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When God Is First

He Owns Our Money

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 12, 2003

Selected highlights from this sermon

The early church knew how to give. United by the Holy Spirit, they joyfully gave so that the poor among them could be helped. Everyone was involved and everyone experienced the outpouring of spiritual growth. 

When we understand that everything we have belongs to God, we can begin to give with joy, and see generosity as a privilege from our Lord. 

When we speak about making God first in our lives, and that’s what we’re doing during this series of messages, you remember that our goal is that at the end of the series we will own nothing because the transfer of ownership will have been completely made.

Now there are some things that are easier than others to give to God because we’re forced to give them to God. For example, I think of our futures. We can’t control our future—some things, but many things are beyond us, and so God pushes us into a situation where we have to give our future to God. The same is true regarding our health. There are some things that we can do to live longer, to feel better, but at the end of the day, ultimately we’re not in control. God is. So we have to give that to God.

We think of our children. We can’t control them, and the sooner in our lives that we give those over to God instead of trying to play the role of the Holy Spirit, the better it will be for them and for us when we really do transfer ownership into God’s hands.

But now when it comes to money, that’s a very sensitive topic, isn’t it? In fact, if you’re a visitor here today, you say, “Isn’t that something? I come to Moody Church and the very first time I come they are talking about money.” Well, just hang in with us until the end. Okay? God is here to liberate you, not to put you under bondage. God is not here to try to shame you to give. He is here to try to instruct all of us, and it may be the doorway to tremendous great blessing.

But we struggle with the money thing because if we own it we think it is mine, particularly if we earned it. We say to ourselves, “This is ours. It’s mine. Blood, sweat, tears went into this,” and so we hang onto it until our knuckles turn white. Then we think to ourselves, “Well, let’s keep in mind that money has demonic power.” There’s no question about its ability to seduce. That’s why you find people of principle, and suddenly when they are involved in something with some serious money, all of those principles can be sacrificed for money. Money becomes a god, and it makes all the same promises that God makes. God says, “I’ll be with you to the end.” Money says, “I’ll be there when you need me, whether in health, whether in sickness, whether in difficulty, whether in trouble, it will be there. I will be there for you if you keep it in a safe place. And so because of that, you see, it has this awesome power to be able to hold us back and to keep us bound.

And then we think of the question of what does it mean to give our money to God? That’s the question we’re going to ask today, and hopefully answer, but there are some people listening who say, “Does that mean that I just give everything away, and I end up in a homeless shelter? Is that what God wants me to do?” Now, if you have those kinds of questions in your mind, you came to the right place because hopefully by the time the message is over, you’ll find out what it really does mean to give your money to God.

Now, in Acts 4 we see a marvelous example of the early church being filled with the Holy Spirit. The Bible says in Acts 4, and I’m in verse 31: “And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.”

Whether or not you like this message, to some extent it’s going to depend on whether you are filled with the Holy Spirit. The more filled you are with the Holy Spirit, the more you are going to enjoy this liberating message of commitment and stewardship. But if you are miserly… And did you know that the word miserly is the word that we have from the same root, misery. Misery! If you are miserly and stingy you might not like this message, but the Bible says that they were all filled with the Spirit. That’s why when we began this series, the first message, if you recall, was on the filling of the Spirit, because if we don’t know the filling of the Spirit, we are going to find it very difficult to put God first.

And so this is a message to people who know something of what it is like to be filled with the Spirit. And the Bible says that they all walked in unity. Verse 32: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul (mind).” What does God do when He is first? He resolves the differences between people. He enables us to lay down our bitternesses so that we can be one in mind and heart. That is the true work of the blessed Holy Spirit of God given to the church. And the early church as they waited on God, God did this for them in a spectacular way, as we’ve already learned, because they were so committed to the fullness of the Holy Spirit. They said, “We will not allow anything to stand in the way of the Spirit’s fullness.” And I hope that we as a church and as individuals meet that requirement too.

Now what we’d like to do is to introduce you to five laws. I know that your notes, I think, say principles. But I was thinking about it and saying, “You know, that’s too tame.” Five laws of stewardship that will liberate us, that will set us free, that will help us in our walk with God, that will benefit us and bring honor and glory to God at the same time! What an opportunity to learn from those who have gone on before!

