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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Looking Differently

Our pastor encouraged us to regularly be in the New Testament book of Philippians. It’s a letter to the church in ancient Philippi from St. Paul, pleading with them to find their joy and unity with each other through the joy and unity they commonly have with Christ Jesus. I got snagged on verse four of chapter two this morning:

Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (KJV).

I took some time and cradled that word “look” in my arms for a good while. It’s the Greek word skopeîn (σκοπεῖν) and Paul uses it twice in Philippians. In 3:17, he commands the church to “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us” (ESV). In other words, notice carefully what we do, he says, and imitate us. The other use is here in 2:4- “let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (ESV).

Yes, we get our English word “scope” from this word, but that doesn’t mean Paul was telling the church to scrutinize the needs of others as under a microscope or get the big picture as with a telescope. As Don Carson has told us, that’s just silly. It’s a root word fallacy. You can’t work backwards from how a word is used today to better understand how its ancestor word was used back then. The two don’t necessarily draw such a straight line.

But we can see in Philippians 2:4 is that the way Paul uses it is in the present tense, in an active voices, to more than one person, and in a participle form (those –ing words). A participle is a verb masquerading as an adjective. All that to say, Paul is encouraging this Christian church to look out for others as an active, ongoing way to live out the fellowship we have with Christ and each other (see Philippians 2:1-3). “For one another” is actually an adjective, suggesting that the way we look carefully should be in an “otherly”, others oriented manner.

How can we be concerned about others in an ongoing default way? Two ideas come to mind. And both of these ideas sting as I think about how I don’t and how I could implement them.

  1. Through love. By learning to take a genuine interest in the day to day living of other people, I become genuinely interested in the people in my day to day life. As Uncle Jack said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did, As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
  2. Through prayer. If the show Cheers taught me anything, it’s that it’s nice to be where everyone knows your name. It’s good to be a regular in some places. If you make someone a regular in your prayers, they soon become a regular in your heart. Prayers for others keep them in front of our eyes.

How can you look differently at those who look differently than you today?