Social causes come and go like bad fashion trends, sometimes quite literally: what color bracelet are you wearing this month?
Surely our consumer-conditioned attention spans have something to do with this, but let’s be real: when you care about something enough to devote serious time and energy, it can be discouraging when the anticipated results never materialize.
Many people know they should care for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, but few are motivated to do this over the course of a lifetime. Jesus reminds his followers, “You always have the poor with you” (Mark 14:7). In other words, we ain’t gonna solve poverty anytime soon.
How in the world can we keep up the good work when it feels like a lost cause? Good theology.
Theological types often get stereotyped as all head and no heart. This is unfortunate because a few key doctrines of the faith provide the sustainable inspiration we need for a lifetime of good works.
LOVE EVERYBODY, BECAUSE IMAGO DEI
If we believe that everyone is made in the image of God—imago Dei—then everyone is worthy of dignity, love, basic human rights, and hearing biblical truth.
Those who abuse people made in God’s image through enslavement, torture, rape, and grinding poverty, are dehumanizing people and insulting God Himself. Many victims of human trafficking and abuse report how they felt inhumane after being oppressed.
Those who believe in the imago Dei should live out their theology through practical acts of love for the oppressed and vulnerable.
SHOW MERCY, BECAUSE REDEMPTION
The Bible records for us the story of God coming to save people. When we were enslaved, He freed us. When we were orphans, He adopted us. When we were sojourners, He welcomed us. When we were widows, Christ became our groom.
The mercy and justice of God meet at the cross, where our redemption comes from. We needed His redemption because we cannot live up to the standard God has set. But One did. Jesus Christ is the ultimate display of a life of righteousness and justice. Through repentance and faith in Christ, we are clothed in His righteousness.
Now, as believers, we have power to live just lives, and when we fail, we know God won’t crush us, for He has already crushed Christ in our place. Now we pursue justice because we love God, and have already been accepted in Him.
We want to show mercy. That’s what God’s redemption has done for us.
STAY HOPEFUL, BECAUSE RESTORATION
The good news about injustice isn’t only that we’re making some progress today, though we are. We take heart knowing that the King of kings will return to restore this broken world, bringing perfect peace—shalom.
In the coming Kingdom, will be no more orphans; no more trafficking; no more abuse. This fallen world will give way to glory. Doing justice and mercy is about showing the world what our King is like. It involves bringing the future into the present, that is, giving people a taste now of what the future will be like then.
When you welcome the stranger, share the good news among the nations, cultivate diverse friendships, adopt children, or defend the defenseless, you are simply living as the King’s people before a watching world. We don’t fight the problems of this fallen world as victims, but as victors.
WORK FOR GOOD NOT GRACE, BECAUSE JUSTIFICATION
We can’t keep God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves perfectly. But Jesus has kept the Great Commandments perfectly for us. And only Christ can justify us. Only Jesus can make us ordinary citizens of the kingdom of God.
Justification means “just as if I’ve never sinned” and “just as if I’ve always obeyed perfectly,” as my friend Daniel Akin has said. Jesus Christ can forgive you entirely, and give you His perfect righteousness.
Justified people stand accepted in Christ. So, don’t look to yourself or your good deeds for salvation, but trust in Christ alone. From this acceptance and justified position, we can live in the power of the Holy Spirit to do good to all your neighbors. Tim Keller explains how receiving the good news leads to a life of good deeds:
Before you can give neighbor love, you need to receive it. Only if you see that you have been saved graciously by someone who owes you the opposite will you go out into the world looking to help absolutely anyone in need (Generous Justice, 77).
In other words, justification leads to justice for others. Receive— and give—the neighbor love of the Great Samaritan, and give Him thanks.
ALWAYS REMEMBER THE PEOPLE
My focus flowing from these theological motivations is on people.
You may do justice and mercy through large-scale, political and social transformation like William Wilberforce, who worked to abolish slavery. Or you may do mercy and justice through simple acts like welcoming a foster child.
In whatever case, let’s do it all in effort to bless people. Because people are made in God’s image, because people need redemption, and because people will one day dwell with God in the new heavens and the new earth where everything will be finally transformed, we should be seriously interested in how to love our neighbors as ourselves—our orphaned neighbors, our lonely neighbors, our impoverished neighbors, our enslaved neighbors, our racially different neighbors, and our lost neighbors.
That’s how God loves us, as good theology helps us understand.