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Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

"This is a book about worshiping the true God and letting the true God act in us.  It tells us as plainly as possible that the true God is a God who cannot stop giving and forgiving, and that our knowledge of this true God is utterly bound up with our willingness to receive from the hand of  God the liberty to give and forgive."

Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

Volf, Miroslav, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace


Foreword by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
Prelude: The Rose

1. God the Giver

2. How Should We Give?

3. How Can We Give?

Interlude: Daniel's Death

4. God the Forgiver

5. How Should We Forgive?

6. How Can We Forgive?

Postlude: A Conversation with a Skeptic

A Synopsis of the three chapters on Giving by Ed Kruse, Director of Stewardship for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -  7/07

When Ed Kruse, Director of Stewardship for the ELCA, was asked for a book that he thought contained an excellent Theology of Stewardship, he immediately replied, Volf, Miroslav, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

The following is Ed's summation of the first three chapters that particularly pertains to Miroslav Volf's, Theology of Stewardship.

"What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation, I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make use of my rights in the gospel." (1 Co. 9:18)

Note the paradox in this verse. "Paul's reward" is to make the gospel free of charge to others rather than a reward for him. He sees the privilege of giving the gospel free of charge. Free of what might seem like patronage, free of legalism, free of any abuse that can be common in a dominant society.

Miroslav Volf is a Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He asks us to consider the question, "In our increasingly graceless culture, where can we find the motivation to give?" On one level, he examines how to conceive of, and live out, two basic human practices, giving and forgiving. On another level, Volf views both as Christian understandings. They are seen as a lens through which we can survey the whole landscape of the Christian faith from a fresh vantage point (p. 235). He adds that it is also an invitation to Christian faith, an interpretation of the apostle Paul, and a reading of Martin Luther.

The lenses of exegetical, systematic, and historical theology all inform our "knowing" a theology of stewardship.  It is also important to add our "flowing" theology in which all three of these lenses are reflected in life-lived-out, our own, and in the lives of others. Volf states, "Some people like to keep their spirituality and theology neatly separated, the way someone may want to have the main dish and the salad served separately during a meal. I don't. Spirituality that is not theological will grope in the darkness, and theology that is not spiritual will be emptied of its most important content." (p. 236)

Stewardship is not salvific. It is not a negotiating chip by which one might gain a blessing from God. "It is not by our generosity that we are saved...we are saved by God's generosity" (p.20). In the movie Amadeus, a renowned Viennese composer, Antonio Salieri, as a boy, prayed, "Lord, make me a great composer... make me famous throughout the world... in return, I will give you my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life." The author asks, "Why did Salieri think that God would even entertain such a proposition? God can tell him, 'I've got something you want, but you've got nothing I need,' and then proceed to give musical genus to Salieri's nemesis, a young brat by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart" (p. 24).

"The God hanging on the cross for the salvation of the world is not a negotiating God! On the cross, God is not setting up the terms of a contract that humans need to fulfill in order to get what they want. Neither is God saying on the cross, 'I died for you, now you've got to do what I tell you." God did give Salieri great gifts, but he died angry at God, the world, and angry at himself. The direction of his entire life rested on the deal he thought he made with God. "God doesn't make deals. God gives." (p. 26)

The apostle Paul asks, "Who has given a gift to him to receive a gift in return?" (Ro. 11:35) If all things come from God, how can I give anything to God in a way that obligates God to give me something in return? "To give to God is to take something from God's right hand and put that very thing right back into God's left hand." (p. 33)

That's not always obvious. For me, the distraction came from the notion of "earning money." When I worked on commission I thought that the harder I worked the more money I would "make." When I worked on a salary I thought I earned raises for doing a good job. I could easily have said, or even protested, "I've worked hard. I've received a great deal, but I also have achieved something. Though I'm self-made, I have made something of myself. Can't I give God some of what I have accomplished?"

