Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 01/24/1999
" . . . if indeed you have heard of the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you . . .
Last week we began our study of The Great Parenthesis (3:1-13), in which Paul, who can resist no opportunity to extol the Grace of God, spends 13 verses marveling at the wonder of his own calling to salvation and service. We saw in vs. 1 how that grace can change one's view of his circumstances, transforming a prisoner of Rome into a prisoner of Jesus Christ. Today we see another facet of the new identity that the unmerited favor of God confers: We are not just the recipients of grace, but also those to whom it has been entrusted to be passed on: stewards of the grace of God in Christ. Stewards of Grace: I'd like to look at both of those key terms separately and then put them together.
Stewardship is one of the most important but also most misunderstood words in the New Testament. We have reduced it to being a mere synonym of "tithing," so that most of us run from it in fear whenever it is mentioned. But it is actually more properly a description of the whole Christian life. A Steward is someone who manages the property of another for the benefit of the owner. Therefore, stewardship is central to our very identity as creatures of God. For He owns everything by right of creation, and owns us doubly by right of redemption (1 Cor. 6:20). Everything then belongs to God, and some of it He has entrusted to us to manage for Him, for the benefit of his people and for his glory. This concept is not just about money. It refers to our property but also to our talents and abilities, our physical strength, and even to our time. All of it belongs to God and is on loan to us to be used for Him.
Where does this identity of stewardship come from? It comes from the fact that we were created in the image of God. Adam was put in God's garden to dress and keep it. Of all the animals, he alone was given the gifts of reason and speech. Why" So he could render an account to God of his stewardship! So everything about us that makes us uniquely human is tied to this role--which means that stewardship is the path to fulfillment. All of our most unique human qualities are wasted unless we use them for God's glory. But when we do, we find them fulfilled. For that is our purpose and our destiny.
What then does this role and identity, so central to our very nature, require of us? Mainly two things. First is FAITHFULNESS. "It is required of a steward that a man be found faithful" (1 Cor. 4:2). And second is FRUITFULNESS (Lk. 19:12-27). The Parable of the Talents shows God's expectation that we not just sit on the talents, the time, or the property that God has given us, but rather do something with them, invest them for Him.
The delight that comes from being a steward is first, the fulfillment of the unique nature we were given in our creation, and even more, to hear our Lord say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." And what could be better than that?
Grace as we all know is God's unmerited favor extended to sinful men and women. It is not, as in Roman Catholic theology, some kind of substance or spiritual power infused into us by the sacraments. In Scripture, it refers to something much more powerful than that: primarily and most basically to an ATTITUDE on the part of God. It is an attitude that wills mercy for the guilty, good for the undeserving, and love for the unlovely and unlovable. "Unmerited favor" is therefore a good definition. Another is the acrostic G.R.A.C.E.: God's Riches at Christ's Expense.
If we understand grace as Paul did, we will like him be unable to praise God enough for it. It is the epitome of his attributes. the crown of his character, the apex of his excellence, the pinnacle of his perfections. Why? Because we fear him for his justice; we tremble at his omnipotent power; we marvel at his infinite knowledge and wisdom; we worship him for his glory; but we adore him for his grace. It is that attribute without which all the others would be either irrelevant to us or devastating to us, but with which each facet of his character becomes and indescribable wonder and an inestimable delight. For it is by the grace of God that we are saved (Eph. 2:8-10). And Paul therefore cannot commend it enough.
Grace by its very nature comes only as a free gift; it cannot be earned. "The quality of mercy is not [con]strained," says Portia. And therefore any theology that makes salvation dependent in any sense on our own works or our worthiness is the very cancellation, the denial, yea the annihilation of grace. Therefore the only condition of receiving grace is Faith: it can only be accepted by the empty hands of faith. But there are fruits of faith: repentance, love of God and of the Brethren, and good works are the fruits produced by God's grace when it has been received by faith alone. It is essential to a clear understanding of the Gospel that we keep all these elements in their proper order and relation.
These then are the two great theological concepts that Paul brings together. We are stewards of grace because God has committed the Gospel of Grace to the Church. we are to proclaim it to the ends of the earth and make disciples (Mt. 28:19, cf. 1 Tim. 1:11). This wonderful message of salvation by Grace is entrusted to the Church. And what if we drop the ball? What is plan B? There is no plan B. And there does not need to be one, if we consider
Think of Paul's own testimony, which is very consistent: "To me the very least of the saints this grace was given, to preach to the gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8). "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he considered me faithful, putting me into service" (I Tim. 1:12). And the whole theme of Ephesians, as we have seen, is God's eternal purpose to bless humanity by his grace and to include us in that blessing. It is great grace to be saved, to have our sins wiped away by the blood of Christ. It is even greater grace to be adopted, to be made the Sons and Daughters of God. But what shall we say about being allowed to be not only the recipients but also the bearers of this grace? If stewardship in general is the fulfillment of our natures, then this is the ultimate fulfillment. Blessed be the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has granted us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ!
The passion Paul feels flows logically from his understanding of the privilege which is ours in Christ. Let us hear it in his own words: "For this reason I endure all things for the sake of those who are chosen, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus, and with it eternal glory" (2 Tim. 2:10). "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21). "But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish in order that I may gain Christ" (Phil. 3:7-8).
As we have been granted this same grace, and this same stewardship of that grace, let us therefore press on as well for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams