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God-given Talents at Work

Julian G. Anderson

1954 Synod Convention Essay

The subject of this essay is eminently practical — “God-given talents at work.” It is also one which is highly personal, a topic which invites the most serious kind of soul-searching and self-examination, as we shall see. As a guide for our discussion we have divided the essay into four chief parts, as follows: 1) What Do We Mean By The Words “God-given Talents?” 2) What Are These God-given Talents Which We Have Received? 3) How Are We Expected To Use These God-given Talents? 4) How Does All This Apply To Us of The Norwegian Synod?

I. What Do We Mean by the Words, “God-given Talents”?

“For it is as when a man, going into another country, called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one; to each according to his several ability; and he went on his journey.” (Matthew 25:14–15, A.S.V.)

The word “talent,” about which our essay revolves, is one of those interesting words which has undergone an almost complete change of meaning in the 1,900 years between the time of Christ and our own day. Furthermore, the word is an unusual one in that its present-day meaning is one which is directly traceable to the Christian Church as the result of its theological interpretation of the original word “talent” as used in the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, quoted above. Let us see, then, how this shift of meaning has come to take place.

In the ancient world of Jesus’ day the word “talent” had two meanings. In the first place, it was the largest common measure of weight in use at that time, representing an approximate equivalent today of 57 pounds. At the same time, as in the case of the English “pound” today, a talent was also a unit of money or coinage, representing the value of a 57-pound weight of solid gold or silver. As you can see, therefore, a talent of gold was a very large sum of money, the value of which would be worth about $24,000 as measured by today’s standards; and a talent of silver, based on the ratio of 1 to 12 in use then, would be worth about $2,000.

In the Parable of the Talents, therefore, recorded in Matthew 25, the principle thought is simply this — that a certain wealthy business man, finding it necessary to leave home for some time on an extended business trip, called in three of his most trusted and capable employees and turned over the management of his large business into their hands during his absence. He did so, however, in a rather unusual way. To the first man he turned over some 60% of his assets, amounting to five talent’s worth of money and property (about $120,000 worth), and instructed him to carry on his business for him and personally watch over that part of his property until his return. To the second man — apparently a man of lesser ability — he turned over 25% of his property — two talents’ worth, or $48,000 — with the same instructions. And to the third man — still less experienced and capable — he entrusted the remaining 12½% of his estate — one talent, or $24,000 worth — again with the same instructions. And having thus taken care of the management of his property and business during his absence, he departed.

This, then, is the story; and since it was told as a parable, it is plain that our Lord intended to teach thereby certain spiritual lessons about the Kingdom of God. From the very earliest times, therefore, the Christian Church has invested this parable with the following interpretation, which is quite obvious and self-evident. The business man is an obvious type and symbol of Christ, the Lord of the Church. His departure on a long journey symbolizes Christ’s ascension into heaven. The three employees (actually slaves) are intended to symbolize, then, the various individual members of the Christian Church, among whom, of course, we must place ourselves. And lastly, the business represents the work of the Kingdom of God; and the talents, or assets, represent not material values, but rather the various abilities, skills and aptitudes necessary to carry out the work of the Kingdom.

It is from this interpretation of the parable, then, that our present usage of the word “talent” has arisen, meaning, as we all know, certain abilities, skills or aptitudes, certain natural capacities or endowments which a person may, or may not, have. Thus we commonly speak of “talents and abilities,” using the two words as almost synonyms. And in this connection there are two points especially to be noted. First, that “talents,” as we shall use the word from this point on, means certain special abilities or skills with which a person is born, or which he acquires by education or experience or practice. And second, that these “talents,” or special skills and abilities, are by nature giftsGod-given gifts, as depicted in the parable where the business man gave these talents into the hands of his employees during his absence. Now, then, let us inquire more specifically:-

II. What Are These God-given Talents Which We Have Received?

“For even as we have many members in one body, and all the members have not the same office: so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another. And having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of our faith; or ministry, let us give ourselves to our ministry; or he that teacheth, to his teaching; or he that exhorteth, to his exhorting; he that giveth, let him do it with liberality; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.” (Romans 12:4–8, A.S.V.).

“Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but the same God, Who worketh all things in all. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit to profit withal. For to one through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit; to another faith, in the same Spirit; and to another gifts of healings, in the one Spirit; and to another workings of miracles; and to another prophecy; and to another discernings of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; and to another the interpretation of tongues: but all these worketh the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each one severally even as he will.” (Corinthians 12:4–11, A.S.V.)

