Grace and Responsibility

Does grace lead to responsibility?

When people genuinely experience God’s grace should it make a difference in their lives? Is grace transforming? 

Jesus told a story that made a profound and urgent connection of grace with responsibility. It’s a familiar story, perhaps too familiar. It’s the parable of the unmerciful servant. One New Testament scholar suggested that this story “is possibly the most forceful expression of how Christians should live” (Klyne Snodgrass, Stories With Intent).

The parable of the unmerciful servant only appears in the gospel of Matthew and follows a question the apostle Peter asked about how many times he should forgive a person who sins against him (Matthew 18:21-22).

Before Peter asked this question, Jesus taught his followers to confront a brother or sister who sins against them. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). The goal of this confrontation is to address the offense that divides them with hope of restoring a broken relationship. 

If private confrontation is rejected, Jesus taught that it should involve others and could possibly, if repeatedly rejected, lead to a change in the relationship. “If they still refuse to listen,” Jesus said, “tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17).

After this instruction, Jesus taught about the far reaching extent of forgiveness. Peter asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22).

Jesus’ parable contrasted an unimaginable act of forgiveness by a merciful King who released his servant from a massive debt (Matthew 18:23-27) with an unmerciful act of the servant who had just been forgiven (Matthew 18:28-30).

At this point the story takes a dramatic turn. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:31-35).

Jesus used an extreme amount of debt to make the point that we will never be able to earn or deserve forgiveness and that we are hopeless doomed apart from the mercy and forgiveness of God.

Two truths 

  1. We will never forgive others any where close to the extent that we have been forgiven by God.
  2.  Forgiven people who withhold mercy and forgiveness from others are not going to do well with God (v. 35).

A disturbing question – The parable raises a question about the role of works and obedience in relation to God. 

Q. Are God’s mercy and forgiveness conditioned on or withdrawn from us based on our mercy and forgiveness toward others?

  • Matthew 5:7 – “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
  • Matthew 6:14-15 – “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
  • Mark 11:25 – “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Three essential facts

  1. We cannot earn or deserve God’s forgiveness by forgiving others.
  2. God’s forgiveness of our sins is the basis for our forgiveness of others.
  3. God expects forgiven people to forgive and they will (Eph. 4:31-32; Colo. 3:13).

Ethical motivation

The ethical motivation for Christian forgiveness and for treatment of others is responsive and reflective.

1. Responsive to God’s prior action toward us in mercy, forgiveness and love

I John 4:16-19 – “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment …. We love because he first loved us.”

2. Reflective of God’s prior action toward us in mercy, forgiveness and love

  • Luke 6:35-36 – “But love your enemies, do good to them, …Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
  • Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”
  • Colossians 3:13 – “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
  • Ephesians 5:1-2 – “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

Summary thoughts (from “Stories With Intent” by Klyne Snodgrass, pp. 74-76)

“The community cannot tolerate sin without confrontation and reproof, but must always love and forgive without limits… Sin has disastrous and eternal consequences, confrontation and discipline are necessary, and excommunication from the community is a real possibility. At the same time, God searches out those who stray and wills that none be lost, and the community can lay no bounds to its forgiveness or forget that its forgiveness is modeled on God’s forgiveness of its members’ own much larger debt.

We … feel the tension we feel between reproof and love…  Matthew has insisted that the community address seriously issues of obedience and sin, if possible in discrete ways, even if that leads to starting all over with those it rebukes, treating them as outsiders.  At the same time…insisted that humility and forgiveness dominate the efforts.”

“The parable prevents any presuming on grace. The church has often presented a grace that did not have to be taken seriously, but biblical grace is transforming grace. When you get the gift, you get the Giver, who will not let you go your way.”

“All the focus on obedience, however, is based in God’s prior action. The indicative of God’s forgiveness precedes the imperative of our response. …the ethic is a responsive ethic, a response to God’s grace and calling.”

“The fear of works righteousness is far too exaggerated. Would that there were an equal fear of being found inactive. Works righteousness is not the problem of most modern Christians. We would do better to realize that if we do not work, we are not righteous.”

“In the end we should recognize that God is the only one who ultimately can hold humanity accountable.  The concern of the parable is God’s forgiveness and the seriousness of failing to mirror God’s mercy, not an atonement theology or a general discussion of judgment.”

“God’s mercy must not be treated cavalierly. Mercy is not effectively received unless it is shown, for God’s mercy transforms. If God’s mercy does not take root in the heart, it is not experienced. Forgiveness not shown is forgiveness not known.”

“…grace always brings with it responsibility. The forgiveness of God must be replicated in the lives of the forgiven, and the warning is clear. Where forgiveness is not extended, people will be held accountable.”

