In American culture’s dizzying changes of the past few years, there has been a debate among people of faith. Many well-intentioned, compassionate people were moved to take up the cause of justice, to stand up for who they believe is marginalized, oppressed, and downtrodden.
In response, some people of faith argued, “Christians should just preach the gospel.” This response strikes some as a mischaracterization of Christ and His message. Jesus commands us to relieve those who suffer. To overlook this component of His message is to miss a grand purpose of the Christian faith.
But the other side points out that the Christian should have an eternal perspective. Therefore, sharing the gospel outweighs the need to tend to the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.
Should Christians “Just Preach the Gospel?”
To answer, let’s look at the example of the apostles.
Jesus commissioned these twelve men to
“make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:19-20)
As Jesus’s chief ambassadors to the world, the apostles’ primary responsibilities were to preach, convert, and teach. And as soon as they received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, that’s exactly what they did. Peter and his fellow apostles declared Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, by virtue of His resurrection from the dead.
But as the account unfolds, the apostles did many, many good works alongside their preaching of the gospel. In Acts 3, Peter and John healed a lame man. Later in chapter 5, Luke reports,
“through the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were done among the people…they brought the sick out into the streets and laid then on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them.”
The sick and demon-possessed were healed by the grace of God at work through the hands of the apostles.
While we might not be able to work miracles today, there is much we can do to help our fellow travelers. Like the apostles, our primary responsibility is to share the good news of Jesus Christ. But secondary to that, we should take advantage of opportunities to clothe the naked, feed the poor, visit the sick and afflicted, or provide a cold drink to the thirsty.
So, no, Christians are not to “just preach the gospel.” However, we should bear in mind several warnings of Scripture when it comes to doing good deeds.
Avoid virtue signaling
Virtue signaling is the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue. Taking a picture of you handing a water bottle to a homeless person would be an example of virtue signaling. Or writing a post on social media to express how you agree with the culture’s accepted views of a current social issue would be an example of virtue signaling. Virtue signaling makes good deeds and crusades for social causes into performances – look at my good deeds, look at how righteous I am.
Jesus warned against the dangers of performative righteousness in Matthew 6. In His day, the Pharisees would put on public displays in their charity, their prayers, and their fasting. They did this to draw attention to themselves and to demonstrate their righteousness. Jesus rebukes them for hypocrisy and commands His disciples to go about their business in a quiet way.
There is a real temptation for Christians to fall into the trap of turning what should be behind-the-scenes acts of mercy and kindness into performances. If we feel we have to prove our virtue to others by publicly sharing our good deeds, then we are doing well for the wrong reasons.
“when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly” (Matthew 6:3-4).
Don’t virtue signal! Do what you know is right in a quiet way and avoid drawing attention to yourself.
Work toward love
One of the qualities I really dislike about our current cultural climate is the wide-scale attempt by some to guilt others into doing what they want them to do. I am, admittedly, not a fan of coercing others to take responsibility for sins that are not their own.
However, on an individual level, regret or guilt is sometimes a place to start. In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus shares a parable involving a father with two sons. The father tells both sons to work in his vineyard. The first one says no, regrets his decision, changes his mind and works in the vineyard. The second son agrees to work in the vineyard but never follows through. Jesus says the first son, even though he initially refused to do what was right, ultimately carried out his father’s will.
The lesson for us is sometimes we don’t want to do what is right.
Perhaps you have found yourself in a situation where you knew you should help out another person, but you didn’t want to, and yet did it because you knew it was the right thing to do. If we just proceed ahead, we have carried out our Father’s will.
However, as Christians we should work toward doing what is right out of love. If guilt is our only motivation for doing good deeds or advocating for righteousness, we will never reach our full potential. Paul observed in 1 Corinthians 13:3,
“And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”
The love upheld by Paul is doing what is best for another person even at the expense of what is best for oneself. While we may begin like the son who initially refused to do his father’s will but relented in the end, we should mature into doing what’s right out of love. We need to grow out of guilt and grow into love.
Doing what is right and standing for what is right out of love for others should be our goal.
Am I really helping?
Jesus famously fed at least 5,000 people in one day with two fish and five loaves of bread. That night, He went across the Sea of Galilee with His disciples by boat. The multitudes he fed one day, followed Him across the sea the next. When they found Him, Jesus questioned their motivations,
“Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled” (John 6:26).
He went on to teach them, but did NOT feed them.
Before we act, we should do our best to discover what is really needed. When Jesus chose to feed the multitudes one day and teach them the next, He, as the Son of God, was able to see the full picture and respond accordingly.
Sometimes, what is needed is simple and clear: the good Samaritan saw his Jewish neighbor beaten and left for dead and knew what needed to be done. But when it comes to spiritual matters, many people really don’t know WHAT they need. The multitudes thought they needed bread; they thought their most pressing need was to satisfy their hunger. Jesus told them they were looking for the wrong bread; they needed the BREAD OF LIFE!
I may be helping someone in one way while neglecting something of far greater importance. So before I get involved, I need to do my due diligence: do I really know what this person or these people need?
- Am I looking for a quick fix that eases my guilty conscience, or am I willing to commit to solutions that will work in the long-term?
- Does what I’m advocating truly help my neighbor?
- Have I talked to people in the community who are affected by the problems I am speaking against?
- Am I supporting an organization or participating in a movement with righteous aims?
One of the challenges of our current time is sorting out what is true from what is propaganda or political spin.
Keep first things first
As Christians, we should have an eternal outlook. Remember the lesson of John 6:27. The multitudes found Jesus and he tells them the only reason they sought him out was because they were hungry. He goes on to say,
“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”
Yes, Christ wants us to relieve suffering and help the vulnerable to the degree that we are able.
However, we should always balance our desire to make this world a better place with the realization that this world will pass away.
- If I seek greater justice for the marginalized here below but never help them avoid the eternal justice that awaits should they remain in their sins, how have I helped them?
- If I clothe the naked but never help them put on clothes of righteousness, how have I helped them?
As a Christian, I have a responsibility to look beyond the present moment to the eternity that awaits.
Always remember that you are helping an eternal soul. Someday, that person will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. You may be one of the few or, perhaps, the only person who shares with them the truth about Jesus Christ.
When you do good works, find a way to sow a gospel seed.
One final reminder
Try as we might, this world is fatally flawed and it is beyond all of us to repair it. As human beings created in the image of God, we have tremendous potential to do good. But with that potential comes a harsh reminder: human nature is such that we have squandered God’s blessings and, through sin, done irreparable harm to ourselves and one another. Try as we might, we can neither right all wrongs nor cure the true systemic problem of this world: sin and death.
So lift another’s load, make a fellow traveler’s day easier, stand for causes that are just and right and holy. But in all this remember eternity awaits and the best thing we can do for our neighbor is share the hope we have in Jesus Christ our Lord.