Many Christians conflate the social gospel with social justice concerns. They suggest that Christian indifference to social issues has to do with the spirituality of the gospel message and of the church, even if this spirituality is selectively applied.
1. Our social work is not the gospel.
It is worth remembering what the social gospel is and why we should reject it. Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918) is a key figure in the social gospel movement. Rauschenbusch argued that the gospel was a call to social responsibility. He rejected the idea that Jesus’ death was a sacrifice of atonement. The only sense in which Jesus “died for the sins of the world” is that all the common social sins were united in his murder as the epitome of the Kingdom of Evil. Bigotry, graft, corruption, mob spirit and action, militarism, and class contempt joined forces and murdered Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, the aim of Christian salvation “is not matter about getting individuals into heaven, but on transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven” by fighting for social justice (Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis, 65).
To be sure, Rauschenbusch’s social gospel is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. His chief error is that he turned the gospel into the law. The gospel is about what Christ has done to redeem us from our sins and misery. The law is God’s will for our lives, the rule for our obedience. Although the principles of grace and works are sharply contrasted when it comes to the sinner’s justification before a Holy God, the law is not contrary to the grace of the gospel. The Holy Spirit renews our hearts so that we freely and cheerfully do that which God requires (Rom 3:31; 6:2).
2. The gospel produces love and moves us to social justice concerns.
One of Jesus’ chief criticisms against the Pharisees was that they were indifferent toward justice for widows and the poor (Matt 23:14). In Jesus’ most sobering parable, the separation of the sheep and the goats, Jesus taught that those that lack compassion for the poor have unregenerate hearts and profess only a counterfeit faith (Matt 25:31–46).
Promoting social justice is one of the ways that we obey God’s law and bear the fruit of a living faith. Jesus taught that ministering to the material needs of the poor was an essential Christian duty (Matt 6:1–4; Lk 6:30; 12:33; Gal 6:10; Js 2:15–16; 1 John 3:17). This command extends even to the “undeserving” poor since they best illustrate God’s mercy to us as undeserving sinners (Lk 6:35-36). The parable of the Good Samaritan shows us that the command “love your neighbor” is both comprehensive and unbounded (Lk 10:25–37).
Likewise, one of the evidences that a sinner has been transformed by grace is that they possess a heart for the poor. Zacchaeus (Lk 19:8), Tabitha (Acts 9:36), Cornelius (Acts 10:2–4), and the Apostle Paul (Gal 1:10) are all examples of generous hearts transformed by grace.
3. Here are some practical ways to get involved.
It is easy to identify as a “social justice warrior” and call on others to help the poor, but it’s hard to give your personal time and money to make a difference.
You can do good both globally and locally:
- Consider sponsoring a child through a reputable charity, giving to foreign missions through your church, or participating on a short-term missions team yourself.
- You may want to see if your local congregation is willing to volunteer to provide and serve meals at a local shelter and give to a crisis pregnancy center.
- If you are retired or have freedom in your schedule, you may want to volunteer as a tutor and become a positive influence in a young life.
These examples are part of what it means for Christians to be salt and light in the world: God has called us to a life of love for our neighbors. Doing good works out of gratitude for the grace of God in Jesus Christ—this is how we can care about social justice and get the gospel right.