[Repost] Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

[This is a repost of an earlier blog post.  It seemed appropriate to Good Friday]

There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.

We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.

Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.

It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.

But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.

Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.

It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.

Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.

Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.

Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.

Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.

Not so the Son of Man.

He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.

But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!

“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.

I’m not worth this.

What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?

Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.

From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.

Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.

God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?

God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.

It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.

Grace. The free gift of the King.

The Season of Giving

Every year, it seems as though there’s some aspect of the Christmas story through which God is particularly speaking to me.

Some years it’s been Mary and her faith-obedience to the word of God brought by the angel. Others it’s been Joseph and the idea of being a father to the Son of God. Some years it’s been the angelic “fear not” spoken to terrified shepherds. Some years the wonder of the Incarnation and pondering the imponderable mystery of God as a single cell in a womb.

Last year, it was the census. I seemed to be so busy last year that I never had much space to just sit down and quietly reflect on the events of the True Story of Christmas, and when I finally did (almost Christmas Eve), what God chose to focus me on was the timing of it all: census time, with everyone bustling around and moving from place to place, the threat of new burdens of taxation from an oppressive pagan government hanging over everyone’s heads. And into all the bustle and noise and stress comes a newborn baby Who is God’s answer to it all.

This year, the focus seems to be on the various gifts and the season of giving.

In some ways there’s a sort of inevitability about it. I’ve posted about generosity and giving quite a lot over the almost three quarters of a year I’ve been at this: here under the imprint of Calvary and Easter, here as part of my Chivalric Virtues series, and here as part of an attempt to rescue the word “liberal” from only denoting a political stance. And even that is only the times I’ve focused in on it; I know I’ve mentioned the subject in passing on several other occasions, too.

Christmas is, of course, well-known as a season of giving. There are the presents we give each other. There are the Salvation Army’s bell-ringers and the other various charities that we like to donate to at this time of year. There’s the story of Saint Nicholas, both in its original version and in the metamorphosed popular version as Santa, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, Grandfather Frost or whatever you want to call him. There are the original symbolic (and costly) gifts of the Magi to the Christ-child: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And there’s the ultimate Gift of God to fallen mankind: Jesus the Messiah.

Some of these are directly related to the True Story of Christmas. Others relate only more distantly, by association or analogy. But all of them combine around the celebration of the birth of the Saviour, and together they make Christmas the season of giving that it has become.

An alien from the planet Pluto arriving on Earth at Christmas time today might suppose that Christmas was created as a conspiracy among shopkeepers to sell more stuff. Certainly Santa and his elves seem in many ways to tie into this mammon-focused perspective, and it can easily become all about stuff and getting.

But even Hollywood pits Father Christmas against the corporate buying and selling culture of Get, and points dimly at something higher than the stress of shopping and the corporate bottom line.

Father Christmas, of course, has become so much a feature of our celebrations as to practically eclipse the True Story, but even he has Christian origins. Though he took on the visual aspect of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse personifications of winter, with beard and sleigh and reindeer and all, he started out as a Christian saint and bishop. His red robes were once those of a bishop of the church (Roman Catholic cardinals today still wear red), of Myra in present-day Turkey (there’s another modern-day Christmas word), which was then part of the Greek-speaking Christian world. He is remembered chiefly for his generosity, and had a particular eye to the welfare of the poor in his episcopal see. Giving gifts in secret, he is reputed to have left gifts of money in the shoes of poor young women, enabling them to have the dowry money they needed to marry according to the custom of the day. The reindeer and the sleigh are just camouflage, which itself seems appropriate for the original “secret Santa”, and the “Ho Ho Ho” seems very apt as we are told that “God loves a cheerful giver”. What better memorial for one of history’s chief proponents of generosity than laughter and jollity?

The early church began to give gifts to one another at Epiphany, the feast commemorating the journey of the Magi, held on the 6th of January. Later, in some cultures, the gift-giving moved to the feast of St. Nicholas on the 6th of December, and later still got merged into the more important holiday, or “holy day”, of Christmas.

The Magi’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were given to Jesus because it would be unthinkable to travel for miles and miles to visit and worship a King of the Jews Whose birth had been announced by the stars themselves without bringing gifts. Really – here is someone so important that the heavens themselves turn out in bright array for Him, and you’re going to turn up uninvited with no gift? I don’t think so.

