New Testament Principles for Mercy Ministry

Last week I posted a short article titled, Social Justice as Obedience to God. Much to my disappointment more than a few people felt it was unclear and unnecessarily theological. Let me state for the record that I do not think “theological” implies complicated; Christians should be grappling with theological truth and its implications. This means the fault is mine. I will make another admission at the start of this article: I am far from finished in my thinking about the church’s responsibility to do social justice, or even what we mean by that phrase. So this post is not my attempt to pave a clear path forward. Instead I will briefly touch on a couple of New Testament passages and draw principles from them. 

social justiceBut before we get to that, let me outline my intentions for the previous article. I wrote it because I worry that many Christians today, particularly in the West, view people as little more than souls to be saved. They argue that the church’s mission is proclamation. Sure, most will concede that Christians are called to love their neighbours practically. The ways Christians can and ought to love others is hugely diverse. But strangely the corporate or organisational  church’s love is somehow understood differently. I am not sure there is New Testament support for this distinction. Instead I argued that the Christian (and church) pursuing a life that pleases God will love her neighbours in the broadest biblical sense. This love will be practical, generous and uncomfortable—in other words, it will be much more than evangelism.

The Epistle of James

There are no shortage of passages to turn to in support of thesis. But James is as directly challenging as any, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:27). To avoid an overcorrection to the body-soul distinction I alluded to above, we should argue from this verse that both material or physical and emotional as well as spiritual care must be given. Read what James wrote a few verses later, “If someone is poorly clothed and lacking food, what good is it to send them away with your blessing without giving them what they need?” (2:16). The apostle John asked a similar question, “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17, 10). James highlights a point we tend to miss: our faith ought to be useful and good (2:14, 20).

True and living faith is tangibly fruitful, practical and visible. Christians should be concerned about more than simply the salvation of souls. If all we can offer is platitudes about heaven or merely stating that sin is our greatest issue we are drifting dangerously close to the faith that both James and John condemned. What are the principle here? New Testament faith is more than belief. Christianity cannot be unconcerned with people’s needs. There should be visible evidence of love expressed in the church as well as by it.

1 Timothy 5:3-16

When we recognise real need we must meet it (5:3, 5). This involves discernment. It also means first looking to the immediate family for support (5:4). I think, however, that the family mentioned are also believers, who must “put their religion into practice by caring”. Failing to meet the needs of our relatives is, quite shockingly, said to be a denial of our faith (5:8). The character of the widow is mentioned (5:9-10), indicating that she is known to the church, a devout Christian, and herself generous. The unpopular principle here is that nominal Christians looking to the church for a free ride should possibly be overlooked—or at the very least challenged over their own lack of works.

Once that is dealt with, 1 Timothy 5 calls on us to help those in our churches, just as we would help from those in our biological families. In 5:11-15 Paul says there are others who the church should not commit to giving permanent support, for they have the opportunity to remarry or work. Again, we can draw a principle from this: the church cannot be expected – nor is it required – to give to everyone who asks, not even if they belong to the church family. Finally, if those with needs are having them met by someone capable in the church already, other urgent needs exist where the church should allocate its resources (5:16).

Three principles from 1 Timothy 5

  1. The lordship of Christ demands meeting the needs of those in both our immediate family and the church family or household of God
  2. Mercy ministry must be discerning and measured. This includes asking if the beneficiary is able to receive help from elsewhere
  3. The church is not expected to alleviate every need it encounters

More principles in Galatians 6

In just a few verses (6:1-10), Paul rattles off what closely resembles a collection of proverbs. Though I encourage you to read the passage and epistle in its entirety, we can quite easily draw out a few practical principles:

  1. We fulfil the law of Christ – loving our neighbours (Matthew 22:34-40) – when we carry one another’s burdens (6:2; also see 5:13-14). We might be tempted to spiritualise this, making it about carrying emotional burdens. While I am sure the verse includes that interpretation, the physical and financial aspect cannot be denied, especially when we consider the following verses
  2. Bible teachers and the ministry staff should receive support from those that they serve, the local church they belong to (6:6; also see 1 Timothy 5:17-18)
  3. Proverbs 3:27, alluded to in Galatians 6:9, reads, “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.” Though most of us would not kick against doing good to those whom it is due, I wonder if we fail to apply the command to practise mercy when it’s in our power to do so. The principle in 6:9 is simple: you do not reach the end of doing good to others
  4. Overlapping with the proverb above, Paul calls on us to do good whenever we have opportunity, especially those in our local church (6:10). There is no shortage of opportunities, both within and outside of our churches

Concluding Principles from 2 Corinthians 8-9

So much could be said about these two chapters in 2 Corinthians, but this blog post is fast becoming a lengthy paper. Let me highlight a couple of principles, focusing on the heart of the giver, those carrying out mercy or justice:

  1. Generosity is not the act of the wealthy but the generous (8:1-5). Paul tells the Corinthians how another group of believers, the Macedonians, gave according to their means in a time of severe affliction and even “extreme poverty”. 
  2. Flowing from the previous point, being generous with what we have, whether abundant or meagre, is an outworking of God’s grace (8:6-7), and true expression of Christian love (8:8, 24).
  3. This love, however, must be motivated by the gracious generosity and love of Christ, “Though he was rich…for our sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (8:9). 
  4. The gospel (above) means that giving under compulsion is not generosity. Paul says it must be willing (9:5), without reluctance (9:7); rather, it should be cheerful (9:7) and one of ways we express our gratitude towards God (9:12). “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift” (9:15).

