What is the place of deeds of mercy in our lives as Christians and as a church? How should we think about caring for the poor and needy? Or seeking racial equity and justice? Last Sunday’s sermon raises these questions as we witness one of the most spectacular moments in human history, the time when Jesus announces in his home synagogue,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

                                                                        Luke 4:18-19

Jesus explains that his ministry will involve preaching good news and setting captives free. We’ll see him go through Galilee teaching about the kingdom of God while also healing the sick, delivering the oppressed, and cleansing lepers. His ministry is a combination of preaching the gospel, calling and making disciples, and doing acts of mercy. How do we follow him as his disciples?

Some time ago we worked on a mission statement that says, Our mission is to go into the world with good news to make and equip growing disciples of Jesus Christ. I like it. It has served us well. We modeled it after Jesus’ “great commission” where he instructs his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, to baptize them and teach them to do what Jesus has commanded. A recent book on the mission of the church comes to a similar conclusion as we have, saying, “We believe the church is sent into the world to witness to Jesus by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples of all nations.”[1]

As I try to put together what Jesus proclaims in Luke 4 and how we describe our mission, I’m left with a nagging question that has rolled around in my head for some time and is only now coming into focus: Can we fulfill our mission if we are faithful to proclaim Jesus but never lift a finger to raise up the poor or relieve the suffering or protect the unborn or set free those who have been trafficked into slavery or servitude? What is the place of deeds of mercy in our lives and mission as Christians and as a church?

For some Christians, the answer is that deeds of mercy become the mission of the church. I grew up in a church like this. It was a place where people reached out to the homeless and welcomed Vietnamese refugees and provided many services to the community. But I don’t recall hearing about sin or hell or the need for repentance and faith. In reaction to experiences like this, some Christians find themselves suspicious of Christians who talk about justice. They are concerned that the so-called social gospel will overwhelm and replace the good news of Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection.

This is a legitimate concern. But pendulums can swing in two directions and we must also be concerned about having hard hearts towards suffering and poverty and people in need. What is the way forward? We do not want to set aside the gospel in favor of good works. What if the gospel instead becomes the motivation and power to love our neighbors in word and deed? What if following Jesus means becoming the kinds of disciples who both share good news and do acts of mercy? Let me offer three implications.

First, the ministry of the gospel, the ministry of the Word of God, is the primary mission of the church, but not the only mission. We are people of the Word and Jesus clearly compels us to bring the word of salvation to every corner of our city and the world (Luke 24:45-47). Yet we recognize that following Jesus is more than just sharing good news with people: it is also honoring him at work (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15), keeping our promises in marriage (Matthew 19:4-6), and making the world a more just and merciful place (Luke 10:25-37; James 2:14-26).

Second, the gospel sets us free to love our neighbor. Sin enslaves us, making us into self-centered people. Christ transforms us to be able to keep the second great commandment to love our neighbor. I love the Heidelberg Catechism’s reflection on how God calls us to love our neighbors:

That I do whatever I can for my neighbor’s good,
that I treat others as I would like them to treat me,
and that I work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.[1]

The reason that God commands us to love our neighbor is that God loves our neighbor. As we are conformed more and more to the image of Christ, we find ourselves growing in love for the people God loves, and he sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. God pours out grace upon our enemies and idolaters every day of their lives and he has a special place in his heart for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed (Matthew 25:34-46; Proverbs 14:31; Isaiah 58; Amos 1-12).

Third, when it comes to doing acts of mercy, it seems to me that there are three distinctions we need to keep in mind:

  1. The difference between what individual Christians do and what churches do.
  2. The unique call to care for brothers and sisters in the body of Christ and the wider call to care for the group our neighbors in our city and world.
  3. The different ways to help those in need, ranging from relief work through meeting people’s basic needs to doing community development to reforming social structures and conditions that have resulted in widespread mistreatment of people.

I’d like to further develop this last part about doing acts of mercy, and I’ll pick it up here and expand on this next week.

Mark Mullery

P.S. Got comments or questions about this post, or ideas for another one? Email me at midweekmusings@rgcfairfax.org.

[1] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? p. 26.

[2] Heidelberg Catechism answer to question 111, “What does God require of you in [the eighth] commandment?”.