In these two passages from the letters of Paul we find the most complete list of the special talents or abilities required to carry out the work of the Kingdom. To begin with, then, let us simply list these talents with a few words of explanation on each one.

We begin, as does Paul, with the gifts of wisdom and knowledge which the Lord supplies to every Christian in a greater or lesser degree. We realize, of course, that all our mental and intellectual gifts and abilities are gifts of God in a special sense. The ability to think and reason is one of the things which separates man from the animal kingdom. It is one of the things which marks man as having been created in the image of God. In every area of our lives a certain amount of wisdom and knowledge is required. And this is particularly true with regard to our spiritual lives. In every case our personal salvation depends upon a certain knowledge and understanding of the saving truths of God’s Word as crystalized in the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins. It goes without saying that it is this type of wisdom and knowledge of which Paul is speaking here — the knowledge of God’s word.

The point which Paul emphasizes, however, is that while all Christians possess the ability to know and understand the Word of God in some measure, there are some who possess this talent and ability in a much larger measure. There are some whose natural endowments and education have given them a much greater wisdom and understanding of the Scriptures than others. These, whether pastors or laymen — and there are many of the latter — have been singularly blessed and constitute the leaders of the Christian Church.

We hasten to add that every phase of the Church’s work depends upon a proper and adequate understanding of the Word of God. This gift of wisdom and knowledge, therefore, is absolutely basic and essential, and whether we possess it to a great or small degree we should regard it as one of our greatest blessings and strive always to cultivate it to a higher and more perfect degree.

Closely connected with this primary gift of wisdom and knowledge, however, is the gift of “prophecy,” as Paul calls it. In this connection let us first ask, “What is ‘prophecy’ and what is a ‘prophet’?” Basically, a “prophet” is one who speaks on behalf of the Lord, and “prophecy,” therefore, is simply the act of bringing the Word of the Lord to men. It should be clearly understood, however, that these words are used in a two-fold sense in Scripture — first, of a very small and select group of men and women who received direct revelations from God and made those things known to men, such as Moses and Elijah and Paul and the daughters of Agabus; and secondly, in a much more general way of any person who preaches or expounds or otherwise brings the Word of God to men — a “preacher,” in other words, as we would say today. It is almost unnecessary to point out that the Church always needs an adequate supply of such preachers, or “prophets,” and that for this reason the Lord supplies this special talent to certain individuals within the Church — the ability to publicly preach and expound the Word of God.

Then there is the special talent or gift for teaching, the ability to make things plain and thereby to instruct others, especially in the Word of God. We all realize that this, too, is a talent which is supplied by the Lord to some individuals in greater measure than to others. We all realize also how vital and important this talent is in the work of the Church. The Christian Church, if it is to succeed in its God-given work, must be a teaching Church. It must start with the children in their very earliest years and continue to teach them regularly and diligently through adolescence and adult-hood, and on to the very end of life. Thus it becomes quite clear that the Church, if it is to carry on its work successfully, must have a plentiful supply of well-trained and consecrated teachers to teach in its schools and congregations.

Also closely connected with the primary gifts of wisdom and knowledge of the Scriptures is the specialized talent for “discerning the spirits,” as Paul says — the ability to detect errors and false teachings, the ability to see through the specious arguments and logic of false teachers. Every Christian, of course, is admonished to “test the spirits whether they be of God,” but amid the welter and confusion of errors and false prophets in the world today, the Church stands in dire need of those men called “theologians” who have this special ability to detect theological errors and bring them out clearly into the light of day.

Then there are the specialized talents of “tongues” and the “interpretation of tongues.” By this we do not mean speaking in gibberish and unintelligible sounds, as certain fanatics maintain, but rather the ability to read and speak and understand other languages and to translate these languages into other tongues. This gift of tongues is an obvious necessity in the work of foreign missions and the translation of the Bible, and is particularly important in the training of pastors in the Biblical languages.

Then there are those special talents and abilities needed to carry on the various works of charity within the Church — talents which again the Lord supplies to certain individuals in extra measure. Paul mentions specifically the work performed by the deacons in the New Testament Church — ministering to the poor, the aged, the widows and orphans. He also mentions those who perform works of mercy in a more general way — men and women who care for the sick and dying, for those who are in prison, and for those who are in special trouble of one sort or another. Today we should take this to include the whole wide field of welfare work — to the important work of Christian doctors, nurses and psychiatrists, Christian lawyers, welfare workers in general — for which special talents and abilities are necessary.

