Proclaiming the Gospel and Performing Deeds of Mercy

Listen or read the following transcript as D. A. Carson speaks on the topic of the Gospel and Mercy in this address from The Gospel Coalition Sermon Library

Proclaiming the Gospel and Performing Deeds of Mercy. There has been an ongoing debate about how those things should fit together, and a little historical perspective might be worthwhile before we try to think through some biblical principles. Those who see an intimate connection between the two often remind us of the precedent set by the evangelical awakening.

On Easter Sunday 1740, there were precisely six people who showed up for Holy Communion at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. That’s a kind of measure of sorts about how low any observance of Christian faith had sunk. Slavery was on the rise in the empire. The Industrial Revolution guaranteed that some were becoming very wealthy, while others were entering almost a kind of slavery of work.

Trade unions really hadn’t been invented. Children as young as 5 were beginning to be sent down into the mines. If you got thrown into debtor’s prison, you could starve to death. There were 280 crimes on the books for which you could be executed by hanging. This was Great Britain in 1740, but in 1734, God raised up Howell Harris in Wales, in 1738, George Whitefield began to preach to the coal miners outside of Bristol, and in 1740, Wesley was converted and began to preach.

Over the course of the next 65 years and beyond, God worked such a change in the face of social reality in Great Britain and beyond that eventually the Great Reform bill of 1832 was passed, with many steps up to that point. Did you see the film Amazing Grace? In some ways it was moving. In some ways it was accurate. In some ways it was a travesty.

The way in which it was a travesty was the way the film presented Wilberforce, it was either the ministry or fight the slave trade, and once he got involved in the slave trade, that was his entire horizon. All of his energies were focused in that direction. There were some wonderful lines of historical accuracy preserved in that film. John Newton’s, “I know only two things: I am a great sinner and God is a great Savior.” That was accurate. We got that one right.

But the reality of Wilberforce was that although he did fight slavery very hard with a whole lot of others, the Countess of Huntingdon and many others who put their lives on the line for this, Wilberforce was, above all, an evangelical Christian, committed in his local church, evangelizing, devotions in the morning with his family, devotions in the evening, teaching people, evangelizing constantly.

And it wasn’t just slavery; there was a whole raft of social issues he was dealing with, and this within a context of a very strong gospel-centered, gospel-committed life, whereas the way the film presented him was once he abandoned going down the full-time ministry track, evangelicalism was not more than background noise while he got on with the more important business of fighting slavery. Historically speaking, that was rubbish.

What’s so interesting about the evangelical awakening is how, in the mercy of God, this movement that was so strong on the gospel, on preaching, on seeing people converted, nevertheless produced such a generation of leaders that they were working at the same time to transform the social face of England and beyond. That’s an encouraging model to which many of us go back again and again.

Those of a more glass-half-empty disposition can think of another social reality. Roughly between 1870 or 1880 and 1930, depending on where you are in the English-speaking world (I’m only going to speak of the English-speaking world now), both in the UK and in America and beyond there came a rise in interest in social transformation that eventually led much of confessional Christianity in the West away from any real grasp of the gospel.

Eventually, the concern came to be, in the name of Jesus, in the name of a now diluted Christianity, that the hope of the world lay in education, trying harder, improving people, fairness and justice, and in denomination after denomination after denomination, this became connected with what later became to be labeled modernism or liberalism, such that what was lost was the centrality of Christ’s substitutionary death, the need to be reconciled to God, the importance of new birth.

Seminaries, Bible colleges, theological institutions, denominational leadership in so many parts of the world just caved in. It has taken an awful lot of work since about 1920 or 1930 on for confessional, historic, biblically faithful Christianity to claw its way back. So in this instance, you have instead a model in which in the name of Christ, in the name of Christianity, what you start doing is abandoning an awful lot of themes that are central to the Bible.

Out of this has come another heritage, which has said the business of the church is to preach the Word of God, to preach the cross of Christ, to preach for conversion, because after all, what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? So you have a whole lot of people whose social circumstances are improved but are all going to hell. What’s the advantage of that?

As a result, there has arisen a kind of mixed heritage amongst us of how to think about these things, and today there is a new generation coming along (it’s not universal, but it’s pretty widely distributed, often under the age of 30 or 35 in the Western world) that is wrestling with these things afresh and saying, “Well, over here there are the conservatives, and they just want to get on with preaching and seeing people saved and converted. Unfortunately, they don’t know anything about compassion and caring and social justice.

