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
Money is a profoundly spiritual reality. God does not want our money, nor does he need it. In fact, it is not ours anyway, since it belongs to God. When the Bible deals with money, it does not look at money from a monetary point of view; its central concern is not how we make it, how much we have, or even how we spend it, important though those issues are. Rather, it is a matter of worship. While money is not strictly good or evil, it is most certainly not neutral. It exercises a spiritual power, claiming our worship, promising happiness and blessing, justification, salvation, and redemption— all completely without God, or at least by displacing God from the centre.
"Money is a profoundly spiritual reality."
The central two chapters of the apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians is perhaps the fullest treatment of money in the New Testament. The apostle is making a financial collection for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, a gift of monumental spiritual significance. Twelve months have passed since the wealthy Corinthian church agreed to make a contribution, but things are stalled. New teachers have entered the church at Corinth bringing an early form of the prosperity gospel. In response, the apostle does not manipulate the Corinthians with moving pictures of destitution and poverty, nor does he set them a target amount based on a financial formula. Instead of calculation or manipulation, the apostle points them to the freeness of God’s grace.
Grace is the heartbeat of 2 Corinthians 8–9. When we think about money, God’s grace is the first and last thing we must say, and Paul frames these chapters by beginning and ending with it. The first sentence (8:1) is best translated: “Brothers and sisters, we want you to know the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” It does not say “know about the grace of God,” but “know God’s grace” in their experience, changing them in concrete ways, specifically to do with money. It is only the experience of the grace of God that begins, sustains, and deepens genuine Christian generosity. And it is through generosity that we experience more grace.
From the start Paul’s aim is not to shake down the Corinthians to raise a certain amount of cash for the collection, but for them to draw on the joy of God, to know Christ and become like Christ, to know the grace of God. So the apostle presents two examples of how grace works. The greatest example is Jesus Christ himself, the embodiment of giving and grace. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 the apostle writes: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor so that you by his poverty might become rich” (3).
The original context for this favourite Christmas text is giving money. None could be richer than Jesus himself. Eternally secure in glory and in the Father’s love, all creation was made through him and for him. He dwelled in unimaginable wealth. Out of sheer grace, Jesus gave away more than we could imagine, entering his creation for us as a baby, willingly giving himself over to misrepresentation, rejection, suffering, and death. He did this for our sake so that we might become rich through his poverty. Grace is willingly giving up what is ours by right. Grace is grace because it is not bought but given freely. We receive from Christ what is vastly beyond our ability to pay, and he gives gladly and joyfully, even to death.
"Out of sheer grace, Jesus gave away more than we could imagine..."
Craig Gay points out that money converts all things into objects, emptying them of meaning and purpose (4). So money approaches a beautiful painting and calculates its worth in dollar values, draining its history, beauty, and provenance into a financial calculation. Everything money touches becomes “objectified”: houses, holidays, and happiness are transformed by a strange alchemy into dollar values. We even speak of a person’s “net worth.”
Grace works in the opposite direction. While not naïve about money, grace is the power of giving away. It fills the things it touches with the meaning of “giftedness.” Life itself, and all the things of life, are seen as gifts, not grey calculations. Life is a gift to be fulfilled and increased by being given away. This floods our actions with surplus meaning, kindness, and freedom. And it opens us to the pain of love. Jacques Ellul writes that God does not obey the law of money—but the law of giving. Speaking of the kingdom of God he states:
In the new world we are entering, nothing is for sale; everything is given away. The mark of the world of money is the exact opposite of the mark of God’s world where everything is free, where giving is the normal way to act . . . dictated by grace . . . the love created by money and selling is the exact opposite of the love created by grace and giving (5).
God only submitted himself to selling once, when he agreed to pay the price of our redemption. Jesus became the object of a money relationship and was sold for thirty pieces of silver—“the Son of God was turned into merchandise” for us (6). Christians give because Jesus gave.
Grace is central. Our finances and resources are not just the gifts of grace to us but the means of God’s grace through us to others as well. It is God’s grace we experience in giving. From here the apostle becomes dangerously practical by showing what the grace of God looks like financially in the lives of ordinary Christians under very difficult circumstances.
Next time we will turn to the second and lesser example of grace: the churches in Macedonia (7).
(1) J. I. Packer, Weakness Is the Way (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 55–88.
(2) Ibid., 64.
(3) Scripture quotations are taken from the ESV, unless otherwise noted.
(4) Craig M. Gay, Cash Values: Money and the Erosion of Meaning in Today’s Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 48–72.
(5) Jacques Ellul, Money and Power, trans. LaVonne Neff (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), 88.
(6) Ibid., 79.
(7) North of Greece, “the Macedonians” included the churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea.