In my thirty-eight years as an evangelist I’ve often had a moral problem. Let me rephrase that: many of my friends have wondered why I speak out on moral issues. For instance, I’ve spent ten years teaching on the Ten Commandments and their relevance for modern society. It’s clear that for a lot of people, talking about ‘doing good’ seems to be distant from what they understand as the traditional gospel message of ‘put your faith in Jesus’.
The first thing to say is that there is a long and honourable tradition of evangelists not just preaching the gospel but encouraging people to do good deeds. St Paul, the great prototype preacher of the New Testament, was not averse to devoting large chunks of his letters to telling Christians how they should live out their faith. That pattern of matching words with deeds has continued. So, for example, the nineteenth-century preachers: Charles Haddon Spurgeon opened a home for orphans, a work which, still bearing his name, continues to the present day; the Salvation Army was founded with the double aim of saving souls and saving bodies, a mission that persists. In the twentieth century, John Stott was not simply a great preacher but also a man with a heart for social action, not just in taking a lead himself but, in his quiet and gentlemanly way, encouraging other Christians to be involved.
If I had to justify my position in talking about what you might call God’s morality it would be along the following lines.
First, God’s morality is the measure of our need of the gospel. ‘Jesus is the answer!’ is a common phrase in church circles, but increasingly the response is, ‘Yes, but what’s the question?’ Actually, looking at the Bible, the big question for all of us is quite simply this: ‘Do I measure up to God’s standards?’ The answer, as St Paul points out in Romans 3:23 (NIV), is that we don’t: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Exactly how far short can be revealed by the Bible (and the Ten Commandments is a good basis to start with). But it can also be revealed by our conscience. So, for instance, when we see injustice or human need around us, whether it be with the trafficked or homeless, we should realise that we ought to try to remedy the wrong. And the reality is, of course, that we all fail to do what we should do. The teaching of the Bible on how we should live should drive us to God in repentance.
Second, God’s morality is linked to the motive for sharing the gospel. Why does God reach out to save us in Jesus Christ? The almost unbelievable answer is, quite simply, that God loves us. That truth is there in many Bible verses but not least in John 3:16: ‘For God so loved the world . . .’ God offers us salvation because he loves us. Given that, our motivation for sharing the gospel in whatever way should be the same: love for others. Now, that love for others cannot simply be restricted to our words, it must also be reflected in our actions. It would be ludicrously and tragically hypocritical to say to someone who is starving or homeless, ‘Can we completely put to one side the hurt and hunger you feel and instead concentrate on the state of your soul?’ Surely we have to show love to others in both word and deed?
Thirdly, God’s morality models the fruits of the gospel. The good news of the Bible is that God saves us freely in Christ. Yet we have not been saved to live as we want to live; we have been saved to live like Christ. And with the aid of the Holy Spirit we need to bear more of a family resemblance. What the Bible discourages and encourages should help to shape us into being a little bit more like Christ.
I’m sure at times I get the balance wrong. But it seems obvious that we cannot separate the message of how to get right with God through Jesus from doing what is right. The good news and good deeds go together, and that’s surely a good thing.
Revd Canon J.John