“As you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you also excel in this act of grace also” (2 Corinthians 8:7).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“This act of grace”… now that’s an interesting phrase. For many a person sitting in the church pew, few things stir up as much emotional friction as the word “stewardship” or talking about tithing and giving offerings. When church leaders begin asking for financial commitments to help set the next year’s budget, you can be sure there will be hearts that whisper, “What’s mine is mine,” and voices that declare, “All the church ever talks about is money. How come the church is never interested in me unless it needs money?”
Perhaps there have been times when some of those accusations have had some validity. Often, they’re just a smokescreen for selfishness or an immature faith or a misunderstanding of basic stewardship principles. Each of these deserves some comment and should be addressed in Bible studies and stewardship workshops. But that’s not going to be our focus today. Today, we’re going to learn how excellent giving can turn something that hurts into something that heals, even brings joy. Today we’re going to learn how to “excel in this act of grace.”
In our text, Paul undertakes the task of completing a fund drive for the relief of Christians in Jerusalem. No doubt Paul wants to help the Jewish Christians with their material needs, but he is also using the collection to bind the Jewish and Gentile Christians together a bit more closely. At the same time, he wants to hold the cross high. As much as Paul wants the Corinthians to complete the collection, even more, he wants the doctrine of grace to be upheld as they do.
Unfortunately, the work is not progressing in Corinth as satisfactorily as might be expected. So Paul makes a special appeal in a very tactful way, citing the chief reasons why the Christians of Corinth should eagerly take part in the collection. He issues no command. Paul does not write: “What’s your problem? I hear that you’ve stopped taking up a collection; you must start again.” He doesn’t use diplomatic language, sugar-coated with smooth words, either. Paul knows only one principle for giving, and that is the giver’s own free will. He takes it for granted that the Corinthians will join the Macedonians in taking up a collection.
Paul connects that giving to grace. “Grace” is often defined as “undeserved kindness.” Does that mean that giving of my hard-earned money is an act of undeserved kindness on my part? If that’s it, then others should be grateful for what I’m doing for them out of the goodness of my heart. (Pause) Not likely.
Does “grace” have something to do with a change of attitude—for instance, as when a person is said to “age gracefully”? Can “giving gracefully” mean “giving without feeling the pinch”? (Pause) I doubt it.
Or does “this act of grace” have something to do with a flow of motion, as when a dancer is said to move “gracefully”? Seems a stretch.
Each of those possibilities is eliminated by the first verse of our text. St. Paul talks about grace given: “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.”
It wasn’t as if the people of Macedonia were naturally more inclined to good works than anywhere else. It was the work of God. It was a manifestation of God’s grace, which enlarged their hearts. For Christians to help each other, to give freely and joyfully, is not an evidence of unusual generosity or a special merit of which they may boast. It’s the work of God’s grace, a grace for which all Christians and all Christian congregations should seek and beg in honest prayer.
It was an unusually rich grace, which had been given to the Macedonian congregations. Persecuted by their pagan neighbors and in the midst of deep poverty, God had led them to give very generously. Instead of making them discouraged and causing them to withdraw from the collection, their afflictions furnished a test of their faith and love and proved the sincerity of both. They were so full and overflowing with the joy which they had in Christ that they opened their hearts wide and contributed liberally for the relief of their brothers.
So far did they excel in this respect that Paul could testify of them: “For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief the saints.” The Macedonian church not only went to the very limit of their ability, but even beyond in their eagerness to come to the aid of fellow Christians who were even poorer than they.
All too often it seems that we Christians must be begged and implored and urged and admonished and coaxed and cajoled to give of our abundance. But here the case was just the opposite. The Macedonians not only decided to give of their own accord, but they even begged Paul to grant them the special favor of permitting them to share in this work of ministering to the saints. What an example for the churches of our day! What an example for you and me!
But the climax of their generosity is pictured by St. Paul when he says: “And this, not as expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.” The Macedonians offered themselves and all they had, without any restriction, at the disposal of God and the apostle Paul. It was an act of simple sacrifice, which far exceeded even his wildest hopes, even after he had granted their petition to share in the collection for Jerusalem. And this was done, not to build their own egos, but because they regarded it as agreeing with the will of God and as a result of His grace.
Paul goes on to urge the Corinthians to similar generosity by pointing them to the proof of their own love for Christ: “But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.”
Paul is simply asking the Corinthians to be consistent with themselves and their resources. They are already using God’s gracious gifts of faith, speech, knowledge, zeal, and love. Generous giving is also gift of God granted to Christians. In fact, they already have it, if they will only put it to use.
