The Social Gospel is Reformed

Let’s face it: Evangelicals of a conservative nature sometimes feel uncomfortable with issues of “social justice.” I remember once, upon suggesting that white Christians could be helped by reading the works of African American Christians, a local pastor told me, “Well, screw that! Just preach the gospel!” While his might have been an extreme reaction, I don’t think his sentiment is uncommon, especially among non-denominational evangelicals. If we simply preach the gospel, those injustices will work themselves out as hearts are transformed. At least, so the reasoning goes.

Aside from the fear of misplaced energies and distraction, there’s also the association of “social gospel” with those faithless liberals and mainliners. Doesn’t care for the poor and the oppressed a confusion of the fruit for the root? Isn’t that what derailed American evangelicalism after the 2nd Great Awakening? If we would be faithful, surely, we must simply focus on doctrine and let the implications of the gospel providentially have their affect.

It’s on questions like this that I am thankful to be a Reformed Protestant. Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian and father of Reformed theology, delivered an address in 1891 to the Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam pithily titled General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Moasaic Law for the Social Question Today Drawing on the third use of the Law (moral use), Bavinck demonstrates that God’s people are called to ministries of mercy.

Loans to the poor were freely and willingly given in ways that wouldn’t crush them (Dt.15:7; 24:6; Ex.22:26). Wages were paid on time (Dt.24:15). The vulnerable (widows, orphans, the poor, the stranger) were treated justly in court (Dt.14:7; Ex.22:21-22). They have rights to glean after the harvest (Lev.19:9; Dt.24:19) and to entire harvests during the Sabbath year (Lev.25:5). The disabled were not mocked (Lev.19:14; Dt.27:18) and the elderly were honored (Lev.19:32). Conscious of the New Covenant, Bavinck reminds us that God’s law has now been written on our hearts, not only on tablets of stone.

Lest we yoke him under an anachronism and suspect him of being a social justice warrior, Bavinck rightly states at the outset that “the first order of the day is restoring our proper relationship with God. The cross of Christ, therefore, is the heart and mid-point of the Christian religion. Jesus did not come, first of all, to renew families and reform society but to save sinners and to redeem the world from the coming wrath of God.” Yes, and amen. He understands the gospel. But now that that’s made explicit, what else needs to be said?

“Redemption does not set aside the differences that exist thanks to God’s will but renews all relationships to their original form by bringing all of them into a reconciled relationship with God.” The poor, Christ said, we will always have with us. The gospel doesn’t flatten society into an egalitarian utopia. And that’s where justice is called for. Bavinck observes that while relationships are renewed, disparities are not eliminated. Therefore, there will always remain a large place for mercy ministry and for social justice.

He ends his address with this beautiful summary:

“In the same way that Jesus the compassionate High Priest is always deeply moved by those in need, so, too, directs his follows especially to clothe themselves with the Christlike virtue of compassion ([Mt.5:43-47]; Lk.6:36). Having received mercy from Christ, his followers are expected in turn to show mercy to others (1 Pet.2:10; Mt.18:33). It is for this reason that the church has a distinct office for the ministry of mercy.”

The wonderful thing about unlocking the resources of the Christian tradition (and the Reformed stream is not necessarily unique in this) is that I don’t have to fret about whether the gospel and justice are mutually exclusive. I don’t have too poo-poo mercy because it is merely or only an effect of the gospel. It is not merely an effect. It is a command and an expectation and a mode of being for the Church. Which wing of the airplane is more important, the right or the left? We need not be forced to choose the gospel over against the social obligations of God’s people. They go together hand in glove.

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Of Banquets and Blowhards

You Are Cordially Invited…

I hate RSVPs. Invitations, as a concept, make me uncomfortable. On the one hand, I don’t like being singled out. I never have enjoyed eyes upon me. And then, there’s the inevitable sting of envy. “Oh, Mary Sue is having her thirtieth baby? Well, that’s great, why won’t she just share!” or “Oh, Bobby Ray is graduating from high school? Why didn’t he ask me if I wanted to graduate from high school, too?” They’re little reminders of what’s not in front of me and that bothers me.

But the worst part about invitations is the decision of whether or not to go. Will I miss out on something else by attending? Or will I miss out on attending because of something else? I might not know anybody at this shindig. I’ll have to buy a gift? Oh, it’s on a Saturday. Yeah, Saturday’s are the days when I don’t leave the premises. Sorry. That’s why, for a certain breed, cancellations are wonderful. Even if you absolutely love the person who invited you out for coffee, if they have to last minute cancel, it’s the temporal equivalent of finding $5 under the couch cushion.

Y/N?

I’ve been spending some time in St. Luke’s Gospel, in chapter fourteen, and I notice that a word keeps popping up. In twenty one verses, it shows up in various forms a total of seven times. My training (and also common sense) immediately tells me that word matters in the text. And it’s the Greek word kaleo ( καλέω ). It’s not quite the same as an RSVP because, in that case, you have the option to attend or not. Kaleo is a summons. There’s authority behind it that qualifies it as a summons. It’s deployment orders for a reservist. It’s an audience with the king. It’s a parent telling the child to come here now. It’s less a suggestion than it is a reality.

