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.”

Prayer: Resigned and Stubborn

Matthew 5Writing on prayer is not a task lightly undertaken, mostly because it might give the impression that I believe my own prayer life is impressive or worth imitating. I do not think it is either of those things. But in my own Christian life and meditation on Scripture, I have learnt that our attitude towards prayer should reflect a biblical antinomy, which J. I. Packer defines as an unavoidable and insoluble tension between two undeniable truths. What is this antinomy? It is that God invites us to pray boldly yet in humility, or as my title states, resigned to his sovereignty yet stubbornly imploring him to answer our pleas.

Both of these approaches are present in the book of James. In James 1 we are called to ask God for wisdom so that we might persevere in steadfast faith through trials; there is no promise these will be removed for God uses them to mature us. On the other hand, we are told that our Father is generous (1:5), giving perfect gifts to his children (1:17), so we must ask him without doubting (1:6). We might contrast the two biblical characters employed by James to further his point: firstly, James tells those who suffer to imitate Job, remembering that the Lord is compassionate and merciful even when we are enduring testing and hardship (5:11); secondly, Elijah is presented in relation to prayer for he fervently prayed against rain for over 3 years and then God watered the earth when Elijah prayed for the draught to end (5:17-18). Below I will explore these two biblical attitudes towards prayer.

Prayer should be resigned

Book of JamesSt Bernard of Clairvaux, a French monk from the 12th century, has written a short devotional work titled, The Steps of Humility and Pride. Naturally, the discipline of prayer can be found under the subsection on humility. He says the Christian is called to a “spirit of obedience”, patiently enduring hardship and discerning God’s will. Citing John 2, when Mary informs Jesus that the wine is finished, Bernard points to Mary’s approach, which demonstrates devout humility in seeking Jesus’ will rather than the testing his power. Now you may or may not agree with Bernard’s exegesis, but in the same section he writes this: “We prefer to wait patiently for his will rather than daringly to demand what may not be his pleasure to give. In the end our modesty may perhaps gain for us immeasurably more than we deserve.” There is great wisdom that ought to be heeded in Bernard’s writing, for God gives according to his pleasure and will, not ours. Therefore, our prayers must be humbly resigned as hearts full of faith rest in their Father who knows infinitely better than his children.

Prayer should be stubborn

There are numerous places in Scripture where bold and persistent prayer is mentioned (Luke 11:8; Acts 12:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:10; 1 Peter 3:12; 1 John 5:16), but let us turn again to James “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). One of the problems experienced in the church James wrote to was what Motyer calls “the deadly sin of inconsistency”. This was manifest throughout their lives as the letter attests but specifically, for our purposes, affected their prayer lives. Earlier James says Christians must approach God in faith, without doubting or double-mindedness (1:5-8). When they brought their requests before God they were to do so in confidence, assured that their God is powerfully present and attentive to their needs. Expectant petition can appear impious, but as D. A. Carson reminds us, in The Call to Spiritual Reformation: “[It] honours him because he is a God who likes to give his blessings in response to the intercession of his people.” Remember Paul’s words to the Ephesians, ‘In Christ we have boldness and access with confidence through faith’.

Christians, who prayer regularly should struggle with this biblical antinomy, these apparently conflicting attitudes that God expects from us, as we bring our petitions and intercessions to him. However, far from discouraging prayer they should both ease our anxieties embolden our faith.

The Epistle of James: Wisdom and Works

Martin-Luther-SketchFor whatever reason, perhaps stemming from Martin Luther calling it a ‘right strawy epistle’, James is not a book many Christians are familiar with. If you know anything about James then you have most likely heard it called the ‘Proverbs of the New Testament’. However this is not necessarily a kind comparison, since anyone who has studied Proverbs probably found the book dislocated and quite perplexing. Added to this proverbial nature, James draws dangerously close to the ‘Papist heresy’ of self-merited righteousness: justification is by works, not faith alone (2:24), much to Luther’s distaste. But cleverly tying these two issues together, Graeme Goldsworthy offers a clear way forward, in Gospel & Wisdom: James is concerned with the wisdom of old, which comes from God and shows itself in a good life; wisdom is both a gift for and expectation of the community of faith. So in this post I want to explore the idea of James as wisdom literature and how the emphasis on both wisdom and works fits with salvation by faith.

