One of the ways churches, Christian organizations, campus ministries, etc. are trying to stay relevant today is by redirecting their outreach efforts to mercy ministries, rather than more “traditional” forms of outreach. Whether it is homeless outreach, or poverty-relief work, or raising AIDS awareness, Christians are increasingly looking to these mercy ministries as ways to engage the world about the truth of the Gospel. And without a doubt, much good has come from these efforts. These ministries have not only allowed non-Christians to see the Gospel lived out, but have also provided new venues for Christians to live out their discipleship to Christ.
But these new ministry efforts have not come without challenges to the Christian faith, particularly to the message of the Gospel. One reason this is so is because these mercy ministries are often so evidently good to the watching world. Any observing non-Christian will likely consider a church’s effort to care for the homeless a good, admirable thing to do. And yet, if we are to be faithful to Scripture, we know that the Christian understanding of what is good and admirable is to be very different from what a non-Christian considers good and admirable. Moreover, we know that the Gospel is far more than receivng a meal, or a handout, or free health care. The Gospel is about sinners under the wrath of God being reconciled to God through the death of His Son. How can church seek to engage in mercy ministries without compromising the Gospel? Allow me to suggest five priorities that we need to maintain, if we are to do mercy ministries in a distinctively Christian way:
– Maintain the priority of the Gospel
“1CO 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”
A popular saying these days is, “Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words.” I can appreciate the call for Christians to live a life consistent with the Gospel at all times. However, I could not disagree more with the premise of this statement. The Gospel cannot be preached without words. The Good News is ultimately not a lifestyle, but it is news. It is a message rooted in historical events involving specifically, the life and death of a Jesus Christ, and more broadly, God’s redemptive work throughout human history. But this is not just any message, but this is an extremely offensive message to the world. It speaks of a perfect, holy God, Who has placed demands on every area of our lives. It speaks of our utter sinfulness, God’s eternal wrath against our sin, and our utter inability to save ourselves. It speaks of the bloody death of the Son of God who died in our place for our sins. It speaks of the need to continually turn away from sin, trust in Christ, and live under His lordship. As we seek to show mercy to the poor and oppressed, we must be careful to understand that the Gospel is only proclaimed when this message is proclaimed.
– Maintain the priority of evangelism
“RO 10:14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
If the Gospel is a message, then it is no wonder that the means God has appointed for salvation of sinners is the preaching of the Gospel. It is through the hearing of the Gospel that God chooses to work in the human heart to produce repentance and faith. In other words, apart from the preaching of the Gospel, no one will hear the Gospel. And if they do not hear, they will not believe in God. And if they do not believe, they will not call on God for help. Therefore, as churches look to engage in mercy ministries, they must maintain the priority of evangelism. To feed a person a meal but do nothing to care for his soul, is ultimately to fail to love that person. Does this mean we have to verbally speak the Gospel every single time we do an act of mercy? I don’t think so. But I do think that it means that we must always be deliberately moving towards a proclamation of the Gospel in every act of mercy. Mercy ministries ultimately exist to commend our proclamation of the Gospel. John Piper puts it well when he describes his church’s goal in mercy ministries: “We seek to alleviate all suffering, especially eternal suffering”.
– Maintain the priority of the spiritual
“2COR 4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
One of the things that stands out in all of Paul’s exhortations is not simply the emphasis to do good to others, but more specifically, to do spiritual good to others. As Christians, we are ultimately to be more concerned for a person’s spiritual needs than his temporal needs. We do this because we know that God is the greatest joy in the universe. Therefore, the greatest, most loving good that we could do to another person is to bring them closer to God, to help them enjoy God more. This is ultimately how Christ has loved us and this is how we must love others, if we are to imitate His love. As we seek to do good to other people, we must remember that doing physical good is only temporary, but doing spiirtual good to others is of eternal value.
– Maintain the priority of the Church
“GAL 6:Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”
As Christians, we have a greater responsibility to other Christians. We see this modeled in the New Testament church, where believers gave sacrificially to care not just for any poor, but particularly those within her walls. Why are we called to show particular love to the body of Christ? Because the unique love that Christ’s disciples show to each other is the church’s distinctive witness to the Gospel. Many secular organizations can engage in mercy ministries. But only the church can engage in the kind of Spirit-wrought, Christ-like love for those within her covenant community. The church’s unique testimony to the Gospel exists nowhere else in the world, except in the church. This love produces a unity within the body of Christ that trascends all human boundaries (Gal. 3:28). This unity displays to the world the truth of the Gospel and God’s coming judgment for all those who reject it (Phil. 1:27-28). This love shows to the world that our unity comes not from ourselves, but from Christ (John 13:34-35). Again and again, the “one another” commands throughout the New Testament remind us of the priority of our relationship with other Christians. And again and again, we see in the New Testament that the way Christians love and care for one another is the church’s testimony to the truth of the Gospel. Therefore, even as we seek to commend the Gospel in serving all people, let us be especially vigilant to preserve this unique testimony by growing in our love for one another.
– Maintain the priority of Christ
“MT 26:11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Many today are quick to point to Jesus’ compassion for the poor and oppressed, and there is no doubt that Jesus did indeed show special concern for the suffering. However, to paint Christ simply as one who taught us to care for the poor and do good to others, is a far too shallow picture of him. When we dig deeper in the Gospels, we find that Christ did not primarily come to feed the poor and heal the sick, but came first and foremost, to ransom sinners through His life, death and resurrection. When we dig deeper, we find that we cannot come to Christ with our notions of what is good and right, but rather he calls us to die to ourselves and follow Him. When we dig deeper, we find that Christ’s greatest passion was not the good of man, but the glory of God. Therefore, as churches pursue mercy ministries, they must do so in a uniquely Christ-like way. That is to say, they must do so in a way that seeks to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, to call people to true discipleship, and to bring glory to God in all things.