Though in the New Testament there seems to be a certain overlapping of both meaning and usage of the Greek words translated gift and grace depending upon emphasis, there is a disctinction that ought to be recognized for its practical application in the lives of Christians. Someone has observed that a gift is "a divine gratuity, an unsought endowment, whereas a grace, though equally the product of God's work, is "a Spirit-created disposition in which man's will plays a part." In other words, regardless of what word or words might be used, the Scriptures recognize a distinction between what God bestows on a believer and what the believer does with it. The distinction does not lie so much in the word or words used to describe the concept as it does in the practical need to recognize the distinctions and behave accordingly. For the sake of simplicity and exhortation, then, we will suggest the following.
What God bestows on believers. We may call these “gifts.” The overlap lies in the fact that they are surely the product of grace. The distinction lies in the fact that the Spirit of God distributes these “to every man severally as he will” (I Cor. 12:11). The gifts listed in the passage quoted here are spiritual gifts. But the same may be said of all that God bestows. Some are gifted with beauty, some with manual dexterity and physical prowess. Some receive from God the gift of mental acuity. Some have artistic, musical, or speaking ability, the ability to make money, and on and on. But in each case, the person endowed with the gift or gifts has done nothing to earn or deserve it. God has simply been pleased to bestow it upon him or her in demonstration of His grace and love.
What believers do with God’s bestowal. We may call these “graces.” That word acknowledges both that without Him we can do nothing and that with Him (and His gifts) we are to do something. To speak in popular, rather than theological terms, then, a free gift from God becomes a grace when we surrender ourselves to the Lord to use us and the gifts He has given us in His service as He sees fit for His glory.
Far too many Christians mistake gift for grace or misuse altogether the gifts that God has given them. The person with a beautiful voice who sings “Ave Maria” may be manifesting the fact that God has given her a gift. But she is misusing that gift. However, the person who sings as her testimony the hymn “Only a Sinner” is manifesting a grace. It is both sad and harmful to use the gifts of God for our own purposes and to our own advantage. Sometimes the distinctions are subtle. It is possible apparently to use the gifts of God in His service when, in reality, we are serving ourselves. Do we preach the Word, teach a Sunday School class, sing a special, or give because we love the Lord and desire His glory? Or are we using the gifts He has given us to impress others, gain their praise, or win their affection? The former is a grace, the latter a misuse of gift.
There is no correlation between “giftedness” and usefulness or effectiveness in the Lord’s service. Paul honestly commends the Corinthian church for their gifts: “I thank my God . . . that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge . . . So that ye come behind in no gift” (I Cor. 1:4-7; see also II Cor. 8:7). Immediately following the commendation, he rebukes them for the divisions that exist in their midst (vv. 10 ff.). And much of the remainder of the letter involves the correction of doctrinal error, carnal attitudes, and unscriptural practices. Despite their gifts, the Corinthian church stood at the apex of problem churches in the New Testament. The existence of gifts may foster pride, dissension, and a host of other sins in undedicated breasts. On the other hand, the humble serving of the Lord—“grace” if you will—glorifies the Lord and edifies the church. We are told nothing about the giftedness of the “churches of Macedonia”, but Paul commends them because in their poverty they manifested the grace of generous giving. A gift is useless or worse—harmful—if not used by one with a submissive heart. But a cup of cold water given in the name of the Lord blesses the donor, the recipient, and the Lord.
May those who seem to have impressive gifts not think that their possession makes them better than others who seem to have fewer. And may we all, whether the recipients of many or few gifts, not think that we have the right to use God’s gifts for our selfish purposes. But may we with grace in our hearts seek only to honor our Savior and Lord.
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