“They Gave Themselves First to the Lord” Why Giving Begins with the Heart, Not the Pocketbook
II Corinthians 8:1-5
September 7, 2003
Last night some Moody students came over to our house for some pizza and to watch a football game. One of them asked what I planned to preach on today. When I told him, he said, “Too bad.” Then, “Too bad you have to preach about money.” I laughed and said it didn’t bother me at all. This morning a friend said, “I know this series is hard for you to preach.” “It’s not hard for me to preach,” I said with a smile. He grinned and said, “It’s not hard because you’re committed.” That’s true, but that’s not why it’s not hard. It’s not hard for me because money is not the main issue. Money is secondary. I have the pleasure of declaring the Word of God this month as part of the Legacy Campaign. It’s always an honor to preach the Word to the Lord’s people. And in the end, what people give or don’t give is between them and the Lord. I don’t know what anyone gives anyway so I don’t even think about that. To me, preaching to my own people God’s Word is a joy and not a burden.
My goal this month is to lay a biblical foundation for the Legacy Campaign. For those who don’t know, we’re in the middle of a $2.6 million renovation of our West Wing and the Chapel/Portico area. As you know, our buildings are old—the sanctuary is over 100 years old and the West Wing is almost 70 years old. Although we’ve done a lot of work since we purchased these church buildings in 1979, the areas we are renovating have been largely untouched for many decades. A month ago, while I was walking home (I do that a lot lately since it’s so hard to find a parking spot), I passed some fellows in the east parking lot. I overhead one say to the other, “Why do they have to tear up the church?” I’m pretty sure he’s not part of the congregation because anyone who attends here understands the problem. Every Sunday we’re putting 1,400 people on less than two acres in the middle of a crowded city. We can’t expand outward but we can renovate what we have to make it more usable for more people. That’s what the Legacy Campaign is all about.
Our text today is part of the longest section on Christian giving in the New Testament—II Corinthians 8-9. The Apostle Paul had a great burden for the poor Christians in Jerusalem and everywhere he went, he took up money to help them. Earlier he had appealed to the churches of northern Greece—an area called Macedonia. They had responded in a magnificent fashion. Now he writes to the Christians in southern Greece—in Corinth—and asks them to do the same thing. Basically, he uses the generosity of the Macedonians as a good example for the Corinthians to follow. It would be as if someone said, “You people in Chicago, listen up. This is what the people of St. Louis did. You should follow their example.” That’s what’s happening in these two chapters.
For this message, I want to draw ten giving principles from the first five verses of II Corinthians 8.
1. Giving is an act of grace. v. 1
All that we believe about Christian giving must begin with the truth that giving is an act of grace. When Paul speaks of the “grace” given to the Macedonians, he means that as they had received the grace of God, so now that same grace motivated them to give to the poor saints in Jerusalem.
They received grace.
They gave grace.
Freely you receive.
Freely you give.
This is the pattern of Christian giving. Grace stands at the bottom of all that we do as Christians. We love him because he first loved us. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son (John 3:16). God always makes the first move. We are the receivers, always. And even if we give, it is because we first have received grace from the Lord.
Let’s turn that statement around and look at it another way. If God has not done anything for you, don’t give him a dime. That’s right. Don’t give him anything. If you feel that God has done nothing for you, then there is no reason to give at all. This is why Christian giving belongs to those who are truly converted through faith in Jesus Christ. If your life has been radically changed, then you have a reason to give. Until that change occurs, you have no reason to give. But if you have met the Lord and through faith have received new life in Christ, then you have a reason to give. We give because we have received from the Lord.
2. Giving is not necessarily related to income. v. 2
“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity” (v. 2). In this verse Paul brings four things together that we wouldn’t normally join together: trials, poverty, joy, generosity. The first two and the last two don’t seem to go together, but they do. It’s almost as if Paul is saying:
Trials + joy + poverty = Rich generosity.
It just doesn’t compute. The phrase “rich generosity” has the idea of opening your bag of money and saying, “Here, take some. I’ve got plenty more where that came from.” Yet these people were dirt poor. How does that happen? Most of us would say to a person without much money, “Don’t spend anything else. Hold on to everything. And don’t give any either. Save your money. You can always give later.” We like to hold on to our money when we’re going broke. Not the Macedonians. They said, “We’re going broke. We’d better give it away now before it’s all gone.”