What are the five laws of stewardship? First of all, the law of rightful ownership! You’ll notice it says there in verse 32 that all the believers were of one heart and mind, and now notice, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own. Wow! Well, to whom did they belong? They belonged to God. They said, “We realize that these aren’t our possessions—our lands, our houses, our money. In fact, right from the original creation God is the creator. When Adam was created he was to be a steward over what God had made. God says, “I want you to run my world, and remember, Adam, it is my world. You don’t own anything, but you are a steward. You’re the one who is to administer my blessings.” And so Adam did that until the fall.

And after the fall of man into sin what you now have is man goes from being a steward to an owner. And from now on possession is going to consume him. Ownership is going to become number one. Everything that you can own, get it if you can legally and rightfully, dishonestly if you must, but in all cases, in all instances, get it, own it, claim it. It is yours.

Now what does God do after we are redeemed? God seeks to redeem us from that ownership. He already owns whatever we have most assuredly, but He wants us to recognize that. And redemption is me recognizing the fact that God wants back what He’s given me, and it is necessary for me to make that transfer of ownership of everything that I possess because that is part of God’s agenda. Redemption is reclamation. God is reclaiming ownership over things that we have called our own.

And so in the end… Death, by the way, is the final act of reclamation. Somebody said to a farmer, “Who is it that owns the land next to you?” He said, “Well, I used to always say it belonged to Mr. Jones, but I guess it isn’t his after all because he didn’t take it with him. He left this life without it.”

You know the old line that nobody has ever seen a U-Haul trailer at the back of a hearse. You know that! “How much did he leave?” somebody asks. “Everything!” It’s the final act of reclamation. But what God says to you and to me before that act is, “I want you to recognize My sovereignty over all that you have.” And the early church claimed nothing as belonging to themselves. They understood the law of rightful ownership.

Now, notice law number two, the law of joyful generosity. Did they have to do this? Did Peter stand up and say, “Now, I want all of you to sell everything that you have and I want you to bring it to us?” Absolutely not! For one thing, that principle could not possibly be applied today. You couldn’t have a business if you sold it all and gave it all away. And that’s why what we have here in the book of Acts (this story) is descriptive in the sense that it describes what happened, but it is not prescriptive in the sense that it says, “This is what the church should do throughout all the ages.” And we know that, first of all, it was voluntary because of the text itself.

Next week I’m going to speak about Ananias and Sapphira. I hope that you are here next week because it’s a remarkable story. But do you remember that they lied about what they gave? And it says in chapter 5, verse 4… Peter is speaking to them and says, “Why did you do that?” He says: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” In other words, “If you wanted to keep the money, keep the money because we’re not demanding it. You didn’t have to get deceptive about it.”

Of course, what God is saying is that it’s voluntary. There’s no law that comes down from heaven. In fact, the New Testament doesn’t even teach tithing. It refers to it but it doesn’t teach it as a mandatory regulation. Tithing was something done in the Old Testament. It was something like a tax. But you get to the New Testament and Paul says, “I am holding you to a higher standard. I’m holding you to the standard of generosity because you love God. I want to have cheerful givers who realize that they are giving because they have been given to.” And so it liberates you from this need, this duty, this overriding obligation to give. So I say to you today that if, when you give, you give stingily… I don’t know if there’s a word like that, but let’s just say there is. If, before you give, you take that nickel and you press it and you press it because this is your contribution, keep your nickels and your dollars. Do not give unless you can give with a heart of gratitude to Almighty God who, first of all, gave to you and to me. Alright?

So if you come today with a bad attitude, don’t give. You say, “Well, the offering plates have already been passed.” Yeah, but I’m talking about next week. Okay? (laughter) Giving is for those who love God, who understand that the blessings of God have come from heaven undeserved. Giving is for those who know that they are children of God and they delight to give because they’ve been so honored as heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.

There’s a story that comes to us from the days of Alexander the Great. He was riding along and a beggar held out his hand. Now, normally kings ignored beggars, and Alexander the Great actually gave this beggar, to whom he owed nothing, some gold coins. And one of his assistants said to him, “Why didn’t you just give him some copper coins? They would have met his need.” And Alexander, if this story is true, to his everlasting credit said, “Copper coins may meet the need of this beggar, but copper coins are not appropriate for a king to give.” It’s not just because you are meeting the needs of other people, though you most assuredly are. It is because of the fact that we are children of the King, so we give generously, and we look for places to give because we love to give, and God has overcome the jealousy and the greed of our hearts.

