It is a fascinating question to the Christian mind in what manner Evangelism and Mercy are to be interlinked. In the New Testament they are worked out in Jesus’ and the apostles’ ministry in close conjunction with one another and are clearly commissioned for the abiding church of Christ.
The point on which reformed churches and elders across the spectrum of variant views on this subject agree is that Jesus the Messiah came and worked, and established His Church through which He continues to abide and work, in order to gather the elect and reverse absolutely all that humanity’s debacle entails – that is, ultimately to make all things new, spiritually, socially, naturally etc. Differences arise over how and when this gathering and ultimate renovation is to come about.
Often one of two notions is favored. Either – ecclesiastical mercy and world renewal vision is identified very closely with spiritual gospel proclamation to unbelievers to the point where the growth and advance of the kingdom of God will be expected to be accompanied by augmentation of the holistic wellness of the world at large – or – ecclesiastical mercy and renewal vision is focused inside the of church for those who have been evangelized, and the growth and advance of the kingdom of God is understood as a drawing of men and women into an oasis of holistic wellness in the midst of a world that is perishing. At this point in my consideration of the matter I might propose somewhat of a middle way between these two options.
Jesus evangelized, inaugurating and propagating the kingdom of God through preaching of spiritual grace accompanied by miraculous acts of mercy. Though Jesus’ and the apostles’ ministry featured unique supernatural demonstrations of power attending the great work of redemption and the foundational inspired revelation, I fondly accept the thought of holding forth our Lord’s initial practice of evangelism through word and deed as normative for our own as He continues to work through us.
Jesus employed miraculous acts of mercy in the form of physical healings, food provision, etc. in order to authorize His message of spiritual grace.
“Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." And the man got up and went home.”
These symbolic, renovative acts had the intent and (in some cases) the effect of opening the eyes of people’s hearts to the spiritual millennial reign that had at last arrived already and unto hope of the resurrection and consummation which would not yet unfold. It seems, however that in their symbolic, temporary nature these miraculous acts of mercy were not meant to really improve or fix the physical, external state of the world. All the people whom Jesus physically healed became physically sick again and eventually died. Those whom He physically fed became physically hungry again within a matter of hours. However, these acts of external mercy were not in vain since through them the Word and Sacrament were legitimated and authenticated which would effect permanent and imperishable spiritual healing and spiritual fullness which guaranteed eventual holistic impeccability.
Likewise we, in preaching the grace of God in the Lord Jesus, must authenticate our message through sincere symbolic renovative acts of external mercy. The Spirit through James bids us everywhere to authenticate our spiritual charity in works of mercy. Indeed, vain “faith,” without its necessarily concomitant deeds of mercy and kindness is a lifeless caricature of its counterfeited namesake. Yet we cannot expect that our temporary improvements of people’s and things’ estates will have lasting effect in a world which we know goes from bad to worse, in which Sheol swallows all until it is commanded to vomit out along with the risen Lord those whom the Father has given to Him from before the foundation of the world who like Him it cannot hold. Though, as our works of mercy authenticate and make effective our message of grace which engrafts lost sinners into that true Vine, they are eternally far from being done in vain. Our evangelistic proclamation must be accompanied by merciful acts of great proportions. Our diaconal funds must be directed toward renovative repairs for those inside the church and out, so long as through these investments the Word of grace will take hold and through our material helps, though transient and unimaginably insignificant in the grad scheme, hearts are guaranteed eternal Spiritual inheritance.
The lost of the elect must be won through broad and active love. In love the light of the church should shine before men that they may see good works and give glory to the Father in heaven. Yet evangelistically speaking we must consider what sort of love this is. The church’s love for the unbelieving world will always imply antithesis. We can be inclined to understand this love by which we are to adorn the gospel to be merely a coming alongside unbelievers in humanitarian initiatives which they will applaud and be thereby drawn by attraction into our midst. Loving the lost, however, is always loving one’s enemies in a real sense as it necessarily (if it is love at all) involves calling them to repent and be won through Jesus to the Lord, the true and only source of love whom they despise. Secular humanitarianism can be blasphemous as it seeks (in futility) to remedy the divinely imposed curse on human sin through human means and achieve glory and shalom apart from the God who promises Sabbath and whose central presence and dwelling is absolutely constitutive of what shalom denotes. While outward ecclesiastical acts of mercy may exactly mirror secular humanitarian works, the proclamation of the Word of the gospel of God and the offer of the sacrament, both of which must accompany the ecclesiastical acts of mercy, bring home the antithesis. Ecclesiastical acts of mercy are ancillary means to the end of conscionable hearing and effective appropriation of Word and sacrament calling the world back to the triune God it tries to avoid. Secular humanitarian efforts are an end in themselves. Thus, our acts of mercy clash head on with the humanitarian agenda and the loving works by which we adorn the gospel overcome the self-serving works of fleshly humanitarianism rather than assimilating them. (Yet as we are to seek the general well-being of all humanity, and seek to preserve as far as we can the common grace stage of God’s outworking of redemption, we should affirm secular humanitarian efforts since the external form and effect preserves God’s image in man and is advantageous to the gospel)
So ecclesiastical acts of mercy toward unbelievers are means to the end of gospel proclamation and spiritual salvation and deliverance. Yet they are necessarily concomitant means to this end. We cannot perform meaningful acts of mercy toward the lost without the explicit proclamation of the gospel of Jesus. Yet we cannot give meaningful proclamation of the gospel Jesus without acts of mercy toward the lost. We must pursue a middle way between the social gospel and the sectarian withdrawal gospel. Evangelism: Doing justice and preaching grace! (Harvie Conn’s title)