Charles Spurgeon once quipped, “If you give a man the gospel, wrap it in a sandwich. And if you give a man a sandwich, wrap it in the gospel.” With those words, the great Baptist preacher captured the essence of the church’s mission in the world.
The church’s mission is to be modeled after the mission of Christ himself. In the gospel of John, Jesus says to the apostles, and thus to the church, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (20:21). Of course, in an ultimate sense, Christ’s mission is unique and cannot be duplicated. Jesus lived a sinless life for his people; he died and rose again for their salvation. No one can copy this salvific aspect of the Son’s work.
But there is a way in which the church follows in Christ’s footsteps in her mission to the world. In fact, the church does not merely pattern her mission after the Son’s; by faith and the work of the Spirit, she shares and participates in his mission of mercy and justice. In other words, Christ continues his mission to the world from the Father’s right hand in heaven, as he works in and through his church on earth.
This is why the church is called the body of Christ: we are the hands and feet and arms and legs and heart of Christ in and for the world. We are co-participants in his work of bringing healing and renewal to the fallen creation, on the basis of his cross and resurrection. We are the form his loving presence to the world takes in this age; we are his means of extending the kingdom to the ends of the earth until he comes again in glory.
The ministry of Jesus was one of service. He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,” and “I am among you as one who serves” (Mark 10:45; Luke 22:27). It is this life of sacrificial service the church is now called to incarnate in the world. As those who have been united to Christ, we are to live among the world as a community of servants. As our head and representative, Jesus joins our sacrificial service to his, and through us, brings life and light to a dead and dark world. Christ takes our works up into himself, making them acceptable to the Father and effective in transforming human culture.
So we must ask: How did Jesus serve? And how is the church to serve in a Jesus-like fashion? The life of Christ clearly combined the preaching of the gospel with works of love and mercy; Jesus evangelized in both word and deed. Think of the Upper Room episode in John’s gospel: Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, taught them, fed them a meal, and prayed for them. His service was holisitic.
Elsewhere, Jesus described his ministry as the fulfillment of several Old Testament prophecies. In Matthew 11, he confirms his identity to John the Baptist by referring to a catena of Isaianic promises about the end of exile and the new exodus: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”
In Luke 4, he also describes his ministry in the language of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” To be sure, the needs Jesus describes have a “spiritual” referent: the spiritually blind, the spiritually imprisoned, the poor in the spirit, and so forth, are those he rescues.
But we need to keep in mind two items. First, the prophecy of Isaiah was addressed to those who were about to experience a very physical disaster, namely, the exile, resulting in more than just metaphorical poverty and enslavement. Jesus came to remedy that situation. Second, the fact that Jesus actually performed miracles that restored people’s physical deformities show that his kingdom is world-embracing and world-transforming. The miracles of Jesus are more than just demonstrations of power and mercy; they are signs of the in-breaking kingdom, inaugurating the promised new age.
This kingdom, of course, is not consummated until the resurrection, when all the spiritual and physical brokenness of God’s people is healed perfectly and permanently. But in the meantime, Jesus has shown us that the kingdom is already present. As his people, we are to be the bearers of the blessings of the world to come in the present age. We are to embody the life and power of the future in the here and now. In this way, his fulfillment of the prophetic hope for a new world continues to come to pass through our ministries of justice and mercy.
This means the church must penetrate the world, proclaiming the message of salvation in Christ and showing forth his mercy in acts of kindness and love. No doubt, in many cases it would be easier to “preach and run” – to simply tell people the gospel without taking the time to get deeply involved in their lives.
Much of post-Reformation Christianity has spiritualized the church’s mission away so that “saving souls” is all that matters. But Scripture doesn’t let us off the hook so easily. It’s often hard to convince people living in rat infested slums that “their souls need saving.” In such cases, meeting people’s dire physical needs is a necessary prerequisite to addressing the problem of their broken relationship with God. Ministering to temporal needs is often the way to opening the door to ministering to eternal needs.
There was more to Jesus’ ministry than just words, and there must be more to our ministry as well. Jesus is the Word made flesh; as his people, we must embody the word of the gospel by living lives of sacrificial service. Our deeds will interpret and explain our actions; our actions will embody and incarnate our words. This is the church’s mission.
We can no more separate mercy ministry from evangelism than we can separate a person’s body from his soul. Such a separation is in fact death, and a church that has separated words from works is indeed dead, as far as God is concerned (cf. James 2:14ff). True love requires us to share the gospel with those around us; but it doesn’t stop (or even start!) there. We must minister to persons holistically, including physical and psychological needs. If we place an exclusive emphasis on evangelism, we will undermine the credibility of our witness and our words will sound hollow and hypocritical. If we treat mercy ministry as a substitute for evangelism, we will fail to point others to the only one who can truly rescue them out of their misery, Jesus Christ. As one pastor has said, “evangelism is social justice is evangelism.” Exactly.
Combining ministry in works of service with words of grace is a biblical tradition. The Old Testament Torah put a great deal of emphasis on care for the poor, including the “stranger” who lived outside the boundaries of the covenant community. Other laws protected the poor (e.g., no usury on poor loans), but also required the able bodied to work towards their reintegration into society (e.g., gleaning laws).
The apostles also emphasized ministries of mercy. John insisted that genuine love includes both words and deeds (1 Jn. 3:17, 18). Paul viewed the church as God’s love letter to the world (2 Corinthians 3:2-4). By our speech and action, we bear witness to the gospel and the new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Surely it is no coincidence that at least two of the original seven deacons, Stephen and Philip, were not only engaged in mercy ministry but were also effective evangelists (Acts 6-8).
To be concluded.
Rich Lusk is Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama.