“If you only ‘demonstrate’ the gospel and don’t ever ‘proclaim’ it to anyone, then you are left with two options:
either you don’t actually believe in hell,
or you don’t love the people you claim to be serving.”
ne of the most notable trends among today’s rising generation of young people is the increased interest in social justice. It is a trend that distinguishes the Millennial generation from many of its predecessors. And the trend is not merely an interest in social justice; it is a trend of increased hands-on engagement with issues pertaining to social justice—issues like inner city poverty, third world development, and racial reconciliation. You don’t have to look far to see this, particularly if you’re a college student. College campuses across the nation are stacked with campus organizations dedicated to particular social justice causes. Remember the nationwide frenzy that Kony 2012 brought to our campuses? That’s the kind of enthusiasm we’re seeing, one social issue after another.
This new enthusiasm has by no means been limited to the secular realm; in fact, some of the strongest advocates on social justice issues are active Christians in the church. Just look at some of the most well-known social action groups, organizations like Save the Children, Habitat for Humanity, International Justice Mission, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Invisible Children—these were all spearheaded by self-professed Christians. This was also the case for the abolition movement in the 19th century. Christians have been at the forefront of social action in America for generations. Yet, the drive for social action in the church continues to gain more steam among the younger generation.
Looking in at a generation of Christians that takes deed ministry seriously is in many ways a great encouragement. For decades—particularly during the civil rights movement—much of the Evangelical church lacked the will to act against the injustices of segregation and Jim Crow. Much of the Evangelical church was late to support civil rights for racial minorities, and it took several years after Rowe v. Wade until Evangelicals squarely backed the pro-life cause (Roman Catholics led the charge initially). So the trend in increased social engagement is something to truly rejoice in. At the same time, however, I’ve also found my heart growing heavier over new obstacles that this focus on social justice will bring.
Cautions from History
In the early 20th century, there was another large surge in Christian social action, similar in many ways to the present surge. It was called the Social Gospel movement. It too recognized grave injustices that were being suffered in society. America was quickly industrializing, and the Social Gospel movement stepped in to assist poor families, to oppose child labor and support labor unions. But the Social Gospel movement made a fatal mistake: it primarily understood the gospel not as a spiritual message of salvation, but as a rallying cry for Christians to fight against social injustice. It said that the “good news” of the gospel, most essentially, means taking care of the sick and the poor, the “widow and the orphan.” Of course, these are great deeds that Scripture commands Christians to perform, but they themselves do not constitute the gospel. For the Social Gospelites, the ultimate “good news” became drastically reduced to social altruism, and Christ became more of a moral example than a Savior from sin. This inevitably cheapened the cross of Christ. Christ himself was no longer seen as the ultimate Savior and victor over sin; in the Social Gospel, human beings themselves could become the “saviors” of mankind by simply following Christ’s example. Inevitably, this humanistic, man-centered view served to elevate the church and demote the achievements of Christ.
I mention the Social Gospel movement not because I see young Christians charging down the same path of apostasy, but because we must heed the lessons of history—especially when it comes to maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy. And actually, there are many young Christians who are prone to go down the path of the Social Gospel. My heart’s plea is that these young students take seriously the biblical call to walk a narrow line that straddles both “word” and “deed” ministry. I want to help chart out a path here for some of these young, passionate fellow believers of mine who desire to make a difference in the world. There is so much great potential for faithful, biblical ministry if only we can nail our theology down correctly.
“Demonstration” or “Proclamation”?
“People are tired of hearing Christians preach; we need to demonstrate the gospel!” Have you heard this kind of claim before? I hear it quite a bit, and it usually comes from Christians who are passionate about social justice. They are usually reacting against what they see as too much gospel “proclamation,” too much “word” ministry, too much evangelism. Now, these people do have a good point: our lives need to reflect to the world that we are believers. Furthermore, our faith should lead us to care for the “least of these” (Matthew 25), to look after widows and orphans. Amen, amen, amen—we should be doing those things. This group is also correct when it quotes 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (which is one of their favorite passages):
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Yes! We absolutely need love, for if we don’t have love, our message will lack the heart of Christ. But then, this group tends to go wrong on a couple of key points.
For one, they go wrong in defining what the gospel actually is. The gospel literally means “good news” in the original Greek. What do you do with news? You certainly do not demonstrate news. Rather, you announce news. You proclaim it for all to hear, because after all, it is a message. And when we’ve heard the message, then we are able to respond to it appropriately. This leads to their next point of confusion: they seem to get the order of justification and sanctification muddled and obscured. As Protestant Christians, we believe that good works do not justify Christians before God—Christ’s work on the cross does that for us. Good works only happen after we’ve been justified; they are an outpouring of our new life in Christ, in which we are being sanctified daily. They are the fruit of the new heart He has given us. There are many in the gospel “demonstration” camp, though, who tend value works of social justice so much that they see them as core to the Christian life. Too often in the minds of some, Christianity is about producing good works, not about the salvation that provides the basis for those good works. But the glory of Christ is not primarily manifest in our good works—they are primarily manifest in Christ’s ultimate work on the cross, of which all of our works are mere reflections (though beautiful ones, for sure). The Christian life ought to always point to Jesus as the supreme end, not to any work that we can do. Again, we ought to do good works—if we aren’t, according to James, our faith is dead:
Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:17)
Another key problem with the “demonstration” view is that it often tends to minimize or ignore the reality of hell. One of the main reasons the “demonstration” group is so fired up about social justice is that they desperately want to relieve human suffering. They see unjust suffering in the world and rightly want to help end it. But yet, many easily overlook the fact that all suffering on this earth is a mere drop of water in comparison to the eternal fire that exists in eternity for those who are not saved. If, then, Christians go about “demonstrating” the gospel in good works to the poor but do not proclaim the gospel to them, then aren’t their good works ultimately in vain? When John Piper was pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, he often told his congregation, “We exist to relieve all suffering, especially eternal suffering.” I agree wholeheartedly with this view. Piper says “especially” to place a priority on eternal suffering, suffering that is far more intense than any earthly suffering. It is only logical to see eternal suffering as the most urgent—unless, of course, you don’t believe in the reality of hell. That is a serious question I would pose to Christians who want to devote their lives to social justice: What does your focus (or lack of focus) on sharing the gospel reveal about your beliefs about hell? If you only “demonstrate” the gospel and don’t ever “proclaim” it to anyone, then you are left with two options: either you don’t actually believe in hell, or you don’t love the people you claim to be serving.
