One of the characteristics of a Christian should be generosity that is unhindered by severe trial or extreme poverty. When we are full of gratitude for God’s grace and motivated by a desire to glorify Him, our cheerful giving reflects His heart. Alistair Begg explores the biblical encouragement for financially supporting the work of the Gospel and notes that when we give ourselves to God first, our money will naturally follow.
And I invite you to turn to 2 Corinthians 8:1:
“And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 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.
“I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
And you may want to keep your Bible open there. We are thankful to God for his Word.
Let us pray:
Father, with our Bibles open before us, we come and ask for your help, that the Spirit of God will illumine the printed page to us, that our minds will be alert and open to its truth, and that our lives will be quick to welcome it and obey it and live in the light of it. Help us both in speaking and in listening to do so in such a way that honors and glorifies you, the living God. For in Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
I wonder how many of you have heard the fictitious tale of the monks who committed themselves, in a particular monastery, not only to a vow of poverty and celibacy but also to a vow of silence. It was a new departure for them; they had lived there for some time. But they determined that they would commit to silence, and only on one occasion in a year would any one of them be called on to speak. And so, having made the determination, a year elapsed, and the first of the brothers was given an opportunity to say something. Everyone was, of course, very interested; having been silent for a year, they wondered just what it was that he would address. And he stood up and he said, “I think that the oatmeal here at breakfast is far too runny.” And then he just sat down. Another year elapsed, and it was the opportunity for someone else, and the brothers anticipated that he would take it to a new level, but instead he stood up and he said, “I personally think that the oatmeal at breakfast here is far too lumpy.” And then he sat down, and not another word was spoken for twelve months. The third fellow stood up and said, “I’m really tired of this arguing about oatmeal.”
Now, I purposefully chose to tell that fictitious tale, which isn’t really much good, but it allowed me to say something that is important to say. Because the subject matter that I’m about to address with you this morning, and again this evening, and probably next Sunday morning as well, has been as sparingly addressed in the last twenty-three years as the subject of oatmeal in the fictitious monastic tale just told. In fact, when I looked carefully at my notes, apart from some tangential references to the subject, in specific, direct terms, the first time I ever preached about giving was three years after I came here in 1986, and we were getting ready to build a building. And so the elders said, “Maybe you should say something about giving; after all, you’ve been here thirty-six months and never mentioned it once.” Then we went for twelve years, between ’86 to ’98, before I then gave another three-part series, Your Money Matters. Eight years have now elapsed since that series, and I determined this week—for a number of reasons which I’ll now share with you—that it probably would be advantageous to address the subject again.
The studies, actually, in what it means for God’s people to give financially to the work of the gospel have been prompted, essentially, by four things: First of all, a comment that was made to me in the last seven days by one of my colleagues. Secondly, an observation that I received in a letter at the very beginning of this past week. Thirdly, a question that came from a young lady to me, asking very specific questions concerning, What was she supposed to do with her money in relationship to the work of the gospel? She said she really didn’t have much idea. And fourthly, these things coalesced with the fact that I was thinking towards our annual meeting at six o’clock, which is really the only occasion in twelve months that we as a church ever actually give attention to any of the facts and figures that relate to our financial circumstances.
Any one of those things on their own would not have been sufficient to nudge me away from John chapter 10, which was where I started, but the four of them together prompted me to this end. I was, at the same time, quite delighted to realize how timely I was when yesterday in Heinen’s I picked up the current edition of Time magazine and found that it contains the headline, “Does God want you to be rich? Yes, say some megachurches. Others call it heresy. The debate over the new gospel … wealth.” I said to myself, “Wow! It’s almost as if I was prompted! And maybe I should definitely go ahead with the matter at hand.”
What, where, when, why, and how God’s people give says something—not everything—about the state of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ. Bottom line: our check stubs speak volumes. If you no longer use checks, then your online banking records tell it all. You can tell where the largest purchases have been made, the largest ongoing commitments are to be found, the state of your own credit history, and everything else is there for any and all, finally, to see—and everything under the gaze of an all-seeing God.
If we give grudgingly, then our approach is essentially, “I have to.” If we give dutifully, our approach is essentially, “I need to.” If we give thankfully, our approach is essentially, “I want to.” “I want to.” And all of us this morning, to some degree or another, will be found as either grudge-giving, duty-giving, or thanks-giving. And by our giving, as someone has written, our money can make us overseas missionaries without ever leaving home, turn us into evangelists without ever standing on a platform, make us broadcasters without ever entering a studio, and Bible teachers without ever writing a book.
