So we urged Titus that just as he had begun, so he should also complete among you this act of grace. — 2 Corinthians 8:6
Paul uses a curious phrase here, saying that Titus could “complete the grace” given to him by passing on what he’d been given. It sounds on the surface like there is something lacking in the grace if it must be “completed.” But this is not exactly what Paul means. The phrasing is similar to his thinking in Colossians 1:24 when he writes, “I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body.” There is, of course, nothing inherently lacking in Christ’s afflictions; his atoning work on the cross was perfect. It lacks for nothing, least of all our efforts. The gospel of Christ’s cross is un-improvable!
What Paul means, however, is that the implications of that work are still going forth. The application of Christ’s substitutionary atonement continued in Paul’s mission to proclaim the gospel, and it continues today in the modern church’s mission to do the same. So it is not that Christ’s cross is lacking but that the fullness of the number being affected by it that is not yet complete. In this sense, that is what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
And it’s in this sense that the grace given to Titus is “lacking.” For the grace given to Titus to simply stop at Titus would be evidence that he hadn’t received the grace in the first place! It becomes complete (or “perfected”) when it radiates out in gracious generosity to others who need it too. God does not give us the wealth of his grace that it might be greedily monopolized by us. The same grace that imparts our salvation impacts our witness. This is why Paul writes next about “finishing the task.”
Now I am giving an opinion on this because it is profitable for you, who a year ago began not only to do something but also to desire it. 11 But now finish the task as well, that just as there was an eagerness to desire it, so there may also be a completion of what you have. 12 For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have. 13 It is not that there may be a relief for others and hardship for you, but it is a question of equality— 14 at present your surplus is available for their need, so their abundance may also become available for our need, so there may be equality. 15 As it has been written:
The person who gathered much did not have too much, and the person who gathered little did not have too little. (2 Corinthians 8:10-15)
Paul’s invoking of the word “equality” is curious here, as well. He is not saying that all persons should or even could have the same amount of money. Jesus himself, in fact, said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matt. 26:11) There are lots of Scripture passages about wealth and poverty, and not all of them make wealth out to be bad or poverty out to be good. Christians are unequivocally called to care for the poor; this is not optional for the church, and it is a hallmark of the Church’s witness in a broken and unjust world. But the kind of equality Paul is speaking to has everything to do with our intrinsic dignity as persons, as well as our universal intrinsic spiritual poverty apart from God.
Why should people with surplus share with those who lack so that all may have some? Because we are all people made in God’s image, standing equally needy of glory before the only holy God. Put in this spiritual context, Paul makes monetary and material generosity a reflection of the gospel. We can financially and materially raise others up in a way that reflects our equality as persons—within the church, of course, to reflect our equal status as brothers and sisters in Christ, united by his blood and forged together in one Spirit to receive equal access to God’s Spirit and grace. Thinking of it this way makes “levelling the playing field” seem like a no-brainer. Captured by the grace of God in Christ, in which we receive the treasure of eternal life, we now worry much less about who hasn’t “earned their keep” or worked as hard as we have for what we’ve achieved.
All notions of earning and achieving go out the window when we realise we’ve been given an inheritance in heaven that moth and rust cannot destroy.
Credit: Jared Wilson for The Gospel Coalition, 23 February 2018.