Paul responds, "What do you have that you didn't receive?" My answer of course, is, "Nothing. Even the breath I have been given to me has to be given to me all day and all the while I sleep." When I am in harmony with God I recognize that I am completely dependent on God for my breath and that I am graced with everything else. In those moments I am "grateful to the giver and attentive to the purpose for which the gifts were given" (p. 36). On the other hand, when I am not grateful, I am not thinking that much about God, I think "I did it all by myself," and I am not particularly happy. "Nothing is our own achievement... God gives gifts, God cancels the debt we incur by improperly receiving them, and then God gives us the ability to receive gifts properly" (p. 37).

Volf focuses on two points -- 1) "divine loves gives and doesn't receive", and 2) "God's gifts oblige us to something further" (p.39). In fact, Volf says that God's gifts obligate us to four responses -- faith, gratitude, availability, and participation.

Faith -- we are to see ourselves as receivers and receivers only...we do that by relating to God in faith, "without works," according to Ro. 4:5 (p. 43).

Gratitude -- whenever a gift is given, gratitude is appropriate...when we are grateful we express appreciation...Of course, we may go and do something for them out of gratitude. But that's not gratitude; that's a sign that we are grateful" (p. 45).

Availability -- "we can't give anything back to God, not even ourselves, because we were never our own in the first place...the most we can do is make ourselves available for God to be used as instruments" (p. 47-48) Of course, it is God who makes us desire to be available and also to act on the desire.

Participation -- "when Luther described the nature of God's love he used the metaphor of flowing...God's love 'flows forth and bestows good'" (Luther's Works  31:57) The flowing movement of God's gifts is outbound and unidirectional. (p. 49)

"We don't just receive the gifts, but we are constituted and changed by them" (p. 50). They have a purpose. This is the difference between ordinary living and extraordinary living. You can sit on the couch with a drink in your hand, or work round the clock to get a better car. That's ordinary. You get up from the couch to play with children, or give your time to educate a prisoner, or lend an ear to an elderly person. That's extraordinary. Extraordinary living happens when we recognize that gifts are from God and come with a purpose (p. 54-55).

Why do followers of Christ give? For two reasons. "The first and primary reason is because the God whom we worship and the Christ who dwells in us are neither takers nor getters, but givers. The second and related reason is because God has given to us so that we would share with others... We exist not just to enjoy things but to pass them on...To the extent that we are channels of gifts (through which things 'flow'), we can't just do with them as we please. They come to us with an ultimate name and address other than our own. Though they are in our hands, they are on their way elsewhere...If I block the flow of God's gifts, I haven't just failed the giving God; I've also failed the intended recipients" (p. 59-60).

"To give as God gives, but in a way that is humanly possible, is a fine art. But it is an art that can be learned because the art itself is one of the gifts God offers" (p. 63). "The gift consists more in the freely undertaken choice to give than in the things given" (p. 65).

But we are still obligated to give. How can we be obligated to give and yet give freely? "Imagine your life as a piece of music, a Bach cello love it and would like to play it well... Are you constrained by the score because you have to follow its notation? Well yes. But loving every moment of that constraint -- and not feeling like it is constraint at all -- you discover that the very constraint is what makes the beauty and delight... Living out of our new selves (in Christ) we are always already where the command would want us to be" (p. 67).

"Like God, we give to the needy without distinction -- to stranger and to kin, to undeserving and deserving. Where the needy come from, what color their skin is, or how they behave doesn't matter. Their incapacities matter (though if they are able but unwilling to tend to their own needs, they are illicit takers, not legitimate recipients)" (p. 75).

But "we can't give everything, and we can't give to everybody. In fact, we can seldom deliver what we do have and want to give... So we give to those whom we trust will give to the needy... Surprisingly, that's how God gives, too -- through others, through us... Why does God choose to give through us? Because God has not created us to be only receivers, but to be givers as well.

