Man doesn’t move in God’s direction easily. Shortcuts can help him down the path of service for a little way, but this will not last. Some church leaders keep hoping that stewardship executives and conferences will find some shortcut or some secret formula to move people to give, serve, and witness effectively. A pastor wrote us: “Motivational talks on stewardship are not needed. Supply what pastors lack: techniques of money-raising. Pastors should be presumed to know motivation. Please show us the ‘tricks of the trade.’ ”

None of us fully understands the truth and power of the Gospel as it affects lives, and that means we need to learn more about motivation in stewardship. Clear understanding and proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is intimately tied to stewardship commitment.

Recently I reviewed thirty-one current books on stewardship for their motivational content and discovered a very confusing picture. Inconsistencies abound, and some excellent statements on God’s grace and love in Christ Jesus are contradicted by legalistic concepts and methods. Many use the “will of God” as motivation, and many stop at the acknowledgment of God as owner and giver. “Man is accountable, so be ethical.” Some avoid legalism and suggest grace in their concepts, but give the impression of moral responsibility alone in their practical plans. One spells out God’s promises, the answer of love, and asks, “Is stewardship legalistic?” but fails to define or make the application. The duty motive and ownership by redemption is stressed: since Christ bought the Christian, it is now his duty to get to work. The “love of Christ” hardly ever gets above the level of the cliché, and motivation is perverted in one way or another. One book warns the reader, “Be sure your motives will find you out,” but devotes only two sentences to worthy motives even though it exposes fear, legal compulsion, and personal gratification as unworthy ones. The books ask “What shall I do with the Gospel?” instead of “What does the Gospel do to me and for me as a steward?”

Biblical exhortations to love and serve are addressed to those who are regenerate, who in communion with Christ possess what is required of them. Commands are always preceded by reminders of divine action to show where the strength for action comes. The directive to be God’s stewards comes after the miracle of deliverance and release from the house of bondage or the enslaved body.

“The greatest demonstration of God’s love for us has been his sending his only Son into the world to give us life through him” (1 John 4:9, Phillips). Love is the fountain of God, and it pours out all his gifts into the hearts of believers through the Spirit. Love is God’s “drawing power”—drawing men away from self, sinful pleasures, earthly temptations, drawing them to himself and all that he wills, to his peace and joy, his security and power. God’s love is his energy imparted to our lives, and this makes it possible to use these gifts faithfully. This love cannot be comprehended as only a noun—it must have the force of a verb. “Let us love not merely in theory or in words—let us love in sincerity and in practice!” (1 John 3:18, Phillips).

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The world of complex human emotions and reactions was pierced for all time by Christ’s sacrifice of love. This love defies cataloguing and should pervade the Christian’s thinking, speech, and actions. Love is not simply an attitude that Jesus taught: it is the essence of his very being. Christ’s love is redemptive as he joins man’s common battle against wrong, accepting life in total obedience all the way to death and winning the victory in every way at every place. What is more practical—no tricks involved—than letting God judge, forgive, and empower for a revolutionary style of living? Not the desire for self-improvement but God’s grace makes us dynamic.

These facts are hard to learn and even harder to accept. Christian stewards need help in their search for the meanings of their behavior. They need to be challenged to serve from a “love which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a genuine faith” (1 Tim. 1:5, Phillips). There is always the pull of many psychological factors to confuse even the faithful and move them toward an emphasis on meritorious works.

Think of the many options available for perverting man’s true motive for stewardship: the general good of the Kingdom, group pressure, pride or embarrassment, social approval, pity, tax exemption, conscience-salving, fear, owing the tithe, humanitarian ideals, loyalty, example of Christ, reward, and pursuit of happiness. Man wants acceptance or recognition, and he wants results in the way and time he desires. Some of these ways will destroy the integrity of the message, for they are a contradiction of the Gospel even though they succeed in raising funds. They may come from a desire to love God, but this does not give them sanction as motives. Only scriptural principles will produce scriptural giving habits. You cannot sow self and reap the Spirit.

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Some church members are poor stewards because their lives are based upon convictions that are more secular, or pagan, than Christian. The solution is not to collect stewardship verses and inject them into Christians to get them to yield what the church needs, but to teach the Gospel so that the Holy Spirit knocks down human barriers in the heart and builds a house of love in the same place. God is concerned about motives: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting” (Gal. 6:7, 8).

