I am sure that this title has been used before, but with the recent Lausanne congress taking place in South Africa, it is a subject that I have been considering. In some people’s minds the answer is obvious; it isn’t a case of “either/or”, it should be a case of “both/and”. And that is a viewpoint with which I would agree.
I think in order to understand why the question has even arisen, it is necessary to remember something of Christianity in the 20th century. There was a popular view, that Salvation could be gained by performing good deeds. In other words, that if you did enough good things in your life, then you would be accepted by God. These would include things to do with what would be considered social action; working to alleviate poverty, helping those considered the marginal in society.
Evangelicals, on the other hand, saw from Scripture that we are NOT saved by the good things that we do – there is extensive teaching in the book of Romans, for example, on that subject. It is only through the sacrificial death and glorious resurrection of Jesus that we can be saved. Good works count for nothing.
That is certainly true – God has provided EVERYTHING that we need for our salvation in Christ. However, what is very often then forgotten is that this salvation, entirely provided by God, has to RESULT in good deeds. In fact if it does not do so it is at least questionable as to whether a work of salvation has taken place at all.
These good deeds are to be clearly seen by others. Jesus himself said “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5 v 16). Evangelical Christians are to be at the forefront of providing support for those who need it, which is social action, as well as taking the message of salvation to the world. Doing good deeds does not, though, take away the necessity of preaching the gospel – people need to be saved for eternity.
Therefore, we need a holistic view of what the Scripture teaches. There are many exhortations to BOTH taking the good news of salvation and providing for physical needs.
Kevin DeYoung has an interview with Tim Keller on his blog – well worth reading. I think it sums up the issue well. http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/10/26/interview-with-tim-keller-on-generous-justice/