Now, in the passage that we just read, you will notice that Paul’s concern, as stated at the end of verse 7, is that these Corinthian believers to whom he writes might “excel in [the] grace of giving.” In the earlier part of the same verse he has given them their scores, as it were, for “faith” and “speech,” “knowledge,” “earnestness,” and “love.” He says, “You have a 4.0 when it comes to all of these things. Now,” he says, “see that you also excel in this grace of giving. Make sure,” he says, “that all of these other elements—speaking, your own faith, your knowledge, your earnestness, and so on, and your love—make sure that all of these things are expressed in the most practical of forms: namely, in the realm of generosity.” That is what he is addressing—the generosity, the overflowing goodness of the people of God.
Now, I want you to notice his tone as it’s there in the opening phrase of verse 8, because tone is very, very important always. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want my voice to be particularly loud. You’ll notice he says, “I am not commanding you.” “This is not a command performance,” he says. “No,” he says, “What I’m doing is, I want to set a test—a test of the sincerity of your love—by comparing it with the earnestness of others.” And in verse 10 you will notice his tone; he says, “And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter.” There is nothing heavy-handed about his approach, nothing domineering, because Paul recognizes what the Bible declares—namely, that when it comes to the matter of the individual believer’s giving to the work of the gospel, it is not a matter of legislation but a matter of individual conscience . It is not a matter of legislation but a matter of individual conscience. Therefore, we should always be wary of those who, when they address the subject of Christian giving, do so in a way that is legislative, or in a way that is so prescriptive as to allow little or no loopholes to the people who are under their care. We have no basis upon which to dictate to others about the use of money. We each have the responsibility to submit ourselves to the authority of Scripture as it comes home to our minds and to our hearts.
So with all of that said, here is our plan: let us look at the example that he provides, let us take the test that he sets. And we will spend the majority of our time on the example. The test will be brief, although you may want to take it home with you, as it were.
If you’re not planning on taking notes, I think you should, because you will be helped by these five things that I’m about to point out to you in the text. I think it would be important for some of you, because you have never, ever been in a church where any kind of sensible thing has been said about giving. You’ve got a word, tithe, that rings around in your head; you’re not sure quite what to do with it. Some of you have come out of a background of Roman Catholicism, and by your own testimony you have given very sparingly to the church. Others of you have come from backgrounds in which the prohibitive nature of what has been said from the front has caused you all kinds of concern. You are sensible people. Here is the Bible. We’re about to study it. See if what I’m telling you is in the Bible. And you may want to make note of each point that I give you. There is a place for notes in the bulletin, I believe, and you can scribble them down there.
We’re considering the example that he provides. What is this example? Well, it’s the example of the Macedonian churches; you will see that in verse 1. These Macedonian believers have operated in a certain way in relationship to giving, and Paul holds them up as an example.
Now, we’ll begin not with verse 1 but what is said in verse 5, because this is a foundational element, although he doesn’t mention it until the fifth verse. Number one, “They gave themselves first to the Lord.” “They gave themselves first to the Lord.” In other words, their money was simply an expression—one expression—of their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. Since they had, if you like, put themselves in the offering plate, then the money followed naturally.
Now, you see, this is of foundational importance. Because the person who comes in from outside, who is wondering about Christianity, who is considering the claims of Jesus, or who perhaps has been invited along, and happens on a morning like this, and finds that there’s a Scotsman, of all things, with a name like Begg talking about money, and says, “How did I get myself in such a dreadful predicament?”—they may be forgiven for simply assuming that what this is about is, it’s because every so often you have to talk about money and so on, and what the person tries to do is manipulate, and cajole, and encourage, and so on, and try and drum it all up. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But when a person understands that becoming a Christian is the giving of themselves to the Lord, then all of the other stuff follows in line. But until that is understood—until point one is in place, “They gave themselves first to the Lord”—then all the other stuff is out of whack. That’s why in baptism we declare, “Jesus is Lord.” That was the earliest Christian creed. And the person was saying, “Jesus is Lord of my mind and of my affections. He is Lord of my goals, and my dreams, and my future, and he is Lord of my finances.”
