Those who have received grace extend grace to others. It sounds good. But it’s not always true. The person whose meal was paid for by a stranger doesn’t always pass it on. The person who merges on a busy highway doesn’t always let the next person in. The last immigrant wants to close the door on the next immigrant. Sometimes we want grace for ourselves but not for others.
But a true grasp of the gospel of grace changes not only our eternal status but also our present practice. When we understand grace as a gift we neither sought nor deserved, we cannot look down on anyone else. And we can never lose hope for anyone else. No one can be beyond hope of the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
My guest on this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast is Stephen Um. He’s the senior minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Mercy, a small-group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point five—the doing of justice and mercy—from TGC’s five points of gospel-centered ministry. I asked him about the relationship between common and eternal good, and how the gospel empowers churches that seek the salvation of souls and also the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice.
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Collin Hansen: Those who have received grace extend grace to others. Sounds good, but it’s not always true. The person whose meal was paid for by a stranger doesn’t always pass it on. The person who merges on a busy highway doesn’t always let the next person in. The last immigrant wants to close the door on the next immigrant. Sometimes we want grace for ourselves but not for others, but a true grasp of the gospel of grace changes not only our eternal status but also our present practice. When we understand grace as a gift, we neither sought nor deserve. We cannot look down on anyone else and we can never lose hope for anyone else. No one can be beyond the hope of the same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead.
My guest on today’s episode of “The Gospel Coalition Podcast” is Stephen Um. He’s the senior minister of Citylife Presbyterian Church in Boston and a council member of The Gospel Coalition. He is also the writer and presenter of Gospel Shaped Mercy, a small group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company. It’s based on point five, the doing of justice and mercy, from TGC’s five points of gospel-centered ministry. I’m going to ask him about the relationship between common and eternal good, about how the gospel empowers churches that seek the salvation of souls and also, the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice. Stephen, thanks for joining me.
Stephen Um: My pleasure, Collin.
Hansen: All right, let’s jump right in. Why is this statement of TGC’s Foundation Documents so controversial? Let me quote it, “Christian churches must work for justice and peace in their neighborhoods through service, even as they call individuals to conversion and the new birth.”
Um: Well, I think Collin, the statement itself is really not the issue. I think confusion happens when people work with different categories. They have different categories in mind when they talk about issues of justice and peace in their neighborhoods. To uphold the call for the great commission is not to deny this statement, but oftentimes people feel uncomfortable with the statement or wanting more clarity because they’re saying that they’re asking the question, “What is the mission of the church?” So, helping the poor, doing justice is part of the wider commandments Jesus taught, like loving your children and your wife. But we’d never say parenting or spousal love is the mission of the church. But these are the commandments that Christians are supposed to obey. So, these are the kinds of discussions and I think there needs to be greater clarity. And I think the controversy comes when there isn’t clarity and when people are mixing the different categories because we shouldn’t say that the great commandment is the great commission and we shouldn’t say the great commission is the great commandment, but nevertheless, they need to be held together as Christians think about what our responsibility is.
And as we think about what the mission of the church is, we have to make sure that we use the right categories. And I think that there’s been a lot of confusion with Christians and then you get a response from that where they say, “Well, then they were going to move a little further away, even over the issues of social justice because we’re afraid that the call that the church has in being the church and responding to the mission of the church might get jeopardized.” So, I think that that’s why the controversy is there but it shouldn’t be.
Hansen: So, I’m going to give you a presentation of, I think the logic that works for people and…or I should say, at least the logic that they follow. I don’t agree with it but I think it’s fairly common and I think we should address it. So, if souls last forever, and I think we can also include their bodies, but let’s just talk about…if the souls last forever and Jesus said, “We’ll always have the poor with us then.” Then why, Stephen, wouldn’t we invest all of our energies into evangelism?
