus on His right hand (7:54) just before his death. Phillip is found leaving Jerusalem during the ensuing persecution and traveling to Samaria, where two interesting facts can be noted. First, the Samaritans were swayed by both the preaching and the “miracles” that were performed by Phillip (8:6). Second, even after those in Samaria were baptized no miracles were performed by those new converts until Peter and John came from Jerusalem and imparted the Holy Spirit by laying hands upon those new Christians (8:17). This pattern is further reinforced by Paul’s encounter with the twelve disciples from Ephesus. Upon finding those disciples without the Holy Spirit, Paul teaches and baptizes them in the “name of the Lord Jesus,” and then only after having Paul lay hands upon them do they begin to “speak in tongues” and prophesy (19:1-6).

What we find is the repetition of the formula given by Peter to those of Acts 2:38. What those in Samaria and Ephesus received immediately after they were baptized is the same gift we receive today – a measure of the Holy Spirit that marks out those that have eternal life, sanctifies Christians by his presence, and identifies those Christians as the very children of God.  We know that the Holy Spirit is given to all that “obey him” (5:32), therefore, all those that are saved have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, but not all the saved were given miraculous gifts.[ix]

Yet even as one continues to move through the Scriptures, the fact of an extraordinary measure of the Holy Spirit – enabling both Apostles and disciples to perform wonders and signs – is an obvious and ever-present reality. The direct impartation of the Holy Spirit is clearly obvious on the Day of Pentecost as result of the promise given by Jesus (Acts 1:5, 8) when those present at the end of Acts chapter 1 are “filled with the Holy Spirit and begin to speak with other tongues” (2:4). There was also a direct impartation of the Holy Spirit to those “present before God” at the home of Cornelius (10:33) when the “Holy Spirit fell upon” those who heard the word (10:44) and began to speak with tongues and magnify God. Although these two episodes (Pentecost and Cornelius’ House) stand in contrast to those episodes when the miraculous gift of the Spirit is mediated by the laying on of the Apostles hands (Samaria and the disciples near Ephesus), both produce the same effect – a transcendence of the normal abilities for the furtherance of the church of Christ, and as a witness to the approval of those presenting the Gospel in the name of the Lord. This is the primary purpose of those upon whom the Apostles conferred those spiritual gifts by the laying on of hands, to participate in the growth of the church and to place the stamp of God’s approval upon those presenting the Gospel in those first days. These two considerations – (1) that the Holy Spirit was an ever-present guide to the early church through its infancy, and (2) that the extraordinary abilities given those early Christians confirmed both the message and the messenger – provide a foundation from which one may move forward when considering the work of the Holy Spirit.

Making use of the foundation that the Holy Spirit is present and active, Paul makes it very clear that he considered the Romans to have an indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as has already been indicated. Further, Paul continues along the same line of thought when speaking to the Corinthians, reminding them twice that they are not only a temple but that the Spirit resides in them both collectively and individually (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). To the Ephesians Paul makes the point that as a “holy temple in the Lord” those Christians were becoming “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:21-22). To the Galatians Paul says, “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts” (4:6). Paul reminds the Thessalonians that God “has also given us His Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 4:8). Indeed, going back to Romans 8:9b we find what might be considered Paul’s strongest statement regarding the role of the Spirit, “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.” The Holy Spirit clearly reveals through the pen of Paul that God does not dwell in a person unless the Holy Spirit dwells in that person, and that the Spirit within the Christian is the assurance that God is also present.[x]

As one ponders this Scriptural evidence a question begins to surface and come into clearer focus. Can the contemporary Christian claim the truths presented in these and other passages regarding the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

Spiritual Gifts Today

From the Scripture presented to this point, the method of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those 1st century Christians points to an indwelling that is, if the thought may be conveyed in this fashion, generally personal.  There is no reason to doubt the application of Joel 2 by Peter on that first Sunday of the church – that the Spirit was generally poured out in such a way as every individual can receive the gift as promised. However, as the conversation moves forward into the work and methods of the Holy Spirit in the current age, the variance in theology and praxis among Christian denominations is limited only by the allegiance an individual can garner for their position. As the scenery for the remainder of the discussion, one would do well to keep the words of Augustine regarding the Holy Spirit ever present.

