the weblog of Alan Knox

When the Gospel is Social

Posted by on Jan 2, 2009 in love, service | 4 comments

In December 2007, I wrote a post called “When the Gospel is Social“. In the last year or so, God has taught my family so much about living out our faith in a way that impacts the lives of other people. The gospel is social. If its not social, then its not the gospel.

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When the Gospel is Social

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?


4 Comments

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  1. 1-2-2009

    This is indeed a difficult area for most of us. In the past I have helped feed the homeless lunch. Our cardinal rule was to never give them cash, since it was almost always used to purchase alcohol and drugs. Frequently, these folks would become angry if offered anything else.

    We have given money to organizations that supposedly help the poor, and later learned that most of the money was spent on "administration", i.e. for salaries for people working in the programs. Only a few cents on the dollar ever made it to the poor.

    Many of us want to help the homeless, poor, cold, hungry & needy. But we don't want to buy their drugs or pay the salaries of someone working in an office.

    We are personally trying to get to know the people in a poor area of our city so that we can identify those who are really in need, and the best way to help them. Perhaps some of the readers of the blog can suggest groups that readers can give money or time to who have figured out the art of finding those who are genuinely needy and are actually getting food, clothes and whatever they need to them. I think most of us would be interested in knowing how much of every dollar donated to the group actually makes it to the people in need.

    Recently I sat in my car for ten or fifteen minutes in a mall parking lot in the corner of the lot, near a street corner. A "homeless" man with his bucket and sign stood there soliciting cash as cars stopped at the light. When no one was nearby, he would look at his watch. Just before my wife returned, he walked over to a car near my car, peeled off his ragged clothes to reveal nice clothes beneath, took keys out of his pocket, got into a late model BMW and drove away. This is not the type of person I want to help.

  2. 1-2-2009

    It is a hard balance sometimes. Our church in northern Michigan ran a very busy food pantry but we had a really hard time reaching people with the Gospel. They came, got food and left. I suspect that is a concern with many benevolence efforts, that we are showing the love of Christ but are not communicating the Gospel of Christ. Some seem to take an inordinate amount of pride in their works of social good, pointing out for the approval of man the works that they have done. Others who are heretics do good works as well yet are lost. The mormon church has an amazing network to help feed people and yet is at the same time teaching damning heresy.

    There is a need for balance. The salvation that comes through grace should drive us to good works while recognizing that those works cannot save us. There are many in my theological camp who are incredibly orthodox in theology but do virtually nothing for their neighbor. There are those who do great works of social good and yet hold to false beliefs, some of whom are confessing Christians. This has caused a false dichotomy. We should seek God’s truth and love our neighbor. Abandon either one and our witness suffers.

  3. 1-2-2009

    Alan, thanks for this reminder.

    If we purpose to have our conscience be sensitive to the voice of God and we are honest about our lack of love, the place to start for each of us will become clear.

    Jesus will be faithful to lead each of us into the work needing to be done and lying all around us. Each of us is in a different set of circumstances and with a different preset to our thinking.

    However, if we desire the work of the Father to be our work, He will reveal it. Expressing love genuinely to others is the call to action.

    All that needs to be done is for us to be honest that we prefer a “social” gospel without strings or commitment, thus we settle for religious actions that are very limited in reality. Having faced our dark attitudes, stop being social as defined by the “Christian” society in which we find ourselves and move willfully into what our conscience dictates.

    Conscience comes alive with use and sharpens through experience. Our capacity for love and action will grow as we learn openness to the Spirit of the Lord, and we become doers of His direction rather than players withing the social constraints of our time.

  4. 1-2-2009

    Alan,

    What a timely post.

    We seem to have the mindset that caring for needy people is an institutional thing, something we can only do corporately.

    As followers of Christ, our benevolence needs to be, first of all, an issue of personal compassion towards an individual, an act which reflects the love of Christ towards such people.

    Faceless benevolence, through an institutional coffer, doesn’t really cost us anything.

    Sitting on a park bench with an arm around a desparing, and often smelly, vagarant, can cost a lot of pride. God used one of your countrymen to start a ministry to pregnant single women, by sitting in the gutter beside a crying girl to offer help. He and his wife took her into their home until after the baby was born.

    Our reputations with a particular “class” or group are often more important than the soul which exists within the rags and smell of the needy.

    An easy way to overcome the spending on alcohol and drugs issue is to have an arrangement with a supermarket for an order of food to a prearranged cost. Our experience was that very seldom did the order used by those wanting money.