My life is marked by a missed opportunity to be a servant of mercy. Around the time that I was graduating from college and getting ready to go to seminary, my home church in Wheaton, Illinois, nominated me to serve as a deacon in the church—an opportunity to engage in the high calling of mercy ministry. In the providence of God, that was not my calling. Instead, I am called to be a preacher and a teacher. But sometimes I still wish that I could have been a deacon. It is good to serve in mercy ministry—to be in the game and not just cheering from the sidelines.
Yet even cheerleaders can make a contribution. In this case, I hope to encourage servants of mercy by providing “A Reformed Theology for Mercy Ministry.” Other people have more to teach about their experience in mercy ministry, or about the practice of mercy ministry; but I can tell about its theology—about the place of mercy in the great doctrines of the Christian faith, and more specifically in the theology of the Reformation.
Some people do not see this connection. Some theologians do not see how vital mercy is to the credibility of the gospel. And some mercy ministers do not take the time to go very deep in their theology.
A few years ago a team of sociologists visited Philadelphia’s Tenth Presbyterian Church. They were conducting a study of churches that were involved in mercy ministry. When they were finished, they gave us a chance to read over their report before they published it, in case we noticed any mistakes. The report was very well done, but there was one sentence I told them I could not agree with. Basically it said something like this: “Tenth is deeply committed to teaching and preaching biblical doctrine; however, it also has a heart for mercy ministry.” I told them, “Look, all you have to do is change one word in that sentence and I’ll be satisfied. Take the word ‘however’ and change it to ‘therefore’: ‘Tenth is deeply committed to teaching and preaching biblical doctrine; therefore, it also has a heart for mercy ministry’.” Happily, the researchers were willing to make the change.
Far from being hindered by theology, the ministry of mercy is furthered by theology, properly understood. Consider the story of Calvin’s Geneva. Prior to the Reformation, the city was infamous for its immorality. Among its common vices were drunkenness, disorderly conduct, gambling, and prostitution. On occasion Genevans had been known to run naked through the streets singing vulgar songs. Unfair business practices were common.
When the Reformation came to Geneva, the city’s Council of Two Hundred passed civic ordinances that were designed to promote the Protestant religion and restrain public indecency. Yet the Council quickly discovered that laws alone made little difference; what was needed was a change of heart. There would be no social transformation without biblical proclamation.
So the Council decided to do something that no city council would even think of doing today: they hired a theologian, John Calvin. The way Calvin reformed Geneva was simply by preaching the Bible, teaching the great doctrines of the Christian faith. Calvin preached verse by verse, chapter by chapter, and book by book. He preached five, six, seven times a week. And he preached what people eventually called Calvinism: the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners.
The result was not just that people came to Christ and grew in grace, but that the whole urban environment was transformed by the practical application of gospel mercy. Taverns were closed, reducing alcoholism. Sewers were cleaned, eliminating illness. The refugees that were streaming to Geneva from all over Europe were offered Christian hospitality. Deacons were organized to care for the poor. A job program was developed in the clothing industry. Schools were opened, not just for boys, but also for girls. One visitor said that under the teaching of sound doctrine, with its faithful application in practical mercy, the city of Geneva had become “the wonderful miracle of the whole world.”1
God and Man
I long to see that wonderful miracle repeated in every community in every city where there is a gospel-preaching church. But this will only happen through the practical application of biblical truth, with a firm grasp of what the Bible says as a whole about mercy. So what exactly does our theology say about mercy ministry?
Usually, when people talk about the theology of mercy ministry, they spend a good deal of time talking about the incarnation. I won’t do that here, but I certainly could. Effective mercy ministry is always incarnational: it meets people where they are. And when we meet people where they are, we are simply imitating the life of the Son of God Incarnate, who came down from heaven’s throne to Bethlehem’s manger, took on the flesh of our humanity, and had mercy on our lost and fallen race.