How is this possible? They understood that giving has nothing to do with how much money you have. Giving is not about how much money you have in the bank, or whether or not you have a job, or how your stock portfolio is doing. It’s not even about how many bills you have stacked on your desk at home. Giving is about a heart set free from the love of money and therefore so filled with joy that giving is a blessing, not a burden. In short, giving is not about money at all. It’s about the great paradox of a heart made free by full surrender to the Lord.
Note that they had “overflowing joy.” A miserly man said to the usher as the offering plate was passed, “I think I could give $10 and not feel it.” “Why don’t you give $20 and feel it,” the usher replied. Good point. Giving that touches no feelings of the heart does us no good whatsoever. If we can give and never think about it or give and never “feel it,” then why give at all? I’m not suggesting that we should “give till it hurts.” That’s a negative approach. I suggest, based on this passage, that we should “give till we are laughing with joy.” That’s how the Macedonians gave, and God blessed them for it.
3. Giving is not necessarily related to positive circumstances. v. 2
Paul speaks of a “severe trial” that had come to the Macedonians—perhaps a wave of persecution from unbelievers. But that did not hinder them at all. Since their giving was not dependent on good circumstances, it was not deterred by bad circumstances. They gave because their hearts were fully committed to Christ. This is quite different from the way most of us tend to look at things. For instance, I know that some people at Calvary are going through a hard time financially right now. And I know that more than a few of our people lost quite a bit of money when the stock market collapsed several years ago. I know that partly from personal experience because it happened to me. And many of us are trained to think of giving as something we do when we have some “extra” money. That is, we tend to give from our surplus. And when we have a deficit, we don’t give at all. Not the Macedonians. They gave from their deficit—and they did so with overflowing joy. It’s an entirely different way of looking at life.
4. When the heart is free, there is no limit on how much we give. v. 3
This is what Paul means when he says, “For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability” (v. 3). The Macedonians, though they were desperately poor, gave as much as they could, and then they gave some more. That is, they gave more than they “should have given.” No doubt, some people thought they were not prudent or careful in their giving. They gave and gave and when they got to their “limit,” they blew right past it and kept on giving. This sort of thing can only happen when the heart is set free from the stranglehold of materialism.
5. When the heart is free, we look for opportunities to give even more. v. 4.
But it gets even better. The Macedonians begged Paul for an opportunity to give even more. I’ve been a pastor for 25 years and that has never happened to me. No one has ever said, “Pastor Ray, let’s take another offering. I’ve got more money I want to give.” I know what people say about preachers who preach sermons about money. It’s probably the #1 complaint outsiders make—”They’re only after my money.” I’ve heard Jerry Falwell say that when he dies, his friends are going to put on his tombstone, “And the beggar died,” because he is always asking for money for one cause or another. And any pastor can feel that way because it’s true that we ask people to give money for the support of God’s work. But here’s a case where Paul didn’t have to beg for money. The people begged him to let them give. I’m smiling as I type this because I’m still waiting for that to happen in my ministry. When the heart is free, we no longer feel like we have to hold on so tightly, and we actually start looking for ways to give even more.
6. If we give grudgingly, the problem is probably not a lack of money. v. 4
This seems like a logical corollary of what has already been said. Lack of money is hardly ever our major problem. Sure, I’d like to have $10 million to give away. But that’s not what holds me back from giving now. If we struggle with giving, the problem is not with how much we make or how much we owe or how much we owe on our credit cards. Our real problem—the one we all struggle with—is that we are wedded to the world. Perhaps I should say we are “welded” to the world. We are so used to measuring all things by money and the things money can buy that we end up measuring life itself by what we own.
