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Copyright for the journal © 2005
M. S. Thirumalai
THE WEIGHT OF EVANGELISM AND SOCIAL ACTION
FOR A TRUE LOVE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN GOD AND US
God reveals to us in His word that He created people in the image of Himself and for relationship with Him. In order for a true love relationship to be possible between God and His people, they had to be given the freedom to choose the relationship. In his freedom, man chose instead rebellion against his creator. As a result, evil and sin came upon creation. God's ultimate purpose for creation has remained unchanged, however. Since the fall of creation into the hands of evil, God has been working towards its redemption. God became a man, Jesus, in order to lay Himself down as the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of man, so that the relationship God had intended for man could be restored. Praise God!
HOW DO WE GAIN REDEMPTION? AND EVANGELISM DEFINED
Though God has overcome sin through the sacrifice of Jesus, two major hindrances remain for the redemption of all creation. First of all, when Jesus was here on earth, He was not able to tell every single person alive at the time of God's love for them and redemptive plan for their lives. By taking human form, God became limited by time and space and simply could not reach every person with His message. As Jesus came bearing signs and wonders of God's kingdom, He was able, however, to touch many lives and to raise up followers. Jesus instructed His followers to go in His name and make disciples of all the nations (New International Version, Matthew 28:19). Then, after Jesus ascended to heaven, God sent the Holy Spirit to dwell among all people, enabling them to spread His redemptive message to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). This act of bringing people to the knowledge of God's love for them and leading them into relationship with Him is defined as evangelism.
TO OVERCOME HINDRANCE TO REDEMPTION - SOCIAL ACTION DEFINED
Secondly, God's creation is hindered from full redemption yet because it continues to suffer from the effects of the fall of man to sin. Paul tells us in Romans 8:20-21 that creation has been subject to frustration and that it has in bondage to decay ever since the fall of man to sin. Though God created a paradise for man in the Garden of Eden, when man chose to rebel against God, he was banned from the paradise and forced into suffering. However, the good news of God's redemptive heart of love is that God left the garden with Adam and Eve and ever since then has been longing for restored relationship with all of His children.
When Jesus came to the earth in order to reveal God's purpose of redemption, he also healed the sick and drove out evil spirits. Jesus demonstrated God's abounding love by restoring various effects of sin in the lives of people. As Jesus sent out His followers to the world, He instructed them to do the same because He knew of each person's need to see God's love for them. This method of expanding God's kingdom by working to restore the devastation of creation is defined as social action.
IMPORTANCE OF EVANGELISM AND SOCIAL ACTION
Jesus taught His followers very clearly about the importance of both evangelism and social action. Both have crucial roles in God's redemptive message reaching the ends of the earth. Leslie Newbegin clearly explains the roles and importance of both word and deed:
Sometimes it is a word the pierces through layers of custom and opens up a new vision. Sometimes it is a deed which shakes a whole traditional plausibility structure. They mutually reinforce and interpret one another. The words explain the deeds, and the deeds validate the words (Newbegin, 137).
DISTINCTION BETWEEN EVANGELISM AND SOCIAL ACTION
Evangelism and social action must be distinguished from one another, however. First of all, they differ in that evangelism only pertains to each individual person, and social action is most often aimed at groups of people or entire social systems. Another difference is in the outcomes of each. Evangelism can result in eternal life for the individual, whereas social action results in better living conditions in this world. The intention of a person doing evangelism, to lead people into a relationship with God, likewise differs from the intention of one doing social action, to improve people's lives in this world. (Sider, 159-161)
It is important to distinguish evangelism and social action also to maintain the integrity of each. For instance, if evangelism and social action are viewed as equal, social action could then be seen as merely a bribe for bringing people to Christ. However, the truth is that acts of social justice by God's people to improve lives "have their own Biblical justification whether or not those who benefit ever accept Christ" (Sider, 161).
Evangelism has the danger of losing its integrity as well, if it is equated with social action. Gospel-bearers cannot assume that social action alone with no verbal proclamation of the good news can bring a person into relationship with God.
THE APOSTLE PAUL ON THIS ISSUE
Though evangelism and social action have distinctive intentions and outcomes, both are crucial to effective expansion of God's Kingdom here on earth. As Paul says in Romans 10:14, "How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" Clearly, for a child of God to hear of God's unfailing love him is essential for helping him enter into relationship with God. Just as Jesus was an embodiment of God, so He has instructed His followers to be an embodiment of His message. In other words, disciples of Christ are to demonstrate Christ's love for each person.
JESUS' MINISTRY AND SOCIAL ACTION
Jesus instructed his followers to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is near. The healings and wonders performed by Jesus were signs of God's Kingdom coming to the earth. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, "Jesus' ministry was thus not the ministry of telling us patiently to await the sight of justice and shalom; it was the ministry of displaying that justice and shalom by healing those blemishes incompatible with shalom: blindness, lameness, leprosy, hopelessness, onerous religious obligations, unjust imprisonment, social exclusion" (Wolterstorff, 17).
