The Grace of Giving

Out of all the things routinely misperceived about church, giving is among the most common. It is seen too often as an ecclesiastical stealth tax. Like an organisation that offers ‘free’ membership, but finds clever ways to raise revenue from those who join. But as we explore the Bible’s teaching about how we use our money as Christians, it takes on a very different complexion.

Giving was woven deeply into the fabric of Old Testament Israel. This was true in a very distinctive way because, although Israel was God’s covenant community and church in that era, it was also a theocracy. It is perhaps not surprising that it was one of elements of Old Testament worship and practice that continued into the church in the New Testament era. It continued to be a key component in the service we render to God as an expression of both our dependence on him for all things and also of the worship we offer.

Jesus provides fresh angles on the duty of giving. As he ushered in a new epoch in salvation history, and in light of the fact Israel was now under Roman occupation, he tells his disciples to ‘give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’ (Mt 22.21). The book of Acts goes further and gives us little glimpses of how giving took on new dimensions in the early church from its very inception (Ac 2.44-45; 5.1-11). However, the most detailed and profound instruction on the church and her giving found anywhere in the Bible is in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2Co 8.1-9.15).

The Grace of Giving

Giving could be described in many ways, but the idea of its being a ‘grace’ may not spring most naturally to mind. Yet that is the word Paul reaches for as he encourages the Corinthian church to be generous. On the one hand he uses it to describe the spirit by which the churches in Macedonia contributed towards the needs of Christians in Jerusalem (2Co 8.1). But he also uses it to help the Corinthians to see giving as a demonstration of God’s grace (2Co 8.7).

His choice of words is hugely significant, because it shows that giving does not merely reveal what is going on in our pockets as Christians, but a reflection of our heart. The apostle makes this clear when he tells his readers, ‘Each man should give what he has decided in his own heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver’ (2Co 9.7). How we give is a deep reflection of how we relate to God in light of how he relates to us in Christ.

The backdrop to what Paul says to the church in Corinth is seen in part in what Jesus taught about money as the great rival god in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, when speaking about real treasure, he says, ‘No-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money’ (Mt 6.24). Later, in the parable of the soils, when Jesus explains the thorny ground, he includes ‘the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things’ (Mk 4.19) as prime examples of what chokes the influence of God’s word in people’s lives. As Paul would also say to Timothy, ‘The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’ (1Ti 6.10). Money has always been one of the most powerful idols people worship.

So when people are given something far greater than money can buy, through God’s gift of salvation in Christ, it should have a dramatic effect on what they do with their finances. This was clearly the case for the Macedonian Christians Paul mentions. Even though their poverty was ‘extreme’, their ‘generosity’ overflowed (2Co 8.2). Paul explains the reason for this a few verses later: ‘they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us’ (2Co 8.5). Their giving was a very tangible expression of how much their lives had been changed through the gospel. They had glimpsed what Paul so eloquently says about Jesus. ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (2Co 8.9).

Christ’s self-giving was the supreme demonstration of giving as a grace. If we as members of his church grasp what this means for us, then it will impact the way we give of ourselves – our time and talents – as much as the money we give.

The Impact Giving Makes

What is the purpose behind the Bible’s exhortations for God’s people to commit themselves to God’s work financially? From a merely human point of view it could be seen as something purely pragmatic. It is necessary for running churches as organisations. Even in the New Testament world, where the church was a much less complex than it is today, preachers still had to be supported and – for those who had a travelling ministry – someone had to feed them. But, even though those practical needs – including the upkeep of buildings and running church activities – do benefit from their members’ giving, Paul says its impact goes much wider and deeper.

In the Corinthian context, as churches throughout the Mediterranean world were aware of the struggles their brothers and sisters were facing in Jerusalem, their gifts were tangible evidence of their fellowship in Christ. In the words of James, they did not respond to their dire circumstances with a pious, ‘I wish you well; keep warm and well fed!’ (Jas 2.16). Instead their fellow believers felt the benefit of self-sacrificing generosity. However the impact of their giving went further again.

Paul goes on to speak about its impact on the Corinthians themselves as givers. Instead of being left with a feeling of loss through their sacrifice, Paul could say to them, ‘God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work’ (2Co 9.8). The apostle’s repetition of that little word ‘all’ says it all!

The greatest impact of this graciousness of giving ultimately reaches into areas that most of these givers never would have imagined. As Paul sums up what he is teaching on this theme he has this to say:

This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. (2Co 9.12-14)

Christian generosity displayed through the life of the church will touch the lives of many who have never known God and be a means to bringing them to praise him.

The Practicalities of Giving

The New Testament does not provide a detailed manual of giving. That may have been true in the Old Testament under Moses. (He gave elaborate instructions about tithing in a range of areas.) But these laws were not transferred en bloc to the New Testament. Instead the New Testament church was given a clearer view of the principles govern its giving. In many ways this presents a bigger challenge than an itemised list.

Apart from Jesus’ references to the practice of tithing in the Jewish community of his day, the rest of the New Testament is silent on it. Rather than prescribing how much Christians ought to give, it speaks of the frame of heart and mind that will control their giving.

So, as we have already noted, Paul points to Jesus and the self-sacrifice that coloured every aspect of his coming into this world to be its Saviour. From the moment of his conception through to the dark nadir of his earthly mission in the cry of dereliction on the cross, he consciously ‘made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant’ (Php 2.7).

When Christians see the sacrifice of their giving in light of Christ’s self-giving, their attitude to giving can only be transformed. And behind the self-giving of the Son, there is the extravagant love of the Father who sent him to be our Saviour. So Paul rightly declares, ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift’ (2Co 9.15).

Mark Johnston