In conclusion, the above is far from conclusive. My modest hopes for this post and its predecessor was to bring Scripture to bear on questions about ministry mercy and social justice. Admittedly, most of the principles above apply primarily to mercy ministry (carried out within the local church) rather than social justice, which we might define as practising mercy towards those outside of the church. Taken together, I pray that these posts will impress on my readers that love should not be narrowly defined or made exclusive to spiritual needs. As Paul wrote in Galatians 6:10, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.”

The Work of Christ: More than God’s Justice

Robert LethamTony Reinke said in his book Lit! that, along with whatever else he is reading, he tries to always be in book on the work of Christ. This desire surely needs little explanation if you are a Christian. But before you think I am laying on the guilt, let me admit that in 2018 I read only two books on the work of Christ, and both of those were at Easter. One of them was Robert Letham’s The Work of Christ. And it is my intention to post some reflections on it over the next month as we head towards Easter this year. You are reading the first post in this series which – along with the second – will be thinking about penal substitutionary atonement (PSA), which Letham defines as, “Christ himself willingly submitted to the just penalty which we deserved, receiving it on our behalf and in our place so that we will not have to bear it ourselves” (p133).

Numerous objections have been raised against PSA through the years and today the doctrine is perhaps facing some of its harshest criticism to date. Letham outlines and addresses two popular objections to PSA: (a) it seems unjust; (b) and therefore raises questions about God’s character. Letham more than adequately rebuffs these criticisms and defends the biblical, just and loving doctrine of PSA. But I want to touch on a third issue he interacts with, “Today there is almost universal distaste for thinking of God and salvation in legal categories” (p137). In other words, many feel that PSA reduces God’s grace to a cold transaction devoid of affection, or “stock-exchange divinity”, as Edward Irving called it. How do we answer this objection?

Briefly Letham shows how the Bible speaks very positively about God’s law. Quoting from a handful of Psalms he argues that God’s judgments are deemed perfect, and those who meditate on his justice are called wise. In the Gospels we do not see Jesus abolishing the law but rather pressing its demands upon the entire person, “requiring total and lifelong dedication to the service of God’s kingdom.” Furthermore, while Paul asserts the law’s inability to save in Romans he is careful and clear not to reject it (Romans 3:31; 7:12, 14). So, regardless of our dislike for legal categories, the Bible affirms them; God’s justice, righteousness and judgment are not merely good, but perfect.

Letham then provides a second argument against those who would reject PSA, on the grounds of it being abstract, too ledger like, or extrinsic. He writes, “It may be helpful for us to see the penal substitutionary death of Christ in the context of God’s loving provision for the deliverance of those who otherwise were without hope…The atonement stems from the love of God and, since God’s love is just love and his justice is loving justice, the cross is a demonstration par excellence of that love in a way that is commensurate with his justice” (p138). You should probably read that quote again. Letham’s point is that instead of divorcing God’s love from legal categories, the Bible holds them together. “God’s amazing love had to be righteous as well” (p139).

This post is more technical than I aim to be here, so let me keep it short and attempt to offer a neat conclusion. PSA is a central idea in both Old and New Testaments. But far from seeming to reduce God to justice crazed tyrant, in God’s provision of a substitute – ultimately his own Son – we see God’s crazy love (thanks Francis Chan). The cross beautifully demonstrates God’s love and his justice. In love Christ faces my judgment. His perfect justice partners his love and removes the penalty for sin. Hear Letham one last time, “Sin is so central to to the New Testament portrayal of the atonement that a theory which leaves it on one side is deficient” (p163). PSA upholds God’s perfect justice, presents us with God’s great love and pardons us of our sin. To adapt a few lines from O Church Arise: Come see the cross, where love and justice meet.

Bray on Scripture: Experiencing God’s Love

Gerald BrayThe denomination I belong to has been labelled many less than positive things. In fact, I was recently asked about a written statement I made in 2016, where I called REACH “exclusive and condescending.” Presiding bishop, if you are reading this, I still love our denomination. But returning to what other people have called REACH, I’ve heard: dry, cerebral, bland and academic. And that was just this past week. While these descriptions are true to varying degrees, another label I wear proudly is that we are bibliocentric. Though some Christians are irked by our staunch commitment to biblical preaching and teaching, it is a mistake to conflate being fully persuaded about the centrality of the Bible with boring bookishness. Previous posts in this series have argued that without Scripture we will worship idols; Spirit filled ministry is Bible saturated ministry; and God’s Word is sufficient to sustain faith. I hope those older posts went some way towards persuading my readers that the Bible is a staple for the Christian life, now I want to challenge believers who know that but no longer delight in reading God’s Word. In other words, knowing about the Bible is not the same as treasuring it because we experience God himself when it is read and preached.