Just as forgiveness and regeneration are entirely a work of God that excludes every conditioning activity on man’s part, so stewardship is the energy that comes simply out of Christ’s power and cannot arise from our own ingenuity or strength. “The one who has begun his good work in you will go on developing it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6, Phillips). “Whoever renders service, [let him do it] as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies” (1 Peter 4:11b).

Forgiveness is the stepping stone to responsibility. When our own burden is lifted, we are prepared to lift the burden of others. As sin alienates man from God, so forgiveness reconciles him to God. The Atonement is the answer: forgiveness is the monumental difference in our capacity to be what God called us to be, to fulfill our eternal destiny. The stewardship call is a call to repentance, to salvation, to eternal life, to sanctification, to patience and suffering, to servanthood, to a glorious hope. The call is not primarily duties but gifts—gospel gifts—and the content of the gift is the forgiveness of sins. Each new experience of forgiveness is a new assurance that God works out his fatherly purposes of stewardship in our lives.

Stewardship starts always with a repentant heart, a change of mind, not merely an adjustment of one’s opinions about earthly values. To repent is to reverse completely one’s goal and standards in his stewardship outlook and practice. It is to be separated from the excess fleshly baggage that hampers stewards. This is the stewardship counsel of Psalm 51: God wants the sacrifice of the broken spirit and the contrite heart; only then is he pleased with offerings; only as he cleanses and opens one’s lips can one’s mouth utter God’s praise.

We find the aims and goals of service in Christ’s motivating power. Christ is the Head of the body, and in him centers all priority of service and cohesion of action. The church is always the church because of what God does and never because the members are busy in it. The heeding of human tradition, the giving over to the elemental spirits of success-seeking, covetousness, humanism, greed, and secularism, robs the church of its true nature. If members are distracted by unworthy goals and practices, the old nature will dominate and the member will be timid and weak for the stewardship tasks, vessels unfit for noble work, not ready for those good works God planned for them to do.

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The basic business of the church is to provide a rich supply of the Word through which every member grows in knowledge, faith, godly living. It’s God’s plan we follow and his will we seek. Our stewardship committees do not belong to us, and our stewardship programs are not our personal genius come to flower. We are not to confuse man-made policies and forms with the eternal Word.

Imagination easily lags because there is little encouragement or drive to rise above and cut loose from the neatly defined categories we have accepted in order to be considered successful. Who dares to dream dreams and see visions when the task is so carefully regimented by accepted models of past performances and by reaching averages and just “getting by”? Men can manipulate and regulate God’s priests in such a way that they feel they have done enough when they have reached human goals. Some people can easily give $250 to help exceed a church budget without giving the biggest gift—self. Grace will keep stewards from being satisfied with the cheapness of minimum requirements.

When people decide what to give, their motivation should not center in the question, “What is the budget? What is my congregation asking?” The point of emphasis is the ability of the individual to give, not the calculated needs of the congregation. Duty and responsibility can be understood only in the context of man’s relation to God, not to men and needs. If needs and budgets become the focal point, then guilt and failure are measured by man’s standards.

Church goals are to be set by the Gospel itself. The gospel goal will point to the whole counsel of God and then surround the hearers with God’s grace by his Word. The church holds the goal of the Suffering Servant before its people and the total needs of the world in which the body of the Servant exists. The “giving potential of God” and the faithfulness of his promises is the big concern, not the “giving potential of people” and their faithfulness.

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Frank Laubach wrote ten years ago, “We have five more years, perhaps ten. We are running a cosmic race with time.” The immensity of our world mission task cries out for us to forsake any small plans we might have, tear them up, and write new ones inspired by the Holy Spirit. Only he who believes is obedient, so our proclamation ought to be “Trust God to make you strong for your tasks!” rather than “Give according to your duty!”

Faith is the “yes” of the heart. Faith takes from God the strong feet to walk the servant path. Adoniram Judson affirmed, “The prospects are as bright as the promises of God.” God has done his part; now we must claim his gifts. “He has by his own action given us everything that is necessary for living the truly good life.… It is through him that God’s greatest and most precious promises have become available to us men, making it possible for you to escape the inevitable disintegration that lust produces in the world and to share God’s essential nature” (2 Pet. 1:3, 4, Phillips).

“Believe!” is our stewardship plea, not “Do!” If people believe God’s stewardship promises, they will do. “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Cor. 9:10). That stewardship faith can never overdraw its account.

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