Then there is also the special talent for “management” — executive ability, as we would speak of it today. Certain it is that the Church also must have those who can organize and manage and direct the manifold affairs of the Kingdom of God in an over-all way — officers and trustees in our congregations, and administrators and business managers in our schools and other organizations. And these, too, must be equipped with special talents and abilities which the Lord supplies in His gracious way.

Then there is also the talent for “exhortation,” i.e. the ability to stir others into action. As we have all observed, in any group there seem to be certain folks who possess the almost intangible, but very real, capacity for filling others with enthusiasm and spurring others on to greater efforts. This they do either by admonishing others to stop doing certain things, or by exhorting and urging them to put forth more effort. They are the so-called “spark-plugs of the Church, the ones possessed of an extraordinary amount of faith and vision and enthusiasm; and with human nature so prone to become lazy and indifferent, the Church sorely needs those who have this talent.

And finally, undergirding the whole work of the Church and all these other talents is the ability to give and share of our material substance for the Church’s work. Here we are reminded that almost all of the aforementioned duties and activities of the Church — preaching, teaching, works of charity — demand money to carry them out successfully. And Paul, therefore, does not neglect to mention that money and material resources also are gifts from the Lord, gifts which He supplies to His disciples and which He expects us to use in the work of the Kingdom.

As we consider all these talents we cannot help but say, “How wonderfully does the Lord provide for His Church! How abundantly does He provide for the work of His Kingdom! What a great wealth of talents and gifts has He given us!” And let us emphasize again that these are all gifts — gifts of pure grace which we have received from our Lord without any merit or worthiness of our own. They are all bestowed upon us by the operation of the Holy Spirit, divided among the various members according to their several abilities, as Paul points out, even as the businessman did in the Parable of the Talents. The gifts themselves, as we have seen, are very different and diversified. Different gifts are given to different individuals in differing degrees. But all by the same Spirit and all for one purpose — to prosecute the work of the Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. All these talents are given, as Paul says, “to profit withal” — to profit the Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the Lord of the Church!

Therefore we have the Church pictured here as one great body — the Body of Christ — of which we are all individual members; and the comparison is made between this Body of Christ and our own bodies of flesh and blood. In masterful fashion Paul points out that just as in our own bodies we have many thousands of separate members and parts, each one wonderfully different and having different functions, and yet all taken together form one body, so it is in the case of the Church. There, too, we have many, many different Christians, each of whom has different talents and abilities and functions, but all joined together into one grand spiritual body — the Church Universal!

And from this picture we draw two very important lessons. First, that each and every Christian, as a member of the Body of Christ, has some particular talent, or talents and gifts, which he must recognize and with which he must be content. Paul is very careful to point out that to each one God has portioned out and given a measure of faith — certain gifts; and “to each one God has given the manifestation of the Spirit.” There is no Christian who has not some God-given talents, for to all have been given some wisdom and knowledge of the Word, and some money and material gifts, and in addition to these, various other gifts, whether it be the ability to preach or teach, or the gift of management, or exhortation, or other specialized talents for service. Let each one, therefore, recognize his God-given talents and thank God for them!

And secondly, we learn that the overall health of the Church and its success in carrying out its great work depends directly upon how faithfully and well each individual member uses his talents and carries out his own particular task We know that if but one member of our body — say the liver or the stomach or the heart — becomes sick and fails to function properly, the whole body becomes sick. We know also that if each and every individual member of our body remains healthy and functions properly, then the body as a whole remains healthy and vigorous and performs its work successfully. Let each and every one of us remember, therefore, that our talents, whatever they may be, are urgently needed in the work of the Kingdom; that the over-all success of Christ’s work depends upon us — yes, upon each one of us individually; and that we, therefore, must not only recognize our talents, but use them to the fullest! Which brings us to our third point: —