It’s translated as “invitation” in most English Bibles, but that’s because Jesus is telling stories about wedding feasts and dinner parties while at a dinner to which he was invited. But in those parables, God is the one behind the invitations. And so, they should be seen more as summons. And one’s response to such invitations isn’t a matter of preference, but of obedience.

I’ve been reading Alan Kreider’s excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, and in it, he talks about the types of people that were attracted to Christianity and what that “invitation” to taste the wedding feast looked like in the first handful of centuries after Christ’s ascension. Jesus, in Luke 14, tells those who would host a dinner to invite the poor and the crippled and the sick (v12-14) because that’s what God does (v15-24) when he summons people to the kingdom. The proud and powerful make excuses and dodge the invite (in disobedience and indifference). They bluster and bloviate about why they can’t be there. And the underclasses, instead, get to go to the feast.

Kreider notes that much the same thing actually happened. He notes that Celsus, a great enemy of the faith in the 2nd century, complained about us because the gospel appealed to “wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels.” These were the scum of the earth that brainwashed children and “stupid women” with their doctrine. These were people, in early Greco-Roman culture, who were voiceless. They were the pavement of society. And yet, they were largely the ones that checked “yes, my lord” on the summons.

Just As I Am

They didn’t pretend to be something they were not. Unlike Cinderella, they weren’t magically dressed up in pretentious niceties so that they could appear like they belonged at the party. They come from the highways and byways so that God’s house may be filled. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk.14:11). And the humbled were exalted by being summoned. The expenses of those who were unable to repay were covered. And we can never pay God back for calling us to himself. Instead, we simply offer that same summons to others. And how they respond (exalting themselves or humbling themselves) is between them and the host of the banquet.

Turning the Wheel

I am a Protestant through and through. This is why I love church history. To go back into church history is to become more and more Protestant. The Reformers were so helpful in their calling the Church to repent from her wanderings. But as an honest Protestant, I need to admit that there were some overcorrections that happened in the 16th century and we are still feeling their effects.

In a pre-Reformation church, the altar was the central focus and the “pulpit”, such as it was, was off to the side. Protestants flipped the architecture on its head. The pulpit became the magnet to which all eyes were drawn because of the centrality of the Scripture and that preached faithfully. There’s much to commend in rearranging the furniture in that way.

But I fear it may have simply caused an equal and opposite problem. This is why ecclesia semper reformanda est (“the Church must always be reformed). Not that we are constantly changing ourselves out of restlessness or chasing fads, but that we are constantly reforming ourselves to be more like Christ’s Bride.

The sermon is not the focus of a church service. The gospel is.

I say that as someone who, until quite recently, preached for the last six years as a minister of the gospel one to two times a week. I love preaching. I love creating sermons that are helpful and clear. It’s wonderful and humbling to see the Holy Spirit take a sermon and run with it. It’s like watching your little paper boat get blown across the lake at top speed.

But I would invite you to think of the liturgy as a wheel.

(Brief aside: liturgy means “work of the people.” Some traditions call it the order of service. It can be “high church” with incense and bells or “low church” with acoustic guitars and blue jeans. Even if your church service is simply announcements, a few songs, and a sermon, that is a liturgy. That’s how I’m using this word.)

So, think of the liturgy as a wheel. The hub at the center is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Out from that central hub are the spokes. Each spoke is a means of grace: prayer, Scripture reading, singing, giving, the Lord’s Supper, the sermon, baptism, confession, etc. That all lead to and draw from the cross of Christ at the center. And the rim around the hub, the tire, is fellowship. It is the communion of saints. The means of grace spin the wheel of fellowship around the hub of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We move forward only when centered around the cross. Otherwise, the wheel doesn’t spin. Otherwise, we’re stuck in neutral, learning perhaps or praying mightily, but not really going anywhere as a church. The liturgy needs to be orbited around the good news of what Jesus has done for sinful people to bring them back to a holy God. And the sermon does that.

But so too does the Eucharist. That’s why I’m an advocate of weekly communion. Richard Barcellos has written a wonderful book from a Reformed Baptist perspective on how the Lord’s Supper functions as a means of grace. I recommend it. It’s a conduit to strengthen our faith in the gospel which is of first importance. But regardless of how often it is celebrated, my point is that it matters as a strengthening exercise for our faith in what Christ has done for us.

Confession, also, brings us back to the gospel. As do responsive readings of Scripture. Reciting the Creed strengthens our faith in Christ alone. These are all spokes on the wheel that make fellowship go forward, but only if that’s a centering around the gospel.

This understanding does not devalue the sermon or the word of God. On the contrary, it properly utilized them as channels of sanctifying grace from the Father that push us deeper into the Scriptures to find the truth of his gospel there. Likewise, this does not unequally elevate Communion or prayer above the other means of grace. The spokes on the wheel are the same length and of the same importance in making the wheel turn. The Church needs all the gifts that her Lord has bestowed upon her.

However a church orders its liturgy, whatever percentage of time is allocated to whichever means of grace, my point is this: that the gospel is centralized and focused in everything that happens, that it all be done “in the name of the Lord.” That’s how we ought to live anyway, right? It seems prudent that we ought to worship that way as well.