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A Theology for Christian Stewardship

“From the doctrine of creation we derive the concepts of God’s sovereignty and our trusteeship and responsibility. From the doctrine of redemption we derive our insight into the grace which restores sinners into fellowship with God and awakens the gratitude, joy and love which motivates us to give our lives to our Redeemer. From the doctrine of sanctification we derive
by Center for Stewardship Leaders | July 16, 2008

“From the doctrine of creation we derive the concepts of God’s sovereignty and our trusteeship and responsibility. From the doctrine of redemption we derive our insight into the grace which restores sinners into fellowship with God and awakens the gratitude, joy and love which motivates us to give our lives to our Redeemer. From the doctrine of sanctification we derive our understanding of the living faith which, drawing upon God’s resources, bears fruit in obedience and dedicated service. Faith in God the Creator establishes evangelism and stewardship as God’s work. Faith in God the Redeemer establishes the basis on which sinful people can do God’s work. Faith in God the Sanctifier consecrates us to the doing of this work.”
— T. A. Kantonen

A Theology for Christian Stewardship
A Book Summary and Review
by Jerry Hoffman

I first read A Theology for Christian Stewardship while in seminary. While reading it again, I recognized how much my theological perspective of stewardship has been shaped by it. I commend this classic to you. While only 126 pages, it is packed with basic biblical, Trinitarian, grace-filled, spirit-led theological affirmations.    

Chapter Highlights

Chapter One: Stewardship and Theology

A theology of stewardship is “nothing less than an interpretation of the Christian meaning of life as a whole.”

The Apostle Paul ascribes “to Christian stewards the dignity of being God’s fellow workers” — a partnership of “father and son… Christian stewardship is a family affair … works for God … as his children, sharing God’s purposes, resources and very nature.”

In the American church we have been “led to relate our faith to the material realities of life and to look upon the giving of money as the ‘acid test’ of the genuineness of a person’s commitment to Christ.” Furthermore, “The life of stewardship is nothing less than ‘total devotion’ to the Christ who is known as a ‘real, living personal presence in the hearts of believers.'”

Chapter Two: Stewardship and the Word of God.

Kantonen states simply: “The Word is God himself in creative action.” Furthermore, “our chief concern is not how to perfect our techniques and whip up our enthusiasms but how to be obedient to what God is to say.”

The Word is “not a collection of ideas to be understood or a set of rules to be obeyed but the power of a new life to be received. Its primary appeal is neither to the intellect nor the emotions but of the will and conscience … to take hold of the total personality and to give not mere information about God but fellowship with God.”  

Therefore, “Our main task is uniting men and women with the Christian church, extending and strengthening Christ-centered fellowship. Stewardship is consecration to this task.”

In light of the teaching of the prophets and Jesus himself, the author believes that tithing as the “one divinely authorized and unconditionally binding method for practicing Christian stewardship” is superficial. Tithing does not guarantee material prosperity. Tithing is neither a unique nor a distinctive trait of Old Testament religion and is not a means of obtaining divine favor. To base appeals for giving on an obligation to tithe is “incompatible with the spirit of the gospel.” It lends itself to a “human-centered legalism which imperils true religion. Not the least of the perils is the implication that having given God his 10 percent I have discharged the full obligation of my stewardship and the remaining 90 percent belongs to me to do with as I please. This is a flat contradiction of the basic Christian affirmation of the lordship of Christ over all of life. But when these perils are clearly recognized and the motives and objectives of tithing are supplied by the gospel, it is a practice to be commended and encouraged.

Most people who tithe are humble and sincere Christians who use this discipline to express gratitude and faithfulness to their Lord.  

“The tithe, forgiveness and the observance of the Lord’s day come into their right Christian use when they are freely and joyfully practiced by Christians who do not give their Lord only one dollar out of ten or one day out of seven but whose whole life is stewardship.”

“The living center of our stewardship is Christ himself. It is a matter of our personal relationship to him, not the management of impersonal things according to impersonal codes and principals.”