Um: No, I would say, well, I actually agree with that statement that we should invest our energies into evangelism because that is what we’re called to do as a church, to engage in making disciples of all nations and evangelizing and being concerned about people’s souls. But we have to be careful that we’re not talking about the separation of body and spirit. The Son of Man incarnated on this earth, the material life matters because of who he is and he was able to accomplish everything through his bodily death and resurrection. So, evangelism absolutely, Collin, is a high priority and we’re commissioned to do so, but at the same time, we’re commanded to love our neighbor. And there, again, as that verse is taken more from John 12 where it says, “Always have the poor with us.”
Judas was wrongly pitting caring for the poor with Mary’s actions. And Jesus is not saying don’t care for the poor, that’s not his point there. But her actions, Mary’s actions are important at this moment because she’s preparing the day of his burial. And so again, I don’t think that these things need to be pitted against one another. But I think part of the problem here is that, and Keller had a little two-minute video on this somewhere where he says that a lot of our Christian ideas about justice and about value in human life and all of these issues, these ideas have been co-opted by our culture. And because they’ve been co-opted by our culture, many Christians who are not thinking as sharply as they should or consistently to what the Scriptures have to say, they simply embrace what the definition of justice is. So, they’ll embrace the culture’s understanding of social justice, which is ambiguous. It’s really, really hard to get your hands on it and just assume that that is the same thing as a biblical justice.
And so, I think that when we’re talking about these issues about justice and about demonstrating mercy, we have to, again, get the categories right. We need to realize that Jesus commanded us, giving us the great commission and giving us the great commandment and those things need to be held together but at the same time, not confusing the two. So, the gospel is the gospel, but we have to be careful that we don’t say that the results of the gospel, some of the activities and responsibilities that we have as Christians to be able to help the poor and to care for those who are in need and saying that that sort of activity is the gospel. And so, we have to make sure that we are able to distinguish the two, even though they ought not to be separated.
Hansen: And then one of these tensions or definitions relates to the relationship between the common and the eternal good. Do you see any tension between that in terms of how as a pastor you try to think about your preaching or your application or your teaching or the money that you spend? How do you work through those things just as a Christian in terms of priorities and practices and also, then as a church leader?
Um: Well, we don’t pit common grace versus saving grace. So, why should we pit common good with eternal good? Again, I think everything that we do as we think about what it means to be a Christian should be done in the context of participating in the Kingdom of God. And so, oftentimes people confuse the church with the kingdom. Well, it’s not as though Jesus reigns over the church and he doesn’t reign over the cosmos and the rest of the world in creation. Of course, he’s the King of everything. And so, we have to remind ourselves to think Christianly about everything. It’s not that work for human flourishing is simply for the natural world, devoid of our commitment to the kingdom, and everything that we do, we’re doing for the glory of God in His kingly rule through common good and eternal good.
And again, so when we are responding to the great commission and when we’re responding to the great commandment, we are doing it because we want to submit ourselves in obeying God’s word and aligning ourselves with the will of God. So, we have to be careful that we do not think of the world through a dualistic lens and that we have to be very clear about what the reality is. And we live in a world that’s already and not yet. And we have to use the right categories as we think through these things.
Hansen: Why do you think, Stephen, the dualism is so tempting for us? I mean, my guess would be that especially for white evangelicals, we’ve been so shaped by the debates of the early 20th century in terms of the social gospel and things like that, that we’ve created some of these dichotomies that the Scriptures don’t maintain. That’s my guess. Do you have a different guess?
Um: Well, I think it’s the fleshly impulse to engage in extreme individualism, whether it’s on the right or the left on the ideological spectrum or the theological spectrum. And so, I think that we have to realize, yes, God is calling us to recognize and having a priority about those things which are spiritual. But that doesn’t mean that therefore that we ought not to be concerned about the material because God certainly does not have a negative view on the material. I mean, He created it and even though it’s fall in and it will eventually be set free in the new heavens and the new earth, that’s the future glory as it says in Romans 8. But I think the potential danger that some people will consider is that if we place too much emphasis on one that it might deprioritize what is most important. And again, I think that is worthy of caution that we should adhere to. But that doesn’t mean therefore that we ought to completely dismiss it.