Years ago, in Skipton, the Gateway to the Dales, in Yorkshire, a gentleman was baptized—a prominent man in the community, a wealthy man who’d been known for his material status. He’d also been known for the fact that he had no interest in Jesus or the church. Someone had invited him to a Bible study, and as a result of him studying the Bible, he had come to understand who Jesus is and why he had come and died on the cross, and he offered up his life to Jesus in response to God’s grace. On the evening that he was baptized, he appeared quite dramatically in contrast to the others who were present. Most of them were wearing jeans or a T-shirt or a simple pair of trousers, and he came, and he had an immaculate three-piece navy suit on, with a vest and a wonderful silk tie, and he just looked like he was ready to present a business opportunity in London—which, of course, he really was ready for.
And in his testimony he explained why he had dressed in this way: because he recognized that his suit, and his tie, and the quality of his shoes represented all he once held dear and built his life upon—everything that gave status and significance to him when he walked into a meeting. And he says, “I’ve decided to be baptized in all of this clobber so that I might remind myself always from this day that Jesus Christ has all of me.”
“They gave themselves first to the Lord.”
William Booth was asked on one occasion, How did he explain the peculiar usefulness that God had made of him in the founding and framing of the Salvation Army? And he replied without any pride, “Jesus Christ has all of me.” None of us can get beyond the starting block in the issue until this is resolved.
“They gave themselves first to the Lord.”
Secondly—and we’ll go back up the text now to verse 1—they gave in response to the grace of God. They gave in response to the grace of God. That’s why he’s able to say, “Now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.” Now, there should be no surprise, because any consideration of giving inevitably begins with the fact of God’s giving—that God is the giver of “every good and perfect gift,” as James says in 1:17; that he gives to us “one blessing after another” in the Lord Jesus Christ; that in the most famous verse, probably, of the New Testament, we have in John 3:16 the giving of God in his “only Son.” And here, actually, in verse 9 of the passage that we read: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”
Now, what you need to notice is that there is a direct correlation, a direct line—and I drew this line in my notes, and if you want to put this in your notes it may help you—between three words all beginning with g: grace, gratitude, giving. Grace, gratitude, giving. Any attempt to encourage ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, to give to the work of the gospel with any kind of mechanism that does not begin with the grace of God is a flawed mechanism. The starting point is not the needs of the world. The starting point is not the peculiar concerns of this or this. The starting point is the grace of God. God is a giving God. Because he is such a giving God, we should be grateful that he is. And our gratitude should then release itself in our own giving.
You see, the more we become aware of God’s grace in our lives, in our circumstances, the more we will respond with a thankfulness which produces itself—as did here in verse 2—in “overflowing joy .” You see, when by grace we become more like our heavenly Father, then we will become more generous in our giving. Because our heavenly Father is really generous! And if we’re his children, and we’re going to take on the family likeness, then one of the characteristics of God’s children is generosity.
Notice in verse 2 that their generosity was unhindered, uninhibited, by two things: “severe trial” and “extreme poverty.” What? Who does he use as an example? The Macedonian churches. Why? Well, they had tons of money. Everything was going really nicely for them. So he chose this group and said, “Look, here’s a group of people. Everything’s going great over there; they’re full of cash, and so, just be like them.” No! He looks across at the Macedonian churches; they face extreme trial, they face at the same time particular and peculiar and extreme poverty, but notice the terminology: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” Grace, gratitude, and giving. Overflowing joy bursts the banks in a tidal wave of generous giving.
Now, you see, that is why—some of you will have read this Time magazine—that is why you will find in here reference being made directly and tangentially to a famous Old Testament verse, which is Malachi 3:10, where God says to his people, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse”—why?—“that there [might] be food in my house”—the tithing of grain and cereal. “Do what I’m asking you to do,” he says. And then look at what he says: “‘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.’”
Maybe the Macedonian believers were reading that. Maybe they sat down to one another and they said, “You know, we have a severe trial here, we have peculiar poverty.” And somebody said, “Yeah, but what about Malachi 3:10? What about what God says there, when he issues the test? ‘Test me and see. Put me to the test, and see if I won’t burst your banks with my overflowing generosity.’”
Now look at 9:10, a section that we’ll come to maybe next Sunday morning: “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. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” Grace—the generosity of God—granted to the people of God so that the people of God may then manifest the grace of God in their generosity, so that that generosity may not be an end in itself but may result in thanksgiving and praise to God.
You see, the cycle starts and finishes with God. This is not a quid pro quo. This is not a motivational speech. This is not, “Try and do this so that you can get that.” This is, “Do this because you should. God blesses this. When he does, he wants you to be generous, and when you’re generous, God is glorified.” So it’s all God. The God who gives everything is the God who made everything, he’s the God who requires everything, he is the God who owns everything, and he is the God who ultimately gets the praise for everything. “Rich in every way so that you … be generous on every occasion.” We’ll come back to this—come back to this…
Thirdly, they gave “even beyond their ability.” They gave “even beyond their ability.” Well, it’s quite striking, isn’t it? Verse 3: “For I testify that they gave as much as they were able,” and then he says, “[in fact], even beyond their ability.”