Then over here there are the liberals, and they’re concerned for social justice and transformation of society and equality. Unfortunately, they’ve sacrificed the gospel, but what we’re going to do, we who are under 30.… We’re going to get this right. We’re going to put them together again. Give it to me. My turn. We’re taking it on, and we’ll put it together.” I could refer you to a lot of books today that take on exactly that attitude.

It’s a good thing to keep together what God has joined together and not to put it asunder, no doubt. But before we try to lay out some of the biblical principles, I think at least a little bit of historical correction is worthwhile. There have been some major studies done both in Britain and in the US to ask, “Who is it that is working on the street at the actual service level in Oxfam, UNICEF, and Tearfund?” In other words, what is the distribution of people in those sorts of organizations?

To everyone’s surprise, whenever longitudinal studies across the last couple of decades have been undertaken to find out which people have poured themselves into these organizations, then with vast disproportionality, it has been discovered that it has been conservatives who have actually been doing an awful lot of the work in those areas.

I was brought up in very conservative circles in French Canada, and my father was an old-fashioned preacher, but let me tell you, his compassion for the down-and-outers, the weak, and the broken.… Even when he died, he didn’t have much money left, but he made jolly sure that although his kids got some, a fair bit of what little he had left he bequeathed to various pastoral and social issues because he was concerned for the poor.

My experience has been that those who have come out of that conservative background have not been more negligent in serving the communities. They haven’t talked about it as much, but by and large, they have been pretty heavily involved. Undoubtedly there are some stereotypes over there, where they just preach the gospel and can’t stand people, but it’s a stereotype to think that those who are faithful with the gospel don’t show any compassion for issues of social justice.

It is very important, therefore, not to build up a kind of antithesis that says, “These blokes got it wrong, and those blokes got it wrong, and in our generation, we will get it right.” That smacks of a fair bit of historical ignorance and maybe a wee touch of arrogance as well. What is really important, instead, is to ask, “What says the Scripture?”

It’s not simply an issue of whether you do both or how you do both or how you distribute your time between the two polarities. The issue, rather, is how we think the Bible puts the two together. What is the undergirding structure of thought? In other words, it’s not just as if these two things are independent, and then you figure out what proportionality you have to each one, but how they are put together in the Bible. Let me explain what I mean by this before I actually try saying something positive.

One very well-known writer, Brian McLaren, has said repeatedly, for example, that Jesus’ so-called second greatest commandment is part of the gospel. So the first commandment is, “You shall love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength.” The second commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and that’s part of the gospel.

Well, it’s part of the Canonical Gospels. That’s correct, but is a commandment part of the gospel? What is the gospel? How do you define the gospel? Is the command to love your neighbor as yourself part of the gospel? A seminary president, who shall remain blissfully nameless, was asked in an interview not too long ago, “What do you understand the gospel, to be?”

He said, “Well, the gospel, first of all, concerns the cross of Christ and how a person is reconciled to God and justification by grace alone through faith alone. There’s also a gospel of justice that’s also part of the Bible.” There is no doubt the Bible says quite a lot about justice. Is there any passage that speaks of a kind of gospel of justice?

I’m not trying to duck the importance of justice. I’m merely trying to ask the question.… How do the bits and pieces come together? Is it right to think of justice issues as part of the gospel? If so, in what sense? Are they part of what the gospel is or part of the effect of the gospel? How do we think about these things?

I know a group made up of largely younger people that calls itself the Faith in Action group, whose aim is “the transformation of self and society.” Well, in one sense, in the light of the evangelical awakening, who wants to question that? Yet when you try to build up a kind of theology of change and transformation, an expectation of change and transformation from the New Testament …

Is Paul, for example, actually trying to change the Roman Empire as such, or is he trying to see people converted out of the world and the church being the social grouping that changes, and insofar as this social grouping is also made up of people who are in the empire, then it changes the empire, but does Paul have a huge expectation about how to change laws in Rome, or does he have an idea of men and women who are changed who constitute a new society, the called-out people of God?