Hansen: The Scriptures seem to prioritize mercy to the household of faith or other believers, at least when you’re looking at some passages like Galatians 6:10. But one of the things our theological vision for ministry says is that we should sacrificially love our neighbors whether or not they share our beliefs. Are those teachings in contradiction or how do they cohere?
Um: No, I mean that is what Galatians 6:10 says. It says, “So, then as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone.” So, there you have it. We ought to love our neighbors. And that’s part of the great commandment that we see in Matthew Chapter 22. But the verse goes on to say, “And especially to those who are of the household of faith.” So, whatever camp that you’re from, it’s not saying that it’s one over the other. No, Apostle Paul places an emphasis on both. He says, “We have to make sure that we care and do good for those who are of the household of faith. But at the same time, we need to do good to everyone as we have opportunities.” So, the biblical call for doing good to all is clear. Jesus even calls us to love our enemies. And our theological vision is a thing, don’t love the household of faith. It’s not an either or, but it is that we need to recognize both. And in the Book of Galatians, we see that there was this tension between Jews and Gentiles. So, we need to learn how to love our neighbors and fellow believers within the household of faith and if we are able to learn how to do that, then that we will be equipped to know how to love our neighbors who are not believers.
Hansen: This whole series, Stephen, on TGC’s theological vision for ministry has been convicting and challenging to me. Just reading and rereading. But also just the conversations with you and with other council members and writers and contributors for TGC. And there’s a section in here in particular that really kind of caught me off guard and I didn’t know what to do and I realized I don’t probably practice this in reality as an elder at my local church. Thinking about the membership interviews that I do kind of on a quarterly basis for new members in my church. And we require people to be able to understand and articulate, at least in written form, salvation by grace alone. But we don’t ask them or examine whether they’ve cared for the poor, the disadvantaged. But one of the things our statement says is that you can’t grasp the gospel unless you’ve repented of that indifference to the poor and the disadvantaged. And I just wondered, what do we mean by that at TGC? And should that be something that I’m asking people about?
Um: Yeah. Well, I think we should ask people about whether or not they’re living out their lives that are grace motivated. So, if they have been redeemed by the blood by work of Jesus by grace through faith in Christ, then it’s going to shape the way we live our lives. So, we shouldn’t shy away from boldly challenging people about all matters of life, because faith without works is dead. We shouldn’t be afraid just as James wasn’t afraid. We’re simply wanting to follow the spirit captured in Scripture about the importance of both, gospel understanding on the one hand and gospel living on the other. As I said earlier, that we need to make sure that we help people to understand the difference between the gospel and the results of the gospel but at the same time, even though we show them the difference and we need to distinguish the two, we also have to talk about how important it is for them not to be separated.
So, that is, what the gospel is, the gospel does. And if there are causes and there are effects and if the gospel is powerful then there will be results. So, life that has been saved by grace has shaped the way we look, not only in the way that we relate to the marginalized and those people who are weak, but it also shapes the way we look at our work, money, parenting, politics, the poor, the disadvantaged, it shape the way we look at everything. And I think that’s what that piece, that line there in that article is trying to convey.
Hansen: Another point here from our theological vision for ministry, I tweeted this once from TGC’s account and it triggered a lot of folks. Here it is. And this is pretty pointed. Okay. And I wanna know specifically what this is all about. Here’s the quote, “Therefore, the person who does not generously give away his or her wealth to others is not merely lacking in compassion but is unjust.” Now, to be clear, one thing it doesn’t say here give away all wealth, it doesn’t clarify that. But I think the specific word there that really gets people is unjust. What is that statement trying to say?
