The final point in yesterday’s blog is hugely important. Greg and I thought it was worth elaborating on. So we wrote the following:

******

Maybe it will head off a bit of confusion if we bang the drum a bit more on this crucial issue of good works and their relationship to the mission of the church. The question we are asking in WITMOTC is not whether good works—of whatever kind—flow from, grow from, and then confirm and affirm and adorn the gospel message. Clearly they do. The Bible says so over and over (as does our book we believe). And because they do, those flowing, growing, affirming, confirming, adorning good works are vitally connected to the church’s mission of proclamation and disciple-making. They grow from a life regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the gospel we preach, and therefore they redound to the credit and glory and truth of that gospel.

But that’s not the question we’re asking, and we’re certainly not answering that question in the negative. The question we’re asking is whether our mission, as the church, is to do good deeds to the end of making the world a better place, to the end of making neighborhoods and cities and the world more livable. Is it our mission as the church—is it the thing Jesus sends us, as the church, into the world to accomplish—to eradicate social problems? This is an important questions because many Christians see the church’s mission in just these terms. Pastors and movements and denominations are planting and leading churches with the explicit understanding that their mission—their marching order from King Jesus—is to partner with civic leaders, school teachers, police officers, and firefighters to make their cities more livable, to provide housing and tutoring and sanitation and support services and immigrant orientation and art galleries and photography studios. And they speak as if they think that by doing those things, they’ll be building the Kingdom of God or wrapping their cities in God’s shalom.

That’s the kind of thinking we are addressing in WITMOTC, not the question of whether good works flow from and affirm and adorn the gospel.

We like the way Eckhard Schnabel puts it in his massive work Early Christian Mission. Schnabel argues that “expansive proclamation” is “the centrifugal dimension of mission” and “attractive presence” is the “centripetal dimension” (1:11). Our words ring out; our deeds draw people in. So the “elements of mission” include not only the ministry of the word but also “charity” and “ministry of grace.” But this is not the same as saying missions is charity or that a missionary is anyone who serves others in good deeds. According to Schnabel, “missionaries” are “envoys sent by the risen Jesus Christ to proclaim the good news” (1:11-12). Just as important, he clarifies what mission is striving for. “The result of mission is conversion: people accept and adopt the message proclaimed by the missionaries, they are integrated into the new community of faith, and they start to practice a new way of life with new behavioral patterns” (1:12).

So again, the question we’re asking is this: What is the purpose of the good works we do? Is it to confirm and affirm and adorn the message of the gospel? Yes! A thousand times yes! To demonstrate the love of God that we proclaim? Yes! To do all the things we stated in bold letters in chapter 9 of WITMOTC? Yes. To revitalize the downtown area so it’s more livable for everybody and thereby make the West End more like the Kingdom? Not exactly.

The question is the theological purpose of good works, not whether they are important. This is not an issue of mere semantics. The purpose of our good works matters a great deal when churches have to determine what ministries to undertake, what missionaries to support, and what opportunities to encourage. Whether good deeds are a centripetal force drawing people to the proclamation of the gospel or whether they are an effort to revitalize urban centers because that’s what the mission of the church is all about–this distinction will shape what we do with our finite time, finite people, and finite resources. Understanding that crucial point might help some readers zero in more clearly on our main point in the book.

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13 thoughts on “One More Time on Good Works and the Mission of the Church”

  1. Donovan says:

    One more point I’m sure you’d agree with: Christians growing in love is an end in and of itself (to the glory of God), not just a means to drawing people in with the attractiveness of love (though it is that too). Seeking to cultivate growth in love within our congregations is a part of the mission of the church not just because of the part it plays in evangelism, but also because of it’s centrality in discipleship.

  2. MarieP says:

    Ah, now I think I see what you’re saying…

    “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” Matthew 5:16

    Your point is that the goal is for people to glorify God when they see our good works, not that they would merely have a better society to live in- that may happen, but it’s because of people undergoing the new birth.

  3. matt long ;) says:

    (john 16:29)

  4. Timothy says:

    “The question we’re asking is whether our mission, as the church, is to do good deeds to the end of making the world a better place, to the end of making neighborhoods and cities and the world more livable. Is it our mission as the church—is it the thing Jesus sends us, as the church, into the world to accomplish—to eradicate social problems?”
    One of the frustrating experiences I had when I first presented a paper at a theological conference was the number of times people thought I was saying, “Not this but that.” In reality I was saying, or thought I was saying, “As well as this, which is something everyone has been saying, we need also to affirm that.” Is this a similar debate?
    Are you saying that too many are reducing mission to social action; that we must reassert the centrality of proclamatory mission? When you hear others, say Chris Wright from the so-called ‘missional school’, talk up the importance of social justice and the envoronment and so on, do you think he means that this is what mission is about rather than proclamatory mission?
    If so, we have a classic case of both sides arguing for both and both sides hearing the other side arguing only for one.
    But have I understood you correctly? Are you actually saying that “to do good deeds to the end of making the world a better place, to the end of making neighborhoods and cities and the world more livable” is not, repeat, NOT part of the church’s mission? If that is your claim, then you will need to tackle and answer the criticisms of for instance Tim Gombis and Joel Willets that you have trancated the church, the church’s story and thus the church’s mission. What you say positively is good. The problem people have is what you seem to be denying.

