“Caraway is not threshed with a sledge, nor is a cartwheel rolled over cummin; caraway is beaten out with a rod, and cummin with a stick.
“Grain must be ground to make bread; so one does not go on threshing it forever. Though he drives the wheels of his threshing cart over it, his horses do not grind it.” (Isaiah 28:27-28)
We recognize the phrase separating the wheat from the chaff as a metaphor for distinguishing the good from the bad, the useful and worth keeping from the useless refuse we simply throw away. The passage above takes this a step further.
The threshing cart and sledge were used at one stage in processing the wheat harvest, but it wasn’t a one-and-done process. You don’t dump the threshed wheat into a bowl and produce bread batter. You must then grind it.
Both steps were necessary, the prophet wrote. “Grain must be ground to make bread.” It takes further refining.
When Paul wrote to the various churches in the epistles that we’ve preserved as part of the New Testament, he was addressing them as believers. That part of the Christian life, the new birth, had taken place. The wheat and chaff had been separated.
The letters clarified, elaborated upon or corrected misunderstandings about the faith. The narrative parts of these letters—for example, the reports of divisive factions in the Corinthian church—served as illustrations or examples to be addressed in the doctrinal portion. This was the further refining part.
It is, however, easy to forget or skim right over the praise and commendation Paul gives the Corinthians in the first chapter: “For in him you have been enriched in every way—in all your speaking and in all your knowledge” (1 Cor 1:5). “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift” (1:6). Unless you consider Paul guilty of flattery here, you have to give the Corinthians some credit.
In my opinion, I think it’s worth stopping right there and contemplating how many churches you’ve been a part of (or know of) that meet those standards. It’s been said that the American church is a mile wide and an inch deep, so an honest answer to that question is probably “not many.”
But if the Corinthian church was spiritually gifted and steeped in knowledge, why do these letters comprise roughly 20% of the text of the epistles? If we called it a performance review, shouldn’t it have been a short meeting? There would be a big hole in the New Testament without the letters to Corinth (and those are the ones that ended up in the biblical canon).
As it happens, being gifted and knowledgeable has its own problems. Gifted persons can become rivals. Their followers can engage in “comparisonitis,” endlessly arguing whose gift is “greater”–the shorthand description used to be “more anointed”–rather than recognizing the complementary nature of gifts that Paul discusses (“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow,” 1 Cor 3:6). And their divine origin should have ended the practice of “tak[ing] pride in one man over another” (4:6) since gifts are, well, given.
In public meetings, the use of gifts can lead to disorder or pointless, self-promoting displays to showcase how “spiritual” someone is (1 Cor 14). Gifted they may have been, but at least some of the Corinthians equated “gifts of the Spirit” with “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22, and cf. 1 Cor 13, the traits of love). They aren’t the same thing.
Jesus told his disciples,” You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). I have a lot of ex-charismatic acquaintances; at one point in their life they were truly gifted, but they didn’t last.
To be fair, the same could be said for some cessationists I know, but the comparison is pointless (and unwise, 2 Cor10:12). The gifts and sound doctrine may elevate you to a certain plateau, higher than you were at the start, but ours is a continual upward calling.
The gifts of the Spirit and the wisdom that comes from true spiritual discernment are intended to serve this purpose–bearing fruit that will last. If they’re disconnected from that purpose, they can become—well, you can read all about it in the letters to the Corinthians.