The gospel of social justice
“What are you preaching on these days?” I asked a pastor in the Midwest. He replied, “Right now, I’m doing a series on the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of social justice.” Thankfully, I knew him well enough to know that he also believed in the necessity of individual conversion through faith in Christ. But I also knew him well enough to know that the gospel of personal conversion is near the bottom of his list of priorities. “Social justice” can mean many different things to different people. For some, it is the gospel of socialism, the Marxist notion that resources need to be equally distributed through government intervention, control, and ownership. This, in their minds, results in a just and fair society; only then can the oppressed experience “social justice.” Others would define it in terms of liberation theology that sees salvation as freedom from economic and social oppression. Same-sex marriage is often defined as a social justice issue. Some universities are dedicated promoters of various social justice theories, affirming that minorities should demand justice; however, they would define it. Alternate, more moderate voices are stifled, sometimes with violence motivated by dictums of extreme political correctness. On the other side, there are many evangelicals who stand apart from the culture, praying for revival but uninvolved in combating poverty, racism, and injustice. We should applaud the younger generation for having a social conscience and living out the gospel through community involvement, helping the poor, the oppressed, and the needy without abandoning the gospel of grace. Christians always have had, and should have, a strong commitment to alleviating human misery and injustice wherever it is found. Many of the hospitals in Africa were built by Christian ministries. But dangers lie ahead. We all know that in the early twentieth century, many churches left off preaching the cross of Christ and replaced it with “doing good to their fellow man.” They justified their stance with verses of Scripture from the Old Testament, such as “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17) and similar texts in the New Testament, where Jesus taught that when we visit His followers in prison, we are visiting Him (Matt. 25:35–40). Thus, social concerns replaced the finished work of Christ who died and rose again to save sinners. In fact, the gospel of God saving us from sin was almost entirely neglected. In reaction, fundamentalists rejected the social gospel and, for the most part, confined themselves to the urgent need for individual conversion, neglecting the social implications of the gospel. History is repeating itself today, but with a different twist. Many millennials, feeling as if they don’t fit with evangelicalism’s romance with conservative politics, have chosen to devote themselves to social justice, and sadly, many of them have abandoned the doctrine of personal repentance and opted for what they see as a more practical gospel, helping the poor and needy, “The Gospel of Social Justice.” I know a church that fits this description exactly. It challenges its people to be involved in many different forms of social work, but it has long since neglected the gospel of God’s redemption in Christ. One other example of this is the Emerging Church movement where, for the most part, the concerns of earth replace the concerns of eternity. These churches talk about justice but not judgment. One leader describing how his denomination came to abandon the gospel explained how our first generation preached the gospel and then worked out the social implications of the gospel. The second generation assumed the gospel, neglected it, and continued with the social implications. The third generation totally ignored and even rejected the gospel but continues with the social implications. Two missionaries who have sought to bring the gospel to Africa have written that the evangelical missionaries there no longer come to do church planting but “are focused on social relief, with the church tacked on as a theological addendum. By all appearances, there has been a mega-shift in evangelical missions away from church planting and leadership training toward social justice or social action.” We are commanded to live radically like Christ, committing ourselves to the needs of others, body, soul, and spirit. The gospel comes not in words only, but through authentic, caring Christians who are willing to sacrifice it all for others. But we must serve with a redemptive mindset, always seeking for opportunities to build bridges that will lead them to eternal life. But if we don’t see that the message of the gospel as singularly important, we substitute a temporal body for an eternal soul. To quote author and popular blogger Trevin Wax, “I fear that the evangelical distaste for heaven/hell conversation has less to do with the Bible and more to do with the current cultural climate. People today are far less likely to be concerned with eternity. Many people go through much of their lives without considering death, much less judgment.” Imagine living your entire life with scarcely a thought about your eternal future. Evangelicals have to return to our biblical roots and talk about heaven and warn against hell. We need gospel-driven social work that serves people because they are needy and because we want them to trust in Christ. And yes, of course, we should continue to serve them whether they believe in Christ or not; but our heart’s cry is for them to believe the gospel and be saved. If compassion motivates us to help alleviate the suffering in this present world, how much more should compassion motivate us to share the good news to alleviate their suffering in the world to come? My friend Pastor Colin Smith says that you can tell whether you are preaching the gospel by asking yourself: Would this message get me thrown out of a synagogue or mosque? If you could preach in a Mormon temple and not stir up anger, you have not preached the gospel. The gospel urges men and women to repent of their sins and put their faith in Christ alone for their eternal salvation. Let us remember that the gospel is not what we can do for Jesus, but what Jesus has done for us. We must tell this generation that social justice, even at its best, is not the gospel! What would happen if Satan took over a city? Presbyterian pastor Donald Grey Barnhouse speculated that if Satan were to take over Philadelphia, the bars would be closed, pornography banished, and pristine streets would be filled with tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The children would say, “Yes, sir” and “No, madam” and churches would be full every Sunday … where Christ would not be preached.“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Eternity is at stake.