Though St. Paul had a right to receive pay (2 Th. 3:8-9), he chose to forego compensation. For one reason, he understood gift giving. He started new congregations by teaching them to be productive and able to give rather than only receive. Another reason he refused pay was that Paul wanted to give God's indescribable gift in the same way it was given -- "free of charge" (1 Co. 9:18) (p. 80).

When I give, I am not the source of the gift, but only a channel through which it flows. The magnitude of my gift is not relevant. What matters is the spirit in which I give it. Paul called it eagerness. Eagerness is measured by the giver's joy and sacrifice (2 Corinthians 8:12, Luke. 21:3-4) (p. 83).

"At a basic level, generosity itself is exchanged in all our gift exchanges: my generosity is reciprocated by your generosity, and the circle of mutual love keeps turning. How should we give? By letting our generosities dance together" (p. 87).

Volf states that much of our giving is to ourselves. In the sales mode, we sometimes give in order to get. In our relationships we sometimes do nice things for each other hoping they will do nice things for us. Even when we think we are giving for the sake of others, we may be seeking little more than our self-interest. Some expect a benefit in return for their gift or they will divert their gift elsewhere the next time. We may seek our own good as we give, such as honor. Such giving is counterfeit rather than genuine. It is like saying, "People should know about my generosity and think well of me for it!"

That is not to say that giving is not blessed. If God is in the relationship between giver and recipients... givers always receive what they give, and more. That's the 'law' of the flow: those who pass gifts on receive more abundantly" (2 Co. 9:6-11) (p. 104). "The gifts we give to one another are Christ's gifts, not our own. Or rather, gifts are our own by being Christ's" (p. 111). Volf says, "In Luther's terms, because the gift-giving Christ acts in us, when we give we are gift-bearing Christ's to others" (p. 112).

In teaching stewardship to individuals or to congregations, it is not helpful to suggest, "God gives to the ungrateful and so should we." It is helpful for us to remember that it is God who gives when we give (p. 115). We give as a result of the Spirit, who enables us to embrace the gift-giving Christ (p. 116). In Ga. 5 are listed the fruit of the Spirit. Notice whose fruit those qualities are (p. 117).

How then does a congregation impact our giving? More than once Volf states, "Community helps craft us into good givers." It is apparent that the church exists for the sake of others as well as for our sake. God is the giver. The Spirit is the agent. People are the conduit through whom God's giving flows to others, for God's glory and for the building up of the body of Christ.

Overview of Chapters Four to Six -- Forgiving by Jerry Hoffman

Ed Kruse introduced me to this book and I found the chapters on "Giving" as very helpful.  When I looked at reviews of the book written by others, I discovered that most of the reviewers focused on the chapters related to "Forgiving."  

The same threads run through the chapters on forgiving. In the chapters on giving, Volf challenges the false gods of God as the "Negotiator" or as "Santa Claus." The corollary in the chapters on forgiving is a dismissal of the false gods  as "Judge" or the "Doting Grandparent."  Volf moves us to a proclamation of the biblical God who gives and forgives.

The God who is the absolute original giver and who never receives gives to us dwells in us and empowers us to full life by being instruments through whom God gives.  In the same way the God  who is the original forgiver forgives us, dwells in us and empowers us to full life by being instruments through whom God forgives.

God is infinite and indiscriminate in giving and forgiving.  God is the utterly loving giver and forgiver who gives without concern for God's own good.  

We live in an ungenerous and unforgiving culture.  Givers are losers.  Forgivers are wimps. Giving and forgiving does not serve our self-interests.

However, as the old Adam dies and Christ lives in us God gives and forgives through us. We are sustained in this counter culture activity by being in a faith community.

Volf provides the soil which calls the reader to be firmly rooted in the giving and forgiving God of the Bible and who call us to a partnership whereby we pass it on to others.

This book is a must read for pastors and all those who would be stewardship leaders.


Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture who has published and edited nine books and numerous articles.

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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