Social action and the Last Day

How does social action relate to the Last Day and the new creation?

Following on from Part 1 (on the relationship between evangelism and social action), here are six more propositions to chew on:

  1. Theologically speaking, social action is part of sanctification.

    I hinted at this in the first post of this series, but it is worth re-stating at this point. The good and loving action we take on other’s behalf—whether helping our neighbour clear his drains, or helping an entire village to have any drains at all—is a fruit of the Spirit in our lives. It is part of that lifelong process of being transformed into the image of the Son, who loved others and laid down his life for them. One of the mistakes people make in this regard (it seems to me) is they attempt to relate social action to a larger, looser category called ‘mission’. I don’t see this move (or this category for that matter) in the New Testament.

  2. Godly social action will be recognized on the last day, along with all our godly deeds.

    Our good deeds are the fine linen we will wear on the great day of judgement. They will not earn our salvation or justification (of course!), but they are evidence of our saving faith in Christ. They will thus be a reason for commendation from our heavenly Father, even if others have not seen them (1 Cor 4:5).

  3. We should engage in social action because the world is going to be destroyed.

    The approaching day of God is often seen in the New Testament as a strong motivation for godliness and holiness: Paul urges his Colossian readers, for example, to set their minds on heaven and the coming day of Christ as this is the motivation to put off the old and put on the new (Col 3:1-17). If social action is a species of good works, then it too is related to eschatology in this way.

    2 Peter 3 gives it a particular twist: the inevitable coming of the new heavens and earth, the home of righteousness, should motivate us now to godliness and holiness, even though we expect—no because we expect—a cataclysmic reconfiguring of this creation on judgement day. I am aware that there is some debate over 2 Peter 3 as to the proportion of ‘continuity’ and ‘discontinuity’ between old creation and new. Personally, I think the emphasis of the passage is very much on the discontinuity. However, it makes no difference for our purposes how much of the created order will or will not be destroyed. Read Peter’s argument carefully:

    Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. (2 Pet 3:11-14)

    He does not say, “Some of the creation will be preserved into the new creation, and so it’s worth improving people’s social circumstances and building more just infrastructures, because these will endure in some way into the new creation”. But also notice, he does not say, “It’s all going to burn anyway, so what’s the use of trying to help anyone or do anything?” No, his argument is “Because of the destruction that is coming, what sort of people should you be?”

    This is the culmination of a theme which runs right through Peter’s second epistle—that, in view of the coming day of judgement in which we finally enter into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we should be all the more diligent to make our calling and election sure, making every effort to supplement our faith with excellence, and excellence with knowledge, and so on, through to the crowning virtue of love (1:5-7).

    So the coming judgement of all things, in which the heavens and earth are “stored up for fire” (2 Pet 3:7) should by no means put a dampener on our efforts to love other people. On the contrary, says Peter. In view of its coming, we should redouble our efforts to live godly, holy lives of love.

  4. Godliness is other-person-centred.

    The word ‘godliness’ sometimes has a private, inward-looking smell about it in our Christian culture, as if it consists entirely of personal Bible reading and prayer. But this is inadequate. To be like God is to give yourself for others, as Christ did. It means serving the interests of others rather than ourselves. There are a multitude of ways we can do this, small and large. (More on this in Part 3.)

  5. The ultimate eschatological motive for social action (like all godly, loving action) is to glorify the God who has redeemed us.

    Here’s one way in which loving social action is like evangelism. In both cases, what is required from us is not success or results, but God-glorifying action. We don’t evangelize in order to save people; we evangelize to bring God glory, who does the saving. We’re not in it for the results, although we rejoice when we see the results. We’re in it as faithful stewards, imitating our Lord and Saviour who came to seek and to save the lost—which is why we’ll keep evangelizing till kingdom come, regardless of the results. Ditto loving people and trying to help them, in all sorts of ways. We’re not in it to change the world, although we rejoice when we see results. But we recognize that world changing will happen in God’s time, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. We’re in it to give God glory on the day he visits us (1 Pet 2:12).

  6. In the meantime, this old creation remains frustrated and futile.

    The New Testament repeats the realism of Ecclesiastes (via Romans 8, for example). The world remains a fallen and frustrating field of moral action, under the power of the evil one. We are not building the new Jerusalem now, nor even laying bricks that will endure into it. We are citizens now of the new heavenly Jerusalem, but it comes down from heaven; it is not made with human hands.

    We should therefore be cautious about grand schemes. We should take action on behalf of others as we have opportunity, neither being discouraged by the inevitable disappointments and shortcomings, nor dazzled by the optimism of those who do not share our biblical perspective.

Part 3.

6 thoughts on “Social action and the Last Day

  1. Thanks Tony.

    A small point: I puzzle and puzzle over this phrase from 2 Peter 3:

    <i>waiting for and <b>hastening</b> the coming of the day of God</i>

    which you mentioned under your point 3. The idea that we might actually <i>hasten</i> the day of final judgement is extraordinary. And to think that we are doing it by, among other things, our social action.

    I suppose that one way of reading this idea of ‘hastening’

    <i>Greek ‘speudontas’, which is a truly wonderful word as well, thoroughly onomatopoeic to my ears—maybe that’s why Aussie swimmers wear ‘Speudos’ in the pool ; -)</i>

    is that it merely describes the activity, not the result, a bit like a child jumping up and down with excitement and anticipation, waiting for a treat which will come in the parent’s good time.

    But I notice that in the other places where the same word is used, the hastening really is meant to have an effect on the final outcome, eg.

