The Lord Jesus Christ commanded in Matthew 28:16-20 that His Church should make disciples of all the nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Jesus also tells us that believers are given gifts of the Holy Spirit. A systematic study of the Scripture teaches us that the Word of God, prayer, and the Sacraments form the means of grace — that is, the divinely conceived way through which we receive and experience God’s transforming power for new birth, the Christian life, and eternal life. Thus, the work of discipleship depends upon the right use of the means of grace to teach, to shepherd, and to cultivate love in God's people for God's mission in the world.

Through the ages, believers have identified sections of Scripture that are both memorable and enumerated, as prime candidates for resources to teach the Gospel. Certain Roman Catholic theologians, in particular, used parts of Scripture which were listed to help in the discipleship goal. Thus, sermons and devotionals and pastoral letters were written to encourage and build up the body of Christ based upon virtues or spiritual gifts or ethical practices in references such as “the seven petitions of the Lord’s prayer,” “the eight Beatitudes,” and “the seven last words of Jesus Christ” from the cross. Beyond the exposition of passages, other scholars identified systematic truths collected from the Bible and placed in a grouping: e.g., “the seven deadly sins,” “the seven virtues.” But perhaps the most famous of these biblical references applied to discipleship resources are the “seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

What are those seven gifts, and how do they apply to the believer?

What are the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit?

“The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit . . . are: wisdom; understanding; counsel; fortitude;  knowledge; piety; fear of the Lord,” says the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.

The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit have traditionally been used by believers in Roman Catholic devotion and practice.[1] The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit’s divinely-bestowed virtues and graces were identified in Isaiah 11:1-2. In that Messianic prophecy of Isaiah, the prophet describes seven manifestations of the Holy Spirit's presence and anointing on the Messiah: “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, And a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, The Spirit of counsel and might, The Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:1-2).

It is essential to recognize that the phrase is a description of a devotional interpretation of the passage, rather than a listing of specific gifts of the Holy Spirit. Theses are revealed in four New Testament passages: Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:7-13; and 1 Peter 4:10-11.[2] 

What do the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit Mean for the Believer?

Clearly, the passage is, in its most immediate reading, describing the Holy Spirit’s gifts upon the coming Messiah, Our Lord Jesus Christ. There is no promise in this passage about such gifts being bestowed upon believers at their baptism, or their confirmation of faith. John Calvin was emphatic in his Commentary on Isaiah that the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, derived from this passage, are ill-conceived. Calvin’s language is uncompromising as he wrote:

The Prophet does not here enumerate all the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as some have thought. Out of this passage, the Papists have foolishly and ignorantly drawn their sevenfold grace, and some of the ancients fell into a similar blunder. He enumerates only six kinds, but they have added a seventh out of their own head. But as one error commonly follows another, they have chosen to limit the gifts of the Spirit to the number seven, although in other parts of Scripture (John 14:17; 2 Tim. 1:7) he receives numerous and lofty commendations drawn from the variety of the effects which he produces. Besides, it is very evident that it is through the kindness of Christ (Gal. 5:22, 23) that we are partakers of other blessings than those that are here enumerated, of meekness, chastity, sobriety, truth, and holiness; for these proceed from none else than from Christ. He does not mention, therefore, all the gifts which were bestowed on Christ, for that was unnecessary; but only shows briefly that Christ came not empty-handed, but well supplied with all gifts, that he might enrich us with them.

A fair assessment of the Catholic meaning of the passage requires explanation by Roman Catholic commentators. Most recently, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis (Jorge Mario Bergoglio, b. 1936), taught on the Seven Gifts. His writing helps us to understand Roman Catholic devotional practice as he applies the gifts resting on the Messiah to those received by believers as they confess Jesus Christ as Lord. In “Walking with Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church” he says:

In the Book of Isaiah 11:2-3, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit are described. In the passage, the gifts are considered ones that the Messiah would have possessed. Through Jesus, we also receive the Gifts of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Wisdom helps us recognize the importance of others and the importance of keeping God central in our lives. Understanding is the ability to comprehend the meaning of God's message. Knowledge is the ability to think about and explore God's revelation, and also to recognize there are mysteries of faith beyond us. Counsel is the ability to see the best way to follow God's plan when we have choices that relate to him. Fortitude is the courage to do what one knows is right. Piety helps us pray to God in true devotion. Fear of the Lord is the feeling of amazement before God, who is all-present, and whose friendship we do not want to lose.

