Gifts, Talents, and Character

Author Melinda Penner Published on 04/29/2014

One of the resources I like best in Logos Bible Software is the library of Timothy Keller’s sermons from over 20 years at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. I’ve been listening to sermons by Keller for a couple of years now, so when I saw they were releasing transcriptions, I was anxious to get them so that I could also read them. His sermons have been daily fare for me because I find his teaching to be a unique balance between pastor and apologist, intellectual and counselor that gives me insight and practical application. Keller exegetes the passage and talks about the passage, something unfortunately sometimes hard to find in a sermon. He’s an intellectual with an ear to the postmodern culture. He has an apologetic posture, ready to answer objections and critics—and even the questions and doubts of believers influenced by our culture. And he’s a pastor, instructing, exhorting, and encouraging. It’s an array of teaching that appeals to my mind, but also my heart, which is the side I can easily neglect.

On my drive home yesterday, I listened to a sermon on 1 Corinthians 13 in a series on grace, and this morning I found the transcript in the Logos library so I could read and review it. This one really caught my attention because it spoke to a propensity for mistaking gifts for character that I think I was (still am?) guilty of much of my life, and it’s something God has been working on in me for several years now, though I’d never understood it in the way Keller explained it.

Keller begins the sermon by introducing the original audience and the setting in its historical context, then draws parallels to our current condition so we can see even better how it applies. There aren’t too many Bible passages that are more familiar than 1 Corinthians 13, which makes it even harder to read with Paul’s original intention. We have all kinds of assumptions that make it easy to gloss over it. Sometimes the principle “never read a Bible verse” can even apply to a chapter. This chapter follows 12 chapters of context where Paul is laying the foundation for this, and this chapter draws on that. This isn’t a lovey-dovey reflection on love. The character flaws Paul mentions in this chapter are ones that he has brought up earlier in the book. So as the Corinthians heard this read, they’d see the contrast of their character flaws to what they should be—what Paul is calling them to be. It would have been incredibly convicting.

Here’s the main lesson Keller draws from the passage: Being gifted is not the same thing as character.

We can be gifted by God with spiritual gifts, but it’s not the same thing as character. We can even do good things but they gain us nothing because they don’t build character or commend us to God. It’s possible to do loving things without actually being loving—to do outwardly good things but not be good inside. To lack love and grace. Don’t mistake gifts for grace, talent for character.

I think this is an insight into why it’s possible to accomplish great service in the body of Christ and still fall into grave sin. The gifts that we use to serve the Body, the gifts God uses, are not the same thing as integrity and character.

“It’s not being gifted, not being good; it’s being graced.”

Keller points out that personifying love in this chapter calls to mind 1 Corinthians 1 and 2 where Paul encouraged them to put aside their disagreement and bragging to remember the cross. Jesus is love personified here. Paul is illustrating what love personified in Jesus looks like, how the cross changes us inwardly. We’re never going to be loving people by certain behaviors, but by deep change in our character when we remember the cross and Jesus’ love shown there.

Where do you see the ultimate example of, “Does not keep a record of wrongs”? The cross. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Where do you see the ultimate example of love never giving up? “Father...remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.”

Here’s the key. If you see verses 4–7 first as a guide for your behavior, you’ll never get there. If you see this not as a love you have to do first but a love that was done for you and to you first, if you see Him pouring Himself into you, that’s going to change everything.... If you see Him loving you like that...that completely...then you’re going to be able to turn around and do it for others. Common sense. You could never produce this kind of love ever in a million years, but you could pass it on if somebody gave it to you. Jesus has done it.

That’s the kind of insight that shifts me from my actions to my character, from doing good to being filled with love and grace. It’s not something I generate. It’s the result of meditating and dwelling on the love and grace Jesus has given me. That changes me from the inside out.

One of the things I like best about Logos Bible Software are these kinds of resources. There’s a ton of sophisticated resources for in-depth Bible study. But there are also resources like the Keller sermon archive that are pastoral and devotional. Even resources that can work for Bible study groups and homeschooling.