We’ve been in Japan almost half a year now, which means that I’ve been preaching regularly almost half a year now, after nearly a decade out of it. The Japanese lectionary isn’t quite the same as the ones commonly used in the U.S., but more often than not they match up or are only off by a week. I noticed that preachers in Japan and America alike have a long stretch of I Corinthians coming up, in particular chapters 12, 13, and, 15 dealing with spiritual gifts, the church, divine love, and resurrection. If you’re a preacher who’ll be tackling spiritual gifts/charismata in the weeks ahead—or someone looking to know more about them regardless!—here’s the relevant chapter from my book A Guide to Pentecostal Movements for Lutherans. I hope you find it enlightening on many levels!
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For Pentecostals, a powerful encounter with the Holy Spirit entails a bestowal of divine gifts of new powers and abilities. They are personally enriching, to be sure, but their primary purpose is the building-up of the church, both through missional outreach and congregational edification. The most common term to describe these gifts is charismata (singular: charisma), a transliteration of the Greek term that Paul uses for divine gifts.
Paul appears to have invented the term “charisma” himself. It has virtually no counterpart in any other Greek literature of his period or before. It derives from the Greek word charis, which means “grace,” so charismata can be understood to mean “graced-things.” You can also see the word charis hiding in one of the terms for the Lord’s Supper: eucharist, which has the more specific meaning of “thanksgiving.”
Paul doesn’t use the word “charisma” only for the powers or abilities bestowed on human beings by God. He applies it to other divine gifts as well. So, for example, we read in Romans: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (6:23). On another occasion, Paul uses the word to describe the gift of his deliverance from prison: “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing [charisma] granted us through the prayers of many” (II Corinthians 1:11). In these cases, the word charisma can be used interchangeably with other Greek words for gift, like dōron and dōrēma.
Paul sometimes uses another term to describe the powers bestowed on people by God, namely pneumatika. This word means literally “spiritual-things,” deriving from pneuma, which means “spirit.” Pneumatika seems, though, to be the term that the Corinthians themselves liked to use, rather than the one Paul himself preferred (namely, charismata). Sometimes the two terms are combined to make the phrase charisma pneumatikōn, “spiritual gift,” as in Romans 1:11. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with the term charisma in this chapter.
Many New Testament books refer to such things as healing and prophecy being given to human beings, including the Gospels, Hebrews, James, I John, and Revelation. Acts depicts such spiritual gifts as prophecy, speaking in tongues, healing, exhortation, miracles, teaching, discernment, and administration. But these books do not label the charismata with a collective term nor do they analyze their meaning. Paul does both, however, and at great length, so we will turn our attention now to I Corinthians, where his most extensive discussion of the topic may be found. The discussion here is addressed primarily to Lutherans with little-to-no experience of the charismata and don’t know what to think about them. Lutherans already familiar with the charismata will nevertheless perhaps find things of value here.
The first thing Paul has to say about the Corinthians in his first letter to them is that they “are not lacking in any gift [charismati]” (1:7a), for which Paul gives thanks to God. But immediately thereafter he launches into a many-chapters-long discussion of all the Corinthians’ failures as a church. There are schisms among them. They claim loyalty to different apostles but then make themselves out to be better than the apostles. They go in search of worldly wisdom but ignore divine wisdom. They tolerate sexual immorality within the community and at the same time denounce marriage. They have disputes with each other and then expect the pagan legal authorities to settle the case in court. They proudly eat meat offered to idols with no concern over scandalizing weak consciences, all the while allowing their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper to degenerate into a display of wealth and poverty.
In short, the Corinthians have heard and accepted the good news about Jesus’s death and resurrection, but they have grasped almost none of the consequences of that news for their life together. They are still operating according to human wisdom, being mere infants in Christ who can only take milk but not yet any solid food. What they need is to be taught by the Spirit.
“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.” (2:12–16)
What we see at work in the church at Corinth is one of those great mysteries or paradoxes of Christian existence. On the one hand, the Corinthians are believers, new creatures through baptism and faith. Despite his sharp criticisms, Paul can say to them, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (3:16). And later, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (6:19). Whatever they are doing wrong, they remain the temple of the Holy Spirit. And yet, their individual and collective behavior testifies to just the opposite. They are still only “natural,” operating according to the old sinful model.
