Molly writes in to ask this: “Pastor John, when I put money in the offertory plate at church, am I giving money to my church, or am I giving money to God?”
It is obvious, in one sense, that a gift is going to the church; that’s the name on the check. And so it is not bad.
To the Church — and God
I don’t think it is unbiblical or wrong to think that way: I am writing a check to the church. I am giving a gift to the ministry of the church. I want the gospel to advance through the church. I want the staff to be paid in the church. I want the children to be cared for in the church. I want heat on a winter morning in Minnesota in the church. It is to the church in that sense.
And the Old Testament spoke of gifts to maintain the tabernacle (see, for example, Exodus 35:4–36:38), and the New Testament is clear that giving to provide for those who lead the church is what God wants us to do: “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” (1 Timothy 5:18), and the grain is the gift of the people who care for that preacher ox.
So it is not a bad thing to think on the horizontal level here of money flowing to people and to ministry and to Christian institutions like the church. I think that is a right and biblical way to think.
And these gifts are also gifts to God, in the very same act, if your heart is right. The Bible speaks many times, and speaks approvingly, of God’s people giving God gifts. For example, Numbers 15:21 says, “Some of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord as a contribution throughout your generations.” This is part of your meal offering. So the Bible talks about giving God gifts.
And in the New Testament, interestingly, Paul says to the Philippians, who had sent him money, in 4:18, “I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” So Paul saw the gifts that were sent through the hands of Epaphroditus to Paul to sustain his ministry as sacrifices and gifts and offerings to God himself.
‘I Will Deliver You’
But (and this may be the most important thing I say) one of the most important teachings in the Bible, I think, is that, in one sense, we can’t give God anything. And that may be why the question was asked; I am not sure. We can’t give God anything that is not already his. And therefore, our giving to him never enriches him. It never improves him. It never puts him in our debt.
In fact, God is so completely self-sufficient, that even our act of giving — not just the gift, but the act of giving — is God’s gift to us, not vice-versa. And here are the key passages of warning. The Bible is really concerned that we not get this wrong. Acts 17:25 says, “[God] is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.” We see the same thing in Psalm 50. God was really upset with the people’s attitude in their sacrifices because, evidently, they had the notion they were providing for God’s needs. So he says in Psalm 50:9–15,
I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills. . . .
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine. . . .
And then he tells them how to do it:
Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
So here is the glorious point from that text: God will never ever be put in a position of a beneficiary of our generosity; he is not a beneficiary of our generosity. He does not need our giving because he owns everything already. He aims already to be the benefactor, not the beneficiary, because the benefactor gets the glory. So he says, “Call upon me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you and you will glorify me. If anybody is dependent in this situation, it is not me, it is you. And I want to work for you. You don’t work for me. I give to you. You don’t give to me.”
Every Gift from God
So here is the fundamental truth from Romans 11:35–36:
“Who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid? [Nobody!]
For from him and through him and to him are all things. [And then here is the result] To him be glory forever. Amen.
King David, in a great passage in 1 Chronicles 29:14, took a collection for the house of God that Solomon his son was going to build. And the most revealing thing about God’s sovereignty in this matter is that God already owns everything, and your very act of giving is a gift of God. So here is what he prays to God:
Who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. . . . O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. . . . I have seen your people . . . offering freely and joyously to you. O Lord . . . keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you.
In other words: “Our offering willingly is a gift we don’t deserve. You have given that to us. Every gift we are giving right now you are giving to us to give to you.” And here is the rock solid, foundational, ultimate statement about God’s sovereignty in giving: “O Lord . . . keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you.” In other words, not only are all of our gifts a gift from God, but even our purposes and our thoughts and our intentions to give are a work of God.
So my answer is: Yes, you are giving to your church. Yes, you are giving to God, and oh, that we might always know that our gifts are a gift from God, and our giving to God is a gift from God, so that only God gets the glory.