Romans 12:3–8 (ESV)✞: Gifts of Grace
In the last passage Paul encouraged his readers to present their bodies to God as living sacrifices. In this passage he fills that concept out a bit: God has given each of His children different gifts, so how are we to use them?
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.
For the rest of this post I’m going to skip the verse numbers in my quotations and freely emphasise any text I want to call out, so just keep that in mind.
First, Paul deals with our attitude.
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
This is a common theme in Paul’s letters. (It’s almost like Christians need to be told, over and over again, not to get proud – not to think overly highly of ourselves.) In this passage Paul is talking about how to use our gifts, but he knows the human heart: as soon as we start going down this path, some of us are going to think our gifts are better than everyone else’s – or, conversely, get jealous because others have the gifts we think are the “best.” So he tells us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to.
However, that doesn’t mean thinking less of ourselves than we ought to, either:
but to think with sober judgment
Don’t look for ways to think too highly of yourself, nor just default to looking for ways to put yourself down. (That’s not humility, it’s just self abasement.) No, we are to think things through, with our brains, and try to figure out: what am I good at? What gifts has God given me?
He has given you some gifts, and you should recognise that fact. It’s not “thinking more highly of yourself than you ought” to recognise that God has made you good at something. Knowing He has given you a gift and pretending like He hasn’t isn’t humility, it’s false humility. (For those who are keeping track, that’s two separate ways Christians can get the concept of humility wrong: we can put ourselves down and call it humility, or we can pretend we don’t have the gifts we have and call it humility, but neither of these are biblical humility.)
So it would be bad to say “my gifts are better than your gifts and therefore I’m better than you,” and it would be bad to ignore the gifts He’s given you or pretend that you don’t have them. But it is good to say, “God has made me good at this, and you good at that, so let’s work together to build up the Church.”
So how do we do this? Paul said to do it in “sober judgement,” so we have to use our brains, but we also have to do it in faith:
each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
I’m reading this in two ways:
- It takes faith to recognise that, yes, God really has given me this gift, and
- It also takes faith to go out and use that gift in His service
What if people don’t believe you have that gift? Then, over the course of time, as you do your best to use it in His service, hopefully people will start to see it.
What if someone else has the same gift – but even more than you do? That doesn’t mean you can’t use yours, too! Are you a good singer, but others are even better? Maybe you can still sing in the choir, but you’re not going to be taking the lead parts. Do you have the gift of teaching, but not like the pastor does? Maybe you can still teach a Sunday school class, or teach the kids, or even lead a Bible study.
I emphasise this point because it’s something we’ve messaged badly in North America. We tell kids, from a very young age, that everyone has something they’re good at – better than anyone else! And I agree with the first half, but disagree with the second half. Yes, everyone has gifts—Paul is saying they come from God, which is true whether you’re a Christian or not—but there are only so many gifts to go around, and there are almost eight billion people in the world; if you have a gift, you should be ready for the fact that someone else might have the same gift in a larger measure. It’s not a bad thing! You don’t have to be the best in the world at something—or even the best in your local church—to still use it.
And maybe you are the one who’s the best at something in the world. Maybe, out of the eight billion people in the world, you’re actually the best singer, or the best teacher. It’s possible – someone has to be the best. So what then? In sober judgement, according to the measure of faith God has assigned to you, recognise the fact and use the gift to the best of your ability. If you’re the absolute best singer in your church and someone else is a good singer but not as good as you, it would be incredibly un-Christian of you to smirk to yourself about how much better you are than that person. Don’t think more highly of yourself than you ought about something you had no control over – it was a gift from Him.
Paul’s next point is that all of these various gifts that God has given to His children are necessary.
For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
I keep mentioning singing and teaching because, in North America at least, these gifts seem to be the ones that are coveted the most in local churches. Everyone wants to be the one up on stage singing, or preaching. If everyone in the church was an amazing singer the music on Sunday mornings would be amazing, but without that gift of teaching nobody would learn anything. And without the gifts of serving, of exhortation, of generosity, of leadership… there wouldn’t be a church.
God gave everyone in your local church different gifts (in differing amounts), but He did it for a reason.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them
And now we get a list of examples of gifts. Paul’s point is not to look at the list of gifts themselves, but to think, for any gift that God might have given you, what’s the best way to use it?
It’s interesting to me, when going through the list, that Paul doesn’t just say, “if your gift is teaching you should teach, and if your gift is exhortation you should exhort, and if your gift is prophecy than you should prophecy, …” In some cases, he’s going a bit deeper than that.
