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Giving less, believing less?

A sober year-end reminder: Can non-givers expect to get into heaven?

Issue: "Year in Review 1997," Dec. 27, 1997

It was disappointing, but not particularly surprising, to learn last week that Christians across North America are giving smaller and smaller proportions of their growing income to their churches. It was disappointing, and a little more surprising, also to learn that the slippage in giving is more pronounced among evangelical Christians than it is among mainliners. Evangelicals still give more per capita than do people in the big, old denominations-but the differences are disappearing fast. What was brand new in these reports, however, which came officially from a statistics-reporting group in Champaign, Ill., was an appendix to the numbers. The attachment argued that the decline in giving may be an indicator of a parallel decline in saving faith among so-called Christians in America. Ever since the Reformation, and particularly because of terrible abuse in the sale of indulgences in the Roman Catholic church, it's been suspect (to say the least) to suggest there might be some linkage between a person's giving habits and his eternal welfare. Thesis 27 of Martin Luther's 95 statements on the chapel door in Wittenberg was very much to the point: "There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of purgatory immediately [when] the money clinks in the bottom of the chest." But is there no connection at all? That is the question raised by the careful observers of Empty Tomb Inc., the Illinois research group that annually compiles and analyzes statistics on giving based on reports from The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. As the writers of the report put the question: "Grace has symptoms. If one does not have the symptoms, does one have the condition?" Or less obliquely: People who have genuinely experienced God's grace will demonstrate liberality in their giving. If liberality in giving is not in evidence, have those people genuinely experienced God's grace? The people at Empty Tomb Inc. turn to a couple of surprising sources to argue that yes, there is room to doubt someone's standing with God if generous stewardship isn't part of that person's lifestyle. The sources are no less than the great reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin. Authors John and Sylvia Ronsvalle pile up quote after quote from the two men who did so much to establish sola fide as the battle cry of the Reformation. It's true, the Ronsvalles stress, that Luther and Calvin were adamant in teaching that works have nothing to do with the means of a person's salvation and acceptance by God. Concerning the sale of indulgences, Calvin wrote: "Men saw themselves openly and undisguisedly held up to ridicule ... their souls' salvation the objective of lucrative trafficking, the price of salvation reckoned at a few coins, nothing offered free of charge." Yet the two great leaders were just as insistent that works-including the stewardship of money-can properly be viewed as a trustworthy evidence of genuine faith. Calvin wrote that "unquestionably believers not only profess with the mouth, but prove by actual performances, that they serve God." And commenting on James 2, he wrote: "As then, he who sends away a poor man with words, and offers him no help, treats him with mockery, so they who devise for themselves faith without works, and without any of the duties of religion, trifle with God." Luther said bluntly: "Faith is an active, living thing. But in order that men may not deceive themselves and think they have faith when they have not, they are to examine their works, whether they also love their neighbors and do good to them." It's against that backdrop-and after quoting Jesus when he said that "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also"-that the Ronsvalles make their toughest charge: that "the way a believer spends money is perhaps the clearest indication-perhaps like a thermometer-of the heart's spiritual condition." To the extent that perspective is true, even American Christians should be fearful about their spiritual welfare. The Ronsvalle study says that from 1968 to 1995, giving to their churches by mainline Protestants fell from an average of 3.3 percent of personal income to just 2.9 percent, a 12 percent drop. OK, some will say, but those people never believed anything anyway! But hold on. For during the same 27-year period, church giving by evangelicals dropped from an average of 6 percent down to 4 percent-a whopping 33 percent plunge. It's a statistical fact that while typical church members (of all types) directed less than $20 a year to their churches for global outreach (including both evangelism and social welfare) during the early 1990s, those same church members were spending $164 per capita on soft drinks, $657 on eating out, and more than $1,000 on recreation. So is it really a crass calculation to wonder just how far the number of people experiencing saving faith fell during that same stretch of years? More information on the Ronsvalle study is available by writing them at Box 2404, Champaign, IL 61825. Their fax is (217) 356-2344.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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