Symbolically speaking, gold was the most noble metal, symbolising kingship, frankincense was the basis of the sacred incense burned in the Temple and denoted priesthood and prayer, and myrrh was a costly perfume most often used as part of the embalming process to help alleviate the scent of dead person. In the words of the Christmas hymn: “Glorious now behold Him arise/King and God and Sacrifice”.

But the gifts had practical value as well. Despite the jokey cards that suggest that something more “practical” like a baby bed or bottle, would be in order, unbeknownst to Joseph and Mary their ability to provide for their young son was about to be seriously compromised.

The necessity to flee to Egypt and become refugees meant that Joseph probably had to leave his carpenter’s shop and all his tools firmly behind. No time to go back and get anything; the life of the Son of Man is at stake here.

The gifts would have financed Mary, Joseph and Jesus’ flight into Egypt, bought the silence of anyone who might be tempted to inform Herod, and probably have helped establish Joseph down there.

I may look more at the Magi and their gifts in a successive post, but right now I want to turn my attention to the ultimate Christmas Gift: the gift of God to humanity.

Back at Easter I mentioned how generosity was one of the marks of good Mediæval kingship. Magnanimity was expected, and the size and value of a king’s gift-giving was a direct measure of the power and majesty of their throne. I mentioned that God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign, how it doesn’t matter that Calvary is something we cannot afford, because it is a gift in keeping with the scale of God’s majesty.

Now I want to apply that to Christmas.

God, the Lord of the Universe, Most High and Almighty Ruler of all, determines to give a gift to us. To you. To me. A gift in keeping with the scale of His Majesty requires a gift of infinite worth. And so the Most High God gives to us the costliest treasure He has:

The gift of Himself.

He comes down, born as a baby, incarnated into flesh, living as one of us, destined to die to pay the debt our sinful choices had made, the debt we could not pay.

This is the centre of Christmas. This is the Gift at the heart of it all, to which even Father Christmas points dimly. It’s a season of giving, because He first gave to us.

A Life Lived In Gratitude

In some ways, Thanksgiving is possibly the most Christian of all American holidays. And I’m including Christmas and Easter, at least in their popular expressions.

In many ways, most of the other American holidays have been turned into excuses for commecialism and greed, and while “they” appear to be trying the same with Thanksgiving, it has a little more built-in resistance to the commercial spirit. As evidence, witness the following:

Christmas often seems to have- become all about the presents. Retailers love it because it produces a massive flood of buying and selling, kids love it often because they get massive amounts of new stuff. The secular icon of Christmas, Santa Claus, is someone who enables and encourages getting more stuff.

Easter is in some ways much the same: its lapine secular icon brings chocolate and candy, and it’s all about getting stuff.

Halloween is another excuse for getting sweets, and so, in may ways, is Valentine’s Day.

All of them so often seem to promote greed, covetousness and dissatisfaction: “getting more stuff” becoming “what I’ve got isn’t good enough”.

Thanksgiving, though, is a day of being thankful for what you have already. A day of calling to mind blessings received and celebration not of getting more, but of having received. Gratitude is naturally difficult to commercialise, because it is the antithesis of the commercial spirit.

In many ways, gratitude expresses the essence of the Christian life. Jesus has already done the work, achieved our salvation, rescued us from the corruption that comes with setting ourselves at the centre of it all. Our role is not to do this or that good deed to try to earn it, as if God is like Santa and only brings gifts to good little girls and boys, in other words, to those who deserve it.

Because if we’re honest, we none of us deserve it. We’ve all been self-centred, hurt people, deceived and been deceived.

But God gives His gifts anyway. He gives as a gift that which we cannot earn. We can’t buy it with our own good works because it isn’t for sale to begin with.

Receiving with gratitude is the only appropriate response.

Thanksgiving Day is also a time of gathering together in celebration. There are big family feasts. It’s a party.

It’s altogether appropriate that Heaven is described in the Bible as a feast. Grateful receiving of a gift of that magnitude is naturally a cause of great joy. You want to celebrate. Lavish feasts can be held because of the generosity of the Giver.

