Sunday, November 3, 2013

Theology for Mercy: Why We Do Human Care Ministry

Theology for Mercy
by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison
Executive Director, LCMS World Relief and Human Care

LCMS World Relief and Human Care
1333 South Kirkwood Road, St. Louis, Missouri 63122-7295
800-248-1930, ext. 1380 •
ISBN-13: 978-1-934265-20-8
© 2004 The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
Theology for Mercy
Theology for Mercy
Love, care and concern for those in need (diakonic mercy/
love) are actions motivated by the gospel, when faith (fides qua creditur/
the faith by which we believe) apprehends the righteousness of Christ
and his merits (Augsburg Confession IV&VI), unto eternal life. The
gospel thus laid hold of, produces love. Love seeks and serves the
Love for the neighbor, while an action mandated by the law of
God, is a reflection of the very being of the Triune God, Father, Son
and Holy Spirit (1 John 4:7). This love finds its source and motivation
in the deep gospel matrix and totality of the true faith (fides quae
creditur/ the faith which is believed). Thus:
• Diakonic love has its source in the Holy Trinity. The Son is
begotten of the Father from eternity. The Holy Spirit proceeds
from the Father and the Son. Such begetting and procession
are Trinitarian acts of love expressing the communality of
God. In these acts the Triune God, from eternity, and in time,
has found humankind as the object of divine love and mercy
(John 3:16; Luke 6:36; 1 John 3:16-17; Js. 3:17). Diakonic
love reflects the very being of God.
• Diakonic love is born of the incarnation and humiliation of
Christ. In Christ the Eternal God became man. Such identity
occurred that Christ might have mercy upon his “brothers”
(Heb. 2:17). Christian service of the neighbor finds its source,
motivation and example in Christ’s incarnate, redeeming,
atoning, active love (Phil. 2:1-11).
• “God would have all come to the knowledge of the truth
and be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4). A biblically and confessionally
faithful theology of mercy clearly confesses that “the Father has
decreed from eternity that whomever he would save he would
save through Christ, as Christ himself says, ‘No one comes to
the Father but by me’ (John 14:6), and again, ‘I am the door;
if anyone enters by me, he will be saved’ (John 10:9)” (Solid
Declaration XI,66). This fundamental truth of the Bible, that
there is no salvation outside of faith in Christ and his merits,
animates the church’s work for those in need. If this is not so,
such work becomes merely secular, and may be performed by
any entity in society.
LCMS World Relief and Human Care
• The Gospel gifts bring forgiveness, and beget merciful living.
Lives that have received mercy (grace!) cannot but be merciful
toward the neighbor (love!). Thus the merciful washing of
baptism (Rom. 6:1ff) produces merciful living (Rom. 7:4-6).
In absolution, the merciful word of the gospel begets merciful
speaking and living (Matt. 18:21ff.). In the Supper, Christ
gives himself for us, that we might give ourselves to our neighbor
(1 Cor. 10:15-17; 1 Cor. 12:12ff & 26). “Repentance ought
to produce good fruits … the greatest possible generosity to
the poor” (Apol. 12.174).
• Christ’s mandate and example of love for the whole person
remains our supreme example for life in this world, and for
care of the needy, body and soul. Christ’s Palestinian ministry
combined proclamation of forgiveness and acts of mercy, care
and healing (Luke 5:17-26). Christ likewise sent forth the
apostles to proclaim the good news, and to heal (Luke 9:2ff.).
Christ mandated that his gospel of forgiveness be preached to
all (Matthew 28; Mark 16) and that “all nations” be baptized
for the forgiveness of sins. Christ also left his church a feast
of his body and blood unto forgiveness, life and salvation. In
describing the events of the last day, Christ noted the importance
of mercy in the life of the church (Whatsoever you have
done to the least of these… Matthew 25).
