Some of the largest philanthropists in the world are non-Christians. Agnostics love to give to their Alma Maters as much as Christians; and the generosity of many believers does not always spring from gospel-centered reflection on Jesus Christ. Accordingly, we need to think more carefully about the relationship between believing the gospel and obeying God’s commands to give generously.
Among many places in the Bible that address this subject, Exodus teaches us that obedience, in general, and giving, in particular, are motivated by grace. Yesterday, we saw how obedience was a result of the Spirit’s work. Now today, I want to reflect on how God brought about obedience in the people of Israel, and how he does something similar in our lives.
He does not accomplish obedience in us through demand (alone), threat (alone), or reward (alone). Each of these speech-acts are important in their own right, but ultimately God does something more powerful to effect change in us. Something we should take note of, in order to live lives according to the gospel.
The Cause of Israel’s Obedience
In Exodus 35, Moses called for Israel to give gold, silver, precious wood and fabrics for the construction of the tabernacle. If you read carefully, you will notice that he doesn’t badger, manipulate, or threaten. He asked plainly, and the people gave generously. In fact, the giving was so abundant that Moses had to tell Israel to stop giving (Exod 36:5-7). This should immediately cause us to ask: How? Why did Israel who days earlier made a false God, now give with such generosity? Was this a guilt offering? Or was something else going on?
To begin with, lets read Exodus 35:20-29 and then lets make a few observations. Moses records,
Then all the congregation of the people of Israel departed from the presence of Moses. And they came, everyone whose heart stirred him, and everyone whose spirit moved him, and brought the LORD’s contribution to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the holy garments. So they came, both men and women. All who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and armlets, all sorts of gold objects, every man dedicating an offering of gold to the LORD. And every one who possessed blue or purple or scarlet yarns or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or goatskins brought them. Everyone who could make a contribution of silver or bronze brought it as the LORD’s contribution. And every one who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work brought it. And every skillful woman spun with her hands, and they all brought what they had spun in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen. All the women whose hearts stirred them to use their skill spun the goats’ hair. And the leaders brought onyx stones and stones to be set, for the ephod and for the breastpiece, and spices and oil for the light, and for the anointing oil, and for the fragrant incense. All the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work that the LORD had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the LORD.
Observations on Gospel-Centered Giving and Obedience
In these ten verses, we see a wonderful model of grace-inspired giving. If what Moses describes speaks of the totality of Israel, it is likely that all of Israel gave from hearts that were stirred up in affection for God. Thus, the giving was great because of God’s earlier grace in not only saving them from Egypt but in sparing them from the wrath they deserved because of the Golden Calf debacle.
There are a number of things to notice in these verses that pertain to obedience and giving.
First, the generosity was not motivated by guilt. Moses did not badger, demand, or manipulate. He called and Israel responded. Apparently, something had happened between Aaron’s call for gold and Moses’ call. The only text standing in between is God’s gracious revelation which presumably accounts for the change. Moses records that Israel’s hearts/spirits moved them. Here is the lesson: true obedience, true giving, true Christianity (in the OT and the NT) is a matter of a changed heart, not just a winsome sales pitch.
Second, if you want to produce giving people, you don’t use outward means of solicitation. Sure, pep talks, testimonies, and logical reasons for giving can be produced. But in the long run, Christians will give in direct proportion to their heart-felt understanding of the gospel. If someone is born again and their mind is taken captive to the gospel, they will be quick to give to the work of the gospel. Now of course this is according to their means—and it was in Israel, as well. But those committed to seeing the gospel go forward should be asking themselves, what can I do financially to further the ministry of my church or the ministry of gospel-preaching missionaries.
Third, grace is what motivated Israel. It is not coincidental that such generous obedience follows from God’s revelation to Moses and the renewal of the covenant in Exodus 34. God’s character was revealed and pronounced with grace and goodness, this in spite of Israel’s wrath-inviting sin. Thus, grace seems to be the reason why Israel had such a change of heart. Just the same, grace should motivate you and I in our obedience, giving, and in everything else.
What We Are Missing
I think this is something that is often missed. And it is missed by pastors as much as it is missed by anyone. Such gospel ministers who “save” people with the gospel and then try to produce growth and discipleship through the law. But it is not just pastors, parents are just as culpable, as they focus on rules and making their children submit, instead of winning their hearts by the grace of God.
Somehow in efforts to produce good Christians and good children, we have missed the way God motivates through his inspired servants. Moses was overwhelmed by God’s glorious grace in Exodus 34, and he spoke about YHWH’s abundant grace for the rest of his life–just read Deuteronomy.
Likewise, Paul when writing to the Corinthian church urged them to give, not with appeals to conscience or legal demands. Rather, he called them to give out of glad hearts, hearts overflowing with thanksgiving in the gospel. Notice what he says in 2 Corinthians 9:6-15.
The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you. Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!
In these words, the great gospel missionary reminds the Corinthians of God’s abundant grace, total sufficiency, and he spurs them on to give so that they might see greater gospel fruit—the lost being won to Christ, the gospel reaching new peoples, etc. He motivates with the gracious gospel. So should we.
The Deeper Problem
Still, the deeper problem is not that we motivate others with the law and calls to do better. We do the same with ourselves. A number of years ago, I asked a prominent Bible teacher how he has remained faithful in the work of the Lord. His answer surprised me. Instead of appealing to God’s word, or the Spirit, he simply said that every day, he simply made the choice to keep following God.
I guess for him, it had worked, but I know too many people who have failed at the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kind of Christianity. Indeed, I think God wants us to fail at self-sufficient sanctification. I would even say, that the man who said his obedience to the Lord came from simply doing it everyday was radically dependent on the promises of God and the power of the Spirit.
But therein lies the problem: The way he walked by faith in God’s gospel was assumed, not articulated. Sure, he depended much on the word of God. In another conversation, he said, he studied a different book of the Bible every month and that over decades he had been through the Bible countless times. Thus, he was radically dependent on God’s word and captivated by its vision of Christ. Still, he did not communicate that when asked about how to remain faithful.
Thus, we need again and again to point out from God’s Word how and where we find motivation for holy living. Such obedience is motivated by the gospel and nothing else, and here in Exodus we find an excellent example of a people who gave richly because they had received richly.
May we do the same. May we risk, give, and live for Christ not out of the goodness of our hearts, but rather because of the goodness of God proclaimed and promised in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Until he comes, may we live in radical dependence on God’s grace, and may we trust that his grace will be sufficient for all that he calls us to do.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss