The Christian church increasingly finds itself marginalized and shut out of the public square. Despite our constitutional protections for religious freedom, public hostility to Christianity is clearly on the rise. In short, the post-Christian era in the West has begun in earnest. This raises the question posed by the late theologian and philosopher, Francis Schaeffer in his 1976 classic book, “How Shall We Then Live?” Schaeffer’s question anticipated a post-Christian world in which the West would jettison the values of Christianity and the Church would find itself at odds with the prevailing culture.
The apostle Peter knew something of pagan culture and its opposition to God’s kingdom. What was his instruction for the persecuted church living in such times? In his first epistle, he wrote: “People who don’t believe are living all around you. They may say that you are doing wrong. So live such good lives that they will see the good you do, and they will give glory to God on the day he comes” (1 Peter 2:12 [ERV]).
Most translations use “good works,” a phrase often discounted by those of us who hold firmly to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Gratia (grace alone). However, Paul tells us that we were “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10) and James writes that ‘faith without works is dead’ (see James 2:14-17). These “good works” can be anything that seeks the restoration of that which sin has ruined, gives comfort to the suffering, or promotes shalom (the proper ordering of life and the world). However, our Father in Heaven, gives disproportionate attention to serving the poor.
In fact, it was their Sodom and Gomorrah’s failure to serve the poor that brought destruction upon them according to Ezekiel the Prophet who wrote, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters (small city states including Gomorrah) had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). It must be noted that the Lord is here speaking to Israel—they are the “sister” to whom God says in the next verse, “You have committed more abominations than they” (Sodom). Clearly, God is serious about serving the poor!
In the wake of the aforementioned cultural changes sweeping the nation, Christians increasingly find themselves being accused of “doing wrong.” Being Christian is to many synonymous with being bigoted and intolerant. In short, we’re seen as dangerous!
It just might be that consciously Christian missions to the poor may be among the few public expressions of Christian faith that the coming culture will be willing to tolerate. And if Peter is to be trusted (which I think he is) then the corporate expression of our “good works” on behalf of the poor will by God’s matchless grace, draw lost people into his kingdom. This is, in part, why we seek to alleviate poverty: it expresses the heart of our God for this world. Now is not the time to shrink back in the face of opposition but rather to increase our efforts, not against flesh and blood, but by pouring ourselves out for the least to the glory of Jesus, who is now King over this world!