What does Jesus say? Does he say, “I will transform the Roman Empire,” or does he say, “I will build my church”? But does that mean we have no responsibility for the Roman Empire? You suddenly realize that when you start thinking about these things, there are categories you have to think through as to how the pieces come together. It’s not just a question of how you distribute your time amongst the various obligations and possibilities you actually might have. Now I could give you a lot of examples along these lines, but let me try to come to some articulation.

First, you have to come to grips with what the gospel is. What is the gospel? There are a lot of ways you can go at that question. One of them is very simple. You take a concordance and look up every instance of gospel. The gospel is news. It’s announcement. It’s the announcement that Jesus has come as King, and it’s the gospel that he goes to the cross and rises again for our justification. He bears our sin in his own body on the tree.

There’s a message that’s bound up with the gospel. It’s news. It’s something you announce. It’s not something you do, not in the first instance. It’s news of what God has done. Because it’s news, it is something first of all to be proclaimed. That’s what you do with news. If there’s a chunk of news, you don’t say, “Now go and do it.” That’s not what you do with news. What you do with news is announce it or explain it or proclaim it or tell people about it. That’s what you do, because …

Secondly, the gospel news is about what God has done supremely in Jesus. That’s why preaching the gospel is first and foremost not a question of the second commandment, which is not what God has done. The second commandment, like the first commandment, is instruction from God about what we are to do, but that’s not an announcement of what God has done; it’s instruction about what he has told us to do.

So when you work through all of the instances of gospel and preaching the gospel and telling the gospel, you must understand that gospel as a category in the Bible is bound up with news. In the Old Testament, which was written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek, when the word euaggelion, or gospel, shows up in about half the instances of the Old Testament, it’s news that has nothing to do with redemption or salvation or anything like that.

For example, if one of the kings has some troops in the field and he actually manages to win some sort of battle, the report goes back to the king, and the report is called the gospel. It’s news. The king doesn’t get the news and say, “Oh, this is what I must do.” That’s not what you do with news. It’s something that is announced. It’s something that is explained. It’s something that is proclaimed.

So the gospel is what God has done, and especially, in the New Testament, what God has done in and through Christ. Now don’t misunderstand me. That’s not for a moment suggesting that the Bible does not have a whole lot of other things to say about what we ought to do in response. We’ll come to that, but do not confuse the gospel, to use Lutheran categories, with law. Do not confuse what God has done with what we must do. We still are going to talk about what we must do, but don’t confuse the gospel with what we must do.

Thirdly, we ought to learn to distinguish the gospel from the effects of the gospel. So gospel, what God has done in Christ, and because of what God has done in Christ, including his substitutionary death on the cross, reconciling sinners to himself, but also giving us a model of dying to self and rising again to newness of life, because of the Holy Spirit whom he has bequeathed upon us, because of what Christ has done for us, because of the promises that are bound up in the gospel.… Because of all of this, we are called to repent and believe.

Even repentance and belief are not the gospel. They are an inevitable part of preaching the gospel. You announce what God has done, and that demands implicitly how we are to respond to it. As you preach the gospel, you must also preach how we are to respond to it. That’s correct. Then because this gospel is so powerful and transforming, it’s going to change our relationships with one another. It’s going to change our marriages. It’s going to change our notions of leadership.

It’s going to change our notions of how we minister to our neighbors. What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? We’ll come to those sorts of passages in due course, but those are all the effects of the gospel. You announce the gospel, and when the gospel is preached with unction, with power, with the Holy Spirit, it works out in the transformations of people’s lives with many, many demonstrations in Scripture of what that looks like.

That means, then, when we preach the gospel, we must have a full-orbed view of it. The gospel is a pretty full-blooded category. The gospel is not something that just sort of tips you into the kingdom and then after that you have all of your discipleship and social transformation and all the rest.

It’s the big category in the New Testament, the announcement of what God has done that so transforms, redeems, and reconciles us to God and brings us new birth and the power of God operating within us that all of our discipleship and all the rest comes out of this in result and effect. Now if that is the way the Bible is structured as to the nature of the gospel, then there are some practical things that flow from this.

First, when the gospel really does take hold of us, when what God has done, announced and taught and preached, takes hold of us.… When the gospel is preached in the local church, it not only converts unbelievers; it keeps transforming believers, and it captures our hearts, our minds, our imaginations, our daydreams, our priorities, our values, our orientation. It is utterly transforming from the center. That means it also brings up questions of our use of time and how we view people.

