The Gift of Giving

Original Date: 
Sunday, January 14, 2018

2 Corinthians 8:1-9 The Grace of Giving: The Gift of Giving

Here’s a word that will be new to many of you: Kirchensteuer. It’s a German word, and it means church tax.

In Germany, they still have a Kirchensteuer, and it is very controversial.

The church tax works like this: back in the 19th Century most European countries still had official, state sponsored churches. This meant churches derived some of their income directly from the government. In the interest of freedom of religion, the 19th Century saw the end of state sponsored churches—that is to say, you were no longer required to belong to a particular church just because you lived in that state. But churches were worried about the loss of income, so the Kirchensteuer was created. The New York Times puts it like this:

Like many European countries, Germany’s churches are independent but function in partnership with the state, which collects taxes from members of established religions and then funnels the revenues back to the religious institutions, for a fee.

Basically, if you were baptized into the Catholic Church, then a portion of what you pay in taxes (about 8 to 9 percent of your total tax bill) is funneled by the government to the Catholic Church. If you were baptized Protestant, then a portion of your tax bill is funneled to the Protestant Church. Approximately 1/3 of Germany is Catholic, and another 1/3 are Protestant. In 2013 the German government collected $13.2 billion for churches.

The ramifications of the Kirchensteuer are many, but two things stand out.

For one, this external source of revenue makes it possible for German churches to continue to exist without doing much relevant ministry. They have big, beautiful church buildings, but little actual church attendance. Churches can go right on functioning when the people are spiritually dead and gone.

In any given district, a church might have as many as 10,000 people listed on the membership roll. Except for the children and retired and disabled, all of these people pay the Kirchensteuer. That means the building is preserved, the staff is paid, the free organ recitals are given, sermons are preached, marriages and funerals are performed, and so on. But, on any given Sunday, all you are likely to find at worship are about 60 older women, a handful of older men, and no young people--out of a membership of 10,000!

One website on German Culture says this:

Even when Germans view themselves as religious, that doesn’t mean they attend church very often. Partly this is because churches in Germany generally lack the sociable aspects of church attendance seen in North America. Although there are some exceptions, church services in Europe tend to be more ritual and ceremony, and less social community. Many Germans only see the inside of a church at Easter or Christmas, or for a wedding or a funeral – and often not even then.

There is no correlation between the presence of the Spirit and the presence of the Deutschmark; there is no correlation between spiritual vitality and material solvency.

The other ramification of the Kirchensteuer is that more and more Germans are renouncing their faith. As I said, if they are baptized into the church, they pay the tax. The only way to stop paying the tax is to make a formal declaration renouncing your membership in the church.

In 2012 a German High Court ruled that it is a matter of religious freedom to end one’s membership in the church. Many have chosen to give up their formal membership but still attend services when it suits them. As a result, the Catholic Church in Germany has declared that:

a member who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to receive communion or make confession, to serve as godparents or to hold any office in the church. Those who leave can also be refused a Christian burial, unless they “give some sign of repentance.” (NY Times article cited above)

What can we say to such a system? What can we say about a church which continues to function (and even prosper) long after the people have stopped participating? What can we say when people are refused religious services unless they pay up?

Obviously, we recoil at the notion that the government could just take a tax out of our paycheck to support a church whether we participate in that church or not. It cuts across the grain of one of our most fundamental rights: the freedom of religion.

But more than that, we know instinctively that Christian giving isn't supposed to work that way. We know that giving isn't supposed to be some legislated rule. We saw last week that we are motivated to give not because of some command but because Jesus has given so much to us. We know that by its very definition, "Christian giving" is supposed to be a matter of freewill.
And so, if that is not a good model for Christian giving, what is? Having asked the specific question: "Why give?" last week, this week we need to turn to the more general question: "What is giving?"

Our scripture text for today is the same passage we read last week: 2 Corinthians 8:1-9. We are spending these first few weeks of 2018 doing a series on Christian giving, called “The Grace of Giving” and we’ll be spending our time in these two chapters: 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.

Last week, we focused in on one verse: 2 Corinthians 8:9. Now, today, we’re going to go back and look more closely at the beginning of the passage, where Paul reports on what has taken place in the Macedonian churches and gives some thoughts on what is involved with Christian giving.

