Greg Gilbert recently posted an excerpt of this lengthy discussion of D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller where Carson asks them how to safeguard mercy ministry from mistakes in the past. Piper’s and Keller’s responses, transcribed by Gilbert, give good counsel on this important matter of word and deed ministry. Here’s their responses:
It might be good not to assume that at least the watchers of this event agree that mercy ministries, deed ministries, ministries to the poor, is a given. You asked us to defend it, or figure out how it doesn’t co-opt the gospel, but I just want to affirm that it exists. The Bible says, Galatians says, “Do good to all men, especially those of the household of faith.” And the parable of the Good Samaritan is designed to get in the face of people who say, “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer comes back not with what was expected but with, “Are you a neighbor?” So just all that to say “yes” to the problem. We have to create it for a lot of people, probably, who aren’t engaged in caring for the poor, especially the poor who haven’t measured up to their expectations of being deserving of their help. So there’s plenty it the NT, it seems to me, that says, “Don’t buy into the argument that’s against helping the poor because they don’t meet the right qualifications.”
Now, having said “amen” to that, we get to the answer to his question of how you keep compassion from sweeping away concern for evangelism. I think—this is the way my old-fashioned fundamentalist, evangelistic Dad affected me—It’s very hard to give up on the gospel if you believe there is hell, that after this life, there is an endless suffering for those who did not believe in the gospel. And therefore, my take on the prioritization of these things is, as I say at Bethlehem, “We exist to relieve all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” And the “especially” there is a prioritization of time and intensity. If I succeed totally in relieving poverty in this age, and didn’t solve the eternal problem, I would prove in the end to be absolutely unloving and un-Christ-like.
So, as far as safeguards go, continue an orthodox grasp on the eternality of the torment of conscious hell. If a person really believes that and preaches that way, then those who are starting to become enamored by a transforming way of doing Christianity that starts to minimize the gospel, they’re just not gonna like that. So if the Gospel Coalition can keep just saying these true, deep, powerful things at the center of the gospel, those who are leaning toward distortion or abandonment or minimization, they’re just not gonna get near this. I think that’s our calling.
When I try to figure out the relative balance and strategy of doing mercy ministries, I get confused, I don’t know what the best strategies are. And so trying to figure out what the strategies are there, I feel is undoable. So I think, “Okay, what can I do?” I can go to the Bible and say, “Here are a few things that if you say them and believe them, they function as ballast in your boat so that the winds of distortion and minimization don’t knock us over.”
I absolutely agree with John. I mean, nobody should get the impression that when we say you have to give gospel, evangelistic ministry pride of place in the church—some people might say that what you’re really saying is that soul matters and the body doesn’t matter. That’s not what we’re saying. We’re saying the eternal matters more than the temporal. [We would never say that this body is bad or unimportant, and that therefore we don’t take care of people who are suffering.] For John to say, “eternal suffering especially” is exactly right because it’s common sense if there is eternal suffering. So we’re just saying the eternal is more important than the temporary, not that the body is less important than the soul.
But having said that, I think a balance in the way in which a church ministers will come out of this formulation that we’re talking about. If there is an asymmetry, where you’re giving pride of place to evangelism, that doesn’t eat up—at least it hasn’t in my experience—the ministry of caring for the poor. In fact, I think it gives it an impetus. I’m looking forward to churches that actually keep that balance, because they give the gospel priority. There’ll be a balance in the way the ministry goes because they give the gospel the priority. I do think if you don’t give the gospel priority, you actually lose the balance and you end up being a church that’s just trying to improve social conditions.