… Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word… (Luke 24:19)
It’s common today to view a ministry of the Word as somehow separate from a ministry of deeds. This separation usually also splits people into two sides of an argument. One might say:
“You just preach the gospel, but don’t look at underlying social constructs that keep people in poverty.”
“Because you won’t confront real issues of injustice on earth, you have become so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly good.”
“After all, isn’t it true that “a hungry man has no ears”?1 “Isn’t it ‘the gospel’ to take care of their needs?”
The other group may reply:
“You say you want to care for the poor, but since you’ve wimped out and call social action evangelism, you don’t share the gospel message with those you desire to help. You just make them a bit more comfortable before you send them off to hell.”
“You’re rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.”2
As the argument rages, polarized Christian camps dig into their respective moral high grounds.
Perhaps in response to this schism, some state that both sides are right, and go so far as to say that evangelism and social action are of equal importance to God, that they are equal wings of the bird, or two scissor blades. That’s a tempting response—if for nothing else than to stop the rancour—but the ‘equal wings’ compromise seems a bit off biblically.
Certainly Jesus consistently modelled both together, and it doesn’t seem that we are at liberty to separate them. As John Piper recently said at the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town: “If you don’t care for the lost you have a defective view of hell; if you don’t care for the poor you have a defective heart”.
Though that does not mean we should ascribe equal weight to both evangelism and social action, we’ll talk more about the ‘wings of a bird’ idea later. First, I believe we’ve missed understanding something important about evangelism in this lovers’ quarrel.
Something’s been missed
There is an assumption, in the discussion about the gospel message and social action, that only social action produces social change, and the gospel somehow doesn’t.
But the gospel, rightly proclaimed, is an agent of enormous social change, in and of itself. Actually, it could be argued that the right preaching of the gospel has brought the greatest social change the world has ever known. Accordingly, every act of good and faithful evangelism is an act of true social action.
This is true historically; wherever and whenever the gospel has been rightly preached then embraced, societal good has followed.
We must be therefore careful to avoid the idea that sharing the gospel is not caring for the poor; we must never stop sharing the gospel of grace. People who have been treated brutally or who live in deprivation need the good news of Christ, and it produces good in their lives.
An example of how that plays out
When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. We lived there with him off and on over the course of six years, working in the malnourishment clinic in the village. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel.
But Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people. When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education.
Tomas, the local mayor, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any aid program ever developed.3
Do the hungry have ears?
So back to a question we started with: do the hungry have ears?
You bet they do; in my experience those whose ears seem most closed to the gospel are not the hungry, but the stuffed and self-indulgent. We have much to say to those who have faced injustice; we must never forget that the best thing that can happen for them—or anyone—is to know the living God.
We should remember that the gospel themes take fresh significance in the face of injustice: the terror of sin, the need for reconciliation, a sacrificial loving God on a cross—all explode with meaning in the midst of the ills of the world.
Jesus is relevant to refugees in Africa since he fled to Africa as a child with his family. Jesus is relevant to those who suffer abuse unjustly since he suffered abuse even unto death unjustly. Knowing that Jesus promises perfect justice on the day of his return gives hope beyond understanding to those who have been brutalized; not pie in the sky hope, but hope with sufficient evidence to lay down their lives.
So we must remember that any hesitancy to speak the gospel into pain and deprivation is a result of a whole host of misguided impulses. One of the greatest dangers in a secular world is forgetting the spiritual needs of others. We must confess that pain, deprivation, and injustice do at times trump the message of the gospel in our minds. When this happens, we see the naked thinness of our faith, and how we don’t believe the gospel through and through.
We expose how sold out to materialism we are when material suffering dashes our faith. Confronted by the death of a malnourished baby, or exploitative greed in human trafficking, we forget the reality of the deep triumph over injustice by the cross, and its promise of perfect justice on ‘the day’. We forget that, far from overlooking the brokenness of the world, God intimately joined us in our horrific pain. We forget that, for those who suffer, our answers are better than any the world has ever offered.
Actually, the question is not how we can share the gospel with the oppressed and hungry, but how can we not share the gospel, since it brings the greatest message of true hope for an oppressed and hungry world.
It is love to share our faith
Look at it this way: our calling as Christians is to love our neighbour. As JI Packer says:
The nature of love is to do good and to relieve need. If, then, our neighbour is unconverted, we are to show love… by seeking to share with him the good news without which he must needs perish. So we find Paul warning and teaching ‘every man’: not merely because he was an apostle, but because every man was his neighbour.4
Our call is to share the Gospel with everyone: hungry or full.
