One of the great challenges we faced in the 20th century was the social gospel. One major denomination in Wales adopted a new, shorter confession of faith, which included the statement that Jesus is ‘the sole redeemer of society’. The emphasis was on social action and there was a serious neglect of the urgent need for people to be reconciled to God through the gospel. There was great optimism that through social action and education the kingdom of God would be established on earth. The tragic course of the 20th century shattered those hopes and the social gospel devastated the churches.
We are deeply grateful to the Lord that he raised up ministers and churches, both within the historic denominations and outside, who believe the Bible and proclaim the gospel. The good news of God is that we are saved, not through our righteous deeds, but by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. God’s salvation in him is full, free and for ever.
One of the challenges we face today, however, is that we may have failed to realise the vital importance of the good works, which always, and inevitably, follow true faith in Jesus. In Ephesians Paul writes, ‘For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do’ (Eph. 2:10). Writing to Titus he says that Jesus ‘gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Titus 2:14). His exhortation to the Galatian churches is, ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ (Gal. 6:9-10). In his letter James says, ‘Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do’ (James 2:18).
One of the greatest desires of every Christian is to be like Jesus. His ministry radiated the work of the Holy Spirit in and through him as he transformed many lives. Peter told the people gathered in the house of Cornelius, ‘God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him’ (Acts 10:38).
In his teaching Jesus also taught the importance of good works and kindness. In the Sermon on the Mount he said that his people are salt and light in the world and told them, ‘Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
The teaching of Jesus is radical. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that obedience to the second great commandment, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, transcends the deep divisions between people and nations. I remember studying this parable with some Christians from Iran. The powerful challenge of the parable to them was that God expected them to love Iraqi people. That was really counter-cultural! Very few Christians from Britain have faced the radical challenge of the parable in the same way and asked what it means for us.
In Jesus’ description of the last judgment in Matthew 25, the declaration of the King is also a great challenge, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matt. 25:45). Are we expressing practical Christian love to other Christians and churches? Are we taking opportunities to ‘do good to all men’? If we aren’t, does it matter? If our doctrine is correct, does it matter that we are not ‘eager to do what is good’? The example of Jesus and his teaching tell us unmistakably that it does matter!
When we do what is good we bring beauty into the lives of other people and into our sad and troubled world. The transforming power of God’s love shines through. Some years ago I read a newspaper article about two ladies, Manoly and Veronica, who met for the first time at a mutual friend’s wedding anniversary party. Manoly, who had two teenage children, told Veronica that she had been waiting for a kidney transplant for five years. A close relative had said he would donate one of his kidneys, but had changed his mind. Manoly was on dialysis for eight hours every night and the need was becoming urgent. When Veronica heard Manoly’s story she said, ‘Why don’t you have one of my kidneys!’ Two months later, the operation took place and Manoly is now well.
As I read the article I was struck by the remarkable thing Veronica had done and I thought she must know the Lord! Later in the article Veronica said, ‘I barely knew Manoly but after talking to her, and hearing how desperate she was, I felt it was the right thing to do. We all knew that there was a chance I could die, but I wasn’t worried at all. I am a Christian and I felt that God said it was right. I had real peace about it because I knew it was what God wanted me to do. I felt completely calm.’ Manoly said, ‘I can’t really thank her enough. We are very close now, like sisters. I’m really very grateful to her and I count my blessings every day.’
Every time we show the love of God in practical ways it brings light and beauty into our dark world. People who may not yet be ready to read a tract, or hear a testimony, or come to church, will see what we have done and will give glory to our Father in heaven.