The Word reveals to us through the revelations of prophets that one day, when God's Kingdom is fully established, evil will be totally defeated and His redemption will be complete. Until that day, Jesus has instructed his followers to work with Him in the process of redeeming His creation. God is working in the world towards the promise of final redemption, and He calls His disciples to come alongside and participate as the hands and feet of Jesus. God calls His followers to be an expression of God's redemptive power in our own lives for the sake of bringing others to Him.
GOD'S REDEMPTION COVERS MORE THAN SIN
It is also important to understand that God's redemption covers not just the sin of each individual person, but defeats the power of the effects of sin on all of God's creation. Though a severely oppressed person may choose to receive God's free gift of redemption of his sins and successfully enter into relationship with God, the effects of the fall of creation due to sin will continue to affect that person's life. It is for this reason that social action becomes necessary. Because of God's unbounded love, He not only wants relationship with each person, but He wants their lives here on earth to be as He originally intended as well. God calls His disciples to represent Him in this world in defeating the effects of sin on God's children.
WE ARE PARTNERS WITH JESUS
In participating in social action, we are being partners with Jesus in "challenging the powers of evil" (Newbegin, 134). We engage in social action because we cannot let evil have the final say. Jesus' ministry was not to overrule the laws of nature but to reverse the rule of evil. In Luke 11:20, Jesus stated, "But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you." By proclaiming victory over demonic forces, Jesus was demonstrating what the Kingdom of God was all about. Jesus, in announcing the Kingdom, was declaring war with the enemy, "who has introduced devastation into the good creation" (Sider, 61). All suffering in this world has evil at its roots since God did not intend for His creation to suffer. God is love, and therefore by His nature, He cannot author or approve of evil. Jesus instructed His followers to usher in the Kingdom in the same way, and when they did, Jesus said He "saw Satan fall like lightning" (Luke 10:18). War has begun.
INFINITE WORTH AND VALUE OF ALL HUMANS
Social action is crucial in sharing the good news of God's redemption also because God has made every person in His image and therefore each person deserves a chance to live the life God intends for him. Each person on the earth is of no value besides the infinite worth and value which God places on him. God shows us the value He places on people in that He took our form.
If the body is so good that the Creator became flesh, rose bodily, and promises to restore the whole created order including our bodies, then any approach to human need that ignores or neglects physical needs is flatly heretical (Sider, 142).
Therefore, when we care for our fellow image-bearers, we are caring for Christ. Jesus told His disciples, "'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40). All people deserve to know their own worth in the eyes of God, and their purpose for relationship with Him. We, as disciples, must therefore go to show God's children His love for them by caring for them as Jesus would. Again, we are the hands and feet of Christ.
HOPE AMIDST SUFFERING
Because of the fall of creation and the effects of sin, tremendous suffering exists throughout the earth. As people suffer, their hearts cry out for help and for hope. Every human being yearns "secretly or consciously, for human dignity, hope, to transcend death" (Sider, 122). Every person deserves to know that God suffers with them and promises ultimate redemption from all of suffering. God has answered the suffering of the world by entering into the world. Once God created the world, His happiness became bound up with it. Because the very nature of God is love, God cannot be indifferent, even though His creation rebelled against Him. God has overcome evil by suffering love. Every human being longs for satisfaction, and they all deserve to know that true satisfaction can be found only in the Creator Himself. Ultimately, it is the thirst for God that He has placed within His children that cries out against injustice. It is the desire of each person to live as God intended that makes pain into suffering.
SOCIAL ACTION OPENS UP DOORS FOR THE HOLY SPIRIT TO WORK
Social action can help bring the world to Christ because ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who draws a person to Christ. In fact, many times when open evangelism is impossible, social action alone can open up doors for the Holy Spirit to work. Through humbling ourselves to serving others through social action, those affected can see that we are serving something higher than ourselves. Social action can open up opportunities to share God's heart to improve the lives of people even without being able to share the words of His promise.
By serving those suffering, followers of Christ can develop a trust relationship with those affected which opens up opportunities for sharing the message in otherwise impossible situations. As laborers of social justice, our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit is essential for social action to even have the chance to bring people to Christ. We are powerless to bring people to Christ anyway without the help of the Holy Spirit, even if we do have the opportunity to use words to share Christ's message.
GOD'S LOVE IS FOR ALL OF US
God is love. The moment God created, His happiness became bound up with His creation. God's ultimate purpose for a love-relationship with His creation cannot be thwarted, even by the schemes of the enemy. Threads of God's unfailing love pervade all of creation and His redemptive purposes will prevail. God has chosen to limit Himself to using His creation to bring about His purposes of redemption. For those who choose to follow Him, God uses us to bring about His Kingdom on earth, because every one of His children deserve the love He intended for them.
Brooks, Alec. "Theology of Justice, Righteousness and Missions Through Good Works."
Bethany College of Missions. January 3-6, 2005.
Newbegin, Leslie. The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.
Sider, Ronald J. Good News and Good Works. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1993.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas. "The God Who Loves Justice and Our Love of the God Who Loves
Justice." Justice and Global Witness: a Biblical Foundation for Action. Washington, D.C. July 8-10, 1999.
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