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Living in God's Abundance: In Search of a Cheerful Giver

This Bible Study is the second of three prepared by Dr. Sundberg for adult studies in a variety settings in congregations. Each lesson includes a presentation that may be reproduced and distributed among participants or used as a presentation by a leader.  There are discussion questions for each presentation.

In Session Two: Dr. Sundberg identifies in II Corinthians 8:1-9:15, four key biblical rules for a stewardship campaign:
1) To trust the example of God's people;
2) To obey the commands of Jesus Christ;
3) To encourage the mutual upbuilding of the saints;
4) To seek the cheerful giver.

Click on following for other presentations:  



Walter Sundberg
Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary

The Theology of the Collection

The theology of the collection for the poor in Jerusalem is St. Paul's theology of grace directed to a specific issue. It is found in the "thankful letter" of II Corinthians. The premise upon which Paul makes his request for help is the vision that the church is a new creation: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (II Corinthians 5.17). To be a new creation "in Christ" means to live in the grace of Christ's love who is "the one who has died for us all" (v.13). It is the experience of the freedom of the Spirit of Christ who is the Holy Spirit: "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (3.17). Because of this freedom, the church refuses to be satisfied with an understanding of membership that depends on legal or formal definition. To belong to the church is to experience intimate bonds of personal friendship and fellowship (koinonia). Thus, Paul calls the Corinthians to reject living according to a "written code" (3.6). Even if relationships are difficult at times--and Paul certainly had difficulties at Corinth--Christians will not rely on the letter of the law to get their way. The true church does not coerce; it persuades. It is not a pecking order of privileges, but a community of equals.

As part of this understanding, Christians are called to practice ministry openly and honestly, one with another; there is no place in the Christian family for hiding, hedging, or evading:

2 Corinthians 4:1-2: "Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.  2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God."

Knowing that Paul himself dissembled in his boasting about not needing money from the Corinthians makes Paul's insights in these verses all the more powerful. Paul was tested by fire and learned his lesson. His own sin is taken up into the witness of the truth.{1} In the "thankful letter" to Corinth he discloses a fundamental principle of Christian ministry: that it must proceed from the genuine self who confesses Christ not just with the lips, but the heart. Certainly we are weak. We are "earthen vessels" or "clay jars" who carry the treasure of the gospel (v. 7). Faith does not shield us from struggle and doubt; but struggle and doubt will never have the last word for Christ is with us:

2 Corinthians 4:8-16
"8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;  9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;  10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.  11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.  12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.  13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture-- "I believed, and so I spoke"-- we also believe, and so we speak,  14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.  15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.  16 So we do not lose heart."

With these theological presuppositions in place, Paul makes his appeal for the poor in Jerusalem in II Corinthians 8:1-9:15. These chapters are the climax of the "thankful letter" in II Corinthians and the most important passage in the Bible regarding stewardship. What follows is the entire passage. Note the four highlighted sections. Commentary will focus on these sections in order to examine four key biblical rules for a stewardship campaign:
   1) to trust the example of God's people;
   2) to obey the commands of Jesus Christ;
   3) to encourage the mutual upbuilding of the saints;
   4) to seek the cheerful giver.


We begin with the passage in its entirety:

2 Corinthians 8:1--9:15: We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia;  2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints--  5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us,  6 so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you.  7 Now as you excel in everything-- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you-- so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.  8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others.  9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.  10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something--  11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.  12 For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has-- not according to what one does not have.  13 I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between  14 your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.  15 As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little."  16 But thanks be to God who put in the heart of Titus the same eagerness for you that I myself have.  17 For he not only accepted our appeal, but since he is more eager than ever, he is going to you of his own accord.  18 With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his proclaiming the good news;  19 and not only that, but he has also been appointed by the churches to travel with us while we are administering this generous undertaking for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our goodwill.  20 We intend that no one should blame us about this generous gift that we are administering,  21 for we intend to do what is right not only in the Lord's sight but also in the sight of others.  22 And with them we are sending our brother whom we have often tested and found eager in many matters, but who is now more eager than ever because of his great confidence in you.  23 As for Titus, he is my partner and co-worker in your service; as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ.  24 Therefore openly before the churches, show them the proof of your love and of our reason for boasting about you.  2 Corinthians 9: Now it is not necessary for me to write you about the ministry to the saints,  2 for I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting 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.  3 But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you may not prove to have been empty in this case, so that you may be ready, as I said you would be;  4 otherwise, if some Macedonians come with me and find that you are not ready, we would be humiliated-- to say nothing of you-- in this undertaking.  5 So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.  6 The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.   7 Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  8 And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.  9 As it is written, "He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever."  10 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.  11 You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us;  12 for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.  13 Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others,  14 while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you.  15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"  


II Corinthians 8.1-5:  "We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia;  2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means,  4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints--  5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us."

