Latent Spiritual Gifts?

I’ve been told that I have a particular spiritual gift, and if I don’t use it for the good of the church, then I’m robbing God. But when they say I have a spiritual gift, all they really mean is that I know how to play the piano. The questions is, am I robbing God if I don’t use that “spiritual gift” for the church? Or more generally, is it possible to have a “latent” spiritual gift that lies inactive? Those are complex questions that might be clarified by asking, what is a spiritual gift?

What is a spiritual gift? You might feel very confident about the answer to that question. But actually the we way use the word “gift” in English tends to obscure the meaning of the word that Paul uses which in the Greek is, charisma, which would be “grace-gift” or “that which results from grace.”[1]

We use the word gift to talk about particular abilities that people have. Someone on the church music team–we say they are gifted musically. A really smart student gets into the classes for gifted students. We use the word gift to mean “special abilities.”

But that doesn’t seem to be how Paul uses the word. In the letters Paul wrote to the churches, there are four places where he lists the charismata (“grace-gifts”), which are results of God’s grace coming to the church. And in each of those lists he talks about how God has given to the church people who serve in various functions

  • Romans 12:6-8: prophecy, service/serving, one who teaches/teaching, one who encourages/encouragement, one who gives [money], one who leads, one who shows mercy
  • 1 Corinthians 12:8-10: a word of wisdom, a word of knowledge, faith, healings, working of miracles, prophecy, distinguishing of spirits, kinds of tongues, interpretation of tongues
  • 1 Corinthians 12:28-30: apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.
  • Ephesians 4:11: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors-teachers

So the best way to think of charisma (“grace-gift”) is not “special abilities” that someone has. These aren’t Christian superpowers. Rather the charisma are concrete expressions of God’s grace to the church. When Paul in those lists talks about the charisma, he mentions people: evangelists, servants, prophets. Those are functions or roles that people serve in for the good of the body.

The charisma granted to each is not so much a supernatural gift as the call of the Spirit to serve the church. [2] A spiritual gift is a concrete expression of God’s grace to the church.[3] And those concrete expressions of God’s grace may come in an endless variety of ways.

If we clarify the meaning behind Paul’s term this way, then we must conclude that there is no such thing as a “latent spiritual gift.” In other words, its not as if the Spirit has given you a special ability, but because you haven’t been able to figure yours out yet you are thus squandering his gift. Simply stated, something that you’re not doing is not a spiritual gift. Because the gifts that Paul is talking about are roles of service that are benefitting the body, building it up toward maturity and love. Some ability you have that you don’t use for the good of the church is not a spiritual gift. There are no latent spiritual gifts.

[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, BECNT, 575, “The –ma ending suffix denotes the result of an action, and in this case, charisma refers to the results of the grace—the free gift.”

[2] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 580

[3] Ken Bearding, What Are Spiritual Gifts?, 63

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