Christians should give willingly: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). This stands in contrast to giving a tithe in the Old Testament, under the Law, which was “under compulsion.”
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The New Testament Expects Giving Willingly Versus Giving a Tithe
Why doesn’t God command us to give a certain percent? Because He wants us to give willingly out of thankfulness, versus giving out of obligation to a command. Second Corinthians 8 and 9 provide the richest, most detailed teaching on giving in the New Testament. Keep these chapters in mind because we’ll repeatedly draw from them to understand Christian giving.
Paul told the Corinthians, “See that you excel in everything [and that would include giving]. I say this not as a command” (2 Corinthians 8:7-8 ESV). This is interesting! Paul was an apostle, which means he had the authority to command his readers to give. We know he wanted them to give because that was the point of this portion of his letter, but right when it sounded like he was about to command them to give, he clarified that he was not doing that. Why? He wanted them to give willingly!
In the next chapter, Paul said,
I thought it necessary to exhort the brethren to go to you ahead of time, and prepare your generous gift beforehand, which you had previously promised, that it may be ready as a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation…let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity, for God loves a cheerful giver.”2 Corinthians 9:5, 7
The Corinthian believers promised they would give, but they hadn’t yet because it’s much easier to talk about giving than to actually give. Paul reminded them of their promise by sending Christians ahead to get the gift, but he still wanted it to be a willing gift and not done under obligation. He didn’t want to force the gift out of them. The words “grudging obligation” refer to the conditions when giving. We’re not supposed to give because of external pressure, such as the demands of others. When giving is done this way, it resembles taxation more than worship.
Paul’s words are clear, which is why it’s disappointing when Christian leaders disobey them. We can’t help but think of televangelists and pastors saying almost anything to get people to give. They will guilt, shame, lie, and make ridiculous promises if it helps them obtain one more dollar. They aren’t trying to help people grow in their relationships with the Lord. Instead, they’re motivated by greed and covetousness. Bible teacher Warren Wiersbe said,
During my years of ministry I have endured many offering appeals. I have listened to pathetic tales about unbelievable needs. I have forced myself to laugh at old jokes that were supposed to make it easier for me to part with my money. I have been scolded, shamed, and almost threatened, and I must confess that none of these approaches has ever stirred me to give more than I planned to give. In fact, more than once I gave less because I was so disgusted with the worldly approach.Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2: Ephesians–Revelation (Colorado Springs, CO; David C. Cook, 1989), 656.
Writer Mark Twain once quipped, “I was so sickened by the long appeal that I took a bill out of the plate.” We don’t pass the plate at Woodland Christian Church because the Bible says people aren’t supposed to give “of necessity.” Instead, we offer different ways for people to give when and how they want. To give praise to God, I’ll share that He has always taken good care of us. I can’t think of one leadership meeting that has ever involved concern over our finances. You might think that’s rare, but as elders, we keep coming back to how it’s our position to trust God to provide, but it’s not our position to tell the congregation how much to give. Instead, we encourage the congregation to pursue God in this area and seek His guidance on how much He would have them give.
God Sees the “Heart Gift” Versus the “Hand Gift”
Imagine a man has a wallet divided into two sections. In one section he puts the money for the offering. In the other section he puts the rest of his cash, which is a considerably larger amount.
When the offering is taken, he accidentally reaches into the wrong part of his wallet, takes out the large amount of cash, and puts that in the plate. After service he realizes what happened, tells the pastor, and comforts himself by saying, “It doesn’t really matter, though, because I gave it to the Lord, and He recognized the amount I gave.”
The pastor asked, “How much did you intend to give?”
The man answered, “I intended to give the smaller amount, but I accidentally gave the larger.”
The pastor replied, “Then that’s what God recognized because that’s what you decided to give in your heart.”
Wow, that’s telling, isn’t it? Think of it like this: If we want to give more but can’t, God recognizes that, because He sees what’s in our hearts. If the hand gives more than the heart wanted to give, God recognizes that, too, because He sees what’s in the heart versus in the hand.
Giving Willingly in the Old Testament
You might ask, “If God wanted His people to give willingly under the New Covenant, why did He command them to give a tithe under the Old Covenant?”