So let’s look at the ones Paul lists – which every commentary is quick to point out is not intended to be an exhaustive list of gifts, and I wouldn’t even call it a representative list, since, as I said, he’s not focusing on the gifts themselves but how we use them:
|in proportion to our faith
|There’s a debate as to whether this gift still exists (which I have no desire to get into), but regardless, if there is a prophet, s/he should be prophesying in proportion to their faith; if you’re in an environment where prophesying is part of your church culture, but you aren’t, in this moment, convinced that the prophesy you’re delivering is actually from God, then don’t give it.
|in our serving
|This tells us that there is actually a gift of service! Are you the one who’s always staying after the banquet to help clean up? Are you the one who’s always driving people to church when they can’t get there on their own? This is a gift, and the church needs it!
|Seems obvious, but if you’re able to teach you should teach. I’ve mentioned some examples above; perhaps you’re not giving sermons on Sunday mornings, but there could be other Sunday morning classes you could teach, or Bible studies, or …
|The best definition I’ve found for what Paul means by exhortation is “encouragement.” If you find yourself constantly encouraging others, that’s a gift from God – and Paul’s only instruction to you on how to use that gift is to just use it! Your brothers and sisters need it.
|Of course, in this context, when we see “contribution” we think financially; if God has blessed you with a lot of money, you should be using that money for the church. But, importantly, you should be doing it in generosity. It’s not a matter of grudgingly letting the church have some of your hard-earned money; it’s money God has given you, you want the church to have it! (Or, not just “the church,” meaning your local church, but “the Church,” meaning God’s people across the world. There are various ways your money can help with missions and with relief efforts across the world.)
Another gift we don’t always think of as a “gift” – and also one that should be looked at in sober judgement and faith, because there are people who just like to boss others around, which is different from what Paul is thinking of. But if you do have the gift of leadership, do it with zeal!
I think a fantastic example of this is the person who was Chair of my church’s Board at the time I wrote this, because being Chair tends to be a thankless job, bringing on a lot of extra work and even more extra headache. When the previous Chair left the position nobody wanted it, to the point that it stayed empty for a while. But when the current Chair took over, regardless of whether he wanted it (or wanted to avoid it), he’s been filling the role with zeal.
|doing acts of mercy
|Again, not something we might think of as a “gift,” but Paul treats it that way. And we might think it’s a no-brainer to say that someone whose gift is doing acts of mercy should do it with cheerfulness—doesn’t that go without saying?—but I think constantly helping others can really take a toll on humans, and Paul wants to ensure that that toll doesn’t lead to someone who’s “technically” helping people, but with a chip on their shoulders.
Perhaps your gift isn’t listed here, but Paul’s exhortation to you would be to think about the best ways it can be used in the church. Notice, for example, singing didn’t even make the list, so if you are a good singer, how can those talents best be used in your local church? It might mean joining the Worship Team – or it might not. It definitely doesn’t mean shoving the other singers out of the way so that you can take over; even if, as mentioned earlier, you’re the best singer in the entire world, it still wouldn’t be the right approach.
So, again, how best can you help your church? Or the Church?
I didn’t mention this above because it threw off the flow of what I was writing, but look at verse 3 again:
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.
Romans 12:3 (ESV)✞, emphasis added
In a passage about gifts, Paul says that even your faith is a gift from God! God has “assigned” you a measure of faith.
I think many Christians get this point wrong. When it comes to our talents at singing or teaching or prophecy or any other gifts we can see that, yes, these come from God. But when it comes to our faith, we think of that as being our job. “I’ll muster up the faith,” we think, “and then God will recognise that by giving me gifts and helping me to use them.” How exactly we go about “mustering up” that faith is not clear, of course; I think many of us have a mental image of closed eyes and balled fists and concentrating really hard on being faithful. Paul says no, it’s not your job to “muster up faith,” that is yet another gift from God.
Among other things, this means it’s something we should pray for. If faith is a gift from God then I should pray for more of it.
Are there things we can do to “help” Him give us faith? Sort of!
- Just like any other aspect of our relationship to God, things improve as we study His Word. Reading the Bible doesn’t make me more faithful, but it does remind me of who He is, and who I am in relation to Him, and the Holy Spirit can use that to build up my faith. What is faith, after all, but believing that He is who He says He is and that He can do what He says He can do? Faith isn’t an abstract concept; you have to have faith in someone/something. I don’t just “have faith,” I have faith in God.
- Similarly, this is yet one more reason that we should be in constant prayer. Partially for the obvious reason, in this context: we can pray for more faith. But even the act of prayer itself puts us into a headspace where we’re dependent upon God, as we’re supposed to be, which… is a form of faith!
If I’m going through bad times, faith is believing that He can get me through them, and informed faith is knowing that the solution might not look how I want it to look, but He is in control and has a reason for it. If I don’t believe He can get me through it, or can’t accept any form of resolution other than the way I want things to go, then I should pray for more faith.