Faith: The Root and Trait of All Spiritual Gifts
From Gospel Translations
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members,and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 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.
Today we move beyond verse 3 and begin to look at Paul’s comparison of the church to a human body. As a body has many parts but is one body, so the church has many members but is one interconnected body. Let’s read verses 4-6 just to make sure we have the picture before us: “For as in one body we have many members,and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. [There were few if any punctuation marks in the original Greek manuscripts, and this period is a judgment call by the translators. The next clause may be a continuation of verse 5] 6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith.”
Why Is the God-Given Measure of Faith Our Standard for Self-Assessment?
Now to build a bridge to these verses I want to go back and give one more answer to the question we posed about verse 3. In verse 3 Paul says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” So we asked, “Why, Paul, do you make the God-given measure of faith that each believer has the standard for his self-assessment?” We have given three answers to that question.
1. Because the unique nature of faith deflects glory from us and draws all attention to Christ. Faith is a looking away from ourselves to the infinite worth of Jesus and the treasure that satisfies our souls. So making faith the measure of ourselves means that my value as a person is my valuing of Christ—or at least my potential valuing of Christ.
2. Faith is the standard of our self-assessment because faith is a gift from God and, you can’t boast in a gift. So if my faith grows, and my usefulness increases, there can be no boasting. To God belongs all the glory.
3. Faith is the standard of our self-assessment because faith is measured out to believers in different proportions which leads us to a kind of interdependent unity in diversity that is more difficult and (therefore) more beautiful and more God-glorifying than if we all had the same degree of faith.
Now we come to the fourth and last answer to our question which builds a bridge into verses 4-6 and the comparison between the church and the human body.
4. I would put it like this: Paul makes faith the standard of our self-assessment because faith is the root of all spiritual gifts and the human trait of spiritual gifts that makes them spiritual gifts and not merely natural; and therefore faith makes all spiritual gifts, no matter how great or small, a tribute to God and not to ourselves.
First let me try to explain what I mean by faith being the root of spiritual gifts and the trait that turns natural gifting into spiritual gifting. Then we will look at three parts of this text to support this understanding.
Faith as the Root and Trait of Spiritual Gifts
What I mean by faith being the root of spiritual gifts is that faith looks away from our own resources and our own natural abilities and embraces the all-sufficiency of Christ as the source of all grace which spiritual gifts transmit to other people in the body of Christ. And I call faith the human trait that turns natural abilities or actions into spiritual gifts because without faith our abilities and actions don’t transmit supernatural grace. Natural abilities transmit natural things. Spiritual gifts transmit spiritual things—faith, hope, love, joy in God, longing for purity, courage in the cause of Christ, and so on.
So faith is the root of spiritual gifts that depends on and draws up the life-giving grace of God, and faith is the defining trait of gifts that transforms them from natural to spiritual. Faith draws up grace from the river of God’s bounty and, by means of spiritual gifts, transmits that grace to others. This is the way Peter describes gifts in 1 Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift (charisma), use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace (charitos).” If your faith reaches down for fresh measures of God’s grace and then delivers that grace to others so that their faith is strengthened, that means of delivery (whatever it was) is one of your gifts. Whatever ability or action transmits grace by faith from God to people is a spiritual gift.
Take the example of teaching. You may have a great natural ability to teach. And of course if you do, this is a gift of God, even if you are not a Christian. You may be so naturally gifted in teaching that any subject you explain, people understand it quickly, and you get the reputation of being amazingly helpful in making things clear and practical. But that is not the same as the spiritual gift of teaching referred to, for example, in verse 7.
The only thing that a natural ability to teach can do for others is transmit natural things. It cannot transmit saving grace or sanctifying grace. But if a gifted teacher is converted to Christ and stops leaning on his own understanding, and stops depending on his own abilities, and instead trusts Christ for receiving and transmitting supernatural grace, then his ability to teach may become a spiritual gift—that is, it may become a means of transmitting God’s grace to others for their everlasting spiritual good. And it is also true that God can take a person with no natural ability to teach and work such a change in his mind and heart that both ability and spiritual gift are created together.
That’s what I mean by faith being the root of spiritual gifts and faith being the trait that turns natural gifting into spiritual gifts. Now look with me at three parts of this text that support this understanding and explain it further.
4.1. Gifts Differ According to the Grace Given to Us
First, look at verse 6a: “Having gifts (charismata) that differ according to the grace (charin) given to us.” Gifts differ according to the grace given to us. There are different kinds and degrees of grace that God intends to transmit through us to others. This is what makes our gifts differ. So gifts are the God-given human means of transmitting grace from God to others.
You can see it even more clearly when you know that the word used for “gifts” here in verse 6 is charismata, from which we get the word “charismatic,” and the word for grace is charin, from charis. So you can hear how the words are related. A gift, a charisma, is an expression of charis, of grace. James Dunn says it like this:
Particularly evident here [in verse 6] is the character of charisma [gift] as the embodiment, concrete manifestation in word or action, of charis [grace]. . . . The essential balance between the two words is maintained if we see charis [grace] as the resource which comes to particular expression in charisma [gift], the fountainhead from which the particular draft or more regular stream is drawn. (James D. G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary, Romans 9-16, p. 725)
In other words, “gifts” are expressions of, or extensions of, “grace.” Gifts transmit God’s grace through human means to other people for their strengthening in faith and hope and love and healing and guidance, etc. All I am adding is to say that faith is the act of the soul that looks away from our own resources and receives this grace and depends on its power to pass through us for the good of others.
