It is difficult to find a simple guide to the Bible’s teaching about money, stewardship, and the grace of generosity. There are conflicting voices within Christianity that tend to harness the gospel either to a prosperity legalism that puts us at the centre, or a strange silence as though dealing with money is somehow distasteful. Of course, Jim Packer has written incisively and insightfully on the topic in Weakness Is the Way (1) Packer’s chapter is a reflection on 2 Corinthians 8–9, full of good sense, where he states that the apostle Paul is “bending over backwards to encourage and motivate the Corinthians toward generosity.” (2)
This is a four-part expositional reflection on 2 Corinthians 8–9, an extended footnote, hopefully complementing Packer’s Chapter. It originally appeared in CRUX, Spring 2016
The Corinthian Christians seemed reluctant to give to the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. The apostle sees this not as a resource problem but a heart problem. So he lays before them a second example, that of the poorer churches in Macedonia, not to make them feel guilty or competitive, but so they might have a living example of how the grace of God is experienced in financial giving. Paul does not write a list of “giving rules” illustrated by the Macedonians because giving has much more to do with the heart. Nor does he articulate vague principles. His strategy is to reveal a number of touchstones of how grace operates in our lives around money. A touchstone is a rock with silica in it, which you rub against another rock to reveal the precious metals there. A touchstone tests the purity of gold or silver in a rock. (3) So the apostle underlines seven touchstones that test the genuineness of God’s grace in Christian giving.
The clearest and most obvious evidence that the Macedonians experienced God’s grace was the Macedonians’ response of giving themselves first to the Lord (2 Cor. 8:5). “First” means their primary calculation was one of worship, not finance. Put another way, in giving money, the Macedonians were giving themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ. Many churches call the act of collecting money in their gatherings an “offertory.” There should be nothing automatic or perfunctory about an offertory, as it has much more to do with what is going on in our hearts than with our hands. In the weekly collection, what we are offering is not so much our money but our very selves to the Lord, first.
In Craig Gay’s trenchant analysis of how we have elevated the money unit, he suggests that behind the alchemy of our modern market totalitarianism is a deep-seated fear that our world is fundamentally evil. We worship money out of insecurity, since we think money is the only thing we can rely on. Money gives us the illusion of control. Our anxieties and fears in this area reveal an “almost ridiculous lack of trust in the goodness of God.” (4) It is only the grace of God shown and experienced in our Lord Jesus Christ that has the power to break the grip of greed. Only grace can replace our love of money with love for God and others and so put money in its place. So the first touchstone takes place in our hearts toward God; it is giving ourselves first to the Lord.
We worship money out of insecurity, since we think money is the only thing we can rely on. Money gives us the illusion of control.
The second touchstone of the experience of God’s grace in giving is joy—the very opposite of anxiety and fear. The Macedonians were facing tough challenges for their Christian witness: active persecution and grinding poverty. In the midst of extremely difficult circumstances God gives to them a supernatural experience of abundant, overflowing joy: “for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have over owed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Cor. 8:2). There is something at work in the Macedonian churches that is deeper and more important than their circumstances. It is their experience of God’s grace in their giving.
In the original language, both joy and grace come from the same root word, but they are not equal. Joy depends on grace. The Macedonians received God’s grace first, and only then did they experience overflowing joy in giving. Their generosity was not an expression of personal moral virtue, nor did their joy arise from their circumstances. They were not giving as a public demonstration of their compassion and benevolence, or because they could easily afford it or because things were smooth sailing. They gave because they were already experiencing the overflowing love of God, and this enabled them to give joyfully. They gave out of the satisfaction they had in God, since God had given them what was beyond compare in Jesus Christ. Financial giving “is not a way of showing God how much we can do for him but a way of illustrating how much God has done for us.” (5)
The third touchstone to test that God’s grace is at work in us is sacrifice. The Macedonians were rock-bottom poor, they lived in “extreme poverty,” yet the grace of God worked in them in such a way that their poverty “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” Like the widow Jesus commends in Mark 12 who was only able to give two small Roman coins as an offering, yet in Jesus’s view she gave all she had to God, just so with the Macedonians. It was not the amount which Paul draws attention to, but that the grace of God created a generosity that defied natural explanation. In 2005 Baroness Caroline Cox was in Myanmar with the Karen people, a group of persecuted and destitute Christians living in the mountains. They heard the news of hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast of the United States. Knowing the Baroness would soon attend a church conference in the United States, they collected all the money they had to send to those in need there. The entire collection added up to less than a few US dollars, but in heaven it was greatly treasured.
There is no New Testament warrant for Christians to become fanatics, to recklessly abandon our responsibilities and let our families starve, placing ourselves in poverty in response to every appeal. The point is that the mark of God’s grace in our giving is that it will be sacrificial: we will give more than is comfortable.