You say, “Well, shouldn’t we tithe?” Yes, tithing is a wonderful idea. It’s a good benchmark. My wife and I have discovered that we can go beyond the tithe more each year. And so, yes, it’s a wonderful way to tithe. It is good but it is not as if we do it under obligation.

Now, let me say very candidly to you that if everyone who attended Moody Church who is a member and an attender and believed that Moody Church was his or her home, if they were all to tithe, we would never have to emphasize Reaching Toward Tomorrow. We would never have to raise funds for our mission program. We would never have to do that. We would have enough money to touch many hundreds of people more in this city and around the world if all the people did was to understand that tithing is a good benchmark in your giving. But let it be done with a heart of sincerity and a heart of joy. The principle—the law of joyful generosity.

There’s a third law and that is the law of total participation. You’ll notice what it says. I’m still in the middle of verse 32. It seems as if I can’t get out of it. It says: “And no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own.” If they were agreed, if they were unified under the Holy Spirit, of one mind and one heart, they said, “Hey, you know, all of us understand that we have a part in this.” Some people’s part bigger than others, but there was a sense of saying, “We all want to be in on this business of giving.” Total participation! The unity of believers!

You know, when we think of our own challenges here at the church and Reaching Toward Tomorrow, we want participation on the part of everyone, including our children and our young people. Everybody can give something. Why? It’s because we need to see that this is a community project. It is a project of the whole body and not just some of its members.

Now, I need to speak to you very candidly and tell you that there are hundreds of people who attend Moody Church and consider it their church home, who give absolutely nothing Sunday by Sunday. What do you think that reveals about their relationship with God? They have not grown in what the Apostle Paul calls this grace of giving. They have never seen that it is possible to actually give away some of that selfishness and to be able to participate in what God says turns out to be a harvest of righteousness. And so our hearts go out to them, not because we need the money, though God knows we do, but our hearts go out to them because we think of what it is that they are missing in their spiritual growth. Where is it that their hearts have been so locked to God’s Spirit? It is Jesus who said that it is more blessed to give than to receive. What has happened to the joy? And so there was this emphasis of complete participation. That’s another law of stewardship.

Let me give you another law, and that is the law of proper distribution. Now notice it says that they sold what they had. There was no needy person among them for from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the Apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. They said, “Our first project here in Jerusalem is to the poor.” Good idea! We here at The Moody Church have a fellowship fund, and the fellowship committee investigates the various causes and needs that come to its attention because the Bible places a great deal of emphasis on the poor and our need to help those who are indeed needy because of all kinds of circumstances.

And so what they did though was they took this money and they put it at the Apostles’ feet. What does that tell you? It tells you that they very much trusted these Apostles to do what was right. They knew that the money was going to be dispensed with integrity. And could I say that it is important in our giving that we give to a ministry that does have integrity?

Once again this week, just for a few moments, I was watching a television evangelist. Now this isn’t true of all of them. There’s something about me that if I am surfing I can’t seem to get past these folks and tune in for just a moment. But as I was listening to him I thought, “Is there anyone on Planet Earth who actually cannot see through this man and his greed and his deceptions?” I am amazed at where some of God’s people put their money. And indeed it is important that we have a sense of integrity and knowing what we are giving the money for, and knowing that it is going to be properly taken care of.

I hope I don’t need to say this, but here at The Moody Church integrity with our finance committee where everything is accounted for (Not just to one person but a committee and then a larger executive committee) is actually fundamental to who we are because we need to be able to say, “God, these are not our funds to just be distributed according to our own whims or our own benefits. These funds belong to You.” They have been given by God’s people, and because they are God’s, what we do with that money is much more important than what we do with the money that we hold back because this is God’s. And so there was this commitment to proper distribution, the belief that my gifts and my commitment are going to go where they ought to go, and the responsibility that there is involved.

And could I throw in a parenthesis here? When you are thinking of giving (if you give and you have a home church, and for most of you that, of course, is this one), you give first and foremost to the ministry where you are fed and blessed, and where you are involved. From time to time I see people who say, “Well, you know, we support missionaries.” Well, that’s good. My wife and I support a number of missionaries in independent mission boards that have nothing to do with Moody Church. But our primary giving is here, folks. And you’ve heard me say it before but I need to say it again. When I eat at O’Brien’s, I don’t pay the bill at Mitchell’s. Alright? And if we are saying that this is where God has led us, then it is our responsibility to support this work where we are being fed as the Apostle Paul argues later in 2 Corinthians, because this is where we are fed and blessed. And we give in an atmosphere of people whom we know and people whom we trust. So that’s the fourth—the law of proper distribution. And in a message like this I’ll take any amen that comes in this direction. Alright?