Now it’s at this point that we should start thinking through some biblical passages about how we relate to the outside. If you’ve been reading your New Testament for a long time, you know full well that there are a lot of passages, far too many to mention here, about how Christians ought to relate to each other within the church. What of passages about how Christians ought to relate outside the church?

Well, Paul to the Galatians says we’re to do good to all people. Especially those of the household of faith, but nevertheless, all people. Jesus says we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is the second commandment. So if we’re reconciled to God, we will want to do as effect what Jesus himself commands, not just our Christian neighbors. We have a whole theology of people made in the image of God. Because people are made in the image of God we are never to despise the image of God. There’s the parable of the good Samaritan, which is so telling.

If you’re interested in following up on this subject biblically just a little more and you have access to a computer, go to thegospelcoalition.org. You’ll find a tab for “Themelios.” Themelios is a Greek word meaning foundation. Themelios is a journal for theological students and pastors. It has gone completely digital in the last year and a half or so. It was a paper issue published by UCCF for students at one point.

It’s now for pastors and theological students, and it has gone entirely digital. In the last few months of 2008, for example, we had 200,000 hits just on the journal. That’s the nature of the digital world. It comes out three times a year, and it gets published online. In the first fascicle of 2009, you’ll find an essay by Tim Keller, 10 or 15 pages, merely thinking through this kind of thing at a systematic level. How do you try to relate deeds of mercy in this respect?

Let me suggest one or two steps of prudential wisdom. This is not something I want to attach a simple proof text to, but it seems to me it’s in line with the thrust of Scripture and sometimes helps us think these things through. I think a good case can be made for a distinction (one has to make the distinction cautiously) between what the church takes on as church under the authority of the church and what local churches take on in terms of Christians within that church.

If it really is something under the aegis of the local church, then it ought to be the senior local church leaders who lead it, which means your pastor, minister, or elder, depending on your particular church structure. But what do you find in the New Testament? Even when there are issues of social justice within the church, as in the book of Acts, the distribution of food, what did the apostles do? “We are first of all committed to the ministry of the Word and prayer,” they said. “So appoint some more.”

They looked out men who had a full faith and a robust life in the Spirit and were concerned for justice, and appointed Stephen and others to look after such issues. There is a perennial danger that when the church as organization, such that the ministers are then taking on these various sorts of things, that they will become so sweeping … there’s always a demand for more … that amongst those whose primary calling is the ministry of the Word and prayer, what gets lost is precisely the ministry of the Word and prayer.

Instead of spending time studying the Word, praying for the flock, evangelizing people, teaching the Word of God, discipling people in the truth, teaching people how to teach the people more Bible, seeing people converted, preparing them for a new heaven and a new earth.… Instead of any of that, the sermons become shallow, they get drawn into more and more administration, and gradually what is lost is the centrality of the Word of God to the whole people of God.

That doesn’t mean we have the right to distance ourselves from loving our neighbor as ourselves, from doing good to all, especially those who are of the household of faith. We don’t. So the first point of prudential wisdom is make a distinction between what the local church as church under the authority of the leaders does and what the local church as people who belong to a local church and who are Christians but who want to do good in the society, in the culture, does.

The second point of prudential wisdom is be careful of.… I don’t know what else to call it … specialism. One of the reasons I like Wilberforce, and one of the reasons I dislike that particular film.… There are a lot of reasons I do like that film, but one of the reasons I dislike that film I’ve already given to you. It presents Wilberforce as if his whole Christian duty was bound up with fighting the slave trade, but that’s not how Wilberforce himself saw it.

So today, there are Christians who because they are working in a soup kitchen or digging wells in the Sahel or whatever they’re doing, all of which is commendable, necessary for Christians to be involved in at some level or another, nevertheless, they think because they’re doing that, they have fulfilled their duty to God and are not in any sense obligated to bear witness to the gospel itself.

They’re not commanding people to repent and believe. They are not themselves studying the Word anymore. They have begun to slide into a self-justification because they’re helping to teach the poor in Papua New Guinea. Thus, gradually, they have turned away from the cross by which alone they are reconciled to God and begun to depend on the fact that they are giving their lives in some kind of sacrificial service at a certain kind of horizontal level.

