The only path toward true Christian generosity is by denying the self and living according to Christ’s measure of love.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) emphasized the importance of self-denial. In fact, Calvin thought that the practice of self-denial was the sum of the Christian life. Rooted in the words of Romans 12:1, Calvin argued that because we are not our own, we must forget ourselves and all that belongs to us. Since we belong to God, “…let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal [Rom. 14:8; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19].” Indeed, “as consulting our self-interest is the pestilence that most effectively leads to our destruction, so the sole haven of salvation is to be wise in nothing and to will nothing through ourselves but to follow the leading of the Lord alone.” (3.7.1)
As Calvin extrapolated on this point, he was particularly concerned with application in relation to our neighbors. As we consider our neighbors, who are each made in the image of God, we realize we owe them “all honor and love.” When our neighbor is in need, the image of God in them compels us to come to their aid. In fact, when we love our neighbor in this way, we will soon discover they are “worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” (3.7.6)
This self-denial will be more than outward works and appearances. When the love of Christ has moved in our hearts, we are “impelled by a feeling of mercy and humaneness to go to [their] aid just as to [our] own.” This love increases our bond to our neighbor, such that we will cancel any debts others may owe us, and we will come to see ourselves as their debtor instead. Calvin concluded, saying:
Rather, each man will so consider with himself that in all his greatness he is a debtor to his neighbors, and that he ought in exercising kindness toward them to set no other limit than the end of his resources; these, as widely as they are extended, ought to have their limits set according to the rule of love. (3.7.7)
In sum, through self-denial we learn that we are not our own but belong to God. As the love of God given to us in Christ Jesus changes our hearts, our disposition toward are neighbors fundamentally changes. We are governed by the rule of love, wherein the love of neighbor as God’s image bearer compels us to give everything we have – even to the end of our own resources – to seek the good of those in need.
In other words, Christian generosity knows no limits.
Cultivating Limitless Generosity
Luke 16:19-31 tells the familiar story of a certain unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. These two men could not have been further apart in their socio-economic class. The rich man feasted sumptuously every day, and he wore fine, purple linen. This is a very, very wealthy man. He lived like a king.
Then there is the poor man, Lazarus. He is the image of complete misery: grotesque in appearance from his sores, in immense pain, he’s starving, and humiliated by the fact that he can’t shoo the dogs away fast enough from licking his open wounds.
In this life, the rich man and Lazarus could not be further apart. In eternity, however, they could be. In verse 26 we are told that a great chasm existed between these two men in the life that is to come: Lazarus is taken into God’s presence, while Lazarus is sent into torment in Hades.
We are told of no grievous, heinous sins that the rich man committed. The only thing we are told is that he lived for himself. He lived for his things rather than for God. That was his condemnation.
We have been discovering how greed has consequences for this life and the one that is to come. Greed, or inordinate self-love, is a “pestilence” (Calvin) which leads to our own destruction. Furthermore, it keeps our neighbor bound in misery when the rule of love ought to compel us to come to their aid.
Consider the well-trodden words of Philippians 2 with this In mind:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!(Philippians 2:1-8)
If Christ went to the end of himself for others, how could we not do the same? With hearts hardened by sin, such things are impossible. But when we are governed by the rule of love, all things are possible.
Jesus, only your love can change our hearts; only your “rule of love” can compel us to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are by nature greedy and selfish. Like the rich man, we are doomed to destruction on account of our unwillingness to let go of ourselves. Have mercy on us! Fill us with your Spirit, that we might have your mind among ourselves, counting the interests of others ahead of our own – just as you do for us.
Questions for reflection:
- Take a fresh, honest inventory of your resources – including your time, talents, and finances. Has anything changed from the first list?
- Which of your resources are you most inclined to give liberally of? Which do you tend to hold onto the tightest?
- Think of someone you know who has demonstrated limitless generosity. What do you find compelling about that person? How do they demonstrate self-denial and the rule of love?
- “Christian generosity knows no limits.” What is the greatest challenge to you about this?