In fact, as we work our way through the passage, we are going to find no less than 5 insights into the nature of Christian giving. 5 interrelated answers to the question: "What is giving?" And we are going to find that the Biblical idea of giving is far different than that of the Kirchensteuer.

Grace that God has Given
The first thing we learn is that Christian Giving is a gift from God. Christian giving is a result of a work of God's grace in a believer's life. Verse 1:

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.

Let me remind you of the situation. Paul is in the middle of a fund-raising drive for the Christians in Jerusalem. There has been some famine in Jerusalem. Many people who became Christ-followers came from other lands but have decided to stay in Jerusalem. There has been persecution. The believers there have been hard-pressed and so Paul is making a circuit of the churches he has helped to start and encouraging them to contribute to the support of their brothers and sisters in Christ.

We saw last week that he let the Corinthians know about this offering about a year earlier, and now he is on his way back to Corinth to collect what they have promised. To prepare the way, then, he is sending this letter ahead with Titus to remind the folks of Corinth about the offering and to let them know what is happening in the churches he is currently visiting.

And those churches would be the Macedonian churches. I showed you a map of the eastern Mediterranean last week, so you could get a sense of where Jerusalem and Corinth were. This map is a little more focused on the peninsula of Greece. Corinth is to more to the south, in what was known as Achaia, while the area known as Macedonia is to the north. The churches Paul started in Macedonia are in Philippi, Thessalonika, and Berea. So Paul is up there, he’s heading down to Corinth, and the first thing he wants the Corinthians to know about is the “grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.”

Grace, of course, is a major word in the New Testament. We know that in its most specific sense, "grace" refers to the undeserved gift of salvation given to us when Jesus came to earth and died for our sins. That's what we looked at last week in verse 9: “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 through his poverty might become rich.”

But the word grace doesn't always refer specifically to the gift of Jesus Christ, it can also be used to talk about other gifts given by God to his people. Thus, when we talk about the specific talents and abilities that God gives to Christians--what we call "spiritual gifts"--the Bible can talk about them as "grace" from God (cf. Eph. 4:7).

It is apparently in this more general sense that Paul is using the word in 2 Corinthians 8:1. He wants us to know about the "grace that God has given the Macedonian churches" and then he goes on to talk about their support of his fund-raising project. In other words, he is saying that Christian giving is a gift from God. That the opportunity, the ability, and the willingness to give are all a result of the working of God's grace in the lives of these Christians.

This is so remarkable, I don't want you to miss it: Giving is not some distasteful obligation that must be carried out in order to keep the church going. It is not a forced activity that we have to be brow-beaten into carrying out. It is a great blessing that God graciously gives us the opportunity to participate in. It is a gift from Him! He gives us the opportunity to give, He gives us the ability to give, He gives us the willingness to give. It all comes from Him. It is all an act of His grace!

At least, that's the way the Macedonians saw it. Look at the incredible words Paul uses to describe them in verse 4:

4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

When is the last time you "urgently pleaded" for the opportunity to give your money to the church? When is the last time you thought of it as a "privilege" to put your offering in the collection basket?

And yet, when you see that Christian giving is a gift of God, that's what you will do. You will see that you have an opportunity to participate in the things that God is doing in the world and like the Macedonians you will urgently plead for the privilege of being a part of it.

So, the first thing we learn about Christian giving is that it is a gift of God. The second thing we learn is closely connected:

Overflowing Joy
Christian giving is a result of joy. Truly Christian giving flows out of the great joy we have has followers of Jesus Christ. Verses 2-3:

2 In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own,

Sometimes our attitude toward Christian giving is to wait and see if we have any extra cash lying around. But the Bible nowhere suggests that we should give only when we are having a particularly successful year. And the prime example of this is the Macedonian churches.

Look at the way Paul describes them: they are in the middle of "the most severe trial," they are experiencing "extreme poverty". We don’t know the details, but it doesn’t sound like they are flush with cash.

Surely, they could have told Paul: "Times are kind of tough right now, maybe we will wait until next year to give." They could have said, "We're not sure what the future holds, maybe we should just save up." They could have taken a "poor me" attitude and begged out of this offering.