Now, what’re we supposed to do with this? This is the kind of verse, incidentally, where silly people tell folks to borrow money on their credit cards, and they use a verse like this to try and substantiate it. “‘They gave … beyond their ability.’ You don’t have enough money, but you have a big line of credit, so why don’t you do this? And this is the kind of thing that God honors.” No it’s not. That’s just stupidity.
The best I can understand of this—the best I can do with this—is the notion of their being willing to forego a legitimate want in order that they might be able to supply a legitimate need. You get it? That they were prepared to squeeze themselves so that others might not feel the pinch. We needn’t say more about that. If you and I are simply giving within the realm of our comfort zone, we’ve never understood giving. I don’t care what it is—if you got five hundred bucks a month. If your outgoings are whatever they are, and you’re able to give whatever it is, and you still got enough money for the New York Times every day, or the Wall Street, or whatever else it is, or whatever you decided to do with whatever discretionary funds, then you and I, we’re both in the exact same position. We’re not doing anything with a squeeze to prevent others facing the pinch.
That’s why Jesus pointed to the lady, remember? And he says, “That little lady there that put in the two pennies, she’s to be commended way beyond those guys, because those fellows gave out of their wealth. They simply dipped in and took whatever it was. It didn’t matter to them one way or another. They could give it here or give it there. And if they gave it or kept it, it didn’t matter, but she put in all that she had.” She gave beyond her ability. Her only hope now was that the God who saw her would provide for her needs, since he is the God who sees the sparrow fall to the ground and “clothes the grass of the field, which is today here and tomorrow’s thrown into the oven.” She was, if you like, entering into a Malachi 3:10 test.
Fourthly—and this is an important point in light of what I’ve just said, because some of you perhaps feel the very antithesis of what I’m now about to give as a fourth point, which is there in verse 3. Actually, it’s the bridge; it’s the phrase that almost begins verse 4, doesn’t it? They gave without being prompted and prodded. They gave without being prompted and prodded. Notice the phrase: “entirely on their own.” “Entirely on their own.” Wasn’t because someone was telling them what to do. And I’m not here telling you what to do. I’m here trying to expound the Bible, which tells all of us what to do. We’re all in this together. Look at 9:7: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give.” That’s what you should give: what you’ve decided in your heart to give. I don’t know about your heart. I have enough problem with my own heart. I’m going to have to leave your heart to God.
Fifthly, they clamored for the privilege of ministering to God’s people: “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” Who are the saints? God’s people. First Peter 2:9: “For you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a people belonging to God.” It’s just another way of saying they pleaded for the opportunity to be involved in the lives of all kinds of folks in all kinds of places. By their giving they were supplying the needs of God’s people.
You’ll see that again in 9:12: “This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God’s people”—which is what it does—“but [it] is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.” Incidentally, when you give anonymously, there’s no possibility then of anything coming back your way or my way, is there? If I give you something, you may feel a sense of deference towards me or gratitude towards me; it’s not all wrong. But if I send something to you by an anonymous carrier, and you were in need, and your need was met as a result of an envelope that came underneath your door, the only place you can go is the only place you need to go, which is to God, who supplies all your needs and who knows you. “Not only,” he says, “has your giving met the needs of the people, but it has resulted in a sense of overflowing thankfulness to God.” You see how God centered all of this is?
Now, let’s just take the test. We only need about four minutes for this, and that’s all we have, really. The example is there. Comparisons are said to be odious. Sometimes they can even be dangerous, especially if our motive in comparing ourselves is pride. But we also recognize the benefit in assessing ourselves by the good example set by others. And remember what Paul is doing here: he says in verse 8, “I want to test the sincerity of your love.” “Here,” he says, “is my desire: I’m providing you a very practical, personal, necessary, challenging test.”
Now, you have the test in front of you, don’t you? Because you simply need to take the statements and make them interrogative. So the first one reads, “Am I giving myself first to the Lord?” Can I come anywhere close to William Booth, “Jesus Christ has all of me”? That’s the test. Eventually we will stand before God without anything that represents security to us in earthly banks and portfolios—absolutely zero. All that we will have on that day is the treasure that has been laid up in heaven.  Am I giving myself first to the Lord?
