I am all for ‘mercy ministries’ and doing good to our neighbours. I think sometimes Reformed Christians can become so focused on doctrinal purity – dealing with the first great commandment pretty well – that they suck at the second. Loving the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind is emphasised – though we do love to focus on the mind – but loving our neighbour as ourselves, not so much.
I was recently preparing a sermon on Acts 2:41-47. I voiced the following on twitter:
My friend and I had this brief conversation:
Despite this tendency, and we do need to correct it, we still ought not to shift into a mere social gospel. The poor in deprived communities need much better. Here is why.
Social gospels aren’t the gospel
The gospel is that we are separated from God by our sin and by nature stand under his righteous condemnation. But Jesus Christ came into the world, obeyed the law in the way we couldn’t and died the death that we should die so that we might be forgiven by faith in him. He was raised as proof that God had accepted his sacrifice on our behalf. If we believe by faith in him, our sin is forgiven and we are granted eternal life in his name.
That, dear reader, is a far cry from ‘being nice is nice’.
Social gospels don’t save anyone
The main issue with the social gospel is that it doesn’t save anybody. Nobody is ushered into the kingdom because we put on some nice social services for them. Nobody came to Christ because we were really nice to them without bothering to share the gospel with them. Any social work we might do is only of any value if we actually use it as a vehicle for sharing the gospel.
Social gospels don’t keep anyone in the church
Even those who have bought into the social gospel get tired of the social gospel after a while. The Methodist Church is finding this out fast. It once thrived in deprived communities because of its focus on doing good. But the mantra ‘it’s nice to be nice’ doesn’t keep you going when people are ungrateful, unkind, uninterested, even aggressive toward you.
The only thing that will keep you serving in hard circumstances is a firm belief in the actual gospel. But if the Holy Spirit has actually changed our hearts, we will be kept by the working of the Spirit on us. A belief that we are serving the Lord Jesus as a response to all he has done for us will keep us going. ‘Being nice is nice’ just won’t do that.
The deepest need of deprived communities is a remedy to sin
The drug addict who turns up at the church thinks their biggest need is their next big hit. The family struggling by on benefits things their biggest need is where the next meal is coming from or how they will pay the heating. The asylum seeker thinks their greatest need is receiving their right to remain. All of these are genuine problems that rightly need a response. None are the biggest problems facing any of these people.
The biggest issue facing any of us is the problem of sin. Our biggest need is the gospel. That is not to minimise the very real problems that people in deprived communities face, it is just to say that eternity is much longer and the reality of Hell much more serious. The social gospel does nothing for the eternal soul of those we are reaching. It may help some of their immediate issues, but it does nothing for their deepest and longest term problems.