[If only the church] “spoke truth taking care to guard the privacy of the offender as much as possible without ignoring the sin, set no limits for forgiveness, and emphasized the necessity of a forgiveness modeled on God’s own forgiveness, knowing that judgment is severe for those who do not forgive?”

“The message of this parable is badly needed by churches and individuals who live in a society where people insist on standing on their rights and division marks our churches, families, and societies. The teaching of the parable is counterintuitive, but it is possibly the most forceful expression of how Christians should live. Christian living—rather than insisting on rights—should be a continual dispensing of mercy and forgiveness, mirroring God’s own character and treatment of his people.”

“Society also cheapens forgiveness so that sin is treated lightly, but the focus on judgment in Jesus’ parables warns that forgiveness brings with it a call for reform. If forgiveness does not effect change, it is not experienced.”

Steve Cornell

Nothing wasted


God doesn’t ignore or waste our suffering. After each of the following Scriptures, make a list of the purposes accomplished through suffering. Then talk to God about what you learned.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (II Corinthians 1:3-4).

“We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (II Corinthians 1:8-9).

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).

“Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (II Corinthians 12:7-9).

leaning into grace,

Steve Cornell

* Other Scriptures: James 1:2-5; Psalm 23:4; 62:8; Proverbs 3:5-6.

Most important spiritual lesson

The most important spiritual lesson we can learn about walking with God is the same lesson God taught His children in the wilderness. It is the truth that human beings are not meant to live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Why does it take so much for us to learn this lesson? 

“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).

I am continually relearning this truth about my total dependence on God.

Here’s a great prayer that expresses dependence on God:

“Father of Mercies, Hear me for Jesus’ sake. I am sinful even in my closest walk with you; it is of your mercy that I did not die long ago; Your grace was given me in the cross by which you have reconciled yourself to me and me to you, drawing me by your great love, declaring me as innocent in Christ though guilty in myself.

Giver of all graces, I look to you for strength to maintain them in me, for it is hard to practice what I believe. Strengthen me against temptations. My heart is an unexhausted fountain of sin, a river of corruption since childhood days, flowing on in every pattern of behavior; You have disarmed me of the means in which I trusted, and I have no strength but in you.

You alone can hold back my evil ways, but without your grace to sustain me I fall. Satan’s darts quickly inflame me, and the shield that should quench them easily drops from my hand: Empower me against his wiles and assaults. Keep me sensible of my weakness, and of my dependence upon your strength. Let every trial teach me more of your peace, more of your love.

Your Holy Spirit is given to increase your graces, and I cannot preserve or improve them unless he works continually in me. May he confirm my trust in your promised help, and let me walk humbly in dependence upon you, for Jesus’ sake.” (Contemporized from, “The Valley of Vision“).

Steve Cornell

3 characteristics of true Christians

  1. We worship (or serve) by the Spirit of God.
  2. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us.
  3. We put no confidence in human effort. 

                                                             (Philippians 3:3)

  • If we are unclear about #’s 2 & 3, we’ll cut the power line to # 1.
  • Spiritual growth should result in deeper commitment to #’s  2 & 3.
  • We simply cannot experience # 1 without unquestioned affirmation of #’s 2 & 3.
  • This is true for individual believers and for Churches.
  • Violations of #’s 2 & 3 are distortions of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Think about  it. 

Steve Cornell

Reflections on the Spirit-filled life

The personal presence and power of the Holy Spirit are essential to living a life that pleases God. The Holy Spirit is also the source of true Christian community and family life. 

“Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Ephesians 5:18-21, NLT).

A description of character (an objective, measurable reality)

  • Acts 11:24, Barnabas is described as “…a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”
  • Acts 6:4, the Church is instructed to, “pick out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.”
1. The meaning of the word filled (Be continuously filled with the Spirit, present tense)
    • Wind filling a sail,
    • Filled with emotions like joy or grief
    • A body filled with leprosy
    • A person being full of deceit 

Carries the idea of total permeation. To allow the influence of the Holy Spirit to permeate every part of your life.

  • “This is something we are told to be doing all the time namely, to keep ourselves full. We keep our lungs full of fresh air by constantly breathing; we are to keep ourselves filled with the Spirit by constantly exposing ourselves to His active ministry towards us” (J.I. Packer).

2. The contrast with getting drunk (Do not ever be drunk on wine, aorist tense)

The person who gets drunk chooses to allow alcohol to be the controlling influence in every function of life… (Your speech, vision, coordination and even your mind are affected when   drunk).

  • “A person, and in this case, a community, whose life is so totally given over to the Spirit that the life and deeds of the Spirit are as obvious in their case as the effects of too much wine are obvious in the other” (John Stott).

