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Reductio Ad Philanthropum

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There’s a lot of good deed doing going on out there. It seems the God folks have finally found a way to win the world’s affirmation: ramp up the philanthropic machine and you get a smattering of worldly applause and some mild (though hesitant) approval.

Earnest Christian humanitarian efforts are the rage now. There’s the end human trafficking/slavery movement; the omnipresent social equality juggernaut; the green Jesus movement; a well-oiled feed the hungry movement. There are church-sponsored clothing drives and free medical clinics. Every spring, armies of church youth groups tramp through neighborhoods cleaning up yards—and during the summer free car washes proliferate like coffee kiosks in parking lots. It’s a philanthropic frenzy. Christians are nearly giddy with relief that they can actually do something Jesus-like without embarrassment.

Don’t get me wrong. I think good deeds are indeed good. The Bible is filled with appeals to do good. James insists that good deeds and Christian faith are two sides of the same shekel. And Peter, always the practical one, says in 1 Peter 2:12 good deeds are a way for Christians to deflect bullets fired at them by the heathen horde. As far as Holy Writ is concerned, faith and works go together like fish and chips.

But what happens when the church is reduced to good deeds? The world understands charity and welcomes it. It likes nothing better than efforts to help the disadvantaged, the oppressed, or those in crisis. What it does not like, however, is any indication that it is sinful and in need of Christ. As Jesus Himself said, the world “hates me because I testify that its works are evil” (John 7:7). These days believers are welcome to help out but not to speak out. Any talk that smacks of religious exclusivism or social discrimination is vilified. For the Church to assert that its charitable work is linked to a judgment of the world’s systems and values as well as to a salvation in Christ alone is to invite a maelstrom of protest from all quarters—including from many within the Church herself. Our culture condemns religious “intolerance” of any kind. The ancient Christian doctrines of sin and the supremacy of Christ are increasingly incompatible with our militantly secular culture: any verbal representation of “repent and believe” is dangerously close to being classified as hate-speech, a heinous crime against the civilized social order. To counter this rather uncomfortable situation, the current trend is to excise the good news from the good works, or at least to hit the mute button on any pointed Jesus talk.

Religious philanthropy, though nothing new, is now more widespread and diverse than ever before. Yet, unlike the Church’s practice for the past 2,000 years, these days the plain declaration of the gospel is curiously absent from the good deeds landscape. Beyond our narrow, insular Sunday sanctuaries, we are becoming religious mimes whose exaggerated gestures entertain but do not explain.

What is more, many of our most ardent champions for social justice, who themselves have been raised in the Church, no longer believe that an accompanying message of salvation in Christ is productive or even necessary. They are committed to a given cause and only secondarily (if at all) to the mission of the Church to bring the gospel to a lost world. In reality, their cause has become their gospel. They see little need for redemption, only for human dignity, which is achievable by human effort. Any work to bring this about is not only good—it is good enough.

But the hardcore biblical fact of the matter is that nobody gets saved by good works, neither those who do them nor those who see them. Salvation comes only from hearing the testimony about Christ. Even for Jesus, the good works His Father assigned to Him were intended to validate the truth: “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” (John 14:11). A gospel of good works is no gospel at all; good deeds alone may bring a welcome relief but not spiritual redemption. If we hold to the biblical witness of a necessary salvation in the Son of God, we must embrace the scandal of the Cross and boldly proclaim it as the centerpiece of all that we are and do in this world—not for our sake, but for the sake of all who are perishing in spite of our heartfelt activism.

Good works are good, but to die clothed and well fed is still to die. Justice and equality are good, but to die with dignity and equal rights is still to die. To have Christ, on the other hand, whether in plenty or in need, whether male or female, whether slave or free, is to have all things and eternal life. Speaking this message is the Church’s one true service to the world, her one cause, and her everlasting glory.

2 responses to Reductio Ad Philanthropum

  1. Thank you for this timely article which touches on an issue that many want to overlook, even within our Alliance family. An emphasis on “holistic ministry” and “incarnational presence” brings with it a blurring of our mission priority to proclaim Christ to a lost and dying world. This priority of gospel proclamation does not eliminate relief efforts that treat the immediate needs of human suffering, rather it keeps those efforts in perspective, affirming that the problem of sin at the heart of humankind’s woes is solved only in the person and the work of Christ. Praise the Lord!

  2. In Mark 2, when Jesus declared the good news to the paralytic that he was forgiven, Jesus also explained to those who doubted this good news, 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Jesus communicated the good news of divine forgiveness but he also demonstrated loving compassion through meeting human need. In this story, the two went together. Wouldn’t it also be a shame not to demonstrate the compassion of God through meeting human need when God provides us the opportunity.

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