Good works are the handmaiden of proclamation

Our special report on social ministry emphasizes what should be emphasized. Our articles point out the gospel priority of caring for our neighbors in more than theoretical ways. Some of our experts remind us of the way evangelism works in harmony with good deeds. We hear more than one call for a higher commitment to good works as well as an affirmation that Southern Baptists are now and have usually been very effective in meeting human needs while also providing the Bread of Life. These are good words, good reminders, but I hope you also sense the difficulty of making all the things our Lord has called us to do work together according to biblical priorities.

Our culture makes it difficult to sort out our thinking as we seek to follow the commands of Christ thoroughly. Our lost neighbors, and more than a few who call themselves Christian, find overtly evangelistic efforts on our part quaint and offensive. How dare we claim to know who’s going to Heaven and who’s not, after all? At the same time, our highly visible relief work in many states and countries has been dismissed by some as window dressing to hide the fact that we really don’t care for people at all. It’s tempting to want good press. It’s tempting to let lost people tell us what we should do to make our ministries more loveable to them. It’s futile but I know it does turn our heads as we talk about doing good works.

In the apparent contrast between proclamation and works, I understand those who say that our attitude should not be either-or, but rather both-and. Sometimes, though, that way of putting it emphasizes the distinction between those components to an inaccurate degree. Often our proclamation of the gospel is used of God to work a miracle of social as well as spiritual transformation in the redeemed life.

Consider the healing of a marriage that often occurs when one or both partners are saved. A family thus diverted from divorce is also saved from the ravages of poverty that often afflict single-parent homes. Children who will now be raised in a more solid and complete household will better understand how to be functional adults. The daughter is more likely to be spared the trials of unwed motherhood and the son the devastation of a prison term. What social work was done by the evangelist, then?

I was reminded of this thought when I heard Ted Traylor preach during our recent evangelism conference. (The story on his message is on page 11.) Traylor spoke of his own learning curve regarding the importance of good works in a thorough gospel ministry. After telling the stories of people who’d become part of his church’s ministry, he showed us photos of a couple of them, parole board mug shots. Then he showed us pictures of those same individuals today, healthier, smiling, productive people. Sure the church served and gave to facilitate this progress but it was the spiritual transformation that powered the social redemption of these less than functional lives. The essential element was the gospel.

That is a common testimony of those who were saved out of an addiction or violence. They always credit someone for loving them in Jesus’ name but the real change came from the power of God within. It was the person who won them to Christ that performed the most crucial good work.

Professor Rick Durst of Golden Gate Seminary speaks well of the efforts of Southern Baptists in Texas to meet social needs through various institutions we began during the 19th century. He’s right but to my mind we also changed the social landscape by sending missionaries to various people and places within the state (Germans, Indians, former slaves, new settlements, etc). Lives transformed first by the gospel dealt a harsher blow to hunger, poverty, and other social ills than did any institution in itself.

As an aside, that’s why a gospel focus must be of higher priority than institutional ministry in the life of our state convention. Christian institutions will be focused and fortified by a continued emphasis on the saving message of Christ. History has shown that it doesn’t work the other way around.

Imagine a situation in which our churches entirely neglect the poor and the otherwise needy but in which we do effectively share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. The situation is imaginary, I insist, because we have not ever done so, but grant me the point for a minute. If we gave our full attention to evangelism and none to social ministry the impact on our communities would be remarkable nonetheless. Growing Christians are better fathers, husbands, employees, students, bosses, and civil servants.

Now imagine, it’s not so hard, a church giving millions to feed and house the poor but without that gospel message that provides context for good works by Christians. Imagine that this church spends 10 times as much on this project as the church that only preaches the gospel. Which church will save more lives? Which one will be a greater blessing to its own community?

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