Equip: Which Comes First: Gifts or Calling?

As Pastor Tommy recently reminded us, “The gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Romans 11:29, KJV). But which comes first? Do we search for our gifts in order to find our ministry, or do we minister in order to find our gifts? The Bible gives no formal answer to that question. As far as living in the church is concerned, both gifts and calling are irrevocable. I would argue, however, that a functional priority within the Christian life guides the proper discovery and use of spiritual gifts in service to the community in which we are called. The following is the functional priority for discovering spiritual gifts: 1) repentance, baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38); 2) identification with the church; 3) growth in partnership with the church; 4) appointment to ministry; 5) discovery of spiritual giftedness; and 6) discernment of effectiveness by demonstration of fruits. A separation between person and gift is the principle involved in this informal pathway. The significance of this separation will become clear as we follow Paul on his path to the discovery of gifts.

Paul experienced his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus as a call to announce the good news that Gentiles were included along with Israel in the Kingdom of God. Conversion stories in the modern church tend to portray tortured souls suddenly liberated from lifelong hangups with alcohol, drugs or sex. In some cases, conversion is depicted as a change from atheism to theism, or from another religion to Christianity. None of these stereotypes apply to Paul. Paul was a devout Jew, zealous for the moral and ritual purification of Israel, when suddenly confronted by the appearance of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah who had fulfilled all the hopes and promises of final restoration between God and the world created by him.* Jesus called Paul to declare this good news to all people (Acts 9:15; Gal 1:15). After his encounter, the traumatized Paul spent three days in total darkness before Ananias healed his blindness, baptized him and Paul was filled with the Holy Spirit. Paul did not speak in tongues when he received the Holy Spirit. Instead, he went to the Jewish synagogue to proclaim the good news that Jesus was the Son of God (Acts 9:20). It didn’t go well. Synagogue leaders attempted to do to Paul what he had intended to do to Jesus followers, but Paul was smuggled out of Damascus. After three years, Paul connected with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem. At first, they suspected Paul was an informant sent by the priestly hierarchy to penetrate the ranks of church leadership, but Barnabas reached out to bring Paul into their confidence (Acts 9:26-30). After this brief encounter, Paul disappeared for ten years. Presumably, Paul worked in the family tent making business in Tarsus, while developing the theological understanding that would carry him through his tumultuous career.

Tarsus is where we find Paul in the next stage on the way to discovering his gifts (Acts 11:19-30). The pivot point was a call to service from his old friend, Barnabas. A new church in Syrian Antioch roused the concerns of Jerusalem apostles because Gentiles were being converted. They sent Barnabas to check things out. Barnabas found church growth so rapid he needed reinforcements. Paul was just up the coast in Tarsus, where Barnabas recruited him to help in Antioch. They spent a year working together before a prophet named Agabus predicted a famine in Jerusalem., and the church in Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem with an offering. This was the second journey to Jerusalem Paul described in Galatians 2:1-10. This time, the Apostles welcomed Paul with open arms. A lasting partnership came out of that meeting with an agreement to include Gentiles in the church without first becoming observant Jews. It looked like everything was settled, as long as Gentiles partnered with their Jewish brethren in poverty relief.

Back in Antioch, Barnabas and Paul set to work along with the other church leaders (Acts 13:1-12). Something unexpected happened during a prayer service. The Holy Spirit designated the pair for a new missionary journey in the eastern Mediterranean. The journey started out as the Barnabas and Paul team, with Paul as the “co-pilot” under Barnabas’ command. Early in that ministry, a fraudulent sorcerer, named Elymas, confronted Barnabas and Paul. In an ironic reverse healing, Paul blinded the sorcerer with a curse. This was Paul’s first recorded miracle. Luke inserted a small detail at this point with huge implications. “Saul, who was also called Paul,” wrote Luke. Up to this point, Luke used Paul’s Hebrew name Saul, but the name change to his Roman name, “Paul.” appeared in the rest of Acts. Saul became Paul with the manifestation of a miraculous gift. Furthermore, the spotlight shifted from Barnabas and Paul to Paul and Barnabas.

Many instances of miraculous healings are recorded at the hands of Paul in Acts, but they have different effects. The first miracle resulted in the proconsul’s acceptance of Paul’s teaching. Paul’s second recorded miraculous healing of a lame man (Acts 14:8-20) was interpreted by the residents of Lystra as the work of their pagan gods in human form. When Paul tried to convince them to give up idol worship, they stoned him. Miraculous signs in Paul’s ministry pointed beyond themselves to the growth of the Kingdom of God. Paul was no more in control of the effect than he was in control of the gift. The effect of signs and wonders among non Jews became evidence of God’s work at Paul’s third visit to Jerusalem for the council in Acts 15.

In our Ekklesia Ministry College, we learned that Luke described basic patterns in the early church to teach normative principles, and similar patterns appeared in Paul’s letters. The pattern of Paul’s discovery of his giftedness can be summarized as follows: 1) repentance, baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit in Damascus; 2) identification with the church in Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem; 3) growth in partnership with the church through recruitment into the ministry in Antioch and second trip to Jerusalem; 4) appointment to the ministry by the Holy Spirit in Antioch as leaders prayed, fasted and laid hands on Barnabas and Paul ; 5) discovery of spiritual giftedness on the first missionary journey to Crete; and 6) discernment of effects of miraculous gifts at the Jerusalem council.

The principle underlying this pattern is the separation between person and gift. Separation between a person and his gift is evident in the chronology of Paul’s discovery of his own giftedness. Not until he was on the first missionary journey around thirteen years after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus did Paul manifest miraculous gifts. A similar pattern appears in Paul’s letters. He encourages Corinthian Christians to “eagerly desire” spiritual gifts, an indication that giftedness was not normally apparent at baptism. In fact, Paul reminded Timothy not to neglect the gift “which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you” (1 Timothy 4:14) at some point when Timothy was already in ministry. Gifts are normally discovered in the course of personal spiritual growth and service as a believer identifies with the work of the Holy Spirit in the church.

The significance of separation between person and gift is twofold. First, the Lord gets credit for a miraculous work. Miracles are not ends in themselves; they point beyond themselves to the real miracle of a changed life through faith in Jesus. A model miracle is Jesus’ healing of a lame man at Capernaum as a sign that his sins were forgiven (Mark 2:8-11). Second, gifts can be misused or abused. To keep Paul from misusing his miraculous visions, he received a “thorn in his flesh” to remind him God’s strength is manifest in Paul’s weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). Of course, it would be misuse if Paul did not rely on his gifts. Spiritual gifts are abused when they are used for profit or sensationalism. Simon the Sorcerer has been tied to the abuse of spiritual powers for gain (see Acts 8:9-25).

We have seen that Paul’s call preceded Paul’s gifts. As Paul grew in ministry, the Lord added spiritual gifts necessary for ministry. The greater his ministry, the more gifted he became; the more gifted he became, the less he relied on his gifts. Sooner or later, Paul found what we also must discover—that we are all cessationists in one sense (who believe miraculous gifts cease). Paul at the end of life was more concerned about Timothy’s use of his gifts (2 Timothy 1:6). At some point in life, “prophecies will cease, tongues will be stilled and knowledge will pass away.…Faith, hope and love are all that remain, and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13).

*A lucid and easy-to-read biography of Paul came out this year by N. T. Wright, Paul: A Biography (HarperOne. 2018).