It’s imperative to keep this paradox in mind as we work through the longest biblical discussion of the charismata in I Corinthians 12 through 14. The Corinthians do, indisputably, have and exercise the charismatic gifts—as Paul has said right at the opening of his letter. But all too often these immature Christians have misused them. Paul doesn’t deny that they really do have the Spirit and the attendant gifts, but he realizes that they haven’t understood the charismata yet. They need better instruction. That’s what these chapters are all about, beginning with 12:1: “Now concerning spiritual gifts [pneumatikōn], brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed.”
The first principle Paul lays down—and one well attested by other New Testament writers (see, for example, John 14 to 17 and I John 4:1–3)—is that “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (12:3). So, first and foremost, the purpose of spiritual gifts is to draw people closer to Jesus Christ in faith and love.
Having established that, Paul moves on to the next point: there is only one Spirit, but there are many gifts. Every believer gets a gift from the Spirit, but not every believer gets every gift. The charismata are distributed according to God’s good pleasure, not to please the individual persons receiving them but “for the common good” (12:7). Examples of these “manifestations of the Spirit” are the speaking of wisdom, the speaking of knowledge, faith, healing, working miracles, prophecy, the distinction between spirits, various kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (12:11).
From here, Paul moves into his famous body-and-members analogy of the church. It is a classic reflection on unity and diversity. Today it is applied to many aspects of church life, but it’s imperative to remember that the immediate context for it was the exercise of charismata in Paul’s churches and to counter spiritual elitism. Christian unity is anchored in the fact that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (12:13). That is what makes it irrelevant whether you are a Jew or a Greek or of any other nation, whether you are a slave or a free person or in any other socioeconomic condition, whether you are male or female. God puts all these people together to make the one body of Christ (cf. Galatians 3:27–29). The ultimate goal is that “there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (12:25–26). Paul summarizes in conclusion: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (12:27).
Once he has clarified the nature of the body of Christ, Paul can get back to the more specific topic of the charismata and the right way to exercise them within the body. God, he says, has given to the church “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (12:28). He then asks whether everyone is or does every one of these things—the obvious answer being no, they do not. Nevertheless, he recommends that the Corinthians “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (12:31).
At this point Paul introduces a new topic, his famous chapter 13 on divine love or agapē. Again, while this passage is famous and used in many different contexts, especially at weddings, it’s important to remember why Paul brings it up here: it’s part of his discussion of the charismata. Yes, we are all one body, and yes, we each have our own Spirit-appointed gifts for the body. But our life together and our spiritual powers are for the purpose of participating in divine love. Paul esteems the charismata very highly—after all, he has just encouraged the Corinthians earnestly to desire the higher gifts—and yet he can say, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (13:1–2). Prophecies, tongues, and knowledge will pass away, but love will endure forever. Love is never called a charisma. It is universal, not a gift for certain people only.
Christians who belong to churches that do not cultivate the charismata usually take this to be the end of the discussion. Love is better than everything else, and the charismata will end anyway, so why bother to seek tongues and prophecies? But it is extremely important to keep going and not stop at chapter 13. For Paul does not pit the one against the other. Chapter 14 begins: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (14:1). Love and the charismata should go together.
As far as the charismata go, however, Paul has his distinct preferences. Prophecy is better than tongues, since the former is in language that everyone can understand but tongues are intelligible to no one but God. (Notice that Paul assumes tongues to be only glossolalia, not xenolalia.) Prophecy is usually assumed nowadays to mean the prediction of future events, which is certainly a possibility—the prophet Agabus predicted a famine in Acts 11—but Paul remarks here that “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (14:3). In other words, telling the future is not the main thing Paul has in mind when he speaks about prophecy. Prophecy benefits the whole church, while tongues benefit only the individual (and then only the individual’s spirit, not the individual’s mind), unless there is interpretation.
Nevertheless, in case the Corinthians got the wrong idea that Paul was simply opposed to tongues, he adds, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (14:5). The issue is what to do with the believers’ enthusiasm for the charismata. Spiritual gifts should not be only or primarily beneficial on a personal level, but good for the whole community. “So with yourselves, since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (14:12). And not just the already-existing church, Paul clarifies, but also those on the outside who may be convicted by the truth of the prophecy and so come to faith. By contrast, hearing tongues might just convince unbelievers that Christians are out of their minds! Paul gives his own personal perspective: “I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (14:18–19).