“The word … invites both its proclaimers and its hearers to the venture of our faith. It asks us to entrust ourselves whole heartedly to that Christ who is the living Word.”

Chapter Three: Stewardship and the Nature of God

The author states: “A new life with God begins on the basis of God’s grace and human gratitude… What humans do is always in response to what God does.”

Lessons derived from the truth about the Creator’s sovereignty:

1. “Give glory to God… There is nothing in the world which God has created that is independent of him or unrelated to his purpose … God is Lord over creation. (This) is the very nerve of stewardship.” The messages to the dictator is “You have no right to usurp for yourself the power belonging to God.” The message to the miser, “You have no right to hoard for yourself the means God has given for doing his work.”  (p. 33)

2. God is the owner. “If God is God, then humans can actually never own anything.”  

3. Material things are God’s instruments. “The natural world is the work of God’s hands, the instrument of his purpose, never an end in itself.  To make the instrument an end … is the very essence of idolatry.” Thus a person’s life does “not consist in the abundance of possessions … (but) fellowship with God. It is a bad bargain to exchange the purpose of life for the means of livelihood.”

4. Humans are called to responsible trusteeship. God as Creator and Owner has “entrusted what belongs to him for the realization of his purpose with regard to it.”  

5. God is a loving creator. “We are sons and hairs, not merely trustees and servants … stewardship … (is) sharing in God’s own life… Christian giving can never be an occasional performance or a special ceremony. It is the normal, steady and increasing outflow of life in God.”

Chapter Four: Stewardship and Christ

“The God of Christian stewardship is ‘God in Christ.'” In this chapter, the author presents the work of Christ using the patter of the three offices: prophet, priest and king.

As prophet, Jesus (the foreteller) serves as a teacher. Jesus presents in word and deed the kingdom as both a present and a future reality, including a future consummation. The will of God is revealed.  

The themes include:

1)  Stewardship begins with a receptive attitude. Life finds its true meaning through a “whole hearted response to God in obedience and love … defined in the great and first commandment” to love God with all ones being. “Love that rises to the occasion so spontaneously and pours itself out so unreservedly has its source in God. It is not a fruit that human nature as such can produce. The figs of self-sacrifice are not gathered from the thistles of self-centeredness.”

2)  Stewardship continues with “consecrated action which channelizes what has been received into single-minded, loyal and dependable service.”

     a. Stewards are responsible for the talents entrusted to them. They must give an accounting.
     b. As a superb example of the realistic wisdom of Jesus the prophet, the author examines the parable about the dishonest student and concludes:
           i.    Stewards love God with all their minds.
           ii.   There is a day of accountability. “In using for our own selfish pleasure the resources which God has given to do the work of this kingdom we too are guilty of embezzlement.”
           iii.  We must be intelligent enough to ensure the future.

As priest, Jesus lays down his life to redeem humans from sin and death. This is central. “Those who accept the gospel of forgiveness in faith receive the power to become not only God’s trustees but also his children. The motive for their action is grateful love… The fundamental stewardship emphasis ‘the love of  Christ controls us’ and ‘we live for him’ is rooted in a firm conviction of the truth … ‘One died for all.'”

As king, the authority of Jesus is proclaimed. In the resurrection a new age began with Christ as the risen Lord. “Christian stewards are men and women who have found the true Lord of life and whose words and deeds witness to his lordship.”

Grounded in the atonement, the significance of stewardship is stated in Luther’s words, “Christ has redeemed me from sin, death and the power of the devil in order that I might be his own and serve him.”

Chapter Five: The Holy Spirit and the Church

“A Christian steward is … a person who has received the Spirit, is guided by the Spirit and prays to be filled with the Spirit.” The spirit is the “Christ who died for us becomes the Christ who lives in us.” The result of the spirit’s work is transformation, both the birth and growth of the individual Christian personality and the creation and preservation of the Christian community — the church. “Insofar as the church is truly the church its members bear fruit in a life of stewardship. … a living organism.”  

