by Jonny Atkinson
Christians are to be marked by faith and works, word and deeds. It is not an either/or but a both/and.
And both words and deeds ought to characterize our gospel witness as we work as God’s ambassadors to see people repent and believe.
Faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom 10:17)—amen! a hundred times—and so we must always speak the gospel (Rom 10:14). But God’s kindness also leads to repentance (Rom 2:4).
God’s kindness is manifested to people in a multitude of ways. But one of the more regular ways His kindness is manifested to the world is through His people, the church, being kind and merciful—like the wife who wins her husband by her conduct without a word (1 Peter 3:1).
Reformed evangelical churches have a tendency to (rightly) prioritize the Word and yet, let’s face it, we’re often not the greatest at showing kindness to the world. Often afraid of being told we have embraced a social gospel, we tend to shirk from engaging the world with kind deeds staying home in our studies reading our books.
However, James rhetorically reminds us that those with only a word ministry: “what good is that?” (James 2:16).
The Example of Boaz1
Boaz provides an excellent example of someone who lived and showed the kindness of God.
Ruth was a widow and sojourner—a Moabite by birth—and thus was particularly vulnerable when she entered Israelite society. But God cares about the vulnerable, and being a sojourning widow she was one with whom the Lord intimately cared about (Deut 10:18).
Boaz, by contrast, was a wealthy businessman, owning many fields and employing many people (Ruth 2:4).
Put yourself in Ruth’s shoes. Imagine yourself entering a foreign land as a childless widow with your elderly mother-in-law who is also a widow. Where would you work? Where would you live? Where would you get food? Would society accept you? Would they make fun of your accent? Would anyone take care of you? Would you be mistreated? And, on your first day in your new home, you set out—literally with your life at stake—to gather leftover grain, wondering how you’ll be received (Ruth 2:2).
Ruth winds up in Boaz’s fields. Notice how Boaz, as a good Israelite, obeyed God’s laws. He allowed Ruth to glean (Deut 24:19, Ruth 2:7) and later in the story he fulfilled the duty of the kinsman redeemer by buying back the property of Ruth’s deceased father-in-law (Lev 25:25, Ruth 4:9). He was a good law keeper.
But Boaz went above and beyond the letter of the law, I believe, fulfilling the spirit of the law—love (Matt 22:36-40). He didn’t just allow Ruth to glean, he let her sit with his reapers at mealtime (Ruth 2:14), provided her an abundance of food so she had left-overs (Ruth 2:14), told his reapers to let her glean even among the sheaves (Ruth 2:15) and to lay down some extra sheaves that had already been picked up (Ruth 2:16), and he sought to protect her from evil men (Ruth 2:9). Boaz went above and beyond to care for Ruth and at personal cost. In sum: Ruth found grace in Boaz’s eyes (Ruth 2:10; sound familiar? See Gen 6:8).
How do you think Ruth felt? What sigh of relief there would be in her soul as she returned home to her mother-in-law that day with a surplus of food! What comfort and security must have come over her knowing that her physical needs were being met because someone not only followed the letter of the law, but showed her lavish, unmerited grace! And how much more do you think she trusted and worshipped the God of her mother-in-law whom she had cast herself upon for mercy (Ruth 1:16, Ruth 2:12)?
Boaz acted as a redeemer, spreading his wing of protection over the vulnerable Ruth (Ruth 3:9) by showing her abundant grace (Ruth 2:10). In this way, he enacted the heart of his God who also redeems his people, spreads his wings of protection over them (Ruth 2:12, Ezk 16:8) and showers them with grace they don’t deserve.
Boaz wasn’t bitter that gleaners showed up to his business. He wasn’t frustrated that God created this law to care for the poor. He didn’t say “she’s a foreigner milking the system.” He didn’t think “she’s poor because of bad decisions she’s made,” “if she just tried harder in school she wouldn’t be poor,” “the Moabite culture is the problem” or “God is probably punishing her for sins she has done in the past.”
While the text is silent, one gets the impression that Boaz knew what it was to be a undeserving recipient of God’s grace himself (1 Corinthians 4:7), he knew what it meant to do good to all (Gal 6:10; yes especially to, but not only to, the household of faith, for Ruth was a Moabite), and he recognized that God had given him an opportunity to show the kindness of God through sacrificial love.
Adorning the Gospel
One of the ways Christians are to be fruitful in this world is to “help cases of urgent need” (Tit 3:14), doing good deeds that “adorn” the gospel (Tit 2:10), not neglecting the poor (Gal 2:10), doing good to everyone (Gal 6:10), rescuing the oppressed from the fangs of the unrighteous (Job 29:17), and even searching out for needs yet unknown that we can meet (Job 29:16).
We can debate who is oppressed, but oppressed people exist in every society (Ecclesiastes 4:1). We can debate who is an oppressor, but unrighteous oppressors exist in every society (Ecclesiastes 4:1). We can debate who is poor, but poor people exist in every society (Matt 26:11; capitalism and socialism are both unable to create a society without the poor). I would also add, while debate and wisdom is needed on these issues, don’t wait to show mercy until you’ve satisfactorily figured it all out—because you’ll probably never do anything.
How’s Your Love? Hot or Cold?
Thankfully I don’t think strong reformed evangelical churches are at any risk of letting doctrinal error creep in. However, the church at Ephesus which could smell the errors of the Nicolatians a mile away were told by Jesus to repent and do the works they did at first (Rev 2:5). And their repentance included returning to their first love. In other words, their love had grown cold evidenced by a lack of works.
Doing acts of mercy to those in need is not a sign of selling-out to a social gospel. Rather, not doing such works is an indication that we need to repent and return to our first love because our love has grown cold (Rev 2:4). Your love for Jesus is not measured by how well you can rehearse orthodox statements, but by your deeds towards others (James 3:13). I know I need to hear this again and again. For how well do we understand the doctrines of grace anyway, if we aren’t acting graciously to those around us?
1. I have had my thoughts on Ruth greatly helped by chapter three in David Starling’s book Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship.