"Provision Principle: Save or Slave?"
Nov.26, 2006 2Cor.9:6-15
Appreciation seeks expression: humans are designed in such a way that true thankfulness for something bubbles forth and finds some way to verbally tell someone how much that was enjoyed. This past week's Citizen newspaper is an example: it was not surprising to find the photo and story of Constable Mounsey's funeral on the front cover. However I was struck by Bonnie Gropp's full-length tribute in the editorial pages. Then again, further back in the Obituary section, half a page was devoted to tributes from various individuals, including a Campvention representative. Through his relationships and good nature, David had made an impact on many people in the community, and they sought to express how much he was appreciated.
That's how God has built us. The most sublime instance of this occurs when we enjoy His Person and gifts and then return thanks and praise to Him, expressing appreciation for His grace and goodness. Though hardships come from time to time in this marred world, these too become opportunities by which we can share our resources and comfort with others so they in turn can praise God for the help received. That's what 'ministry' is all about - caring for others in the name of Christ.
Once when Jesus was dining at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a woman who was known to have lived a sinful life came and, weeping, anointed Jesus' feet with perfume. The Pharisee didn't think much of this! Jesus told the story of two men owing money to a moneylender. They couldn't repay him; he cancelled the debts of both. Jesus asked, "Which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "The one who had the bigger debt cancelled." Jesus proceeded to point out how the woman had lavished care upon him while Simon hadn't even offered the customary water for him to wash His feet. Jesus concluded, "I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven-- for she loved much.But he who has been forgiven little loves little." (Lk 7:47) Out of her appreciation for the grace God had extended to her, flowed an expression of tender genuine love and affection, honouring her Saviour.
As we look at 2Cor 9 in conjunction with the third week of our look at Ray Bowman & Eddy Hall's When Not to Build, we see that how we use our money / property in the church ought to reflect our appreciation for God's rich goodness toward us - and overflow in caring for others that prompts them in turn to praise God for the help we've shared with them.
Vv 6-15 in 2Cor 9 could be summed up by saying: God's gracious, giving nature | enriches us to share with those in need | with the end result that God is glorified, and His people unified (made more attached). Let's look at this in 3 parts. First, focus on God's gracious, giving nature.
V8 affirms, "And God is able to make all grace abound to you..." Grace is undeserved forgiveness for our sins through the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross; and, as an extension of that, all the good things and mercy that flow from our Heavenly Father after we trust in Jesus and are re-born, spiritually speaking. V10 recalls that God "supplies seed to the sower and bread for food..." He gives what we need to sustain life. V14 refers to "the surpassing grace God has given you"; and v15, the apostle bursts into spontaneous thanksgiving to God "for His indescribable gift". So, an undercurrent running through this whole section is God's grace and provision for us, morally and materially.
There are echoes of this in other parts of the New Testament. Paul wrote to the Philippians (4:19), "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." There's a promise worth memorizing, and claiming in prayer! Such grace is rooted in Jesus' generous nature. Just a chapter earlier, in 2Cor 8(9), Paul recalls the primary action of Jesus laying aside His heavenly glory and stepping onto our planet to die penniless for our purification: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." The Great Exchange. Jesus was a giving guy; His immense love for people expressed itself in continuous outreach and miracles of healing. Paul records in Acts 20:35 the example of his own lifestyle as a reflection of words of Jesus not found in the gospels: "In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" God's nature is not about self-seeking or 'getting', but giving and being a blessing.
God's grace enriches us - not scrimpingly or grudgingly, but with abundance, excess, overflow. We find many superlatives in this passage pointing to the immensity of God's goodness pouring out toward us. His provision isn't stinting or niggardly.V8 "God is able to make all grace ABOUND to you..." Note the 4-fold use of "all" for emphasis: "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work." Sounds pretty definite, doesn't it? V10 says God will "supply and INCREASE your store of seed and will ENLARGE the harvest of your righteousness." V11, "You will be MADE RICH in every way..." 14, it's SURPASSING grace; 15, God's INDESCRIBABLE gift - bursting the limits of our capacity to capture it in words, so amazing and wonderful.
