On the back of our Dream Series, I wanted us to look at two areas of Christian life that are essential for the fulfilling of our dreams as a church. The first is prayer, and we looked at that last week. The second is financial giving or generosity which is our subject for this week.
You may remember me saying that we’ve made the decision at City Hill to preach on giving twice a year; that’s because we don’t want on one hand to fall into the trap of talking about money all the time and on the other hand, to neglect the subject completely. The late Richard Halverson (Chaplain of the U.S. Senate 1981 – 1994) is quoted as saying.
Jesus Christ said more about money than about any other single thing because, when it comes to a man’s real nature, money is of first importance. Money is an exact index to a man’s true character. All through Scripture there is an intimate correlation between the development of a man’s character and how he handles his money.
It’s an uncomfortable observation, but one that I’d be inclined to agree wholeheartedly with. It’s a known fact that many both inside and outside the church are suspicious of the church’s motives when it comes to preaching on money – and sadly with good reason. However, abuse of Scripture must never be replaced by non-use; what we must strive for is correct use; and that’s what I hope to do this morning.
In 2 Corinthians 8:7 the Apostle Paul sets very nicely the correct perspective for NT giving when he gives this exhortation to the church:
But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
He’s effectively saying that when we receive God’s grace of salvation, there are certain ‘inevitable consequences’ to borrow a phrase from Michael Eaton – consequences like faith, right speech, true knowledge, earnestness in love and so on, and that as Christians we must constantly strive to improve in these areas. But his main point is that financial giving is also an evidence of grace in the life of the believer – an inevitable consequence of the gospel; and that just as we look to grow in all the other areas, so we should be eager to grow and indeed to excel in our financial giving.
In July 2014 I preached a message clearly outlining our theological position on regular giving or ‘tithing;’ today I’d like to do two things. The first is to remind us of what I taught, because it is so foundational, the second is to give us something to think about from one of the most used and abused NT Scriptures on giving
1. WHAT IS THE TITHE?
If you’ve been a Christian for a decent length of time, you’ll no doubt have heard the word ‘tithe’ mentioned. You may also be aware of the theological controversy surrounding tithing; being that some believe that it’s an OT principle that has no place in the life of the believer, while others believe that it’s God’s will for the believer and his plan of provision for the church and world mission. A commonly quoted passage in this regard is Malachi 3:8-11
“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ “In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.
The context here is that as often happened in Israel’s history; the people had become careless about keeping God’s Law that he’d given to them through Moses, and through the prophet Malachi God was calling them to return to him. In V7 Malachi says to them, “You’re asking the question, “how are we to return?”” then he launches into them and effectively says, “Here’s a good place to start – stop robbing God!” What he meant by that, as he goes on to explain, is that in the midst of their rebellion they had started withholding the ‘tithe’
Tithing was the setting aside of a tenth of harvested crops and animals to be given to God. In Leviticus 27:30-32 we read:
A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD. If a man redeems any of his tithe, he must add a fifth of the value to it. The entire tithe of the herd and flock—every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod—will be holy to the LORD.
So effectively it meant that one’s income was subject to a ten per cent tax. Under the law the crops could be given a money-value and the tithe paid in cash, and as we’ve seen in V32 if this was done 20% was added to the estimated value of the crops. The purpose of the tithe, we find in Numbers 18:23, 24
It is the Levites who are to do the work at the Tent of Meeting and bear the responsibility for offenses against it… They will receive no inheritance among the Israelites. Instead, I give to the Levites as their inheritance the tithes that the Israelites present as an offering to the LORD.”
So basically God designated one of the twelve tribes of Israel, the tribe of Levi, to be the tribe that would serve in the tabernacle and the temple. So instead of giving them a portion of the land where they could grow crops and rear animals like the other tribes, God made it such that these vocational ministers should live off the tithes of the other eleven tribes.
So you can see that the neglecting of the tithe was a serious offence, and why Malachi says to them, “you’re robbing God!” Why? Because the tithe did not belong to them, it belonged to God – they were not being generous by tithing, because tithing was simply giving to God what was already his. (of course everything belongs to God and we are just stewards, however the tithe wasn’t even theirs to ‘steward’ as such, it was simply meant to be handed straight back to God)
NOT UNDER LAW
So, can we apply this passage directly to ourselves? Well, it’s not quite that simple – and this is where the contention over tithing arises. As I’ve just explained, this rebuke was levelled at the nation of Israel for breaking the Mosaic Law, but as you every Christian should know:
For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace (Romans 6:14)
Aha! There you have it – we’re not under the Law. What does that mean? It means that our relationship to God, our acceptance by him is not on the basis of our observance of the Law of Moses, which includes the Ten Commandments and tithing, amongst other things. We know that The Law was given to show us that no one can be justified before God on the basis of their own righteousness – indeed the Law was given to lead us to Christ, who perfectly fulfilled it’s every requirement so that in him we are counted righteous before God! Hallelujah! Friends, whatever we believe and teach about any Biblical subject must be reckoned from this foundation.
