Biblical Mercy Ministry | Jeff Bys

by | May 13, 2024 | Missions, Practical Theology


*Editors Note: This article was originally printed in Pro Pastor: A Journal of Grace Bible Theological Seminary 2, no. 1 (Spring 2023): 42-48. It is used by permission of the Editor of Pro Pastor.


It was a hot day in early December 2016. My family and I had just moved from Texas to a small farming village in western Kenya, and we went to do some shopping in the nearest town, Bungoma. While in a market there, we saw several young boys with ill-fitting clothes, torn and dirty from weeks of continuous wear. They wore no shoes and carried clear plastic bottles with a yellow gel-like substance inside that I later realized was glue. Protruding out of the bottles were sticks that they would occasionally use to stir the glue, then they would put the opening of the bottle to their mouth and inhale. The boys were crowding around us, all holding out their hands. “I am hungry,” they said, using the little English that they knew. A security guard soon came rushing over with a large stick and chased them away. This was our first encounter with street boys.

There are many physical needs throughout the world; countless people go to sleep at night hungry, millions are addicted to substances that are destroying their lives, human beings are being trafficked every day, babies are being murdered in their mothers’ wombs, and the list feels endless. What is a Christian to do in such a world? What is the Church to do in such a world? As Christians with a love for our neighbors, our hearts are often broken as we survey the darkness in the world and so many people suffering due to their own bad choices and/or the bad choices of others. We can be overwhelmed, even depressed, at the thought of trying to help “fix” so many burdens. We can even question if mercy ministry is biblical. I mean, the Great Commission is about saving souls and teaching them, right? The Church should be focused on proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not getting distracted by feeding hungry kids, right? Jesus said the poor will always be with us. So shouldn’t we just accept that and stop trying to fix their physical problems and just focus on their spiritual ones? But then Jesus tells us that the second greatest command is to love others. Surely part of “loving others” includes helping to alleviate their suffering in the world. If we are Christian, shouldn’t we want to do something? I think the answer is an emphatic, “Yes!” But what? And how? In a time when so many seem consumed by issues of justice and mercy, it seems prudent to take a step back and take stock of how God commands us in His Word to approach the issue of mercy ministry.

There really can be no question as to whether or not God expects Christians to help the poor. In Deuteronomy 15 we read the command “you shall not harden your heart, nor close your hand from your poor brother; but shall freely open your hand to him . . .” Elsewhere in the Old Testament God reveals to us His special concern for the poor, like in Proverbs 14. That concern is further expounded for us in the New Testament. Jesus was moved with compassion for the helpless (Matt. 9:35-36) Jesus later reveals that acts of mercy and charity are evidences of a holy life (Matt. 25:31-46) We read accounts of the early church which show the needs of the poor were a constant priority (Acts 4:34-35; 11:30; Gal. 2:10) And we are commanded to love one another, not only in words but in deeds (James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:16-18).

No question, God cares about the poor, and He expects us to also. In the words of Jonathan Edwards, “it is the absolute and indispensable duty of the people of God, to give bountifully and willingly for supplying the wants of the needy.”[1] Not only can mercy ministry be biblical, but it is commanded by God. By His grace, we must strive to love others in word and deed, and to do so in such a way that pleases Him and brings glory to His name. God has given His Church the Great Commission, and God commands believers to works of mercy. The two are not the same, yet they are inseparable. God’s Church is made up of bodies of localized believers under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ, and every believer in God’s Church should have concern to help the poor. With this truth in view, it is my intention in this article to use some of our experience in Kenya as a case study to give you some things to consider as you seek to be part of biblical mercy ministry.


Mercy Ministry Must Be Prayerful

            Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:16

After my first experience with street boys in Kenya, I went back to the home of our hosts with lots of questions. My wife and I had made the commitment to move along with our seven youngest children primarily to start and run a home for needy children, called Mercy Home, and for me to work with local churches. Though we were moving there to work with children, we were not aware of the widespread problem of street boys. I learned several things about them that day and the days that followed. There are thousands of boys living on the streets in Kenya, and several hundred are in Bungoma Town, which is about a 30-minute drive from our village. Many of the locals refer to street boys by the derogatory term “chokora” which is Swahili for “scavenger.” They are looked upon by most as dregs of society. There are street girls in Kenya too, but the numbers are much fewer and they tend to be much less visible. The children who live on the streets are there for a variety of reasons. Some are total orphans whose extended families did not want the burden of raising them. Some come from various situations of abuse. Some are there because the “street life” appeals to them. Whatever the reason they find themselves on the streets, nearly all of them are addicted to sniffing glue, and many are addicted to other drugs and alcohol as well. When first turning to the streets, they are taught by other street boys that the glue diminishes the pain of hunger. What they view as a necessity quickly becomes a brain-cell destroying addiction. Without some kind of intervention, most street boys turn to a life of crime that gets worse as they get older.

