Is The Gospel Social?

by Rick Shrader

Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity.    Christianity will combat Bolshevism; but if it is accepted in order to combat Bolshevism, it is not Christianity. . . Christianity will produce a healthy community; but if it is accepted in order to produce a healthy community, it is not Christianity. . . Our Lord said: “seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” But if you seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness in order that all those things may be added unto you, you will miss both those other things and the Kingdom of God as well.

J. Gresham Machen (1923)1


William James, the Liberal and father of American pragmatism once said that “truth is the cash value of an idea.”2 Of him, Os Guinness wrote, “He held that religious beliefs were only true because of their consequences for human behavior, not because of their philosophical claims.”3 This sort of religious pragmatism seemed to be evident to believers a century ago, faced with the onslaught of the social gospel in America.

Calvin, that comic strip theologian, was walking with his imaginary friend, Hobbs, and stated, “Some people are pragmatists, taking things as they come and making the best of the choices available.  Some people are idealists, standing for principle and refusing to compromise.  And some people just act on any whim that enters their heads.”  Hobbs answers, “I wonder which you are.”  To which Calvin replies, “I pragmatically turn my whims into principles.”

We American Christians seem to have a knack for making Christianity the immediate solution for whatever problems society may have.  For a century now this has been tried as the solution for poverty, war, hatred, illness or economic depression.  We have not yet learned the lesson that Christianity is and must be first a belief, and that we believe it because it is true regardless of the consequences.  Thousands of souls in the Soviet Union would never have found Christ as Savior if their faith had been conditioned on social advantage.  As Machen points out, to preach Christ because of the social advantage, is not to preach Him at all.

Living in a day when the world expects the church to be a social agent for change brings great pressure on the church of Christ to downplay the biblical condition of repentance for communion with Christ.  The gospel is seen as an avenue to gain the things of this world rather than to lose them.  Did not Jesus say, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.  And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:26,27).

But Charles Colson says, “Investing time and money in building a rightly ordered society is the most powerful antidote to chaos and crime.”4 Rick Warren says, “I also believe that pastors are the most strategic change agents to deal with the problems society faces.”5 Warren  mentions that his church advertises to the community classes on potty training and miscarriage as well as weightier social concerns.

I agree with Ernest Pickering who wrote, “There is no evidence in the New Testament of any church-sponsored programs organized for the purpose of alleviating human suffering in the unsaved world.”6 The writer of Hebrews had this message to the “unchurched” Jews who were inspecting the claims of Christianity, “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions; partly, whilst ye were made a gazingstock both by reproaches and afflictions; and partly, whilst ye became companions of them that were so used” (Heb 10: 32,33).  This is because faith is for those who “diligently seek him” (11:6) and “not of them who draw back” (10:39) when they find Christianity is costing them something rather than gaining them something in this world.

I am not minimizing the service function of the local church to its members.  We take that seriously at our church and are very detailed about it. Nor am I discouraging being a good citizen.  But the gospel asks a sinner to come completely to the end of himself with regards to this world so that he may give himself completely to Christ.  If the sinner can find a pragmatic way to get around that, he will take it!  Let’s not offer him a way to find his salvation by his good works, but let’s allow him to find salvation unto good works.

1. J. Gresham Machen, Christianity And Liberalism (Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977) 152.
2. Charles Colson, The Body (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992) 174.
3. Os Guinness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994) 55.
4. Charles Colson, “Cleanliness Is Next To Crimelessness,” Christianity Today, January 6, 1997,  80.
5. Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1995) 20.
6. Ernest Pickering, The Tragedy Of Compromise (Greenville: BJU Press, 1994) 18.