So where does that leave us? Can we discard Malachi 3 and conclude that because we’re not under the Law none of what is written there applies to us? Well, not so fast – you see, if we could do that, then we’d have to discard most of the Old Testament as irrelevant, which is incorrect.
TITHING BEFORE THE LAW?
For now let’s just follow the argument, which at this point takes an interesting turn and goes something like this, “Ok we’re not under the Law, but actually tithing pre-dates the Law” – in other words, we see this principle in action long before the Law was given, therefore it’s a timeless principle which was merely put into effect as Law through Moses.
The two examples cited are Abraham and Jacob. We won’t go into too much detail on this because we need to move on, but basically in Genesis 14:20 Abraham gave at tenth of his plunder to Melchizedek and later in Genesis 28:22 Jacob made a vow to the Lord saying, ‘Of all that you give me I will surely give a tenth to you’
Now, do these two instances justify the view that tithing pre-dates the Law and therefore should be continued by believers today? The truth is that we’re not told why Abraham and Jacob did what they did – all we know is that at a time where God was working powerfully on their behalf, their response was to give a tenth of their possessions.
On the one hand then, we can’t build a theology of NT tithing based on these two isolated instances, but on the other hand, we have to take note of the fact that these two great Patriarchs of the faith, who had not experienced the grace of God through Christ, nor the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit as we do today – and as we’ve already said, were under no legal obligation whatsoever, nevertheless found it appropriate to give a tenth of their possessions to God as an overflow of their gratitude!
TO TITHE OR NOT TO TITHE?
So where does that leave us? Is the Christian obliged to give a tenth of his/her income to God through the church? I love Michael Eaton’s response to this because I believe it honours everything we’ve just covered in both the OT and the NT. His answer? ‘Yes and no,’ and at this point I think it’s only fair to quote him directly lest I misrepresent his perspective. The first part of the quote reads:
Strictly speaking the answer is ‘No, the Christian is not under the Mosaic law’. The Christian does not tithe as a matter of legislation. We have ‘died to the law’, and there is nowhere in the New Testament where we are told to tithe. Matthew 23:23 is telling those under the law to keep the law! It cannot be made into a command for post-Pentecost Christians.
In Matthew 23:23 Jesus blasts the Pharisees for tithing meticulously, even to the point of tithing on their spices while at the same time neglecting what he calls the ‘weightier matters of the Law’ like justice, mercy and faithfulness. He goes on to say in the last part of the verse:
You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. In other words, “you should have carried on tithing without neglecting justice and mercy.” And to this Eaton is essentially saying “well of course to those under the law Jesus could only say one thing, “keep the Law,” – it’s not a justification for tithing just because it appears in the New Testament! However, Eaton doesn’t end there.
Is the Christian under a tithe law? No! Yet this is not the whole story! The Christian has to give to the work of God. His or her giving is more like the tithing of Abraham and Jacob. They gave a tenth of what they had because that was the leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives. They were tithing by the Holy Spirit, not tithing by any legislation. Christians are not under the law; they are under the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit inspires giving!…
I love the phrase he uses of Abraham and Jacob; that they were ‘tithing by the Holy Spirit.’ They didn’t give a tenth because they were legally obliged to do so; they gave because in the joy of seeing God’s goodness, they were led to give. Eaton continues:
A person who gave a tenth under the law would give even more – by the Holy Spirit. Whether this ‘proportional giving’ is called ‘tithing’ or not is unimportant. But there is no escaping the fact that when under the law, the believer was to give a tenth and the Holy Spirit is likely to inspire in the heart of the Christian the giving of even more than a tenth. It is a good way to test whether we are walking in the Spirit! Are we under the law? No! But we fulfill the law – and go beyond it – by walking in the Holy Spirit. Christians do not tithe ‘Mosaically’. They surpass the tithe when they are walking in the Holy Spirit.
So by way of wrapping up this teaching, I would summarise as follows:
1. You are not under the OT tithe Law; therefore your giving should not be motivated by fear of punishment by God or condemnation from the church.
2. You are not set free from the Law to do your own thing but rather to enjoy the grace of God which frees, empowers and indeed compels us to far exceed the standard set for those under the Law
3. It is safe to say that Biblically speaking, the setting aside of at least ten percent of your income for God’s work through the church is an appropriate spiritual discipline from which one can mature into the NT culture of extravagant giving.
