Another Look at Giving

by Bob Bradley

December 8, 2010

A couple of mature brothers in the body have asked me to do a teaching on giving. I am usually a bit reluctant to deal with the topic, because I have seen so much guilt-inducing legalism and manipulation regarding giving in the church as a whole. However, this is an ideal time to bring this teaching because our finances as a church are healthy, and we are thousands of dollars in the black. We have faithfully given 10 percent of our gross income to missions, and we have also been liberal with benevolence giving.

It will probably surprise you to discover that I believe tithing is not an obligation for New Testament believers. On the other hand, I am convinced that liberal giving is one of the points of obedience that produces spiritual growth. I realize that this is a matter of opinion, but I have some strong rationales to support my statement. It is sometimes argued that tithing precedes the Mosaic law (Abraham tithed to Melchizedek), and thus is obligatory upon us today. But that would be like arguing that since circumcision predated Moses, it is a requirement for us also. It is important for us to realize that the Old Testament lays down principles in concrete terms. In our day, the principle remains, but without the specificity of the Old Covenant practices.

In the Old Testament period, circumcision was required. In the New Testament, Paul writes in Romans 2:29 that "He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God." In the Old Testament period the Sabbath was rigorously kept, but in the New Testament we are free to observe any day we wish (Romans 14:4,5). In like manner, the tithe, although periodically neglected (Malachi 3:8–11), was one of the major requirements of the law. In the New Testament, the tithe is voluntary and a certain percentage of income is not prescribed.

Does this mean that all the godly people who have tithed over the centuries were caught up in legalism? Certainly not! The definition of legalism is something you do to obtain God's favor. Most faithful tithers love the kingdom of God, and their motivation for giving is pure. The tithe is for them a minimum standard of giving which is often exceeded. The modern day exemplar of godly tithing is R. G. Letourneau, who manufactured earthmoving equipment. He began by tithing 10%, but as his company prospered he reached the point where he was giving away 90 percent of his income and living on 10 percent. God so prospered him that he ultimately lived on a relatively small allowance and gave the rest of the profit to missions. I am not going to even hint that I think Letourneau was legalistic, because I believe God raised him up as a testimony to the power of giving. After all, when he exceeded 10 percent he was in the realm of giving, not tithing! But with all due respect to this godly man, and others like him who have given greatly in excess of a tithe, the fact remains that the tithe is an Old Testament standard which has been superseded in this era of grace.

There are only four instances where a form of the word tithe occurs in the New Testament. In Matthew 23 and Luke 11 Jesus refers to the tithing practices of the Pharisees, who were so legalistic about tithing and yet neglected the weightier matters of the law. In Luke 18 the self–righteous Pharisee boasts about the giving of tithes, and in Hebrews 7 Abraham's tithing to Melchizedek is mentioned. And that's it! There are no other references to tithing in the whole New Testament. However, there are many, many references to giving and sharing what you have with others. Perhaps the Scripture that best illustrates Paul's teaching on giving is 2 Corinthians 9:7–11, which begins "So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful (hilarious) giver."

The apostle Paul articulates what might be called a "brief theology of giving" in 1 Timothy 6:17–19. I am going to quote it here because it forms the foundation of some further important remarks. "Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they may be rich in good works, willing to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life."

It is widely acknowledged that we Americans have one of the highest standards of living in the world. We are, by any standard of comparison, wealthy. So the exhortation of Paul in the above passage applies to almost all of us. Notice the warning about trusting in uncertain riches rather than the living God. If we fail to give on a regular basis, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are trusting in money rather than in God who promises to supply all our needs. In times of severe economic downturn, such as the present, it is particularly easy to fall into the trap of not giving on a regular basis. There is a principle in the Mosaic law that can be very helpful to us at this point. In Exodus 23:19 God sets forth the principle of the firstfruits offering. The first produce of any crop that was harvested was to be offered to the Lord. The farmer was not to wait till the end of the harvest to determine the adequacy of the harvest. He was to offer the first and the best to God without delay.

The biblical principle is clear. When we give, we are not to first calculate if we have enough to pay our bills for the month. Rather, we are to purpose in our hearts what we desire to give, and trust the outcome to the Lord. Of course, this is much easier to do when we are giving 2 or 3 percent of our income rather than 10 or 15 percent. But God is gracious, and he gives us an opportunity to build faith and confidence in Him.

But aren't we "robbing" God when we give less than 10 percent of our income? I don't think so! The sharp rebuke and the marvelous promise of Malachi 3:8–10 deal with the deliberate neglect of a specific obligation of the law. In the New Testament, we are dealing with privilege, not obligation. The principle of Malachi 3 is still effective — God will bless liberal giving, and withhold His blessing from stingy believers. But that blessing is no longer tied to the specific figure of 10 percent. The New Testament equivalent of Malachi 3:10 is Luke 6:38 — "give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you." Remember the first Scripture quoted above — "So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver." It is far better to give 2 percent joyfully than to give 9 percent grudgingly, and to carry around the guilt of having fallen 1 percent short of a tithe! On the other hand, to adopt a comfortable standard of 2 percent and fail to stretch our faith for more is not so much to rob God as it is to rob ourselves of growth in the present and eternal reward in the life to come.

Principles of grace flow like a mighty stream through the Old Testament, in anticipation of the New Covenant era when God's law would be written upon our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33, 34). One of the greatest Biblical teachings on giving is found in 2 Samuel 24:24, where David says "nor will I offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God with that which costs me nothing." You will recall that David had displeased God by taking a census of the people, and a plague resulted which killed thousands of people. The prophet Gad instructed David to offer a sacrifice at the threshing floor of Araunah. This godly man offered his threshing floor and the oxen to David free of charge. But David insisted on paying Araunah a fair price for the threshing floor and oxen. This was the occasion of David's famous statement "I will not offer to the Lord that which costs me nothing."

The incident of Jesus watching people as they put money into the treasury also comes to mind. Jesus said that the two copper coins of a poor widow had more of an impact than the lavish gifts of the rich. It is such sacrificial giving, modeled by the widow, which sustains the Kingdom of God in every age. Can you point to something that you have done without in order to give? Has your giving cost you anything? Have you ever given in a circumstance when your income was substantially reduced? Have you continued to give when God does not seem to bless you with increased finances?

Admittedly, these are tough questions. But Jesus started the conversation when he made his comment about the poor widow who put everything she had into the treasury. She clearly loved the kingdom of God deeply, and she also had great faith in the power of her God to take care of her. How many of us have had the experience of giving at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and seeing funds come from an unexpected source! The Lord delights to show himself gracious on our behalf. Faith for God's provision of finances is like faith for anything else — it only grows by being stretched. We don't just "jump" into a position of great faith. Rather, we get there by a series of small but significant steps.

Although we as a church give a minimum of 10 percent to missions, I would encourage you to do some research and find a mission organization that has a ministry with which you can identify. Then send them a monthly check, or perhaps you have several missions in mind, and could only send a check to each one every third or fourth month. Don't wait until things look better — remember the principle of the firstfruits offering.

My prayer is that the Lord will inspire you to stretch your faith in giving. We have a tendency to desire great faith and fruitfulness, but to avoid circumstances of godly risk for the sake of the Kingdom. So let's get started on our venture of giving!

Your brother,

 
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