In Luke 10:29, a lawyer asks a question that sets the stage for Jesus to tell the story of the good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbour?” The lawyer wants Jesus to put restrictions on who we are to love. In the parable, Jesus makes it clear that just as the “Samaritan loved the wounded man, we as Christians are called upon to love all men as neighbours, loving them as ourselves”.5
The point: all people are our neighbours… every one. That’s because all people have the mark of the divine in them. Jesus is helping the lawyer (and us) see that when we love others we are moving from how the world sees people to how God sees people.
Scriptural directions for sharing our faith in the New Testament are often coupled with directions to reform our views of people, so that we see them as neighbours and people made in the image of God. So Jesus shares with a wayward Samaritan woman, to her amazement and that of the disciples. At the same time, he tells the disciples to open their eyes to the harvest, a harvest they missed because of their racist/sexist view of people (John 4:9, 35). Jesus’ last words on earth were a directive to make disciples of all nations, or ethnicities, a command so strange it took direct intervention with Peter later, in a vision, to confirm that God’s call is to all people without partiality (Acts 10:9-35). Peter would later tell believers to be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you”, while instructing that we not fear what people fear (1 Pet 3:13-15).
Paul knew that Jesus was a light to all nations, but it took hard times from his own people to move him to the Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47). Later, he explains how his passion for all people’s salvation compelled him to give up his rights, so nothing would stand in the way of the gospel: the gospel for people who were different than Paul (1 Cor 9:19).
In the most direct link of evangelism and a God-like view of people, Paul commanded the Corinthians to stop viewing people from a worldly standpoint when sharing the gospel, reminding them that that same worldly attitude justified crucifying Christ (2 Cor 5:16). Though we are to be wise with outsiders, Paul says, we are to make every opportunity to share our faith (Col 4:5-6).
As we trace these passages from the Gospels though Acts and the Epistles, we see directives to share our faith joined with corrective loving views of those around us.
Does meeting physical needs equal the gospel?
Packer is right to say that the nature of love is to relieve need. This includes physical needs, too. So in the same way we are called to relieve spiritual needs, and just as we must see all people as God sees people, we are also compelled to meet physical challenges, too. So caring for the poor is not just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. But clarity is critical here. Because the themes of the gospel are so powerful when we face suffering and injustice in the world, it’s tempting to call living out the gospel ‘the gospel’.
Throughout history, Christians have differed in how they applied the gospel towards the social ills of their day. Reading the Scripture in a common language, ending slavery, and creating just laws all required different social actions, but sprang from the same gospel. Our world today comes with situations that require us to respond, too, be it introducing more protein into diets to stop babies dying of malnourishment in Guatemala, trying to counter tin-pot dictators brutalizing believers for their faith in north Africa, or putting an end to the sex slave trade in southeast Asia.
Again, our responses take different forms. Do I take part in seeing these ills end, regardless of the evangelistic opportunity it affords? With all my heart, yes, and amen. We care for others regardless of any return for our efforts—evangelistically or otherwise. We never qualify whom it is we are to love.
Given these situations, both yesteryear and today, it is easy to understand why some want to call social action ‘the gospel’, since caring for others so deeply parallels the gospel’s message. It’s a part of love, and it’s a function of redemption. And certainly all Christians are called to care for others. But actually, the question “Isn’t it the gospel to take care of needs?” exposes our difficulty in believing the gospel through and through, too.
So, is caring for others the gospel? Is it evangelism?
No, it isn’t, not without the spoken message of Jesus. The gospel message is the message that produces salvation. We should never confuse meeting physical needs with sharing the gospel.
Caring for others represents the gospel, it upholds the gospel, it points to the gospel, it’s an implication of the gospel. But it is not the gospel, and it is not equal to the gospel. Richard Chin, the National Director of the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students, aptly said to me while travelling together, “Doing justice is as important as the most important acts of lordship… as important as being faithful to our spouses for example, but doing justice, as with all acts of lordship, are fruits of the gospel, not the message of the gospel itself”.
Furthermore, all actions of kindness, compassion and justice must be done with the hope to share our faith. We share the good news while being always open to doing good, and we do good always with the hope of sharing our faith. We never divorce the two. If we get nothing in return, it’s okay, because it is the nature of love. But do not forget that seeing people come to Christ in the midst of suffering and injustice is the greatest good possible. To misunderstand this is to be blinded by cultural and materialistic world views.