Secondly, “Am I giving in response to God’s grace?”—in response to God’s grace. Is that why I give? Is that what constrains my giving? Is that what determines the extent of my giving?
Thirdly, “Am I giving beyond my ability?” Am I giving beyond my comfort zone? Or is my giving simply within the orb of what is secure and handleable and really doesn’t affect my ability to make my other payments? It’s a very challenging question.
Fourthly, “Am I giving without external compulsion?” Am I giving without being prodded and prompted? That, loved ones, is one of the reasons why this is the third occasion in twenty-three years that I personally have determined to say anything about the giving of God’s people in this place. Because frankly, if anyone—your pastor or anyone else—has to prod and prompt in order to achieve this end, then forget it! That’s why I do not do it for the radio program either. Forget it! God knows the needs. He knows the ends.
There’s all the difference in the world between our children, when they’re tiny, when someone comes into the house and they’re eating candy, and all of a sudden we hear their little voice say, “Would you like some?” And we smile; perhaps our tears smart to our eyes. We think, “What an unprompted expression of tiny generosity!” As opposed to, “Come on now, Tilly, give your Uncle Jimmy a sweetie. Give him some candy. Go on, go on, give him the candy.” Which do you want? Which kind of child do you want? You want a child that says, “Would you like some?” Not a child that’s like, “Well, my mother says I’m supposed to give you a candy.”
What kind of congregation do you want? You don’t want a congregation that’s responding to the manipulations and promptings of the vehicle of a man’s voice or whatever else it is. No, it’s all grace. It has to be all grace. “They gave themselves” as a result of his grace.
And finally, “Am I clamoring for the privilege of serving the saints?” Am I clamoring for the privilege of serving the saints? Saying, “Well, you know, I got this, and I don’t know what to do with it; I think I could give this to somebody. Is there a place that I can give this? Is there a place that I can share this? Is there a place…” I got so much junk now at this stage of my life, I might as well start off-loading most of it. I mean, if I drop dead today, I got a problem for my wife and everybody else. I have so much junk! Am I clamoring for opportunities to give to the saints?
That’s the test. We’re done.
Now, somebody’s immediately saying, “Well, I would like to have a question. I have a question about tithing. You haven’t said a word about tithing, and I come from a church, and I’m really annoyed.” And, well, I’ll talk about tithing this evening, then. And when you come, you may be even more annoyed.
But here’s the wonderful thing that Paul does. On both occasions, both in 8 and then in 9, you see what he does? Although he sets a test, and he says, “I hold up to you the Macedonians as an example to test the sincerity of your love,” he doesn’t end there. Where does he end? He ends with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Where does he end at 9:15? Same place: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
Well, you see, if we want to grade on the curve, we can set ourselves up or down depending on who we want to sit next to. Depends if you go in the A stream or the C stream. I mean, if you’re in the C stream for Greek, you may be the top of the C stream and feeling good. But you should be thankful you’re not in the B stream, ’cause you get in there, you stink. And in the A stream you can’t even exist. And we can look around and find a way, in the pecking order of humanity—even in relationship to Christian things—to determine that we’re fine. Paul doesn’t do that. He holds it up as a test, but then he turns their gaze to Jesus.
Do you realize what we sang in that song “I’ve Found a Friend,” to the tune of “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”? Let me finish by quoting to you the verse that we all sang together. This is what we said in our song:
I’ve found a friend, O such a friend!
He bled, [and] died to save me;
And not alone the gift of [love],
But His own [life] He gave me;
Then it turns, responsively, and we said,
Naught that I have,
nothing that I have,
my own I call,
I hold it for the Giver;
My heart, my strength, my life …
Let’s just make it even more telling:
Naught that I have my own I call,
I hold it for the Giver;
My house, my cars, my portfolio, my all
Are His, and His forever.
That’s what we sang. God heard us.
Father, I pray that you will write your Word in our hearts as we ponder these things. We want desperately to be those who give ourselves first to you, to give in response to your grace, to give beyond our comfort zone, to give without coercion, and to be actively looking for ways to express our generosity. Please help us to this end as we take these matters to heart in our individual and family circumstances, and as they spill into our responsibilities as a church family too.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.
 John 1:16 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 9:10–11 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 21:1–4 (paraphrased).
 See Matthew 10:29.
 Matthew 6:30 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 9:7 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 2:9 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 9:12 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 6:20.
 James G. Small, “I’ve Found a Friend” (1866).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.