What should we make of ‘mercy ministry’?

It’s a pretty stupid term, isn’t it? Mercy ministry. What is a mercy ministry? Every day the Lord doesn’t return is a mercy to those outside of him. The biggest mercy ministry is the Lord tarrying (that’s the old-fashioned word for hanging fire, or holding off).

Anybody with any sense recognises that the biggest mercy we can show to anybody is making them aware of their sin and need of a saviour. We can kick against that truth if we want but, like the lung cancer patient insisting it’s just a cough, there comes a day at which we can deny it no longer. Only, at that point, it is all too late. Now, we may not like it, but there comes a point at which sense must prevail. Eternity is much longer than the here and now. The only question worth knowing with this in mind is whether there is an eternity or not.

If all that is true (and I shall leave it to you to decide), then it begs the question, what is real mercy ministry? Is it a bigger mercy to dole out some soup or telling people about their need of a saviour? What is the bigger issue facing them? Some might like to point to Matthew 25 and the separation of the sheep and goats, but few appear to recognise that Jesus specifically says, ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine’. This seems to be more in line with John’s comments in 1 John 3:17.

But, of course, we must take into account the whole counsel of God. Clearly, the Lord does not command us to merely outline the essential truths about Christ and leave people to go hang. The Lord has prepared good works for us to walk in and they go beyond simply outlining the gospel message. It is apparent that Jesus command us to love our enemies and do good to even those who hate us (Matt 5:44). This is, of course, necessary if we are to fulfil the commands to reach the lost with the gospel. If this is the greatest mercy we can show anybody, doing good to our enemies is vital.

Nonetheless, it also bears thinking about how we might share the gospel message with people. There is nothing wrong with teaching English, doling out soup, providing job clubs and the like. These are good things to do. But, from the perspective of the mission of the church, they are only valuable if they are genuinely vehicles from which we share the gospel.

I have lost count of the number of times people have told me doing those things is the gospel itself. It isn’t. I have also lost count of the number of times that people have told me, if we do those things, people will somehow discern some difference in the way we conduct ourselves so that people will come to the Lord through what they see in us. They won’t. People can only come to Christ if we open our mouths and tell them the truth of the gospel. These ‘good works’ are only of any eternal value if, through them, we actually share the gospel.

It is certainly true that doing good is a good thing. To care about people’s eternal souls without any reference to their current existence, whilst that may be ultimately kind, isn’t immediately that kind. Few, though no doubt some, people are won to Christ because we told them the gospel and totally ignored their immediate needs. There is nothing wrong with giving a hungry person a sandwich and everything right about helping somebody who can’t pay their rent stave off the rent man. The problem is when we mistake the immediate goodness of meeting people’s immediate needs with the ultimate goodness of meeting people’s greatest need. There are similar problems when we ignore people’s immediate needs when faced with their ultimate, greatest need.

All of that is to say, there is nothing wrong with mercy ministry of itself. But if that ministry is devoid of the gospel – actually speaking the message of salvation in Christ – it is limited in value. If somebody wants to share the gospel with those in need but does so with no respect to their immediate problems, it won’t be any great surprise if few respond to the gospel being proclaimed.

This means that the primary task of the church must be to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anything that takes place apart from this is to depart from the mission Jesus himself gave to his followers. Meeting people’s immediate needs – whether in teaching English, handing out food, paying rent, or whatever – is only ultimately value if it is a vehicle by which we share the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. The biggest mercy ministry is sharing the gospel of Christ. It’s good to do good, and the gospel is only likely to be heard if it’s backed up in the way we live and by the way we treat others, but without the gospel our doing good is just rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic. Our doing good is only ultimately good if it includes the gospel. Mercy ministry is only merciful if it speaks to people’s deepest, ultimate need.

If we are conscious of the mission of the church, all the mercy ministry we undertake will be done with eternity in mind. Gospel decision will direct how we meet immediate needs. I have no problem with soup kitchens, English classes and the rest. I think these are genuinely good things. But we must remember the greatest good, sharing the person of Jesus Christ with needy sinners so that they might know eternal life in his name. All good works that we do must be done with this ultimate good in mind. It affects how we do these things, why we do these things and determines whether we do these things. Such that any mercy ministry can serve the ultimate mercy ministry, they are good and valuable.