  5. Laurette says:

    @Timothy:

    “Are you actually saying that “to do good deeds to the end of making the world a better place, to the end of making neighborhoods and cities and the world more livable” is not, repeat, NOT part of the church’s mission?”

    I think the issue in question is really what it means for something to be “part of the church’s mission”. Does it mean making the world a better place is an end in itself and in THAT sense part of the mission, or is it part of the mission in the sense that it naturally flows from and is contingent on gospel proclamation?

    As I understand it, Kevin and Greg affirm the second sense.

  6. Brent Johnson says:

    I view it this way. If through us people God brings people to himself then by default society will be a better place. So with that in mind we spread the Good News first and reach a helping hand out second, never losing sight of that which comes first. For there are times when i’m not in a place to help remake the world but by the proclamation of the gospel.

  7. Ann Metcalf says:

    “The purpose of our good works matters a great deal when churches have to determine what ministries to undertake, what missionaries to support, and what opportunities to encourage.”

    Yes. I am excited to read more. It is crucial to examine why our local churches are serving where they are. Sometimes I am afraid that they are doing it to look good for the city/community and not really to advance the Kingdom.

  8. kyle says:

    Great explanation on what the mission of the church is not. To reduce the life and ministry of Christ and the church to humanitarian terms is dangerous. The function of the church is to bring the kingdom of God to earth. How that is done is primarily through the growth of the divine life unto maturity in each member and then the work of the ministry to build up the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). Intrinsically and in reality today the kingdom of God is the realm of God’s life expanding in our heart to become a realm in which God can carry out His will without resistance.

    I posted something similar to this line of thought recently:

    http://lifeandbuilding.com/2011/10/11/how-does-god-move/

  9. Timothy says:

    Laurette
    You might be right about what KDY anf GG are saying. It would be interesting to know.
    If they are, then I think one can take issue with them. Certainly making the world a better place is not the whole mission of the church. Does it have a place in the mission of the church? You seem to be saying that KDY and GG think that it does not have a place in the mission of the church, that it is only a consequence of the mission of the church. This seems to omit Genesis 1-2 in which the mandate to Adam was about mankind’s responsibility towards creation. This mandate was scuppered through mankinds activity outlined in Gen 3. So if mankind is to fulfill its mandate, the problems created by Gen 3 need to be addressed. But that does not abrogate the original mandate. If we see the church as the community of God’s people, then the responsibility on that community to bring creation to its fulness remains valid.
    Perhaps a parallel can be seen in the place of justification in Rom 5:1-11 (we have just had a sermon on this in church). Justification is wonderful and is just cause for rejoicing. But it is only the prelude to the blessing of reconciliation and the blessing of salvation. It is vital that we preach justification through faith (Rom 5:1) but that does not exhaust the meaning of the gospel which is as much to do with reconciliation and salvation as justification. I agree that without justification there can be no reconciliation or salvation. But to repeat, salvation without justification is not salvation but justification does not exhaust the meaning of salvation. In the same way, mission without proclamation is not mission, but proclamation does not exhaust the meaning of mission.
    Is the reason this is hard to follow because creation is not seen as sharing in salvation? Probably not in most cases but perhaps sometimes. Paul is clear that creation shares in the redemption of mankind. It is not a situation of mankind being saved to go off to heaven while creation is wrapped up and dismissed.

  10. LW says:

    For the most part I understand what you are saying, Kevin, but I have one thought. Last weekend I heard the CEO of the International Justice Mission give a talk, and he lead us to scripture after scriptuer in both the old and new testament when God makes it clear that not only is God as a God of Justice, but he commands his people to do justice. How do you proclaim the gospel to someone who is oppressed by leaders who abuse their power in other countries? How tell a child who survived in Rwanda that God is good? Or how do you proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to an Indian slave child or a woman sold into sex trade. How? Good works must accompany the proclamation, good works that reflect God’s heart for them, that he would send His people to do something about it. Of course we can’t all go overseas and help people who endure things we can’t even imagine on this side of the world, but God clearly states that his people care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed. Now, when I read these verses, I am overwhelmed. how in the world am I supposed to do anything about that? It’s too much! Maybe I should just focus on heaven when all will be well.

    I’m glad I heard this talk. He encouraged us give what we can to do justice and trust God to do the miracle of making a difference. These suffering people could be His. We can’t just proclaim. It’s like 1 John when the person says they love their friend but don’t give them what they need. It must be both.

    So I guess i’m saying, I disagree. I believe the mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel and bear its fruit.

    And let me just clarify. I don’t mean that people can only receive the gospel or know God is good if their situations are made better. I just think when Christians act like Christians (LOVE) they are better witnesses of who Christ is.

  11. Denis says:

    I think after reading Ed Stetzer and Trevin Wax’s critiques as well as the many responses from DeYoung and Gilbert, the thought I have had is this: Together, good works and proclamation of the gospel are clearly missional. By itself, a good work is not missional (anybody can do a good work, with or without the power of gospel). By itself, proclamation of the gospel is missional. Which means only the proclamation of the gospel is essential to mission. However, if you are proclaiming the gospel, you also should live it out in Christ-likeness. Which means you ought to do good works.

    So that begs the question, if both gospel proclamation and good works are essential to the life of a faithful Christian, does it matter which is essential and which is only connected to mission?

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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