The Road to Generosity

by Walt B. Russell

As I was recently thinking about the road to generosity, it was serendipitous on the crowded roads of Southern California to see this bumper sticker: “If you love Jesus, tithe. Anyone can honk!” I started laughing at the exasperated humor of the statement as I quickly wrote it down. It’s so much easier to honk for Jesus than to give to Jesus.

The reasons for honking instead of giving are numerous. Among evangelical Protestants in America, 10% only honk, while 36% honk and give less than 2% of their income[1] For four generations there has been a steady decline in the average percentage of giving in the U.S. The reality is that almost half of us evangelicals have long since left the route of generous giving and are honking away on dubious detours.

How can we motivate more of God’s people to get back on the road to generosity? Rather than continuing to curse the darkness of detours, I recently wrote a short book entitled Generous Loving, Generous Giving: A Biblical Perspective on Giving[2] My purpose is to provide a biblical GPS for fellow Christian travelers. This book’s clear biblical directions will be hungrily received by the many who recognize that they’ve lost their way when it comes to generous giving. However, for the many evangelical travelers who love their detours, they will need a lot of motivation even to care about the road to generosity. Here is how this small book addresses both of these vital issues.

Biblical obligations. For those who hunger for biblical directions, let me briefly summarize the biblical obligations that individual believers have before the Lord:

  1. An overlooked, but central principle is that each of us is indebted to give back material things to those who give us spiritual things (1 Corinthians 9:11). The recipients are generally the elders or pastors of our local church (1 Timothy 5:17-18), but sharing with those who teach us the Word of God (Galatians 6:6) may also include parachurch ministries like Paul’s missionary team. Those who proclaim the gospel are to get their living from the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14).
  2. Another obligation each Christian has is to share with needy fellow believers (Ephesians 4:28). This is how we lay down our lives for one another and express our love in deed and truth (1 John 3:16-18; also James 2:14-17). Generally, the neediness involves food, shelter, and clothing.
  3. Individual believers should also be involved in the worldwide spread of the gospel through missionary giving.

Church-to-church obligation. A second type of obligation that Christians have is not at the individual level, but at the church-to-church level. This is not widely known, but the longest discussion of giving in the whole Bible is about church-to-church giving to an international collection (2 Corinthians 8-9).

  1. Again, the principle of giving back material things to those who give you spiritual things is applied to churches who receive spiritual things from other churches (Romans 15:26-27). The various Gentile churches gave back monetarily to the Judean churches.
  2. Additionally, there is the principle of equality between churches that the Apostle Paul appeals to in 2 Corinthians 8:12-15. What is so astonishing (and convicting) is that Paul applies the equality principle in the meeting of basic needs on an international basis!
  3. Investing in the spreading of the gospel beyond one’s local church—missionary giving—is a privilege of both individual Christians and churches.

The church in Philippi was a great model of both. Paul includes a missionary thank-you letter at the end of his letter to them (Philippians 4:10-20). The wonderful promise that “my God shall supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19) is for this missionary-supporting church and its generous individuals.

For those evangelicals who are unmotivated to travel the road to generosity, they need to take a long look at these amazing motivations for giving from the New Testament:

  1. Giving generously promises unending resources for giving. “Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food, will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness” (2 Corinthians 9:10; emphasis mine; see also vv. 6-15[3]
  2. Generous giving insures a future heavenly treasure and a present heavenly heart. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
  3. We can make eternal friends through our generous earthly giving. Jesus makes this very pointed application from the Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16:1-8: “. . . Make friends for yourselves by means of the mammon [riches] of unrighteousness; that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:9). Gener­ously giving the very small thing of money will result in gaining the very large thing of eternal friends and eternal rewards (Luke 16:9-13).
  4. Generous giving also makes money profane and proclaims that we serve God. “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other, or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon [riches]” (Luke 16:13/Matthew 6:24).

With our freedom in Christ, we can choose to travel on the road to generosity or we can take self-absorbed detours. Such a choice necessitates clearly mapping out the biblical motivations and obligations for the desired route of generosity. While it is presently the road less travelled, it is certainly the one that God will greatly bless.

Walt Russell is professor of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He may be reached at walt.russell@biola.edu.

 

[1]See Christian Smith, Michael O. Emerson, with Patricia Snell Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money (Oxford University Press, 2008) for these statistics and many more.

[2] Published by Biola University, 2009 and available at Biolabookstore.com.

[3] All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

 


This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.

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