James C. Petty
Reviewed by: Gregory S. De Jong
Date posted: 06/14/2020
Act of Grace: The Power of Generosity to Change Your Life, the Church, and the World, by James C. Petty. P&R, 2019. Paperback, 339 pages, $13.50. Reviewed by OP elder Gregory S. De Jong.
James Petty boldly goes where pastors fear to tread with this wide-ranging treatise on Christians and their money. With surveys showing that evangelical Christians give only 3–4 percent of their income on average, it appears that the church has ceded much ground to worldly ideals about personal finance and the purpose of money. Amidst the daily onslaught of consumerism, should our churches hope that their members will “figure it out” on their own? Petty argues, “Giving is not a necessary evil for running a ministry; it is a divine grace to be cultivated, and one in which we should excel . . . intense spiritual battles are fought in this area” (155).
With a central thesis that “the final purpose of having money is to give” (27), the book sets out to explore first what the Bible teaches on the purpose of money and secondly how a proper biblical understanding should be lived out, both in the church and individually. Along the way, Petty offers enticing glimpses of what the church might accomplish if fueled by believers whose giving better reflected the grace that they have received.
The survey of biblical teaching in chapters 1–10 contains much that is fruitful. Petty goes beyond a careful discussion of Old Testament tithing to note other significant regulations, such as the year of jubilee, that God provided to guide his people in material matters. Yet the author presses his thesis too far at times, succumbing to occasional exegetical lapses and speculation about the motives of biblical characters. Chapter 1 declares, “Creation itself was a massive project of pure giving” (33). The reader is left wondering if this is Petty’s complete understanding of the purpose of creation until four pages later when he adds “God created for himself and for us, so that we can know and enjoy it [creation] for his glory” (37).
Those occasional discordant notes were made more palatable to me by favorable references to Calvin and the doctrines of grace, along with an extensive quote regarding communion of the saints from WCF 26. In asserting that Jesus’s teaching about last-judgment rewards (Luke 6:37–38) in no way conflicts with a proper understanding of justification (125), Petty cites positively the OPC’s 2006 Report on Justification.
Readers who embark on Act of Grace hoping for some clarity to the “how should we then live” question will be amply rewarded in Part 2 as Petty develops the implications of Part 1. After three informative and well-paced chapters about the Western church’s history of giving and its role in society from the third century through today, he concludes with five chapters of well-reasoned, persuasively argued application. Whether you are a church officer wondering what to do about a congregation that struggles to meet its budget, a couple beset by financial pressures, or an age fifty-plus Christian willing to be challenged to greater generosity and kingdom service, Petty is practical, on target, and inspiring. One caution: this book may indeed change your life, the church, and perhaps even the world.