First, the tithe served a similar purpose as the taxes we pay today. Tithing was the national taxation system for the nation of Israel. The parallel for us is paying taxes, which the New Testament commands. Jesus said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 ESV), and He set an example by paying the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). Paul said, “Because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Romans 13:6-7 ESV).
In the same way that our taxes support the government and its services, the Old Testament tithe supported the Jewish nation’s priesthood and their services.
Second, even though God commanded specific tithes from the Israelites, He still wanted His people to give willingly even under the Old Covenant. Consider these examples.
In Exodus 25, God wanted Israel to build the tabernacle. Because it’s the Old Testament, we might expect Him to say, “Every man must give a tithe so the tabernacle can be built.” Instead, He said, “From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me” (Exodus 25:2 ESV). There’s no mention of giving a tithe even though the Mosaic law had just been instituted in the previous chapter.
Later, Moses said, “This is the thing which the LORD commanded, saying: ‘Take from among you an offering to the LORD. Whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it as an offering to the LORD” (Exodus 35:4-5). We might expect Moses to say, “The thing that the Lord has commanded is a tithe,” but he appealed to the people’s generosity because He wanted them to give willingly. A few verses later:
Everyone came whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and they brought the LORD’s offering…They came…as many had a willing heart …All the women whose hearts stirred…The children of Israel…whose hearts were willing to bring material for all kinds of work which the LORD, by the hand of Moses, had commanded to be done.”Exodus 35:21-29
The words “heart was stirred…spirit was willing…willing heart…hearts were willing” describe the willing giving God wanted even under the Mosaic law. There’s a strong emphasis on the people themselves (their hearts and spirits) versus an external source, such as the priests or law. This prevented them from giving “of necessity” (2 Corinthians 9:7).
Regarding giving to the poor, Deuteronomy 15:10 says, “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him” (ESV). This language is similar to 2 Corinthians 9:7: give freely and “not grudgingly.” Again, Deuteronomy 16:10 says, “Keep the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand.”
Solomon described the giving that results in blessing: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want” (Proverbs 11:24 ESV). Giving willingly is elevated, while giving reluctantly causes suffering.
Which one—a willing giver or a reluctant giver—better describes you? Often the best way to learn who we are and who we need to be is by example. Let’s consider two Old Testament givers.
Jacob Demonstrates Giving Unwillingly
In the Old Testament, Jacob tricked his brother, Esau, out of his birthright. Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, told him to flee because Esau wanted to murder him for his deception. Jacob had to leave his family behind, not knowing when or if he would see them again. At this low point in Jacob’s life, God spoke to him in a dream and made him many wonderful promises. When Jacob woke:
Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God. And this stone which I have set as a pillar shall be God’s house, and of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You.”Genesis 28:20-22
I read this and picture God sarcastically saying, “Wow, I can’t believe it. Jacob, you’ll give me a full tithe!” Jacob hasn’t been given the name Israel yet, which means he’s still “heel grabber” versus “God prevails.” He tried to manipulate everyone in his life, including God. The bargain he wanted to strike was that if God would do these things for him, then God would be his God and he would give him a tithe. Jacob’s loyalty and giving was conditional. He implied that if God didn’t do these things for him, then God wouldn’t be his God and he wouldn’t give Him a tithe. But we don’t make God our God and give because of what He will do for us. We make God our God and give because He is God and because of what He has already given us.
At times, we can be tempted to give unwillingly like Jacob. We might pray something like, “God, if You’ll do this for me, then I’ll do this for You. If You’ll give me this raise…bonus…car…house…, then I’ll give you this in return.”
If we give unwillingly, consider what God can and can’t bless. He can bless the gift, which is to say He can still use the money for His purposes. He doesn’t look at the gift and say, “This was given unwillingly so I can’t do anything with it.” But can God bless us? It’s hard to imagine any spiritual benefit for the giver when the giving is done reluctantly versus willingly. Let’s consider Abraham’s example to see what it looks like to give willingly.
