A couple of years ago, we published an article about a man named Charles Feeney. You may have never heard of Charles Feeney before, but it’s likely you’ve used or at least seen the retail service he created. Feeney is the founder of the Duty-Free Shopper Group that operates retail stores both in and outside airports throughout the world.
But Feeney isn’t best known for his work in airport retail. Among his financial peers, he’s known as the “James Bond of Philanthropy” due to his skill in eluding recognition for giving. Over the last thirty years he’s given away $8 billion of his fortune which some estimate to be about given 375,000% of his current net worth.
But why does he do it? Because Feeney likes to give. Giving while you’re alive is “a lot more fun,” says the old entrepreneur. “Giving gave me a lot more pleasure.” I don’t doubt that Feeney enjoys giving. Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than receive (Acts 20:35), and the truth of Jesus’ statement can be experienced by all people at some level, regardless of their religious convictions.
But Feeney isn’t a Christian. He grew up in the Catholic church and considers the rules of the church to be “pretty good.” But he doesn’t consider himself a regular church-goer. It is clear that his motivations for giving, then, are not rooted in the gospel of free grace (Eph 2:8-10).
What this means for Feeney is that unless he turns from his unbelief and trusts in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, he could give away every cent he owns and still not atone for his lawlessness against God. He will, despite his abundant giving, remain guilty for his transgressions against a holy God. Giving and generosity by itself, though a command given to Christians in Scripture, cannot save you. The only way a person can enter into a right relationship with God is through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
The Book of Romans: The Gospel of God’s Free Grace
The first eleven chapters of Romans remind us that God has accomplished everything for our salvation. Though we stand guilty and stained with sin beyond cleansing, worthy of God’s righteous judgment (Rom 1:18-32; 3:10-19), he sent his own Son to fulfill all his righteous requirements and to pay the penalty of death we deserve (Rom 3:21-26).
Now, all that is left is to turn from our sin and believe in Christ. No works. No rituals. No waiting to see if we did enough good in this life. We are justified at the moment we believe in Christ: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Through faith we have peace with God (Rom 5:1). We’ve now been raised to newness of life and delivered from the dominion of sin (Rom 6:4). We still battle with our sinful flesh (Rom 7:14-23), but we are no longer under sin’s powerful rule (Rom 6:14) or God’s judgment (Rom 8:1). We are free from the condemnation of the law, and we look forward to Christ’s return when he fulfills all his promises to his people (Rom 9-11).
That good news is the message of the letter’s first eleven chapters, and it is the only basis upon which a Christian can obey Paul’s appeal in chapter twelve to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.Rom 12:1-2
Paul urges Christians to take up a monumental task: like a sacrificial offering in the old covenant, give their whole lives to God in his service. Most importantly, we don’t lay ourselves on the altar of God’s pleasure to secure their right standing with him. Rather, as Christians we give ourselves wholly to God because of his lavish give of mercy in the gospel.
But this response to God’s grace isn’t something that only a few radical, committed Christians are called to. Rather, it is the only reasonable response to such mercy. The Greek word translated “spiritual worship” in the ESV can just as easily be translated “rational service” or, as the NIV puts it, “your true and proper worship.” Given what God has done for us, a response of whole-life devotion is the only response that makes sense. This worship, however, is rooted in a justification that Christ has already accomplished. Relating this truth specifically to the topic of this article: we don’t give away our money and possessions to secure our right standing with God. We give out of a happy heart of worship to our gracious Father.
The Gospel and the Grounds for Giving
This approach to giving separates Christians from everyone else in the world who has a bent to share their wealth. There are many rich people in the world who give much of their wealth to causes they deem worthy of their support, but they do not give out of a freely justified heart of worship toward the living God. They give for their own self-satisfaction in well-doing, or to gain the approval of others, or merely out of a desire to help people. This last motivation isn’t wrong, but if disconnected from a right relationship with God, it ultimately profits that person nothing. And, because it isn’t rooted in the wisdom of God’s Word, it may even end up harming the very people the benefactor intends to help.
The stunning truth is that a person without Christ could empty his bank account and give away everything he owns, but still face the judgment of God because his sins remain unforgiven. Giving away our wealth for the good of others, cultivating generosity in our lives, and supporting Christ’s church are the fruit of our justification, not the cause of it. This is the vital truth we must rest our souls upon in order to have a right perspective on giving. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Cor 9:7), and only those who know God’s saving mercy in Christ will give with a God-centered cheerfulness. In the next few articles, we will consider more important biblical principles that should guide Christians in their giving.