But I want to start farther back, with the doctrine of God. Consider all the divine attributes that compel us to show mercy. There is mercy itself, for God is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4). Then there are all the attributes that are closely related to mercy: compassion, kindness, and love. Or what about divine attributes like patience and longsuffering? These are characteristic of the mercy God shows to us, and thus they ought to be characteristic of the mercy we show to others. And don’t forget justice, because showing mercy to the needy often demands defending the righteousness of their cause. Such justice flows from the character of God, because our God is just.
These virtues are all demanded whenever we show mercy, and they all find their source in the character of God. Remember as well that all of these attributes are characteristic of all Three Persons of the Trinity. The Father is the God of all comfort; the Son is the God of perfect love; the Spirit is the God of sweet compassion. Mercy ministry is not just an imitation of the incarnation; it is also a reflection of the being and the nature of the Triune God. As Ulrich Bach once said: “Tell me how you talk about God and I will tell you what your [mercy ministry] is like, or what handicapped people can expect from you, or whether you expect anything from them.”2
Then there is the doctrine of creation, that the one true God made the entire universe out of nothing. This is the part of our theology that teaches us the goodness of creation and shows us the way things are supposed to be. It is also the doctrine that declares to us the dignity of the people God made in his image—the dignity that gives them a claim on our mercy. “So God created man in his own image,” the Scripture says. “In the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). And not just male and female: old and young, he created them; born and unborn; able and disabled; rich and poor; uptown and downtown; from the right side of the tracks and from the wrong side of the tracks; my color and your color. Each of us is made in the image of a merciful God.
Without this doctrine in our theology, we would always be dividing people into two groups: the people who deserve our mercy and the people who don’t. John Freeman is the Executive Director of Harvest USA—a ministry of mercy to people who are sexually broken. In one of his newsletters Freeman recounts the time he met an old homeless man outside a little grocery store. “Can you spare a quarter, mister?”
Freeman turned him down and went inside, but the man was still there when he came back out. “Can you spare a quarter?” When Freeman hesitated, the man said, “Son, come a little closer.” So he got a little closer, close enough to smell the stench of sweat and dirt and alcohol. Suddenly, the man reached out and placed his hand on Freeman’s shoulder and said, “Son, I haven’t always been out here on the streets, you know. I was somebody once.”
Our reformed theology tells us that this is not true. There is no such thing as somebody who was somebody but isn’t somebody any more. Everybody is somebody—somebody made in the image of a merciful God. When I see this image in myself, I know that I am called to be like God in showing mercy. And when I recognize the image of God in others, I will know that I am supposed to give them the same mercy that I have received.
Maybe this is why Calvin said that neglecting the poor is a kind of sacrilege.3 Calvin believed that caring for the poor was as sacred as the worship of God, that pietas and caritas were inseparable—the duties of worship and love.4 He believed this in part because he knew that the people we serve are people made in the image of God, and that in serving them, therefore, we give honor to our God.
Sin and the Savior
What makes mercy ministry so necessary in this fallen world is not the doctrine of creation, of course, but the doctrine of sin. How could we even begin to understand the mercy needs of all the broken people around us unless we had a healthy grasp of humanity’s total depravity? And how could we begin to address our own unwillingness to show mercy unless we knew that we were part of the problem?
April 2007 was a time of terrible tragedy—the massacre of more than 30 students and faculty at Virginia Tech University. As usual, people were searching for answers. But the place to begin is where local pastor Jim Pace began in an interview on CNN: “As Christians we believe that there is evil in the world.”
This evil comes from our own sinful hearts and it explains everything that is wrong with this world. No doctrine has more explanatory power than the biblical doctrine of sin. It explains why people end up homeless or in prison. It explains why inner-city kids can graduate from high school without ever learning how to read or write. It explains why there are hundreds of homicides in Philadelphia each year. It explains why one of the kids on my son’s T-ball team could hit the ball and run the bases while his older brother could only sit in a wheelchair and struggle to hold a baseball. It is all because of sin.
