In the last book of the Old Testament, God spoke through the prophet Malachi. He raised a provocative question: "Will man rob God?" This is somewhat startling because it suggests something that on the surface would appear to be impossible. How could anybody rob God of anything? Does it mean that we storm the ramparts of heaven and break into the inner sanctum of the divine treasury and help ourselves to things that God alone possesses? Such a thing is manifestly impossible. The strongest robber in the world could never scale the heights of heaven and defile the possessions of an omnipotent God, and so the very idea of robbing God seems absurd. Yet God gives answer to this question immediately dispelling any absurdity connected with it. He explains pointedly how indeed it is possible for human creatures to be guilty of theft against God. He answers his question, "Will man rob God?" saying, "Yet you are robbing me." The Israelite response is: "How have we robbed you?" To which God replies, "In your tithes and contributions" (3:8). God announces that to withhold the full measure of the tithe that He requires from His people is to be guilty of robbing God Himself. Because of this, He pronounces a curse upon the whole nation and commands them afresh to bring to Him all of the tithe.
When we think of tithing in Old Testament categories, we understand that the requirement involves returning to God the first fruits of one's prosperity. We are required to give ten percent of our gross annual income or gain. If a shepherd's flock produced ten new lambs, the requirement was that one of those lambs be offered to God. This offering is from the top. It is not an offering that is given after other expenses are met or after other taxes have been paid.
Recently, I read an article that gave an astonishing statistic that I find difficult to believe is accurate. It declared that of all of the people in America who identify themselves as evangelical Christians, only four percent of them return a tithe to God. If that statistic is accurate, it means that ninety-six percent of professing evangelical Christians regularly, systematically, habitually, and impenitently rob God of what belongs to Him. It also means that ninety-six percent of us are for this reason exposing ourselves to a divine curse upon our lives. Whether this percentage is accurate, one thing is certain - it is clear that the overwhelming majority of professing evangelical Christians do not tithe.
This immediately raises the question: "Why?" How is it possible that somebody who has given his life to Christ can withhold their financial gifts from Him? I have heard many excuses or explanations for this. The most common is the assertion that the tithe is part of the Old Testament law that has passed away with the coming of the New Testament. This statement is made routinely in spite of the complete lack of New Testament evidence for it. Nowhere in the New Testament does it teach us that the principle of the tithe has been abrogated. The New Testament does teach us, however, that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant. It is a covenant that gives more blessings to us than the old covenant did. It is a covenant that with its manifold blessings imposes greater responsibilities than the Old Testament did. If anything, the structure of the new covenant requires a greater commitment to financial stewardship before God than that which was required in the old covenant. That is to say, the starting point of Christian giving is the tithe. The tithe is not an ideal that only a few people reach but rather should be the base minimum from which we progress.
Church history also bears witness that many in the early church did not consider the tithe as having been abrogated in the new covenant. One of the earliest (turn of the second century) extrabiblical documents that survives to this day is the book of the Didache. The Didache gives practical instruction for Christian living. In the Didache, the principle of the giving of the first fruits or the tithe is mentioned as a basic responsibility for every Christian.
A second argument that people give to avoid the tithe is that they "cannot afford it." What that statement really means is that they cannot pay their tithe and pay all the other expenses they have incurred. Again, in their minds the tithe is the last resort in the budget. Their giving to God is something that is at the bottom of their list of priorities. It's a weak argument before God to say, "Lord, I didn't tithe because I couldn't afford it" - especially when we consider that the poorest among us has a higher standard of living than ninety-nine percent of the people who have ever walked on the face of the earth.
There are many more excuses that people give to avoid this responsibility, yet the New Testament tells us: "Let the thief no longer steal" (Eph. 2:28a). If we have been guilty of stealing from God in the past by withholding our tithe from Him, that behavior must cease immediately and give way to a resolution to begin tithing at once, no matter what it costs. It's an interesting phenomenon in the life of the church, that people who in 1960 gave a dollar to the offering plate every week, still give that same dollar today. Everything else in their living costs has been adjusted to inflation except their giving. We also have to remind ourselves that if we give gifts to God, we cannot call them tithes if these gifts fall beneath the level of ten percent.
One of the sad realities of failure to tithe is that in so doing we not only are guilty of robbing God, but we also rob ourselves of the joy of giving and of the blessings that follow from it. I have yet to meet a person who tithes who has expressed to me regret for being one who tithes. On the contrary, I hear from them not a sense of judgment towards those who don't give but rather a sense of compassion toward them. Frequently, I hear tithers saying, "People who don't tithe just don't know what they're missing." It is a cliché and a truism that you can't out-give God. That statement has become a cliché because it is so true. In the text in Malachi, we find something exceedingly rare coming from the lips of God. Here God challenges His people to put Him to a test: "Put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need" (3:10). Have you put God to that test? Have you tried Him to see if He will not open heaven itself and empty His own treasuries upon you? We need to stop robbing Him and thus receive from Him the blessing that He promises.
Dr. R.C. Sproul is founder and president of Ligonier Ministries, and he is author of the book Five Things Every Christian Needs to Grow.
Original publication date: August 13, 2009