A number of years ago, some of us founded an organization called The Gospel Coalition. It has been great fun. We brought together, first of all, about 50 ministers from many different denominations, and we worked through a statement of faith and what we call a theological vision of ministry until we got agreement on it. It’s theologically, biblically robust, full of joy, full of a desire to confess the truth in its breadth and comprehensiveness, but allowing enough differences that Baptists and paedo-baptists and a few other oddballs can work together.

We worked through not only a statement of faith but also a theological vision of ministry. We argued over points, how to put things, and so on. When we started talking about issues of social justice in our theological vision of ministry, two or three of our members wisely said it’s not enough to say we are interested in the relief of human suffering. We must keep saying we are interested in the relief of all human suffering, both temporal and eternal.

Do you hear that? That means that when we are engaged in human suffering, we see it as a small corner of helping people free up from suffering as part of a much bigger vision of freeing people up from the suffering of hell itself. All suffering, temporal and eternal, which means you cannot with good conscience merely help people get over a difficult patch economically if you’re not also interested in getting them ready to meet God.

I’m not talking about digging a well in order to preach the gospel, so that the digging of the well merely becomes a means by which you can preach the gospel. No, we do it because it’s the right thing to do. At the same time, we can’t make a disjunction between that and our bigger concern for fellow human beings who will one day stand before God Almighty who is their Maker and Judge and give a report to him.

Then what will we say? We helped them in their education, but we didn’t talk about Christ crucified. So they’re now more educated sinners, but they have not been justified by the grace of God. We need far more integration along these lines so that we’re not parceling out relief of suffering over here, and then what we do with the gospel itself, with Christianity, with reconciling people to God.… That’s just spiritual, but the real relief of suffering is over here.

In other words, what we want is a holism that learns to check everything by God’s Most Holy Word. If you want to see those documents, go to the same website, thegospelcoalition.org, and click the tab for “Foundation Documents,” which will show you the robustness of the theological confessionalism but also how we’ve tried to put these things together in a way that shows there is a holism to Christian ministry too.

Let me take a minute to give you two or three examples of things I have seen that are really quite wonderful. One of the members of the council is pastor of a very large Presbyterian church in Memphis, Tennessee. All of the Western democracies have problem schools caused by different kinds of things, sometimes the catchment area or tax-base, whatever. Memphis, Tennessee, has the unenviable reputation of having perhaps the worst school system in the country.

Two years ago, last time I checked, 25 percent of the school kids in the Memphis, Tennessee, school system had some kind of dealings with the police in one year. Many churches in Memphis, Tennessee (this varies hugely in North America), support a whole lot of private Christian schools, so a lot of Christians have enough money, enough resources, enough priorities to send their kids to good schools, Christian schools, supported by further donations.

Meanwhile, the whole Memphis school system itself, the secular system, the state system, is falling to the dogs. So this minister went to the superintendent of schools in Memphis, an African-American woman, herself a believer, and said, “Listen, we are concerned. We’d like to do something. We really don’t know what to do. I have to tell you, most of our kids don’t go to your schools. We frankly don’t like your schools. They’re not very good, but we feel some concern to help. What can we do?”

She said, “Do you love children?” As they began to talk.… Now this is a large church, several thousand on a Sunday morning. What they did initially was to adopt a school. In many parts of America, schools get their funding a little from the federal government, partly from the state government, and partly from local taxes. If you live in a poor area, there are fewer local taxes, so the schools are not going to be as good. It’s a system of inequity.

In any case, because of that, in some local schools, the walls are peeling, there aren’t enough textbooks, teachers are paid less, and so forth. They went in there and began by scrubbing up that school and painting it over. They went and had PTA meetings, Parent Teacher Association meetings, and that sort of thing. They threw a barbecue, which meant inevitably they had four times as many parents starting to show up at PTA meetings.

Then what they did was they started offering one-on-one tutoring to students who were falling behind. By the end of that first year, they had 318 volunteers from the church who were doing one-on-one tutoring with one or more students from the school. This was part of a long-term commitment. It wasn’t a one-year shot, but the church would take on the responsibility of offering free part-time tutoring after school hours to try to bring this change about.

Within two years, the scores in this school had moved into the safe zone instead of being one of the worst schools in the city. Then what the church began to do was to organize other churches, much smaller churches that couldn’t possibly handle one of these schools on their own, to form links with other churches in their area so that a group of churches could take on another school and another school and another school.