Sometimes people suffer because of their own sins, but sometimes they suffer because they are sinned against. In a wonderful poem called “Man Sleeping” Jane Kenyon remembers a snowy day in our nation’s capital. She asks, “Why do I think of the man asleep on the grassy bank outside the Sackler Museum in Washington.” Then Kenyon describes the man she saw, lying “on everything he owned, belly-down, his head twisted awkwardly to the right, mouth open in abandon.” To her he looked “like a child who has fallen asleep still dressed on the top of the covers, or like Abel, broken, at his brother’s feet.”5 As I read the poem, I realize that I too am the Cain who has looked without really caring, or taking responsibility for my own and flesh and blood.
Then sometimes people need mercy simply because they are suffering the natural and inevitable hardships of life in a fallen world—the hurricanes and tsunamis of a fallen planet, or the diseases and disabilities of a mortal body. But even these trials and tribulations are the ultimate result of sin’s corruption and the entrance of death into the world. It is our theology of depravity that explains why mercy is needed.
The doctrine of salvation, though, explains why mercy is even possible. For God is at work in the world to bring redemption, specifically through the person and work of Jesus Christ: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:3).
Everything about the ministry of Jesus Christ teaches us to show mercy. We have already commented on the doctrine of his incarnation. Jesus took on the flesh and blood of our humanity, becoming one of us to save us. Now, in the same way that the Father sent him to us, Jesus sends us to the world (see John 20:21). Our ministry of servant mercy incarnates his grace.
In this ministry we follow the pattern that Jesus set for us in his own ministry. Jesus showed mercy with his words. Whatever he said—whether it was a word of warning to the proud, or a word of comfort to the suffering, or a word of instruction to the ignorant, whatever it was—Jesus was offering mercy to whoever listened. At the same time, he showed mercy with his actions. Every miracle he performed—every time he gave sight to the blind, or mobility to the lame, or hearing to the deaf, or even life to the dead—Jesus was offering mercy to the people whose lives he touched. Our doctrine of the life of Christ therefore teaches us to show the mercy of God in word and deed.
Our doctrine of the death of Christ teaches us the same thing. A reformed theology for mercy ministry is a theology of the cross. For in the cross we find the mercy of our own forgiveness—atoning mercy that only comes by perfect sacrifice to the very death. And now the merciful cross of Jesus sets the agenda for our own ministry. Just as he laid down his life for us, so we ought to lay down our lives for others (see 1 John 3:16). God had mercy on us in Christ, and now through us he wants to show mercy to others.
The gospel is not just the cross, however; it is also the empty tomb. A gospel of the crucifixion without the resurrection is not just half a gospel; it is no gospel at all. So our reformed theology for mercy ministry goes beyond the death of Christ to his life beyond the grave.
This is what gives us hope in the hard struggle. The same power that raised Jesus from the dead is now at work in us to make us more merciful. It is also at work in others, including all of the desperate, almost hopeless cases we meet. In the week of this writing I heard about a woman whose husband had just left her for another man, whose son (she had just discovered) was in the grip of internet pornography, and whose brother-in-law had just committed adultery. Such brokenness and sin! We all have our own stories to tell of people who seem desperate beyond any help. How will they receive mercy? Only by the power of the life of the empty tomb, which is as much a mercy to us as the bleeding cross.
Remember as well that the risen Christ is also the ascended Christ who now sits at the right hand of God, praying for us to receive mercy. We should never stop at the cross when we think about Christ-centered ministry; we should always go up from the empty tomb to the throne of heaven, where our merciful Savior reigns in glory. In ascending to heaven, Jesus has sent down the Spirit, who is poured out on us with all the gifts that we need to give people mercy in word and deed.
To say all this in another way, God intends for the whole saving work of Christ to find expression in our own servant ministry. This is the real point of what Paul says in Philippians 2, where he traces the story of the Son of God from the courts of heaven down to the servant sufferings of the cross and then back up to the exaltation of his glorious throne. Paul tells us all of this mainly to call us to mercy ministry. Be mercy-minded, he says: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
This is a call for serious self-examination. Am I living by this principle? Is my life driven by showing mercy to others, or is it dominated by my own pleasures and ambitions? We need to see again the mercy that we have been given. We need to keep going back to the pattern of ministry that Jesus set for us in his servant life, his sacrificial death, and his saving resurrection. Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7), but we could also reverse that statement: Blessed are those have been shown mercy, for they will be merciful.