But when we love the world, we block the blessing of God in our lives. You have heard it said that “you can’t out-give God,” and that is true. It is also true that you can’t “out-withhold” God either. If you hold on too tightly to what you have, you forfeit the blessing of God that could be yours. The irony of all this is that we American Christians have so much, yet we are starving spiritually. Looking back over my own experience, I would say that the most joyful Christians I have met are the believers of the Jerusalem Baptist Church in Pignon, Haiti. Four times I have been there, most recently last May, and four times I have been amazed at what I have seen. The town itself is poor beyond belief. With a population of 35,000 people, the town has perhaps six cars. No paved roads, no running water, no electricity, no sewage system, unemployment around 80%, per capita income around $200 per year. Each Sunday 1,000 people or more gather at the church. They have so little, but they sing with such joy, such exuberant faith in the living God. They meet to pray at 4:00 a.m. They worship with such total commitment. And somehow, they support eight elementary schools (maybe more), a large Christian high school, widows’ homes, an orphanage, and they continually feed the poor. Four times I have been there, and I still do not know how they do it. It must be God. I go back so that I can experience once again their joy and their faith and their love.
I do not say this in order to praise poverty because the believers in Pignon are doing all they can to raise their standard of living. They have dreams of a better life, and I join them in dreaming of better days. But it is still true that those who have nothing but God view the world much differently than those who have God plus material wealth. That’s why Jesus said it is difficult for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23). When giving is difficult, the problem is generally not a lack of money. It usually lies within the heart.
7. Once we yield ourselves to the Lord, then we find the joy we seek. v. 2
That’s exactly what happened to the Macedonians. Not even their “severe trial” could take away their joy. And their poverty was no barrier to their generosity. Because they had given themselves completely to the Lord, they were free. Because they were free, they had overflowing joy. And because they had such joy, neither poverty nor trials could stop them from being generous.
This is a theme Paul develops in II Corinthians 9:7 when he says, “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The motive of the heart matters to God. Joyful giving honors God because it is a way of saying, “Lord, we love you so much that we want to give to support those things that matter most to you.”
8. Once we have joy, giving will be a blessing, and not a burden. v. 3
That’s why they could give and keep on giving, and even give beyond what people thought was reasonable. What seems incredible to us was “normal” to them. Giving becomes a blessing when the heart is free. And the heart will never be free until we first give ourselves wholly to the Lord.
9. Once the burden is gone, we will surprise ourselves and others by how much we are free to give. v. 5
Listen to how Paul puts it in verse 5: “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.” Because Paul knew of their poverty and their severe trial, and because he did not want to burden them, he expected them to give a certain amount and no more. And if they had given that amount, Paul would have been satisfied, and the Lord would have been glorified, and the poor Christians in Jerusalem would have been helped. All would be well. There was no obligation for them to go beyond Paul’s expectation or what they themselves could afford to do. But they blew right through every expectation put on them by others. They “blew the roof off” in their giving. That’s what happens when we are free, and filled with joy, and when giving becoming a blessing, not a burden. Free grace leads to free giving, and since grace is abundant, giving is also abundant. That’s how grace works. It produces far more than the law could have demanded.
10. We cannot give freely until our hearts are given fully to the Lord. v. 5
Here we come to the heart of the matter. Paul says plainly, “They gave themselves first to the Lord.” That means they did not give out of guilt or frustration or in response to pressure or manipulation. They gave because they wanted to. And they wanted to because they had willingly surrendered everything to the Lord. So think of it this way.
First, there are burdened believers who are weighed down by materialism and the love of money. Giving for them is a chore and a bother. When hard times come, they can’t give because their hearts are not free.
Second, when we give ourselves to the Lord, all those burdens are lifted. Once we say, “Lord, all that I have I received from you. I here and now gladly yield all of it back to you,” then we are free. Once we open our clenched fists and stop trying to hold on to everything, then suddenly all of life is open to us.
Third, once the burdens are lifted, we are free before the Lord and free in the world.
Fourth, once we are free, joy overflows our hearts.
Fifth, once we have that sort of joy, giving becomes a blessing, not a burden.
Sixth, once giving is a blessing, we surprise ourselves by our eagerness to give more and more.
Seventh, the result of all this is the “rich generosity” Paul mentions in verse 2.
So let me lay it out this way, moving from left to right:
Burdened … yielded … free … joy … blessing … eager … generous.