Bearing the fruit of the Spirit

A Spirit-filled person’s words, attitudes and actions will be expressed lovingly, joyfully, peacefully, patiently, kindly, generously, faithfully, gently   and with self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

5 Summary points for individual believers and local Churches

  1. Being Spirit-filled is objectively measurable in specific behaviors and attitudes. Any professed subjective experience of the Spirit must be accompanied by these observable and measurable realities  (Gal. 5:21-22; Eph. 5:18-21; cf. the life of Barnabas and the seven chosen in Ac. 6:1-4).
  2. Expect a Spirit-filled individual or community of believers, to show qualities of joy, gratitude and humility.
  3. Expect a Spirit-filled individual or community of believers, not to be characterized by complaining, discontentment; lack of gratitude or conceit and arrogance.
  4. When encountering a Spirit-filled individual or community of believers, expect to see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
  5. The repeated commands in relation to the Spirit-filled life remind us that although the Spirit produces spiritual fruit (godly character qualities), he does not do this in a way that allows believers to be passive recipients of his work (see: Philippians 2:12-13 “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”).

Practical steps

  1. Consuming God’s Word – Colossians 3:16,17 reveal the same results of dwelling on the Word as the filling of the Spirit in Ephesians 5:18-20.
  2. Confession of sin – As we are in the Word, it will lead to confession of sin.
  3. Conforming to God’ will – The filling of the Spirit happens in submission to God’s will. It involves humility and implies that we choose God’s will.
  • “As we give ourselves to the study of God’s Word, we shall begin at once to experience the benefit of the indwelling Spirit’s cooperating action. For if as we study we are willing to learn and to be led, the Spirit will become our teacher and enlighten and increase our understanding, so that more and more we shall discern what we should believe, and how we should act to please God” ( J.I. Packer).

Steve Cornell

What is the fruit of the Spirit?

20100423_what-is-the-fruit-of-the-spirit_poster_imgNine virtues make up the fruit of the Spirit revealed in Galatians 5:22-23.

Most translations of v. 22 open with the words, “But the fruit of the Spirit is…” This leaves it to the interpreter to decide how the fruit is “of the Spirit.”

The New Living translation (as it typically does) offers more interpretation by rendering the beginning of v. 22, “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives…”

Are the nine virtues produced by the Spirit? The one balancing consideration is the fact that each virtue also appears in the New Testament as a command (or with imperatival force). Are we commanded to love? To rejoice? To peace? etc… Yes. And this reminds us that we are not passive recipients of God’s work in our lives. The fruit produced by the Spirit is also required by the commands of Scripture.

Yet, if there is a priority of order, it seems best to recognize our dependence on the Holy Spirit for living the virtues attributed to the Spirit. The person who is walking by the Spirit, yielding to the Spirit, sowing to the spirit, will bear the fruit of the Spirit. You cannot do this in your own strength!

We cannot produce a life that pleases God apart from God’s work in and through us (Philippians 2:12-13; Colossians 1:29). This is partly why the apostle wrote, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Ephesians 3:16). 

It might help after considering a brief explanation of each virtue in the fruit (singular) of the Spirit to apply it as a covenant of shared life or community.  

Brief explanation of the fruit

  1. Love: self-sacrificial devotion to the good of others
  2. Joy: deep gladness; hope-filled satisfaction in God’s goodness and love
  3. Peace: calm tranquility; a conciliatory disposition
  4. Patience: steadfast endurance in difficulty or provocation
  5. Kindness: sympathetic consideration and loving action for others
  6. Goodness: generosity that overflows from kindness.
  7. Faithfulness: true and reliable; dependability
  8. Gentleness: humble and self-deferential
  9. Self-control: keeping oneself in check; self-disciplined

Covenant of community for those who walk by the Spirit

We agree that in dependence on the Holy Spirit, our words, attitudes and actions toward one another will be expressed lovingly, joyfully, peacefully, patiently, kindly, generously, faithfully, gently and with self-control. 

Restoration to glory

II Corinthians 3:17-18 – “For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.”

The fruit of the Spirit is glory restored because each virtue is an attribute of God. 

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know … his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:18-21).

Steve Cornell

Nine permanent spiritual gifts

We have already considered nine temporary spiritual gifts. Now we turn our attention to nine permanent gifts. The purpose of the permanent gifts is the building up of the body of Christ to the glory of God. The permanent gifts function on the foundation of the temporary gifts, which functioned until the close of the apostolic age (Ephesians 2:20). The permanent spiritual gifts are in every era of church history.

  1. Teaching: (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11)

The gift of teaching is a special God-given ability to explain the details and applications of Scripture. The person with this gift will have the desire to study the details of the Scripture: languages, history, geography, and theology. They will be able, as a result of such study, to help others learn through clear communication of the Word of God (Acts 18:11, 26). This gift is a requirement of an elder (1 Timothy 3:3; 2 Timothy 2:24; Titus 1:9). The gift might overlap with a natural ability to teach, but this is not always the case. The gift of teaching also involves some development through the teaching from others who have the gift (Titus 1:9; 2 Timothy 2:2). All believers could be involved in some kinds of teaching (Titus 2:3), but the gift of teaching, as with all spiritual gifts, is a special God-given ability. 