• The church has a corporate life of mercy. There is absolute
support in the New Testament for acts of mercy, love and
kindness done by individuals within the realm of individual
vocation. Moreover, the Old and New Testaments clearly
bear witness to a “corporate life of mercy” of the people of
God. Indeed, “corporate” comes from “corpus” (body; i.e.
hoc est corpus meum). Through the body of Christ (incarnate
and sacramental; Rom. 6; 1 Cor. 11-12; ) the body of Christ
(mystical) is created. Thus “when one member of the body
suffers, all suffer” (1 Cor. 12:26). Acts 6 and the creation of
the proto-diakonic office, and St. Paul’s collection for the poor
(Acts 11:29; 2 Cor. 8-9) in Jerusalem, clearly bear witness to the
church’s corporate life of mercy based upon these theological
• The Lutheran Confessions explicitly and repeatedly state that
the work of diakonic love (alms; charity; works of love) is
Theology for Mercy
an assumed reality in the church’s corporate life. See Treatise
80-82; Apology IV.192f.; Apology XXVII.5ff. Moreover, the
Smalcald Articles explicitly state that “works of love” (operum
caritatis) are, along with “doctrine, faith, sacraments, [and]
prayer,” an area in which the church and its bishops (pastors)
are “joined in unity” (Smalcald Articles, II.IV.9).
• The vocation to mercy is addressed to the church at all
levels. The vocation to diakonic love and mercy is as broad
as the need of the neighbor (Luther). While the call to love
the needy applies to Christian individuals as such (love your
neighbor as yourself), the call to diakonic mercy is particularly
addressed to Christians as a corporate community (church!),
whether local or synodical, even national or international
(1 Cor. 16:1-4; Acts 11:28; Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:1-15; Acts
• Within the church, there is a multiplicity of diakonic vocations.
Within these communities individuals serve in diakonic
vocations (pastoral concern for the needy; chaplain/spiritual
care; deacon; deaconess; parish nurse; medical disciplines; the
host of administrative and managerial vocations, etc.). These
diakonic vocations are flexible in form and determined by need
(Acts 6). Within an ecclesial setting their common goal is the
integration of proclamation of the gospel, faith, worship and
care for those in need. The range of the legitimate disciplines
of human care (First Article gifts!) may be used in the church’s
diakonic life, to the extent that such disciplines/tools do not
contradict the gospel, and the doctrine of Holy Scripture.
“Christ’s kingdom is spiritual… At the same time it permits
us to make outward use of legitimate political ordinances of
whatever nation in which we live, just as it permits us to make
use of medicine or architecture or food, drink and air” (Apol.
• The Church’s work of mercy extends beyond its own borders.
In the New and Old Testaments we see a priority of concern
for those in need within the orthodox fellowship of faith in
Christ. But just as the gospel itself reaches beyond the church
and is intended for all, love for the neighbor cannot and must
not be limited only to those in the fellowship of the orthodox
Lutheran faith. In following the apostolic mandate to “do good
LCMS World Relief and Human Care
to all, especially those of the household of faith” the church’s
diakonic work will persistently address the need of those within
its midst. The church’s diakonic life will also reach beyond
its borders according to the intensity of need confronted and
level of resources provided by God (1 Cor. 9:10-11; Gal. 6:10).
The church’s missionary work will be a persistent arena for
the expression of diakonic love and mercy. Diakonic love will
often function as “pre-evangelism,” and rightly so, so long as
word (gospel) and deed (love) continue to mark the missionary
church’s life at every stage. Strengthening and reaching out
in love to Lutheran partner churches will be a priority. Reaching
beyond these borders in love according to the intensity of
need and opportunity (particularly in times of disaster), and
in partnership with others, is entirely appropriate, so long as
motivations and expectations of the parties involved is clear.
These matters are governed by theological/ethical integrity
and evangelical freedom.
