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On proclaiming the gospel and doing good

May 12, 2017

James K. A. Smith points out that the liberal vision of life in the West was grounded in Christianity (so, as an aside, in trying to remove religion from the public sphere, it cuts off the branch on which it sits). Moral values don’t stand alone. They need a framework, a story, a metanarrative to give them meaning. It is within such a framework that they make sense. Although people deep down know that certain things are right and wrong, it can be hard to understand and defend them apart from a worldview which explains them and gives them a foundation in the way the world is. Once a person “settles into” a religion or philosophy that includes moral valuations, those moral beliefs become more coherent. (Or, conversely, the incoherence of a set of moral values–inconsistency among them and between those values and the realities claimed to undergird them–is a good reason to doubt the worldview itself.)

Thus, when we knock heads with our neighbors in America over moral issues, if we don’t quit first we will beat ourselves unconscious unless we dig deeper and consider the larger frameworks that are believed to make sense of them. The saying attributed to Francis of Assisi, that we should preach the gospel at all times and use words if necessary, should be discarded as unhelpful and even misleading, whether he said it or not. Certainly no one is going to know what the gospel message is–that the Messiah has come and his reign has (quietly) begun, and that we can participate in it through faith in Jesus–unless it is put into words. And by telling this message, our moral beliefs and claims–why we live as we do (or ought to) and why we think this way is best for society–are given a meaningful, coherent structure.

For a long time, what I heard about our Christian responsibility to our society was that we were to proclaim the gospel. Of course we should be good, godly people. But good behavior was, as I understood it, a matter of not being worldly and of protecting one’s own testimony. It wasn’t fleshed out as being part of the gospel message itself, as evidence that it was true, and simply as our responsibility as Christians to contribute to the common good. For some, it functioned more as a rebuke to the worldliness of society than as an winsome invitation to come and see. Much talk about living out our beliefs in a public context was suspect, as it might reflect that rascally social gospel that left out the matter of sin and the need for redemption in Christ. The proclamation of the gospel must come first, although it would be nice if we did good things, too.

The St. Francis quote, by contrast, swings the issue far in the other direction. We are off the hook for engaging in the sometimes uncomfortable task of talking about the gospel, which means talking about sin and forgiveness; we just have to do good, and, if someone asks why, we can tell them why we live the way we do.

It is good to do good whether we have the chance to present the gospel or not. But the latter needs to be done as well. This is a kind of “match made in heaven.” As John Frye notes, Jesus went about doing good (Acts 10:38). But he also proclaimed the good news of forgiveness and new life (Mk. 1:14,15; Jn. 3:16; 8:24). The apostle Paul asks, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher ?” (Rom. 10:14).

So the church–that is, Christians individually and collectively–needs to speak and live out the gospel. In doing so, we contribute to the common good, and, as N.T. Wright is fond of saying, we show what the world would be like if God were in charge. And we bring a message of hope to people who need to hear it.

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