Um: Yeah. Well, I think that…no one thinks that he or she is guilty of the sin of greed. I don’t know when the last time I heard anyone repent of greed and they might repent of lust, they might repent of other sins, but rarely do we think that we are extremely greedy. Yes, there might be times when we make poor choices or decisions and purchasing certain things that are not necessarily what we need, but what we want. And we might not be good stewards of the resources that God has given to us. So, whenever anyone speaks difficult truth into people’s hearts in suggesting that they’re not as generous as they could be, people will always respond that way. So, we shouldn’t be surprised at that. Whether it’s through a tweet or whether it’s through a sermon or whether it’s through an article or a book, people will not respond well to that.
But when we look in the Bible with just kind of surveying the word for justice in the Bible 200 plus times, it means that we should treat people equitably. And that is to say that God is a just God. And when you think of God being just you have to think of God being a loving God, that He is a God who wants to help those people who have been marginalized. And so, if we have the tendency to be enslaved to money and we don’t use money in the most generous way, and we don’t share as much as we should, and when we are not aware of people’s needs and we don’t want to share all of the things that God has given to us graciously and generously, then we are not reflecting our God who is a just God, who is a loving God, who wants to care for those people who are in need.
So, you know, even as we think about mercy, you know, we’ll ask the question, “Does this person deserve my mercy?” Well, that’s the wrong question. The question that we should be asking is, “Does this person need my mercy?” Of course, no one deserves mercy. We didn’t deserve mercy from a Holy God because we were sinners and we rebelled against Him but He demonstrated mercy to us. And therefore, that’s where I think the grace gospel motivation comes in loosening our heart’s tight grip on money and therefore causing us to be stingy and ungenerous rather than being gracious stewards of money that God has given to us. Not becoming hoarders of all the resources that He’s given to us, but that we will be a good stewards wanting to increase the masters’ assets, making good heavenly investments, and recognizing the needs that we see around us and being able to meet them to the best of our ability.
Hansen: Stephen, I think your answers are doing this, but as I realize going through my questions, for people who don’t know this statement, this point five on gospel-centered ministry from our theological vision for ministry, they might not understand that all of these statements are rooted in the gracious nature of the gospel. So, here’s another one, another standout line there. “We cannot look at the poor and the oppressed and callously call them to pull themselves out of their own difficulty.” Again, that’s rooted in the gracious nature of the gospel that none of us deserve, but that we receive out of the gracious gift of God. Yet this statement here is what so many of us Christians do. Why do you think we struggle so much with that disconnect between what we’ve received by grace from God, not only salvation through Jesus Christ applied by the Holy Spirit, but even all things that we have by common grace and yet turn around with that mentality and tell other people it’s up to you to earn your way out of this.
Um: Yeah. Wow. Well, I think we all know the answer. I don’t know if we want to admit it, but it’s self- righteousness. Now, that’s what it comes down to. The reason why we gravitate towards that even as Christians is of our self-righteousness. And it’s not so much that we are callous towards others. But the reason why we’re like that is because ultimately we are callous towards God. We forget what we’ve been saved from. We forget what we’ve received. We forget that what we have has been given and not earned. It’s not through our own competence or ourselves sufficiency or our know-how and our ability to be able to troubleshoot.
And again, it’s not that we haven’t worked hard for these things, but God has given all of these benefits and blessings and privileges and opportunities and resources now so that we might be able to serve Him. So the implicit assumption that we have is that everything that we have is through our competence and success. Even though of course, we will profess all the gifts that I have are from God, but functionally speaking, we really rely on our own self-sufficiency. And I see this as a really big, hard issue, especially for those people who are very gifted, very talented and very assured and very learned and very well-trained. And so, we have to keep reminding ourselves that everything that we have received has come from God and that we are simply called not to be owners, because we’re not owners of any of our assets, but that we are stewards of what God has given to us and we are called to increase the master’s assets and to deny self-sufficiency and to be able to mortify the self- righteousness by reminding ourselves of that beautiful gospel of grace which we have received through the finished work of Jesus.