This is what Paul said back in Romans 1:11-12, “I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” I think this shift from “I want to extend to you a spiritual gift” to “I want to strengthen you by my faith” shows that faith is what we use in the transmitting of grace and strength to others.
I think it’s fair to say that whenever God’s grace is arriving to us and working in us and passing through us, the instrument that God uses for us to receive it and transmit it is faith. So let’s not think of our spiritual gifts more highly than we ought to think. Let’s think with sober judgment: Measure them by faith, and keep in mind that faith looks away from ourselves to the bounty of God’s free grace—not only for justification and not only for sanctification, but also for spiritual gifts.
4.2. Paul Models What He Teaches About Spiritual Gifts
Now consider a second observation from this text to support this understanding. Consider the first words of verse 3: “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you . . .” Compare that to verse 6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” What this shows us is that Paul is modeling for them in the way he writes what he teaches about spiritual gifts. He has the gift of apostleship (Romans 1:5). He know that it brings tremendous authority (2 Corinthians 10:8; 13:10). None of us has that gift. The apostles were foundational to the church. We build on what they taught, we don’t expand it. Their gift was revelation and foundation (Ephesians 2:20). Ours is understanding and application.
But in spite of all that authority, Paul makes clear in verse 3 that when he speaks and writes as an apostle of Christ, he still has at least one great thing in common with everyone who exercises a spiritual gift: he is looking away from himself and depending utterly on God’s grace. “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you. . .” Moment by moment as he speaks for Christ, or writes for Christ, he is leaning on grace and not on himself. That is what it means to use a spiritual gift. And that leaning is called faith.
So Paul keeps himself humble—not thinking of himself and his apostolic gifts too highly—by making explicit that every blessing that flows from the book of Romans to the church of Christ is all of grace through faith. There can be no boasting here of one member over another, not even the boasting of an apostle.
4.3. Use Your Gifts in True Proportion to Your Faith
Now look again at verse 6 for the third consideration in this text to show that faith is the root of spiritual gifts. “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy,in proportion to our faith.”
Here Paul makes explicit the relationship between at least one spiritual gift and faith. In the case of prophecy he says, use that gift “in proportion to your faith.” That phrase, “in proportion to your faith,” sounds very similar to the end of verse 3, “Think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The “measure of faith” in verse 3 and the “proportion of faith” in verse 4 are probably the same.
So just as the point in verse 3 is not to think too highly of yourself but to think according to the measure of your God-given faith, so here in verse 6 the point would be: Don’t fake the performance of some gift to look more spiritual than you are, but use your gifts in true proportion to your faith. In other words, the issue in both verses is pride, and the antidote to pride is faith. Yes, use your gifts to bless people. Yes, transmit grace to each other. Don’t hold back out of false humility. But don’t fall into the trap of religious gamesmanship. Don’t do the religious thing just because you have learned how to look spiritual. Instead, serve each other with words and actions “in proportion to your faith.”
Here some examples that I think illustrate how this works.
- As your faith increases, the clarity of your vision of Christ increases. So using your gift in proportion to this faith will mean using it to show Christ with greater clarity. Your words about him will be more lucid and compelling and biblically illuminating.
- As your faith increases, your treasuring of Christ’s worth will increase. So using your gift in proportion to this faith will mean using it with greater passion for Christ’s value.
- As your faith increases, you will trust more fully in Christ’s promises of help. So using your gift in proportion to this faith will mean using it with greater confidence and boldness and courage.
- As your faith increases, you will trust Christ’s constancy and faithfulness more and your faith will be rugged and durable. So using your gift in proportion to this faith will mean using it more steadily and with more resilient perseverance.
- As your faith increases, you will see and savor Christ’s mercy more clearly and feel your own unworthiness more keenly. So using your gift in proportion to this faith will mean using it with more lowliness and meekness.
- As your faith increases, you will see and savor Christ’s all-satisfying greatness more fully. So using your gift in proportion to this faith will mean that you use it with more joy.
Paul’s point is: Don’t try to fake these things. Don’t be a religious hypocrite. Don’t pretend passion and courage and lowliness and joy. Don’t put your energy in building a façade. Put your energy in building faith. Gifts are real and life-giving only when they come from faith and in proportion to the faith we really have. Fight for that faith. Don’t fight to keep up a façade.
In summary then:
Paul makes our God-given measure of faith the standard by which we measure ourselves because faith is the root of all spiritual gifts and the trait that turns natural abilities into spiritual gifts. So faith (which looks away from itself to God’s grace) makes all spiritual gifts, no matter how great or small, a tribute to God’s grace and not to ourselves.
We saw it in verse 6a: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” Gifts are the transmission of grace received by faith.
We saw it in verse 3: “By the grace given to me I say to everyone.” Paul sets an example and shows that even the exercise of his own apostolic teaching gift is by grace, and he leans on that grace for every word.
Finally, we saw it in verse 6b: “Let us use [our gifts]: If prophecy, in proportion to our faith.” In other words, in the life of the body of Christ at Bethlehem, don’t try to look great. Just be real. Pray for faith, and seek to grow in faith. But do your ministry—use your gifts—in proportion to the faith you have.