What does evangelism have to do with social justice? For more than a decade, Christians have battled over this issue. Many evangelicals believe that proclaiming the Gospel to individuals is, as Billy Graham said in his Lausanne address, “the vital mission of the Church.” The World Council of Churches, on the other hand, has focused most of its activity on social justice and then redefined evangelism to include socioeconomic liberation.
I want to argue that the disagreement results from insufficient attention to Scripture. Evangelicals have often defined the Gospel in an unbiblically narrow way. And they have failed to see that evangelism is inseparable from—though by no means identical with—social concern. Conciliar Christians (i.e., those identified with the ecumenical movement) have often broadened the definition of evangelism and “Gospel” in a biblically irresponsible fashion. Only individuals—not nations or corporations—can repent and enter into a personal, saving relationship with the Risen Lord. Hence it is confusing nonsense to talk of evangelizing political or economic structures.
We stand at an important juncture in Christian history. The Minneapolis Congress on Evangelism (1969), the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern (1973), and the Lausanne Covenant (1974) all point to a conviction by growing numbers of evangelicals that a full commitment to biblical revelation necessarily entails a concern for social justice. The World Council of Churches, on the other hand, issued an urgent call for evangelism at its Fifth Assembly in Nairobi (1975). Surprisingly, the Assembly document on “Confessing Christ Today,” unlike earlier WCC statements, even distinguished pointedly between evangelism and social action. It is to be hoped that these welcome affirmations on both sides will now be backed up by actions.
The time is ripe for a new look at the meaning of evangelism and its relation to social action. Evangelism is the communication of the Gospel. But there is disagreement over what constitutes the Gospel. In this article I want to examine the word “Gospel” with the aim of letting New Testament usage guide us toward a more helpful way of stating the relation between evangelism and social justice.
New Testament Terminology
According to the New Testament, the Gospel is the Good News about the kingdom of God (Mark 1:14, 15). It is the Good News about God’s Son, Jesus, the Messiah, who is our Saviour and Lord (Romans 1:3, 4; 2 Cor. 4:3–6). It is the Good News about the historical Jesus—his death for our sins and his resurrection on the third day (1 Cor. 15:1–5). And it is the Good News about a totally new kind of community, the people of God, who are already empowered to live according to the standards of the New Age (Eph. 3:7).
Stated more systematically, the content of the Gospel is (1) the forgiveness of sins through the cross, (2) regeneration through the Holy Spirit, (3) the Lordship of Christ, and (4) the fact of the kingdom.
One does not need to argue the first two points among evangelicals. We all agree that anyone who proclaims a gospel that omits or de-emphasizes the justification and regeneration of individuals is preaching his own message, not God’s good news of salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ.
We all recognize, too, that part of the Good News is the proclamation that this Jesus who justifies and regenerates is also Lord—Lord of all things in heaven and earth. The Gospel he preaches, Paul reminded the Corinthians, was of “Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:4, 5; cf. also Rom. 10:8–16). But we seldom appropriate the full implications of this abstract dogma. If Jesus’ Lordship is a part of the Gospel, then the call to the costly, unconditional discipleship demanded by this Sovereign is inseparable from the summons to accept the Gospel: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34 and 35).
Although distinguishable, regeneration and discipleship are inseparable. The one who justifies and regenerates also demands that we forsake all other lords, shoulder the cross, and follow him. Accepting the evangelistic call necessarily entails accepting Jesus as Lord of our family life, our sexual life, our racial attitudes, our business practices, and our civic life. Jesus will not be our Saviour if we reject him as our Lord.
That does not mean, of course, that genuine Christians live perfectly surrendered, sinless lives. We continue to be justified by grace alone in spite of ongoing sin. But it does mean that conscious, persistent rejection of Jesus’ Lordship in any area of our lives is, as Calvin taught, a clear sign that saving faith is not present. Genuine Christians—and, thank God, he alone knows who they are—have an unconditional willingness to submit to Jesus’ Lordship as the implications of this submission unfold from day to day. Those who do not, Paul warns, whether they are idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, or greedy persons, simply will not inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 6:9, 10).
Too often Christians (especially evangelical Protestants in this century) have proclaimed a cheap grace that offers the forgiveness of the Gospel without the discipleship demands of the Gospel. But that is not Jesus’ Gospel. Right at the heart of the Gospel is the call to an unconditional discipleship in which Jesus is Lord of one’s entire life.
The fourth element of the Good News is less widely perceived to be part of the Gospel. According to the Gospels, the core of Jesus’ Good News was simply that the kingdom of God was at hand. Over and over again the Gospels define the content of the Good News as the announcement of the kingdom that was present in the person and work of Jesus (Mark 1:14, 15; Matt. 4:23; 24:14; Luke 4:43: 16:16).
