Irrevocable gifts and calling – the danger of out of context Bible verses

One of the biggest dangers to healthy life is our ability to rip Bible verses out of context and misapply them. One such example is this verse:

29 For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable[1]

I’ve heard this verse used by people to justify continued support for people who seemingly had a gifting or calling for ministry but have long since shipwrecked it by sinful behaviour. I’ve even heard it used to justify mission support for people simply on the basis that they claimed that they believed they were called to a specific mission.

One such example is here in this article about Ravi Zacharias. The author uses the verse to justify a belief that Zacharias could have continued to be anointed for gospel ministry. To his credit he also uses it to point out that apparent gifting may not equate to true godliness.

I want to suggest two factors in our misunderstanding and misuse of the verse. First of all, there is the problem that we misunderstand gifting and calling. In the article the writer talks about being able to preach a sermon at a moment’s notice even when he wasn’t spending time in the word. I would gently suggest that he is at that point confusing natural talents, the ability to remember and recall, confidence and a certain charisma on stage with rrue spiritual gifting.

Secondly, the assumption is that gifting and calling is personal and permanent. It is the same view that leads to us treating titles and offices as permanent.  We once had someone turn up at our church who became quickly disgruntled. It transpired that the underlying reason was that because he had been a pastor elsewhere at some point that he automatically expected to be treated as such when he came to us, to be given due honour and respect and to automatically be given the opportunity to preach and to join the eldership. So, when other men were asked to preach or people were put forward for leadership, instead of rejoicing and encouraging them, he began to pick faults.

Now, I don’t want to be naïve to this. I know that it hard when life moves on. I currently find myself in no man’s land because I’m no longer the pastor at Bearwood Chapel but I’ve not retired and I believe it is right to continue in pastoral ministry, I continue to have a concern to see local churches built up.   Some people will habitually still call me “Pastor Dave” if they are from such a culture. But to be clear, I am not a pastor at the moment. I’m not quite sure what I am. I guess, I’m someone using my gifts to write articles, host training sessions and to try and encourage urban church planting. I need a shorter job title though. However, like it or not my calling to pastor came with a post-code. Gifts are not just given to us for our own personal enjoyment, they are given through us to the church. So, I was a gift, a wrapped up package of leadership, teaching, evangelism and pastoral care gifts, to the church in Bearwood. I was called as a pastor to Bearwood Chapel. Therefore, like it or not, that calling has been revoked. God may call me again to pastor another church and the evidence that he is calling me will be that the church in question asks me to come and serve. Alternatively, God may call us to go and plant a church somewhere else and that may lead to me being called as its pastor. However, God might just call me to keep prodding away, writing and training. Indeed, he might want me to go back into a manufacturing job and serve as a member of a church in other ways.  You see, the calling isn’t about me and my dreams or ambitions it is about God’s glory and the needs of his church.  All I can be certain about is what I’m called to do now. Past or future calling is a distinct matter.

The second cause is a mishandling of Scripture. It is the problem of taking a verse out of context.  The point of Romans 11:29 is nothing to do with individual gifts and calling to ministry. It is that God showered his grace and love on Israel, calling her as his people.  That calling was irrevocable and so Romans 9-11 spends a lot of time with Paul seeking to understand and explain what God was doing with the nation of Israel at that specific juncture. 

The application to us is not that we are guaranteed to keep a specific ministry or spiritual gift. Rather, it is just as God’s sovereignty, love and providence was seen in his calling of Irael as his people, so we find our identity and security in knowing that we have been chosen to receive his love, grace and salvation and that no-one and nothing can separate us from that love.

The encouragement then for those of us who find ourselves unable to do the things we had previous enjoyed is that even with the loss of a ministry, we still remain firmly within God’s care and a re loved by him. My ministry calling may have been revoked right now but my calling as a child of God has not been.  That is a far greater gift to cling onto.


[1] Romans 11:29

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