If we ever get to a place in which our Christianity is all dour rule-keeping and work, we are becoming like the elder son in Jesus’ parable. The one who complained that “all these years I’ve been slaving for you and you never gave me even a young goat so that I could celebrate with my friends”. The one who had received his half of the inheritance at the same time as the younger one, but who was so caught up in trying to earn his father’s favour that he apparently missed it. When the father said “all I have is yours”, he wasn’t speaking hyperbole. The elder son could have had a party any time he wanted; instead, he thought he had to be in slavery because that’s what the father wanted.

Well, the Father has no slaves, only sons. And He delights to bless, simply because He can. Thanksgiving is the right response.

Christianity is at its root a life lived in gratitude for what we have received. The Thanksgiving holiday puts flesh on that, makes it visible.

So let us then give thanks for what we have received.

A Condition of Blessing?

The proximate cause of this post was Levi Thetford’s recent quotation from C. H. Spurgeon, but the subject is something I’ve been thinking about for a while.


Giving to God shouldn’t be this complicated.

Ten percent of your income, right? According to the standard teaching on tithing that I’ve heard, that’s ten percent of your gross income, before any taxes and other things come out. This is, so we’re told, God’s Bit; it doesn’t belong to you and if you infringe on it, you’re robbing God. Also according to the standard tithe teaching, this part is all supposed to go to your church, and any giving to Christian organisations or individual missionaries that you’d like to do is “offerings” on top of that. I’m going to talk about both under the general heading of “tithe”, because I’m lazy (and a two-fingered typist) and typing “tithes and offerings” all the time is hard work.

Preferably, we’d like to do the sensible thing and budget our giving, set up standing orders to handle most of it so that the church and the individuals and organisations we support have a guaranteed, regular amount coming in.

This is easy if you have a fixed salary and know from week to week or month to month how much you’re going to make. But I work in the rather weather-dependent construction industry, and if it rains, I don’t work and don’t get paid. As no-one has yet found a way to schedule rainfall, this means I don’t know from week to week how much I’m going to earn.

In addition, due to the insane way America handles taxation, a massive proportion of my family’s annual income comes in the form of tax credits and refund. This comes in the form of a single annual amount, part of which is over-tax refunded (and has thus had tithe paid on it) and part of which is tax credits and other money the government gives us for reasons of social engineering (and thus hasn’t). I’m not an accountant. My degree is in Biology, which is the science you do if you hate maths. (How I came to be in construction is a long story). I’ve been committed to following the standard teaching on tithing and not robbing God, but I find calculating all of this to be an utter pain and a real burden. It really shouldn’t be this complicated.

Jesus said about the Sabbath that it was made for man, not man for it (Mark 2:27). By extension, what God requires is not supposed to be an unreasonable burden, but is for our good and benefit. I like to give, but I hate the hassle of calculating it all out so that I know I’m not holding out on God. It’s a pain.

So I’m coming to question the whole idea of how we approach the tithe.

The passages about tithing are all in the Old Testament. The Law, particularly the book of Deuteronomy, lays out the method by which the tribe of Levi were to be supported by the other eleven tribes (twelve if you count the division of Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh). The New Testament doesn’t even mention the word, apart from when Jesus is castigating the Pharisees for tithing their fine herbs while neglecting justice and mercy (Mt 23:23). Tithing wasn’t a requirement put on Gentile believers by the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), nor was in mentioned as an instruction in any of the New Testament letters.

This is a far cry from what you’d expect if you listened to some of those well-known preachers whose whole message appears to be how God will automatically bless you and make you rich if you are faithful in tithing to Him. According to this teaching, the requirement to tithe is for all time and all peoples, a condition of receiving the blessing of God. If you don’t give God His cut, then He will cause all of your money to trickle away, and He will withdraw His hand of blessing from your life.  And on top of the tithe, there are offerings, which are free-will gifts that you nevertheless ought to feel obligated to give, because God will not bless you unless you do.

Yay. Guilt and fear, all in the same package.

I touched on the automatic nature of God’s blessing that this seems to assume in a previous post, but it’s worth reiterating. God is not a vending machine, where you put tithe in and get blessing out. Unlike pagan gods, you don’t buy His favour.

