Grace as Guidance for Giving
Under the law of Moses, the tithe was first and a tenth of everything. The tithe was taken from the first fruits (see, for example, 2 Chron. 31:5-6). It was therefore an act of faith, trusting that God would bring in the fullness of the harvest or herd needed to survive (see the “test” of Mal. 3:10). It was also a tenth (see, for example, Leviticus 27:30-32). There was no such thing as “tithing 7% or 2%” of your crops or cattle. If you didn’t bring in the full 10% you were robbing God (Mal. 3:8-9) since the tithe was holy to the Lord. And the tithe was a tenth of everything – grain, wine, oil, flocks (Deut. 14:23). So the Mosaic law commanded the people of God to bring the first tenth of everything as their tithe to honor Him as their Provider, to teach them the fear of the Lord, and to provide for the priests, aliens, orphans, and widows (Deut. 26:12).
There is no indication that the tithe has been brought over into the New Testament. The indication, rather, is that the Law has been fulfilled, and thus ended, in Christ (Matt. 5:17-19; Rm. 10:4). So New Testament saints are not under the Law of Moses, but are under the Law of Christ (I Cor. 9:21; Gal 6:2). This does not mean that the moral law of God has changed or has been broken. Rather, it means that the Mosaic Law was a temporal expression of God’s eternal moral law suited for its specific purpose. That purpose (to bind all alike under sin and lead to Christ, Gal 3) has been accomplished in Jesus. Therefore that law (all of it, not just the ceremonial and civil sections) has been superseded by Christ. The new expression of the eternal law of God is not found for NT believers by looking to Moses, but by looking to Christ.
The implications this carries for our giving are wide and deep. To begin, it means we can do away with the language of “tithing” to describe our financial offerings. If the statistics are to be believed, the average American family gives between 1-2% of their income to the church. This very well may indicate a massive problem at the heart level, since what we do with our money reveals the true direction and intensity of our affection (Matt. 6:19-24). But the way to address any underlying issues is not to hold up a biblical mandate of “10%”, as convenient as that would be.
Instead, and this is our second implication, we need to discern gospel (NT) principles that should govern our financial stewardship. To do away with “tithing” does not mean Jesus doesn’t care what we do with our money! In fact, the law of Christ may have more to say about the way we steward our resources than the law of Moses (Randy Alcorn has some helpful resources on this). Again, to say that we are under grace and not under law does not mean that our money is our own, or that giving is optional. It means that our giving must reflect the grace of God in Christ, and be in alignment with His law. What follows are several of the more evident NT principles from Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church that guide our giving:
(A) In 1 Corinthians 16:2 Paul writes: On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper. I see three principles here.
1. First, Paul says every week. There is an aspect of discipline to our giving. We don’t give when we think about it, or in a rush of emotion. We prepare. We plan. We give on purpose! Giving is a spiritual discipline.
2. Second, Paul says each of you. There is a comprehensiveness to our giving. It is not the case the some give and others opt out, or are not able to. Everyone gives.
3. Third, Paul says as he may prosper. So there is a proportionality to our giving. We don’t always give the same amount: as each other, or as we did last month. We give as we can. I have heard it remarked many times that NT believers will end up giving more than a tithe because of who they know their God to be, what He has done, and what He will do. If that is true, it will be because when God prospers us, we don’t absorb it as a bounce into our standard of living, but use it to raise our standard of giving.
So according to I Corinthians 16, everyone in the church practices the spiritual discipline of giving as they are prospered by the Lord.
(B) In 2 Corinthians 9:5 Paul picks back up on this theme: So that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an extraction. The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. Paul describes our giving in these five ways: willfully, sacrificially, personally, bountifully, and cheerfully.
1. Willfully means that there is no compulsion (like a standard of 10%!). We give because we chose to give. We give because we want to. This is how confident Paul was in the ability of Jesus to capture our affection and connect it with our obedience. We don’t give unless we want to give!
2. Sacrificially means there is cost. This is impossible to understand apart from a heart overwhelmed by grace! Believers choose to give, and they give at great cost. We see this dynamic with the Macedonian believers in 2 Cor. 8:2-3 who in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own free will. Notice that their will isn’t being manipulated, yet they gave beyond their means. A wealth of generosity willfully erupted out of extreme poverty. This closes the door on the idea of donating only our “discretionary” funds. And it opens giving as a door to worship.
3. Personally means that we don’t set our number by comparing notes with our neighbor. Remember Jesus’ words in Matt 6 that our giving is not to get us in good with God, nor is it to demonstrate our superior spirituality over our brother. It is between us and God.
4. Bountifully means that we give as much as we can. This does not mean that we give irresponsibly. 2 Cor. 9:10 distinguishes between resources that are “bread” provided to sustain the life of your family, and resources that are “seed” meant for sowing unto the harvest. If you sow your bread, you die! If you hoard your seed, you dishonor God and you diminish the harvest. So here is the paradox of grace! Our giving is not reluctant, but it also takes reciprocity into account. We reap what we sow. So, we give as much as we can, and we are alway asking the Lord to enable us to give more.
5. Cheerfully means that our emotional focus in giving is on all we have gained in God. The reason God loves a cheerful giver is because God loves His own glory. And when we rejoice to give sacrificial, costly, willful, bountiful gifts we are testifying that the value of what we have received in the gospel is of greater worth than all we are losing. We are manifestly trusting God to provide us with greater pleasure and power and help and strength that the money we gave away could otherwise have provided us with.
These eight principles certainly do not exhaust what the law of Christ has to say about our money. (For example, if Jesus, James and Paul agree that loving God and our neighbor is a fulfillment of the law, then this overarching principles lays claim to our finances as well. Our giving is to be relational – an expression of love for God and others.) But it is a beginning. Let’s keep thinking about these things together. And as you do, remember to resist the temptation to create another law! Laws make obedience so much easier, but they can also make it facile and disconnected from the heart. Jesus is pursuing your affections in your financial decisions! The way His law guides you will reflect that.