Weekend Reads: Interwoven Gospels and Calvinistic mercy ministry

by Caleb Nelson

Posted on Saturday, August 31, 2013, at 9:22 am

The premise of this book is simultaneously compelling and troubling, because it takes the Gospels and weaves portions of them together into a connected narrative of the life of Jesus. The Story of Jesus, NIV: Experience the Life of Jesus as One Seamless Story (Zondervan, 2013) is not quite as seamless as the title promises, but it is indeed a cleverly edited approach to telling the gospel story. Short blocks of italicized connective text tie together the Scripture excerpts that make up more than 95 percent of the book. For someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Bible or the story of Jesus, it seems like a good idea.

The Story of Jesus does a good job of theological accuracy and placing of the truth in context. The opening sentence of the book, “Four hundred years go by,” points to the fact that when one begins in the Gospels, he is really jumping in mid-story. Similarly, the final chunk of the book carries the reader about a third of the way into Acts—showing, as Luke does, that the story of Jesus doesn’t end with the ascension.

Nonetheless, the work remains troubling. It is hard to believe that any modern editor, no matter how brilliant, could approach the rhetorical power of the inspired writers. If God has provided us with complete retellings of the life of Jesus, should we break down their artistic unity and try to recast it in a new, modified form? The editor does emphasize the gospel’s promise of human reconciliation to God, but does so at the expense of the truth that God was alienated from us because we had sinned against Him.

For an introduction to Christ, this book is probably a worthwhile choice. But I certainly wouldn’t read it more than once. It is milk, and Christians need meat.

What Is Mercy Ministry?

Can Calvinists really be in favor of mercy ministry? According to conservative Presbyterian minister (and Wheaton College president) Phil Ryken, Calvinism actually provides the best motivation for mercy ministry. With Wheaton professor Noah Toly, Ryken argues that the doctrine of election motivates ministries that feed the homeless and give away clothing. Grace is unmerited favor. Mercy is de-merited favor. God chose to show mercy on the elect not because they deserved it, or even because they asked for it, but simply to show His own goodness and mercy. Too often, otherwise dogmatic Calvinists, who firmly believe in God’s sovereign providence, assume that poor, homeless people deserve their condition. Presumably they do; only then is helping them actually merciful, argues What Is Mercy Ministry? (P&R Publishing, 2013).

Election, though, is far from the only reason to be merciful to those in need. God Himself is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4). Shouldn’t His people be, too? Furthermore, God created man in His own image. Therefore, everyone is “somebody.” To refuse to help another human being because that person doesn’t deserve it denies the doctrine of creation. The cross of Jesus Christ shows us how much mercy costs. His resurrection shows us that He is the first fruits of the new creation that the Father is bringing about right now—a new creation in which both moral and natural evil will be eliminated.

The book closes with some historical examples, including the mercy ministry of John Calvin in 16th-century Geneva, Thomas Chalmers in 19th-century Glasgow, and Tim Keller in modern-day New York. All of these testify that Calvinism, rightly believed and taught, not only legitimizes mercy ministry—it empowers it.

Ryken and Toly close with a caution: Don’t look somewhere exotic for candidates for mercy ministry. Try your own church (and your own home) first.

Caleb Nelson

Caleb is the pastor of Harvest Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Gillette, Wyo.

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