Although it was the senior minister, a wonderful man by the name of Sandy Willson, who first started this off, he was very wise in shunting this off to gifted laypeople in the congregation who took on the responsibility, so this is not the ministry of Second Presbyterian in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s the ministry of an awful lot of Christians in Second Presbyterian and a whole lot of other churches.

Meanwhile, he has gotten on with the ministry of the Word, seeing people converted, outreach on university campuses, Bible teaching, and evangelism, because he understands the apostolic mandate for the priority of the ministry of the Word and prayer. I could tell you a lot of stories like that. Now obviously, what we do is going to depend a bit on where we are, what our own demographics are.

Some of us live in posh suburbs where, quite frankly, there’s not a lot of local social need. In other parts we live in confusing, difficult places where we may be able to find some corner where we find some ways in which, as Christians in a local church, we love our neighbors as ourselves, but we will not do this at the expense of preserving the priority of proclaiming what God has done to reconcile men and women to himself, to relieve suffering both in time and in eternity.

What we must see is that God’s first concern, biblically speaking, is for his own blood-bought, redeemed community, yet when that redeemed community becomes numerous enough, it does begin to affect the Roman Empire or the former British Empire or American culture or Russian culture or Chinese culture. The aim is not to reform the Chinese government. The aim is to build a church, but when you start getting 80 or 90 million Chinese out there who really know Christ, it does begin to touch the rest of the society too.

Well, I promised the boss I would leave plenty of time for questions and comments. If you wish to say something, wave a hand, and then a roving mic will come to you, both so that everybody here can hear it and because I gather this is being recorded so that you too will be preserved for posterity.

Male: Thank you very much, Don, for that. It has, no doubt, stimulated a number of questions, and I’m sure you’ve come with questions already. Some will be answered, but now is the time to have those other ones. Any hands? Just put up your hand if you have a question, and if you have another question, just let me see it in the meantime and I’ll take a note on where you are in the tent.

Female: Thank you. That was a wonderful illustration you gave of the situation at the school, but what you told us was a temporal situation, and yet you just explained to us that we need to act for the temporal and the eternal, so how did that church bring that holism that you talked about?

Don Carson: When you’re digging a well in the Sahel, clearly it’s for very temporal water. What you don’t want is for those who are digging the well to refuse to talk about the Water of Life or to think they’ve discharged all of their obligations because they’ve provided physical water but nothing of the Water of Life that wells up unto eternal life.

Likewise, those who were giving instruction one-on-one were not told, “Make sure you share the four spiritual laws or two ways to live, or something, with every child every time you meet them.” Nevertheless, they were ordinary Christians who, in the course and context of the friendships that developed with the kids, with the families, in instruction, getting them to read, would inevitably be burdened and freed to share their faith, what made them tick, what they valued in ways that pointed people to Christ.

It also means that the people who were doing these things were not to view this as the total discharge of all Christian obligation. When you’re digging the well, you’re digging the well, but that doesn’t mean that those who dig the well shouldn’t also be leading evangelistic Bible studies in the village in the Sahel.

Likewise, the 318 who were involved in some way or another in this mentoring program, for many of them just an hour a week with one kid, another one maybe a couple of hours a week with two kids, would not also have other responsibilities of leading, teaching a Sunday school class, leading their families in private devotions, and all this sort of thing.

It’s not that in each particular instance you are measuring out how the relief of suffering is both temporal and eternal, but in the vision of the total ministry of what Christians are doing, that’s what you’re trying to do all the time. If you try to work it out on a merely percentage basis in each particular well hole, I think the thing will become so mechanical as to be impossible.

Male: Earlier you implied that the ministers should focus on the Word, but does what you have just said not also imply that the laity involved in the Sahel digging the well, or whatever, are actually at the same time preaching the Word, whereas before you were saying it’s up to the ministers or the leaders on their own to decide the preaching of the Word? Is there a confusion there?

Don: No, not in the slightest. There is a priority in the Scriptures themselves about the primary responsibility of the apostles, and then later in the Pastoral Epistles, of pastors, elders, and bishops.… There is a primary responsibility along those fronts and a primary responsibility among the deacons to look after these other matters.