In fact, you sort of get the idea that that's what Paul expected them to do, why would they have had to "urgently plead" unless Paul was telling them that perhaps they should sit this one out? But they don’t want to sit this offering out. Instead they give "as much as they [are] able, and even beyond their ability" (v. 3). They well "up in rich generosity."

Where does this kind of giving come from? If they don't have the extra money to give away, where do they get this incredible desire to give? The answer, Paul says, is joy. Do you see that in verse 2? It is their "overflowing joy" combined, amazingly, with their "extreme poverty" that wells up in rich generosity.

It is as though, Paul is saying, they have this underground holding tank full of joy and it is so full that it is bubbling over in this great spring which rushes like a mighty river right to the feet of the suffering Christians in Jerusalem.

And where does that joy come from? Again, it is the grace of God. It is the transforming work that God is doing in their lives. This is what we looked at last week--it is the abundant joy that comes from the cosmic transfer of wealth that took place when Jesus earned their salvation.

They may not be materially rich, but they have the riches of heaven and it is out of the joy that comes from those riches that they are able to give. Indeed, the force of this joy is so great that they cannot be prevented from giving.

Gave Themselves First to the Lord
So, Christian giving is a gift from God and it is the result of joy. The third insight Paul gives us into the nature of Christian giving is that it is an act of worship. Christian giving is a means of worshipping God. Verses 5 and 6:

5 And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. 6 So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part.

In the Biblical model of giving, the taking up of an offering is not just a means of paying the bills. In fact, that doesn't have much to do with it at all. Meeting expenses is just a secondary effect of Christian giving.

The first, and primary effect, is the giving of worship to God. That's what Paul means when he says the Macedonians "gave themselves first to the Lord." Before they ever gave a cent, they gave themselves. Thus, when they do give their money, it is a part of their worship of God.

Pastor John MacArthur writes:

When we praise God and honor His name we are worshipping Him, but the Lord is most pleased when we worship Him by unreservedly offering ourselves. That's the beginning of genuine worship. Once you've unselfishly yielded up to God everything you are... the giving of everything you have will follow. And that will include being totally free from the materialistic world that enslaves people's thinking and keeps them from giving as they ought. All that happens only as you allow the Spirit to renew your mind, and as you become obedient to God in every area of life, including giving (cf. Rom. 12:2). (Whose Money is it, Anyway? p. 91)

This is one of the reasons we include the taking up of an offering in our weekly worship services. It is a part of our worship to God to bring our gifts and contributions joyfully to church. I know some churches just put an offering box in the back, because they don’t want to be all about money. But I think it is important that we see that offering as a part of our worship.

And by the way, and I am probably going to get in trouble with the Deacons for saying this, this is one of the reasons Beth and I do not do direct deposit for our offerings. Now—I need to be careful here. The church offers the option of having your offering automatically withdrawn from your bank account. It’s called ACH. Several of the families in our church who spend part of the year in the south make their offerings that way. Several of you do it as well. It’s a very disciplined way to give. You have to make a very prayerful decision about how much you are going to give and then you will continue to give that amount until you make a change. The Deacons like it because it is very easy to give an accurate report on your giving. So there is a lot to commend about ACH.

But for Beth and I; we don’t do it. Because there is something about that decision to write a check each time we get paid, and to put it in the giving envelope, and then bring it to church. It’s a reminder of how much we are grateful to God. It’s a chance to make that commitment again each time we do it. It is a part of our worship.

So I’m not saying you shouldn’t do a direct deposit. But if you do, I want to encourage you to find a way to make it worshipful. Maybe it’s when you record the withdrawal in your check register. Maybe it’s reminding yourself of what you are giving when the rest of us are passing the basket. Maybe it happens when you talk with your spouse each year about how much that amount is going to be.

But make it worshipful. The primary purpose of our giving is not to meet expenses, but to give glory to God.

Christian giving is a gift from God, the result of joy, and an act of worship. The fourth thing we learn is that Christian giving is something we can improve at. Christian giving is something we can get better at. Verse 7:

7 But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

The word that stands out to me here is the word "excel." In the original language, it is the same word that is translated "overflowing" when Paul is talking about the Macedonians' joy in verse 2. The sense is that the Corinthians also can overflow in their giving--that they can excel at it. That is to say, Christian giving is something they can get better at.

