Stewardship Under the Cross: Luther on Tithing and Stewardship
We’ve said quite a bit about stewardship over the past few months. We pray that it has been a benefit to you and your family and helped you grow in this area of your faith. To bring this emphasis to a close—and, perhaps, encourage you to reconsider if you aren’t yet persuaded—let’s take one last look at stewardship through the words of Martin Luther. Martin Luther had much to say about being a good steward of God's gifts. Below are a few quotations from the great Reformer about faithful, Biblical stewards.
On Vowing to Support the Church with Tithes
Thus it is said (Prov. 3:9): “Honor the Lord with your substance.” This must be understood not only of words and of the worship of the mouth or genuflection but of the deed itself.... Gal. 6:6: “Let him who is taught in the Word share all good things with him who teaches.” Therefore when God wants to be honored, then He wants sacrifices to be offered, not only sacrifices of the mouth but also the reverence of the heart, yes, the deed itself. He wants us to help the ministry, and He wants everyone to contribute for the purpose of supporting the studies of the pupils and of propagating the doctrine. Then God is truly praised and glorified there. Make a vow there, and say: “I promise that I am willing to contribute something for the assistance of the churches.” That is St. Jacob’s vow. Therefore this example should be diligently inculcated, namely, that Jacob vows tithes, not in order that God Himself may eat or be enriched; but he gives them to the poor ministers and to those who are always the least of the brethren or disciples of Christ on earth. For all other arts are gainful and have their profits. This profession alone is in need of bountiful giving. We must live from the altar, as Paul says (1 Cor. 9:13). Accordingly, he who is godly and loves the Word of God contributes something. He who hates the doctrine along with those who teach and learn it robs and despoils.
Otherwise God has so ordained that we should live from the vows, sacrifices, and alms that are owed to us by divine right. When the godly see the poverty and need of the ministers of the church and the school, they make vows and obligate themselves to give tithes, as Jacob gave them. (Luther’s Works, v.5)
On Tithing to Support God's Work in the Church
Therefore this text shows that Jacob did not make such a foolish and godless vow, but that it was a vow of thanksgiving. For he says: “If I come again, etc.” It is as though he were saying: “I shall now obligate myself to pay a debt, and I shall make satisfactory reparation when I return. What? I shall build a school and a church here, and I shall give a tithe of bulls and goats and fruits for its establishment and upkeep, likewise a tenth part of the milk and the butter.” Of course, God does not need these things. For He does not eat bread or drink wine, as He says in Ps. 50:13: “Do I eat the flesh of bulls?” What, then, are you doing? I answer that Jacob is already righteous. Accordingly, he does not make a vow to placate God by making it; but he wants to do this to give thanks, to glorify God, in order that He may conduct him and bring him back according to the promise. Who will receive these tithes? Not the angels, not the sun, not the moon. But he will perform that extraordinary and glorious work for the purpose of preserving the ministry and founding churches and schools. . . .This is how Moses should be understood when he says (Deut. 23:21): “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it.” What does it mean to make a vow to God, or whom is Moses addressing when he says: “The Lord your God”? It means to give tithes to the disciples, sons, and wives of the prophets, to the poor and needy. These are the ones who are to be supported by the tithes offered to God, and through these tithes God is supported. For God says: “Whatever you give to the children of the priests and prophets through whom the doctrine is propagated you must regard as given to Me, not that I may justify you through this work, but it should be a thanksgiving and a sacrifice of praise because I have justified you and have also blessed you in temporal matters. In addition, I shall bless you even more if you give ear to, support, and cherish the poor sons of the prophets.” (Luther's Works, vol. 5)
On Abraham's Stewardship
(Editor’s note: In one much-discussed passage in Genesis 14:17-21, Abraham—still known at the time as ‘Abram’—gave a tenth of his wealth to a man named Melchizedek, who is described as a “priest of God Most High.” No context is given and nothing more is known about Melchizedek, leading to quite a bit of speculation about why Abraham would give him a tithe. Below is Luther’s explanation of what happened.)
This was not the first time that Abraham gave tithes of these to the priest Melchizedek; he did so every year. Even before that victory Abraham conducted himself humbly, acknowledged Shem as a priest of the Most High, and gave him tithes, as did Lot and the other fathers who lived at that time. (LW, vol. 2)... To be sure, Abraham had property; but he did not love it, since he showed that he was a manager and knew that by God’s will he had been appointed a steward of his goods. (LW, vol. 30).
As we observed back in January, at the very beginning of this study of what God’s Word has to say about the topic of stewardship, God’s word contains statements of Law—think the 10 Commandments, which show us our sin—and statements of Gospel—the message that, even though we cannot do anything to earn it, God has given us the gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us. For Christians, the Law serves another function, as well. It instructs, or guides us, in how to live lives that honor God and serve our neighbors. That has been our goal throughout this study: to use God’s Word on stewardship as a guide for our lives.
However, one of the things that we noted at the time bears repeating here at the end. “[The Word] is our guide for how to respond to God in thanksgiving for His gifts to us. But even this Law will always accuse us and show us our sin. So…, if you are convicted that you have not been faithful with your finances in thought, word, or deed, then know that this is God's Law at work. He is calling you to repentance. So repent and trust in the Lord Jesus who died for all sins – including our sins of greed and miserliness. You are forgiven in Christ and as the forgiven child of God, you can lead a new and more faithful life in the power of Christ's Gospel.” That’s what we’re challenging you to do: to live in the new life you have been given in Christ.