One of the most persistent tensions in Christian mission and ministry is between the proclamation of the gospel to the lost and helping the needy, between good news and good works. Church history shows numerous swings between the poles of evangelistic fervor and social concern.
There are some Christians who are interested only in the salvation of souls for eternity, not in the relief of human misery right now. They see non-Christians impersonally, as mere targets for evangelism, hoping to get them to pray a sinner’s prayer, while ignoring other very real needs. When I was first taught evangelism, I was told that the first step was to “select your target,” as if it mattered not whether the person had a name or family or life, as if evangelism is about numbers who sign on the dotted line and say the right words. Soon afterwards I was on a mission in Fiji. We spent the days evangelizing in the capital city of Suva, and it was a time of harvest, when people were coming to Christ in large numbers. I had a team-mate who got into a competitive mode. At the end of every day’s activities he would tell me how many people he had led to Christ that day, and ask me how many I had led to Christ. He was a little disappointed if my numbers were greater than his. For some believers, then, it is enough to see individuals saved to go to heaven, and attempts to change society are a diversion from the real task of soul-saving, and likely a compromise with the world, leading to a social gospel which is no gospel at all. But this is a minority position.
Far more likely is the swing to the other extreme, where we are content to meet immediate physical and social needs, and press for social and political change, but ignore the spiritual needs of people we seek to help. Church history is replete with ministries and missions who abandoned the preaching of the gospel in favor of good works and advocacy. Thus we encounter again and again institutions such as colleges and hospitals which had a Christian foundation but are now essentially secular, or even anti-Christian. There are reasons for this. The first is social acceptability. Doing good without proclaiming the gospel opens doors of favor. When Christians retreat from proclamation they often find that their good works are now welcomed, and they become socially acceptable. Second, this has financial implications. Corporate and government money will often flow where it will not be “tainted” by association with gospel preaching. Churches and ministries can get more done, it seems, when the money is coming in. And after all, it is all good work.
The gospel is good news by definition. When Jesus announced the good news of the kingdom of God it was a startling and exciting proclamation of good news, that God was fulfilling his promises and plans for Israel, for the Gentiles and for all creation—that he was turning the world right-side-up, establishing his will and his reign, and fixing everything that was broken. But this message came with an important caveat. You not only had to believe the good news, you had to repent: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent, and trust in this good news!” (Mark 1:15). In other words, each one of us is part of the problem that God is fixing. Our sin, along with the sin of all others, is what Christ came to rescue us—and the world—from. And so to fix the world he has to fix us. Or to put it another way, until we repent and believe, we are part of the problem, not the solution; we are playing for the wrong team; we are enemies, whom God wants to reconcile to himself. Paul said, “…while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his son” (Rom. 5:10). The message of the cross is an offense and foolishness in the eyes of so many who are dying without Christ (1 Cor. 1:23). Nevertheless, it is the wisdom and the power of God for those who receive it and are being saved (Rom. 1:16-17, 1 Cor. 1:18). The greatest need of every person is to be saved, and to come to know the truth, and this is precisely what God our savior wants for everyone (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
But according to Paul, salvation—being re-created in Christ—is exactly for the purpose of doing good: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which he prepared in advance for us, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We need to do good to all, especially believers (Gal. 6:10). It’s always good to do good! We are not justified by good works (Rom. 4:5, Eph. 2:8), but faith works, as Paul says, through love (Gal. 5:6). Compassion should motivate us, as it motivated Jesus to heal, to feed, to teach and even to raise the dead (Mark 1:41, 6:34, Luke 7:13). If we seek to save souls without concern for social and physical needs, or if we act to improve living conditions without sharing the gospel, in either case we are separating body and soul, denying the reality that God made us whole persons. The incarnation and resurrection of Christ remind us of the ultimate good, the ultimate hope of our faith, which is union with Jesus Christ when we are raised from the dead, not as disembodied souls but in renewed bodies, in the new creation—when Jesus returns. Therefore, let us never separate word and deed, mouth and hands, but keep faith, love and hope together, always calling the world to Jesus, while always doing all the good we can in Jesus’ name, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.