Reductio ad Philanthropum: When Cause Eclipses Christ

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
—Romans 10:14

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There’s a whole lotta good deed doing going on out there. Seems the God folk have finally found a way to win the world’s affirmation. Ramp up the philanthropic machine and you get a smattering of worldly applause and some mild (though hesitant) approval. Earnest Christianish humanitarian efforts are all the rage now. There’s the end human trafficking/slavery movement. The omnipresent social equality juggernaut. The green Jesus movement. A well-oiled feed the hungry movement. There are church sponsored clothing drives and free medical clinics. Churches give away batteries for smoke detectors, set up supply stations for the homeless, organize literacy programs, and recruit school mentors. Every spring armies of church youth groups tramp through neighborhoods cleaning up yards, and during the summer free car washes proliferate like coffee kiosks in parking lots across the country. It’s a philanthropic frenzy. Christians are nearly giddy with relief that they can actually do something Jesussy without embarrassment. After all, nobody wants to be a pariah.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that good deeds are indeed good. The Bible is filled with appeals to get your good on. James, that grace-challenged apostle most of us would rather avoid, insists that good deeds and Christian faith are two sides of the same shekel. The Apostle Paul tells us that good works are a big reason God saves folks in the first place. And Peter, always the practical one, says good deeds are a way for Christians to deflect bullets fired at them by the heathen horde: Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us (1 Peter 2:12). As far as Holy Writ is concerned, faith and works go together like fish and chips.

But what happens when the church is reduced to good deeds? The world understands charity and welcomes it. It likes nothing better than efforts to help the disadvantaged, the oppressed, or those in crisis. What it does not like, however, is any indication that Duct-Tape-Mouthit is sinful and in need of Christ. As Jesus himself said, the world “hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” These days believers are welcome to help out but not to speak out. Any talk that smacks of religious exclusivism or social discrimination is vilified. For the church to assert that its charitable work is linked to a judgment of the world’s systems and values as well as to a salvation in Christ alone is to invite a maelstrom of protest from all quarters—including from many within the church itself. Our culture condemns religious “intolerance” of any kind. The ancient Christian doctrines of sin and the supremacy of Christ are not only increasingly incompatible with our militantly secular culture, but nearly any verbal representation of “repent and believe” is dangerously close to being classified as hatespeak, a heinous crime against the civilized social order.

To counter this rather uncomfortable situation, the current trend is to excise the Good News from the good works, or at least to hit the mute button on any pointed Jesus talk. Religious philanthropy, though nothing new, is now more widespread and diverse than ever before. Yet, unlike the church’s practice for the past 2000 years, these days the plain declaration of the Gospel is curiously absent from the good deeds landscape. Beyond our narrow, insular Sunday sanctuaries, we have become mimes whose exaggerated gestures entertain but do not explain.

What is more, many of our most ardent champions for social justice, who themselves have been raised in the church, no longer believe that an accompanying message of salvation in Christ is productive or even necessary. They are committed to a given cause and only secondarily (if at all) to the mission of the church to bring the Gospel to a lost world. In reality, their cause has become their gospel. They see little need for redemption, only for human dignity, which is achievable by human effort. Any work to bring this about is good enough.

But the hardcore Biblical fact of the matter is that nobody gets saved by good works, neither those who do them nor those who see them. Salvation comes only from hearing the testimony about Christ. Even for Jesus, the good works his Father assigned to him were intended to validate the truth: “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” A gospel of good works is no gospel at all; good deeds alone may bring a welcome relief but not spiritual redemption. If we hold to the Biblical witness of a necessary salvation in the Son of God, we must embrace the scandal of the cross and boldly proclaim it as the centerpiece of all that we are and do in this world, not for our sake, but for the sake of all who are perishing in spite of our heartfelt activism.

Good works are good, but to die clothed and well fed is still to die. Justice and equality are good, but to die with dignity and equal rights is still to die. To have Christ, on the other hand, whether in plenty or in need, whether male or female, whether slave or free, is to have all things and eternal life. Speaking this message is the church’s one true service to the world, her one cause, and her everlasting glory.

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