The church is summoned to realize its true nature and mission by being the body of Christ … whose voice, hands, eyes and total being is doing Christ’s work of love. “To describe the church as the body of Christ is to describe the church as living out the meaning of Christian stewardship.    

Chapter Six:  Justification by Faith

The Reformation Theology resonates throughout this chapter: “Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone.” My relationship with Christ is made possible by God’s acts of grace alone. “Salvation is not an achievement but a gift which God places in the palm of faith. The right response to this gift is not desperate struggle but joyful gratitude.”

The only role humans play in justification is faith in receiving God’s grace. Kantonen asserts that faith is:

1.   Acceptance of what God in Christ has done for us;
2.   Trusting oneself to Christ;
3.   Obeying — “accepting a new Lord and a new life in responsibility.”

How does this shape an understanding of stewardship? It answers three vital questions:

1.   What is the true beginning of Christian stewardship? “It is faith, the whole-hearted grateful response to God’s redeeming love … it is what we do after we say we believe. (Clarence Stoughton).”

2.   What gives it the power? Justifying grace gives stewardship “the power which motivates it and keeps it going… faith is access to God’s own boundless source of power… A Christian is a channel, not a reservoir; a conductor, not a receptacle.”  

The flow of generosity comes from the love power of God. “One who is not in love cannot love … to flog people to try harder (to give more) is a complete perversion of the gospel … the primary concern of our stewardship is to have connection with that power.”

3.   By what method shall we do stewardship? Moral exhortation and high-pressure coercion are inadequate. “A person who is cold needs to be led to a fire, not to be exhorted to get warm. Just so the cold and greedy hearts of people need to experience the warmth of the Savior’s love before there will be a genuine spontaneous commitment to him, ensuing in a devoted life partnership with him. To lead people to stewardship is to lead people to Christ.”

Chapter Seven: The Priesthood of All Believers

This doctrine answers the central question of stewardship, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” The biblical answers are:

1.   “A Christian is one to whom Christ has given a genuinely fresh start in life.”
2.   “A Christian is one to whom God has given new resources for living.”
3.   “A Christian is one to whom Christ has given a new life purpose.”

When this doctrine is employed in the church, it thrives. Every member of the faith community shares in the mission. Everyone is a priest. Everyone is sent by God. The crucial question is whether a person is “in Christ.” “This distinction is more important than the one between minister and layman.” All are called to engage in “self-forgetting service to others” by the power of Christ who uses “imperfect instruments to accomplish his holy purposes.”

The relationship between justification and sanctification is clear and yet indispensable and inseparable. Justification is the “intake of divine grace.” Sanctification is the “outflow of grace.” A Christian is not just one who believes what Christ taught but one who follows Christ in the obedience of faith. This is the essential meaning of stewardship. It signifies the “distinctly Christian orientation to life as a whole.”  

Money is “personality in portable form… If a person seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, then the cause of the kingdom also ranks first in the use of money.”

Chapter Eight: The Steward’s Reward

What satisfactions do stewards experience? The caution is to recognize that being a steward is a privilege entered into not because of the “rewards” and “benefits” of the program. The steward is not “looking for the wages.” Having clarified that, Kantonen commences to identify the “joys” of the kingdom that can be experienced here and now:

1.   “The strength to face the hardships of a hostile world.”
2.   Communion with God is the supreme blessing, and sharing in his work is its own reward.
3.   An eternal life which describes “a new dimension to life which living in Christ gives to life now.”

I highly recommend this classic. It was out of print but now has, thankfully, been reprinted, and you have the opportunity to read it for yourself.

— Reviewed by Jerry Hoffman

You can order A Theology for Christian Stewardship by T. A. Kantonen published by Wipf & Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oreg., by going to the Luther Seminary Bookstore  


T. A. Kantonen retired in 1968 after serving for thirty-five years as professor of Systematic Theology at Hamma School of Theology, Springfield, OH.

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