What’s the Use of Christian Charity?

Without charity the gospel sounds like cheap talk.

Christian charity demonstrates that salvation has revived in us a God-like, holistic concern for the hurting. Works of mercy create an environment in which to communicate the gospel’s invitation to become entirely new people. As Christians provide clothes for the naked and food for the hungry, so God provides forgiveness for sins, heaven for hell, glory for vanity.

 

According to Matthew, Jesus’s final public teaching prior to his crucifixion is a story that ties together the final judgment and Christian charity (Matt. 25:31–46). Here’s his point: those only will endure his judgment and be welcomed into restored paradise who continue his mission of caring for the naked, the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned.

Throughout his ministry Jesus’ care of society’s neediest people was tangible evidence that the kingdom of God was coming (e.g. Matt. 11:1–6). As Jesus prepared to leave this world through his violent death and victorious resurrection he insisted that his body, the church, continue his tireless ministry to the needy. As John the Baptist had said, God’s children must “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) including a commitment to charity and justice toward marginalized society members.

Or does he mean that believers should only show charity toward other Christians? Jesus commends those who cared for “the least of these my brethren” (Matt. 25:40). Strictly speaking his brethren are those family members who do his will; believers (Mark 3:35). But lest we suppose that believers ought to only practice charity toward Christians Calvin reminds us of the “common tie that binds all the children of Adam.” Jesus himself insisted that his followers “do good to those who hate you” (Matt. 5:44). Believers should especially care for “those who are of the household of faith.” But “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all” (Gal. 6:10).

This text might trouble those of us who have been so trained to think of God’s work as merely the salvation of souls that we have little place in our theology for the care of bodies. If we’re very honest we might wonder—in spite of Jesus’ teaching—what good does charity do? Here are three important answers to that question.

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