The Social Gospel

Posted by admin in December 13th, 2009
Published in faith, obedience

My girlfriend and her husband have just taken a pregnant teen in to live with them. They have two kids, a set of parents to care for and both work fulltime jobs. Wow! I don’t know if I could do that. Ministry is messy. The young girl got pregnant while away at college. When she found out she was pregnant she decided to go home and tell her parents. Before she ever reached home, her Mom was killed in a tragic accident. The girl decided not to tell her Dad as the whole family was trying to recover from the loss of the Mom. So, the girl returned to school alone, afraid, mourning her mother and guilt-ridden. But my friend and her husband have taken her in to care for her, to love her, to give her a place of rest. This is ministry. This is the kind of “neighbor love” Jesus told us to do.

“They’re so into the social gospel! I just don’t know if I can go to that kind of church.” I heard someone say this once walking to the parking lot after service. When Daryl and I got in the car, I asked him, “What other kind of Gospel is there? I mean social is society, right? And society is people, right? And Jesus came to save people. If the Gospel (Good News) isn’t for society/people, then who’s it for?”

I need to note here that I do understand where the term “social gospel” comes from. It’s a term originated to describe doing good works without presenting the salvation that Christ offers humankind. It became, and with good reason, a catch phrase to describe liberals who only believed in doing good works, but did not believe that Jesus is imperative for salvation. But today, it’s evolved into something different. Folks are using the term to describe something else.

For example, I was listening to Ligon Duncan III and Mark Dever the other day on the radio. Duncan is a Presbyterian blueblood pastor (eighth generation) and Dever pastors Capitol Baptist in DC. Both Duncan and Dever were commenting on the ills of good works without direct evangelism. They too would be very opposed to what they call the “social gospel.” In fact, Dever actually says that no preacher should ever deliver a message from the pulpit without the primary focus being evangelistic (i.e. including the plan of salvation). They both were concerned that Christians might be feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, digging wells for clean drinking water and providing medical care for poverty stricken nations without a direct evangelistic emphasis. Duncan specifically said that he worried about Christians doing “neighbor love” without evangelistic outreach.

Huh. That’s interesting. Because I thought “neighbor love” was a command. And for me personally, it’s pretty hard to share the Four Spiritual Laws with someone when they’re starving. Or homeless. Or bleeding to death. But if I serve them by meeting a specific need, then I might have a better chance of sharing my life with them. Right?

Isn’t loving our neighbor demonstrated through our meeting their physical needs? Jesus said to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, take care of widows and orphans and to give a cold cup of water in His name. Isn’t that preaching the Gospel? Isn’t that good news? Don’t I need to obey these commands? St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel and when necessary use words.” Of course Duncan and Dever wouldn’t agree with old St. Francis.

I like the way John Stott puts it, “… let me say something about the relation between the words and the deeds of Jesus. The Gospels are a record of his words and works, or, as the evangelists call them, of his ‘mighty works’ and ‘gracious words.’ The two belong essentially together, for his deeds dramatized his words, while his words interpreted his deeds.”

In fact James tells us that “Faith without works is dead.” If I don’t live out my Christianity (i.e. good deeds), then I must question if I am truly a Christian at all.

There are three things about Duncan’s and Dever’s emphasis that make me anxious. First, the Church in the US is inactive enough. We don’t need to have preachers giving us even more excuses to be inactive. “Well, I’d go feed the hungry and homeless downtown, but if I can’t preach the Gospel to them, then it’s a waste of time. My preacher told me that.” Sometimes we have to live the Gospel before we can share it. There’s such a thing as earning the right to be heard. As trite as it may sound, the old saying is still true, “People don’t care what you know until they know you care.” And isn’t feeding someone who is hungry noble and right even if they don’t embrace the plan of salvation? Jesus never said, “Feed the hungry, give them the plan of salvation and then if they don’t receive it, stop feeding them.” Even in the passage where He tells the disciples to shake the dust from their feet, in those cases the disciples were on the receiving end—they were the ones without food, extra clothing or money.

My second anxiety is the marginalization of those who are doing good work and living out their Christianity without being preachers. There’s more to Christianity than Church planting and evangelism. Sometimes those things come about as a result of good works, as a result of the “social gospel.” I have labored in nations where it was illegal to share the Gospel—to proselytize. Does that mean I should only go to nations where it’s lawful to preach? No! As followers of Jesus we must go to all nations and give of ourselves. While there we pray and intercede on behalf of those we have been called to minister to. I’d go to North Korea in a heartbeat even if I knew beforehand that I’d never be allowed to speak Jesus’s name in public. Why? Because, as all followers of Christ, I am a vessel of the Holy Spirit, and this jar of clay filled with the Power and Light of Christ can be His presence there in darkness. My love for the nationals, my prayers for the nationals, and my service to nationals—all of these things still bring glory to God because my heart is towards Him! It’s part of loving my enemy in Jesus’s name.

