What happens when Jesus is not the answer?

Jesus Is Not The Answer

While I was a theological student, a heated debate broke out during one of the Principal’s lectures around the issues of evangelism and suffering.

The Principal’s view w

as that preaching faith in Jesus to hungry people was unhelpful because it did not meet their need for food. He argued that salvation had to be socio-economic, as well as spiritual, or it was of no use.

In my youthful zeal I reacted strongly against this ‘deviation’ from the truth – that people really need to be saved from hell, so they can go to heaven when they die – and I shouted across the room,

“Jesus is the answer! Now, what’s the question?!!”

Fast forward nearly three decades to last summer, when I was visiting development projects in India…

On this particular occasion a man – who insisted on calling me ‘Master’ despite my strong protestations – fell to his knees and asked me to bless him.

I found it excruciatingly uncomfortable.

His mother needed medical treatment and his father could not work because of an infection that has now rendered him incapable of doing the hard manual labor he has done all his life. This man had prayed and searched for many hours for a job, or for some way of paying for his mother’s medical treatment, but had no answer.

Now he hoped that my prayer would be more effective than his own.

But what should I pray? Jesus is not the answer to this man’s prayer – he already knows Jesus! – so what is the answer?

What is the Good News?

As evangelicals, we have often reacted badly to anything that puts a greater emphasis on people’s physical wellbeing over their spiritual well being. We have labelled those who believe in bettering people’s physical lives as ‘do gooders’, or we accuse them of believing in a ‘social gospel’, like some kind of heresy, because it lies outside the narrower view of a gospel that saves souls for heaven when we die.

In the 1920s a progressive movement came to prominence, led by liberal theologians, that believed the Lord’s Prayer to be a mandate on Christians to be operational: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). These ‘Social Gospellers’, as they became known, believed that the Second Coming could not happen until humanity had freed itself of all social evils, and that the Church’s role in society was to work to that end.

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The movement was influential, inspiring people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, and eventually seeing most of its ideals enshrined in today’s labor laws.

It was also controversial, with many Christians rejecting the Social Gospel in favor of a theology that focused only on people’s spiritual salvation, whatever their physical circumstances.

That was where I was at, in that rather explosive lecture many years ago, and many evangelicals still remain largely ‘single agenda Christians’. That is to say, willing to consider social action only if it leads to conversion.

When good for good’s sake is not good enough

Now, when I speak on behalf of Signpost International, the Christian development agency that I work for, I tell stories of the hungry being fed, children going to school, jobs, livelihoods and incomes being created.

And there is always someone who asks me, “But how many got saved?”

I usually answer them by asking how many people they would like to see saved, with “All of them, I guess”, being the usual response.

Fortunately I can guarantee that!

“Before we build another house, dig another well or create any more small business opportunities I promise you that I will first ask who, in that community, wants to become a Christian,” I say.

Brave New Films

“And I can assure you that everyone in that village will put up their hand and then pray the ‘sinner’s prayer’”

The problem, of course, is that it isn’t real.

When William Wilberforce set out to end the slave trade, no one asked ‘how many got saved?’ Wilberforce worked for justice, to right a terrible wrong and to see people set free in this world.

When we work to end poverty we work for justice, to end the slavery that comes from poverty, and so that there is not food for some, while others starve, or that some have houses while others live in slums.

And as I read the gospels, I find that ‘salvation just for heaven’ was not on Jesus’ agenda either. He quite gratuitously, as Luke put it, “went about doing good”; healing sick people, feeding hungry people, loving the unlovable, and befriending and accepting even those on the fringes of society.

So, when Jesus talks about separating the sheep from the goats, it is not on the basis of belief but on doing good. Because, if worship is to acknowledge the worth of God, then reaching out in love to those made in His image is true worship. Or, as it says in James 1:27, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Doing good cannot be an optional extra for Christians, but must be at the core of our existence. For our faith is not measured by a list of sound doctrine, but instead by the fruit it produces in doing good.

Unanswered prayer?

Returning to my friend in India, I would have to say that it is not a lack of prayer or faith that stops this man. Rather, it is a lack of answered prayer.

But this is not because God does not hear this man’s prayer – or the prayers of the millions like him –but maybe it is because those of us who live in plenty struggle to hear God’s call to us for a different way of living.

What happens when spiritually regenerated people see their loved ones suffering for the lack of small amounts of money, while others of us live lives of luxury and comfort unimaginable to most people in the global South?

You either have to conclude – like the man who asked me to bless him – that we are somehow the spiritual ‘elite’, whose prayers answered because we are somehow ‘more worthy’ than those who live in poverty.

