This idea of Liberation Theology is making the rounds again, so let’s talk about what it is. A lot progressive Christians are getting on this cart this time around. The premise is basically that God has preferential treatment and thus a mindset towards those who are in bondage, or the downcast or the dregs of society. God wants us about charity. The narrative goes like this: Look at the Jews who were captive to the Egyptians whom God saw and responded to their plight and their pleas for help. God is concerned with this type of redemption. God is in the liberation business.
Now I would agree with the idea of God being in the liberation business but it doesn’t automatically look like our American ideas of social justice. God rescued his people from bondage true enough, and he offers that same rescue to all people as well, but the Jewish experience was a picture of a much deeper truth. We are all in bondage to sin. Even those who were rescued from slavery to Egypt still died in the wilderness failing to understand their need for God while grumbling against how he did things.
But what about Jesus, didn’t he go around healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, feeding the poor? Yes, he did. But why did he do it? Did he do it because there was an endless need and his purpose was to curtail suffering and start a relief movement? These were and are obviously good things to do. But it seems like many have got a passion for such projects without understanding what Jesus’ true purpose was.
God doesn’t simply identify at-risk communities and then try to rescue them. No, God is seeking worshipers; he is looking for sons and daughters to adopt. God is painting the picture for us all that without him we are lost and will continue to be so without his own special deliverance. The good works Jesus did was to point to the message the Father had given him which was they could be reconciled to God. (John 10:38, 14:10,11) He did care about their situations, but they had a much deeper condition that needed addressing. He addressed their issues to get to the main idea. The truth is we are all at-risk communities. We all need rescuing and we can be saved! This is why Jesus didn’t simply come and show us a better way to live, but he had to die on the cross for the redemptive transaction to occur.
I fear we muddy the waters of what the Gospel is, making it difficult to actually share the good news with people when we have made our first concern trying to solve all the world’s pain. Go that route and the application becomes that God wants freedom and liberation for all people groups who fall into these oppressed categories. We have taken this idea and made it that somehow they are also the same groups that cannot be discriminated against according to our federal government.
But was that Jesus’ concern? Should it be ours?
I wish I didn’t have to say such things. Good works and relief are awesome ministries, but we are in a time when people want the good works, without the hard words of Jesus.
I think of the passage where the disciples ask Jesus about the worshipers whom Pilot mixed their blood with the offering from Luke 13:1. (He killed them during offering) Jesus responds by bringing up yet another tragedy about the temple who fell on people asking if they thought they were worse sinners because of the accident. They essentially asked Jesus about where the justice was or what should they do about it. However, rather than taking up a cause Jesus responds with “Unless you repent you shall likewise perish”. Jesus is bringing them back down to the point which he makes in the next parable. If a tree is producing no fruit, then what good is it?
Without repentance, the world is going to perish.
At another point, Judas tries to get everybody to give to the poor, though he himself was benefiting from it, and Jesus responds “That we will have the poor with us always”. They will not have Jesus always and that is where they should be investing. We, of course, are supposed to look after the poor as Paul was eager to do. (Gal 2:10) But Jesus never wanted his message reduced to simply charity work. He was on a mission to save souls. In yet another situation the apostles admitted they were not to be taken away from the Gospel to serve tables because they were to give themselves to prayer and the word of God. The point is not that we shouldn’t be doing these things, the concern is where the actual focus lies.
Where is the main thing? What is it?
I don’t say all this to say therefore relief work isn’t important, because it absolutely is, in fact, the Bible tells us we are saved unto good works (Eph 2:10), Keep it up! However, we must give the Gospel its due context. The saved part should be primary: Jesus tells Nicodemus you must be born again, (John 3) this is the point. If making disciples is not our focus, then sometimes it gets sidelined or ends up getting in the way of our charity, and so we refrain from doing it. This is unfortunately what I keep seeing; some have decided that liberation is the point and therefore if offering relief to pain is the Gospel, then the Gospel cannot possibly say things like “repent of your sins” because that causes pain.
If we believe reducing pain is Biblical love then it means we will steer away from things that the world tells us are not so loving, like say, the need to be reconciled to God or to walk away from sin and enter into faith and that they are accountable to God. When our good works clash with Gospel truth then something is off kilter.
I fear that this might be one reason why Jesus says that most frightening phrase at the end of the age. “I never knew you” (Mathew 7:21-23) He says this to people who admit they were busy doing good works but he never knew them. But to keep our balance it is true that Jesus also says his followers did good works to him by doing it to the least of these and that those he casts away did not do such things. (Matt 25:31-45)
This is the hard task of theology, it is taking both truths and holding them both in conjunction and maybe sometimes in tension but holding them both the same. This is what I am emphasizing here in this post. We must do both. If we are saved unto good works then good works we are to do, but if good works are not enough or the point then perhaps there is an order we need to consider. If Jesus does good works but says his purpose is the redemption of people, we should keep this straight. (Acts 2:22-23, 37-39) As we come to Jesus he does want us to turn around and offer that balm of Gilead.
We do not and must not ever confuse the balm with simply pain relief alone, because that does not ultimately save those helped. I believe as we make conversion the main thing, the redemption of souls, we will be that much better to do lasting good works. With regeneration, we are actually able to help the process for all redemption in everything. This is how good works do not become meritorious or earning. We do them because we were saved unto them. We recognize our condition is better because we are now children of God and being a disciple makes us the best kind of people able to flourish in God’s creation. That should be a primary concern for others while hopefully relieving some of their pain along the way. Christians should always work for the good of the city but that good has to be framed in the Gospel.
The very best thing for a city is for there to be more followers of Jesus dwelling there. This is why Jesus tells Pilot that his Kingdom is not of this world or else his followers would fight for him. (John 18) He explains that he came for the purpose of delivering the truth, not creating a utopia free from suffering. Jesus goes away to prepare a place for us but that place is not here. So we need to frame this correctly.
Liberation Theology isn’t bad in that it brings reminders of the downtrodden, but it can cross a line when it makes it about causes and people-groups rather than Jesus Christ and our primary need of reconciliation. He is the truth that sets people free. It needs to be Jesus’ liberation and Jesus’ theology. When we make Jesus about us and our movements we miss the point and ministry gets difficult, it must always be about Him!