This is not to imply that the Corinthians are bad givers. But like so many other areas of the Christian life, there is always room for improvement. Paul notes several areas where the Corinthians have already shown great growth--in their faith, in the way they talk, in their knowledge of the Lord, in their earnestness, and in their love--and now he urges them to grow in their practice of giving.

The point, I think, is that none of us is locked in as a giver. Whatever your giving habits are, you can grow in them. You can make it a goal to become a better giver. Thus, if you don't currently give anything, you can challenge yourself to start giving something. If your giving is hit and miss, you can challenge yourself to give under a regular pattern. If you give 5% of your income, you can challenge yourself to start giving 6%. If you give 15%, maybe you can stretch yourself to 20.

Just like you can grow and excel in your knowledge of the Lord, or in your love for the church, you can also grow and excel in your giving

I Am Not Commanding You
And then, fifth and finally, Christian giving is voluntary. Christian giving is a matter of choice. Verses 8-9:

8 I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9 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 through his poverty might become rich.

Paul makes a point here of saying that his invitation to the Corinthians to give is not a command.

He’s an apostle of Jesus. He’s in position to issue commands from God. But this isn’t one of them. He wants the Corinthians to be generous, he’s encouraging their generosity, but he is not commanding it.

Later, in chapter 9, verse 7, he says that “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion.” Christian giving is a personal choice. It’s freewill. It’s voluntary.

“Now, wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “What about the tithe? Doesn’t the Bible say that we are all supposed to tithe? Isn’t that a command?”

Well, that’s interesting. The Old Testament of the Bible does talk about tithing—that is, giving the first 10% of your income to God. In fact, the people of Israel were commanded to participate in three different tithes: the Levitical Tithe, the Festival Tithe, and the Charity Tithe. The Levitical Tithe was a 10% annual donation to support the Temple and the Levites who cared for it. The Festival Tithe was 10% of their income that was supposed to be used celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (so they were actually supposed to eat that tithe themselves). And the Charity Tithe was a 10% donation made every third and sixth year out of 7 to support orphans and widows. So, technically, Israelites in the Old Testament were commanded to give approximately 23% of their income (though some of it was spent for them to enjoy a celebration) and it was much closer to a tax than to an offering.

But we believe that most of the ceremonial and civic laws of the Old Testament found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Plus, our society does not function the same way the theocracy of Israel functioned. Nowhere in the pages of the New Testament is tithing commanded, and most New Testament scholars agree that the Old Testament laws about tithing do not apply to New Testament believers.

So, even though you have probably heard about tithing in the church, it is not a command.

That’s not to say that 10% is a bad place to be in your giving. Beth and I begin our giving plan every year with 10% of my salary back to the church, and then we have additional things after that. If 10% was a starting point for believers under the Old Covenant, we New Covenant believers ought to be able to do just as well. But no, it is not a command.

We don't have a Kirchensteuer, we don't send bills to our church members. Our motivation in giving is not mechanical obedience to some sterile command but the precedent set for us by Jesus and His great grace to us.

Paul isn't interested in limiting our giving by setting some standard amount which everyone is required to give--rather, he wants our giving to flow freely and voluntarily out of our joy and the "sincerity of our love."

There is no compulsion in true, Christian giving. It is voluntary.

In Summation
And so, we have 5 insights into the nature of Christian giving. Christian giving is a gift of God, a result of joy, an act of worship, an area for growth, and a voluntary choice.
The question, then, is whether or not you see it that way:

Have you experienced this grace of God? Do you see your giving as an opportunity to share in the privilege of what God is doing in the world?

Do you overflow with joy over what God has done for you? Do you rejoice in the riches Christ has won for you and do you long to share that joy with others?
How about worship? Have you committed your "whole-life" to the Lord? Do you give as way of glorifying Him?

Are you growing as a giver? Are you challenging yourself to excel in the practice of giving, or do you content yourself to just give the same amount you've always given?
And do you see giving as a voluntary choice?

Christians are not under compulsion. We don't have a Kirchensteuer. Our giving is a voluntary choice, it is a gift from God. Give joyfully then. Give in worship.