December 7, 1980 (Morning)
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
CHRISTMAS JOY VS. THE KIRCHENSTEUER
(2 Corinthians 8:1-9; 9:6-15)
NoŽl and I lived in West Germany for three years. We lived in Munich, the capital of Bavaria
(one of the German states) from the summer of 1971 to the summer of 1974. There are two
official churches in Germany, the Catholic and the Lutheran (or Evangelische). And most
universities have Catholic theological faculty and a Lutheran theological faculty. I did my
research with a member of the Lutheran faculty at the University of Munich who was
sympathetic toward American evangelicals. Among the controversies I had with my
professor two stand out to me as most fruitful. One was baptism: should we or should we
not baptize infants? Professor Goppelt said yes because Romans 6:1-4 does not mention
faith. Piper said no because Galatians 3:26-29, Colossians 2:12 and 1 Peter 3:21 do
mention faith. The other controversy was over the Kirchensteuer--the church tax. The first
controversy was fruitful because it clarified and strengthened my own convictions about
believer's baptism. The second controversy was fruitful because it caused me for the first
time to search the Scriptures on the issue of if and how the church should solicit money.
In West Germany the Lutheran and Catholic churches are supported by the church tax.
Everyone who was baptized as an infant into one of these churches (and that is almost
everyone--the free churches are very small) will have a portion of his income taken out
automatically by the government and given to the appropriate church (except for children,
disabled and retired). In 1970 the amount was about 8% of the income tax. In addition to
this the churches still receive freewill gifts, but they are very small. In Bavaria in 1970 the
freewill gifts averaged out to about 60 cents per member per year. In other words, most of
the costs of the church in Germany are paid by a church tax which is collected
automatically like an income tax by the government.
The church leaders in Germany are aware of the problems with such a system but for many
the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. In an official publication of the Bavarian
Lutheran Church the chief advantage of the church tax is described like this: "The main
advantage of the church tax lies in the independence of the church, because the state may
in no case interrupt the work of the church. But when the church is financed through freewill
gifts the danger is much greater that the proverb will come true: 'The one who gives the pay
has the say!' The church would be in danger, as for example in the U.S.A., of doing and
saying what would please the wealthy. And that would limit the freedom of the church and
weaken its ability to reprove and correct the state and society."
My response to this argument for the church tax then and now is this: It is true but it is
woefully inadequate. Here is what I mean. It is true in every volunteer organization that the
leadership is in danger of compromising principles to please the best givers. It is so easy to
rationalize this behavior by saying: Surely it is better to bend our founding principles a little
than it is for the organization to die. So this argument in favor of the church tax is true.
There is a danger that I as pastor might kowtow to arbitrary wishes of wealthy church
But this argument is woefully inadequate for two reasons. One is that by the grace of God
we need not give in to the danger. With God's help church leaders can maintain their
integrity. As for myself I pledge never to inquire of the financial secretary how much any
person in this church gives and I promise, as God enables me, to preach the Bible faithfully
no matter who it pleases or displeases. I have a deep confidence that where the Spirit of
God is at work in a church and the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed the financial needs
will be met without any compromise or arm twisting. I'll come back to this in a moment.
The other reason I think that argument for the church tax is inadequate is that the dangers
of the church tax itself are greater than those of the free-gift system. One of the dangers is
that the churches can go right on functioning when the people are spiritually dead and gone.
There is no correlation between the presence of the Spirit and the presence of the
Deutschmark; there is no correlation between spiritual vitality and material solvency.
NoŽl and I worshipped in a church for several months which had a membership of 10,000.
That is, 10,000 people resided in this district who were baptized Lutherans. Except for the
children and retired and disabled all these paid the church tax. So the big beautiful building
was preserved, the staff was paid, the free organ recitals were given, the sermons were
preached, marriages and funerals were performed. But do you know who came to church?
There were about 60 older women, a half a dozen older men and no young people at all
every Sunday-- out of 10,000. They called a new staff member while I was there and I
attended the ordination service. I remember how the bishop who came to give the church to
the young man said, "The shepherd left the 99 sheep to go and find the one last sheep."
And then with tears in his eyes he said, "Where are the 99? Where are the 99?" And he
charged the young vicar to leave the one and go find the 99. Let's not throw stones at the
German church. Let's pray for the German church.
But we must learn from her mistakes. I cannot reconcile the church tax with the New
Testament view of giving. This is what I found as I went to the Bible with the question: How
should a church leader get his people to give the money needed to fulfill the church's
mission? The answer to this question was answered in a remarkably full way in Paul's
second letter to the Corinthians chapters 8 and 9. These two chapters are simply packed
with an amazing variety of motivations which the apostle Paul uses to get the Corinthian
church to give money to meet the needs of the ministry in Jerusalem.
Here's the background. Some time earlier while Paul was at Ephesus he wrote 1
Corinthians and said in the last chapter (16:1-3):
Now concerning the contribution for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you
also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and
store it up as he may prosper, so that contributions need not be made when I come. And
when I arrive I will send those whom you accredit by letter to carry your gift to Jerusalem.