So on that basis, as your leaders under Christ, we are asking, with greater clarity than perhaps we do in our members course, that all our members to commit to the spiritual discipline of regular giving – and with a clear conscience we’re asking that if you aren’t already there, you start with 10% of your income so that as you seek to excel in everything else, you would excel in this grace of giving. We could debate as some do as to whether it’s 10% of gross or net, but since it’s not a law there is no correct answer – I think it’s more a question of whether we’re looking to give as much as we can or as little as we can get away with.
SOWING AND REAPING
Now, for the last part of the message I’d like us to consider what is probably the most used and abused passage on giving in the NT – 2 Corinthians 9:6 – 10
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work… Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.
I’ve heard preachers world over commanding believers to “sow financial seed” so that they can “reap” a particular blessing. (As a bit of an aside it’s amazing how that seed must always be sown into that preacher’s ministry otherwise there’ll be no harvest)
But anyway, this passage which actually spans the entire 9th chapter of 2nd Corinthians is very rich indeed so we’ll tackle it fully in about 6 months’ time. There are just a couple of things I’d like us to point out for now.
The first is that the text does seem to affirm the Malachi principle of God’s blessing for those who honour him with the finances. Recall Malachi 3:10:
Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.
So although these words were spoken in direct relation to obedience to the Mosaic Law, it is a promise of blessing that not only reflects the unchanging heart of God in the area of giving, but is also affirmed in the NT principle of sowing and reaping. Therefore without getting confused about whether we are under the Law or not, I believe we can receive the promise of “open floodgates” as we give faithfully to the work of the Lord.
TWO KINDS OF HEARTS
The second thing I’d like us to think about is the contrast between the two kinds of ‘hearts’ or attitudes portrayed in this passage. The first is a heart that gives, “reluctantly and under compulsion” (V7) and the second is a heart that gives thoughtfully, willfully and “cheerfully”
John Piper offers us a helpful insight from the text into the difference between these two hearts. He says the first heart – the one that gives sparingly and reluctantly, has a relationship to God that sees God as a Taker rather than a Giver. “Every time I look up I see the pointing finger of God demanding, “Give me! Give me! Give me!” – So I’ll give because I have to, but I won’t give much and even then I won’t be happy about it. It’s the heart that says, “If the church hadn’t drained us of our money, we could have done… by now.” Or “Oh boy, here we go again with another gift day…”
By stark contrast, beneath the generous giving of verse 6 and the cheerful giving of verse 7 is a heart that looks up to God and sees a Giver, a Supplier, a Helper. When this person looks to God, he/she feels replenished not drained. Even when this person hears a command coming from God, they hear it as a hopeful gift not a depleting demand.
One heart asks the question, “Where would I be today if God hadn’t taken so much from me?” the other asks, “Where would I be if God hadn’t given so much to me?” They’re both sitting in the church, both giving financially the church; but with very different tapes playing in their hearts.
And so Piper contends that THE big issue when it comes to giving is how we see God. What do we feel him to be when we look up into his face? Is he the Great Giver or the Great Taker? Paul seems to be aware of this is the issue, which is why in the rest of text he is at pains to paint a picture of God as being on “both sides of our giving” – both enabling our giving with his blessing on the back side, and rewarding our giving with even more blessing on the front side.
In Romans 8:32 Paul calls us to reason with him when he says;
He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things
…He was one of the great evangelists of the 18th Century, born in 1703. In 1731 he began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. In the first year his income was 30 pounds and he found he could live on 28 and so gave away two. In the second year his income doubled but he held his expenses even, and so he had 32 pounds to give away (a comfortable year’s income). In the third year his income jumped to 90 pounds and he gave away 62 pounds. In his long life Wesley’s income advanced to as high as 1,400 pounds in a year. But he rarely let his expenses rise above 30 pounds. He said that he seldom had more than 100 pounds in his possession at a time. This so baffled the English Tax Commissioners that they investigated him in 1776 insisting that for a man of his income he must have silver dishes that he was not paying excise tax on. He wrote them, “I have two silver spoons at London and two at Bristol. This is all the plate I have at present, and I shall not buy any more while so many round me want bread.” When he died in 1791 at the age of 87, the only money mentioned in his will was the coins to be found in his pockets and dresser. Most of the 30,000 pounds he had earned in his life had been given away. He wrote, I cannot help leaving my books behind me whenever God calls me hence; but in every other respect, my own hands will be my executors. In other words, I will put a control on my spending myself, and I will go beyond the tithe for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.