2.  Faith: (1 Corinthians 12:9)

The gift of faith is a God-given endowment of extraordinary trust in God in specific areas of need. These areas of trust might seem unusual to other believers, although each believer is given a measure of faith (Romans 12:3). All believers must walk by faith, but certain believers will be especially gifted with a greater measure of faith for specific purposes in edifying the body of Christ (Colossians 2:6; Acts 6:5). The person with this gift will have a God-given ability to trust God in the face of great obstacles.

3.  Helps: (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28)

The gift of helps is a God-given blessing for serving others. The person with this gift will have a special ability to serve in practical areas of need in the body of Christ. All believers are called to serve, but the person with the gift of helps will have an emphasized ministry in serving (Galatians 5:13; Romans 16:1; Acts 6:1; 2 Timothy 1:16; 1 Corinthians 16:15). Since deacons are leaders of serving, they would be likely recipients of this gift (I Timothy 3).

4.  Exhortation: (Romans 12:8)

The gift of exhortation will include admonishing others toward obedience to God and comforting those in need of encouragement. The person gifted in this area will be involved in individual counsel and guidance of others. They will have a special concern to encourage the discouraged (Acts 4:36; 9:27;15:39).

5.  Administration: (Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 12:28)

The gift of administration is a God-given ability to lead, which would include the capacity to organize and direct others. This person is able to take charge and coordinate. The individual with this gift fulfills God’s desire that all things be done in an orderly way. This person would be guiding the person with the gift of helps, and receiving encouragement from one with the gift of exhortation. Titus probably had this gift (Titus 1:5). An elder must demonstrate this ability in his own house and in the church (1 Timothy 3:4-5). This person is ready to take the steering wheel where necessary.

6.  Giving: (Romans 12:8)

The gift of giving is a special God-given ability to give of material substance. All believers are called to give to the work of the Lord (2 Corinthians 9:7-8), but not all will have a special gift. The person with this gift will be characterized by a strong desire to give consistently and sacrificially to the work of the Lord. This gift is not limited to those who are wealthy. The wealthy are instructed to give (1 Timothy 6:17-19), but someone with little substance could have the spiritual gift of giving (Philippians 4:10-16; Acts 4:21-5:11; 2 Corinthians 9:7). The person with this gift will know the truth of being greatly blessed (Acts 20:35). “if it is giving, then give generously” (Romans 12:8).

7.  Mercy: (Romans 12:8)

The gift of mercy is a special God-given ability to show love through acts of kindness. This person tends to evidence extraordinary sympathy and compassion. Expressions of this gift will be found in actions of love toward those who are in difficult circumstances. The person especially gifted in this area will be attracted toward helping the bereaved, the sick, the mentally and physically handicapped, the orphan, and many other special areas. The gift of exhortation would involve words of comfort, while the gift of mercy would involve words and deeds of comfort. “if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully” (Romans 12:8).

All believers are to show mercy to some extent, but not every believer will be especially gifted in this area (Galatians 6:2; James 1:27; 2:14-16).

8.    Pastor-Teacher: (Ephesians 4:11-14)

The gift of pastor-teacher is a two-fold God-given ability to provide for the general care of the flock. The term ‘pastor’ is derived from the verb ‘to shepherd.’ The obvious picture is that of a shepherd and his sheep. This gift functions in the office of an eldership (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1).

The person gifted as pastor-teacher will be a member of the larger group known as elders. This gift will involve feeding, protecting and leading the flock of believers. One may have the gift of teaching separate from the gift of pastor-teacher, but the indication of Ephesians 4:11 is that one who is a pastor also will be a teacher (Titus 1:9; cf. Acts 20:13-30; 1 Peter 5:1-5).

9.  Evangelism: (Ephesians 4:11-13)

The gift of evangelism is a special God-given ability to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and to lead the lost to Jesus Christ. The person gifted in this way would likely be characterized by an extraordinary burden for the unsaved and a distinct ability to present the gospel in clear terms.

In the New Testament it is evident that the evangelist functioned with the goal of church planting. While there is a place for mass evangelism, the New Testament seems to emphasize localized evangelism. Where the person with the gift of evangelism leaves off, the person with the gift of pastor-teacher picks up.  All believers are responsible to be witnesses for their Savior (Acts 1:8), but not all have the gift of evangelism.


We should praise our risen Lord that He has provided the church, His body, with sufficient spiritual gifts and His completed Word. As we locate and use our gift or gifts that God has given us, remember that all spiritual gifts are useless if they do not function in love (see: 1 Corinthians 13:1-8a).

Steve Cornell