Like Jesus, we have been sent to enact the good news. Not only are we to proclaim what Christ has done for us, but also we are to live out that good news in our daily lives. We must speak of God’s reconciliation and live as agents of reconciliation, as peacemakers in our combative world (Matt 5:9; 2 Cor 5:16-21). As we tell people that God loves them so much that He sent His Son to save them, we must also love them with a divinely-inspired love (John 3:16; Eph 5:1-2). We proclaim the new order of God’s kingdom and express that order by loving the unlovely, caring for the poor, and seeking justice for the oppressed (Matt 25:31-47; Luke 6:27; James 1:27; 1 John 3:17). We announce that Jesus has come to make us whole and enact that announcement through works of healing. Remember Jesus’s instructions to his first disciples:
Go and announce . . . that the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cure those with leprosy, and cast out demons. Give as freely as you have received! (Matt 10:7-8).
The words and the works of the kingdom go together, in the ministry of Jesus, in the ministry of His first disciples, and in the ministry he has sent us to do.
By doing works of power, those who preach the message of the kingdom enact that message and demonstrate its validity. If Jesus proclaimed the presence of God’s kingdom, but showed no evidence for His claim, He would have been rejected as one more religious charlatan. But, by healing the sick, casting out demons, loving the marginalized, and feeding the hungry, Jesus showed that His message was true. Like Jesus, we must practice what we preach so that people around us will listen to what we say and perhaps even believe it.
Our world is filled with cynicism, especially cynicism about religion. We all know too well the stories of hypocritical religious leaders and institutions, those whose works contradicted their words. People today are yearning for something authentic, something that can be trusted, not just more hype or another slick sales pitch. The world will hear our good news about Jesus only if they see that good news enacted in our lives, individually and corporately. (Photo to right: Christopher Hitchens)
A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to debate Christopher Hitchens in response to his bestselling book, god is not Great. Hitchens’ book is filled with bitter hyperbole and, in fact, outright factual errors (see my series on god is not Great). Many of his criticisms of religion are valid. Many are eccentric and unpersuasive. But what impressed me most as I read this book (twice, in fact), was the sad failure of many Christians throughout history to enact the gospel. The track record of the church in living the good news we preach is mixed at best. I don’t think Christopher Hitchens and those of his ilk will ever be persuaded by words and ideas to believe the Christian gospel. But the testimony of faithful, active believers has a way of getting around even people’s strongest defenses. As we see a recent onslaught of books tauting atheism, we need to respond to them, not only with reasonable ideas, but also with persuasive actions.
Notice that we live out the good news in concert with speaking about that good news. I have heard many Christians say something like this: “Oh, I’m not comfortable talking about my faith. I just try to live it out, so that people will see God in me.” These folk are absolutely right about the importance of living their faith. Jesus says we are the light of the world, people whose good deeds should shine out so others will praise God (Matt 5:14-16). But we are called to live our faith as a demonstration of our message, not as a replacement for delivering it. Enactment alone won’t communicate the good news of what God has done in Christ. If, for example, you are exceptionally kind at work, but never mention why, your colleagues will probably think you’re an exceptionally kind human being. Who gets the glory? You do, not God! Only by doing and telling will people be able to praise God for His work in you. It’s not enough simply to live with Christian values but never talk about the source of those values.
Yet, we must also realize that we can talk too much about our faith, thus shutting the ears unbelievers. If, every time you do some act of kindness, you say “It isn’t me, but Christ in me,” after a while people will tune you out. Wisdom and discernment are needed if we are going to speak of the gospel in a way that helps people to listen.
How can we enact the good news in today’s world so that people might experience the presence of God and be drawn to believe in Jesus? In a nutshell, we are to do the works associated with God’s kingdom. For example, even as Jesus healed the sick and sent His disciples to do the same, so we have been sent into the world as agents of divine healing. This does not mean that you should set up your tent and hold healing crusades. Relatively few Christians are called to such a ministry, and many who claim to be so called seem to be more in the entertainment business than the kingdom healing business. Nevertheless, we can all be channels of God’s healing power in manifold ways. Most basically, we can pray for the sick. By bringing people’s physical ailments before God’s throne of grace, we share in His healing work in their lives. Sometimes healings are immediate and astounding. Often they come more slowly. In some cases God chooses to heal directly. Other times He works through doctors and medical science. And, of course, there are times when God chooses not to heal a person’s physical body, but to do the greatest healing of all after he or she dies. Healing has always been closely associated with the mission of Jesus Christ, as Christians pray, or as they use their medical abilities, or as they build hospitals and educate people about health. (Photo to the right: Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, in Newport Beach, California, where my children were born)
This, by the way, is one of Christopher Hitchens’ greatest omissions as he criticizes Christianity in god is not Great. For all of our faults, we Christians have done an extraordinary job bringing God’s healing to people. In many parts of the world today the Spirit heals in dramatic and miraculous ways. Similar, there are Christian hospitals and medical centers all over the globe. Even if Hitchens is not happy with the Christian nature of these centers of healing, he surely must recognize that Christians have, perhaps more than any other grouping of people in the world, helped to bring health and healing to millions and millions of people.
Physical healing, however, is just one component of God’s therapeutic work. The ministry of Jesus touches every part of our lives, not just our bodies and our eternal souls. Through the Holy Spirit, God heals minds, hearts, emotions, relationships, and even social brokenness. When a husband and wife on the verge of divorce are empowered by the Spirit to forgive each other and to mend their marriage, that’s a dynamic enactment and demonstration of the gospel. When a woman who has been wounded by her abusive upbringing is given the freedom to be a new, joyous creature in Christ, the good news shines forth. When black men and white men embrace each other at a Promise Keepers rally, even though society would fill them with mutual suspicion, the reconciling work of Jesus takes on flesh and blood.
Throughout history, Christians have been on the forefront of caring for the poor and seeking justice for the downtrodden. For example, the Salvation Army was founded by the Methodist minister, William Booth, during the latter years of the nineteenth century. This ministry accepted the challenge of feeding and clothing the poor of London while, at the same time, sharing the gospel of Christ with them. To this day, the Salvation Army is dedicated to the twin purposes of evangelism and caring for the poor.