A version of this article first appeared at Jeff Haanen’s blog.
Recently evangelicals have renewed their interest in “the common good.” Several years ago Gabe Lyons started a traveling conference called “Q,” which chose the tagline “ideas for the common good.” Andy Crouch, executive editor of Christianity Today, recently counseled evangelicals to restore the historic phrase to our shared lexicon. This Is Our City regularly features stories about Christians making “common good decisions” in their city. It’s as if evangelicals have self-consciously come out of their narrow religious enclaves and finally care about elements of community life we share with our non-believing neighbors.
But there’s something awry here.
The problem doesn’t lay in the actions themselves. Cleaning a beach or planting a community garden is well and good. But what makes Christians unique in the world? Is it these types of “common good decisions”? Absolutely not. What makes Christians unique is the harmony between serving the common good and speaking the words of the gospel.
Secular people or people from other faiths make these kinds of “common good decisions” all the time. Take, for example, the Acumen Fund, a non-profit that uses entrepreneurial ventures to address poverty throughout the word. According to their website, they have affected more than 100 million lives. They invest in social business and have alleviated poverty through small business for people stretching from Cambodia to Peru. Health, water, housing, energy, and agricultural products—all accessible to millions because of their work. And at least from their website, it looks like God isn’t terribly important to their organization. (The examples could go on and on, from TED presenters to the work of the Gates Foundation.)
Now, Christians would rightly say that this work expresses “common grace”—God providing for the world even through non-believers. And I believe Christians should rejoice in any and every step toward justice and peace, whether at the hands of believers or non-believers. Christians rightly work alongside anybody and everybody in bringing about relief for the poor. But I would still ask: What difference is there between these “common good decisions” and that of a Christian?
Why We’re Unique
What makes Christians unique is not their good deeds, but the message they bear of a man whose incarnation, life, death, and resurrection has permanently altered human history and now demands the loyalty of every human being. Christians are indeed called to good works (Eph. 2:10), but they are called to do them “in the name of Jesus.”
There is a deep tendency in the past several years among evangelicals to stress building community and engaging the broader world. But where is the concurrent revival of interest in evangelism? Christians who seek to live faithfully for God in the world must always marry their “common good decisions” with the words of the gospel. This doesn’t have to be annoying or necessarily happen every day, but all of us—whether we design homes or fix cars—must give a reason for the hope we have (1 Pet. 3:15).
Consider the pattern of Jesus in the Gospel of John. When Jesus healed a paralyzed man in the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-14), he immediately explained his actions through teaching (5:16-47). The next chapter Jesus makes a “common good decision” by feeding 5,000, but then he also tells the crowd that he is the bread of life. His miracles were meant to verify the truth of the gospel. Again in John 9, he heals a blinds man, and then talks about spiritual blindness. He always brought together his actions with his words.
In contemporary evangelicalism, many pastors have awakened to “common grace” and “common good decisions.” But in the process some have forgotten the very public role of “special grace,” that message of God’s redemption in Jesus that is meant for the whole world.
We should not over-react again and then say that the fine people at the Acumen Fund, for example, aren’t important, or that Christians should only be evangelists and abandon the life the world. This would be a bad idea. But what makes Christians unique in the world is the gospel. Our common good decisions should point to the gospel, and our words should make it explicit. If we leave out the actions, the words of the gospel are empty. If we leave out the words, our actions are mute. Social involvement and preaching are two sides of the same coin.
Serving the common good isn’t enough by itself. But when Christians illumine the motivations for neighbor love with the gospel story, actions become rich symbols of the reign of God in the world.