Now Paul is on his way to Corinth to pick up the money and take it to Jerusalem for the
church there. He heads north through Troas, across the northern part of the Aegean Sea,
through Macedonia where the Philippian and Thessalonian churches are and south toward
Corinth. On the way he writes 2 Corinthians to send ahead of him, and he devotes two
whole chapters to the collection he hopes is ready for him when he arrives. What does he
say in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9? How does he motivate the believers to give?
We can't look at everything in these chapters this morning; so I would like us to do two
things: First we'll do a walk-through of 8:1-9 and 9:6-15 the two key sections. Then we'll
step back and try to organize Paul's teaching so we can see how it all fits together.
First, then, let's walk through the text together, making some comments as we go. Chapter
8 verse 1: "We want you to know brethren about the grace of God which has been shown in
the churches of Macedonia..." Paul begins with an example of generosity. He has just
taken the collection in Macedonia on his way to Corinth and they have been unbelievably
generous. But the main point of verse 1 is that this generosity is a demonstration of God's
grace. Paul never praises anyone's virtue without giving God the ultimate credit.
Verse 2: "For in a severe test of affliction their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty
have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part." The way God's grace had produced
the generosity of the Macedonian Christians was not by making them rich in money by
making them rich in joy. Here is the beginning for why I could not reconcile the church tax
with the Biblical way of raising money. The motive for giving to any ministry is joy--joy
inspired by the grace of God. And when joy is there even poverty can't stop the giving.
Remember the widow's penny (Luke 21:2).
Verses 3 and 4: "And they gave according to their means, of their own free will, begging us
earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints." When joy is overflowing by
the grace of God and the needs of Christian ministry arise, two things are affected: the
amount we give and the eagerness. The Macedonians gave beyond what they were able.
They looked at their budgets and were carried away by joy to give more than they could
afford. And they did it with an unbelievable eagerness. They begged for the privilege of giving
to the collection. Joy makes beggars out of people--people who beg to give!
Verse 5: "And they did this not as we hoped but first they gave themselves to the Lord and
to us by the will of God." It is possible to give gifts to people and to God, and yet keep
yourself at a distance. Money, which ought to be an expression of personal commitment
can actually be a substitute for personal commitment. Paul does not want that kind of
money. Of first importance is to give ourselves to God and to God's people. Then our gifts
will be pleasing to the Lord. And notice at the end of the verse it is "by the will of God" that
they were enabled to make that personal commitment to God and to Paul. It does not come
naturally. It's of grace (8:1).
Verse 6: "Accordingly we have urged Titus that as he had already made a beginning, he
should also complete among you this gracious work." You need to read the rest of chapters
8 and 9 to see what Titus was going to do. The only thing we need to mention here on our
walk-through is that Paul's belief in the sovereign grace of God does not rule out the use of
human agents of grace. He does not merely pray that the Corinthians will be ready with a
generous collection; but he also sends Titus on ahead to promote the cause.
Verses 7 and 8: "Now as you excel in everything--in faith, in word, in knowledge, in all
earnestness, and in your love for us--see that you excel in this gracious work also. I say
this not as a command but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is
genuine." I think you can see from this last statement why the concept of a church tax was
unacceptable to me. Paul very consciously avoids commanding the people to give. The
reason is because he wants the giving to be a proof of love. Paul had said in 1 Cor. 13:3:
"And though I bestow all my goods to feed (the poor) . . . and have not love, it profits me
nothing." It might be possible to tax or coerce a church into giving but in the end, even if all
the bills are paid, it would be of no value. If our generosity and faithfulness in giving cannot
be won through the overflow of joy expressing itself in love, then whatever money is
collected will profit nothing. And I can't help but think that the empty churches in Germany
are a witness to that fact. The money is all there, but not out of love.
Verse 9: "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for
your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich." This verse is
why I called the sermon "Christmas joy versus the Kirchensteuer." Jesus Christ is God
Almighty, through whom the universe was made and who upholds all things by His power.
He has existed as the glorious, perfect, and happy second person of the Trinity from all
eternity. And it was from this infinite height that He performed the unimaginable
condescension to be born in a cattle stall and to die on a criminal's cross in order that we
might be made rich. Not rich in money, but as verse two says: rich in joy and rich in
liberality, and as verse 8 implies, rich in love.
This is the grace of God that turns selfish people into joyful givers. The reason verse 9
should take away our selfishness and make us joyful and generous is that it takes away the
only basis for selfishness. The basis for selfishness is the notion that giving less away and
keeping more for ourselves will provide more happiness and fulfillment to our lives. But verse
9 shows that God's purpose in sending His Son was to create joyful, loving, generous
givers. Now if God values joyful, loving generosity so much as to give His beloved Son to
create it in His people, then we can be absolutely assured that when we are more generous
we will be more happy and more fulfilled because God is bound to work mightily for those
whose behaviour he values so highly.
