Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Social Gospel versus the Biblical Gospel

Over at City of God, Dan is puzzled by the fact that Mars Hill Church expects social reforms like men becoming more responsible for their wives and children as a result of establishing a new church in a new community and preaching the gospel of personal sin and salvation through the cross. He writes:
"I was watching a video done by Mark Driscoll’s ever-expanding Mars Hill in which one of MH’s pastors, A.J. Hamilton discusses leaving Seattle for the campus that Mars Hill is setting up in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What struck me in this video was that Hamilton was asked about what he’d like to see MH accomplish in Albuquerque and he responded by talking about fatherless children and men who leave women. MH’s goal would be to “raise up Godly men” so that they could take care of women and children."

Dan then writes: "Is not the concern of Mars Hill over encouraging men to take care of the children and single mothers of their communities a form of social gospel?"

I would say to Dan and to all who may be wondering how the biblical gospel of sin and salvation relates to social improvements that "No, the concern of Mars Hill in this case is not a form of the social gospel."

The biblical gospel is not the social gospel, but the preaching of the biblical gospel does result in social improvements as individuals are converted and lives are transformed. The point here is that conversion and transformation are possible through the biblical gospel, but are not possible through the preaching of the social gospel. Only where there is a deliberate focus on Jesus Christ crucified, risen and ascended is there any possibility of actual transformation of life. Where repentence is not preached, there is, unsurprisingly, no repentence. Where forgiveness is not preached there is no life of grateful response. Where the power of the Holy Spirit is not preached, there is no transformation.

The social gospel locates the problem (sin) in social structures rather than in human hearts and it proclaims that political and economic changes will result in social improvements. Instead of depending on the work of the Holy Spirit, it proposes that we expect change to come from government regulation and funding. There is no need for repentence of sin, forgiveness on the basis of the shed blood of Christ on the cross or faith in Christ as the basis of salvation. In the social gospel, the world gets better through law, not through gospel. Hence, the social gospel is misnamed: it is not really gospel, but law. And the preaching of law apart from transforming grace is never good news. It is the worst possible news in the world: it is moralism and it is only welcomed by Pharisees. Brian McLaren's "New Kind of Christian" is really an old-fashioned Pharisee with his consciousness raised and a new set of legalisms (aka "issues").

The biblical gospel results in transformed lives, repentence from sin, faith in Christ and a new way of life. The biblical gospel really is good news because it does not call on people to buckle down and try harder to do the right thing out of altruism. The biblical gospel says that God has done something stupendous for us that we could never have done for ourselves and that what God has done makes a new life in the Spirit a real possibility for those who believe.

The biblical gospel has resulted in social improvement throughout the history of the Church. From the impact of the Wesley's revival preaching on 18th century England to the "redemption and lift" phenomenon studied by sociologists in Latin American Pentecostalism where conversion results in sobriety, family stability and growing material prosperity, to the luminous tradition of medical and agricultural missions carried out by 19th centuries committed to preaching the biblical gospel and to helping people practically, the biblical has always had spectacular results in the area of social improvement.

The common charge that the preaching of the biblical gospel is "pie in the sky" is simply re-cycled Marxist propaganda. By "pie in the sky" Marx actually means, not that the biblical gospel does not feed the poor, cloth the naked and take care of widows and orphans (for it manifestly has done those things for 20 centuries), but rather he means that it delays the revolution Marx so desperately seeks. It delays revolution because the biblical gospel does not teach people to put all their hope in the Party as the vanguard of the revolution, its emphasis on sin disabuses people of Marxian utopianism, and its emphasis on sin and salvation teaches people to put their hope in God, not guns.

The biblical gospel, when preached with conviction and believed by the masses, transforms society in a way that socialism can only pretend to do. The problem with the biblical gospel is not that it is not "social" enough, but that it is not believed, preached and embraced. But when the biblical gospel is not embraced, the social gospel is a poor substitute because it has only the form of religion but denies the power thereof.

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