Those whose teaching heavily emphasises the tithe usually phrase it as something like “God has covenanted Himself to bless you if you tithe”, neatly wiggling around the accusation that they are making God into a Coke machine. But the effect is the same, so really, isn’t the distinction pure semantics?

You’d expect that if they were right about how important tithing is, that there would be more teaching about it in the New Testament. If we’re expected to tithe, Jew and Gentile, there are very real and serious questions that need to be addressed. Should the Jew’s tithe go to the physical Levites in the physical temple, as the Law says? Should the Gentile’s tithe go to support those who administer the ministry of the Good News, or likewise to the (Jewish) Levites and temple? What about the fact that it was those in charge of the temple who were most hostile to the Gospel? And why should a Gentile believer in Jesus be required to keep the part of the Law regarding tithe when “Christ is the end of the Law” (Rom 10:4)?

The New Testament does talk about giving quite a lot. But it manages to do so without once mentioning the tithe.

The summary of New Testament teaching on giving is that there is an expectation that we, as believers, will be doing so. This is natural and right; God is a generous God and if we are walking in step with His Spirit we will naturally want to be generous like Him. The New Testament says we should give generously (“with liberality”, as the King James Bible puts it: unstintingly, without measure, not counting it out). We should give cheerfully. And we should give what we have decided in our heart to give, not grudgingly or under compulsion (II Cor 9:7 and others).

Now, I have several pastors and numerous missionaries among my friends, and I know none of them are rolling in it at the best of times. They have to feed their families out of a part of what is given to the church. Anything which puts these worthy servants of the Lord further from the breadline is OK by me.

But I have to stand against the idea that tithe is a requirement and condition of blessing.

We’re told that we shouldn’t give under compulsion. I’ve seen churches that make the receiving of the offering into a huge “celebration” with dancing and clapping up to the front of the church to give. Can you say “psychological pressure”? Yeah. Everybody is given the opportunity to look and judge, and there’s a real sense of “we’re going to try and manipulate your emotions so that you will feel obligated to give more”. The Bible is clear. No compulsion.

But then, too, what is the tithe at all but compulsion formalised and writ large? If tithing is an absolute requirement, it’s a compulsion, and the New Testament specifically says that we should give what we have decided to in our heart, cheerfully because we want to rather than grudgingly because we have to.

If tithing is a condition of God’s blessing, how is this not legalism? Blessing is the favour of God. We’re now apparently saying that God’s favour is conditional on our tithing faithfulness; thus, it’s something we can earn and buy. Not only that, but that we have to earn and buy it; God’s favour is “conditional on our tithing”. We just made the favour of God into something conditional on a thing we have to do (tithing). Has no-one actually read Galatians?

“Oh, but we’re not saying that if you don’t tithe, you can’t be saved. Just that God’s blessing is conditional on your faithfulness in the tithe”. Grace is grace. Unmerited favour is just that, unmerited. I might say, with St. Paul; “Having begun with the Spirit, are you now trying to achieve your goal by human effort?” (Gal 3:3). Salvation, justification, sanctification and blessing are all by the grace of God.

I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but there is a New Covenant. We’re not under Law but under grace. The righteous requirements of the Law? Met in Jesus. Not only can we not earn God’s favour by what we do (including tithing), but we aren’t supposed to try, because trying to earn it is an offence against the grace and generosity of God.

Now I’m not saying we shouldn’t give. God is the ultimate Giver, and we want to be like Him. But let’s lose this legalistic approach to tithing and let God’s grace be our guide for giving. Seriously, which is the greater amount of giving: 10% or “with liberality”? Given Jesus’ interpretation of the commandments about murder, vengeance and adultery, why should we suppose God’s holy standards would be any lower in the lesser matter of giving? If the Spirit of the holy, gracious, generous God of Heaven truly dwells in our hearts, then He is the One setting the priorities for “what we have decided in our heart to give”. God’s generosity ought to be our standard, not ten percent. Getting tied up in exactly how much our tithe ought to be just seems a lot like Pharisaism and the attempt to buy off God like He’s some pagan idol or Mob boss.

“Freely you have received. Now freely give” (Mt 10:8).