Lest they feel offended even at this gentle way of putting the matter, Paul adds: “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine” (2 Corinthians 8:8). As their spiritual leader, dealing with their growth in their Christian faith, Paul would have had a right to give them definite instructions. But he refrains from doing so in the instance of this collection, lest he spoil the joy of their voluntary giving.
Still, Paul wants to test their love. For he knows that the zeal of the Macedonians ought to stimulate the Corinthians to a similar enthusiasm, and that way it should be proved whether their love was genuine. If they permitted their poorer brethren to overshadow their efforts in the matter of this collection, it should be fairly established that their love toward Christ, is not of the right kind.
This introduces the weightiest argument of all. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The Corinthians are familiar with this teaching, since it is one of the basic doctrines taught by the apostle, just as it is repeated in all Gospel-preaching.
Far greater than the Macedonian example is what the Lord Jesus has done.
Jesus, the Son of God, the one who has always existed (John 1:1; 8:58), through whom all things were created (Colossians 1:16), who shared the Father’s glory from eternity (John 17:5), did not hold on to His equality with God, but made Himself nothing, laying aside His glory, humbly assuming our human nature, and even submitting to death on a cross.
Christ took on Himself the poverty of our sin in order that we might share in His royal treasures. He gave up His divine riches during His earthly life in order that we and all who trust in Him would be made eternally wealthy. He went from riches to rags so that we would go from rags to riches.
With such an example of supreme self-sacrifice before their eyes at all times, what could the Corinthians, what can we do, but strive with all the spiritual power at our command to emulate the great example and to follow in the footsteps of our great Lord? God want us to excel in this act of grace; not for His sake, but for ours. Because it’s good for us!
You see… God doesn’t need our money. I know it is a shocking thing for a pastor to say (because we are paid out of your offerings), but God is quite capable of getting by without our cash. Strictly speaking from a theological standpoint (and that’s what I’m called to do), you are not giving your offering to pay the pastor, to keep the lights on, or any of those other things listed on the annual budget. You give back to God! He has chosen to use that giving as the means in which He provides for the pastor and his family and covers all the cost of ministry.
Having said that, let me assure you that we will pass the offering plates around today. That is your opportunity to test the sincerity of your love. That is your opportunity for your joy to well up in rich generosity. That is your opportunity to give yourself to the Lord in keeping with His will. That is your opportunity to excel in this act of grace!
God wants our giving to come with the right attitude. He wants us to give because He gave first. The reason we give is because God has given us forgiveness and life in Jesus Christ. Christ gave His life for us on the cross, and only when we have that clearly in view can we then talk about this act of grace.
We don’t give because we are commanded to. God does tell us to give… but our giving should be free and spontaneous. We also don’t give because there’s a current cash flow shortage or urgent need. Remember: we’re not giving to meet budgets; we’re giving back to God! In His grace, God provides for His work to be done through us. So we give generously, in response to all the blessings that God has provided us.
We are to give proportionately. If God has been cheap with you, be cheap with Him. But if God has truly blessed you, let your giving be a blessing. Remember, we don’t give leftovers. (Can you imagine serving dinner guests the leftovers after your own family has eaten first?)
Give cheerfully. If it bothers you to give or you do it because you think you have to do it, don’t. God can get His work done without you and me. He doesn’t need our offerings; He wants our hearts.
Finally, give firstfruits. That is, give first to the Lord and to the charities He has led you to support, and then pay your bills. This takes a bit of discipline and planning, but it’s the best way to do it.
The question, you see, is not whether God can get His work done without us. (He certainly can.) The question is whether we are going to be part of that work. Are we going to experience this act of grace? Living faith in Jesus Christ reaches out to other people and helps financially as well as spiritually. Giving exercises our faith in a way that’s hard to misunderstand. We can talk a good game about how much we love Jesus and how much we care for the people in the world but check where we spend our money and the truth comes out.
In grace, Jesus gave His all. This is something which we, as sinners, cannot do. We are bound to be too unthankful and stingy when it comes to giving in the same proportion with which we have been blessed. Thankfully, Christ gave His all in our stead when He lived here on earth and died on the cross.
And it is that gift—that grace of salvation—that spurs you on through the Holy Spirit’s work to excel in this act of grace. You give freely, proportionately, cheerfully, and of your firstfruits because God has done so for you first. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was rich, yet for your sakes became poor so that through His poverty you might become rich. You know that for His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.