The Effect of the Gospel, pt. 3

Believing the Gospel Will Move Us to Give the Poor:

Last time, in Gospel & Community, pt. 2, we took widsom from Johnathan Edwards. This week we are going to go ahead and begin with Edwards again. Edwards shows us how an understanding “the rules of the gospel” or the the pattern and logic of the gospel will in affect continually moves us to love and help the poor. Edwards believes that the command to give to the poor is an implication of the teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God, he believes that the most important motivation for giving the poor is the gospel: Giving to the poor “is especially reasonable, considering our circumstances, under such a dispensation of grace as that of the gospel.” One of the key texts used by Edwards to make this case is 2 Corinthians 8:8-9. When Paul asks for financial generosity to the poor, he points to the self-emptying of Jesus, describing him as becoming poor for us, both literally and spiritually, in the incarnation and on the cross. Edwards believed Paul’s introduction, “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine” is significant. The point suggests that if you truly grasp the depth of substitutionary atonement, you will be profoundly generous to the poor. The only way for Jesus to get us out of our spiritually poverty and into spiritual riches was to get out of his spiritual riches into spiritual poverty. This should now be the pattern of your life to give from a point of sacrifice, much like the widow and the mite, the man after God’s own heart who would not give to God that which cost him nothing, and the good Samaritan. When we give to the poor, do we imitate the world who gives that which is left over, or do we imitate Christ, and give that which costs us? Paul also implies here that all sinners saved by grace will look at the poor of this world and feel that in some way they are looking in the mirror – superiority will be gone!

Another text Edwards looks to more than once is Galatians 6:1-10, especially verse 2, which enjoins us to “bear one another burdens.” What are these burdens? Paul seems to think that these ‘burdens’ are to some extent material and financial burdens, based off of the fact that Galatians 6:10 tells us to “…do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith…” Edwards understands, “doing good” to include the giving of practical help to people who need food, shelter, and financial assistance. Most commentators understand “burden-bearing” to be comprehensive. We share love and emotional strength with those who are drowning in the pool of negative emotions; we share money and possessions with those who are in lack.

However, what does Paul mean when he says that burden-bearing “fulfills the law of Christ” in Galatians 6:2? Edwards calls this “the rules of the gospel.” Richard Longenecker agrees, calling this “prescriptive principles stemming from the heart of the gospel.” As Phil Ryken points out, the ultimate act of burden-bearing was substitutionary atonement in which Jesus bore the infinite burden of our guilt and sin. Once again, Paul seems to believe that anyone (not just the rich) who understands the gospel will share money and possessions with those with less of the world’s goods.

So, if it is the gospel that is moving us to help the poor, Edwards then concludes that our giving and involvement with the poor will be significant, remarkable, and sacrificial. Those who give to the poor out of desire to comply with a moral prescription will always do the minimum. If we give to the poor simply because “God says so,” the next question will be “How much do we have to give so that we aren’t out of compliance?” That question and attitude shows that this is not a gospel-shaped giving.

Edwards then hits the silent question that seems to plague us and thus excuse our inactivity. In the last part of his discourse, Edwards answers the objection, “You say I should help the poor, but I’m afraid I have nothing to spare. I can’t do it.” Edwards responded, “In many cases, we may, by the rules of the gospel, be obliged to give to others, when we cannot do it without suffering ourselves…else how is that rule of ‘bearing one another’s burdens’ fulfilled? If we never be obliged to relieve other’ burdens, but when we can do it without burdening ourselves, then how do we bear our neighbor’s burdens, when we bear no burdens at all?’” Again, I ask the question, “Where do we get our model of giving.” The Western way of left over, or the Christocentric way of sacrifice, giving to the point of lack…???

Edwards is arguing that if the basis for our ministry to the poor was simply a moral prescription, things might be different. But if the basis for our involvement with the poor is “the rules of the gospel,” namely substitutionary sacrifice, then we must help the poor even when we think “we can’t afford it.” Today, Edwards would call our Western-bluff by saying, “What you mean is, you can’t help them without sacrificing and bringing suffering on yourself. But that’s how Jesus relieved you of your burdens! And that is how you must minister to others with their burdens.”

In the most powerful part of the discourse, Edwards fields a series of normal objections he gets when he preaches about the gospel-duty of giving to the poor. In almost every case, he is able to point to substitutionary atonement and free justification as his objection to our selfish arguments. In every case, radical, remarkable, sacrificial generosity to the other, is the result of thinking out and living out the gospel. To the objection, “I don’t have to help someone unless he is destitute,” Edwards answers that “the rule of the gospel” means that we are to love our neighbor as Christ loved us, literally entering into our afflictions. “When our neighbor is in difficulty, he is afflicted; and we ought to have such a spirit of love to him, as to be afflicted with him in his affliction.” He then goes on to reason that, if we do this, we will need to relieve the affliction even if my neighbor’s situation is short of destitution. To wait until people are utterly destitute before we help them shows that the logic of the gospel has not yet turned you into the socially and emotionally empathetic person you should be.

Then Edwards hammers to other popular objections (I guess things are still the same): “I don’t want to help this person because he is of an ill temper and an ungrateful spirit,” in other words, they are appreciative, of all I do for them, or I wish they would just notice what I am doing; and “I think this person brought on their poverty by their own fault,” which if I am being transparent, I have to say this is excuse I use most often – I blame people, and use what they literally did wrong, to get them to their current position to justify my lack of empathy. The truth is we all, for the most part are willing to help those who are nice, honest, and deserving with what we have left over, which results in an extreme gratefulness from that person to me, and ultimately I get glorified…oops, did I say that??? What we have to understand is that even though it is important that our help to the poor really helps them and doesn’t create dependency, Edwards makes short work of this objection by again appealing not so much to ethical prescriptions but to the gospel itself, “Christ loved us, was kind to us, and was willing to relieve us, though we were very evil and hateful, of an evil disposition, not deserving of any good…so we should be willing to be kind to those who are of an ill disposition, and are very undeserving…If they are come to want by a vicious idleness and prodigality; yet we are not thereby excused from all obligation to relieve them, unless they continue in those vices. If they continue not in those vices, the rules of the gospel direct us to forgive them…[For] Christ hath loved us, pitied us, and greatly laid out himself to relieve us from that want and misery which we brought on ourselves by our own folly and wickedness. We foolishly and perversely threw away those riches with which we were provided, upon which we might have lived and been happy to all eternity.”

Edwards continue to argue for children within these families, by instructing us that sometimes we will need to sustain aid to families in which the parents do not turn away from their irresponsible behavior for the sake of the children.

In short, Edwards teaches that the gospel requires us to be involved in the life of the poor—not only financially, but personally and emotionally-it must be the outflow of the gospel in our lives. Our giving must not come from that which is left over as the rest of the western world does with pride, but so radical that it brings a measure of suffering into our own lives, we must be imitators of him. And we should be very patiently open-handed to those whose behavior has caused or brought their very poverty upon themselves. These attitudes and dimensions of ministry to the poor proceed not simply from general biblical eithical principles, but from the gospel itself.

In the next few posts, I will lean hard on Edwards to answer the remaining questions:

(1) Is ministry to the poor truly a sign that we believe the Gospel?
(2) What is the relationship of Gospel proclamation to Ministry to the Poor?

Until then, may we begin to shape our lives around the message of the Gospel!

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