A preacher once paraphrased a bygone theologian as a challenge to his congregation: “To convert one sinner from his way, is an event of greater importance than the deliverance of sub-Saharan Africa from the problem of AIDS.” He went on: “The very fact that we have pause here is an indication of the influence of relativistic thinking among us.”
On one hand, this point absolutely needs to be heard. But on the other, it potentially creates a false dilemma. For those churches mentioned in Friday’s study, those who allow the message of the good news of Jesus Christ to be overshadowed by social action, the fact that top priority must always be given to the conversion of souls must be expressed. A problem may arise, however, if this challenge were issued in a church that, as Friday’s study aptly stated, are “so afraid of falling prey to the social gospel that works of charity rank at the bottom of their priority list.” And herein creeps the false dilemma. The last thing a church like this needs is “theological” justification for its inaction. Yet the remedy is clear: the situation ought not be thought of in terms of either/or — either work toward the conversion of souls or work for the eradication of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa (or abortion in the West, or malaria in southern Africa, or child prostitution in southeast Asia). Indeed, the second one is inextricably bound to the first.
Maybe this stems from our confusion over what “conversion of souls” means. It’s not just about redeeming one’s spirit; it involves the whole person. In fact, a soul, in biblical terms, is the whole person — both the body God fashioned from the ground as well as the breath of life He breathed into that body (Gen. 2:7). “The conversion of souls,” then, has nothing to do with making some inner, vapor-like essence squeaky clean (that has more to do with a philosopher named Plato than we might think). Rather, it has everything to do with the calling God gives to those chosen according to His boundless grace and love. (Note here that conversion, in the language of the New Testament, is denoted by the word calling, 1 Cor. 1:26; Eph. 4:1; 2 Thess. 1:11; 2 Tim. 1:9; Heb. 3:1; 2 Peter 1:10). So, there’s no doubt the calling of sinners into God’s kingdom, with no qualifications, ought to be the church’s top priority. We just need to remember that God has promised to deal with bodies and tangible things, like all of creation — not shadows and mist — when it comes to redemption.
Connected to this calling is the purpose or mission for which people have been called. Just because a church has a top priority doesn’t mean it is supposed to relegate its subsequent priorities to the shelf — especially when those other priorities flow from the top one itself. This speaks to the purpose of the church’s existence. It is why the church is often described as a “missionary church,” a body of people whose mission is to go into all the world and make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ (the one given all authority in heaven and on earth), baptizing them as a sacramental act of entrance into the covenant community and of union with the risen Christ. Having been called (converted), God’s people are then “sent” to fulfill that holy calling (John 20:21). But to do what?
This brings us full circle: First, to proclaim the good news that Jesus is Lord, that sin and death have been defeated, that all people are called to trust in Him and turn from sin if they want to be resurrected one day, and that by His Spirit He is establishing God’s kingdom now. Second, precisely because Jesus is the one through whom God began this good and final work in the world, we too must get with the program. We are being sent, and thus we are called to be agents of God’s healing love in this dark world. Simply put, this means all Christians are called to do works of “justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
There is no dilemma here. The two are bound up together in the very same mission. And it’s not a mission to establish a country club that meets every Sunday morning. It’s not a mission to become a better person and develop some kind of spiritual potential. It’s not a mission to huddle together in order to escape from an evil world and to pave the way for heaven when we die. It’s not a mission to fill our heads up with facts. It’s not a mission that merely seeks to encourage others, and it’s certainly not a mission to show the people of the world that Christians are just like them. The mission is clear, distinct, and twofold: the calling of people to talk about the Gospel of God with others, as well as the calling to acts of “justice and mercy and faithfulness.”
The woes Jesus declares in Matthew 23 serve as warnings to us today insofar as we’ve fallen off the missionary track. Behind these woes lies Deuteronomy 27:15–26 and 28:16–20, where Israel is threatened with exile if they do not keep the covenant. This challenge Jesus basically reiterates to the leaders of Israel in His day. Matthew, in recording it, is challenging us too: he puts the choice of exile or long life in the land before us. How will you fare?