Hansen: This next question, Stephen, may build off that last one. And as I was preparing for this interview and reading through our theological vision, I wanted to really challenge myself to not use theology to explain away difficult teaching, plain straightforward teaching. And of course, that starts with the plain teaching of the Scriptures and of Jesus himself. I don’t want to use theology and knowledge in seminary and all that in my work to explain away the plain meaning of what Jesus is calling me to do. But that led me to a sort of interesting and challenging place. You may have already had the sort of seed of that answer in what you talked there about stewardship and the servants with the masters. But I’m just wondering, logically speaking, if wealth is an unmerited gift from God, does that mean then I have a responsibility for stewarding it well through saving and investing and even sort of designated giving and things like that. Or, if it’s a gift that I don’t deserve, then is it just something I’m supposed to pass along as a gift to others to bless them? How would you help me think through that and how do you do that in your own church, which is characterized by what you just described, a lot of very talented and successful in terms of the world group of people there in Boston.
Um: Well, I think again, it depends on the mindset of the individual calling. So, if the person is thinking Christianly about his or her money or material possessions or financial resources or financial portfolio or whatever goods that they have received from God from the perspective of trying to prepare their own future. And rather than thinking at it from the perspective of, “Okay, God has given these things to me and I have a responsibility to make good heavenly investment and to be able to look at my money from a kingdom perspective.” And so again, the Bible is not anti-investment. The Bible is not saying, “Oh, don’t invest.” Of course, not. We see that with the parable in Luke 16 where they were supposed to make good investments. We see that in Matthew 25 with the Parable of the Talents. Again, we are called to maximize our master’s assets.
And so, there’s a need for wisdom in this area where we have the human responsibility to rightly steward what’s being given, but we have to guard our hearts from over-saving or over-investing. So, I get a lot of people from the church where they’ll come to me and they’ll say, “Hey, I’m not overspending. So I’m trying to manage the money that God has given to me.” And then I ask them questions about, “Are you over-saving because you’re insecure about what the future holds?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I haven’t been generous to the church or the work of the kingdom, but I’m saving a lot.” And so, I think that we can be greedy and have a self-centered way of viewing money either by overspending or over-saving. And so, we have to make sure that we are being generous with what God has given to us, but not being anti-investment, but realizing that we need to make good investments from a heavenly kingdom oriented posture so that we will be good stewards of the funds that God has given to us as we save for the future and as we invest for the future, even as we help those who are in need.
Hansen: Just a couple more questions here with Stephen Um. Let’s say, Stephen, that Jesus’s Spirit, we’re going to do a theological thought experiment that I completely disagree with, but we’ll have a purpose for it. Let’s say Jesus’s Spirit has ascended to heaven and he spoke to us from above. As the Father did say at Jesus’ baptism, for example, but he never bodily rose from the dead. What difference would that make in our theology and living?
Um: Well, that’s not true.
Hansen: So hypothetical here. Our statement talks about the necessity of the bodily resurrection, which I think going back to the early part of this conversation, we do still perpetuate some of these dualistic mentalities that see a sort of value in the spirit, but not the body. But I’m just wondering, what difference does it make that it is a bodily resurrection?
Um: Yeah. Again, the Bible does not have a gnostic view of reality. It’s not the spirit versus the body, it’s both. And we need to be concerned about the material things on earth because it’s God’s creation and our bodies will be resurrected and perfectly renewed. Our bodies matter, the material life matters because in the new heavens and the new earth, there is going to be a complete renovation of the things that God has created without sin. Again, that is not to say, therefore, that we don’t recognize the priority of the soul and how sinful sinners need to be redeemed by the blood of Christ, by his grace, through faith in Christ. Absolutely, we’re not minimizing that, but at the same time, we have to be careful that we don’t have a negative view of that which God has created.