In God is Love, Gerald Bray writes, “Scripture is the language of God’s love for his people, and if it does not speak to the soul, then it is not doing what we ought to expect from the Word of God. Ultimately, the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself but which it confirms and supports as the standard against which everything else must be judged.” Bray makes two linked points: firstly, our expectation when we read the Bible should be that we will not only learn of but experience God’s love, for his words speak to our hearts; secondly, this does render the Bible less than authoritative or objective, so while we encounter God in his words we must also pay attention to what he says. This can be illustrated with the conversations we have every day: someone is behind speech so I cannot divorce what is being said from who is saying it. Conversation is personal. This is no less true of Scripture than it is of speaking to my neighbour. Bray wants us to remember that behind the Bible is a lover, the God we were made to enjoy and delight in. Studying the Bible is therefore where we experience the love of God, as he addresses us and answers our hearts’ longings. We would do well to approach our devotional reading or the preached Word on Sundays with that expectation, for “the Bible points us to an experience of God that lies beyond itself,” which brings us to another point Bray makes.

Even though Christians reject the idea of holy or sacred objects “there is Holy Scripture because the Word of God is present in it, proclaimed by it, and made efficacious thought it.” Similarly to the previous point, Bray writes, “We treasure his words…because we sense his presence in them.” If it is true that behind the affectionate words found in Scripture is a person then we must affirm that he is present when they are read. Sadly many Christians today limp between Sunday highs, ecstatically powerful times of worship, which usually means the band was tight. But if we understand the points Bray is making we would forget such a limited view of God’s presence and exchange it for a more biblical understanding and expectation. We are not merely hearing the words of God when the Bible is read we are being invited, or ushered, into his presence by those very words. God is no more present in the spine tingling atmospheres many churches manufacture than he is when the plain Word is read. When we open the Bible and seek God’s presence in his speech we can actually experience him in a way that far surpasses engineered emotions. If only we believed this when we opened our Bibles.

The Qualities that make a Gospel Worker

Many readers will likely know that if I can get the funds I need I will be doing a MA Theology (technically in Biblical Studies) in the States. One of my scholarship applications (which was rejected, read into that what you will) posed the question, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel and why?” I really enjoyed thinking through the answer to this question. Here is something of what I wrote – what would you say?

Love

LoveWhen asked, “What qualities make someone a good minister of the Gospel?” I immediately think the answer must be whatever characterised Jesus. Jesus not only ministered the gospel, he is the gospel. Love is probably the simplest answer at which to arrive but is undoubtedly undermined by the flippancy with which we say it. For Jesus, it meant self-giving sacrifice in the extreme, I think of 1 John 4 and Romans 5. I don’t think we can begin to fathom the depths of what love means.

The answer seems associated with the greatest commandments, to love God and our neighbours. Certainly a good minister of the gospel must love God above everything he could ever dream of. It’s difficult to measure someone’s love for God though, but it can often be seen in his/her love for others. It does seem like a bit of a cheat to say “love” though, it’s too general, too abstract. What does love look like?

Love seen in Humility.

Philippians 2 was the first passage that occurred to me and humility the first attribute. I suspect that’s because whenever I believe I have humility, I find it is like quicksilver in my hands. Even so, pride and arrogance in the ministry never turn the focus to God but to the minister and that is always worthless. Jesus exemplified humility and “[our] attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”.

Love seen in Service.

Closely related to humility is service. I pick service because it is something identifiable in a person. Again, Philippians 2 characterises Jesus as a servant and it is in service that we see Jesus’ self-sacrificial love at work. If we love people as ministers of the gospel, it will be a delight to serve them even when serving them is unpleasant because ultimately we are serving Christ.

Holiness

HolinessPerhaps holiness should precede love. In any case, it is loving holiness and holy love that characterised Jesus and that should characterise a minister of the gospel. Of course the gospel is for the sick but it’s not the gospel if it never heals them. An indication that the gospel is at work in anyone’s life is a growth in holiness. Holiness, therefore, must be present in the life of a gospel minister. This is what Paul means when he looks for a man “blameless” or “above reproach” in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.

Prayer

Prayer Prayer doesn’t really fall under holiness or love and yet it is tied to both because it is a matter of relationship just as holiness and love are. I could be wrong, but the only thing I recall the disciples asking Jesus to teach them is how to pray (Luke 11). Apparently disciples recognise the need to pray. It is also instructive to read Paul’s epistles and note how his prayers pervade his discourse. Prayer strikes me as a hallmark of a relationship with God.

Of course, Paul enumerates a number of other qualities. What qualities would you say make a someone a good minister of the gospel? What are the qualities you would look for?