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The Gifts of the Holy Spirit: What Are They and Are They for Today?

Published Friday, January 1, 2021 By Van Lalnghakthang Khawbung

The doctrine of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is a Pauline emphasis in the New Testament—the major passages being 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, Ephesians 4, and Romans 12—but key passages are also found in Peter’s and Luke’s writings (1 Pet. 4:10; Acts 2). Much concern over this topic has been aroused in this century, largely because of the influential Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal movements. Therefore, the need for retrieving biblical truth is indispensable for biblical churches. In this column, I will first define the gifts of the Holy Spirit and discuss their purpose. Pentecost, in particular, is significant for understanding the purpose of the gifts. Second, I will take up the question of whether the gifts are for today, engaging two basic camps on this issue: continuationism and cessationism.

A spiritual gift, I will argue, is an ability given graciously by God for service. “God-given” reminds us that Christ and the Spirit are the givers of gifts, and “for service” reminds us that they are for serving the body of Christ. The New Testament provides a rich array of terms and passages to designate the variety of ways God’s grace has been evidenced among his people. [1] It includes such diverse gifts as eternal life (Rom. 6:23; cf. 5:15–16), the special privileges granted to Israel (Rom. 11:29, referring to Rom. 9:4–5), celibacy and marriage (1 Cor. 7:7), and deliverance from a deadly peril (2 Cor. 1:11). The term is clearly used to refer to gracious gifts from God in 1 Corinthians 12:4, Romans 12:6, 1 Timothy 4:14, 2 Timothy 1:6, and 1 Peter 4:10.

Charles Ryrie suggests that “a spiritual gift is given to serve the body of Christ wherever and however He may direct.” [2] In Ephesians 4:11–13, Paul lists five equipping gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) before defining the purpose of these gifts: “To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the fullness of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 14:12). By equipping Christians to serve, the church leadership helps Christians fulfill the biblical purpose of serving others according to their gifts (1 Pet. 4:10). In Romans 12:5, Paul proclaims that Christians form one body and each member belongs to all the others. He then informs his readers that Christians have different gifts, each of which allows the individual Christian to serve in different ways (Rom. 12:6–8; cf. 1 Cor. 12:7–11). In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul declares that these manifestations of the Spirit are given for the common good. This suggests that all spiritual gifts are given for mutual edification. In 1 Corinthians 12:27–31, Paul relates the spiritual gifts possessed by each Christian to their function in the body of Christ.

Through the distribution of spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit to all members of the body of Christ, all believers are empowered so that they can contribute to the task of ministry to the church and evangelism to those outside the church in a special way.

Gifts of insight and discernment prefigure the much greater discernment we will have when Christ returns. Gifts of knowledge and wisdom prefigure the much greater wisdom that will be ours when we “know as we are known” (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). Gifts of healing give a foretaste of the perfect health that will be ours when Christ grants to us resurrection bodies. Similar parallels could be found with all the New Testament gifts. Even the diversity of gifts should lead to greater unity and interdependence in the church (see 1 Cor. 12:12–13, 24–25; Eph. 4:13), and this diversity in unity will itself be a foretaste of the unity that believers will have in heaven. [3]

Therefore, the New Testament picture of the gifts is that Christians are given gifts by God to aid them in performing the ministry and mission of Christ until Christ returns. No gifts are given for their personal benefits and enjoyment, but for the welfare and benefits of the other believers and for the evangelistic proclamation of the good news to unbelievers.

Pentecost and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit

We find the foundation of the spiritual gifts in Acts 2. This was in fulfillment of Christ’s promises while on earth. Christ had told disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit by asking the Father (Luke 11:13). He had informed them that he himself would pray for the comforter, who would come to remain permanently in each and every one of them (John 14:16–17). On the evening of the day of his resurrection, a step further was taken when Jesus breathed on the disciples (John 20:22) and gave them the Holy Spirit to equip them according to the promise of Luke 11:13.

