Charles Spurgeon’s first encounter with spiritual gifts came in a manner that seemed pretty random, maybe even ‘accidental'. When Spurgeon was a boy, his family gathered at 6:00 a.m. for family worship. On one occasion, they were joined by a house guest named Richard Knill. After the morning prayers had shaken the slumber from the Spurgeon clan, Mr. Knill moved to leave. Suddenly he stopped, and reached over to lift young Charles. The 10-year-old Spurgeon remembered it this way:
“In the presence of them all, Mr. Knill took me on his knee, and said, ‘This child will one day preach the gospel, and he will preach it to great multitudes. I am persuaded that he will preach in the chapel of Rowland Hill.” (Spurgeon, The Early Years, p. 27)
Years later, as an established London pastor and young “phenom” as a preacher, Charles Spurgeon ascended the pulpit at Rowland Hill’s chapel as a guest preacher. Looking out over the crowd, he recounted the words of Richard Knill spoken over him as a young boy. Astounded, a current of excitement rippled across the meeting space as people realized that this very moment had been foreseen and announced. Overwhelmed by God’s goodness, tears streamed down Spurgeon’s face as he opened his Bible to preach.
The result? God was glorified as both Spurgeon and the people encountered the active presence of God in a unique and memorable manner.
Yes, spiritual gifts in the hands of the immature can result in epic fails. Just ask the Corinthians. But a spiritual gift employed by a doctrinally-astute believer is a thing of beauty. In Spurgeon’s case, the impact came not through eloquence, but prescience — a God-inspired foresight of the prophetic variety (1 Corinthians 14:4b). Apart from the power of God, how could Richard Knill have known that a particular 10-year-old boy would grow up to preach at one of England’s most prestigious churches? The Spirit of God used spiritual gifts to exalt the Savior and edify the church (1 Corinthians 14:3). Spurgeon wept, awe filled the people, the Transcendent One became preciously immanent — I suspect this was one of those meetings every one remembered.
Now a question. When you read this account, what’s your instinctive response? Does the story raise the spiritual credibility of Charles Spurgeon, as if great experiences only happen to great preachers? Maybe your mind moves towards Mr. Knill — this dude had a gift that qualified, at least on that occasion, as extraordinary. Perhaps it stirs a desire in you to find a church where you can share these kinds of experiences. If you can relate to any of these impulses, it would be pretty understandable. But it might surprise you to discover that it is also a pretty Corinthian way of thinking about gifts and power.
But there’s another option; a different way of understanding spiritual gifts that Paul addresses. It’s where stories like this draw us to the nature and character of God. It’s where the use of spirituals gifts helps us marvel at the relevance and immediacy of his Word. It’s where we actually encounter the active presence of God without being distracted from Jesus.
It’s where we come to terms with a reality that consistently escaped the Corinthians. It’s where we move away from being afraid of spiritual gifts because of their hyper-charsimatic abuses and stop expecting to accidentally stumble into a robust pneumatology. It’s what Paul makes clear — spiritual gifts should exalt the Giver, not the gifts.
The Error of Misguided Spirituality
The Corinthian church came with some serious spiritual cred — every spiritual gift available to believers was featured within that congregation (1 Corinthians 1:7). But because of their immaturity, the Corinthians saw their gifts — particularly glossolalia (the gift of tongues) — as a sign of God's divine approval; an earthly fist-bump from the Heavenly King. Tongues, in particular, were a sign of God’s supreme validation; earthly evidence of celestial approval; an undeniable marker of their immeasurable maturity. The Corinthians had bought into a spiritual Ponzi scheme where Step One was to embrace a dangerous lie: Spiritual gifts make people spiritual.
It’s why they were a little gift-goofy. In the mind of the Corinthian Christian, gifts reveal growth.
Not according to Paul. He said, "Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:1). Why the downgrade from ‘spiritual’ to ‘infant’ in Christ’? Because their gifts had become an end, not a means. They didn’t understand that abused gifts are unhelpful gifts. In fact, the use of gifts got so creepy among the Corinthians that at one point Paul said, “Your meetings do more harm than good”! (1 Corinthians 11:17).
When gifts become an end, meetings do more harm than good. The gifts become big, the Giver becomes small, and the meetings become strange. I know. I’ve been the object of prophecy gifts that scintillated with authenticity, and I’ve seen displays of prophecy that pollute the soul. I’ve led meetings where the gifts were used wisely, and led some meetings where it would be completely justified for spiritual gifts to be outlawed. Most of the occasions where I got it wrong, it was because, somehow, the gifts replaced the Giver.
The Essence of True Spirituality
Paul had a plan that went way beyond just laying some kind of fundy, anti-charismatic head-trip on the Corinthians. His goal was to guide them out of the chaos, to keep charismata from becoming Charismania. But to get there, he had to replace the Corinthians’ sense of ‘true spirituality’ with something superior, “a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). So Paul delivers the essence, God’s ultimate explanation of true spirituality.
“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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).
God’s vision of love does not arrive as a syrupy feeling or vague emotional force. Love is first embodied by a Person who has a name — Jesus. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16). Loves compelling description in 1 Corinthians 13 is not the result of a global compilation of the best virtues we can find. It’s simply a day in the life of our Lord.
If you want to see the essence of true spirituality, look for true love. If you want to see true love, look to Jesus.
But it doesn’t end with Jesus, because he sends us into the same mission. As Christians, we are called to the spirituality that includes the more excellent way of love. Paul’s not just inserting some random thoughts on love that were inexplicably triggered by all the gift-talk. He’s also not creating a competition where we must choose love over gifts. “Thus it is not “love versus gifts” that Paul has in mind, but “love as the only context for gifts;” for without the former, the latter have no usefulness at all — but then neither does much of anything in the Christian life” (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, p. 197).
Spiritual gifts are important to the church, but they don’t outlast or outgain love. Love is eternal, infinite, timeless, immortal — it never ends (1 Corinthians 13:8). The true spirituality of love is not abstract or subjective, like a piece of modern art whose beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The more excellent way comes with specific, identifiable marks, seen first in the glorious words and work of the Savior.
The most excellent way is wrapped up in love.
This post is published in recognition of Pentecost Sunday, and is part 1 of a blog series on continuationism, spiritual gifts, and true spirituality. Pentecost is not as well-known or as popular to many Christians as Christmas and Easter, but it does commemorate a watershed event in Christian history — the the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus after his Ascension. It many ways, Pentecost is the birthday of the church.
Stay tuned for part 2...
This post was written by Dave Harvey, Pastor of Preaching at Four Oaks Church, and the Executive Director of Sojourn Network. Follow him @RevDaveHarvey.