Book Review: Ministries of Mercy

Keller, Timothy J.  2007 (2nd Edition) Ministries of Mercy: The Call of the Jericho Road. Philipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing.

Keller uses the well-worn parable of the Good Samaritan as a framework through which he invites us to consider the biblical picture of mercy ministry.  While this particular story may be well-worn territory for many evangelicals, I have seldom heard it taught with the gospel-centredness of an evangelical and the societal awareness of a liberal.

“Our paradigm is the Samaritan who risked his safety, destroyed his schedule, and became dirty and bloody through personal involvement with a needy person of another race and social class.” (p11)

Out of this Keller draws 3 important insights:

1) Necessity of mercy – the parable is told in answer to the question what must I do to inherit eternal life?  Mercy is not an optional extra to the faith.  It is both a test and a sign of true faith; “a life poured out in deeds of mercy is the inevitable sign of true faith.” (p35)

2) The scope or dimension of mercy: religious people often like to put false limits on who is my neighbour or who should be shown mercy.  Jesus teaches in this parable that we are to show mercy to anyone in need, even an enemy.

3) Motive or dynamic of the ministry of mercy is not simply to know one’s duty as the priest and the Levite did but instead to moved by compassion.  A compassion which Keller describes as full-bodied, some might prefer holistic.

“This compassion was full-bodied, leading him to meet a variety of needs.  This compassion provided friendship and advocacy, emergency medical treatment, transportation, a hefty financial subsidy, and even a follow-up visit.” (p11)

The rest of the book is then divided into two parts Principles & Practice.   The section on principles is by the more helpful and dynamic of the two.  The practice section presupposes mainly a certain model of ministry and a certain type of church.  While I gleaned some useful insights – if you only read the first half of the book you would grab the meat of this book.

Throughout the book Keller masterfully walks the line between relegating mercy to something less than proclamation and regarding the two as indistinguishable.  While never separating the two, we are to allow them to stand as inseparable asymmetry.  While this book is a call for the evangelical church to rediscover the call to engage with the poor and the hurting in society, it is also a book infused with the gospel at every turn.

The motivation for mercy is the mercy that we have been shown in the gospel.

“The only true and enduring motivation for the ministry of mercy is an experience and a grasp of the grace of God in the gospel.  If we know we are sinners saved by grace alone, we will be both open and generous to the outcasts and the unlovely.” (p58)

It is because the church is an agent of the Kingdom that that we seek to bring substantial healing of the effects of sin in all areas of life.  A holistic understanding of sin means we understand its effect not only in our personal lives but also in societal and structural evils.  Christ came to free us from the curse of sin and reverse its effects not only in our personal lives but in our communities and social structures too.

“From the throne of Jesus Christ flows new life and power such that no disease, decay, poverty, blemish, or pain can stand before it.” (p52)

But in the words of Francis Schaeffer we must expect substantial healing but not total healing in all areas of life (p53).

Keller also has helpful chapters on sacrificial and simple lifestyle.  I am still wrestling through his thoughts on caring for family and sacrificial lifestyle.  In particular his thoughts that while all Christians are called to acts of mercy some have special gifts of mercy.  While the section is well-balanced and avoids the pitfalls of either extreme, it still sits uncomfortably with me in a way I cannot quite put my finger on.  Perhaps it is the examples of the Jerusalem and Macedonian churches who gave out of their poverty that creates that doubt?

In the final chapter of the first section Keller tackles the perpetual thorny issue of the relationship between gospel proclamation and deeds of mercy.   Keller makes a helpful distinction in saying that word and deed are distinct but never separate ministries.  They are not independent ministries but rather “equally necessary, mutually interdependent and inseparable ministries” (106) working towards a single aim – the spread of the kingdom of God.  As orthodoxy without deeds is not orthodoxy, so deed ministry, even with the best Christian motivation cannot spread the kingdom of God. (111-112)

Overall an excellent read that deals faithfully with the Bible, is centred in the gospel rather than guilt and echoes a prophetic call for the church to rediscover its call to mercy and love that full-bodied.

~ by John on November 8, 2010.

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