When I was a young christian (a few decades ago now!), evangelical churches tended to focus on evangelism, and some viewed justice and social action with suspicion. Things have changed since then, with most christians and churches supportive of social welfare and overseas aid programs.
There is still a tendency to see these programs as of secondary importance compared to evangelism, but this too is changing.
Saving people is the highest priority?
It is simple logic, isn’t it? Knowing God and being with him in heaven is the greatest possible good for any human being. And missing out is the greatest loss.
So it’s really a no-brainer, surely. Evangelism must be our highest priority.
Only the Bible doesn’t seem to see it that way.
The Bible doesn’t endorse our logic
There are a number of pointers in the New Testament to a “bigger” agenda:
The kingdom is bigger than just ‘pie in the sky when you die’
Mark 1:15 records that Jesus began his ministry with this announcement of “good news” (= “gospel”): “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”. Bible experts generally agree that the kingdom of God, the reign of God on earth, that was being announced and established by Jesus, was his main message.
Jesus saw himself as fulfilling the vision of the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
It is clear that Jesus is interested in something more than pie in the sky when we die, but something real and tangible on earth, something that will affect people physically as well as spiritually. His good news heals people and lifts them out of oppression, poverty and servitude.
The kingdom has political impacts
Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 shows that Jesus becoming Lord in this new kingdom was going to have political impacts – it would bring down rulers and reverse the roles of rich and poor.
If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar (ultimately) is not, and Roman ‘justice’ would eventually be replaced by God’s justice. Of course this will only completely happen at the end of days, but Mary’s words suggest it will start to happen now.
We will be judged by our actions
Whatever way we interpret salvation by grace, it is clear that Jesus expects us to act justly, compassionately and sacrificially to help others, and he will judge us according to how much we act this way. In fact, our very part in God’s eternal kingdom is at risk if we are selfish (Matthew 25:31-46).
His brother had a similar message, arguing again and again (e.g. James 1:27, 2:1-26, 4:11-12, 5:1-6) that those of us who are following Jesus must care for those around us, or our faith may be shown to be worthless.
You can’t separate faith and good deeds in Jesus’ gospel
So faith, forgiveness, salvation, new life are all important parts of the good news of the kingdom of God. But equally serving the poor, working for justice and healing broken people are part of the same good news.
What Jesus has put together, we shouldn’t separate!
Let’s be pragmatic
There are pragmatic reasons to embrace this understanding. Many people are sick of words, especially words without love. If we want people to see and respond to the love of God, they need to see that love in our actions.
Good deeds – social justice and community care – do not get in the way of evangelism, they prepare the way of evangelism. They are as much an announcement of the good news as evangelism is.
Doing good deeds in modern evangelical churches
If we are ordinary people in an evangelical church that pushes evangelism and is light on justice and mercy, how can we hope to see change?
I’ll give some practical ideas, things which have worked, next post.
Photo: TEAR Australia. The photo shows a toilet constructed in a poor area of Kenya to improve hygiene, using money provided by TEAR Australia.