But what was the nature of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed? Was it only an invisible kingdom in the hearts of individuals? Was it a new political regime of the same order as Rome? The kingdom became present wherever Jesus overcame the power of evil. But the way Jesus chose to destroy the kingdom of Satan and establish his own kingdom was not to forge a new political party. Rather, Jesus chose to call together a new, visible community of disciples joined together by their acceptance of the divine forgiveness he offered and by their unconditional submission to his total Lordship over their lives.
That this kingdom is not just an invisible spiritual abstraction peopled with ethereal, redeemed souls is very clear in the New Testament. Jesus not only forgave sins; he also healed the physical and mental diseases of those who believed. His disciples shared a common purse. The early Church engaged in voluntary economic sharing (Acts 4:32; 5:16; 2 Cor. 8). The new community of Jesus’ disciples was and is (at least it ought to be) a visible social reality sharply distinguished from the world by both its belief and its life-style. His kingdom will reach its fulfillment only at his return, but right now by grace people can enter this new society where all social and economic relationships are being transformed. That an entirely new kind of life together in Jesus’ new peoplehood is now available to all who will repent, believe, and obey is Good News. And when the early Church gave visible expression to that kind of common life, it had a powerful evangelistic impact (Acts 6:1–7). The kingdom of heaven, then, is not just a future but also a present reality. The kingdom is part of the Good News.
So far we have seen that the content of the Gospel is justification, regeneration, Jesus’ Lordship, and the fact of the Church. But is there not a “secular” or “political” dimension to the Gospel?
Luke 4:18 and 19 is a crucial text. Reading from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus defined his mission in this way: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to [evangelisasthai] the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” In this text Jesus identifies several aspects of his mission. He says he has been sent to proclaim release to the captives, to proclaim recovering of sight to the blind, and to free the oppressed. (That Jesus did these things not only as a sign of his Messiahship but also because he had compassion on suffering human beings is evident everywhere in the Gospels; e.g., Matthew 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13.) That healing the blind and freeing the oppressed is a fundamental part of his total mission is beyond question. But he does not equate these tasks with preaching the Gospel to the poor. Nor does he say one task is more important than another. The healing and freeing are important, and the preaching is important, and they are distinct.
The same point is clear in other passages. Matthew 11:1–6 contains the story of Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s question, “Are you the Messiah?”: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them [are evangelized].” Again Jesus does not equate preaching the Gospel to (or evangelizing) the poor with healing the sick. He does both these things, and they are both important. Jesus sent his disciples out “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal” (Luke 9:2).
One final example is important. In both Matthew 4:23 and 9:35, the evangelist summarizes Jesus’ ministry as follows: “And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people” (cf. also Luke 9:1–6, 11). Here there are three distinct types of tasks: teaching, preaching the Gospel, and healing sick people. They are not identical tasks. They should not be confused. And none should be omitted. All are crucial parts of the mission of Jesus. But for our purposes the most important conclusion is that none of these texts equates healing the blind or liberating the oppressed with evangelism. There is no New Testament justification for talking about “evangelizing” political structures.
Now obviously, of course, the twentieth-century Christian does not imitate every detail of Jesus’ life. But the New Testament does specifically command Christians to imitate Christ: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21). Jesus of Nazareth, God incarnate, is our only perfect model. He devoted a great deal of time both to meeting physical needs and to proclaiming the Gospel, and we must, as Peter said, follow in his steps.
According to the New Testament, then, evangelism involves the announcement (via word and deed) of the Good News that there is forgiveness of sins through the cross; that the Holy Spirit will regenerate twisted personalities; that Jesus is Lord; and that people today can join Jesus’ new community, where all social and economic relationships are being made new.
Another Option: Distinct Yet Equal
In light of New Testament usage, it would seem that we need a new formulation of the relation between evangelism and social concern. The two are equally important but quite distinct aspects of the total mission of the Church. Evangelism involves the announcement (via words and deeds) of the Good News of (1) justification, (2) regeneration, (3) the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and (4) the fact of the new community, where all relationships are being redeemed. When individuals accept this Good News, they enter into a personal relationship with the living God through faith in Jesus Christ and into a transformed relationship with the community of believers, and experience salvation. It is precisely the transforming power of the Gospel that enables the true believer to respond to the biblical call for social concern.
Social concern involves both relief for those suffering from social injustice and the restructuring of all of society, saved and unsaved, for the sake of greater social justice. Unfortunately, not all societies provide as much opportunity for political action as does the United States. Living in the totalitarian Roman Empire, Paul did not have the political opportunities available in democracies. But he was not a-political. He insisted on due process at Philippi (Acts 16:35–39). He took advantage of his right to appeal to Caesar as a Roman citizen (Acts 26:32). Knowing that the Bible teaches that God deplores evil social structures (see below), Christians will use the opportunities available to promote more just societies.
