What the Needy Need
Since we live in a fallen world, our greatest strengths have a way of giving birth to our greatest weaknesses. This is why some churches that emphasize a strong Bible-preaching pulpit are less vigorous in ministries of mercy. One inner city Presbyterian church participated in a study regarding mercy ministries. The study commended the church for its vigorous efforts to minister to the needy and the lost. But the study report expressed this approval in telling language: it said that the church “is deeply committed to teaching and preaching biblical doctrine; however, it also has a heart for mercy ministry.”
This is how many people have learned to think: they are surprised that a church that is strong in the Word would also be strong in good deeds. When the pastor of this particular church received the report, he requested one significant revision. It should be changed to say that because they are deeply committed to biblical doctrine, therefore they have a heart for mercy ministry! And this is how it should be in all our churches!
The reality is that any church that fails to minister the merciful love of God is failing in its witness to the merciful heart of God. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). Likewise, a church that is little interested in works of mercy is not pleasing to our Lord. The Christians that Jesus will commend on the Last Day are those to whom He will say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.… Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:35–40).
So how do churches lead their members to recognize the necessity of merciful deeds? What causes Christians to act spontaneously in the kind of mercy Jesus commends? I want to offer three ways in which our churches can cultivate a spirit of mercy within its members.
First, we motivate mercy ministry by teaching the full biblical doctrine of salvation. We rightly emphasize repentance from sin, forgiveness of sin, and the hope of glory in heaven. Yet it is not merely our souls that are saved by God’s grace. Our lifestyles are also redeemed. And God’s saving grace within any community — a family, church, city, or nation — will result in increased mercy and justice. The Old Testament vision of salvation is replete with this emphasis. God frequently complained against the lack of justice and mercy among His people, and He continually urged the Israelites “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8). The New Testament does not let up on this emphasis, as can easily be seen in the parables of Jesus and in Paul’s pastoral epistles. So as we teach salvation, we must present the peace and love that God gives to His people, both of which are manifested in ministries of mercy and kindness to others.
Secondly, churches can accomplish much by modeling mercy within their own congregational life. Some of this involves targeted ministries to the surrounding communities. We should look around and see what types of needs are obvious. If there are homeless people, the church should have a homeless outreach. If there are elderly, there might be a visitation ministry. If there are internationals, the church might reach out with hospitality. But beyond this is the simple modeling of ordinary mercy. Do we notice the disabled in our midst and make provision for their participation? Do we care about the problems the elderly have in getting to church? Are we involved in ministry to the shut-ins? The church should not be a compartment in life where one participates in mercy ministry. Rather, the church should be a community in which the practice and habits of mercy are learned and trained.
Thirdly, we must always remember that the greatest mercy is that which brings the good news of Jesus Christ to the lost. Are we inspiring church members to personal evangelism? Many people think that the Reformed faith de-motivates Christians from sharing the Gospel. But when we realize the costly mercy by which God has saved us, the natural result is that we would look with mercy on the world. The Bible says that we love because God loved us, we forgive because God has forgiven us, and we give because of what God has given to us. If we understand the sovereign mercy that has saved our souls, we will be merciful to others by presenting a living and loving witness to the Gospel of Christ.
One of the strongest statements of God’s sovereignty in salvation occurs in Jonah 2:9 where the prophet prays, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” But that great doctrinal statement is accompanied in the previous verse by a lament for the state of the lost, who by their idolatry “forsake their hope of steadfast love” (v. 8). Like Jonah, who cared little for the Gentiles until he understood his own salvation, it is when we truly appreciate the sovereign mercy by which we have been saved that we will no longer struggle to feel mercy for the dying world.