The book of Acts reveals the progressive revelation aspect of the spiritual gifts, as it unfolds from prophecy to history, from promise to fulfillment. W. H. Griffith Thomas notes that “the prominence given to the day of Pentecost is to be expected because of the age-inaugurating significance of the event.” [4] Following Merrill F. Unger, let me quickly highlight Pentecost’s significance. [5]

First, “Pentecost signifies the coming, the arrival, and the taking up of permanent residence of the Holy Spirit in the new people of God on earth.” [6] Jesus’ promise—“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16)—has been fulfilled.

Second, “Pentecost marks the giving, receiving, and depositing of the gift of the Spirit in the new people of God on earth.” [7] Pentecost was the foundation of the Holy Spirit’s gifts to believers. Therefore, how ridiculous to ask for the gift now, as if it had never been given, or attempt to receive it when it has been a permanent deposit of the people of God for many centuries, and its contents and benefits have been made available to every believer since the day of Pentecost.

Third, “Pentecost represents an unrepeated and unrepeatable event.” [8] Merrill writes that just as it is impossible to repeat events such as creation, Christ becoming incarnate and rising from the dead, or any other historical event, likewise what happened on the Day of Pentecost cannot be repeated. [9] This unique event took place at a specially designated time (the Jewish celebration of the early harvest) in fulfillment of a special Old Testament type (Lev. 23:15–22) in a specially designated place (Jerusalem) with a specially designated group (Acts 1:4) for a specific purpose (1 Cor. 12:12–26). “Most important,” Merrill writes, “it was designated to introduce a new order, not to be the recurring feature of the new order once it was introduced.” [10]

Are the Gifts for Today? Two Views and Four Questions

Having looked at the gifts in the New Testament (what they are and what they are for), we now come to the question of the gifts in our own time. Generally, there are two basic positions on this question: continuationism and cessationism. I’ll take each briefly and in order.

The Lausanne Covenant of 1974, signed by Christian representatives from more than 150 nations, contains the following article concerning the Holy Spirit.

Article 14. THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

Continuationists, claiming agreement with the Lausanne covenant, argue that the Spirit who gave gifts at Pentecost for the building of the church and the evangelism of the unreached gives the same gifts for the same purpose today. There are, of course, many different stripes of continuationists, and many particular debates—inter-continuationist debates—over particular gifts. But on the whole, continuationists are agreed that the same Spirit gives the same gifts for the same purpose today as in the Apostolic age. [11]

On the other hand, the cessasionist argues that in particular the gifts of prophecy, miracles, and tongues ended with the apostolic age. This is not to say that they believe the Holy Spirit is no longer active. It is also not to say that they don’t believe in any gifts of the Spirit for today. The Spirit is active and still gives gifts to the church. But some of the gifts—prophecy, miracles, and tongues—have ceased and are no longer operative for us today. And so, for example, we should not expect, pray, or wait for certain special revelation to continue.

After observing both the views, I would like to close this column by posing a few questions that I hope will encourage you to do your own study and come to your own conclusions from the Scriptures:

1.    If healing has ceased today, should we still be praying for physical healing?

2.    If God is still delivering special revelation, should it not be given to the whole church?

3.    If there is a message from God outside Scripture, is it less authoritative than the message we have in the Scripture?

4.    Can we not experience the Spirit-filled life without special revelation? 

Van Lalnghakthang Khawbung (PhD, International Institute of Church Management) is the general secretary of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Northeast India. Dr. Khawbung is a regular participant in WHI’s Global Theological Initiative. This essay was originally presented at the Global Theological Initiative consultation titled “Lord and Giver of Life: The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit,” held in India in February 2020.

  • Van Lalnghakthang Khawbung


1. See, for example, Ken Hemphill, Spiritual Gifts: Empowering the New Testament Church (Nashville: Broadman, 1988); Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996), 163–78; F. F. Bruce, ed., 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible (London: Oliphants, 1971), 116–17; James F. Stitzinger, “Spiritual Gifts: Definitions and Kinds,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 14, no. 2 (2003): 149–50.
2. Charles C. Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1986), 424.
3. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
4. Griffith quoted in Unger F. Merrill, The Baptism and Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1974), 50.
5. Merrill, 60.
6. Merrill, 60.
7. Merrill, 61.
8. Merrill, 62.
9. See Merrill, 62.
10. Merrill, 62.
11. See “The Lausanne Covenant,” https://www.lausanne.org/content/covenant/lausanne-covenant.