the weblog of Alan Knox

When the Gospel is Social

Posted by on Dec 18, 2007 in love, service | 13 comments

Many evangelicals cringe when they hear the words “gospel” and “social” together in the same sentence. Many times their minds immediately connect the two words into one term: “social gospel”. And from there, of course, they think about terms such as “works salvation”.

Unfortunately, I think these thoughts have caused many evangelicals to give up on helping relieve social problems. In fact, I believe the “social gospel” may exist because those who believe the gospel are not concerned with social work. I’m glad that this is not the case with all evangelicals. Consider the following snippet from my Ph.D. mentor, David Alan Black (from Thursday, December 13 at 9:27 am):

As you know, it has long been our desire to dig wells and thus supply fresh drinking water in Alaba and Burji. There is always a certain tension among missionaries between those who are devoted to personal evangelism and those who are concerned about social issues. We see no problem in bringing both sides together in a joint operation. Once we have trained local church leaders to dig wells on church property, they will have an important preaching point where their evangelists can point non-believers to the Water of Life as they come to draw water for free. It will, no doubt, be very hard work.

I love the connection between the gospel and social work – between recognize the need for spiritual nourishment and physical nourishment.

If I remember correctly, John placed these two concepts (gospel and works) side-by-side:

By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18 ESV)

And, James said something similar:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17 ESV)

These are sometimes difficult passages for those of us who believe we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). But, of course, that passage doesn’t end there, does it? We see that even Paul associated works with the gospel:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV)

What do we do if our heart does not break and we do not take action when we see someone hurting, oppressed, widowed, orphaned, hungry, thirsty? What do we do when our faith does not work? What do we do when it seems that the love of God is not in us because we are not demonstrating the love of God? What if we are not concerned about “the least of these“?

I will leave those questions to you, my readers. How would you respond to someone who asked the questions above? How would respond to someone who said that they have faith, but they rarely if ever demonstrate that faith by caring for others?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 12-18-2007

    I’m surprised no one else has jumped on this one yet.

    In recent years, I have seen the “social gospel” through very different eyes from how I was always taught to view it.

    Whereas before it was, as you said, considered to be “works salvation”, I began to see people seriously valuing the words of Jesus — isn’t that something that would seem real obvious for any Christian??

    Interesting how what Jesus says will separate the sheep from the goats in the end is what they do. So I think we ignore the poor and the less “fortunate” to our own peril.

  2. 12-18-2007

    Whoa, were you ease-dropping on a recent conversation that I was having with my aunt.

    I was talking to her about “social gospel” and she was very worried that I was “works for salvation” theology.

    It is a quite interesting dynamic.

  3. 12-18-2007


    It does seem obvious – but honestly this is something that I’m just learning. I’ve always learned to measure my devotion to Christ according to a list of propositional statements. I don’t think this is how God measures my love for him.


    I ain’t dropping no eaves.

    It seems that for many people, there are two choices: faith or works. According to Scripture the two are much more closely related than that.


  4. 12-19-2007

    Alan ~

    I was just thinking about the unsocial gospel of historic fundamentalism and evangelicalism. It made sense when i grew up in it. What good is it if you feed someone, but they go to hell?

    It makes no sense to me now. The Gospel is for people and not just for one segment of their life (spiritual, after they die.) Jesus was Good News right now in tangible ways.

    We have separated the physical and spiritual for too long. Sounds like gnosticism. This separation has caused our witness to loose credibility.

    A true witness of Christ will be a social Gospel.

  5. 12-19-2007

    Alan, you’re starting to sound like one of those “crazy liberals”. Just kidding.

    Thanks for this post. It is encouraging to know that there are others who share this view, and it makes me want to be more diligent in integrating the social aspect of the gospel into my life.

    I’m reminded of Jesus words concerning his purpose: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”
    -Luke 4:18-19

  6. 12-19-2007

    you’d probably like to read up on Aimee Semple McPherson and her work with the Angelus Temple Commissary during the Depression – the commissary was so effective that at one point the government just pointed people in that direction knowing the needy would get help there. Today her legacy is carried on in the Dream Center in LA and the original Angelus Temple still stands.

    Why are there not Dream Centers all over the Country/World?

    Check out too, Convoy of Hope they too blend gospel with social action – along with the gospel comes bags of groceries, free medical/dental check-ups; counseling and just a lot of love – mostly in inner city contexts but they have expanded to global operations as well.

    Like Sister Aimee said, (roughly) let’s focus less on the social gospel and more on the social implications of the gospel!

    I wrote a paper about this in seminary and it was fun!

  7. 12-19-2007


    A needy, unsaved person is often in such need that they are numbed and unable to receive the Gospel. Satisfying their need is often the first sign of love and concern, and the breaking down of resistance to the Gospel message.

    When I was young and “rebellious” (towards the religious stuffed shirts whose heads seemed to be permanently tilted back so they could look down their nose) I used to delight in visiting rural folk. I dressed in work boots and appropriate clothes and often pitched in helping where needed. A deacon once said, “We don’t pay you to do that!”

    That was far more efficient in opening avenues of communication than any “How To” seminars.

    God blessed with opportunities to share the Good News, to which many responded.

    I was once asked to speak at a conference on rural evangelism. Whilst I was speaking, there were incredulous looks as I shared “my secret method”,as it had been referred to.

    I told about the Apostle Paul’s “secret method”; get your hands and feet dirty, along with the seat of your pants.

    As far as His humanity was concerned, it was Jesus’ method as well.

    I know there are some who would regard this as blasphemous, never-the-less: Can we imagine the condition of Jesus’ feet, and the smell of His body, after a day ministering in the heat and dust?

    Alan! Thanks for stirring my thoughts!

  8. 12-19-2007

    Well done, Alan. The semantic baggage associated with the words social gospel is unfortunate. I live in a social world. I seek to demonstrate Christ there. Where is the divide?

  9. 12-19-2007


    Thanks for the comment. I like the balance that you’ve drawn between the spiritual and the physical. I believe the gospel brings the two together; it doesn’t separate them.


    I’ve been called many things, and I don’t think “crazy liberal” would be the worst. Of course, I’m not liberal in the classical sense.


    Thank for pointing us toward Angelus Temple and Convoy of Hope. I am somewhat familiar with the Dream Center.

    Aussie John,

    Great comment, as always! I don’t think imagining the physical realities of our savior (or saviour) to be blasphemous at all!

    David (ded),

    Great observations! We live in a social world and were created to be social people. Certainly the gospel should be social as well.


  10. 12-20-2007

    I think too some might argue that the social nature of the Trinity would necessitate the social nature of the gospel.

  11. 12-20-2007


    Yes, I think that would be a good argument.


  12. 3-13-2012

    I heard Walter Raushenbusch’s daughter (granddaughter?) interviewed on WYNC (New York public radio) and she explained that her famous father never liked the term “social gospel” because it seemed to make a false distinction between the “social” gospel and the just-plain gospel. Indeed. In Bible college and elsewhere, as a Christian years ago, I never heard the phrase in anything but a negative context. So strange, since when you read the Bible,after the need for faith in Christ, it’s probably the next most central concern – the gospel that is, which involves communicating the precious information (1 Cor. 15) and visiting widows and orphans in their distress (James 1), loving our neighbors, and speaking up for the helpless and disenfranchised, etc. You’re very right, the gospel is always social.

  13. 3-14-2012


    It’s interesting that you commented on this old past last night. I had already scheduled this new post to publish this morning: “The Togetherness of the Gospel.”