To be healthy in our evangelism when we see places racked with poverty, unjust political leaders, or oppressive regulations towards people of faith, remember that we work for those around us out of love and compassion, never requiring a response to the gospel, but with a deep and heartfelt desire that our work of love be redemptive, pointing to the message of Christ’s ultimate work of redemption. We never hold back from boldly sharing our faith.
So are evangelism and social action two wings of the bird? No, it’s more like the gospel is both wings, the pinions around which all our Christian life centres, and social action is the tail feathers allowing us to fly straight.
According to Tim Keller, the gospel and social action are both important to the Christian life, but they are asymmetrical; the gospel is of first importance and social action secondary. Keller says, “to consider deeds of mercy and justice to be identical to gospel proclamation is a fatal confusion”.6
I believe he’s right. And that’s because the basic reasons for doing justice and bringing the spoken word are mostly the same with two critical and unique differences.
Similarities between social action and evangelism
The arguments for doing justice and for doing evangelism share many common features.7
1. ALL PEOPLE HAVE VALUE AND WORTH AS THEY HAVE THE MARK OF THE DIVINE
As we have said, everyone has the divine image of God stamped on him or her, therefore everyone has worth and value to God. We share our faith and we do justice because people have worth and dignity that comes from God above.
2. IT’S LOVING
People are in need and we need to care for them.
The Oasis hospital in the United Arab Emirates was founded long before the nation became a country. It was established as a maternity hospital among Bedouin people who had dismal maternity care. Later, after the country discovered oil and became the thriving cosmopolitan and wealthy sheikdom that it is today, the leaders of the county, many of whom had been born in that hospital, gave us the land for our church. The reason?
They told us, “You loved us before we had oil”.
3. BOTH EVANGELISM AND SOCIAL ACTION REFLECT THE HEART OF GOD
Both sharing the gospel and doing good works are reflections of the way God has reached out to us. As we do good works they commend the gospel. Thoughtful sharing of the Word does too. That is, when we share the gospel, how we present the message should also commend the gospel. Right preaching of the Word produces powerful social good in and of itself.
4. IT PROVES OUR FAITH
The biggest problem is not that evangelical Christians do not care enough for the poor or the oppressed. The biggest problem is that that they do not care enough for God and his salvation in their lives.
Without works, says James 2:17, your faith is dead. James is not saying we’re saved by works; he means that true salvation and genuine faith are proved by works.
Based on James, there is a good case to be made that those who don’t care about the hungry or lost don’t have a real faith at all, and aren’t true followers of Jesus. So, both doing justice and doing evangelism, in response to God’s grace in our lives, rightly proves our faith.
5. IT’S COMMANDED
Both good deeds and evangelism are commanded for true followers of Jesus. It’s not just a nice optional idea, but obedient Christian practice.
So what’s unique about evangelism?
While evangelism and social action share these five reasons, there are two reasons that make the gospel of unique importance, and therefore make evangelism our highest calling.
1. THE ETERNAL IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE TEMPORAL
Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” That is, fear God not man. This verse points out that there is an order of things. As Tim Keller says in Generous Justice, we must remember that the eternal is more important than the temporal.8 The gospel, which brings about eternal change, is more important than those things that care for temporal physical needs, even if it is as big as life itself. This is not about being “so heavenly minded we’re of no earthly good”, it’s recognizing a reality that the world cannot see.
2. IT’S UNIQUELY CHRISTIAN
The message of the gospel is the one thing that we offer that cannot be replicated by worldly systems.
There were many programs we took part in when we worked with Mike in Guatemala, but almost all of them were being done on larger and more efficient scales than ours by secular organisations. The one thing that we offered that was different, and ultimately more dynamic, was the gospel. The world has nothing that can mimic or replace it.
The call to all true followers of Jesus is to do both evangelism and social action, but with understanding that the ministry of the Word is our highest calling and does the highest good. So in the end we are where we started; we issue a call to all Christians to be about the work of Jesus through both word and deed.
1 John Stott quoting a Kenyan missionary, Christian Mission in the Modern World, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1972, p. 26.
2 Or as DL Moody said: “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can’.” Quoted by Ronald Sider, Evangelism and Social Action, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1993, p. 34.
3 The story of the gospel’s work in the Ixil territory is told in Terri McComb’s bookEscaping the Fire, University of Texas Press, 2010.
4 JI Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Inter-Varsity Press, Leicester, 1961, p. 99.
5 Francis Schaeffer, Mark of a Christian, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, 1970, p. 35.
6 Tim Keller, Generous Justice, Dutton Press, New York, 2010, p. 139.
7 In fact I wonder at times if the ongoing conflict concerning ministry of Word and ministry of deed has to do with their similarities and connectedness.