A three-part series of Bible lessons about stewardship. The second session looks at the distinction between faith and works as they relate to stewardship.
Living in Abundance: Faith Working through Love
Blessed Lord God, you have caused the Holy Scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life which you have given us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
— Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 140
Christian stewardship has an ethical basis to it. That should not come as a surprise to anyone, but it is something that is not thought or talked about. But the point is that how we handle that which is entrusted to us is an ethical concern.
Lutheran Christians sometimes get nervous when we begin to talk about ethics. That is not because they are any worse (or better) than most other Christians, but so often, by default or spiritual DNA, they think immediately about what the Bible, Martin Luther, and the Lutheran confessional documents say about faith and works. Immediately that old, familiar thought comes to mind: we are saved by grace, accepted in faith, not by our good works.
That way of thinking is almost always on the surface when we talk about giving to the church within the over-all stewardship of what has been entrusted to us. It was especially about good works in that sense that Luther had objections. In his day good works often did not mean doing good for other people but using money to buy church-sponsored indulgences and observing religious customs and rules under the watchful eye of church authorities.
So how does one think through the matter of faith and works? It is helpful to go to the New Testament and to the writings of Luther for some guidance. In each case we find that faith and works can indeed be distinguished from one another, and then see that each has its own function, but then realize that they cannot be totally separated in life. Faith and works go together.
The apostle Paul wrote that there are some matters in life that are indifferent in regard to the Christian life; he was talking specifically about taking on ritual matters in the law of Moses. But then he says: “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). It could hardly be said any more efficiently and crisply. Faith works through love. Or to say a bit more, faith results in good works done in love.
The idea was not entirely new with Paul. Jesus said something much like that in the Sermon on the Mount where he said that “every good tree bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:17).
Faith and works are brought together even more closely in the famous saying from the Letter of James: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17). It appears that this letter was written as a response not to the apostle Paul himself, but against those who misused ideas from Paul, persons who separated faith and works, thinking that doing good is not necessary. The point made is that faith and works belong together. We are not saved by our works, to be sure, but the life in Christ is a life that is given to doing good.
Martin Luther is known for his famous comment: “Good works do not make a person good, but a good person does good works.”
It is helpful to return again to the apostle Paul and to follow some of what he has expressed in his letters and to see a particular case study at work.
Essentially the message of the letters of Paul is that through Christ’s death and resurrection sin has been dealt with once and for all. We are set free from the consequences of it. That is the gospel. All who hear and believe in the gospel enter into a newness of life that begins already in this life, even though it is not completely fulfilled in this world. That comes only beyond this life.
Nevertheless, we belong to Christ and his destiny. Nothing in this world can possibly separate us from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39). Baptized into Christ and into his death, we belong to him, walk in newness of life, and will share in his resurrection (Romans 6:1-11).
The question before us then is no longer about our relationship to God or about our eternal salvation. That has been taken care of. The question before us is: Now that we are set free, what shall we do?
At this point we need to think about our life in the world. When we look about, read or hear the news, or consider the situation of persons within the community, we find that there are needs of staggering proportions. As individuals, we cannot meet all of them. But we can do our part to alleviate problems. For most of us, that begins by participating in the life of a congregation and in other community organizations. It means giving to the church and to other organizations that do good for others and are accountable in a public way concerning the use of funds.
Since stewardship has to do with managing all that has been entrusted to us, it implies that we shall be directing some of our resources to further the mission of the church and to enhance the lives of others who are in need. Both of these are important for the sake of the world. The gospel of the good news of God in Christ is so desperately needed, whether it is being heard for the first time or many times over. The alleviation of human need is also imperative. Those in need have a claim upon the resources of the world, including those under our control.
The apostle Paul provides an interesting case study.
Sometime around the year A.D. 48 or 49 Paul attended a conference in Jerusalem, which is written up in Acts 15:1-21 and Galatians 2:1-10. The conference was chaired by James, a younger brother of Jesus, who had become an apostle. The apostles Peter and John were also present. The issue before the apostles in Jerusalem was whether Gentile converts to Christianity must (in the case of males) undergo ritual circumcision — which meant, in effect, that they would become Jews before they became Christians. The upshot of the conference was that that is not necessary.
But there was something else to consider as well. There had been a series of famines in Palestine, and apparently many of the Christians of Jerusalem were poor. So James, Peter and John asked Paul to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10) as he traveled about organizing churches among the Gentiles in the Mediterranean world.
Paul continued to remember the poor in Jerusalem. While doing missionary work in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece, Paul instructed his Gentile churches to set money aside “on the first day of the week” (1 Corinthians 16:2)–a Sunday morning offering–for the poor in Jerusalem. Then on his final trip back to Jerusalem, he and others collected the money to take to Jerusalem for relief of the poor.
As he was about to go to Jerusalem, he wrote about his churches in his Letter to the Romans:
They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to [the Jerusalem church]; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things (Romans 15:27).
What can we make of this? There are several things to notice. There had been no precedents for the early church to follow. They had to make things up as they went along. But there are some basic principles that were at work: The apostles in Jerusalem had concern for the poor from the beginning. Paul shared that concern. He was able to rally his churches to help out. That means that he must have done some organizing, and people in the congregations organized as well. The result was an effort with a good outcome. The church members did all this, Paul says, with pleasure, knowing that they had received blessings from the church in Jerusalem, and they wanted to express their thanksgiving for the blessings that had come to them.
The church in each time and place has to figure out how best to carry on its witness to the gospel. And each Christian, set free for service in the world, must come to terms with what he or she can do to promote the ministry of the gospel and to meet human needs. We are free to be creative. Being creative means joining with God the Creator in God’s ongoing creative work. Each of us has to face our own challenges for stewardship in our times and places. Variety should be expected. There is no particular rule or plan that fits all cases.
Stewardship involves faith and works. It involves freedom and responsibility. Faith and works can be distinguished but not totally separated in the life of the Christian. The same is true of freedom and responsibility. There is a distinction. We are free. But how are we to use the freedom we have? Responsibility lies close at hand. Living in the freedom we have in Christ, we respond to the needs that are around us.
1. Does talk of “good works” make us nervous, especially when it comes to the use of our money?
2. Does Paul’s phrase “faith working through love” help us to relate faith and works?
3. Do the needy of the world actually have a claim upon our possessions, as suggested above?
4. How might we speak of stewardship in the congregation in such a way that it means more than “giving to the church”?
5. How might we speak of “giving to the church” as a part of our stewardship?
Blessed are you, O God, ruler of heaven and earth. Day by day you shower us with blessings. As you have raised us to new life in Christ, give us glad and generous hearts, ready to praise you and to respond to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
— Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 64
Arland J. Hultgren is the Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
Click on these links to access the other articles in this three-part series:
Dr. Arland J. Hultgren is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary.
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