If I told you today’s sermon was going to be based on the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25, you might conclude (perhaps with a groan) that the topic was going to be stewardship.

It seems to be the universal “go-to” passage because it covers a lot of ground — the money belongs to the Master rather than the investors, it’s a long-term assignment, the rate of return matters, faithfulness matters more. This parable probably has become a favorite of pastors and Bible teachers because it communicates two foundational stewardship principles in one convenient bite-size piece — ownership and accountability.

There are other verses that teach individual principles, such as the ones that appear regularly in SMI and remind us of the warnings against being in debt (Proverbs 22:7), the importance of saving for the future (Proverbs 21:20), why we should diversify our risk (Ecclesiastes 11:2), and how God feels about our giving to help others (2 Corinthians 9:6-15). These are all helpful in teaching us what we should do. But there’s still something missing.

Many years ago, I learned to add a verse that is extremely important in this regard, yet is rarely used in the context of stewardship. A friend and I were talking finances over lunch, and I asked him what he thought the single most important stewardship passage was. Without hesitation, he replied, “Galatians 5:16.” That threw me off because I (supposedly a financial stewardship guru) had no clue as to what Galatians 5:16 says. Do you? Here it is, straight from the apostle Paul:

“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (NIV). Or as the Living paraphrase puts it: “I advise you to obey only the Holy Spirit’s instructions. He will tell you where to go and what to do, and then you won’t always be doing the wrong things your evil nature wants you to.”

I immediately saw the wisdom of my friend’s answer. The main thing, the primary thing, that keeps us from living up to a high level of commendable stewardship is usually not because we don’t understand what needs to be done. We know what needs to be done, thanks to verses like those I initially mentioned. But we don’t do it. We don’t execute the game plan. Why not? Because the game plan requires us to master, to a significant degree, our old nature. The nature that wants what it wants, that puts self-gratification at the center of the decision-making process, that abhors sacrifice.

That’s why we fall short, isn’t it? Most Christians who are in debt are there because they spend too much on their wants. Most of those who haven’t gotten around to setting aside money for that emergency fund or IRA/401k account have failed for the same reason. And ditto for those who are relatively miserly toward the Lord in their giving. Same problem. Christians, like everyone else, have a tendency to “gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

I’m not saying the things we spend money on are necessarily sinful in themselves. I’m saying that the impulse to elevate spending on our wants above paying our creditors what we owe, saving for the future, and giving to help others in Christ’s name, comes from a drive to satisfy our material desires. That drive, unfortunately, is often stronger than our desire to obey God and please Him with our stewardship. We need to take control of our appetites, or inevitably our appetites take control of us.

How do we do this? We can’t. But God’s Holy Spirit, who lives within every Christian, can. He is the one who strengthens and empowers. As the author of this month’s cover article might say:

  • Left to my own preferences, I can’t stay on a budget and get out of debt, but Jesus is giving me the self-control to do that.
     
  • I don’t know how to best invest for the future, but Jesus will give wisdom from above and guide me to the right outcome.
     
  • I’m not usually one to sacrifice so I can give generously to Kingdom work, but Jesus is doing it through me now.

When we put ourselves under His direction and control, He builds the fruit of His life (one of which is self-control) into us (Galatians 5:22-23). If we will ask Him, if we will let Him, He is the one who can make us the kind of people He wants us to be — as good as we wish we could be. That’s why Paul says, “Live by the Spirit!” It’s the indispensable stewardship verse, pointing us to the power that makes it possible for us to follow all of God’s other stewardship principles.