One of the best ways to test our grasp of God’s mercy is to see how we treat other sinners. How do I respond when I encounter a homeless person, or a transvestite, or a drug addict, or whatever person at work or at home or in the church is the most difficult in my life? Often it is tempting to get angry and to wonder why they can’t get their act together. But that is hardly the response of someone who knows that the bondage of sin can only be broken through the mercy of the cross.
Salvation from Beginning to End
So far we have considered the doctrines of God, creation, man, sin, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection, and the ascension.
What then shall we say about all the doctrines of the benefits of salvation? It is not just the person and work of Jesus Christ that call us to show mercy, but each and every one of the blessings that come from his person and work.
Start with the distinctively Reformed doctrine of election. What does it tell us about showing mercy? It tells us that no one is ever saved by his own merit, but only by the sovereign mercy of God, who will have mercy on whom he has mercy (Rom. 9:15). This humbles our pride and teaches us to love people who seem to be undeserving, just like us.
It is strange to say, however, that some Christians are Calvinists when they deal with their own sins, but Arminians when it comes to others. They have learned that the only solution for their own depravity is divine grace, but somehow they still expect other people to save themselves. Certainly God holds people responsible for their sins. But he also reaches out to us in mercy. If we really understand the doctrine of election, we will not be judgmental or proud, but we will become agents of God’s mercy.
Then there is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Or we might say: justification by mercy alone. We are not accepted by God through works of our own righteousness, but by his mercy we are covered with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is the hope we offer to all the messed up, tired out, broken-down people we meet in ministry: there is hope for people who don’t measure up. There is hope for people like them and people like us in Jesus.
Move on to adoption—the doctrine that tells us we are the children of God. If we are sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus Christ, then we are called to live up to our family likeness. And if there is one thing we know about the head of our household, it is that he is the “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps. 68:5). Knowing this, there is a longing in our hearts for all the lost children to come home to our Father’s house. In mercy we go to them, and with words and deeds of love we hand them their adoption papers.
We could continue with the doctrine of sanctification (which shows how mercy changes lives from the inside out), and the doctrine of perseverance (which teaches us that mercy never gives up), and the doctrine of glorification (which shows us how glorious people become when God finishes the mercy that he starts). Then we could consider the great doctrines of the church. We do not try to do all the mercy ministry on our own. Rather, we offer mercy as a community, using whatever gifts God has given to us as part of a larger, cooperative effort. We believe in the communion of saints, which unites in mercy to everyone else who is united to Christ.
Finally, the call of mercy comes to us in our theology of the final judgment. What will Jesus say to us on the last of all days, when every person who has ever lived is poised between heaven and hell? To everyone who loves justice and does mercy he will say,
Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. . . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me (Matt. 25:34-36, 40).
Something to Remember
This brings us, at last, to what is really the thesis of this essay: it is not simply this part or that part of our theology that compels us to show mercy; it is everything in the whole Reformed system of doctrine. To reiterate: it is not just part of our theology that calls us to mercy ministry; it is everything in our entire theology. We must never forget that every doctrine that is taught in every part of Scripture from creation to the final judgment compels us to show the mercy of God to lost sinners, in the gospel of His Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
 On Calvin’s Geneva, see Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993); Marcellus Kik, Church and State: The Story of Two Kingdoms (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1963); W. Fred Graham, Constructive Revolutionary: Calvin’s and His Socio-Economic Impact (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1989).
 Ulrich Bach, quoted in Jaap van Klinken, Diakonia: Mutual Helping with Justice and Compassion (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 16.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Matthew, in Calvini Opera, 45:689.
 John Calvin, as quoted in a congregational letter from David Apple, who serves as Director of Mercy Ministries at the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia.
 Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf, 1996), 7.