The more my family and I learned about these boys and their living conditions and the government’s lack of resources for them, the more we wanted to help. We started making trips to town to meet with many of them and buy them lunch. We would gather large groups of boys and give them bread and milk. We would pass out laundry soap and other basic necessities. But as we got to know many of them better, things started to not seem right. We would make a bunch of sandwiches and I would go into town with a translator and we would pass out the food and proclaim the gospel to them and try to have conversations with them about God. This was difficult because so many of them were high and only interested in free food. We would buy several loaves of bread and try to get the boys to make an organized line to receive the bread and a Bible tract. However, the older boys would steal bread from the smaller boys. Shoving and fighting would ensue and on top of that, we realized many could not read the Swahili tracts we were giving out.

After a conversation with a local government official, I realized our efforts to try and help these boys were only making it more comfortable for them to remain on the streets. Many of the boys were there by choice and we were just making it easier for them to make that bad choice. Other boys who really needed help were harder for the government and others to identify and assist because they blended in with the boys who wanted to be there. All the boys were struggling, but for many, handouts were just making it easier for them to live a sinful lifestyle far from God. But even beyond that, I began to be convicted that I had been distracted by the physical needs before me and lost sight of their eternal needs. The phrase first coined by Rogers Morton came to mind as I realized my unbalanced focus was like “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” The boys we were trying to help were on the path that leads to destruction and all we were managing to do through all our efforts to help them was to make it a little more comfortable for them on their way to hell. I knew we had to do something different.

The first step for me was confessing that I had been trying to address the issues in my own power and in my own way without seeking the Lord first. My heart broke for these boys and I wanted to help, so I just jumped in and started doing something. I later realized I had not considered that God is more concerned for the poor than I am and that I should seek His will instead of trying it alone. I went to God asking for wisdom, believing that He gives it to all who ask generously without reproach (James 1:5). I recognized that “loving my neighbor” in this case had to mean more than just distributing some bread, what I really longed for was for them to know the Bread of Life.


Mercy Ministry Must be Christ-Centered

Only one life; ’twill soon be past—And only what’s done for Christ will last. – C.T. Studd

After time spent with the Lord in prayer and hearing from Him in His Word, I became more and more convinced that if we were going to be part of God’s eternal impact on some of those boys, we needed to be in a situation where we could keep Christ at the center, feeding them a steady diet of God’s Word and raising them up in the way that they should go. It is the Gospel that is the power of God for the salvation of those who believe (Rom. 1:16). The church is to be concerned with making disciples. This is done through Gospel proclamation. That is the means God uses to save those who belong to Him. Once God takes a heart of stone and gives a heart of flesh, that person repents and believes the Gospel. They are adopted into the family of God, and at that point it is the responsibility of the church to teach them all that Christ has commanded. I came to the realization that it would be more biblical for us to take some of these hardened street boys out of that environment and bring them into the children’s home that we had started. This would be a way for us to help them get off the drugs, regularly proclaim to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and raise them up in the admonition of the Lord through a family and through the church that we had planted at our mission. Instead of making them more comfortable in their life of sin and rebellion against God, we would welcome them into a God-fearing, child-loving home and a Bible-teaching church.