He concludes his discussion of charismata with guidelines for the church’s worship.
“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. If any speak in a tongue, let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn, and let someone interpret. But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.” (14:26–33)
A few details are worth noting here. First, Paul assumes that everyone will have something to contribute to the worship service. Public speech is not restricted only to a few. Second, whatever happens should be edifying to all. It’s acceptable to have speaking in tongues, but it’s best to limit it to two or three people, one at a time, with interpretation. If there is no interpretation, it is better for the tongues-speakers to keep silent. Prophets are also allowed to speak, two or three at most, but they are not to pass judgment on their own prophecies. Others are to weigh or judge what is said. Taking turns is essential, as is learning to keep quiet when it’s not your time to speak. Paul does not accept the idea that the Spirit overcomes people with such force that they can’t keep quiet. “The spirits of prophets are subject to prophets”—and after all God is for peace, not confusion. Worship is most definitely to be communal and participatory, but it is not to be wild, disorderly, or rambunctious. Paul’s final judgment on the matter is that the Corinthians should “earnestly desire to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But all things should be done decently and in order” (14:39–40).
Evidently, the possession of charismata didn’t mean that the Corinthians were particularly good at using them! They required quite a lot of instruction in order even to begin using them for the right purpose and with the right attitude. “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (14:20).
Having now reviewed Paul’s in-depth discussion of the charismata, we can work through a number of contemporary questions to explore what the experience of the first-century church in Corinth might have to say to us today. The first question likely to arise is: but are the charismata really real?
Yes, as far as the biblical writers are concerned. The charismata are real. They are not illusions or self-deception. They are gifts from God. They are also normal. It is nothing unusual or exceptional for a church to have these gifts and in great abundance. And there is no suggestion that they are only temporary phenomena in the history of the church, meant to pass away within the first few decades after Jesus’ resurrection. (Some have made this argument to explain the absence of the charismata in so many churches; we will take it up in more detail in the chapter on History.)
Even this modest claim poses a problem for most Christians who do not practice or have not witnessed charismata. For many, the chief difficulty is that the charismata are “supernatural.” On reflection, this objection is an odd one coming from people who believe in the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ and his real physical presence at the Lord’s Supper! Perhaps these matters are easier to accept because they concern the one whom we know to be God, but making “supernatural” claims for mere human beings is a much more troubling claim.
Several things can be said to these legitimate concerns. First of all, while the Scriptures do assert a very strong distinction between Creator and creature, they do not accept the distinction between “supernatural” and “natural.” In fact, the very belief in creation by a Creator undoes that distinction. All things come from God, although they are not themselves God; all things have a “supernatural” origin. It is not a mistake when we call a newborn baby or a beautiful sunrise a “miracle.” One of the effects of faith is to see the miraculous hand of God in all things, even those we might have assumed to be merely “natural”—which in this case would mean “independent of God.” But the Bible teaches that nothing exists independently of God. “In [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28); “in [Christ] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). The problem then is not that charismata are supernatural, but rather that we do not perceive everything as “supernatural.” Many Lutherans will accept charismata from Paul’s list like helping, administration, and teaching because they seem to be “natural” and unspectacular. In truth, they should be considered as “supernatural” and divinely-given as all the others.
Likewise, there is a certain bias that assumes anything really “supernatural” must be utterly and absolutely different from what is “natural.” Thus, if it seems like a charisma bears some continuity with a person’s own “natural” endowments, it can’t really be divine in origin. But again, this distinction fails from a biblical perspective. All of our endowments are God-given gifts. Those who find themselves to have a natural talent for music, or organization, or athletics did nothing to earn that talent. They can certainly develop and strengthen it, but they experience it first of all as a gift. This reality is felt even more strongly by those who wish they had a gift for something and discover that, in sad reality, they don’t. The gift was not given to them. Thus there is nothing contradictory in a Spirit-given charisma making use of and enhancing the “natural” endowments in a person, for the latter are every bit as much a divine gift as the former.
