(Are the Spiritual Gifts Permanent?)

QUESTION: Janice asks, "Once God blesses you with a gift does He take it back (if you do not use it)?"

ANSWER: Interesting question! The quick answer is no, I don't believe so. But let's explore the subject a bit.

There are about 20 spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament. I say "about," because there are one or two that may or may not be included (such as the gift of hospitality, I Pet. 4:9-10). Several lists of gifts are given, but each list is different, suggesting the ones mentioned may simply be examples, and that there may even be other gifts that are not specifically named. (Though I tend to doubt this.) The gifts are enablings of God's Spirit, abilities granted to individuals so they can serve the Lord and His church, the spiritual body of Christ.

Each Christian has at least one gift (I Cor. 12:7, 11; Eph. 4:7; I Pet. 4:10). Some may have been given a cluster of related gifts. Though Christians disagree on the subject, it is my understanding that some of the gifts were themselves temporary, being of special use during the apostolic era. They were later withdrawn, or have become inoperative. The gift of apostleship itself is an example of this. In its technical and narrow sense, there are no more apostles today, since they had to be men who walked and talked with the Lord Jesus, and had seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-25; I Cor. 9:1). They were foundational to the church in the early days (Eph. 2:20).

But that is not exactly what you are asking. You want to know whether the gift an individual has been given will be taken away again, if it is not put to use. I can think of no teaching in the Bible to that affect–unless we interpret the Parable of the Talents that way (more of that in a moment). The gifts are endowments likely given at the time of the person's conversion. No verse that I know of says "use it or lose it"–or anything like that.

The Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) may seem on the surface to be teaching that, but not when we dig deeper. We think of a talent as an ability, and it is easy to assume that has a close relation to the spiritual gifts. But in the Bible a "talent" (talanton in Greek) is a unit of weight, used to measure out money–a talent of silver, ten talents of gold, etc. (See Est. 3:9 for example.)

These talents are not themselves abilities, but ability does enter into the picture. In Matt. 25:15 we are told, "To one he [the master] gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, to each according to his own ability." Thus the talents represent material resources to be put to use according to individual giftedness. When there is an accounting later, the slothful servant does not have his ability taken away (vs. 28-29), but rather the resources and opportunities to exercise his abilities in the service of his master.

We may be able to draw a lesson from that relative to the spiritual gifts. It is possible to be sinfully careless or indifferent and not use the gifts God has given us. The gift (ability) may still be present, but lack of use may hinder its development, as well as its usefulness and productivity.

Let's take the gift of evangelism as an example. The Bible says the Lord "gave some to be...evangelists" (Eph. 4:11). Each believer should share his faith, and work and pray to win others to Christ. But there is little doubt that some have a special gift in this area. They have an overwhelming passion to see others come to the Saviour, and a unique ability to present the gospel message clearly and effectively.

But the Lord can develop their gift further. He can provide the resources, either in a material sense, or in other ways, for the gift's usefulness to be expanded. The Lord can help the person develop skills that relate to the more effective use of the gift. For instance, the individual can take training on how to be a soul winner, or how to preach. He can memorize Bible verses that will be useful in his ministry.

And when the gift is used, a couple of other things can happen. The spiritual fruit that follows is a confirmation and encouragement that God has indeed equipped him to do that work. Also, as those in the Christian community observe how the Lord is blessing, new opportunities for ministry will likely begin to open up. He may be invited to other places to do the work of evangelizing, or hold evangelistic programs.

None of this will happen if the gift is ignored. It is not that the gift is actually taken away, but it certainly lies dormant, and is not accomplishing what God intended. With each gift comes an attending responsibility. The gift is a stewardship, entrusted to us by the Lord which we are to use in His service. It is important for each of us to learn what kind of ministry the Lord has equipped us for, and to do it!