By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor
I am convinced with all my heart that the church must help the poor. I believe it’s biblical—and providential experiences have caused me to deal with these matters head-on. But there are still some serious questions that we must consider. How does our call to be Great Commission laborers relate to issues of social justice?
Tim Keller and others have made it clear that faithful churches must reject the clever statement: “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.” Words are necessary—the words of the gospel. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (Rom 1:16). The word “it” in that verse refers to the gospel message—“It is the power of God for salvation …” Without the clear proclamation of the gospel, no one can be saved.
Historically, the flourishing of the social gospel at the beginning of the 20th century through the ministry of Walter Rauschenbusch as others had at its core a denial of Christ’s substitutionary atonement, a literal hell, and a literal second coming. Universalism was behind their rejection of the need for gospel proclamation. According to this view, the essence of the Christian gospel ministry was an alleviation of physical suffering caused by entrenched social evils. The ideological center of the social gospel was the “Kingdom of God,” understood in earth-bound social terms. Rauschenbusch said that the Kingdom of God is not a matter of individuals getting to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.
This concept is making something of a comeback, as Keller has pointed out. Some of these themes are prominent among leaders of the emergent church movement in our day, and it is essential to the ongoing health of faithful churches to expose and refute these ideas. Individual salvation is at the core of what Jesus came to do: “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Any effort we make toward ministry to the poor and marginalized that does not have personal salvation of lost persons through repentance and faith in Christ as its top priority is wrong. Thus, we must follow Christ’s priority structure, i.e. that ministry to eternal souls is of greater importance than ministry to their bodies.
Jesus settled this priority structure quite plainly both before and after the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Before the feeding, the Gospel of Mark gives this insight: “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Though the crowd had many overwhelming physical needs, Jesus’ compassion moved directly to their greatest need: the gospel message. The ministry of the word was the clear priority of the most compassionate man that ever lived, and it must be ours as well.
This same priority structure was also revealed the very next day in John 6, when many among the crowds followed him to Capernaum and confronted him there. Jesus, with supernatural ability to perceive human motive, cut to the heart of the matter: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:26–27).
The priority of the needs of the soul over those of the body is behind the famous question Christ asked His disciples: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26) This priority structure must be reflected in our ministries of mercy. And I must respectfully disagree with John Stott who said that doing mercy ministry as a means to evangelism is hypocrisy, sugar on the pill, bait on the hook, that breeds “rice Christians” (Christian Mission in the Modern World, 26). And Keller has also expressed some concern for the “mercy ministry as a means to an end” approach.
Now, I will admit that theirs are obviously valid concerns, but they point not to abandoning Christ’s priority structure of concern for the soul above concern for the body. Rather, the people we help should see love straight through—love for their bodies and a greater love for their souls. And, no, the motive cannot be selfish, except the pleasure of enjoying someone else’s eternal joy. As the apostle John said, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete” (1 John 1:3–4).
There is nothing selfish or tribal about crafting as the centerpiece of our mercy ministry the overarching goal of God’s glory in the redemption of lost sinners, with a secondary goal being the eternal joy of those lost sinners, and a tertiary goal being our joy in seeing it. If our love is genuine, it will banish such pathetic and low motives as reporting gaudy baptismal statistics to aggrandize our position in the evangelical world.
There must be a genuine concern for alleviating physical suffering because Christ taught it so plainly in the parable of the Good Samaritan and other places. But how is it hypocritical to say, “More than anything, I want you to know the Savior, and the forgiveness He alone can give?” And how is it nobler to spend time with a homeless person, feed them, clothe them, train them for greater earning power and send them off without ever preaching the gospel to them?
The famous evangelist George Whitefield once said, “God forbid that I should travel with anyone one quarter of an hour and not share the gospel with them.” He was the same one who set up an orphanage in Georgia called “Bethesda” because it was to be a “House of Mercy.” Arnold Dallimore wrote that Whitefield wanted it above all to be a place of gospel influence where parentless children could be rescued from godlessness, and trained to support themselves as adults. He would have considered it inconceivable that the orphans would not have been thoroughly evangelized and discipled while doing other acts of mercy toward them. The idea that having as a central goal of the orphanage the glory of God in the conversion of orphans was somehow hypocritical or self-serving would have been ludicrous.
Editor’s note: The previous post in this series can be found by clicking the following link: Balancing Gospel Priorities in Ministry to the Poor (Part 1).
By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor
Note: This and the following posts in this series were originally prepared for a discussion I had with friends at The Gospel Coalition back in 2008. These thoughts continue to challenge and test my heart on the issue of balancing gospel priorities in ministry to the poor. This first post is mostly some personal background on what has caused me to really wrestle with this particular issue. I hope this series is helpful to you in your own thinking on the gospel and social justice.
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I remember well riding through the streets of Mombasa, Kenya, on my first overseas mission trip. It was the last week of a summer-long trip, and we were staying in a comfortable resort right on the Indian Ocean. Some of us wanted to see the city, so we were touring some of the poorer districts in a brand new, air conditioned van. There was nothing unusual for any of us Americans in the air conditioned luxury of the van. What was new was the sight of urban poverty in a non-American city. I had never seen anything like it in all my life. The more streets we drove down, the more uncomfortable I became with the shocking disparity I saw between my lifestyle and that of the people we were viewing through the tinted glass.