This leads to the last point on which the “demonstration” crowd is wrong. Some may affirm the reality of hell, but they will claim that others can “see” the gospel played out in their lives without overt “proclamation.” No doubt, you have probably heard the following quote: “Preach the gospel, and if necessary use words.” That quote is often attributed to Francis of Assisi, yet it is quoted as if Jesus said it! I believe this quote is profoundly unbiblical, and further, it has given many young, social justice-driven Christians an out on sharing their faith. It tells Christians that you don’t have to share your faith; your actions will speak for themselves. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Your actions do give evidence to others that you are a virtuous person, but they don’t tell others that you are a Christian, let alone communicate the gospel to them. Essentially, the Assisian view places on unbelievers the harsh and unrealistic burden of coming up with the gospel by themselves. Nobody can come up with the gospel by him- or herself. No poor person ever received food or money from a Christian and responded, “Oh, now I understand. You did that for me because God sent his only Son to die on a cross for the forgiveness of your sins, and now you want to reflect that love to me by giving me this food. And you call this story the gospel. I want in!” That’s just unrealistic—nobody can do that. That’s why we need special revelation, and that is why gospel proclamation is an indispensable component of Christian witness. Paul said,
Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:7)
Salvation only comes through faith, and according to Paul here, faith only comes by hearing the Word of God—that is, by gospel proclamation. Furthermore, Paul saw gospel proclamation as so essential to his ministry that he said,
Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! (1 Corinthians 9:16)
Paul was horrified of the thought of not preaching the gospel. For Paul not to preach the gospel would have been for him to abdicate his duty as a minister of the gospel. It’s simple enough—proclamation is indispensable.
I want to reemphasize that none of this is to disparage the pursuit of social justice. Quite the contrary! The gospel is actually the very thing that can give real force to social justice causes. That’s the way spiritual fruit works. The gospel penetrates us (Rom 10:7), our hearts are transformed and minds renewed (Rom 12:2), and then our outward actions reflect the transformative work that God has done within us. So of course, social justice is an implication of the gospel. What many social justice advocates--sadly--don’t realize is that the gospel, when given its proper first priority, actually gives social justice more power than ever before. The gospel is a powerful message, and when it takes root in a person’s life, spiritual fruit begins to emerge all over. So when that gospel spreads and penetrates hearts, those newly transformed hearts will not be perpetrators of social injustice. Social injustice is simply a symptom of a sinful world—wherever the Holy Spirit wins souls, injustice tends to flee.
Let me affirm also that a ministry which only “proclaims” the gospel, yet never produces deeds, is utterly empty and useless. Look back to the love passage in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
According to Paul here, love must be the center of any effective ministry—either personal or corporate. In the first part here, he criticizes men who speak in tongues, prophesy, and obtain all mysteries of knowledge while lacking love. Such men have nothing. If faith without works is dead (James 2:17), then a ministry without deeds is dead.
So what balance should we in the church strike between “word” and “deed?” The answer is that we must give first priority to “word” ministry—the ministry of proclamation—because that is the lifeblood that fuels all good “deeds” in the Christian life. The church does need to stand up for justice issues and engage with them. It does need to obey the biblical mandate to serve the least of these, to look after widows and orphans, to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are to be sacrificial in the way we love our communities and cities. These are fruits of our faith—if we’re not bearing that fruit, then something is seriously wrong. We just need to remember the way deeds and word interact. “Deeds” show the world who we are as Christians, but “words” explain and teach the gospel, explaining the reason for the deeds we do.
I recently had a teacher explain this beautifully. He said, “The Social Gospel is like a body without a soul—it’s a corpse. Proclamation without a concern for the social dimension is like a soul without a body—it’s a ghost. We are neither atheists nor Gnostics. Gnostics reject the body and embrace the soul; atheists reject the soul and embrace the body. We are Christians, and we embrace both.”
Daniel Davis graduated from Wheaton College in 2014 with a B.A. in History, having minored in political science. He loves to study theology, history, philosophy, and politics, and he enjoys writing about these subjects from a biblical worldview. His work has been published by The Federalist, Townhall and Values & Capitalism, and he regularly participates in Ecclesiam's Point of Contact podcast. Daniel is an active member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church.