Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gospel & the Poor 2

Since I posted on this topic yesterday, I thought I would take a moment to point to this Tim Keller essay entitled "The Gospel and the Poor". It is a well argued essay. It is broad both in terms of covering relevant Scriptures, speaking to current issues and being informed by both systematic theology and history theology. In particular, Keller relies on some of the points of a sermon by Jonathan Edwards entitled "Christian Charity".

In particular, it avoids the traps of watering down the gospel in favor of social programs and equally opposite danger of Word-centered ministry without compassion for physical needs [of course inside the church these ministries are divided up--but the church as a whole is not to do one to the exclusion of the other].

It is often said by opponents of the gospel, that the more we believe in the substitutionary atonement or the forensic 'justification by faith' the less we will be compassionate. On one hand people will argue then there is no motive for love and obedience. On the other hand, we are told that this ignores "kingdom" practice of Jesus in favor of "theology"--the fabled orthodoxy over orthopraxy. Nothing could be more false to true gospel belief. Granted not all true believers live out the implications of the gospel as well as they could. Yet it simply does not follow that the substitutionary atonement does not cause radical implications for behavior and gospel-obedience.

Here's what Tim Keller argues, relying on Edwards:
Another text Edwards looks to more than once is Gal 6:1–10, especially verse 2, which enjoins us to "bear one another's burdens." What are these burdens? Paul has in view, at least partially, material and financial burdens, because Gal 6:10 tells us to "do good to all men, especially the household of faith." Edwards (rightly, according to modern exegetes) understands "doing good" as including the giving of practical aid to people who need food, shelter, and financial help. Most commentators understand "burden-bearing" to be comprehensive. We share love and emotional strength with those who are sinking under sorrow; we share money and possessions with those who are in economic distress. But what does Paul mean when he says that burden-bearing "fulfills the law of Christ" (Gal 6:2)? Edwards calls this "the rules of the gospel."Richard Longenecker agrees, calling this "prescriptive principles stemming from the heart of the gospel." As Phil Ryken points out, the ultimate act of burden-bearing was substitutionary atonement in which Jesus bore the infinite burden of our guilt and sin. Again we see Paul reasoning that anyone who understands the gospel will share money and possessions with those with less of the world's goods.
And if it is the gospel that is moving us to help the poor, Edwards reasons, our giving and involvement with the poor will be significant, remarkable, and sacrificial. Those who give to the poor out of a desire to comply with a moral prescription will always do the minimum. If we give to the poor simply because "God says so," the next question will be "How much do we have to give so that we aren't out of compliance?" That question and attitude shows that this is not gospel-shaped giving. In the last part of his discourse, Edwards answers the objection "You say I should help the poor, but I'm afraid I have nothing to spare. I can't do it." Edwards responds,
In many cases, we may, by the rules of the gospel, be obliged to give to others, when we cannot do it without suffering ourselves . . . else how is that rule of bearing one another's burdens fulfilled? If we never be obliged to relieve others' burdens, but when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor's burdens, when we bear no burdens at all?
Edwards is arguing that if the basis for our ministry to the poor was simply a moral prescription, things might be different. But if the basis for our involvement with the poor is "the rules of the gospel," namely substitutionary sacrifice, then we must help the poor even when we think "we can't afford it." Edwards calls the bluff and says, "What you mean is, you can't help them without sacrificing and bringing suffering on yourself. But that's how Jesus relieved you of your burdens! And that is how you must minister to others with their burdens."
In the most powerful part of the discourse, Edwards answers a series of common objections he gets when he preaches about the gospel-duty of giving to the poor. In almost every case, he uses the logic of the gospel—of substitutionary atonement and free justification—on the objection. In every case, radical, remarkable, sacrificial generosity to the poor is the result of thinking out and living out the gospel. To the objection "I don't have to help someone unless he is destitute," Edwards answers that "the rule of the gospel" means that we are to love our neighbor as Christ loved us, literally entering into our afflictions. "When our neighbor is in difficulty, he is afflicted; and we ought to have such a spirit of love to him, as to be afflicted with him in his affliction."He then goes on to reason that, if we do this, we will need to relieve the affliction even if my neighbor's situation is short of destitution. To wait until people are utterly destitute before you help them shows that the logic of the gospel has not yet turned you into the socially and emotionally empathetic person you should be. [Keller, The Gospel and the Poor]
Next semester in our Sunday School, I am going to be exegeting the book of Galatians. One thing that sometimes we loose focus on is how the book of Galatians ends with a proper emphasis on gospel-obedience. In other words, sometimes while we focus on the truth of justification by faith that Paul deals with, we forget then that Paul had to teach right obedience to the Galatians church. Of course, the Judaizers argument was probably focused on how to obey God--namely become circumcised. This of course was making a mockery of the gospel because the believer is justified not by obedience but by faith. To hold off provisionally a person's status in the kingdom until they meet some sort of sanctification requirement makes a mockery of the justification by faith. YET, this does not mean that the Christian has no 'Christian duties'.

The sacrifice of Jesus in the gospel calls us to an even higher sacrifice of obedience than can ever be found in the letter of the Law. Indeed it is harder to obey out of the inward writing of the Law on our heart than it is to obey out of an outward legal obligation. This too his how we should think of taking care of the poor. The gospel calls us to a new level of discipleship.

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