All these adjectives and verbs of high degree stress the awesome resources the Lord makes available for His people. You can't out-give God! On one occasion Jesus told His disciples, "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Lu 6:38) There's that same sense of abundance, surpassing the need.
But the passage makes clear these resources aren't for hogging for ourselves; we're blessed to BE a blessing. Vv 5&6, the word NIV translates "generous/ly" is actually the Greek term from which we get "eulogy"; "whoever sows a blessing will also reap a blessing". God's grace is for passing on to others. Note the conjunctions: v8, "God is able to make all grace abound to you, SO THAT in all things...you will abound in every good work." V11, "You will be made rich in every way SO THAT you can be generous on every occasion..." V10 the 'seed' results in a 'harvest' of righteousness. It's to be sown, planted in projects, not stored to wither! In v9 the portrait of a God-fearing person from Psalm 112 is quoted; such a person "has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor"; earlier in the Psalm it says (112:5), "Good will come to him who is generous and lends freely." And in v13 Paul calls their service or ministry of giving "proof" of their Christianity - "by which you have PROVED yourselves"; their obedience and "generosity in sharing" back up their "confession of the gospel of Christ". Our profession of faith ought to find its outlet in sharing with those in need. Interesting here that the root word behind "obedience" was a Greek military term meaning to arrange in orderly formation under a leader's command; when I was in the military, I was introduced to the expression, "get your ducks in a row". Thus if we're under the command of the Lord Jesus, if we're His 'ducks in a row' submitting to His power and authority, obedience means His grace will flow out through us to impact others in a positive way.
So, (1) God's gracious nature (2) enriches us to share with those in need (3) with the end result that God is more glorified / magnified / appreciated, and His people more unified and attached affectionately to each other. V11 concludes, "and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God." That's the 'chief end of man' as the Westminster Confession understood it - "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." To come to appreciate and celebrate His wonderful love and great grace; to revel in Him for who He is. V13 is similar to 11: "Because of the service...men will praise God...for your generosity..." Again, in v12, "This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of God's people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God." Interesting terminology here - the word translated 'service' is the one we transliterate as LITURGY: normally understood as what one does in a worship service - but here Paul employs its alternate usage as "a gift or benefaction for the relief of the needy". Could the two be so similar?? Takes you back to Jesus' monumental statement in Matthew 25:40, "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."
God's grace pours into our lives and out to others in need - not just for their assistance, but so God in turn is praised and more appreciated, magnified, celebrated, honoured, renowned. But that's not all. Within the church, the body of believers, as this happens, our affection for each other grows and breaks down walls of distance and prejudice. Recall the setting for this relief project: a severe famine had devastated Palestine for several years during the reign of Claudius, as Acts 11(28ff) notes. The Gentile believers in Greece were moved to take up a significant relief collection for the hard-hit Jewish Christians back in Palestine - some of whom may have viewed Paul's Gentile converts as less than equal in status before God. But as the offering was couriered by Barnabas, Saul and helpers, the hearts of the Jewish Christians were touched and melted by the caring of the believers in other countries. Walls of nationality and prejudice were broken down; they recognized their solidarity and kinship in Christ. So Paul could write in v14, "And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you." The Greek has the sense of 'longing after'; NLT puts it, "And they will pray for you with DEEP AFFECTION because of the wonderful grace of God shown through you." If you've experienced sincere kindness at some crisis of pain or distress, you know what that's like - how your heart wells up with deep gratitude and affinity for those who found a way to express real caring toward you at that moment you were hurting. It bonds you. So, in this situation, God brought good from the bad through generosity - by which the Palestine Christians could experience a new warmth and acceptance toward their Greek benefactors. Walls broke down and attachment in Christ grew.