So my family will be trying an experiment this year in not tithing. Instead, we will ask God what He wants us to give and then joyfully do what He says. I can almost guarantee that we’ll end up giving more.

Not For Sale: Calvary and the Grace of God

There’s something appropriate about the betrayal of the Son of Man being a financial transaction. Selling the gift of God for thirty pieces of silver seems somehow an apt symbol for how thoroughly we miss the point sometimes.

We live in a capitalistic society. People earn money as recompense for labour, and spend money on food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, whatever. What we need and what we want. Trading websites like Ebay have huge traffic and make millions. Wall Street dominates our lives, even if we have no stocks. Advertisers spend billions buying our online data histories – what we like, where we go and what we do there – in the hopes of getting better at manipulating us into buying more stuff.

Everything – our stuff, our time, our preferences, our information – is for sale. The way of the world is buying and selling, and there’s something about the mentality of buying and selling that is opposed to God and works against grace.

It’s not that buying and selling is wrong. Proper capitalism is far better that communism. Getting a fair return for your labour is important; it’s a manifestation of justice.

But it’s not the way the Kingdom of God works. The ways of God are giving and receiving.

Emblematic of this difference is Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” Sin pays a wage, but God gives a gift. It’s a completely different kind of transaction.

It’s to be expected. Grace is part of God’s fundamental character, and our English word “grace” comes from the Latin “gratis”: free, not to be paid for, not for sale.

Our buying and selling mentality frustrates grace. We want to pay for the gift somehow. But a gift, by its very nature, is something that is not for sale.

Later, Simon the Sorcerer was to fall prey to the same mentality. His attempt to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands was standard operating procedure for pagan magic. Spiritual influence was for sale, as it still is in many non-Western parts of the world, and once he had purchased the ability, he would naturally expect to treat it as a commodity – to sell it in his turn.

Peter’s response is as harsh as it is for a reason. “May your money perish with you because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” (Acts 8:20).

Grace in turn frustrates avarice and the commercial impulse. Just because we don’t use physical coin does not make us immune to the idea that we can buy what God offers as a gift. We spend the currency of faith and purchase favour from the Almighty. We tithe and expect God’s blessing as if we have bought it. Even the surrender of our lives to Christ can become a sort of reciprocity, an attempt to buy what is freely given. God’s gifts will not be bought. They are free.

Today, we are so captured by the commercial spirit that if something is free, we think that either it is worthless or it’s some kind of bait or hook to get us to spend more money in other ways.

Not so the Son of Man.

He was the gift of God, because God loved the world so much. The eternal life given to us as a result of His death on the cross is likewise the free gift of God. We can’t buy it because it isn’t for sale. All we can do is receive a gift.

But how we hate to receive a gift of this magnitude!

“You shouldn’t have”, we say when someone gives us something unexpectedly. “This is too much”.

I’m not worth this.

What? Are we now arguing with the eternal and all-wise God over our value? Are we trying to claim that we see more clearly than He?

Besides, that frames the whole thing as a purchase rather than a gift.

From one perspective, it is, of course. We are not our own. We were bought at a price (I Cor 6:19-20). But from another, it’s a free gift that cannot be bought. And it isn’t about our perceived value or lack of it.

Magnanimity was one of the great attributes of ancient and Mediæval kings. The giving of gifts was a kingly prerogative: the greater the king, the more lavish the gift. The Bible makes reference to this when it says that “[Jesus] ascended on high… He led captives in his train and gave gifts to men” (Eph 4:8).

You didn’t tell a king that his gifts were “too much”, because that was tantamount to telling him that his kingship wasn’t great enough to warrant this kind of magnanimity. And no-one in their right mind would try to buy the royal gift, because that would be tantamount to making yourself equal to the king in question. Really rather dangerously insulting on either count.

God’s Kingship is absolute. He’s the Lord of the Universe. God of angel armies. Sovereign I AM. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Are we now trying to tell Him that His Kingship is not great enough to support His gift? Is that what we truly believe?

God is All-Giving because He is All-Sovereign. It’s part of His kingly majesty to give gifts, and gifts that reflect His greatness.

It’s not for sale because we are not equals of God to purchase it. It’s ridiculously lavish because God is ridiculously great.

Grace. The free gift of the King.