Mercy Ministry and Good Works

I pastor a church that affirms the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Therefore, as my desire grew for a more biblical mercy ministry approach for the street boys, I turned to the Confession for guidance. The LBCF refers to what I call “mercy ministry” as “good works” and so I will use the two terms interchangeably throughout the remainder of this article. The Confession addresses the doctrine of good works in chapter 16. Paragraph 1 states:

Good works are only such as God has commanded in His Holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intentions.[2]

The will of God determines what a good work is, not the blind zeal of men nor anything we may consider as good intentions. One of the proof texts given for paragraph 1 is Hebrews 10:21, “[God] equip you in every good thing to do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” Calvin says in his commentary on this verse:

For we know that the spirit of regeneration and also all graces are bestowed on us through Christ; and then it is certain, that as nothing can proceed from us absolutely perfect, nothing can be acceptable to God without that pardon which we obtain through Christ. [3]

It is those who have received the pardon through Christ who seek to live lives obedient to the will of God, and works are acceptable to God only through Christ. I confessed to the Lord that in my desire to do something, anything, to help alleviate the suffering of the street boys, I jumped in head first with blind zeal and a pretense of good intentions. Yes, I was a Christian desiring to do good works, but I had not really sought the Lord’s will through prayer and His Word, and in reality acted as if I could do good apart from God. Any unbeliever can feel sorry for kids living on the street and buy them some food. I realized that my attempts to do good works in the name of Jesus looked way too similar to what someone who does not follow Christ might do.

Of course, living in a society that viewed the “chokora” as deplorable, we knew there would be some pushback on our decision to bring street boys home with us. Some of the locals we were working with were very upset that we had brought street boys to live in our village and some of the teachers and parents at the boys’ school treated them like trash. Eventually I was physically attacked and my wife and I were even imprisoned for a short time. But we thank God as He used those trials to help us gain trust with the community as well as our boys and to lead us into opening a school at our mission. Through all this we have even greater opportunity for Gospel proclamation throughout our community. Though we went through some great difficulties, God sustained us by His grace. But at the same time, it is not the results that prove whether or not mercy ministry is biblical. It is the Word of God that should ground us in our thinking through much prayer. Our works are good in Christ, and God alone is sovereign in all things, including the results of our good works. We are simply to walk in the good works God prepared beforehand (Eph. 2:10) and leave the results up to Him.


Why is Mercy Ministry Important?

The LBCF defines for us biblically what good works are, and it also helps us gain a biblical understanding of why mercy ministry is important. Paragraph 2 states:

These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith; and by them believers manifest their thankfulness, strengthen their assurance, edify their brethren, adorn the profession of the gospel, stop the mouths of the adversaries, and glorify God, whose workmanship they are, created in Christ Jesus thereunto, that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life.[4]

Wow! What an important statement describing what God’s Word has to say on the importance of good works in the life of the Christian. Biblical mercy ministry is the fruit and evidence of a faith which is true. This is why James says “I will show you my faith by my works” (Jam. 2:18). They also “stop the mouths of the adversaries.” I love this! 1 Peter 2:15 says, “For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.” I mentioned earlier that my wife and I ran into some trouble because we had made some people angry simply by doing what we believed was right in the sight of God. Our Mercy Home children had all been removed from the home and we were imprisoned. But we were quickly vindicated by the courts and the children were ordered to be returned to us. In an area dominated by the “prosperity gospel,” our good works in Christ shut the mouths of our adversaries, and continue to do so many years later. I believe the most important part of mercy ministry is that it glorifies God. We are all God’s creatures living in God’s world, but so few give God the glory that He alone deserves. God’s people are to be filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Christ Jesus, to the glory and praise of God (Phil. 1:11). Biblical mercy ministry is important because it can only be done in Christ, as we depend upon Him. Anyone is capable of doing things the world calls “good,” but only Christians can do good works. Then notice what is said at the end of paragraph 2 in the Confession, “that having their fruit unto holiness they may have the end eternal life.” Mercy ministry is not the way to justification, but there is a connection between good works and eternal life. As I have heard Dr. Sam Waldron say, “Eternal life is not to be expected in the future, where good works are not done in the present.”


Mercy Ministry, the Local Church, and Missions

The primary duty given to the Church universal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ (through Gospel proclamation) and to teach His disciples all He has commanded. This is accomplished through local churches. Local churches are made up of believers, all of whom are to be concerned with helping the poor. Churches are to meet not only spiritual needs but also physical needs. First and foremost, churches should provide for those in their spiritual family. The New Testament gives many examples of this (Acts 2:45; 4:32-37; 6:1-6; James 2:15-17; 1 John 3:16-17). We also see examples in the Bible of churches being commended for their generosity toward other churches with greater physical needs. Furthermore, Paul says that we are to do good to all people (Gal. 6:10).