    Luke 2:16 And they <b>went with haste</b> and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

    or again

    Luke 19:5 And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, <b>hurry</b> and come down, for I must stay at your house today.”  6 So he <b>hurried</b> and came down and received him joyfully.

    [bold mine, and indicates where the Greek word ‘speudo’ is used].

    For what it’s worth, Louw and Nida’s Greek lexicon makes this comment on the word <i>speudo</i>:

    <i>to cause something to happen soon — ‘to cause to happen soon, to hurry up.’ … ‘making the day of God come soon’ or ‘hurrying up the day of God’ 2 Peter 3:12. It is also possible to render this meaning of ‘speudo’ in 2 Peter 3:12 as ‘doing your best to cause …’</i>

  2. Many thanks Tony, really good stuff. You make a clear and compelling case. I just wonder whether you sell yourself short in the last point which seems to suggest a pessimism and passivity that doesn’t flow from points 1-5.

    If social action fits under the category of godliness surely we should be actively looking for every opportunity to take action on behalf of others. And if our goal is the glory of God surely we will be thoroughly optimistic in our outlook; more rather than less optimistic than those who are trying to build ‘heaven’ here since our efforts are certain to succeed. 
    Thanks again. Ed

  3. Yes, Gordo, I’ve always found ‘hastening the day’ an intriguing phrase. Does it relate perhaps to the Lord’s patience (mentioned in vv. 9 and 15)? If God is delaying the Day so that “all should reach repentance”, do we hasten the day by repenting? Or by preaching the gospel of repentance? I’m not sure…

    Ed, thanks for the comments. I did want to sound a note of pessmism in point 6, because I’m suggesting that we decouple our enthusiasm for doing good to others from our expectation that we will actually make a large scale difference in the world.

    So yes, I’m optimistic about God’s kingdom and his glory! And we have the most positive reasons in the world to be doing good to others (see points 1-5). But as we do so we need to take on board the Bible’s description of how rotten things are (and will continue to be) in “this present evil age”. A godly pessimism may preserve us from being swept up in the latest well-meaning bandwagon. I’ll try to say more on this in part 3.

  4. Tony,
    thanks for part two. Again very helpful. I really appreciate your emphasis on God-focussed faithfulness in all we do rather than thinking we have a grand scheme. We need to keep saying this because technical triumphalism (‘we have a plan and we CAN DO IT”) is a great temptation of our age.

    There are a few things I’d like to raise, to which you might be willing to respond.

    1) I assume that under point one you mean that ‘mission’ is not a NT category. I’d say that the idea rests in passages like John 20:21 that the Father has sent (missio in Latin) and so ‘you’ are sent (leaving aside exactly who ‘you’ includes). Like all large scale interpretive suggestions ‘mission’ is something that people see as a common pattern in scripture which seems to help hold the whole thing together. So Graeme Goldsworthy sees ‘kingdom’ in an unfolding pattern and other people use ‘covenant’. So I’d think we can have a valid discussion about what the people of God are sent to do and how that relates to what God is doing, and we can talk about how word ministry to those outside Christ fits with caring for the poor among us and caring for the poor (and other acts of love) beyond us.

    2) I agree that love of neighbour is an evidence of our justification. I’d add that how we love our neighbour will be shaped by our eschatology, because eschatology tells us what is the goal of human life. So we think that reconciliation with God is primary, for he is what life is about. Around that caring for bodies and relationships and society and creation matter because all of that will be perfected and glorified in New Creation. Things that really won’t last (like money) will be put in their place as means to achieve greater ends. So the ‘evidence’ is not arbitrary, it is shaped by eschatology.

    3) On 2 Peter 3 have you seen Al Wolter’s article “Worldview and Textual Criticism in 2 Peter 3:10,” Westminster Theological Journal 49.2 (1987): 405-413? He argues that the image is of refining not destruction so the image is of eschatological perfection.

  5. Thanks, Tony, for these thoughts.  I’d be interested to see a development of point 5 in a reflection upon the ‘relative’ contributions to God’s glory by ‘social action’ vs ‘proclamation action’ (if I can use these terms – after all, proclaiming the gospel is intensely social and social actions speak powerfully, if not always transparently). 

    I take it that the possession or lack of merit of a given activity is not predicated upon the supposed eternality or transience inherent to that activity.  It’s a common mistake to think that preaching the gospel is eternally efficacious whereas changing the nappy isn’t.  ‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything to the glory of God.’ (1Co 10.31)  We are by nature temporally restricted creatures, and it is only by God’s dispensation that our actions may have consequences beyond the present creation.

    At the same time, God is free to be glorified, as he chooses, in and through anything we pursue in his name.  Was it Luther who said: ‘What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it in heaven for our lord God.  We should accustom ourselves to thinking of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on the account of the work and position, but the faith from which they flow.’

    I’m always conscious of the weightiness of my responsibility as a teacher, yet I strive not to confuse this with a mistaken view of the temporality of my agency.  There is nothing inherently eternal in the act of preaching – after all, I have to do it week after week!

  6. Thanks as always John.

    1. Re: ‘mission’. If there’s going to be a ‘large scale interpretive suggestion’ like this, that sits ‘over’ evangelism and social action, and into which the two are somehow integrated, I’d just like something more solid to anchor it to in the NT (as a concept, let alone an overarching or integrating one). That’s what I was suggesting I didn’t see. 

    2. “So the ‘evidence’ is not arbitrary, it is shaped by eschatology.” Brilliant thought.

    3. No I haven’t seen Wolter’s article. I’ll put it on the list! Is it a post-millennial thing?

    Thanks Mike, too, for those insightful comments.

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