• The church will cooperate with others in meeting human
need. Cooperation in externals has long been an expression describing
the church’s legitimate ability to cooperate with other
entities (whether churches, societies, Lutheran, Christian or
not) in meeting some human need. To cooperate in externals
means to work toward common goals in endeavors, which do
not necessitate, require or necessarily imply church fellowship
(communio in sacris), or involve joint proclamation of the gospel
and administration of the sacraments (worship). Such cooperative
endeavors are entered upon often for practical reasons (e.g.
lack of critical resources). But such endeavors are also often an
expression of the belief (when entered into with other Christian
entities) of the catholicity of the church (See Formula of Concord,
Preface; Tappert p. 11), as well as an expression of love
for fellow Christians. Through such endeavors, the LCMS will
often have opportunity to insist on theological integrity, and
the truth of God’s word, and thereby make a positive contribution
to ecumenical activities. Such endeavors may range from
providing resources for a simple community food bank, to the
highly complex ecclesial and civil realities involved in operating
a jointly recognized SMO. Such endeavors must recognize
legitimate doctrinal differences, and provide for the requisite
integrity of its partners.
Theology for Mercy
• The Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms grants broad
freedom for the church to engage and be active in its community.
The church has a role in its community (local, national,
international) by virtue of the fact that congregations
and national churches are actually “corporate citizens” of their
respective communities. As such, congregations, churches and
synod as a whole engage the community as corporate citizens of
God’s “left hand kingdom,” working toward worthy civic goals
(good citizenship, just laws and society, protection of the weak,
housing, etc.). “Legitimate civil ordinances are good creations of
God and divine ordinances in which a Christian may safely take
part” (Apol. XVI.1). As such a corporate citizen, the church
has civic and political capital. In addition to encouraging its
members to be responsible citizens, the church may from time to
time speak with a collective voice on issues of great significance
to society, particularly where the basic value of human life is
diminished (e.g. abortion, racial injustice). “Public redress,
which is made through the office of the judge, is not forbidden
but is commanded and is a work of God according to Paul in
Romans 13… public redress includes judicial decisions” (Apol.
XVI.7). There have been times in the life of the church when
it was the sole guardian and provider for the needy. In our day
the rise of the modern welfare state has shifted that (monetary)
responsibility in large measure to the civil realm. But there is
a large intersection of civil and churchly endeavor at just this
point. Thus the church’s response to these issues is always mutating
and nuanced. In these matters the church must spend its
capital wisely and sparingly. It must avoid both quietism and
political activism. The former shuns the ethical demand of love
for the neighbor (ignoring for instance, the ethical urgency of
the O.T. Minor Prophets), the latter may obscure the church’s
fundamental and perpetual task as bearer of the Word of salvation
to sinners in need of Christ. Where the church loses sight
of this proclamation of the gospel, it thereby loses the very
motivation for diakonic work (the gospel)! Thus the church
must not speak simply when it MAY do so! The church must
speak ONLY when it MUST do so (CTCR).
LCMS World Relief and Human Care
Topics for Discussion
1. How would you define the term “diakonic love”? What other words
or phrases might be used to mean the same thing?
2. Discuss how diakonic love is related to the following:
a. The Holy Trinity
b. Christ, the Eternal God who became human to redeem
c. God’s desire for all to be saved
3. A Christian’s “vocation” is understood to be made up of the various
places, or situations, into which God puts an individual Christian
for the living out of his or her faith — e.g., family, community,
career, society and culture. Acts of love and mercy are shown
throughout the New Testament to be part of our Christian vocation
(see 1 John 3:15-18, for example) as individual Christians. How do
we know that the church also has a corporate life of mercy — that
is, a responsibility to show love and mercy to others as the whole
body of Christ on earch (see p. 2)?
4. Discuss how the “‘vocation of mercy’ is addressed to the church at
all levels” (see p. 3).
5. Discuss the assertion that “as the gospel itself reaches beyond the
church and is intended for all, love for the neighbor cannot and
must not be limited only to those in the fellowship of the orthodox
Lutheran faith” (see p. 3). Describe some ways in which the
Church’s work of mercy “extends beyond its own borders” (see p.
6. What is “cooperation in externals”? Give examples of how The
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod “cooperates in externals” with
others by serving people in need.
7. How is the church to act as a “corporate citizen” in its community?
What must the church avoid in its efforts to be a good corporate
citizen? Why?