Does the Gospel have a Social Mandate?

The gospel should be the dearest thing to the heart of the redeemed. That God would save a sinner such as I should never cease to amaze me. That there would always be some who stretch the gospel to include things that it does not should not surprise me.

For the last sixty or so years we have heard new evangelicals stress “social involvement.” Harold John Ockenga characterized fundamentalists as being indifferent to the physical needs of people. He and other new evangelicals promoted a positive social message. Their view of a contemporary kingdom of God provided a foundation for engaging the culture and advancing a social element in the Gospel. Ockenga claimed, “There need be no disagreement between the personal gospel and the social gospel.” Fundamentalism was portrayed as leaving out an important part of the Bible message. The push for the Gospel to have a social relevance gained acceptance in both liberal and new evangelical circles. This emphasis has appeared in many different forms, but has never gone away.

Today there are groups which claim to be defining the Gospel. The Gospel Coalition is gaining popularity among new evangelicals and some fundamentalists. I wholeheartedly agree with the Gospel Coalition that salvation is “received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone” (Gospel for all of Life: Preamble). But in the same document they claim that Christian living is supposed to impact the arts and improve living conditions.

“Developing humane yet creative and excellent business environments out of our understanding of the gospel is part of the work of bringing a measure of healing to God’s creation in the power of the Spirit. Bringing Christian joy, hope, and truth to embodiment in the arts is also part of this work. We do all of this because the gospel of God leads us to it…. Christian churches must work for justice and peace in their neighborhoods through service even as they call individuals to conversion and the new birth” (Theological Vision for Ministry, V, 5).

Those who wrote the Foundation Documents for the Gospel Coalition lament that they do not “see enough individual churches that embody the full, integrative gospel balance we have outlined here” (Theological Vision for Ministry).

In 1976 Ronald Sider wrote, “Social reform and social welfare are aspects of proclaiming the gospel.” That has been the rallying cry of most new evangelicals for decades. The Gospel presented in God’s Word calls men to turn from sin and trust the finished work of Christ. The lost must see that they are spiritually bankrupt, and the God of all grace provides salvation through Jesus Christ alone. That’s the Gospel message. Our work is soul work. We should beware of any man or movement that removes repentance from the Gospel, and we should be aware that many are preaching social action as part of Gospel work.

I’m always wary of any movement that presses for evangelism but has little or no use for biblical separation. Historically fundamentalists have warned of an inclusivism that claims we can focus on what we have in common with compromisers for the sake of the Gospel. While some have rejected the terms “fundamentalist” and “new evangelical”, differences in agenda and emphasis still exist. Always look behind the curtain of any “coalition” to see who started it, who’s supporting it, what they are stressing, and what they are leaving out.

The mandate of the Gospel is repent and be saved. A social consciousness is not part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Lord.

June 2010

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