Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Gospel Of Mercy: From Grasping To Giving

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."


And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them.
Matthew 4:17, 23-24
The totality of Jesus' gospel isn't one or the other: truth or mercy. It is both.
The social gospel [mercy but no truth] dooms people to hell. But in the final analysis, so too does a so-called "biblical" gospel that gets penal substitution, justification, repentance and faith correct but never moves us to preach it, teach it, spread it, apply it, and risk it and ourselves in caring for the needs of people perishing in sin and disease and hunger and war and poverty and illiteracy [truth but no mercy].
That is an excerpt--and I would say the bottom line--from a blog post written by Thabiti Anyabwile on Tuesday called South Africa, AIDS, the Social Gospel, and the Gospel (I added the phrases in the brackets and the emphases). The post is excellent. It's deeply convicting. And every fiber within me resonates with everything he's written in it.

I don't say that flippantly. I spent essentially the entire month of June after the completion of my year-long pastoral ministry class on Romans and Galatians asking myself if I really grasp the gospel. The result was a paper I wrote called The Gospel of Mercy: From Grasping To Giving. The only reason I mention it is because the paragraph that I quoted from Anyabwile's post articulates the very same (and tremendously disturbing) idea that it's possible for us to have all the right theology and still not grasp the gospel. Here's most of the introduction from my paper:
For almost ten months we spent each class period pretty much the same way. We would work our way through as much of a chapter as we could, trying to understand Paul's thought process as—under divine inspiration to express the mind and heart of God—he explained the gospel. But we did something different for two of the last three weeks of our class. We watched a documentary detailing the realities of modern day human trafficking of humans for sex, work, and war slavery. Then we watched a movie that was an accurate depiction of how women are trafficked as sex slaves in and out of the United States. In addition to watching these two films, we attended a two day conference about how we can be abolitionists of this modern day human trafficking epidemic that victimizes more human beings than the African-American slave trade of centuries past.

Now I love discussing theology and I love to study the Bible. But when you hear about ten year old girls who are sold as sex slaves to adult men because it’s the only way that the rest of the family will be able to eat, there is a way that theological discussions begin to feel really insignificant. I begin to wonder if this is all just an intellectual exercise. For parents who don’t know how they are going to feed their kids, young men who are being treated worse than work horses, and little girls treated like sex toys, would I really be helping them by being able to explain to them the difference between justification and sanctification? And that’s assuming that they are even literate in the first place. When you are no longer in a land of affluence, teaching through biblical concepts and arguments inevitably must encounter never before seen challenges.

This is the world we live in: a world filled with slavery and poverty and illiteracy and disease and affliction and injustice of every kind. And it is this very world of brokenness that the gospel of Romans and Galatians breaks into. These are two things I know for sure. To say it another way, I hate that the world is filled with injustice and evil that causes indescribable pain for men, women, boys, and girls who are created in the image of God. And I love the gospel of Jesus Christ and believe with all my heart that it is the only hope for a world that is groaning in myriads of ways due to the pervasively devastating effects of the curse of sin. But the question for me is: specifically in his letter to the Romans (since it is more comprehensive), how do these realities fit together in Paul’s—more importantly, God’s—unfolding of the gospel? I feel the urgency and priority of setting human slaves free after going to a conference on human trafficking. And I know that this kind of liberation is a significant part of what Jesus came to accomplish through the gospel (Luke 4:18-19). But I don’t think that I would feel the urgency and priority of liberating human slaves if our last three weeks of class didn’t involve those movies or that conference. And that bothers me. Because the fact of the matter is that if our class wouldn’t have done things differently those two weeks, I would be pretty confident that I had grasped the gospel even though I wouldn’t have any thoughts of the millions of slaves that the gospel is meant to redeem. And I just don’t understand how I could be blind to that aspect of the gospel after spending so much time in Romans. In Romans, I saw that the gospel removes wrath. It removes guilt. It removes shame. It removes condemnation. It removes slavish fear. What I didn’t see was that the gospel should also remove affliction due to injustice. The gospel should also remove pain. The gospel should also remove bondage. The gospel should also remove poverty. The way that it does this is that as the gospel produces effects in me, it should also be producing effects through me. In removing guilt, shame, condemnation, and wrath from me, the gospel transforms me to be one who removes affliction, pain, bondage, and poverty from others.
I wrote this paper for the sake of my soul, to make sure that I really grasp the gospel. May the Lord help us all to better grasp the glorious gospel of His mercy and grace so that in more deeply grasping His mercy to us (because none of us grasps it deeply enough), we will all the more freely offer that same mercy to others (because none of us offers it freely enough), especially those who are most desperate for it.

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