It was on Paul's second missionary journey that he entered Europe for the first time. In the Roman province of Macedonia north of Greece (Achaia), he established congregations in Philippi and Thessalonica. The Thessalonians knew harsh persecution for the faith (I Thessalonians 1:6; Acts 17:5-9). The Philippians stood out for their generosity. Even though they were poor, they were abundant in giving: "You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.  For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once" (Philippians 4.15-16). Paul took his inspiration from the people of these congregations. They showed him the meaning of the faith in action. They surprised him in their willingness to help.

The Thessalonians and Philippians teach us that we should never take the people of God for granted or forget to appreciate the witness they make. Martin Luther once observed, "God's word cannot be without God's people."{2} This is most certainly true. Where would we be without God's people? God's people are missionaries and evangelists who bring the name of Christ to those who do not know him; parents who pray with their children each night and bring them to church; Sunday school teachers who give of their time to nurture the young in knowledge of the Bible and the Creed; counselors at Christian summer camps and at youth rallies who seek to provide inspiration to teenagers searching for meaning and guidance. In all of these ways and many others, God's people have been stewards nurturing our lives as we grew in the faith. They have shown by example what the word means. They have shaped faith and deepened it for each generation.

Stewardship fundamentally depends on the power of example. People learn to become givers when they see people giving. Remember Jesus' account of the Widow's Mite?

Mark 12:41-44 "41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.  42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.  43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

The widow is praised because by her example she shows us how to live as Christian stewards. Her story is so clear and poignant that it lends itself to simple, dramatic illustration such as the famous print by Gustave Dorच (1832-1883). --to view click on THE WIDOW'S MITE Jesus teaches that Christian living is giving; and giving is the meaning of living. "The significance of giving," writes Pastor Paul Ofstedal, "reaches far more deeply than our purses. It tests our very purpose in living."{3}  


II Corinthians 8:9: "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich."

Luther writes: "Christ himself died for his church, to preserve it and sustain it."{4} The cross of Christ is the foundation of the church; his resurrection from the dead determines its future glory. This is why the church preaches Christ alone for he is the true knowledge of God:

Acts 4:11-12  "11 This Jesus is 'the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.'  12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

All that the church does depends upon the authority of Christ. This includes stewardship.

If stewardship depends on the power of example, then the Lord Jesus is the most powerful example of all. When he declares, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends" (John 15.13), his command carries the authority and authenticity of his own action:

John 10:17-18  
"For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."

As the recipients of his gift of salvation, we are called to obey Christ's word by following his example. As he gave, we give. We are not to build bigger barns, like the rich fool, to store our possessions in order to "eat, drink, and be merry." For God will say:  "'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you.'" (Luke 12.20). We cannot be like the rich young ruler who loved his money so much that he would rather be empty in spirit and sorrowful in heart than part with it (Matthew 19.16-30). We are to recoil at the example of the Unforgiving Servant who, although forgiven a fabulous sum that he owes to his master, demands of a fellow servant that he pay a paltry debt or be thrown into jail. How can we be miserly and ungrateful when the Lord showers us with forgiveness and blessing? It is no wonder that the master punishes the unforgiving servant harshly:

Matthew 18:32-35
"32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?'  34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.  35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

That Jesus sees the matter of money--its use and misuse--as central to his preaching is clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Almost one fourth of all that he taught in his sermon involves money:

Matthew 5:23-26
23 "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you,  24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.  26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny."

Matthew 6:2-4
2 "So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."

Matthew 6:12
2 "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors."

Matthew 6:19-21
19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;  20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."

Matthew 6:24-7:1
24 "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.  25 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,  29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith?  31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'  32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."  

When Jesus is the center in teaching and preaching about stewardship, the church is challenged directly by his holy example. Jesus' teaching is not abstract or obscure. He does not temporize or excuse.


2 Corinthians 9: "Now it is not necessary for me to write you about the ministry to the saints,  2 for I know your eagerness, which is the subject of my boasting 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."

St. Paul had a host of problems with the Corinthians. So why does he boast of them to the Macedonians? The reason is the grace of God. Paul knew through his own experience as a sinner that God never gives up on us. Despite what we do, God stands by us and forgives us. This is the witness of the Bible: "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (I John 1.9). It is God's purpose in forgiveness to hide our sin by covering it with the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Through the love of Christ, God resolves to see the best in us. In turn, we are called to look for the best in others. This is why even though Paul had great problems in Corinth, he still boasts of them to the people of Macedonia.

To see the best in others as God sees the best in us is the motivation for the upbuilding of the saints. This upbuilding is not naॖve; it is not engaging in false compliment. To upbuild is to practice forgiveness. Upbuilding molds the church into its authentic character as the Body of Christ and brings comfort and encouragement to believers. In the words of Luther:
"We. . .believe that in this Christian Church we have forgiveness of sin, which is wrought through the holy Sacraments and Absolution, moreover, through all manner of consolatory promises of the entire Gospel. Therefore, whatever is to be preached concerning the Sacraments belongs here, and, in short, the whole Gospel and all the offices of Christianity, which also must be preached and taught without ceasing. For although the grace of God is secured through Christ, and sanctification is wrought by the Holy Ghost through the Word of God in the unity of the Christian Church, yet on account of our flesh which we bear about with us we are never without sin. . .Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered to the end that we shall daily obtain there nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here." {5}

Upbuilding must be an essential theme of any stewardship campaign. Upbuilding harnesses the energy and good will of the community of faith for mission and good works.


