The Christian life is a gospel-centered and grace driven life. Or at least it should be. Gospel-centered and grace driven is one way to describe the normal Christian life. Paul described it like this, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died.” (2 Corinthians 5:14) Paul’s gospel centeredness (one has died for all, therefore all have died) resulted in his being grace driven (the love of Christ controls us). If anyone understood grace and the many ways it spills over into all of life, it was Paul. Paul understood the radical nature of grace, the freedom it brings, and how it can turn everything in our lives upside down. Or as one author put it, grace messes up your hair.
An area where grace hits close to home is in our giving. We get uneasy when someone starts talking about giving. We start to squirm. You might be getting uneasy just reading this. But humor me for a minute and keep reading. I think one reason we get uneasy (and there are many reasons we do) is because we bring misconceptions to the discussion when we talk about giving. We’ve all heard our share of guilt-ridden and duty-ridden sermons on the subject of giving. Take heart. I’m just as tired of hearing those as you are! It seems that even good, gospel-centered folk are prone to wander when it comes to giving. Some are prone to wander away from the grace of giving into the deceptive minefield of law, duty, and guilt. In some ways, there seems to be a grace disconnect when the topic is giving. But like anything else in my Christian life, giving is a matter of grace – grace that flows from the gospel, not guilt or duty. Paul called giving an act of grace. He told the Corinthians,
But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. (2 Corinthians 8:7)
Giving is an act of grace, not duty. It’s an act of the heart. That means that giving is gospel-centered and gospel-driven, not duty, guilt, or law-driven. Giving has its eyes on Jesus plus nothing. In the same passage of Scripture, Paul said,
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. (2 Corinthians 8:1-5)
The Macedonians were generous! But their generosity wasn’t tied to what they had. It wasn’t tied to their circumstances. They were poor. They lived in poverty and in some sort of severe affliction. It was in this context that their joy exploded when presented with an opportunity to give and they begged Paul for a chance to participate in the relief of others. They begged him for an opportunity to give.
But as amazing as that is, and as much as it stirs my own heart to action and to want to give like they did, their giving isn’t the main point. Their giving is an indication of the main point which is that they “gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” Grace targets my heart, not my pocketbook. And because grace targets my heart, I draw near to God through Jesus and my motivations change. Grace transforms me and rocks my world with other world thinking that changes the way I think about everything, including giving. Grace messes up my hair (or what’s left of it!) in the way I think about everything and it frees me to be generous and give freely, not by compulsion, guilt, or law. In fact, any time we sprinkle the tiniest bit of law on grace, grace ceases to be grace and I start giving out of compulsion or guilt instead of giving myself first to the Lord, and then to others, by the will of God. When that happens, the grace of giving becomes the duty of giving and I lose my joy.
What About Tithing?
I once heard a sermon preached on giving where the speaker referenced Matthew 23 which says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:23-24)
It was reasoned that because Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for neglecting the weightier matters of the law (justice, mercy, and faithfulness) without rebuking them for tithing, that tithing was implied for us as a minimum starting point. But God doesn’t command us by implication. The commands of God in Scripture are very clear and we’re not left to guesswork or second guessing his moral will for us. Scripture doesn’t employ a passive-aggressive posture to get us to obey God. Second, such a statement amounts to what I’m assuming is an unintentional attempt to bind a law that is hostile to the church and because of that, has been abolished by the cross work of Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-22, 2 Corinthians 3:2-18), on the conscience of a believer today. This type of declaration moves us away from giving as a grace and into giving by compulsion, duty, and law, something Paul takes issue with.
Paul’s instructions on giving were simple:
Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
There is no minimum and there is no maximum because that misses the point. Grace has no minimum and no maximum. Grace captivates our hearts and transforms us into a giving people who love to share. The amount’s not important; the condition of my heart is. Do you think the Macedonians tithed to Paul? I don’t know, but I doubt it because Paul didn’t instruct them to. The percentage that they gave isn’t important because like everything else in the Christian life, having grace capture your heart is. Our eagerness to share with others in need is a direct indicator of the extent to which Jesus has captured our hearts and we’ve given ourselves first to him. And that looks different for each of us. There is no one-size-fits-all cookie cutter mold that makes us all look the same in our giving because grace messes up our hair and gives us radical freedom in our giving just like it does in every other area of our lives. We seem to act like grace ceases when it comes to giving and that we need a little bit of law in giving or things will get out of hand. But grace liberates me to give radically and joyfully because that’s how grace works.
Paul knew the Old Covenant law inside and out (Philippians 3:2-11). Had he wanted to give the Corinthian churches a rule or law about tithing, he certainly could have. But he didn’t. Instead, he gave them this instruction,
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 Corinthians 16:1-2)
I fear that even though we understand grace in so many other areas of our lives, we tend to often miss grace when it comes to giving and we tend to substitute or supplement it with some sort of law. I’m not sure why we do this. Maybe grace scares us when it comes to money because grace can be so unpredictable. Perhaps we’re a little insecure when it comes to mixing money with grace. If we make our living from the gospel and depend on giving for our income, perhaps we tremble a little at telling people grace liberates them in their giving. But Jesus wants us to excel in this grace of giving and we can’t do that without losing ourselves in his amazing grace, just like any other area of our lives. If you are a pastor, free your people to excel in the grace of giving.
I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. 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. (2 Corinthians 8:8-9)