There is, nevertheless, a sweeping responsibility for all Christians to teach the whole counsel of God. That’s part of the Great Commission. It’s why I brought up Wilberforce. Wilberforce was not a minister, yet my complaint with the film Amazing Grace was that it was presenting this in terms of polarity, whereas in his own life he was, first and foremost, a gospel person.

He was a Christian, which meant his own prayer life and his own understanding of the gospel and his own efforts in evangelism were ongoing, even while he was taking his responsibilities as a member of Parliament very seriously to ram through Parliament social change after social change. He was interested not only in the slavery issue but also kids in the mine issue, the beginning of trade unions, the reform of the penal code. He was involved in all of those kinds of things, but he was first and foremost a Christian. He did not pit these things against each other.

You do not want Christians who are involved in these things to start thinking that because they’re doing these things, they don’t have the obligation to learn intercessory prayer, to share their faith, to proclaim the gospel, to see people converted, and so forth. That’s part of the larger vision. There is, nevertheless, in the New Testament a primary focus of those in the local church leadership, pastors, elders, bishops, ministers of the gospel, to be called to the ministry of the Word and prayer.

That does not mean that in doing such ministry of the Word they will not themselves be teaching others in the church, and they may be leading by example to get things off the ground on occasion to actually take on some of these things. If you preach the whole counsel of God, you’re going to come across those passages that address such matters, and you can’t duck them. At the same time, it is so easy for those in ministry to take on these sorts of things until …

Most administrative posts grow to fill whatever time you want to give them. Therefore, unless you have a certain kind of priority system built in by virtue of the constraints established by the Word of God to set time aside for study, meditation, preparation, preaching, teaching, one-on-one Bible studies, prayer.… Unless those are your first priorities, they will eventually get squeezed out in the name of many urgent and important things, sacrificing the most important and central things.

Male: Thanks, Don. First of all, could I say that I’ve realized the depth of teaching that’s available in Northern Ireland is tremendous when you live in an area where it’s not there and it’s difficult to find at times.

What I would like to ask is in terms of smaller churches in some of the more rural areas where there isn’t a depth of understanding, teaching, and capacity, where I see deeds of mercy done for the right reasons beginning to take over and the gospel as we know it, the evangelical gospel, being lost and, in that respect, churches coming together, leaders coming together and possibly becoming too involved with the deeds themselves, that the church begins to adopt a more.… The only way I can explain it is ecumenical role in the wrong sense. How would you tend to begin to try and steer churches away from that and in the right direction?

Don: The first place of beginning, ideally, is with ministers themselves, whether they’re ministers in a city church or in a rural church, who know what the gospel is and are faithful to it in their preaching and teaching. That’s the first step. There are some practical steps. We had a whole council meeting of The Gospel Coalition just on trying to think through these things, and that very question was raised by one of our council members.

Granted that you do have this wonderful model of the evangelical awakening, where they really did get a lot of things right, you also have this model of what happened between 1880 and 1930, where we really got a lot of things wrong. Eventually, the social gospel smothered the gospel itself. Because in our day and age we get a lot more brownie points, a lot more credit in the press, if we work with a whole lot of very different people to overcome poverty or run a pantry somewhere …

We get a lot of positive press for doing that, but if we preach the gospel and say that only in Christ can men and women be reconciled to God, the popular press views us as right-wing bigots and narrow-minded fundamentalists and all the rest. So obviously, there is going to be a lot of social pressure on us to do the one thing and not the other thing. So it is complicated, and one needs leaders in the church, both lay and not least in the pulpit, to get these things right and teach the whole counsel of God so that people’s consciences are constrained by the Word of God.

At the end of the day, it’s still going to be a question of whether we live under the authority of the Word or not. That’s the fundamental issue, and that turns on having ministers of the gospel, whether rural or urban, whether small church or large church, who learn to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. I will not soon forget what one of our members said when that question was raised. We had talked in these generalizing terms, generalizing about this and generalizing about that. It all felt quite comfortable. We’d sorted that one out.

Then he said, “I’ll tell you how to fix it: preach hell.” We looked at him. This particular chap is known for his bluntness. “How is that an answer to the question? How do you preserve gospel-centeredness while you’re doing deeds of social justice?” We knew this chap. This chap is heavily into racial integration in his church. He’s concerned about these things. How do you stop them from swamping the whole direction of the church? “Preach hell.”