To label this increased social justice “salvation,” however, is confusing. Until our Lord’s return, all attempts to restructure society will at best produce only significantly less imperfect, not perfect, societies; those societies will still be tragically pockmarked by the consequences of the fall.
But that does not mean that evangelism is more important than social action. Some will say: “Surely if unevangelized souls are going to eternal damnation, then evangelization must be our primary concern.” Now I find that a powerful concern, because I believe our Lord taught that when people reject his loving offer of grace, they suffer eternal separation from the presence of the living God. However, our Lord was quite aware of that when he chose to devote vast amounts of his time to healing sick bodies that he knew would rot in one, two, or thirty years. The Gospels provide no indication, either by explicit statement or by space allotments, that Jesus considered healing sick people any less important than preaching the Good News. He commanded us both to feed the hungry and to preach the Gospel; he did not say that the latter was required while the former was an option that could be considered if spare time and money were available.
Jesus is our only perfect model. If God incarnate thought he could—or rather, must—devote large amounts of his potential preaching time to the healing of sick bodies, then surely we are unfaithful disciples if we fail to follow in his steps in this area.
The reverse, of course, is equally true. Neither theoretically nor in the allocation of personnel and funds dare the Church make social concern more important than evangelism. The time has come for all biblical Christians to refuse to say, “The primary mission of the Church is.…” I do not care whether you complete the sentence with “evangelism” or “social concern.” Either way it is unbiblical and misleading. Evangelism, social concern, fellowship, teaching, worship—all these are fundamental parts of the mission of the Church. They must not be confused with one another, although they are inextricably interrelated. Scripture shows that the Church has many tasks, and it does not give us a choice of which to obey. Note carefully what we call the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you …” (Matt. 28:19, 20).
I have argued both that evangelism and social concern are distinct and that they are inseparable. Let me conclude with a brief discussion of several aspects of their interrelationship.
In the first place, proclamation of the biblical Gospel necessarily includes a call to repentance and turning away from all forms of sin. Sin is both personal and societal. In one breath, Amos condemns both mistreatment of the poor and sexual misconduct (Amos 2:6, 7). Drunkenness and the amassing of large tracts of land at the expense of the neighbor are equally displeasing to the Lord (Isa. 5:8–23). God abhors laws and statutes that are unjust, even though they may be duly authorized (Ps. 94:20–23; Isa. 10:1–4). (See also “Mischief by Statute: How We Oppress the Poor,” CHRISTIANITY TODAY, July 16, 1976.)
Evangelists regularly preach that coming to Jesus means forsaking pot, pubs, and pornography. Too often in this century, however, they have failed to add that coming to Jesus ought necessarily to involve repentance of and conversion from the sin of involvement in social evils such as economic injustice and institutionalized racism. Biblical evangelism will call for repentance of one’s involvement in both individual and collective (group) sins. And since the Gospel also includes the proclamation of Jesus’ total Lordship, biblical evangelism will clearly declare the cost of unconditional discipleship. Calls to repentance should remind people that Jesus demands a turning away (conversio) from both personal and social evil. Evangelists regularly insist that coming to Jesus requires forsaking lying and adultery. If such preaching does not compromise sola gratia, then neither will a biblical insistence that coming to Jesus will necessarily include repenting of one’s involvement in institutional racism and economic injustice and working for more just societies.
Second, the very existence of the Church as a new community where all social relationships are being redeemed has a significant impact on society, because the Church has often offered—and should always offer—a visible model of the way people can live in community in more loving and just ways. The Church was the first to develop such institutions as hospitals, schools, and orphanages. These all witness to the fact that living a new model in defiance of the norms and accepted values of surrounding society can in the long run have a powerful effect on the total social order.
Third, social action sometimes facilitates the task of evangelism. Just as the situation of persons trapped in unjust social structures sometimes hinders a positive response to the Gospel, so too increasing social justice may make some people more open to the Good News. Sometimes the very act of working in the name of Jesus for improved socio-economic conditions for the oppressed enables persons to understand the proclaimed word of God’s love in Christ. In that situation the act of social concern is itself truly evangelistic.
Fourth, a biblically informed social action will not fail to point out that participation in social injustice is not just inhuman behavior toward one’s neighbors but also sin against Almighty God. Hence biblical social action will contain, always implicitly and often explicitly, a call to repentance.
In practice, then, evangelism and social concern are intricately interrelated. They are inseparable both in the sense that evangelism often leads to increased social justice and vice versa and also in the sense that biblical Christians will, precisely to the extent that they are faithful followers of Jesus, always seek liberty for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). But the fact that evangelism and social concern are inseparable certainly does not mean that they are identical. They are distinct, equally important parts of the total mission of the Church.
Paul D. Steeves is assistant professor of history and director of Russian studies at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. He has the Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and specializes in modern Russian history.
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