During world war I America found itself involved in an urgent effort to prepare for all-out warfare. One of the things necessary was the building of camps where tens of thousands of troops could be trained.
At Camp Lee a man applied for a job, representing himself to be a carpenter. He was immediately hired. Knowing nothing of his professed trade and anxious to escape detection and punishment, he spent his first day furtively moving from one place in the camp to another. Before long he became aware that someone was following him. Finally, nerves on edge, he challenged his follower. “Why are you following me?” he asked. The reply was, “I’m assigned to be your helper!”
How many Christians and church leaders seem equally culpable! Without understanding the nature, mission, and message of what they profess, they play at religion without making any lasting contribution to a world desperately in need of Christ.
With all the vigor at my command I disagree with those who believe that the Church is primarily a social agency, its task one of mere social engineering. Many seem to think this is so. Graduates of some American theological seminaries are now prepared to go out as sociologists rather than preachers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We need to take stock. Why does the Church exist at all?
The Old Testament’s teaching centers in God’s calling out the nation Israel to be a separate people. The New Testament tells the story of God’s calling out a separated people—the Church—to witness to his saving grace in Christ and to constitute the body of the redeemed in a hostile world.
The basis for Israel’s relations with God, as well as man, was the Law, which revealed God’s holy requirements and man’s inability to meet those requirements. The basis for the Church’s relationship to God is Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who so fulfilled the requirements of God’s righteousness set forth in the Law that in, through, and by him man can become righteous in God’s sight.
The Law required achieving. The requirement of God’s grace in Christ rests solely in believing, in faith validated by obedience.
In the Old Testament the symbol of cleansing, forgiveness, and atonement was a sacrifice, usually of a lamb. The symbol of the Church is the Cross, representing the sacrifice of God’s Son in the place of and for sinners. John the Baptist voiced this in his exclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
The agency of redemption under the Law was blood, the life’s blood of a slain animal. Under grace the agency of redemption is also blood—the blood of God’s Son, shed on the Cross of Calvary.
Any who doubt the necessity for and the fact of our Lord’s shed blood as God’s universal detergent for sin should pick up a concordance and read what the Bible has to say about the blood of Christ. It is plain that without the shedding of his blood there is no remission for sin. A “slaughter-house religion”? Thank God, yes! For in Christ’s death, and in his resurrection with its visible evidences of his victory over sin and death, we have the Gospel—the Church’s message for a sin-sick world.
Feed the hungry, help the poor, comfort the weak, heal the sick, work to make the world a better place in which to live. Yes! All this and much more is the fruit of Christianity. But unless this is accompanied by the story of God’s love in Christ and a reminder of the eternity all men face, either with God or separated from him, all we do to improve man’s lot will perish with time.
It is at this point that the issue must be faced if the Church is to fulfill its task and meet man’s basic need. And it is precisely at this point that many within the Church refuse to be honest. Committed to a social-activist philosophy for the Church and its ministry, they say, “Of course the Gospel must be preached while we minister to the social needs of mankind. The two things go together.” Nevertheless in far too many cases the Gospel is muted or absent entirely. All efforts are directed toward making the Prodigal happy, comfortable, and prosperous; little is done to heal his state of alienation from his Father, to show him his need for a complete change of heart through Jesus Christ.
“No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth. He then went on to say that good, sincere men may build on that foundation with “wood, hay and stubble” only to have their work burned in the final testing. Other good men may be confused about the work of our Lord, as was Peter himself. Aghast at Jesus’ anticipation of his own death, Peter cried out, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you,” only to have Jesus reveal that this suggested elimination of the cross was Satanic in origin. How easy for us to attempt to state the Gospel in our own terms rather than in those revealed in the Scriptures!
I feel I must refer here to a personal experience. For twenty-five years it was my privilege to be a medical missionary in China. We had a large, well-equipped hospital, and the standards we followed for surgical work there were so similar to American standards that I had no difficulty in transferring back to this country to take up practice for an additional fifteen years.
But underlying that work in China, with its unremitting effort to use modern medicine for the healing of bodies, there was the constant effort to preach and teach Jesus Christ as man’s one and only hope for eternity. These two approaches—social and spiritual—fit perfectly together, and God blessed both for his own glory in the relief of suffering and in the salvation of souls.
Now that China is closed to Christian missions and thirty years have passed since we had to give up our work, it is relevant to ask, “What aspect of the work has really lasted?” Unquestionably, tens of thousands to whom we ministered are now dead. But there were thousands who heard and believed the Gospel and are now in glory.
Suppose those of us working in that hospital had confined our work to purely medical and surgical procedures. Suppose we had seen in our patients only sick bodies, neglecting their spiritual need. Then those twenty-five years in China would have exemplified humanitarianism, but not Christianity.
Christ is the Head of the Church. The mission of the Church is spiritual, and its message consists of Christ crucified, dead, and risen again “according to the scriptures.” In love and compassion the Church must reach out to a needy and suffering world. But it must also reach higher than the material and the secular to glorify both the Person and the Work of Christ, or its accomplishments will end at the grave.
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