My third anxiety is brought on by the only logical conclusion this type of thinking brings. Preaching that elevates evangelism over all other works forces followers of Christ into a secular and sacred dichotomy. It leads us to say, “This work is holy” and “This work is not holy.” But the truth is that all work is to be holy. Everything that we say, do, think—all of our lives are to be under the Lordship of Christ. When the spiritual gifts are listed, evangelism is only one of the gifts. There are different callings. Look at Romans 12:4-8, “ For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, we are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of that body. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: preaching, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.” For the life of the Believer, all work is sacred if done with a heart and mind of worship. Martin Luther said even changing a baby’s dirty diaper is sacred work when the mother’s heart is focused on Christ.

Is evangelism important? Of course it is. But it is only one part of what God has called us to. That’s why some plant the seed, others may water it, but only God can give the harvest of that seed. Sometimes loving our neighbors (those next door as well as those in distant lands) is just planting seeds and years later someone may come and water that seed. Paul writes in I Corinthians 3, “The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Three years after I left my city in China a great revival broke out in that city and people were coming to Christ in droves. I went to visit years later and Christian workers said, “We have no idea what is happening here except a sovereign work of God. People are coming to Christ so quickly we’re having to baptize them in bathtubs.” But quietly, in my heart of hearts, I knew that years before I had taken a city map and over a long period of time I had walked every street in that city and prayed for God to pour out of His Spirit in that place. Did I preach? No. It was not permitted. Did I evangelize? No. It was not allowed. Did I share the salvation message with many? No. I was able to share the plan of salvation with only three or four people in all of my years there. Was I participating in the social gospel by teaching English there? Absolutely! And I’m so glad I did. If evangelism alone had been my only focus, I would never have been allowed to go to China.

In closing, I just have to address Dever’s remark that every sermon preached from the pulpit should include the plan of salvation. I wish it was that easy. I wish we could formulate preaching to that type of method. But we can’t. The truth of the matter is, no preacher, no pastor should ever get behind the pulpit to deliver God’s message until he/she has prayed, waited on God, sought the Lord, read the word, asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out to God, “What is Your word for this congregation at this time, in this place and this hour? Lord God I seek You and You alone to speak Your words through me to Your people.” And when a pastor has done this, God’s message is multifaceted and reaches the needs of the whole congregation. I took a friend from work with me to church. The message that morning was directed to Believers; building them up in their faith. The plan of salvation was never given. But the Spirit of God was there in the worship, in the fellowship and in the pastor’s heart for the congregation. The pastor ended his message and asked if anyone needed prayer. My friend touched my arm and asked, “Will you go down there with me? I want to ask that man more about Jesus.” And she gave her heart to Christ that day and was baptized the next week. Why? Because the Spirit of the Lord was there and He moved upon her heart. The majority of us there didn’t need to hear the plan of salvation. We were saved. But we did need to hear the message on faith. And, my friend came to Christ. When the Holy Spirit has inspired the message, then all the people take something from it; all needs are met in Him and through Him. Peace.

3 users Responded In This Post

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309. texas sister said,
December 14th, 2009 at 12:04 pm

I must simply respond by saying; PRECISELY!!
This is the essence of Christmas as it should be as well as every single day of our lives.

310. Laura Savage-Rains said,
December 14th, 2009 at 10:52 pm

You got it, Teri! If the gospel was not meant to be SOCIAL, then Jesus could’ve just emailed everyone a tract and left the whole reach-out-and-touch part to the peons . . . after all, who wants to get dirty?!?!?! Well, I’m sure glad my Jesus was willing to get dirty, talk to people who did NOT agree with him, and allowed them to CHOOSE whether they wanted the kind of life he was offering. No coersion involved. We have a mighty Savior! Preach on, sister!

311. grannieannie said,
December 16th, 2009 at 11:04 am

“I have labored in nations where it was illegal to share the Gospel—to proselytize. Does that mean I should only go to nations where it’s lawful to preach? No!” THIS is the question that should be asked of those well-meaning “plan of salvation or nothing” folks.

I have friends with a wonderful, anointed music ministry. When they made plans to minister in a Catholic church situation they were heartily criticized by their Christian friends…but these same criticizers would think it just grand to go to another country and minister to…..Catholics!! We just don’t stop and think all the way through the things we say sometimes. Now I’m neverrrrr guilty of that….! LOL!

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