How Grace Breeds Generosity
Professor, Westminster Theological Seminary
What is “grace”?
Some people today define “grace” as “God’s riches at Christ’s expense.” Others gloss it as “unconditional gift” or “undeserved favor.” Still others prefer to see it as God’s favorable disposition toward his people. However, the word grace in the New Testament (Greek charis) simply means “gift.” The content of the gift is determined by its context. For example, the definition “God’s riches at Christ’s expense” makes perfect sense in the broader context of Ephesians 2:8.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
But does that same definition fit 2 Corinthians 12:9?
[Jesus] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
What about 1 Corinthians 15:10?
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
The more fitting definition of “grace” in these two passages in Corinthians seems to be “power.” Grace is God’s power manifested in Paul’s weakness in the first, and in his ability to work harder than others in the second.
What about 2 Corinthians 8:3–4? Do the glosses “unconditional gift,” “undeserved favor,” or “a favorable disposition” work here?
[The Macedonian believers] gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor [same word for grace] of taking part in the relief of the saints.”
Grace here is not the immaterial gift of salvation or spiritual power. Rather, grace is the material gift of money or resources.
That may surprise you. Have you ever described the act of giving money as the giving of “grace”? Paul clearly does in 2 Corinthians 8–9, not just once, but six times (8:4, 6, 7, 19; 9:8, 15). The money bag he carried from these predominantly Gentile churches to the poor saints in Jerusalem is, strangely enough, “grace.”
But what is even more surprising about 2 Corinthians 8–9 is how the material grace of humans is inextricably connected to the immaterial grace of God.
To motivate the Corinthians to contribute, Paul begins 2 Corinthians 8 by speaking about the grace of God. “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given” (2 Corinthians 8:1). He then expands the definition of this grace in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
Grace, in its chief manifestation, is the gift of a person (Titus 2:11–14), our incarnate, crucified, and ascended Savior. To receive all the benefits that this gift of grace achieved, we must, as Calvin argues, receive his person: “as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us” (Institutes, 3.1.1).
In 2 Corinthians 8:9, we find that the gift of Christ’s person is given to us in the gospel — he lowered himself, so that we, through his poverty, might become rich. And this gift comes from God. It is, after all, “the grace of God” (2 Corinthians 8:1).
“Christ’s self-giving love is the paradigm for human expressions of material grace toward others.”
I find it fascinating that when Paul wants to encourage human giving in the church, he placards the divine grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the fundamental expression of giving grace as he gives himself. Paul does this intentionally to teach the church that Christ’s self-giving love is the paradigm for all human expressions of material grace toward others.
Interestingly, the only two instances where the phrase “the grace of God” appears in 2 Corinthians 8–9 are when Paul speaks of God’s giving (2 Corinthians 8:1) and human giving (2 Corinthians 9:14: “the surpassing grace of God on you [Corinthians]”). What’s the connection? God’s divine gift of grace fuels the human giving of grace to others.
Consider 2 Corinthians 9:7–8. After stating that “God loves a cheerful giver” (quoting Proverbs 22:8), Paul takes a step back to explain the source of one’s giving. “God is able to make all grace [divine grace] abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work [human grace].” Also, 2 Corinthians 9:11: “You will be enriched in every way [by God] to be generous in every way [toward others].” Divine grace propels human giving.
But why is this the case? Why does our human giving depend on God’s initial gift of grace? Because “all things are from him, through him, and to him. To him be the glory forever and ever” (Romans 11:36). As Paul asks the boastful Corinthians, “What do you have that you did not receive? Why then do you boast as if you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). The only appropriate response is, “Everything is a gift from God’s hand.”
David also declared, “All things come from you” (1 Chronicles 29.14). John the Baptist also affirms what David declared: “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). James agrees: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).
But God always gives his grace to his people for a particular purpose. We see this in 2 Corinthians 9:8 above (indicated by “so that”) and 9:11 (indicated by “to be”). When people in the world give gifts, they determine the purpose of their gifts. But when God’s people steward God’s grace, the purpose of giving must align with God’s purposes.
Why? Because our possessions are God’s. He’s the Giver and the owner of grace. We’re simply stewards who mediate his grace. In a sense, we’re co-owners, but God never relinquishes his divine right over our possessions.
This becomes evident when we discover who receives thanks for the gift that the Corinthians give to the Jerusalem saints. Paul writes,
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 that comes 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!
“Ultimately, humans do not receive from, but through, other humans. The giver is God.”
Why will humans direct their thanksgiving to God rather than to the human giver? Because, ultimately, humans do not receive from but through other humans. The final giver is God. He therefore deserves the final glory.
But does this mean that when I receive a gift from another human, I should never thank that person? Of course not. John Calvin’s Geneva Catechism #234 is helpful here. He writes,
Question: But are we not to feel grateful to men whenever they have conferred any kindness upon us?
Answer: Certainly we are; and were it only for the reason that God honors them by sending to us, through their hands, as rivulets [or streams], the blessings which flow from the inexhaustible fountain of his liberality. In this way, he [God] lays us under obligation to them, and wishes us to acknowledge it. He, therefore, who does not show himself grateful to them by so doing, proves himself to be ungrateful to God.
We thank God by thanking others, remembering that his gifts come from him but through others. And so our thanks should flow through others back to God — the Father of every good and perfect gift — as Paul does when he ends 2 Corinthians 9:15 by saying, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!”
Recently, a close friend of mine bestowed on me a very generous gift. I was floored by his loving generosity toward me and my family, especially my mom. He loved my mom with an earnest love for widows.
But his love was no mere human love. It was divine. Not that my friend is God. But God loves through means. Ηe channeled his abundant love on us through this friend, allowing us to witness the beauty of divine and human grace for those in need. His act of generosity was simultaneously a gracious act of self-giving, and it immediately redirected my eyes and heart to the self-giving love of Christ. It was therefore more than fitting to turn to my friend and say, “I thank God for ‘the surpassing grace of God upon you’” (2 Corinthians 9:14).David Briones is associate professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of Paul’s Financial Policy: A Socio-Theological Approach, and he is currently in the process of writing a commentary on Philemon and coauthoring Reading Paul: A Reformed Primer.
Categories: Studiu biblic