These biblical truths are what have shaped our ministry in western Kenya. We are focused primarily on meeting the spiritual needs of our growing church family and our community, but we also meet many physical needs in our church. We also strive to be a trustworthy way for churches in the west with more physical means than we have to make an impact on a congregation whose vast majority of members and attendees live below the poverty line (less than $1.25 in earnings per day). Beyond that, we are thankful for some opportunities to do good to unbelievers around us as we pray asking God to give us Gospel opportunities in our unbelieving community, which He has been faithful to do.

Since our decision 5 years ago to start bringing street boys into our Mercy Home family, we have brought in more than 50 homeless boys. Some are part of the group of boys we met on that hot December day right after our move to Kenya in 2016, others were rescued over the following years. Some of the boys have remained with us, others have left. It has not always been easy, but by God’s grace we make it work. We try very hard to raise them as a loving family, training them up in the way they should go and regularly sharing with them the Gospel of our Lord. They attend our school which starts each day with chapel service where they learn the Baptist Catechism and hear the Gospel, are taught from a biblical worldview, and finish each school day with a Bible study. Most nights at home we finish the day with a time of family worship. Every Sunday they attend the Lord’s Day service at Mercy Baptist Church, and every Wednesday they attend the church prayer meeting. Some of them have been baptized, and we are asking God to save them all if that be His will. Some have expressed desire to become pastors or missionaries, others teachers, some enjoy farming or construction. None who are still with us have touched glue or any other illegal drugs since coming to live at Mercy Home.


Some Final Thoughts

I want to give a few more things to consider when seeking to be part of biblical mercy ministry.

  • In chapter 7 of the book Missions by the Book, Chad Vegas talks about what he calls “Gospel privilege.” In a time when more and more churches are concerning themselves with “being woke,” “white privilege” and “social justice,” let us remember that every believer has the privilege of eternal salvation which God has given us through the power of His Gospel. It is good that disciples of Christ would desire to do good works, but by God’s grace may we not lose sight of proclaiming the Gospel as He gives opportunity.
  • Consider partnering through associations of churches. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul commends the Macedonian churches for collecting money to send to the poor saints at Jerusalem. Local churches partnering together can usually get more Gospel ministry and mercy ministry done working together rather than alone.
  • Whatever you do with regards to mercy ministry, be in it for the long haul or be part of people who are. Worthwhile mercy ministry is rarely completed in the short-term. I have seen in the field many good intentioned people who did not have a solid, biblical long-term plan and who threw a lot of money at a problem only to pull out quickly, having little effect or even negative effect.
  • Be part of sending out biblically qualified missionaries, or support some already in the field; such men as have biblical accountability. I have often seen good intentioned people with blind zeal try to support good works overseas without being able to fully vet the people on the ground. I have never seen a case where this has worked out well.
  • Be skeptical of missions programs that sound like “get rich quick” schemes. We should have at least the same level of discernment for such things as we do with financial “get rich quick” schemes. Great Commission work and mercy ministry tied to that typically takes time.
  • Biblical mercy ministry provides the saints opportunities to grow in Christ-likeness. Do not fear that you are “woke” if you are showing concern for others through ministry work. Rather fear that you are not Christian if you are not.

In closing, I just want to say I have not written this article from a heart of feeling like I have mercy ministry all figured out, nor do I claim to be any sort of expert on missions. I have made many mistakes out of a desire to make Christ known. But I do want to encourage other believers, even through my mistakes, to be involved with biblical mercy ministry. Prayerfully ask God for wisdom to know what to do (Jam. 1:5). Hear Him answer through His Word, the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Trust that God directs the steps of those who belong to Him and desire to make His glory their end (Prov. 16:9). Then depend upon God in order to be not a hearer who forgets, but a doer who acts (Jam. 1:25).


About the Author

Jeff Bys is a student at CBTS, as well as a missionary and president at Mercy Ministries – AFM Africa, serving in western Kenya where he pastors Mercy Baptist Church, and is co-director of Mercy Children’s Home and Mercy Christian Academy. He and his wife Stephanie have 10 children, 2 grandchildren, and are raising many more at Mercy Home.





[1] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 164.

[2] R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 2485–2486.

[3] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 357.

[4] R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 2486.

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