Or we may have to consider that God wants those to whom He has given much to take seriously our responsibility and requirement to share. As the Bible puts it,

“The heart regulates the hands. This isn’t so others can take it easy while you sweat it out. No, you’re shoulder to shoulder with them all the way, your surplus matching their deficit, their surplus matching your deficit. In the end you come out even. As it is written,

‘nothing left over to the one with the most, nothing lacking to the one with the least.’”

2 Corinthians 8:14 (The Message)

It is this shift in the way we live our lives that is at the heart of the Gospel, as we follow the example that Jesus set for us and do the good works that has God prepared in advance for us to do.

I would love to see the evangelical church reconnect with the social gospel, seeing thousands of small projects spring up around evangelical churches in the West, all working for justice and ‘doing’ good.

Because, for the times when Jesus is not the answer to the question, then maybe we are?

Kerry Dixon is the Executive Director of Signpost International, a UK-based international development agency that fights poverty and the causes of poverty in disadvantaged communities around the world.

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About the Author

Kerry DixonKerry Dixon is an inner city minister and activist who speaks and writes about grace, faith, and social justice. Kerry is the Executive Director of Signpost International, an organisation focused on community transformation through listening to the voice of people living in poverty. He is also a co-leader of Community Church Dundee, a group of Christians who are committed to establishing a tangible community dedicated to Loving God, Sharing Life and Serving Generously. Kerry is married to Fiona and has five children. He lives and works in Scotland.View all posts by Kerry Dixon →

  • John Miskelly

    Great post Kerry. I find it so frustrating when I see our
    churches here in the West more concerned with a new extension to their building
    than the real issues facing the world. We need to refocus our priorities and get
    to the point where social action isn’t a means to an end (salvation), but the
    end in itself. Then and only then, do I believe that God will bless and
    reinvigorate our churches. As it says in Matthew 5:14-16 ” You are the light
    of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither
    do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its
    stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same
    way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and
    glorify your Father in heaven”

    • Thanks John for your kind words. I agree with you that spending money on Church Buildings that make our lives more comfortable but do little to help others seems out of line with the Gospel.

  • I’ve only got a few words about this … BEST – ARTICLE – I’VE – EVER – READ with a few exclamations!!!!

    • Taylor thank you so much with a few exclamaitions!!!!

  • I love this. Reminds me of themes in a great book I read recently: “An Evangelical Social Gospel?”


    • Thanks Katie, I have not read that book but will add it to my list.

  • TxPastor

    It’s not a need for the church to reconnect with the social gospel, the church needs to connect with the Gospel. When we have the love of Christ in our hearts we will reach out to others in response to that love. BUT, if we do not have the love of Christ in our hearts when we “do good,” if we have not love then we gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13).

    • Thank you for your thoughts.

      I agree that splitting the Gospel into different bits can be
      unhelpful but I think when trying to redress an imbalance it may be necessary.
      Those who refuse to help the poor because they see only a spiritual gospel
      simply call it the gospel. The Gospel as I understand it has both a
      spiritual and a Socio-Economic reality.

  • Eli

    i cant stand the term ‘social’ gospel. i understand the authors desire to encourage people to engage in justice and social good works. As long as we keep in mind these are just aspects of the overall reality of god redeeming all creation and making his love known. if jesus isnt the answer then our jesus is too small. An over realiance on good works is just as nauseating as an over reliance on getting decisions and plugging people into churches. Meeting the primary needs of people in poverty is fantastic but we must be very careful about how excited we get about it… a lot of it is the result of the top 10% creating poverty then giving crumbs to the less advantaged so they can clear their conscience and feel they are bringing change. I fear we have not even bought into the ‘social’ gospel if our goal is to mostly maintain our livestyles yet ‘help’ the poor… thats the other part we often miss”to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

    • Thanks for your thought Eli. I know what you mean
      about the term Social Gospel, but that is my point. The term has caused
      evangelicals to pull away from getting involved with those in need. Working with those on the margins of society
      should be our home turf.

      I also agree that a holistic and balanced approach is what
      is needed because the Gospel has a socio-economic as well as a spiritual

  • Neil

    I came up against this view a long time ago during a uni mission in the UK. Someone who was exploring the Christian faith very seriously asked a question about the environment which was his passion. The evangelists view (who was generally very good) was that if everyone became Christians the problem would be solved. This didn’t satisfy me then and and it doesn’t now because its not true. Recently we have realised that in the UK all forms of crime are in steep decline. Is it because there has been mass revival -no.


