Much has been written in recent years both to defend and to criticize the so-called Prosperity Gospel. The best and most balanced response to this movement, in my opinion, is the book, Faith, Health and Prosperity, commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth among Evangelicals and edited by Andrew Perriman (for a review of the book, see http://www.samstorms.com/).
The book was initially undertaken in response to concerns raised by the ministry in the U.K. of Morris Cerullo (his international organization is known as MCWE, or Morris Cerullo World Evangelism). The issue that stirred the waters was “the direct link he [Cerullo] appeared to make between the level of donors’ contributions to his own particular ministry and the extent of God’s blessing upon those donors’ lives” (x).
Whatever else may be said of the prosperity movement, this is its foundational and driving force, namely, the belief that there is a direct, cause and effect, correlation between the size (i.e., quantity) of the “seed” one sows and the financial dividends it pays (many in the movement describe it as a spiritual “law” of return, as reliable and certain as gravity). According to the crasser forms of this “theology”, the more one gives the more one gets. Getting for oneself is the goal and giving is the means. After all, or so they tell us, “We are children of the King” and therefore deserving of the newest, the best, and above all, the most. It is our “birthright”, is it not?
I want to propose that the theology of Paul in 2 Corinthians 8-9 is of a decidedly different spirit. Yes, there is a giving that gets, but that is far and away different from giving in order to get. In the divine economy, says Paul, giving that is joyful, generous, spontaneous rather than coerced, and motivated by heartfelt compassion for those in need is a giving that results in getting. But the getting is not for personal gain but in order that the giver may have a bountiful supply for yet more giving.
Before digging deeply into this incredible truth, a brief summation of vv. 1-6 is in order. There we read:
“Now it is superfluous for me to write to you about the ministry for the saints, for I know your readiness, of which I boast about you to the people of Macedonia, saying that Achaia has been ready since last year. And your zeal has stirred up most of them. But I am sending the brothers so that our boasting about you may not prove vain in this matter, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be. Otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated – to say nothing of you – for being so confident. So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction. The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Cor. 9:1-6).
Paul’s comment that the Corinthians’ initial zeal to give stirred up “most” of the Macedonians is a healthy dose of realism. In other words, not all the believers in Macedonia gave generously with joy in the midst of their affliction (cf. 8:1-5). It would be too much to expect that they would.
As for the Corinthians and their earlier commitment to join in this endeavor to alleviate the poverty of the church in Jerusalem, Paul’s initial excitement has been somewhat tempered. Titus has come from Corinth with the discouraging report that the collection had been put “on the back burner.” His point in vv. 3-5 is that in light of his previous boasting about them this could now be a cause of some embarrassment to both him and them. Barnett is helpful here:
“Although Paul has applied a degree of moral pressure on the Corinthians by (1) holding up the example of the Macedonians (8:1-5), (2) by urgently reminding them of their own initial ‘desire’ and ‘willingness’ in the previous year (8:10-12), and (3) by telling them he had used their example of ‘willingness’ and ‘preparedness’ in promoting the appeal to the Macedonians (8:24; 9:2-3), nonetheless, it was important that their response was ‘voluntary’ (8:3), as appropriate to the ‘grace of God/Christ’ (8:2,9). Paul’s words are not ‘command’ but ‘advice’ (8:8,10). Thus Paul wants their response to be ‘a free gift,’ not ‘an exaction'” (434).
Whereas some think that v. 5 is describing two attitudes toward giving, either generosity or stinginess, I’m inclined to see here two ways that Paul envisioned securing their participation in the offering: either voluntarily or by pressure.
On the one hand, Paul does not want them to give simply because he’s an apostle and they are bowing to his authority (although there’s nothing inherently wrong with that). Neither fear of him nor guilt over sins committed nor the pride that results in a competitive drive to exceed the Macedonians would constitute the kind of giving that he will later say results in God’s bountiful supply.
“I want it to spring spontaneously and joyfully from your heart,” says Paul. “I want it to be primarily your idea, not mine. You’ve already shown a willingness in this regard that even stirred the Macedonians. So now bring it to fruition. Don’t humiliate yourselves by a failure to follow through on your promise, and don’t put me in the position of having to exercise an authority to exact from you a grudging and unwilling gift.”
Here’s what you must keep in mind, says Paul: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (v. 6). But doesn’t this play directly into the hands of the proponents of prosperity? There it is: give a lot so you can get a lot.
Well, not exactly. Yes, on the one hand, bountiful giving results in bountiful getting. But bountiful getting, as he will make clear in the verses that follow, isn’t for hoarding or padding one’s retirement account or moving up in scale from a Honda Civic to a BMW. It’s for more, greater, effusive bountiful giving. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s be sure we understand Paul’s point in v. 6. In farming, what may initially appear to be a loss (“sowing”) is in fact a gain (“reaping”). As one sows, so one reaps. But what determines whether a gift is “sparing” or “bountiful”?
We already seen from the example of the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:1-2 that it is not determined by the quantity of the gift considered in the abstract. A gift may be comparatively small and yet spiritually large. Rather, it is determined by two factors, both of which have already been mentioned and will be developed yet further in this chapter.
First, one must take account of the means of the giver. Giving that is bountiful is in proportion to one’s wealth (cf. 8:3,11,12; 1 Cor. 16:2). I’ve already discussed this and need say no more. Second, and perhaps even more important, bountiful giving is determined by the mind of the giver. This means that it is possible to give much but to sow sparingly.
So what kind of “mind” or “heart” or “spirit” or “attitude” does Paul have in view, the sort that turns even a quantitatively small gift into a bountiful and generous sowing of seed? The answer comes, at least in part, in v. 7. To be continued . . .