In an overview of James, Daniel Akin provides a very helpful definition of wisdom: seeing the world from God’s perspective. In order for us to become “mature and complete, lacking in nothing” we need wisdom from God (1:4-5). As Christians endure their fallen world the wise Christian recognises that suffering produces steadfast faith (1:2-3), wealth and comfort will fade (1:11), and those who remain faithful to the end will receive the crown of life (1:12). A sure faith, without doubting or double-mindedness, approaches the only wise God and petitions for wisdom not merely to persevere through trials but also to perceive the ruined creation as God does, awaiting its glorious restoration. And the community of faith are the “firstfruits” of that recreation (1:18).

Bible Black and WhiteAlong with praying for wisdom, we are also told to practice not manmade religion but the pure religion of God our Father (1:26-27), which produces the righteousness of God in our lives (1:20). Therefore our faith must be shaped by listening to God’s word, which is able to save our souls (1:21), and becoming a community of faith characterised by obedience to God’s words (1:22-25). Wise faith that comes from enacting God’s words, as well as prayerfully acquiring God’s view of wealth and poverty (1:9-11), will be impartial towards those who poor in the eyes of the world, remembering that only those who are rich in faith will receive the kingdom (2:1-7). Thus mistreatment and calloused apathy towards the impoverished and disenfranchised might reveal that our faith is dead (2:17). The lives of Abraham (2:21-24) and Rahab (2:25) demonstrate saving faith that justifies, since living faith will result in works of righteousness (2:26).

Following on from James’ contrast between God-given faith and manmade religion, he further develops this point in showing two kinds of wisdom: earthly, unspiritual wisdom (3:15-16; 2:5) and “wisdom from above” (3:17-18; 1:5). The former causes disorder and disharmony while the latter creates peace. In the context of 3:1-12, James’ most renowned passage, scrutinising our tongues, the obvious link to make is this: God’s gift of wisdom is closely tied to how people speak. The untameable tongue is destructive, harmfully effective despite its size. So, as James says earlier, we should be quick to hear and slow to speak (1:19). This is wisdom. Furthermore, living faith that is seen in wise living will be exhibited as we are peaceable, gentle, open to reason, and full of mercy (3:17). On the other hand, earthly wisdom is revealed in jealousy and one-upmanship (3:16), tongues that bless God yet curse people (3:9-10). And as James says, “My brothers, these things ought not to be so.”

Considering the preceding chapter, we already know the answers to James’ questions in 4:1. It is worldliness, or earthly wisdom (3:16), that causes quarrels, fracturing the community of faith. So his repeated exhortation is towards humility (4:6-7). In some ways this section, specifically 4:4, presents the reader with an ultimatum: friendship with the world or God. Abraham, “who was called a friend of God,” possessed saving faith and godly fear or wisdom (2:22-23). Friendship with the world on the other hand, is evidenced by what Peter H. Davids calls the uncompromising desire to get ahead. It is proud and presumptuous (4:13-16), forgetting that all of us are nothing but a momentary mist (4:14), a wildflower beneath the scorching sun (1:10-11). Humility is a mark of biblical faith, wisdom gained from the vantage point of God’s grace towards those in the community of faith. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (4:10).

jobFinally, in 5:1, 3, 6, 9, and 12 (also see 2:12-13; 4:12) we are admonished to consider that our fleeting lives are carried out before the returning Christ, to whom all hearts are open. This signifies judgment for those who have lived as if Christ is not their impartial Lord, arrogantly presuming upon their wealth and status (5:1-6); on the other hand, it will result in vindication for the steadfast, the innocent sufferers, as in the case of Job and the Lord’s prophets (5:7-11; 1:4, 12). The latter group illustrate wisdom, similar to the farmer, in observing the “firstfruits” of restoration in their own lives and the life of the Christian community (1:18), patiently waiting for the Judge who is standing at the door (5:9). Coming full circle, wisdom is marked by prayerful faith that without doubt or double-mindedness commits all things to the Lord (5:13-18; 1:4-8). If we claim to belong to the community of faith then there must be evidence of it: godly wisdom and good works that necessarily entail saving faith.

We started with a helpful suggestion from Goldsworthy, that James deserves its comparisons with Old Testament wisdom due to the book consistently drawing the link between the good life (or godly wisdom) and the gift of faith. In closing I want to tie this point in with another made by John Calvin (in his commentary on James). Drawing comparisons between wisdom literature and the Psalms he writes: “the former was intent on forming the outward man and teaching the precepts of civil life, the latter spoke continually of the spiritual worship of God, peace of conscience, God’s mercy and gratuitous promise of salvation. But this diversity should not make us to approve of one, and to condemn the other.” James certainly emphasises “the outward man”, godly lives and wise living, but this accentuation is grounded in a biblical and saving faith.