2 Corinthians 9:7: "Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."

The word translated as "cheerful" in verse 7 is hilarios from which we get our word "hilarious". To participate in the mission of the gospel by giving of time, talent, and treasury is a privilege and a joy. Our thankfulness is a response to what God in his great generosity first does for us. God loves to give: "He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy" (Acts 14:17). We are to live our lives knowing that "Every good and perfect gift comes from above" (James 1:17).

To seek the cheerful giver should be the radical and uncompromising goal of any stewardship campaign. We cannot force people to give. One dollar put in the plate under duress is a dollar too much. Only joyful giving will pass muster in the Christian community. And joyful giving can have tremendous effect!

A retired pastor I know started a home mission congregation in the Washington D.C. area as his first call out of seminary in the early 1960s. In the beginning, the congregation barely could pay its bills as it limped along with an offering of about $700 per week. The pastor decided to preach the tithe--the classic Old Testament measure of giving a tenth of what one has established by the Law.{6}  He did not want to impose it as a requirement. He knew quite well that the New Testament pays scant attention to it. But he thought that if the congregation committed to it, if only for one Sunday, they would have the opportunity to focus their purpose in giving and see their potential in mission. They would become examples to themselves. The designated Sunday for the tithe arrived and the offering exceeded $4000--a princely sum 40 years ago!  The pastor said that he never had to make such a request again. In one Sunday of giving the congregation discovered who they were as God's people and their capacity to give. They were inspired, proud, and overjoyed. The little congregation took off and became one of the largest and most active congregations in the East.

{1}This reflects a deep and pervasive pattern in the scriptures. King David learns forgiveness and renewal after sinning with Bathsheba and being exposed by the prophet Nathan (Psalm 51). Peter confesses his love for Christ only after denying him and hearing the cock crow (John 18:27; 21:17). Paul himself had been "Saul" the persecutor (Acts 8:3).
{2} Luther's Works, Volumne 41, page 150.
{3} Paul Ofstedal, "Called to Give," The Office of Communication and Support (Minneapolis: The American Lutheran Church, n.d.). This is a pamphlet Bible study produced by the ALC in the 1980s based on II Corinthians. It is the best study of its type for stewardship that I know. Long out of circulation, it ought to be reprinted and made available.
{4} Luther's Works, Volumne 45, page 12.
{5} Large Catechism, Part II, sec. 54.
{6} For example:  Leviticus 27:30-34 "30 All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the LORD's; they are holy to the LORD.  31 If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them.  32 All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd's staff, shall be holy to the LORD.  33 Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed.  34 These are the commandments that the LORD gave to Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai."  


1)Give a general assessment of the four rules of a stewardship campaign derived from Paul are:
  to trust the example of God's people;
  to obey the commands of Jesus Christ;
  to encourage the mutual upbuilding of the saints;
  to seek the cheerful giver.

Which would be the easiest to implement?

Which would be the hardest?

2)The widow with her mite is praised by Jesus. Paul points to the Macedonians who gave "during a severe ordeal of affliction" in which "their abundant joy and their extreme poverty. . .overflowed in a wealth of generosity." (II Cor. 8.2). A recent study in Great Britain, reported by Voluntary Sector Magazine asserted that people living in the poorest communities in the UK give more frequently and in greater proportion than those in affluent households. A similar study in the United States reached the same conclusion. For example, one of the poorest states in the Union, Mississippi, has one of the highest rates of individual giving.

What do you think is the reason for this pattern of generosity among the poor?

3)"God's word depends on God's people," says Luther (p.5). Who have been the examples of faith in your life?

4)"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth" (Matt. 6.24). Jesus teaching on money is aptly summarized in this verse. It "is not abstract or obscure. [Jesus] does not temporize or excuse" (p. 8).

How do you understand it applying to your life?

5)What is the relationship of forgiveness and upbuilding in the Christian church?

6)What do you think life would look like in the church if we rejected living according to a "written code (law)" (2 Corinthians 3:6)?

7) In 2 Corinthians 4:1-2, we see the example of Paul's "own sin is taken up into the witness of the truth."  What does this mean? Have you had this experience in your own life?

8) "To seek the cheerful giver is a radical and uncompromising goal.(p. 10). How important do you see this goal in your congregation?

--Walter Sundberg, Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary
Permission granted by Centered Life Learning and Stewardship In the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, for use in congregations.


Dr. Walter Sundberg, Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary.

Author information was updated as of the article's post date. Author profiles may not reflect author's current employment or location.

Image credit: © Ignacio García Losa ( via Flickr. Used by permission.

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