III. How Are We Expected to Use These God-given Talents?

“Straightway he that receiveth the five talents went and traded with them, and made other five talents. In like manner he also that received the two gained other two. But he that received the one went away and digged in the earth, and hid his lord’s money. Now after a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and maketh a reckoning with them. And he that received the five talents came and brought other five talents, saying, ‘Lord, thou deliverest unto me five talents; lo, I have gained other five talents.’ His lord said unto him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.’ And he also that received the two talents came and said, ‘Lord, thou deliveredst unto me two talents: lo, I have gained other two talents.’ His Lord said unto him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things; enter thou into the joy of thy lord.’ And he also that had received the one talent came and said, ‘Lord, I knew thee that thou art a hard man, reaping where thou didst not sow, and gathering where thou didst not scatter; and I was afraid and went away and hid my talent in the earth: lo, thou hast thine own.’ But his lord answered and said unto him, “Thou wicked and slothful servant, thou knowest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I did not scatter; thou oughtest therefore to have put my money to the bankers, and at my coming I should have received back mine own with interest. Take ye away therefore the talent from him, and give it unto him that hath the ten talents. For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away. And cast ye out the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness: there shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth’.” (Matthew 25:16–30, A.S.V.)

“Let a man so account of us, as of ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. Here, moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” (I Corinthians 4:1–2, A.S.V.)

Before we can answer our question: How are we to use our talents? we must first find the correct answer to still another question: How are we to regard ourselves? And the simplest way of finding this answer is to study carefully the two words, “servant” and “steward,” which are used in the above-quoted texts and so often elsewhere in Scripture.

In the Parable of the Talents the word translated “servant” and the word, therefore, which represents us as Christians, is one which was used to designate slaves in Jesus’ day — common, ordinary slaves. The word “steward,” on the other hand, is one which was used to designate a particular kind of slave — one who had been appointed as a kind of superintendent over the other slaves, one who had been entrusted with the over-all management of his master’s household or property or business. Combining these two words, therefore, we find that we must regard ourselves as slaves of Christ, slaves who have been bought with a great price — His own blood! Properly speaking, then, we belong to Him body and soul. But at the same time, we are slaves to whom have been given great responsibilities and great privileges. We have been placed in charge of our Lord’s household and business, raised to the position of “stewards.” To us has been entrusted the management of our Lord’s business during His absence, as is brought out in the Parable of the Talents.

This means, therefore, that as slaves we must look upon all our talents and gifts as not belonging to us at all, but entirely as the property of Christ our Lord! The most we can say about our possession of such talents is that they have been committed into our hands as a sacred trust. In this respect our example is the early Church in Jerusalem, where “not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own.”

It also means that as stewards our principle interest in life should be the successful prosecution of our Lord’s business. It means that we should put our talents and gifts to work for the profit and advantage of Christ, our Lord and Master, and not use them for our own selfish ends. This is the point which is emphasized particularly in the Parable of the Talents — that those who were commended as “faithful servants” were the ones who had put their Lord’s talents to work for him and had earned for him a profit. It is specifically stated that he expected them to “put his money to the bankers” and to earn for him a profit. On the other hand, the one who failed to use his talent and to make such a profit was denounced as a “wicked and slothful servant,” and was cast out of his master’s household. In this connection the Scriptures are full of warnings against the misuse of our talents, as in the Parable of the Pounds. the Parable of the Rich Fool, and various other texts on the topic of faithful and unfaithful servants. Therefore Paul says that these various manifestations of the Spirit are given to us “to profit withal” — to show an eternal profit, that is, with regard to the work of the Kingdom. And to do so, of course, we must first put our talents and abilities to use!

It remains for us, then, to define more accurately this work of the Kingdom with which we are to occupy ourselves and use our talents. And here again it is the apostle Paul who gives us the answer in the fourth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians, verses 11–12, where he says that the work of the Church consists in the “perfecting of the saints,” “the work of ministering,” and “the building up of the Body of Christ.”

The Church of Christ, in other words, has a duty and responsibility towards itself and its own members — to help them to grow in grace and knowledge and sanctification. To this end those who have the gifts of prophecy and teaching and exhortation must exercise their talents faithfully and diligently, and those to whom the Lord has given material gifts must give generously to build churches and schools. In carrying out this part of the Lord’s work those who preach and teach are admonished that they must make their preaching and teaching conform to the “analogy of faith,” teaching only those things which are in full agreement with the inspired Word of God, without addition, subtraction or alteration.

At the same time the Church has a duty and responsibility towards those of its own number who are in some sort of need or distress — to the poor, the aged, the sick, the dying, and to all those who are in any other kind of trouble or difficulty. To this end those who have the gifts of management and service and the various works of mercy must put their talents to work; and again the others must give liberally of their wealth to make all such works of charity possible!