However, more problematic for Christians outside the Pentecostal fold is what they see as a tendency to abuse charismatic powers. It is unfortunately all too common for earnest religious people to get burned by the deceptions of charlatans and false prophets. Even worse than this is the abuse perpetrated by people who really do have spiritual gifts but employ them for evil purposes.
But there is a difference between rejecting a particular alleged miracle or charisma on evidence, and rejecting all possible miracles and charismata on principle. Many people have suffered from dishonest claims about spiritual phenomena and have therefore concluded that they don’t actually occur at all. This is understandable, but it is important from a theological perspective to separate the issues of use and misuse. As already noted, the Scriptures testify to charismata and miracles as ordinary events in the church. But the Scriptures are also extremely well aware of the problem of false prophets and teachers, of the need for discernment in every case of spiritual gifts, and of the imperative of teaching people what their gifts mean and how to use them rightly.
Jesus issues many warnings against false prophets in Matthew’s Gospel. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (7:15). “And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (24:11). “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (24:24). This last verse conveys an extremely alarming piece of information: false prophets can perform convincing miracles. Moses had experienced the same problem with Pharaoh’s magicians in Egypt. II Thessalonians 2:9 knows of the problem, too: “The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders.” All these verses lead us to an important rule of discernment: the Christian recognition of spiritual gifts is not the same thing as worshipping power. Power can be employed by the wicked and the enemies of God. A “miracle” on its own should not convince anyone.
The Epistles give us more detailed information on discerning the spirits. For example, it is written in II Peter 2:1–3a, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words.” A false prophet will be exposed by his false teaching and immoral behavior. And if that isn’t enough, a false prophet will inevitably be motivated by financial gain. This is an unfortunately very common deception perpetrated on trusting Christians, who are fooled into giving beyond their means to support someone who claims to have a divine mandate. Any prophet claiming to need huge amounts of money—especially one who will not show you his accounting books—should be tested carefully before any donations are made and before any miracles are believed.
I John 4 also takes up the discernment question. The apostle writes, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God” (vv. 1–3a). Like II Peter, this Epistle connects false teaching with spirits that are in conflict with the Spirit of God. The rule is that a trustworthy spirit will confess Jesus Christ as Lord—much as Paul said in I Corinthians. Of course, it is also possible that a false prophet or a charlatan will have read this in the Bible and therefore pay lip service to Christ while exploiting his people. It will require wise pastoral care and careful theological discernment to protect Christians from such abusers of the good name of Jesus, as Paul did in confronting the false prophet Elymas in Cyprus (Acts 13).
It’s worth mentioning that Pentecostals and their forebears were perfectly well aware of the dangers on this score, too. Seth Cook Rees, a participant in the nineteenth-century American healing movement, wrote in 1897: “There is probably not a man in all our prisons who was placed there for counterfeiting the copper cent. So the devil counterfeits only the good, God-sent and God-ordained things, and the more valuable the genuine the more elaborate and labored his imitation. Let us not reject the gold because there is some brass in circulation.”
False prophets represent an extreme abuse. But what about troubles in the ordinary operation of charismata in a Christian congregation, as the Corinthians bear ample witness to?
Here again, non-Pentecostals are likely to react with alarm above all. Lots of terrible scenarios spring to mind: a person who claims to have prophetic powers will start ordering others around; a person of questionable character will suddenly gain great moral authority because she speaks in tongues; people who don’t speak in tongues will be considered less spiritual or mature than those who do; fights will break out between one faction of the congregation that welcomes the charismata and the other that doesn’t. Worship itself will be constantly interrupted by explosions of apparent prophecies and incomprehensible tongues. It may well seem that the charismata are more trouble than they’re worth!
Once again, these concerns are real and legitimate. Many Pentecostal Christians admit to the decidedly unspiritual infighting and divisions that mar their communities. The charismata are no guarantee of a smooth and peaceful existence. Power, though necessary for doing any good at all, always attracts evil and those who would like to exploit it for evil purposes. This applies just as much, though, to bureaucracies and hierarchies and other forms of power in the church that make no use of the charismata. The Scriptures offer us no solution other than turning again and again to God and doing the hard work of discernment.
