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

—Read Part 2—

Part 3:

By now it is clear why the apostle avoids naming a target amount he expects the Corinthians to give. If we are to give out of the experience of grace, according to the touchstones, how much should we give? Paul does not leave the Corinthians without any guidance here since he articulates the seventh touchstone: grace giving should be proportionate. This is unsatisfying to many Christian authors who have appealed to two Old Testament practices, tithing and offering of first fruits, to answer the question of how much we should give to please God.

The first Old Testament practice is that of tithing, giving 10 percent of one’s income to the work of God, commanded by God for Israel and earlier practiced by the patriarchs. While there were other obligations to God (paying for certain sacrifices, free will offerings, the upkeep of the Levites, festivals, etc.), to not tithe was to rob God. Many mature Christians over the centuries have welcomed this as a guiding principle for their own giving. The natural danger of tithing is to think of one’s giving as a kind of tax. So when you have given 10 percent, you imagine you have fulfilled your financial obligation to God and the rest belongs to you to spend selfishly. Depending on the stage of life of conversion, tithing may be asking too much or too little. Packer writes: “It may be a good idea to practice tithing as a crutch until we get used to giving larger sums than we gave before, but then we should look forward to leaving the crutch behind because now we will have formed the Christian habit of giving more than 10 percent.” [3]

The second Old Testament practice appealed to by Christians today is giving the first fruits to God. In Deuteronomy 26 the Lord directs the care of the land that Israel will possess. God commands his people to give, not just at the end of harvest but at the start of harvest: the first fruits. This is an act of faith in God because the farmer does not know what the total harvest will be at the beginning of the harvest. It is testimony to the fact that God gave the land, the sun, the rain, and the growth, and that all things belong to God. Giving the first and the best is not giving what we can afford, what is surplus, but is actively trusting God to provide. This is widely applied today, particularly to those who do not know at the start of the year how much they will earn.

Yet it is striking that the apostle does not appeal to the Old Testament principles of tithing or first fruits. Indeed, while there is nothing in the New Testament against tithing, it is never commanded or taught. More, it is possible to draw the wrong inference from Paul’s two illustrations of grace: the Macedonians who gave beyond their ability and Jesus Christ, who gave his life over to death. The apostle does not call the Corinthians to impoverish themselves but to give proportionately. God does not expect us to give what we do not have, but “out of what you have,” “according to what a person has,” “not according to what [she] does not have” (2 Cor. 8:11–12). When we give proportionally, we please God. The beauty of this is that every single Christian can participate in the grace of giving, irrespective of income. No one is too poor to give; no one is too wealthy to give. Naturally, the greater our wealth, the greater our responsibility to give and the greater the proportion. We acquire no merit either by the amount or by the proportion of our gifts, but we can please our heavenly Father.

The beauty of this is that every single Christian can participate in the grace of giving, irrespective of income.

Paul extends this touchstone of proportionality by twice referring to fairness/equality in giving. This cannot mean an absolute financial equality, otherwise there would need to be a system of equalizing payments between the churches. Instead Paul appeals to the great equalizing miracle of God, when God gave manna from heaven to his people in the wilderness. He appeals to Exodus 16, “As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (2 Cor. 8:13–15; Exod. 16:8).

Exodus 16 takes place only two months after God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, and already they are grumbling and complaining about their food in the desert. they accuse Moses of having genocidal motives toward them and demand to be taken back to Egypt. But the Lord is very kind, and promises to send down bread from heaven—with a caveat: that they can only collect a single day’s portion (or two before each Sabbath), and any attempt to stockpile or hoard the manna would result in a wormy rancid mess. The Lord states that it is a test to see if they will trust and obey him daily: Eat it today, so that you will know I am the Lord (16:12, 25).

This is not a picture of how money works, it is a picture of how grace works; how God’s giving connects to our receiving and how we need the grace of God if we will truly give. God does not give us enough grace for tomorrow but exactly what we need for today, so that we will know he is the Lord. He sends his grace directly from heaven as a gift, so that our deepest needs are satisfied; and somedays we need more than others. It is out of this supply of grace from God that we give and share ourselves and our resources. Like manna, God supplies us with grace, and we have to gather it up and use it. This is what the apostle means by “equality.” God is weaning us from our anxious dependence on other things to depend on him, and the sign of this is to give generously. Generous and proportional giving comes from a heart convinced God’s grace is enough.

It is out of this supply of grace from God that we give and share ourselves and our resources.

Each of the seven touchstones arise from the grace of God at work in our giving. This is very good news since none of us gives away money or ourselves with perfectly pure motives. We may be aware of something of the genuineness of God’s grace at work in our giving, but each of the seven touchstones are a challenge. We long for Jesus’s approval and commendation, aware of our deep lust for money and our joylessness. In 2 Corinthians 8:12 the apostle writes that if the readiness is there, it is acceptable. “Acceptable” is a colourless way of expressing what is fully pleasing to God. It is by grace that we receive, it is by grace that we give, and it is only by grace that our gifts and our giving please God. It pleases God as a sweet offering of ourselves, and it has remarkable effects. 

[1] J. I. Packer, Weakness Is the Way (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 55–88.
[2] Ibid., 64.
[3] Packer, Weakness Is the Way, 78.