The fifth is the law of unexpected blessings. The Bible says great grace was upon all of them. The favor of God rested upon the church. And we’ll see that the great fear of God… There’s a verse in Acts 9, I believe it is. I’m reading through the book of Acts and meditating my way all the way through the book even though the messages are just on the first chapters. But it says this. It says that the church multiplied. What a text! I don’t think I’d seen it before. It says that the church multiplied in the fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

So there was, on the one hand, the fear of God, and next week we’ll find out why there was the fear of God in that church. But it multiplied in the fear of God and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, and great blessing was upon them all. I quoted the text earlier where Paul says in Corinthians that if you give you will receive a harvest of righteousness. You say, “Well, can I give my way to prosperity?” as one book said. No, that’s the wrong motivation. If you say to yourself, “God, I’m going to give you a dollar and I expect ten back next week,” you’re not going to get it. I don’t think you are because it’s not a money making deal. It’s not some new scheme by which we can become rich like some television evangelists say. No! But we give, and God does prosper and God does bless in unexpected ways. Maybe during the next weeks we’ll tell you some stories like that of people who can say, “Yes, when I became generous with God this is what God did with me,” but that’s not really the ultimate motivation at all. The motivation is the recognition that God is birthing in us that which comes to our account, as it says in the book of Philippians, the good that it does for us in our generous giving to God and to His work. We are blessed in this life, and most assuredly we are blessed in the life to come.

You know, the Scripture says that what we should do is to give to God’s work so that there will be people in heaven who will welcome us into eternal habitations. A few years ago I preached on that passage. It’s a remarkable passage. So I take it this way, that when we die and go to heaven we will see Jesus, and He is the one with whom we will be preoccupied, but after that, Jesus will begin to introduce us to the people who are there because we gave. Without money we cannot send a missionary. Without money we cannot do our work in Osiri. Without money we cannot have our programs. We cannot have Kids’ Club. All of those things are necessary, and in our giving we are blessing others who will welcome us into eternal habitations.

I love that story about a European princess, a true story, who had all of these jewels and these precious diamonds that she was given as a princess. And she spoke to her husband and begged him that she might be able to sell those and begin an orphanage. And at first he said no, but then he said, “Okay, go ahead and do it.” She sold her jewels and even her crown, and she built an orphanage, and when she was there one day and heard the children singing, and quoting verses of Scripture, she said to her husband, “I have found my jewels.” Wow! “I have found my jewels in the lives and the hearts and the expressions of these precious children.”

God says, “Don’t you understand that there is unexpected blessing that comes when you begin to say, ‘Lord, we want to have the commitment of the early church?’” We’re not going to do what the early church did, as I mentioned to you. Nowhere in the Bible is that prescribed. And furthermore, it could not work in our society. But we are saying that we want the same heart. We want the same generosity. We want the same sense of sacrifice. I hope that that’s what we’re saying if we say we want God first.

Last night as I was meditating on this I asked the question, “How do we know that we’ve given everything to God?” Now what we should do is we should list actually, as I have done on occasion, all of the things that we have and then say, “God, these are Yours?” But how do we know whether or not we’ve made that commitment? Let me make a few suggestions. First of all, we know it when you pray, asking God to direct you in managing it. Here’s my challenge to you. My challenge to you is that with an open heart you might take all that God has given you and simply say, “Now God, this is yours, so I have a question for You. How do you want me to direct it?” There are some of you perhaps who have investments from years and years ago, more than you could ever possibly spend, and you are saying to yourself, “God, how do You want me to use these resources? Surely I don’t want to die with all this money.” And it goes to your relatives so that they can fight about it and have a war in the cemetery, like one funeral director told me happened here in Chicago. They started to take out their guns at the cemetery to settle the issue as to who gets the money. Is that what you want to have happen when you are dead and gone, and all those beautiful but true things that were said about you at your funeral? I don’t think so. I think you want to invest it somewhere where people are going to welcome you into eternal habitations.

So the question that you have to ask and that I have to ask is, “God, if this is Yours, would You please direct me in how it is to be distributed as my responsibility as a steward?” I challenge you to just ask God that.