What we learned in I Corinthians helps sort through these problems. As Paul says right at the outset of the letter, “you are not lacking in any gift,” and yet he immediately launches into an attack on them for being such utterly unspiritual people! In other words, reception of a spiritual gift does not automatically make you into a spiritual person. You can receive the gift and still live in the “flesh,” still be controlled by sin, still indulge in vice and unrighteousness. God does not give a charisma in order to say, “This person is better than everyone else.” Rather, God gives charismata in order for people to learn to use them rightly for the good of the whole church. It is a risky business—but a risk that God is apparently willing to take.
If anything, God’s granting of charismata mirrors the structure of salvation itself. The Father sent His Son while we were still enemies (Romans 5:10), while we were still dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:5), as a free gift for us and for our salvation. Just because He has offered us salvation does not mean that all of us will accept it. Even those of us who do accept it will not always respond properly, joyfully, or obediently. Here we draw close to the heart of Lutheran teaching: God gives first, before there is any change or response on your part. God gives in order to change you. He does not demand the change first or as a condition of the gift. The gift is categorical and unconditional. And it is the same with the charismata. You do nothing to earn them; they are free gifts, graced-things. But the possibility remains that you might abuse the gifts given to you.
Another real danger is that the charismata may divide the community instead of drawing it closer together. Remember, it is exactly in the context of spiritual gifts that Paul presents his famous analogy of the church as a body. One member might think that her gift is all-sufficient and the others less valuable, while another might suffer from terrible envy that someone else was given a gift that he wanted and was denied. Pride and envy are well-documented sins throughout the Scripture. They led to the terrible betrayal of proud Joseph by his envious brothers in the book of Genesis.
Here again Paul turns worldly wisdom upside down. “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body” (12:22–25). Neither the proud nor the envious are justified in their attitudes. Someone who prophecies has no right to look down on someone who “only” has the gift of administration, and likewise the one with the gift of helping should not feel inferior to or jealous of the one who speaks in tongues. Every gift is truly a gift, to the person and to the body as a whole, and all deserve recognition and honor. Here again, wise pastoral care will have to cope with these negative emotions as they arise and to help those suffering from them to grow into greater spiritual maturity.
Yet another concern is the disruptive nature of charismata. Some people have experienced and some simply fear that the liturgy will be taken over by odd noises, strange behavior, and unpredictable outbursts. Paul was well aware of this. It would have been the common experience of those who participated in the Hellenistic religions of the world around him. In those cults, worshippers expected total possession of their being by the “god” or “spirit,” with a temporary erasure of their own personality.
But the Holy Spirit does not work like that. Paul makes a point of saying that the prophet has control of the prophecies. Tongues do not need to come bursting out. It’s entirely respectable and appropriate to limit their expression to two or at most three per service, and maybe even less if there is no interpretation (which seems to be fairly typical, according to the reports of many Pentecostals). Tongues can even be kept for private devotions, though if they contribute to the upbuilding of the congregation then they can be given a place. For this reason, it’s quite common in Pentecostal worship to play instrumental music a certain point in the service, allowing everyone to speak in tongues at once to praise God without disruption of the liturgy.
Finally, there is the worry that charismatic experiences will usurp the Scripture as the norm of the Christian faith. As we have had cause to note earlier in this book, Pentecostals from the beginning have been aware of that danger and guarded against it. For instance, there was an early case of someone attempting to “write in tongues.” The community prayed about it and ultimately ruled it out, since there was no scriptural precedent. Of course, in any given congregation, there is the danger of charismatic “revelations” carrying more weight than Scripture—but again, that can just as easily happen with “secular” or other “ordinary” notions that take root in the church. The one is not more dangerous than the other. Christians are always called upon to be vigilant and faithful in their practice of the faith.
But this rule does assume that tongues and other charismata are happening at all. It has probably been the more common experience for most Lutherans to have read the relevant chapters of I Corinthians but more or less ignored them, except for the part about love, because it all seems so distant from ordinary church experience. Tongues were apparently something that was a big deal long ago, but they’re not part of church life now. We definitely pray for the sick, but we don’t look or pray for miraculous acts of healing. We automatically distrust anyone who prophesies, at least in a spontaneous way; the word is nowadays reserved for someone who critiques social and political abuses, somewhat like the way the Old Testament prophets did.