Some people are still stuck on the left side; they think this sermon is about money! It’s not about money at all. It’s about your heart, which is where all true giving begins. The money part is just the afterglow of everything else. The “rich generosity” is the cherry on top of the banana split. The great reward is the freedom and joy and blessing that comes from offering yourself completely to the Lord.
Only the Converted Can Do This
By the way, only a truly converted person can do this. An unconverted person can never enter into the freedom and blessing and the joy because he has never given himself to Jesus in the first place. Paul is writing as a Christian to Christians to explain the blessing of Christian giving. Only the converted can give like this. Only the converted should give like this. As a side note, this is why it is wrong for the church to appeal to the world to pay its bills. The world has no abiding interest in the things of God. The Lord’s work belongs to the Lord’s people and it is our responsibility to pay the bills. We ought not ask the unsaved to give. There is a great danger that the unsaved will think (as many of them do) that somehow, someway, their check in the offering plate will help open the door to heaven.
There is great confusion right at this point among many people. Money cannot buy entrance into heaven. That’s why Paul emphasizes that the Macedonians first gave themselves to the Lord. Give to the church—yes. But give yourself to Jesus first. And until you give yourself fully to Christ, keep your money in your pocket where it belongs.
I ran across these striking words from Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843):
I fear there are many hearing me who now know well that they are not Christians because they do not love to give. To give largely and liberally, not grudging at all, requires a new heart; an old heart would rather part with its life blood than its money. Oh my friends! You better enjoy your money; make the most of it; give none of it away; enjoy it quickly; for I can tell you, you will be beggars throughout eternity.
He spoke with more firmness than we would speak today, perhaps, but his words are true. The lost need not give money, for money will not save them. They might as well keep their money because they will part with it soon enough anyway. The lost need Jesus. Until they meet him, nothing else matters.
During this week, and especially today as I thought about this worship service, I have been earnestly praying that God would save the lost during this month of stewardship preaching. We often say, “Don’t invite the lost when we preach on stewardship,” but this is precisely the wrong attitude. All of God’s Word is profitable and needs to be heard. I pray that God will attend the preaching of the Word with the power of the Holy Spirit so that sinners might be saved this very month.
A Time for Joy
Let me wrap up by saying something about the Legacy Campaign that is coming to a climax this month. The total cost of the current renovation and new construction is around $2.6 million. For that we are getting a completely renovated gym, two floors of new classrooms, a new nursery, a new Adult Bible Fellowship room, and an enlarged, enclosed, heated and air-conditioned portico, plus air conditioning in the West Wing. These things will greatly enhance our ministry potential, especially for children and teenagers. God has enabled us to raise $1 million already and we need to raise around $1.6 million more to pay off the line of credit for the remainder of the project. How should we view this campaign? The answer is, with joy. Let this be a time of great joy for us. It ought to be. You can do the math yourself. Each week around 1,400 people gather for worship and we need to raise $1.6 million. Brothers and sisters, we can do it! There are many of us, and God is generous. He is able to supply all we need. And who knows what a great outpouring of blessing there would be at the end of this month when the amount we need is fully subscribed and even over-subscribed. I am happy to say that the leaders of the congregation (pastors, elders, staff, steering committee) have already pledged $300,000. That means we need around $1.3 million from the remainder of the congregation. By God’s grace, we can do this, and we should do this, for the good of the church and for the glory of God.
As your pastor, I pledge to do all I can. I want to give as much as I can—and then some. My wife Marlene and I have talked and prayed about our commitment, and I plan to share with you next week the process we went through, and the decision we made. I want to give generously because I want the joy that comes with the freedom of surrendering everything to the Lord.
I love this church. And I love the people of this church. For over 14 years we have been together as pastor and people. We have walked together and worked together and prayed together and laughed and cried together. In good times and bad times, God has brought us together and time and again, he has proved himself faithful to us. I am excited about the future possibilities. On the horizon are vast open doors for ministry as we help people in our community and around the world discover the life-changing power of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We’re here because we believe in the power and prospect of true conversion and real life-change by the power of Jesus Christ.
Would you join me? This is not a command. I have no command to give. This is an invitation to joy. And an opportunity to trust God in a new way so that our faith might grow and our joy might increase. And it is a chance to demonstrate to a watching world that our God is able to meet our needs.