There is no more excellent gift of God than this (the Holy Spirit, SDC). It alone distinguishes between the sons of the eternal kingdom and the sons of eternal damnation. Other favors also are given through the Spirit, but without love they are of no use. Unless the Holy Spirit is bestowed on us to such an extent that we are made to be lovers of God and of our neighbor, we cannot pass from the left hand to the right.[xi]

Therefore, in the spirit of brotherly love let us move the discussion forward.

Often when speaking of the role and methods of the Holy Spirit in our contemporary period the discussion quickly turns to the miraculous gifts; specifically, that gift that was so prominent on the Day of Pentecost and occupies much of the conversation of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians – speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues and other extraordinary gifts (such as healing, drinking poison, and handling snakes and fire) have surged in those Churches that that label themselves Pentecostal, Holiness, or Charismatic. Their use has grown to such an extent that some see “speaking in tongues as a sign of the evidence that you have received and been baptized by the Holy Ghost.”[xii] This position has also been promoted in more academic settings being noted in the journal Pneuma where Arrington states in his conclusion that “the initial “filling” with glossolalia as the normative sign of the experience.”[xiii]

On the other side of the proverbial coin we find those that may be viewed as Cessationists – those that “do not believe in the gifts of the Spirit” – the miraculous gifts – are being manifested in the church today.[xiv] The position of the Cessationists can be summed up nicely as those that look for a spiritual life to be built on those three better gifts noted in 1 Corinthians 13 – faith, hope, and love – and the fact that special spiritual gifts “are not essential for a single one of these today.”[xv] Although as a gift of the Spirit glossolalia is certainly one of the more impressive gifts, the use of this specific gift is highly regulated by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. Further, the Corinthians were doing the opposite of Paul’s mandate and appear to be abusing the gift of tongues in a selfish and prideful manner during their assembly instead of the reason and method enjoined by the Apostle (1 Cor. 14:22-28); for the conviction of the unbeliever and always in an orderly manner with an interpreter.

Just as the discussion of veils in 1 Corinthians 11 is a vehicle for the consideration of the important principle of authority, the discussion of tongues and other spiritual gifts as presented in 1 Corinthians 12-14 is too often the blind which obscures the pressing consideration of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Whereas the Charismatics and the Cessationists represent the opposite ends of the gifts spectrum, the middle ground is occupied by those that view some of the spiritual gifts as having ceased while other gifts, having been bolstered by the Holy Spirit, continue. By the use of those less “sensational” gifts – ministry, teaching, exhortation, liberality, or leadership (Rom. 12:7-8) – the important and essential capacities of the church may continue “to function and fulfill its divinely purposed role.”[xvi] Christians are enjoined by Paul to embrace the indwelling of the Holy Spirit both directly and through Jesus (Eph. 3:16, 17; 5:19; Col. 3:16); John makes mention of the Spirit dwelling within us both directly and through the Father and Son (1 John 4:13; 2 John 9); and James also follows suit asking a question with the indwelling of the Spirit being assumed (Jam. 4:5). Just as the presence of God dwelt the Tabernacle and then the Temple, the Spirit of God now indwells the church, the temple of God and the body of Christ, and in like manner also dwells in each faithful member of that church.[xvii]


The argument over the method and extent of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit will continue despite this meager analysis: yet, even as the debate rages there are two conclusions that most should be able to appreciate. First, whatever the method one believes that the Holy Spirit indwells a person it should never be forgotten that the Holy Scriptures – a direct result of the inspiration of that Great Spirit (Gal. 1:11-12; Eph. 3:3; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 1:12; 2 Pet. 1:21) – should always be the absolute standard by which all claims of those professing to have an extraordinary measure of the Spirit should be measured; particularly, those claiming a prophetic gift (cf. Deut. 18:22; Jer. 28:9; Matt. 24:5; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; Jude 17-18). It is axiomatic that man is forever giving himself away to something, becoming obligated in some form or fashion and coming under its influence,[xviii] but never let us give ourselves away in such a manner as to replace or ignore the very present truths presented in the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).