So we asked him to explain. He said, “Well, in the first instance, as long as you’re still preaching the wrath of God against all rebellion and all sin, you are preserving in your own mind and in the consciousness of believers in the church that you’re interested in the relief of suffering both for time and eternity. You start fudging on that corner, and you lose that eternal dimension. Preach hell.”

Then he said, “At the practical level, as long as you’re preaching hell and the way to escape hell is responding, by the strength God gives through his Spirit, to the gospel, to what God has done in the person of his Son, in repentance and faith.… As long as you’re still preaching hell and the need to be saved from hell, a lot of the broader quasi-liberal social justice crowd don’t want to have anything to do with you, and that preserves you as well. Preach hell.”

Male: Don, thank you very much. Just a question about helping those who are believers, like being persecuted in the north part of India, and just helping everybody as a generalization. Where do you feel that Scripture would lead us?

Don: That’s a good question. There is no doubt that a passage like Galatians 6, “Doing good to all, but especially those of the household of faith,” shows that we have a primary responsibility to the household of faith. I don’t want to deny that. But there is a sense in which helping believers in southern Sudan or some of the islands of Indonesia or northern India by sending money and personal encouragement and a team to help them …

In some ways, that’s easy for us. I know it involves some self-sacrifice, but it’s us, and it’s over there. Rolling up your sleeves in your own community and helping the dirty, the smelly, the needy, the poor, and the broken is not excluded. Because the text says, “Especially those of the household of faith,” we must not reread it to say, “And never those who are not of the household of faith.”

After you’ve established that, all the rest is prudential wisdom. There’s not a formula. I can’t say, “Forty-eight percent must go there.” How can you do that? That’s going to depend so much on circumstances. There are some churches that are in demographic areas where.… What was it that C.T. Studd said?

Some want to preach the truth within the sound

Of church and chapel bell;

I want to build a rescue hall

Within one step of hell.

If demographically you’re placed in a situation where it is just an awful situation, you may not be doing quite so much for believers in northern India. You may be doing a lot more for drunks and drug addicts and broken homes downtown. How that’s going to work out in each particular local church.… God bless you. Ask for prudential wisdom. I don’t know a formula.

Male: Fair trade and recycling. What do you say?

Don: There are issues and issues and issues there of such complexity. At the generic level, you constantly want to say Christians want to be seen to be on the side of justice. On the other hand, even Christians who really do want to be on the side of justice often have very different economic analyses about the way forward to address, let’s say, questions of fair trade.

Undoubtedly, there are all kinds of corrupt trade practices, but where you have, let’s say, a really poor country with a whole lot of people being paid a whole lot less than they would be in the UK to tin mangoes, or whatever, nevertheless, within the context of their own country they may be pretty well paid. So economists and political leaders who are genuinely Christians sometimes divide on all kinds of economic judgments about the best way forward in some of these matters.

I think it’s very important for ministers of the gospel not to come down too strongly on one side or the other when they have even less economic knowledge than the economic experts who themselves are already divided. So you start appealing constantly for the fundamentals, concern for people, care for people, doing more, being careful, being wise, being godly, preaching the gospel, but allow some of the experts to make their own calls about what way …

There have been many, many instances where we have tried to do something good and have ended up, after pouring in tens of billions of pounds, merely teaching people to be dependent. How do you do that? Nowadays, there are renewed efforts to do much more micro-loaning and that sort of thing, some of which efforts are really very impressive, and some of which, again, are a bit corrupt.

Then there are all of those NGOs, many of which you have to admire for their willingness to be self-sacrificing but many of which are led with such administrative incompetence that you want to wring your hands in despair. What do you do with all of that? Those are things that belong to the realm of prudential judgment, it seems to me, after you’ve gotten on board with things.

One wants to be careful not to tie your Christian flag so tightly to a particular political or economic bandwagon that, essentially, your preaching of the gospel becomes disparaged or depreciated or less credible to whole sectors of society because you are so identified with the left or the right on a particular thing. As a minister of the gospel, I don’t want to do that. I may have some pretty strong opinions on all of these things, but you’re not going to catch me saying them in public.

Male: I want to thank Don. There are books in the resource center here that will tackle some of these issues, and Don has made reference to links you can go to, and you can follow through with Tim Keller’s Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road, which is a very helpful book that looks at the whole Good Samaritan dynamic there. We thank you, Don, for stirring our minds and our questions.