It wasn’t long after this that I began to see that air conditioned van as a symbol of the manner in which I was making my way through life on this suffering globe. “In the world, but not of it”—I have wrestled with the customary comforts of my upper-middle class lifestyle ever since.
A second experience came a year later, this time in Pakistan. I was on a team ministering to grief-stricken, destitute refugees from Afghanistan who had fled from the invading Russian forces that summer of 1987. I still have never seen such poverty in all my life.
They had literally nothing except the tattered clothing that covered their bodies. Most of them had lost loved ones very recently to violent deaths. They were squatting on the border of their former homeland, barely tolerated by the Pakistani government and basically ignored by the local people. Many had a haunted look I shall never forget.
But it was not an encounter with any of them that I recall most vividly. Rather, it was an encounter with a poor Pakistani woman there in the city of Peshawar that bothered me the most. We had grown accustomed to being accosted by beggars in the streets who would point pathetically to their mouths and their stomachs to indicate their hunger. The missionaries told us of professional begging syndicates that used women, children, and cripples to make money for strongmen who organized them much like pimps and prostitutes in our country. The missionaries didn’t seem much concerned with the issue, but seeing our unease, they suggested, “Why don’t you buy some fresh nan (local bread) and carry it in a bag with you so that you can give it to them?”
I thought this was a great idea, so I bought five or six of the large, flat loaves and kept them in a bag with me. Later that morning, when one of the beggars came to me and pointed to her stomach, I happily produced the bread and handed it to her. She became very angry, threw it down, and walked away. My feelings at that point shocked me. I was actually relieved! I had found a perfect system, a way to beat the troubling issue of “haves and have-nots.”
A few minutes later, however, the Lord stirred the pot as He always does. Another beggar came to me with the same gesture—pointing to her mouth and stomach; she also had a small child with her, and gestured pathetically to her indicating her desire for food. I pulled out two loaves and handed them to her. She hungrily took the loaves, giving one to her child. Both of them began eating right away and finished them right before my eyes. It was this beggar I will never forget the rest of my life. I gave her all the other loaves I had.
The fact of the matter was that I was looking for a neat formula, an exegetical equation with some proof texts that would enable me to escape the weight of facing the inequities of this world. I knew in my heart that fully facing the physical suffering in the world would mean far greater suffering for me than if I could escape it like that air conditioned ride through Mombasa. The wickedness and deviousness of my own heart has subtly sought that neat evangelical formula ever since, sad to say. It is not so easy to trust myself in this matter.
But I have come to the conclusion that the Lord Jesus Christ does not want us to feel at ease with the issue of human suffering. His example compels action, and it is a call that cannot be ignored without growing sick spiritually: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Jesus means to bring us to a point of desperation concerning the overwhelming physical needs of people all around us. Not ultimate desperation, but desperation in our usual system of confidence: self-reliance.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand shows how Jesus stands in our face and challenges us with this issue: “Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ But Jesus said, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat’ (Matt 14:15–16).
In John’s account, Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Then John tells us Jesus only did it to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. This word “test” is poignant. Jesus means to use this issue to probe our hearts and advance our sanctification. He does this, it seems, by causing us to despair in the system of confidence that is our usual refuge: self-reliance.
In both accounts, the disciples looked inward to see if they had the resources to meet the need: Philip said “Two hundred denarii would not be enough,” and they didn’t even have that; they found a boy who had five loaves of bread and two fish, but again despaired in their resources. They were looking inward for resources to meet the overwhelming need. Christ wanted them to look upward, as He did when He thanked God and blessed the bread and fish. This is the test: will we face the huge, overwhelming need, look upward and see God work?
The faith it takes to do that is no different than the faith it takes to be justified. In fact, Tim Keller has done an excellent job of proving it is a certain proof of the existence of saving faith. And, frankly, it is the same faith needed to complete the work of sanctification that God intends in us. For the beginning of the journey of salvation is to look inward and seeing darkness, sin, weakness, inadequacy, then to look upward to Christ and see perfect power suited for our every need.
So the issue of ministry to poverty-stricken people stands over us, probing our hearts to prove how much sin is still there. Christ does not mean for us to escape its force by a neat evangelical formula. He wants us to feel pain, to suffer, to be prodded out of our comfortable, air conditioned van ride through this sin-filled and suffering world. And He uses experiences like those I’ve had with the poor, plus incisive Scripture passages, which cut us to the quick.
One such passage is Ezekiel 16:49, which I discovered as I was preaching on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “’Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.’” I think if you asked most evangelical Christians, “What was the sin of Sodom?” they would without hesitation answer, “homosexuality.” I do not in any way discount that. But the words of Ezekiel 16:49 cut my heart and made me cry out against myself: “Woe is me, I am ruined. For I am an arrogant, overfed, unconcerned man who does not help the poor and needy, and I go to church with many such people.”