Differences remain on a theology of the Holy Spirit in the Sacraments and even the Sacraments themselves. For example, Protestants hold to only two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, while Roman Catholic doctrine confesses seven sacraments, according to this Catholic online article, with “Confirmation” being the third. However, there is hope to discover unity. All believers may confess that the Holy Spirit endows His people with gifts as they confess Christ and live Christ. For we are, indeed, “in Christ:” “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The Origin of the Holy Spirit's Seven Gifts

It is impossible to speak about the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit without remarking on the incomparable influence of a scholar-priest known as “the Seraphic Doctor” of the Church, Giovanni di Fidanza (1221-1274), or “Saint Bonaventure” (canonized in 1482). Saint Bonaventure was a professor at the University of Paris. He discerned a growing trend of "empiricism" or faith proved by scientific fact, as explained in this article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He strenuously resisted this intellectual movement by stressing a more metaphysical or “mystical” experience of the presence and power of Jesus Christ. Bonaventure was a keen philosopher who developed a defense of the Christian faith by reason and encouraged devotion through a mystical method. One writer in “Bonaventure” wrote convincingly of Bonaventure’s integration of faith and reason, “Bonaventure achieved for spirituality what Thomas [Aquinas] did for theology . . .”

The Roman Catholic Catechism defines the meaning of these seven gifts:

“The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, and Fear of the Lord. They belong in their fullness to Christ, Son of David. They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations” (1831).

Protestant catechisms (teaching resources using a traditional question and answer method of learning) do not teach the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit as found in the Roman Catholic Catechism. Such confessional documents—the Westminster Confession of Faith, Heidelberg Catechism, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion—do, however, recognized the Biblical teaching of the Holy Spirit, His filling and indwelling of the believer bringing forth the “fruit of the Spirit.”

In his article “Fruit of the Spirit,” Wesley L. Gerig said: “Expression taken from Galatians 5:22, 23. As listed there, this fruit is the manifest evidence one may expect from a life in which the Spirit of God is living and reigning. The fruit of the Spirit, as listed in Galatians 5, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Love is that outgoing, self-giving kind of action, not necessarily emotion, that characterized God himself when he loved the world so much that he gave his only Son (John 3:16).”

What can we conclude about the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit?

Thus, we can make some conclusions about the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit:

  1. The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit are based on a reading of Isaiah 11:1-2. The phrase, Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, is a title of the devotional application of Isaiah 11:1-2. This is different than the four New Testament passages that reveal specific gifts to His saints.
  2. The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit is the title of a Roman Catholic devotional practice derived from the passage, rather than an exposition of Isaiah 11:1-2.
  3. The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit was popularized as a devotional practice by Saint Bonaventure and has been codified in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.
  4. The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit is not a complete enumeration of the gifts resting on the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ but was given to establish the Messianic identity. Nor are these gifts, when applied to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian, exhaustive. They are evidence of the operation of the Spirit of God in the life of His child.
  5. Whether one embraces this set of seven gifts in Isaiah 11:1-2 as being intended for application to the life of a believer, all can desire such gifts and pray for them. We are told to desire the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Though we are dispersed in the global Church, by distance, and by understanding, the people of God may seek the gifts of God the Holy Spirit as we pray the words of the spiritual song:

“Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me:

Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.

Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me.

Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.”

[1]Orthodox Christians and Coptic Christians also use the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit to explain the coming of the Spirit at baptism and confirmation. See Fr Dn Charles Joiner, “Orthodox Way of Life: Illumination - Gifts of the Holy Spirit,” Orthodox Way of Life, June 16, 2010, https://orthodoxwayoflife.blogspot.com/2010/06/illumination-gifts-of-holy-spirit.html.

[2] For a good overview of the teaching of the Bible on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, see [2] Craig L. Blomberg, “Holy Spirit, Gifts Of,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, electronic ed., Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 348.

Bibliography

Bonaventure, S., E. Cousins, Buenaventura, and E.H. Cousins. Bonaventure: Paulist Press, 1978. https://books.google.com/books?id=YvHldn0e1-MC.

Calvin, John. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Vol. 1, edited by William Pringle. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.

Cross, T.L.F.L., F.L. Cross, and E.A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: Oxford University Press, 2005. https://books.google.com/books?id=fUqcAQAAQBAJ.

Cullen, C.M. Bonaventure: Oxford University Press, 2006. https://books.google.com/books?id=--5cCAAAQBAJ.

Ferguson, S.B. The Holy Spirit: InterVarsity Press, 1997. https://books.google.com/books?id=sAahOAAACAAJ.

Francis, Blase J. Cupich, and Giuliano Vigini. "Part 3." In Walking with Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church. Chicago: Loyola Press, 2015.

Noone, Tim, and R. E. Houser. "Saint Bonaventure." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2005. Accessed July 11, 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/bonaventure/#5.1.

Owen, J., and R.J.K. Law. The Spirit and the Church: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. https://books.google.com/books?id=iQAGAAAACAAJ.

Schreck, A. The Gift: The Holy Spirit in Catholic Tradition: Paraclete Press, 2013. https://books.google.com/books?id=Q3pulvg1V5EC.

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