    • Kerry Dixon

      Thanks Neil. I agree and I like your blog.

      • Neil

        Thanks, Kerry you can like us on Facebook as well (“No oil in the lamp”). I like the site and will buy the book. I heard Tony and Shane at GB2012. I recently found an old copy of John Stott’s “Issues facing Christians today”. Twenty years on it was a fascinating read. He strongly supports Social action in an appropriate way (one chapter is devoted to this subject).

  • Merrily

    If we are the body of Christ and the hands and feet of Jesus, then Jesus is the answer. And so are we.

    • Kerry Dixon

      Thanks for your comments, I agree with the overall sentiment of your comment but with the slight hesitation that life is complex and simple answers can often miss the need to stop and listen.

  • Nathan

    Good post. Actually the organized social gospel movement began in the 1890’s by men like Walter Rauschenbusch and Washington Gladden etc. Walter Rauschenbusch was its leader and chief spokesman. Its apex in influence was around 1910-1918 or so, but its effects are still being felt and its teaching is still influencial. Many future clergy and leaders were influenced by these early leaders. We need to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, help people with thier needs not throw a tract in thier faces and condemn them. We Christians need to get back to the teachings of Jesus and away from an evangelicalism that has been hijacked by the religious right.

    • Kerry Dixon

      Hi Nathan, thanks for your comments. I agree entirly that we need to be followers of Jesus but it is hard to see the religious dogmas in our own lives and we must ensure that we do not end up condeming those who hold to doctrines different from ours. I have found that is easier to know what I am against than what I am for. This is a stumbling block because in difining that which we are against i.e. the religious right we become the very type of person we rae against. I am trying to learn a different way, a gentle, generous, warm and loning way. (but its a struggle) Thanks for your comments

  • Isabelle

    I think you’ve raised awareness to an important issue, however I feel that your concluding comment “when Jesus is not the answer maybe we are”, is somewhat misleading. Jesus IS and should be the answer in everything we do. If we are going into our mission with an attitude that sometimes Jesus isn’t there, how can we truly make a difference. As humans we fall short, we can do nothing without him who gives us strength. In understanding that we can then go out and do the admirable things that you talk of. But only under the pretext that God is working through us, and we are ultimately bringing more people to him.

    Also, you spoke of the William Wilberforce and his life-changing actions. Don’t mistake me, what he did took much courage and conviction, but should we praise his work, when in the end, if those people weren’t saved spiritually, they will ultimately end up separated from God?

    I just worry sometimes that in this new age, many Christians are loosing the heart of the gospel, and putting an over-emphasis on a wordily fight for justice, that shouldn’t be at our core.

    Just some food for thought. God Bless

    • Kerry Dixon

      Hi Isabelle, I understand your fear completely but in my experience
      the church has rarely over stressed social action against spiritual
      regeneration – in fact the opposite is true.

      Your post opens up a number of interesting issues about the
      nature of salvation both present and eternal. All I will say here is that
      I think both are valid and the freeing of slaves in this life was a vital part
      of our salvation. (I will blog again on the subject of salvation). Thank
      you for your comments.

  • Survivor Girl

    Amen! A thousand times over, AMEN!!!

    • Kerry Dixon

      Thank you

  • Kerry, fabulous article! Very well said. I like the “both and” approach to the message and the actions of our lives. I couldn’t agree more with your analysis!

    • Kerry Dixon

      Thank you!

  • Agent X

    Thank you, Kerry. I only just found you for the first time, but I sense a great connection between us. Your words are wise and convicting. I am blessed for finding you.

  • For the harvest is ripe, but the workers are few…

  • Ernest Wamboye

    Very good article Kerry! God bless you for it! Social justice is important. Jesus said when whenever we do it for any of these little ones we do it to him. However, your last line can be misleading. You said “Because, for the times when Jesus is not the answer to the question, then maybe we are?” Even when we conduct social Justice, it is Christ who has availed the resources and who has given us the ability to do so. We are his instruments. JESUS is ALWAYS the answer. He just works in various means and one way is US. On our own we can do nothing. Even the unbelievers who conduct social justice, though they recognize it not, it is Christ that works through them to help those in need. Great read!

  • Digger

    Interesting claim that Jesus went around feeding the hungry. It has motivated me to read through the Gospels again with the view of focusing on whom Jesus actually did feed. I know He fed 5,000, but not without preaching to them all day. I know He fed another 4,000, but not without first preaching for three days! If there is a lesson here for me, it is that Jesus didn’t use food to attract people, He used the message of salvation. He used food to send them away to spread that message.
    Where else did Jesus feed the hungry?

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