Abraham Demonstrates Giving Willingly
When Abraham rescued his nephew, Lot, by defeating four kings, he came to possess considerable wealth. After returning from the battle, he met Melchizedek:
Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And [Melchizedek] blessed [Abraham] and said: “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” And he gave him a tithe of all.Genesis 14:18-20
The “principle of first mention” states that God reveals the truest meaning of words the first time they’re used in the Bible.David L. Cooper, “The Law of First Mention,” Biblical Research Monthly (Adelanto, CA; Biblical Research Society, 1947-9), 48.
When the word tithe appears in Leviticus, it’s part of the Mosaic law, which is to say it’s commanded. But when the word tithe occurs for the first time in the above verses, this is 500 years before the law was given. This is the truest tithing because it demonstrates giving willingly apart from the law. Abraham gave “as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity” (2 Corinthians 9:7). He gave like a New Covenant believer under the Old Covenant!
Melchizedek was a king and priest who blessed Abraham. Abraham responded by giving willingly to him. Jesus is also a king and priest: He’s the King of kings (Revelation 19:16) and great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). Considering how much more Jesus has blessed us than Melchizedek blessed Abraham, how much more willingly should we give to Jesus than Abraham gave to Melchizedek?
Thankfulness Produces Better Giving Than Law
Because there was no law commanding Abraham to give to Melchizedek, his giving was motivated by thankfulness. Giving out of thankfulness is superior to giving out of obligation, as evidenced by these two Old Testament accounts.
First, the people of Israel gave for the construction of the tabernacle:
[The builders of the temple] received from Moses all the contribution that the people…brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. [The people] still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning. [The builders] said to Moses, “The people bring much more than enough for doing the work that the LORD has commanded us to do.” So Moses gave command, “Let no man or woman do anything more for the contribution for the sanctuary.” So the people were restrained from bringing (ESV).Exodus 36:3-6
The people gave so willingly Moses had to tell them to stop! Here we see a command connected to giving, but it was a command to stop. This is what hearts of worship produce. While I doubt we’ll ever be told to stop giving, I can say that we’ll always be motivated to give more when we give out of thankfulness.
The second example might involve the greatest amount of wealth ever accumulated in the Old Testament. David wanted to build the temple, but God told him he couldn’t because he had “shed much blood (1 Chronicles 22:8). Because David was eager to make the temple a success, he did everything he could to help, stopping short of doing the actual building. He collected all the materials, stating that it included “one hundred thousand talents of gold [7,500,000 pounds] and one million talents of silver [75,000,000 pounds], and bronze and iron beyond measure, for it is so abundant” (1 Chronicles 22:14). How was so much wealth accumulated? The people gave willingly and joyfully:
[David asked], “Who then is willing to consecrate himself this day to the LORD?” Then the [people]…offered willingly…[They] rejoiced, for they had offered willingly, because with a loyal heart they had offered willingly to the LORD; and King David also rejoiced greatly. Therefore David blessed the LORD…“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to offer so willingly as this?…As for me, in the uprightness of my heart I have willingly offered all these things; and now with joy I have seen Your people, who are present here to offer willingly to You.”1 Chronicles 29:5-17
Again, this echoes the language of 2 Corinthians 9:7. The people gave willingly and joyfully (variations of each word used ten times), not reluctantly or under compulsion, and this prefigures the way God wants His people to give under the New Covenant.
It’s important to observe that the Mosaic law wouldn’t have produced this much generosity—the people would have stopped giving well earlier. Only thankful hearts can give this much because they’ve been moved to do so as an act of joyful worship.
This is another reason it’s so sad when televangelists or church leaders try to get people to give out of obligation. What they should do is preach Christ and build people’s love and thankfulness for Him. Then people will give willingly because of what He has done for them.
So Why Give Willingly?
We give because we’re thankful. What an incredible gift God has given us in being able to worship Him this way! When we give willingly and not of necessity, we can be encouraged that we’re giving the way God desires, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). Because we’re not commanded to give a tithe, in the next chapter we’ll discuss the principles that help us decide on an amount. As you continue reading, keep Jesus in mind because only His radical act of self-giving can consistently move us to give as God desires—willingly out of thankful hearts of worship. Are you ready to jump in with me?