In the discussion here between D.A. Carson, John Piper, and Tim Keller, the question is asked, “How do we protect the centrality and purity of the gospel message while giving ourselves to mercy ministry?” In other words, how can we make sure that our mercy ministries do not devolve into mere social advocacy groups.
John Piper makes the excellent point that the doctrine of hell is perhaps one of the greatest safeguards against a watering down of the gospel. If hell is a reality, and there will be people who experience eternal, conscious suffering, then the gospel message is itself the most important mercy ministry. He says that he tells his congregation that they are all about relieving all suffering, especially eternal suffering.
In that light, Tim Keller notes that this collapses any spirit/body duality. It’s not like keeping the gospel central is somehow undervaluing the material, physical circumstances of people. Keeping the gospel central is not gnostic or dualistic in that sense. Rather, the reality of hell insists that the priority is a temporal one. We keep the gospel central because we want to see eternal relief from suffering not merely temporary relief.
I like this approach. Many times the line of reasoning is that we ought to keep the gospel central because the lack of the gospel, salvation, Christ, etc. are the root problems of all problems and therefore if someone gets right with God everything else will work its way out. But this is an overly simplistic answer. And for anyone who has worked in mercy ministry or done counseling with people who have many health, social, psychological, or physical challenges knows, it’s just not that simple. Of course it’s absolutely true that dealing with sin and coming to know Christ is the answer, but the effects of sin and death are complex and difficult.
This means that those mercy ministries that do devolve into mere social advocacy groups may in fact do so out of pure and faithful love of individuals, and this is right and good. But in so far as they refuse to attend to the eternal well being of individuals they in fact neglect their material/physical needs. Those who refuse to address the eternal physical state of those they love are like doctors who put band-aids on their cancer patients because it makes them feel better.
But to state it more positively: many of our dearest friends that we minister to for years may have only some slight improvements in their physical/material circumstances. But those who know Christ and have been joined to His body will be raised incorruptible. They will be delivered from eternal suffering and delivered to eternal glory and wholeness. Of course this is no license for coasting on relieving physical suffering now. But it is assurance that no matter the progress we make, Christ promises to finish it at the resurrection.