So, the big picture is: we are stewards of God's grace, passing it on generously (scattering it even with abandon) as we have richly received it, so others' needs are met - and God's goodness is appreciated more, and that recognition is expressed in heartfelt praise.
At least, that's how it worked in the early church, at its best. Koinonia, sharing, community fostered through generosity. "From each, according to their ability; to each, according to their need." How's it work today? Have we lost sight of that in the church in our privatized, materialistic, affluent North American culture?
What are we really 'about' as a church? GC2 (Great Commandment & Commission) would say - love God, love your neighbour - be and make disciples. Loving one another John 13-style, as Jesus understands the word, has something to do with washing one another's feet as He washed ours; laying down our life for one another as He did for us (Jn 13:14,34; 15:13). Do we really get to that in the midst of all our church busy-ness? The world is more impressed by genuine caring and compassion than our 'crystal cathedrals'. When a non-believer witnesses a Christian sacrificially demonstrating caring for someone in need, the Holy Spirit backs it up as a reflection of Jesus' infinite love for sinners, and the power of His Resurrection to overcome death and despair.
Ravi Zacharias has said, "Money is congealed life." Does the church's use of money reflect the priorities of the early church that sparked such repentance and explosive growth? Ray Bowman observes that how a church spends its money tells what is most important to that church - what its true priorities are. In the contest between Mortar and Ministry, there's been a shift over the centuries.
The early church's top financial priority was caring for the needy within the Christian community - first locally, second in other places; third was to meet the financial needs of local non-Christians. About AD 250 the relatively small church at Rome gave regular support to 1500 distressed persons, probably spending more than 80% of the church's income on relief. A historian writes, "Everybody was expected too seek out, street by street, the poorest dwellings of strangers, with the result that the Christians spent more money in the streets than the followers of other religions spent in their temples...What struck and astounded the outside observer the most was the extent to which poverty was overcome in the vicinity of the communities.This was achieved by their voluntary work of love, which had nothing to do with the more or less compulsory social welfare of the state."
Today, by contrast, Bowman notes that a typical North American church spends 25-55% of its budget on its facility, and another 30-50% on salaries. "It is rare for a church to spend more than 3% of its budget for intentional local outreach and to meet the needs of people in its own community.Most churches have little or no money budgeted specifically for benevolence or local outreach of any kind." Ouch! He adds, "In most cases, building and paying for buildings has replaced meeting people's needs as the church's top spending priority."
In our passage, Paul emphasized how generosity becomes a tremendous means of witness and service. Obedience in giving "proves" our confession of the Good News about Jesus. Having travelled widely and worked as a consultant with many churches, Bowman notes, "I have found a clear relationship between the generosity of congregations and their vitality and growth.A maintenance church, for example, one that is not growing, can operate on a giving level as low as 3% of its members' income.Because it does not grow, that is all it needs...For a church to enjoy continuous significant growth, its members will have to give 8-10% of their income." Generosity puts 'our money where our mouth is' and draws new people who experience God's grace through effective outreach.
Paul talks about God supplying 'seed' and enlarging the 'harvest of your righteousness'. The Psalm quote referred to 'scattering abroad gifts to the poor'. A farmer who keeps all his or her seed in the granary won't have much of a crop! It has to be sown, scattered. Ministry costs - money is the 'congealed life' congregations sow to provide ministries that scratch (as God leads) where their community 'itches'. Bowman provides several examples of innovative outreach ideas churches are using: a church in Iowa offers a Christian teen nightclub; one in South Dakota offers a ministry to teens who were in trouble with the law. Although it started in the parsonage basement, it outgrew that space and the pastor had to move to a different home. Ministry costs money. A Presbyterian church in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania offers clothes to all who need them. A Los Angeles church uses a neighbouring business building to offer Christian counselling through trained laypeople, supervised by a professional; there's a waiting line on evenings it's open. Another church bought used video games for kids to play; at some point the games are turned off and the kids move to an adjoining room to hear a message about new life. These churches are growing through their outreach, but that outreach required 'seed' money.
