Generosity is a peculiar topic. Whenever it comes up, especially in church, things get uncomfortable in a hurry. The question begins to crop up in our minds: “Am I giving enough? How do I know I’ve given enough?” And if the pastor lays it on thick—telling us all about the overwhelming number of poor unfed orphans in India while we fat, disgusting, overfed Americans waste our money on luxuries—we become pretty convinced that we aren’t giving enough. The greater the sense of the need, the greater our sense of guilt.
I’ve always found it telling that in one of Paul’s most majestic passages about generosity, 2 Corinthians 5:13–21, he doesn’t drum up donations by beating people over the head with guilt. Instead, he applies the gospel in three distinct ways:
1. The gospel gives us a MOTIVATION to live sacrificially—the love of Christ (5:14).
As Paul says in 2 Cor 5:14, “The love of Christ controls us.” The love of Christ had become, for Paul, his guiding, motivating principle. He had begun to see everything in his life through that lens. The extravagant love that Christ had shown to Paul captured his heart, and Paul never got over it.
I am ashamed at how often I seem to “get over” my own salvation. I sometimes think about what it will be like to one day stand before Jesus, to finally and fully realize how lost I would have been had he not stepped in the gap for me. What will it be like when I see the nail scars in his hands and feet from where he took the wrath of God for my sin? In a certain sense, I know how vast his sacrificial love for me is now, but I don’t feel it like I will then. If I were to truly grasp the measure of his love, then living for him would be nothing but joy. The greatest sacrifice on earth wouldn’t feel like a sacrifice at all.
That vision is the motivation for sacrificial giving. Not guilt, but Christ’s love. We don’t give because God has needs. I repeat: God doesn’t need our cash. He doesn’t come to us, hat in hand, sheepishly asking for funding for his mission. We don’t give because God needs it, but because in giving we declare his value to us and our love for him. Jesus told us that if want to know what a person really loves, we should follow the trail of his money. What does our generosity say about how highly we value Jesus?
2. The gospel gives us a MEASURE for our sacrifice—Christ’s sacrifice for us (5:15, 21).
Two words characterize Paul’s description of Christ’s sacrifice for us—total and substitutionary. Christ’s sacrifice was total in that he died for us (v. 15); you can’t give any more than that. And it was substitutionary, as he points out in verse 21: Jesus became our sin so that we might become his righteousness. He took our place of condemnation and gave us his position of privilege.
Our generosity toward God should reflect the same measure of his sacrifice toward us. Jesus didn’t tithe his blood for us; he gave it all. Shouldn’t we respond by offering our all for him? Too often we implicitly tell God, “I’m willing to give you this much.” And maybe “this much” is generous, but there’s a limit. When we should be offering God a blank check with our lives, instead we simply give him the equivalent of a gift card.
Do you see your resources as yours to benefit from, or as opportunities to be generous to others? The world, of course, finds it absurd to be this open-handed with our resources (I earned it, I deserve to benefit from it!). And, in fact, that is precisely the context of 2 Corinthians 5: Paul has to defend himself against the charge that he’s out of his mind (v. 13). When was the last time your generosity made someone question your sanity?
3. The gospel gives us a MISSION in our sacrifice—the ministry of reconciliation (5:18).
Paul says that God gave the church “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). We always risk missing how profound this is. The church is given a mission so vital that nothing else should stand in its way: reconciling people to God. Every other ministry, however powerful and necessary, fails if it is divorced from this central mission. As a church, we strive to meet physical and social needs. After all, we are Christ’s ambassadors, which means we represent him in every sphere of life. But our primary focus is—and always must be—reconciling people to God. As we say at our church, “The local church is God’s Plan A.”
Seeing our ministry this way means that we see people as Paul did. As he said, “We regard no one according to the flesh any longer” (2 Cor 5:16). Paul saw people in only two categories: reconciled to God or not. The normal categories of rich or poor, white or black, Republican or Democrat, educated or blue-collar, simply do not apply. There are only those who know Christ and those who don’t.
In 1912, when the Titanic sank, news of who had survived and who hadn’t came back piecemeal. To keep track of the survivors for the families, a gigantic chalkboard was set up in downtown London, with two columns—“saved” and “lost.” As news trickled in, names would be written in one of the two columns. Going on to that ship, it may have mattered what class of society a person was from. But on that day, all that mattered was which side of the ledger your name was on.
That’s how Paul saw the world. And if you believe the gospel, you can never see others the same way again.