That mighty work of God is what Paul talks about in 9:6ff. So let's take one giant step and
continue our walk. Chapter 9 verse 6: "The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also
reap sparingly and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully." If God approves so
heartily of joyful generosity, we may be sure He will bless it. There are thousands of stories
of wealthy people who have given far and away above the tenth of their income and have
found themselves unable to out-give God. But verse 6 does not mean that if you give to God
you will get rich. The Macedonians are the model in these chapters and it was their poverty
that overflowed in a wealth of liberality. Just what it does mean to "reap bountifully" is shown
in verses 8-11. But first Paul says in verse 7: "Each one must do as he has made up his
mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion for God loves a cheerful giver." This reiterates the
point of chapter 8: cheerfulness not compulsion, Christmas joy, not the church tax is the
right motive for giving to the church. The statement, "God loves a cheerful giver," is shocking
if we think that God loves all men in the same way. But He doesn't. He loves all in that He
gives life to all and reveals Himself in nature to all, and in Christ made atonement for sin that
can be offered to all. But those who love Him and are called according to His purpose and
who cheerfully give because Christ has made them rich in love and joy -- these God loves
uniquely, in that He works everything together for their great good and turns all their
generosity back upon their head with limitless blessing. Not so that they build bigger barns
(houses, cars, etc.) but so that they do more generous good works.
Verses 8-11 explain:
God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always
have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. As it is
written: 'He scatters abroad; He gives to the poor; His righteousness endures forever.' He
who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources
and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for
great generosity which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.
In these four verses Paul explains in what sense those who sow bountifully will reap
bountifully. They will reap bountifully in that God will never allow them to give so much that
they can't give more. Or to put it positively: the more you give, the more God will enable you
to give. This truth is stated three times. First, in verse 8: "so that you may always be able
to provide for every good work." Second, in verse 10: "God will increase the harvest of your
righteousness," that is, He will enable you to put out even more for righteousness' sake.
Third, in verse 11 "You will be enriched for generosity."
The truth is plain--it is a promise. You may have much; you may have little; the promise
remains: the more you give for the sake of others the more you will be enabled by God to
give. Let me stress that Paul is not promising to make generous Christians wealthy. He is
promising to make generous Christians capable of even greater generosity. There is a
mentality that says: with the increase of income there should also be an increase in the
material signs of wealth: in the last 30 years these signs usually included a larger house
further out in the suburbs, a larger car usually one of the luxury lines, a yearly switch in
wardrobe to keep current, an application for the Gold Card, an array of expensive
entertainment and recreational items and so on. This mentality says buy it because you
can afford it and should look like you can. But that is just the opposite of the mentality of
I believe this text implies that God does not oppose our income climbing from $10,000 to
$50,000 to $100,000. What He opposes is when His beneficence to us is bottled up in
excessive worldly possessions and investments. If God increases our income, He is not
putting His stamp of approval on a life of luxury, He is commissioning us to the exhilarating
and joyful mission of tremendous and creative generosity. Make as much as you want and
give as much as you can.
The last phrase of verse 11 as well as verses 12-15 describes the great outcome when
God's people overflow in generosity:
This will produce thanksgiving to God; for the rendering of this service not only supplies
the needs of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God. Under the test of
this service you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ
and by 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 in you. Thanks be to God
for His inexpressible gift!
The great outcome of Christian generosity is that the needs of the saints are met, the
gospel of Christ is acknowledged, many thanks rise to the heavenly Father and He is
glorified in the world.
And now let's go back and just briefly in summary see how it all fits together. It all begins
with Christmas, God's inexpressible gift who became poor so that we might become rich
(8:9,9:15). Then this good news that the Son of God came and died for our sins and rose
again is preached (9:13) and as people pin their hopes on the promises of the gospel the
grace of God (8:1,16; 9:14) fills their hearts with joy even amid poverty (8:2; 9:7). And out of
this joy in the all-satisfying love of God is born love for other people (8:8) which then shows
itself in a wealth of cheerful liberality (8:2; 9:7). To this God responds with increased
spiritual and material enablement to be even more generous (9:6, 8-11). And the ultimate
outcome of this remarkable generosity is that many thanks rise to God for the surpassing
grace He has put into the hearts of His people. And finally, as we learned two weeks ago,
when Thanksgiving rises to God from the heart, He is magnified. The glory of God, the great
goal of all history, is displayed in the world. Is it any wonder that the poverty stricken
Macedonians begged Paul for the privilege of giving?
I thank God that the giving to Bethlehem Baptist Church is not constrained by a church tax.
We are free to let joy and love run rampant. At the annual business meeting last Thursday
the treasurer said we need $5,000 a week in December to pay our missions commitment
and another $4,000 possibly to support the local ministry here. That's $36,000 for
December. The Foundation has now paid off the last indebtedness on this building. The
need now is for missions and for the support base here at home. If only 400 of our 760
members gave $90 in December that would be it. My dear friends we can do it! There are
many of us, and God is generous. Who can predict what great generosity an outpouring of
Christian joy on this church would produce! I promise to do my utmost financially for this
church in December because I love you people and I love the ministry I have, and I love
missions and I love the future I see on the horizon for the work of Christ in this church.
Would you join me in this? "I do not say this as a command--it is not a tax-- but to prove
that your joy is full and your love is genuine."
© COPYRIGHT John Piper