In 1Cor 3(16) Paul reminds believers that they collectively are God's 'building'; "you yourselves are God's temple...God's Spirit lives in you". He adds, "Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a "fool" so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight..." (1Co 3:18-19) Bowman really challenges churches not to adopt the world's way of thinking when it comes to financing construction. We may be tempted to approach matters of finance and property with the world's mindset, but that blocks God from blessing us.
How does the Bible view borrowing? Proverbs 22:7 says, "the borrower is servant to the lender." It's slavery: you're obligated to repay, and that jumps to the top of the priority list. Bowman says, "When a church borrows, the mortgage payment then takes priority over all other financial commitments. The church becomes a slave to the lender, placing itself under an authority other than God's...Debt allows us to live beyond our means, to build on our schedule rather than God's...God tells us to be content with what we have (Heb 13:5; 1Tim 6:6-8).Borrowing is a way to get things sooner than we could without borrowing.It expresses discontent with what God has provided...When the church borrows to build, it says, perhaps unintentionally, that God cannot be trusted to supply the church's need at the time of the need."
Virgil Vogt recommends prayer instead of borrowing - that we ask God for the resources needed, if the project's legitimate. He adds, "Can we take no for an answer and still be content? If we borrow, we withhold from God opportunities to bless us and supply our needs.And sometimes we may deny Him the opportunity to say no to a project." You can see how this relates closely to trust and Lordship. Are we really submitting to God - or trying to go ahead on our own?
Bowman offers several 'horror stories' of churches that borrowed in order to build, and the plans seemed good, but problems arose: the local economy slumped, people started moving away, and the lending institution foreclosed. All that time in planning was wasted; sometimes all that money was lost; and for years to come, the church's primary focus became the repayment of debt.
He offers a simple illustration that highlights the benefit of SAVING as an alternative to the SLAVERY of borrowing. Suppose a church takes out a $100,000 mortgage at 8% over a 10-year term. Payments are about $1200/month; over the ten years, the total cost is $145,560 - of which the bank gets 45,560.
Now, suppose instead of taking out a mortgage and building right away, the church instead designates a building fund and starts saving up $1200/month, say earning 5%. After 6 years the church's 'growth fund' will exceed $100,000. They can build. Now, in our first example they were still putting away 1200/month for another 4 years to pay off the mortgage. Suppose the saving church keeps paying their $1200/month into a ministry fund: over those last 4 years they'll be able to support $57,600 worth of ministry! Or, if they just keep saving at 5%, at the end of the 4 years they'll have another $65,000 available to use for their next building.
What's the difference? Same amount of money invested in both cases - 1200/month for 10 years. In the first case, the church got $100,000 for their building and the bank got 45,560 in interest. In the second case, the church got $100,000 for their building (after 6 years) AND 57,600 for ministry to the burdened and needy in their community (or even more for their next building)! Who needs that money more - the bank, or the burdened? Which way will God be more glorified? Which approach will result in "supplying the needs of God's people" and overflow "in many expressions of thanks to God" (v12)? Not to knock the banks, they serve their purpose - but they're just not in the same category as the 'needy'.
Bowman's "Principle of Provision" states, "A church should build only when it can do so within the income God has provided and without using funds needed for the church's present and future ministries to people." He observes, "If all the churches of North America would fully use existing space before adding more space and would move from debt financing to provision financing, total spending on church construction could be cut by more than half, and many billions of dollars every year would be saved." Think of the potential for outreach instead if all those funds were freed up!
Slavery is not God's will for His people. He wants us to experience joy and freedom in serving Him, not the world's bondage. Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free...If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (Jn 8:31-32,36) Paul was writing to the church at Galatia about avoiding legalistic Jewish rituals, but his words apply more generally to our Christian walk: "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Ga 5:1) May the Lord show us how to keep in step with His provision, so we can be generous and prompt others to overflow with thanksgiving and praise! Let's pray.