The Gospel and Deeds of Mercy

3rd November 2014
Pete Nicholas

Recently in many parts of the church there has been an ongoing discussion about whether or not the church should remain focused only on gospel witness or whether it should also be focused on social action (sometimes referred to as ‘ministries of mercy’). As often happens in such debates, the different positions can become polarised. What has resulted is that some churches have lost almost any focus on gospel witness, whilst other churches have seen social action as a ‘distraction’ from the core church ministry of teaching and explaining the bible. One of the reasons it has become polarised is that too often people have not thought about how and why social action and gospel witness are bound up together in the bible and why both end up being so much poorer if they are pulled apart. Here are a few key reasons that gospel witness and deeds of mercy should be held together.

Love means understanding and caring for complex ‘needs’

Love will always want to help someone it sees in need but anyone who has been involved in social action initiatives knows just how complex ‘needs’ can be. Rarely is there just one issue to be addressed. Take for example poverty. In a village in Uganda where a charity I help run operates, the poverty they experience is a result of a complex interplay of education, motivation, national and regional politics, environmental factors, gender roles – to mention but a few! Love may give us the motivation to want to help. But for that love to be effective the charity needs to take time to listen, understand and really ‘see’ the needs. What are the primary needs? What are the root causes of the problem? How are the needs interconnected? What should we focus our efforts on?

The bible is specific and also very nuanced about our needs. It explains that we have a clear primary need (felt or not) – our separation from God caused by our sin. It also explains that this primary need has got social and environmental effects; such is humanity’s central place in God’s creation that our ‘fall’ (sin) leads to fractures running throughout the world. Consequently we need to be nuanced enough to see that whatever the presenting issue, our spiritual need is central and connected to the resulting social/physical/environmental problems.

Let me give you a concrete example by going back to the village in Uganda. As the charity went into that village we focused both on explaining the gospel to the villagers, as well as education programmes, and providing emergency aid and relief. As people started to believe the gospel they saw the importance of living for God and changing their lives. The men stopped spending the little money they had drowning their sorrows drinking the local brew and started reforming their lives and investing the money more wisely. The education programmes gave them much needed skills to restructure their farming methods and the financial aid was important in keeping families alive through the cold winters and droughts. In time small micro-investments, now being better used started to give returns and so the situation radically improved. Today the village is a very different place to what it was ten years ago. Notice that the gospel witness was central and primary to the social engagement but it ran alongside carefully thought through social initiatives.

The world does not divide up neatly along spiritual/physical lines

A related point to the above is that the bible gives us an important perspective that the spiritual and the physical are intertwined. Physical effects often have spiritual causes and vice versa. Unfortunately too often we seem to forget this perspective when we start talking about the mission of the church. So some churches focus only on the ‘spiritual’ and evangelism, whereas others will have an exclusive focus on the obvious ‘physical’ needs but neglect the spiritual. But if we understand people and the world to be an integrated whole with both dimensions at play then we will see the need of engaging at a spiritual level through prayer and gospel witness and also at a physical level through ministries of mercy.

Our deeds of mercy ‘beautify’ the gospel

There is a rich vein in the bible that talks of the vital importance of our deeds in commending the gospel. Titus 2:10  says good deeds should have literally a ‘cosmetic’ effect in that they make the gospel look as attractive as it really is. No one doubts that this is talking about the importance of personal integrity and godliness but some churches question that it has a corporate application to social action. This seems to me a strangely individualistic reading of the bible, when the bible seems to see this as corporate; Jesus says,

‘You (plural) are the light of the world, a city built on a hill cannot be hidden… In the same way let your (plural again) light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven’ (Mt 5:14-16 ).

Yes this can happen as we individually live our godly lives in the world, but it also happens powerfully when the church looks to the needs around it and works as a community to address them. Many churches find their social initiatives to be vital ways of connecting with those who aren’t Christians and many who aren’t Christians and who are initially uneasy about churches and ‘evangelism’ are won over when they see a church with an holistic concern for the community in which it is based.

The way the gospel changes social action

Because the gospel reminds us that we are all, in different ways, sinful – then this leads me to believe that there will be people who are not Christians who may well show a much greater degree of love and care for others than I naturally would. However, it also leads me to believe that the gospel gives powerful and unique motives for caring about others. God saw us in our need and stepped down from his throne in heaven, becoming poor and ultimately sacrificing himself on a cross so that through the sacrifice of his riches I might become rich.

This gives us a powerful motive to sacrificially put ourselves out for the needs of others. But it also gives us a powerful model for caring for others; just as Jesus cared for us by engaging with us and getting his hands dirty so we can’t do social action in a relatively cost free way and at a distance. Real love – the type of love that Jesus shows – is sacrificial and it is engaged. If our love is the same then it will by God’s grace have quite an impact.