So where do good works fit in?

Over the last couple of days, you’ve been able to read a few articles on the subject of good works and how these are not the same as the Gospel. These include Stephen Kneale on what is Gospel work as well as two articles here on Good news to the poor and the relationship between Good works and Good News. Both Stephen and I have argued that Good works are not the same thing as The Good News.

Indeed, I would want to push it further and suggest that a focus on our good works will dangerously distract from the Gospel. It distracts in three ways

  1. If we throw our energy into good works projects at the expense of telling people about Jesus.
  2. If we remain verbally silent on a “use words where necessary” basis and assume that people will be able to work out the Gospel from our actions.
  3. If through our good works we become saviours to our world.

So, given all of that, why do we engage as a church in things like running ESOL classes, providing food to those who need it, helping asylum seekers with their cases (not just those fleeing religious persecution) etc?

Well, the clue is in something I said the other day. Whilst Good works are not the good news, if the good news does not result in changed lives, including good works then something seems to have gone wrong.

Jesus told his disciples to make disciples and to teach them to obey everything he had commanded. What did Jesus command? Well he told people to love God with their whole heart and their neighbour as themselves. He told them to love their enemies and to go the extra mile.  When the first disciples began to teach other disciples to do that, they talked about bearing one another’s burdens, about giving to the poor among them and about ensuring that widows were looked after.  Obeying everything Jesus commands means growing a community which is very different in its values to the world around it.

There has been an interesting debate going on recently about “What is the Mission of the Church?”  The best representatives of both sides of the debate are Chris Wright, The Mission of God and Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? The debate arises because historically, the Evangelical movement was very much involved in matters to do with social justice, campaigning to abolish the slave trade, looking out for factory workers rights, providing schooling and healthcare for those in need. However, the perception is first part of the 20th Century saw a reaction to the liberal “social gospel” which replaced the good news that Jesus died for our sin with a call to focus on doing good and campaigning against injustice. This in some circles led to a withdrawal from those types of issues into a form of pietism. However, at various times, and increasingly in the last 40 years there’s been a boldness about speaking out on some issues including freedom of speech, sexuality & marriage, abortion and euthanasia.  The challenge has been “shouldn’t we also be caring about things like poverty, racism, the environment etc. To be fair, The Evangelical Alliance set up Tearfund with a focus on such things. Note as well that this is a somewhat simplistic picture, there are plenty of examples of inner city mission halls, the work of the City Missions and the role of medical mission abroad to nuance that narrative. Another factor which we cannot ignore is that after the 2nd World War, the state took up much of the role of education, healthcare, and provision for the poor    and the consensus was that they were in a more effective position to do that. So, I’m not convinced that the church did just withdraw.

The current debate is between those who emphasise mercy mission as part of the church’s mission and those who see such activities as distinct from it.  This includes those who have argued that there are two wings to our mission, social action and gospel preaching. The danger with that is that it can leave churches and individuals choosing which wing to sit on (as with the occasion when a vicar told me that our church could give out gospels and his would give out tins of baked beans). Wright’s aim in his book is to create a more holistic and integrated view of things.  God’s mission is to restore all things. Note as well a strong emphasis on continuity between old creation and new creation. We play our part in that, the whole picture is of transformed lives and transformed communities. The transformation cannot happen without people turning to Christ.

DeYoung’s focus is on what the Church should be doing. The position is in effect that if someone comes to the elders and says “We want to do something about debt relief or cleaning up the local river” then the right response is “Brilliant, get on with it but the role of the church is not to organise or fund it. You are free as believers to do that.”

I have some sympathy with DeYoung in that local churches can end up trying to do everything and  those of us with a strong view of the local church may need to be reminding that there is more to God’s Kingdom than our local church.

At the same time, I think it is important to come back to the point that within Jesus’s commission was the instruction to “teach them to obey all I have commanded.”  The mission of the church in terms of Gospel outreach must be focused on telling people about the saviour and salvation. I would go so far as to say that we need to re-sharpen our definition of missions and mission support to remember that.

However, that isn’t all that the church is about. Churches hold prayer meetings, Bible studies for mature believers, sing songs and depending on your tradition recite forms of liturgy and creeds.  Stephen Kneale was very clear in his article that those things are not the Gospel but that does not mean that churches should stop doing them. Why? Well these are ways in which churches are seeking to do what Jesus commanded by teaching disciples to love God with their whole heart and express that in joyful praise and a right understanding of who God is and what God is like.

So, one of the important reasons why we engage in good works together is that this is a form of discipleship. We could just leave those things to individuals (and we certainly don’t restrict what individuals do) but doing stuff together helps us to learn how to love without our deeds becoming idolatrous and how to keep the gospel at the heart of what we do.

Secondly, we are a community together, we are members of a body and so I don’t think we can or should avoid a sense of collective response and compassion.  Too often we obsess about strategy, how will responding here affect this, this and this. Sometimes there should just be the sense of people seeing a need together and being moved by compassion to act.

Thirdly, I think there is something in terms of how good deeds do support the witness. Salvation involves welcome into a new family, into a new kingdom and so as well as hearing the good news, it is great for people to be able to see what the fruit looks like.

It is worth noting that our good deeds do act as a witness according to Peter.

12 Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbours. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honourable behaviour, and they will give honour to God when he judges the world”[1]

No doubt as he wrote that, he was remembering Jesus’ words:

“6 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”[2]

Peter’s words lead us to conclude that the good deeds won’t of themselves lead to conversion. Rather, when Jesus returns and judges, they will be part of the witness that will compel everyone to bow their knee at the name of Jesus.

Conclusion

Our good deeds are not the Gospel, they are not even a part of the Gospel but are an important part of what it means to be Christians and part of the church together.

[1] 1 Peter 2:12

[2] Matthew 5:16.

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