And finally, the Church has a duty and responsibility towards all those who have not yet come to know Christ as their Savior. They are to send forth the saving Gospel of Christ to all the world and preach it to every creature, and thereby to build up the Body of Christ and enlarge the Kingdom! To this end those who have the gifts of prophecy and languages must use their talents, and once again those who are financially able to do so must give of their substance to send out the preachers and missionaries and to build churches and schools.

There we have the picture of the Church in action, working as one great body — the Body of Christ — with each and every member using his God-given talents and performing his function perfectly. This is the picture that we should hold before our eyes. As Peter says, “According as each hath received a gift, ministering it among yourselves, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God; if any man speaketh, speaking as it were oracles of God; if any man ministereth, ministering as of the strength which God supplieth: that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ …” (I Peter 4:10–11, A.S.V.). Yes, there we have the goal for all our work as Christians — “that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ,” whose slaves and stewards we are! And finally, then, let us ask one last question: —

IV. How Does All This Apply to Us of the Norwegian Synod?

“To whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.” (Luke 12:48, A.S.V.)

In the Parable of the Talents with which we began our study there is one significant fact which is well worth our serious consideration — namely: that the results expected in each case are proportionate to the number of talents given. That is to say, the servant to whom the five talents were given produced five talents of profit, and the servant to whom only two talents were given produced a proportionately smaller profit — namely, two talents. All of which illustrates the principle laid down by our Lord in Luke 12, that “to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.”

Let us now apply this truth to our own case. Perhaps someone will say that this principle can hardly apply to us of the Norwegian Synod, inasmuch as we are only a very small group, with small resources. And yet the facts prove otherwise — namely, that this principle does apply to us in a very appropriate manner. To us of the Norwegian Synod much has been given! We have received, indeed, many talents from our Lord!

Consider first the matter of our material resources. While it is true that we have no extremely wealthy members in our synod, yet it is likewise true that our membership is made up of good, average American families. And it is well to remember that this average American family today has more money and more property and a higher standard of living than any other citizens of any country at any time in history! Assuming that we have about 3,500 families, and that each family is earning the current average American income, published recently of about $5,000 per year, the annual income for all the families of our synod is about 17½ million dollars! Now then, if each family in our synod would follow the example of the New Testament Church and not regard this income as their own, and would give, therefore, a tithe or a tenth of this sum for the work of the Lord, the congregations of our synod would enjoy a combined annual income of 1¾ million dollars — about five times as much as reported last year! Such giving would raise our synodical budget to over $300,000! Giving only 5% of our total income would enable every congregation in synod to have its own parochial school and still have $150,000 left over for synodical purposes! Think what we could do each year with a budget of that size! No, we must surely admit that the Lord has given us much in the matter of material resources!

Then consider also the talents which the Lord has given the various members of our synod for management and service and works of charity. Here, too, it is only necessary to recall that the American nation today has a much larger proportion of professionally trained men and women than any other group of people in history! With our great system of schools and colleges more and more men and women are being trained each year in the professions of law, and medicine, and social work, and business. And we of the Norwegian Synod have as many of these professionally-trained people as any other group in proportion to our numbers — perhaps more. We have a plentiful supply of Christian doctors and nurses and businessmen. Here also the Lord has given us much!

But when we come to the primary gifts of prophecy, or preaching, and teaching, and wisdom and knowledge of God’s Word, we find that we have received these talents in a measure which is far out of proportion to our numbers! From our fathers we have received the saving doctrines of God’s Word pure and unadulterated. From our fathers we have received the tradition thorough Christian education in parochial schools. Our pastors and teachers, therefore, are well trained, and can present and expound the Word of God in all of its fullness and purity in a manner absolutely unknown in many other church groups, The laymen of our synod possess a greater knowledge of the Scriptures than perhaps any other church group in America! It is here that we realize how much — how very much — we have been given!

And in the face of all these facts we must remember also, therefore, that “to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.” We dare not do as little as possible, or as much as the “average” church group. We must do more! We must bear much fruit, even as the Lord expects much fruit from us! Our pastors and teachers must continue to speak, as it were, the oracles of God in a world in which religious errors are being tolerated more and more and compromise is the order of the day! We must be busy with the works of charity! We must give generously and freely of our material resources to build new churches and schools and to expand the Kingdom of God over ever-widening horizons! All this we must do so that when our Lord returns for judgment we may hear Him say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will set thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord!”

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