Touchstone number four reveals the fruit of God’s grace in voluntary giving. The Macedonians gave “of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part in the relief of the saints” (2 Cor. 8:3–4). Here is the opposite of coercion and manipulation. Paul did not plead with them to give; they were the ones pleading with him to be able to contribute to the gift. May the Lord deliver us from nagging pastors who scold and shame and threaten so as to motivate people to give. (6) And the Lord deliver us from believers who are irritated when ministers speak the Word of God regarding money. e mark of grace at work in us is a desire to give, to take the initiative to and a way to give, not because of what others have done for us or will do for us, but because of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
The point is that the mark of God’s grace in our giving is that it will be sacrificial: we will give more than is comfortable.
The fifth touchstone is simple and searching—it is the test of love. It is possible to give sacrificially and voluntarily without really engaging our hearts. It is very possible to give grumpily, or out of guilt, or due to embarrassment, or to impress others with your generosity. The giving that pleases God and comes from grace is from the heart; it is giving with love. Twice the apostle calls on the Corinthians to prove their love by giving (2 Cor. 8:8, 24). True grace always leads to love.
This means that what Paul is seeking to do is not strictly fundraising. In another place he writes, “I can give away all I have, and I deliver up my body to be burned, but if I do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3, translation mine). The reason he does not set a financial target for the Corinthians is because they could reach it without love and miss the grace of God. He does not just say, “God owns everything, including what you think is yours, so give!” The proliferation of heart-oriented words in these chapters, “readiness,” “desire,” and “earnestness,” reveal that our attitude to giving is really a test of whether we love God or money. One of the Hebrew words for money in the Old Testament is kesef—which comes from the verb to desire, to languish after something. (7) It does not matter how much or how little money you have, the lust for money comes naturally to all of us. To give money away from the heart is a sign that you trust God and love him over money, that you do not live by bread alone, that you know what it is to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” It is only the direct experience of the grace of God that can do this in our hearts. Paul gives thanks to God, “who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you” (2 Cor. 8:16). The desire to love and to express that love in giving comes directly from God by his Spirit.
The sixth touchstone of grace is that giving is planned. (8) God’s grace often stirs us to give spontaneously and extravagantly, in response to a particular need; but for ongoing growth in grace and discipleship, and ongoing participation in our local congregational body of Christ, giving is to be planned. At the end of 1 Corinthians, in preparation for the collection, the apostle instructs the Corinthians to plan their giving:
Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come. (1 Cor. 16:1–2)
Just as we plan our own budgets and spending, so we are to do with our financial giving. Without planning there is always a good reason not to give, and so our giving becomes casual, minimal, occasional, and more about what I can afford at the time, rather than the enduring experience of the grace of God. Though Paul is writing to the whole congregation at Corinth, he indicates that planning how to give is an individual responsibility: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). God is involved with each of us as we pray and think how we might be a blessing to others with our money. When we give intentionally, freely, trustingly, we are never more like God’s Son—and God loves it.
When we give intentionally, freely, trustingly, we are never more like God’s Son—and God loves it.
Part of the plannedness of giving is the need for accountability and integrity in those agents who receive Christian giving. The apostle takes pains to show that the method and manner of the collection is completely above board. He puts a distance between himself and the physical money handling, and introduces the key players who will make the collection and transport it to Jerusalem. In fact, Paul points to the spiritual qualifications of those commissioned to handle the money so that they will not only do what is right but will be seen to do what is right. Since the grace of God does not stop when the gift is given, but follows the gift with blessing, every Christian organization needs integrity in handling money. Protocols are not just for auditing compliance (though that is important), but for the glory of God. (9)
In the next post, we will look at the seventh touchstone — Proportionate Giving.
(1) J. I. Packer, Weakness Is the Way (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 55–88.
(2) Ibid., 64.
(3) Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 121.
(4) Gay, Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 89.
(5) Scott Hafemann, NIV Application Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 343.
(6) Warren W. Wiersbe, in Be Encouraged (2 Corinthians): God Can Turn Your Trials into Triumphs (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010), 104, says, “Grace giving must come from a willing heart; it cannot be coerced or forced. During my years of ministry, I have endured many offering appeals. I have listened to pathetic tales about unbelievable needs. I have forced myself to laugh at old jokes that were supposed to make it easier for me to part with my money. I have been scolded, shamed, and almost threatened, and I must confess that none of these approaches has ever really stirred me to give more than I planned to give. In fact, more than once I gave less because I was so disgusted with the worldly approach. (However, I have never gotten like Mark Twain, who said that he was so sickened by the long appeal that he not only did not give what he had planned to give, but he also took a bill out of the plate!)”
(7) Ellul, Money and Power, 53.
(8) “Planned giving” is often used to refer to what one gives in their will when they die—a very good thing to do. That is not the way I am using it.
(9) See 2 Cor. 8:19.