Tuesday, October 19, 2010

It cannot be one or the other, it must be both

The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism is going on this week in South Africa and some people are (rightly) concerned that in the desire to address issues of social and moral concern, Gospel proclamation is being left behind. The Gospel Coalition is asking four Christian leaders to address the question: How do Christians work for justice in the world and not undermine the centrality of evangelism?

This is an important question. I would affirm that there is a concern here. Doing acts of mercy is not the Gospel. Giving someone food or medicine without telling them the Good News of Jesus Christ, who He is, what He did and how that saves His sheep, is not the Gospel.

I would also absolutely agree that there is no greater act of mercy than preaching the Gospel to the lost. Feeding a lost person without telling them about Jesus just makes this life a more comfortable place to go to hell from. Conversely a person who is born-again and starves to death is infinitely and eternally better off than the richest unbeliever in America. The Gospel proclamation is not one of the calls of Christians, it is the call and everything else is secondary.

Having said all of that, there is clearly a disconnect in much of the church between proclaiming the Gospel and living out the life of those transformed by the Gospel which is why we have conferences like Lausanne in the first place. I would ask not just How do Christians work for justice in the world and not undermine the centrality of evangelism? but also How do Christians evangelize the lost while not neglecting the works of justice and mercy that we are called for?

The first leader to respond, D.A. Carson, responded that one way the problem is solved by getting the Gospel right and that in doing so justice will naturally follow:

The gospel is the good news of what God has done, especially in Christ Jesus, especially in his cross and resurrection; it is not what we do. Because it is news, it is to be proclaimed. But because it is powerful, it not only reconciles us to God, but transforms us, and that necessarily shapes our behavior, priorities, values, relationships with people, and much more. These are not optional extras for the extremely sanctified, but entailments of the gospel.

That is very true and believe me I can (and have) spent all day showing where people get the Gospel and its implications wrong. It is fine and dandy to say, as Carson does, that proclaiming the Gospel will lead to the alleviation of temporal suffering but at the risk of wrathful comments I will suggest that the real life outcome is not the neat “one to one” correlation that Carson seems to suggest and while his answer is eminently theologically sound, in practice that is not where we see Christians focusing.

I would go further and suggest that the church spends an awful lot of time and effort and money on activities that are neither Gospel proclaiming or works of mercy. Proclaiming the Good News to the lost is the very heart of the life of a Christian. Caring for the poor and for widows and the orphans gets a lot of mention in the Bible and is clearly important to the early church and the focus of their giving (see my post of why we give here). On the other hand, monologue sermons, building campaigns, choir practice, Vacation Bible School, pastoral sabbaticals, Sunday school, harvest festivals, theology conferences, “worship” concerts, weddings and funerals are absent from the Bible but that is where we spend most of our time and effort and money.

So what is the core problem?

First, I don’t think that the problem is so much an issue of emphasis, it is that there are too few Christians who are doing the work of ministry. You can coach the fundamentals in basketball all day long but if you put one guy on the court against five, he is going to lose. When the work of evangelism is subcontracted to just a few people or the work of mercy is relegated to just a few people, the harsh reality is that one or the other (or both!) is going to suffer. Amidst all the preaching and sermonizing people get the message that proclaiming the Gospel and ministering to the hurting is something for some of us to do, those who are “gifted” or “called”. The truth of the matter is that it is the responsibility of all Christians and that the men we recognize as elders are called to equip everyone else for the work of ministry, not merely by teaching us from the pulpit but by demonstrating by their lives how we should live so that we can imitate their lives.

Second, people just simply don’t hear it said that being a disciple of Christ involves far more than membership in a local church. Calls for real sacrificial living are few and far between. When have you heard it said from a pulpit that you may need to set aside saving for retirement to help orphans and widows? Or that you should sell some of your stuff and give the money to help a brother or sister in need? Or that the pastor of your church is not only not able but not called to carry the entire burden of ministry and Gospel proclamation for a local church? The reason for the disconnect between the Gospel and action is that the moral imperatives that come along with a redeemed life have been reduced to church attendance and “tithing”.

Third, the Gospel witness and works of mercy are not competing priorities, they should complement one another. Conversely overemphasizing one while neglecting the other weakens both. I like what the second leader interviewed had to say (Ray Ortlund):

It’s a good question. But I would also ask, “How can Christians neglect the work of justice in the world without undermining evangelism?”

The problem is not an overemphasis on one or the other, it is that often the emphasis is on neither and it must be on both. The way we ensure that we don’t forget evangelism or mercy is to first, as Carson says, make sure we get the Gospel right. Second, equip all believers and give them the ability and encourage the inclination to do ministry in the world, to think outside of the church building for ministry opportunities. Third, be bold and clear that the life of a disciple of Christ is not one of insulated middle-class values and comforts but instead a self-denying, cross bearing life that will rub the world the wrong way.

What are your thoughts? How do we balance the imperative of Gospel proclamation with the entailments of works of mercy?


Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the concept of "social justice" is one that stands in stark contrast to the "agape love" of the Bible...

This idea of "social justice" is all the rage in Christian circles today, but it is not a Christian idea, no matter how many times people may try and show it to be.

"Social justice", in reality, is a worldview which sees the problems of humanity and being primarily systematic problems. In this view, "acts of social justice" consist of anything we might do to rectify these systemic inbalances (i.e. distribute food, wealth, opportunity, etc.) It assumes that things should be "fair", and that this is the goal we should all be striving towards...

This is why I don't see it as a term that we as Christians have any business using as a description of how Christ calls us to live...

Arthur Sido said...


I am confused. In Acts 6 we see a daily distribution of food to widows. In several places in the New Testament we see the church taking up collections to be given to the church in Jerusalem. Care for the poor, for widows, for orphans features prominently in both the Old and New Testaments. I would certainly agree that the idea of social justice, to use an over used phrase, does not mean that Christians should favor governmental wealth redistribution but I am not sure how you can read the Bible and think that just talking about loving people instead of taking concrete steps like feeding the poor is what we are called to do. Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you are saying.