Thus, there is a troubling disconnect when Lutherans encounter Pentecostals who claim that the charismata are entirely normal parts of their church life. A common response might be sheer skepticism: the Pentecostals are deluded. Certainly plenty of other Christians and the news media thought so at the time of the Azusa Street revival. Another response might be confusion about God’s purposes. If these things are so important for the upbuilding of the church, why did they disappear for centuries, if not a millennium or more? Another reaction might be anxiety. Has my own church betrayed me by keeping the charismata secret or not paying more attention to them? Is my Christian life empty and worthless because it doesn’t include them? Much of the Lutheran reaction to charismata will depend on the Pentecostals they meet. Some will be warm, wise, open-hearted, and open-minded. Others will be greedy, cruel, controlling, and ignorant. (One could say the same about Lutherans.) It is impossible to give a universally applicable answer. Discernment is required in every case.
But building on what we have learned in this chapter, a few things can be said. The first is that the Spirit is given to every believer (I Corinthians 12:6, 7, 11, 13). You cannot be a believer without the Spirit! “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth.” So said Luther in his Small Catechism on the Third Article of the Creed. Lack of charismata in any obvious form does not mean lack of the Holy Spirit.
Second, God distributes the gifts as He sees fit. The gifts that a particular Christian or congregation have may not look much like those commonly cultivated by Pentecostals, but they are still gifts. It is essential to welcome and value everything God gives and not be weighed down by envy or filled with pride. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (I Corinthians 4:7).
Third, note how often Paul has to encourage the Corinthians to desire the spiritual gifts, prophecy in particular. In other words, he assumes that they will forget or neglect the charismata without his encouragement. The same theme appears elsewhere in the New Testament. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). God does not necessarily impose the charismata on His people. He seems to prefer it when they actively desire and ask for the spiritual gifts. However, the charismata are not to be desired for their own sake. They are a way of drawing nearer to Christ the Lord and building up the whole church. They are certainly not for spiritual self-aggrandizement.
Another thing to notice is that the charismata appear to be given in the context of the church’s common worship or as a direct outgrowth of it. While some Pentecostals have had charismata come upon them while alone or independently of any other experience, the majority of them testify to receiving the charismata during or as a result of worship and prayer with other Christians. So it stands to reason that a church or congregation that never seeks charismata together is very unlikely to see them at all.
On the other hand, it’s quite possible that the charismata of the more unusual type do actually exist among Lutherans but are kept hidden for fear of disapproval. If you start asking with an open heart and non-judgmental attitude, you might well find that there are many quiet “charismatics” in your midst who have never had the necessary teaching or encouragement to make better use of their gifts. Paul would encourage us to make these gifts public and put them to good use. “Having gifts [charismata] that differ according to the grace [charin] given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:4–8).
Scripture shows that there is always room for more of God: more gifts, more depth of understanding, more breadth of love. “Be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18b)—or, more accurately, “Keep on being filled with the Spirit.” It is not greed to ask for more. Asking greedily would not procure the desired result anyway. In any event, God remains the giver and gives as He sees fit. The “more” is up to Him. But He commands and exhorts us to ask. Ask and seek for all the gifts; gratefully receive what you are given; honor what is given to others; always test the spirits.
One final word should be said before moving on to the next topic. When Scripture paints us a picture of the gifts that come from God, there is always one essential element in the mix: the cross. There is no Jesus the Messiah—healer of illnesses, exorcist of demons, preacher with authority, feeder of thousands—without the crucifixion. It is the cup given him to drink, and he cannot turn aside from it. In analogous fashion, Paul the mighty apostle, preacher, and evangelist is given a thorn in his flesh for the very purpose of preventing him from being too elated by all the other glorious gifts he has received. Both of these New Testament examples draw upon consistent Old Testament themes: Jacob wins God’s blessing but at the price of an injured hip, Jeremiah the prophet suffers ostracism and imprisonment, the Suffering Servant exercises the gift of healing but at the cost of his own chastisement and wounds. The charismata are not given to guarantee a happy, pain-free, victorious life. They are given for the sake of faith and are to be exercised faithfully. For Christians, faith always includes bearing the cross.