Then secondly, I think that we know when we’ve made the transfer when we realize that what we keep is just as much God’s or His, as what we give. See, it’s hard for us to break this, but in the minds of many people here it is. “Alright, this is God’s—what I give on Sunday. What I keep back is mine to use at my discretion.” Wait a moment now. I thought we were just trying to emphasize that everything is God’s, so what I keep back, and I need, of course, money to pay the bills and to have clothes and food and cars, and all of these things that are so necessary in order for us to live in society, I need that, but that’s God’s too. And I also believe that the way in which God leads me is by supplying money or withholding it, and so I do not go into credit card debt, because if God hasn’t supplied the money, I don’t buy it.

There are some of you listening, God bless you, you’d love to be able to give because your heart is right, but you are bound by debt. Remember, dirt, devil and debt! I don’t know exactly how, but they are all related. Will you remember that? They are all connected. And some of you need some counseling and some help to get out of this burden of debt which has accumulated almost always because we think to ourselves, “God is not meeting my needs so I will turn to Master Card, and Master Card will meet my needs right now.” Of course, it’s one thing to borrow money for an item that is going to appreciate, but when you borrow money for items that depreciate, it’s not a good investment. You say, “Well, what about a car?” Listen, you could buy a brand new car and you drive it across the street to buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and it’s already lost five hundred dollars in value. That’s a slight exaggeration maybe but cars depreciate. I’ve never yet known one to appreciate unless it’s a 1941 Ford, or something like that.

Alright, third! You’re being a little too quiet for me at this point. (laughter) I hope everything is alright in your department. I’m doing well but I just need to know that you are. Third, we know that we’ve made that transition when giving is not a chore to be done, but it’s a privilege to be prized when we say, “Isn’t it wonderful that I can give?” And you know what our model is? It’s Jesus. The Bible says that Jesus, who though He was rich (Did He hang onto His riches and say, “It is mine”? “It is mine! I deserve it!”), yet for your sakes, Paul says, He became poor.

Let me ask you something. Would you be willing, for the sake of God, to become poor? Jesus did, so that we, through His poverty, Paul says, might become rich. And that’s our motivation. Our motivation is Jesus. And that’s why I need to stress something: that if you are here today and you’ve never trusted Jesus as your Savior, and you’ve never accepted that free gift that He became poor for that you might be able to have… If you have never done that, that is really your first responsibility. Giving flows out of that. It flows out of a relationship with God that we have that we say, “Jesus, you’ve done so much for me, all that I have is Yours, oh Lord. Just teach me how to be a good manager over what You have provided.”

And so we love to give. We find opportunities to give. We push doors open and wonder, “Can we be of help here, can we be of help there?” because, you see, our whole motivation is now changed. We don’t give to be saved. We give because we have been saved through the precious gift of eternal life, Jesus Christ, our Lord. And so please don’t take this as a message where, you know, we lay it on you the need to give. No, no, no! If you’re not a believer in Christ, you receive that free gift. “Come,” Jesus said, “to the water of life.” Freely you receive the free gift of eternal life.

But for those of you who know Christ as Savior, Paul says, “I pray that you will grow in the grace of giving.” And that’s what my desire is. It isn’t just so that we as a church may prosper, but God knows that there are many, many more needs we could be meeting if there were a greater commitment. But that’s not… The real issue is our relationship with God and our love for the Savior. That’s what’s at stake in this business of giving. If you agree with me would you bow your head in prayer?

Father, today we thank You so much for the early church. We thank You, Lord, that they were willing to sell everything and give it away. Oh Father, we pray that You might give us the same spirit, even though it wouldn’t do the same thing. Give us the same heart. Give us the same desire. Give us the same love and unity and commitment. And we pray that as a result of that, Lord God, that this place and other ministries will be blessed of You, and that there may be people who welcome us into heaven—eternal habitations—because of our own generosity and because of our own love for Jesus. Grant that, oh God, we pray.

And now what is it that you need to say to God today? Are you willing to say, “Oh God, today I give You all of it! I make the transfer of trust. Teach me only what it means to manage Your resources.” You talk to God.

Father, we are well aware that there is no area of our lives in which we so gladly and willingly deceive ourselves as in the matter of giving, so we pray that You will help us to be honest and open. We pray that the Spirit of God, who has regenerated us, would liberate us and free us, and make us joyful givers for the glory of God. And we pray for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior, that they might realize that God is a giving God, and He gives forgiveness and salvation freely to those who believe.

Now, Lord, we don’t know what it means to make You first. We are learning, but teach us all the way we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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