Hansen: I mean, let me just press into that a little bit more. We know the Bible doesn’t have that view, I mean, what would make, I mean, just imagine a scenario where Jesus’s lifeless body is there, but you can almost like see his spirit ascending. Would it make a difference? Maybe I’m not asking an inappropriate question, but just wondering theologically speaking, would it make any difference?
Um: Well, I mean, as Apostle Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 15, now it gives us the promise of the bodily resurrection. And so, it doesn’t give us a picture of a disembodied spirit. And so, therefore, what we do here on Earth as we live in this fallen world as fallen creatures who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus, that we don’t only preoccupy ourselves with those things which are spiritual, but we’re also called, again, the great commandment and given in Matthew 22 that we ought to love our neighbor rather than just being concerned about, “Oh, when we get to the new heavens and new earth, then we’ll have great fellowship there, but we don’t have to be too concerned about what happens here.” Well, what’s the church about? The church is about a collection of fallen sinners who have been brought together with Jesus being the head of that body and we’re called to love one another, to fellowship with one another, to pray for one another, to encourage one another, to rebuke one another. And so, we’re supposed to be a life expression of that which God wanted us to be here on earth. And we haven’t been fully consummated and we will be fully, perfectly sanctified later on. But again, the Bible places an emphasis on the importance of both the spirit and the body.
Hansen: And certainly seems to be in keeping with the promise of the renewed, the new heavens and the earth, the promise that comes from Revelation 21 and 22 in fulfillment of so many of those different Old Testament promises as well, including of a sort of a universal resurrection to the judgment. Let’s just close it this way, you’ve written this study guide on mercy, really working off these themes and you’ve designed that for churches and for individual Christians. How can we grow in our understanding or doing of mercy? Is there one practice that we could implement today that would begin to make a difference in our belief and action?
Um: Yeah. You know, as we conclude here, Collin, again, I wanna say that the mission of the church is primarily to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. And, but at the same time as the gospel is working itself in, into the hearts of sinful people that our lives are being changed and we want to be able to be shaped by that gospel and then we respond by loving neighbor. And I really think that the Bible’s description of that loving your neighbor is really the more beautiful picture than what the culture says about social justice because the culture says everything is social justice nowadays and during these days. And, so you don’t know what social justice is because everything is a justice issue now. But the Bible is very clear about how we are called to love our neighbor. And the reason why we’re called to love our neighbor is because our just and righteous God is a loving God and He loves those people, especially those who are in great need.
And so, here are some practical implications of how Christians and churches can grow in mercy. Reminding ourselves, mercy is not optional for the Christian. It’s not optional. It’s not a luxury. It’s a necessity for us to be merciful. And a practical tip would be this, look at the human needs that you have around you. Sometimes we think that we need to go to the inner city or go to a different part of the world to be able to see real human need. But look at the human needs that you have around you. There might be a lot more than you were aware of.
And God has placed people in your life, family, church members, and neighbors, think of ways to meet their needs through your merciful deeds. And so, therefore, know the community around you. You know, we say like this, at city-to-city we say that we should be looking at the concentric circles of concern. So, first is family, that’s your closest neighbor and then church and the broader community or your neighborhood. And so, we should intensively and extensively give of ourselves trying to meet other people’s needs to the best of our ability and we ought to give generously even to those who do not believe in Jesus Christ because that’s part of our witness to the world and it’s a response to the commandment that Jesus gave us in Matthew 22 and the great commandment. And even though our primary responsibility as a church is to make disciples by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ, we’re also called to obey a lot of other commands, which are very, very important to us. And being merciful is one of those weightier matters of the law that we need to be concerned about.
Hansen: For more of this, you can check out Gospel Shaped Mercy, a small group video and book study published by TGC with The Good Book Company and written and presented by Stephen Um, my guest today on “The Gospel Coalition Podcast.” Thank you, Stephen.
Um: My pleasure. Thank you.