Second, to whatever extent one believes the Holy Spirit to indwell them, we should always be willing to give our lives to God and lay our talents at His feet for the advancement of the Kingdom of God and encouragement of our brethren. This is how one fulfills the greatest command, and the second like unto it, as highlighted by Jesus (Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31). Once one becomes a Christian, there is no respite in the service of God. One should always be willing to recognize that the unprofitable servant is the one that only does his duty (Luke 17:10). It has rightly been noted that the gift of the Holy Spirit is not some meaningless euphemism, and as such, what good is having that Spirit within if “nothing actually happens as a result?”[xix]

Like the master in the Parable of the Talents, Christ elected to leave His entire treasure in the hands of the Apostles; a treasure that has been placed “squarely in our hands.”[xx] Whether one believes that they have been given gifts directly by the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit enhances the natural abilities found within each individual, or that the Holy Spirit only works through the medium of the Written Word, the option to bury our talents will yield the same results for us as for that unprofitable servant that was cast “into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30).

[i] Jack Cottrell, The Faith Once for All: Bible Doctrine for Today (United States of America: College Press Publishing Company, 2002), 290-291.

[ii] Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[iii] Leon J. Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1998), 63.

[iv] Z. T. Sweeney, The Spirit and The Word: A Treatise on the Holy Spirit in the Light of a Rational Interpretation of the Word of Truth (1919; repr., Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, ?), 9.

[v] Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 117-18.

[vi] J. W. McGarvey, A Commentary on Acts of Apostles with a Revised Version of the Text, 7th ed. (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1975), 44.

[vii] Bradley S. Cobb, The Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts (McLoud: Cobb Publishing, 2015), 45.

[viii] Wayne Jackson, The Acts of the Apostles from Jerusalem to Rome, 2nd ed. (Stockton: Christian Courier Publications, 2005), 29.

[ix] Gus Nichols, Lectures on the Holy Spirit (Plainview: Nichols Bros. Publishing Co., 1967), 163.

[x] Raymond C. Kelcy, “If Any Man Hath Not the Spirit of Christ.” In The Holy Spirit; Fifth Annual Fort Worth Christian College Lectureship, ed, George Tipps (Fort Worth: The Manny Company, 1964), 144.

[xi] Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, 4th ed. (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 171.

[xii] Interview with CHARLES LEE, Fire Baptized Holiness Church.  Paul F. Gillespie, ed., Foxfire 7, (New York: Doubleday, 1982), 227.

[xiii] French L. Arrington, “The indwelling, baptism, and infilling with the Holy Spirit: a differentiation of terms,” Pneuma 3, no. 2: 1-10 (1981). ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 1, 2016).

[xiv] R. T. Kendall, Pigeon Religion: Holy Spirit, Is That You?” (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2016), 71.

[xv] Franklin Camp, The Work of the Holy Spirit in Redemption (Bowling Green: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1972), 305.

[xvi] John F. Walvoord, “Contemporary Issues in the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit; Part IV: Spiritual Gifts Today,” Bibliotheca Sacra 130, no. 520: 315-328 (1973). ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 1, 2016).

[xvii] H. Leo Boles, The Holy Spirit His Personality, Nature, Works (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1942), 205.

[xviii] Rubel Shelly, In Step with the Spirit (Nashville: 20th Century Christian, 1988), 36.

[xix] F. LaGard Smith, Radical Restoration (Nashville: Cotswold Publishing, 2001), 115.

[xx] Eldred Echols, Discovering the Pearl of Great Price: the Parables of Jesus (Fort Worth: Sweet Publishing, 1992), 105.


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