Welcome back to a new week on the podcast. We have a question today about the weight of personal accountability we carry for what we know. It’s a short and brief question sent in to us from a listener named Carrie in New Mexico. “Pastor John, hello! Can you tell me if Jesus is directing his rather harsh words in Luke 12:47–48 to Christians or to non-Christians? I cannot make sense of the context myself.”
The way Carrie puts the question is just a little tricky because the parable that Jesus just told was to Christian disciples. But the outcome of the parable refers to people who, I think, are proved not to be Christian disciples. Let me just read it and comment as I go so that it will make sense.
With the Unfaithful
“Peter said, ‘Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?’” (Luke 12:41). Jesus had just told them a parable. “And the Lord said, ‘Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time?’” (Luke 12:42).
“No one will be judged for not obeying revelation they did not have.”
In other words, “This parable will help you, Peter, know whether you are faithful and wise or unfaithful.” Peter is saying, “Does this apply to us or to everybody?” And Jesus is saying, “Do you fit? I mean, if the shoe fits, wear it, Peter.” He keeps going, “Blessed” — that’s what we want to be; we don’t want to be cursed.
“Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces.” (Luke 12:43–46)
The next line is the closest thing to a direct answer to Carrie’s question: “and put him with the unfaithful” (Luke 12:46). That’s the closest thing to a direct answer to her question. The servant who uses his role in the Christian church — under the guise of steward or deacon or overseer or pastor or whatever you call it — the one who uses his position and acts selfishly, cruelly, abusively, and contrary to the master’s wishes will be put with the unfaithful.
More Knowledge, More Accountability
It doesn’t matter how many professions of faith he’s made. It doesn’t matter how many he led to Christ. It doesn’t matter how orthodox he is. He’s going to hell. That’s what Jesus says: the master “will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful” (Luke 12:46).
Here come the verses she’s asking about: “And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating” — notice those words; it’s very important. They still did what deserved a beating. They will receive a light punishment: they “will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:47–48).
My answer to Carrie’s question is that the parable is spoken to followers of Jesus, but the reason it is spoken to them is to warn them that if they turn their back on their master and start using their reputed role as his servants to act selfishly and abuse those in their charge, he will put their lot with unbelievers.
Among that group, not all will get the same punishment. That’s what she’s asking about. There are unbelievers, I think, that he’s talking about who will not get the same punishment. The principle will hold: to whom much is given, much will be required. In this context, it means the more knowledge you have of God’s will, the more you are accountable for doing it.
Just a few closing thoughts of application. I think this text carries a huge implication for understanding the justice of God in dealing with people around the world — some of who know God only through natural revelation rather than any gospel witness. They’ve never heard the gospel.
“The more knowledge you have of God’s will, the more you are accountable for doing it.”
In Romans 1:18–23 we see that every human being has enough knowledge of God to be held accountable before him at the judgment day. But how much more knowledge and more accountability there is for those who have sat under the gospel — maybe even under the best ministry for years and years — and yet have not believed or have not acted in faithfulness on the gospel.
Whenever people ask me, “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” My answer, based partly on Luke 12, is that no one will be judged for not obeying revelation they did not have. We will all be judged according to the knowledge of the truth we have access to. All of us, every human being on the planet, has access (Paul says in Romans 1) to the knowledge of God — that he is to be thanked and that he is to be glorified with all the implications that carries.
One more word that seems related: even though believers in Christ, because our sins are covered by the death of Christ, are not punished by God at the judgment, nevertheless, there is a kind of “suffering loss” if our lives have been devoted in some measure to false teachings and false ways.
Here’s the verse: “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:14–15). I suspect that even though Christ has borne the punishment of all the sins of all believers, nevertheless, this principle of greater or lesser blessing according to how we have handled the revelation available to us applies to believers also.