The “Social Gospel” versus the “Personal Gospel”

The False Choice I’m Being Asked to Make, Again…

Over the last 24 hours I have received several e-mails and/or read some internet postings calling for pastoral action and/or a homiletical statement this Sunday in support of the growing anti-racist, pro-reconciliation social movement that current events have painfully and urgently brought into our national consciousness.   Here are some samples –


If racism isn’t the topic of conversation in every church this morning, what the hell kind of church do we have? Dr. Serene Jones – President, Union Theological Seminary                                     


As I’ve followed these stories via various news outlets and in the world of social media, I’ve experienced a deep sensitivity to the phenomena of absence and silence. I’ve paid special attention to the ways in which influential faith leaders are (or are not) using their platforms to call out the injustices which have diminished and even extinguished Black lives in America. Almost predictably, there are certain white pastors whose presences are conspicuously absent– but their silence is not my concern. Of greater concern to me is the silence of Black ministers, many of whom pastor megachurches consisting of thousands of African American Christians. …They have a certain something that pastors all over the country have been trying to cultivate and duplicate: Credibility. Broad Appeal. Undeterred Followers. Staying Power. They are the empowered few—wielding television and media reach, but yielding little in terms of advocacy at a time when compelling mobilizers are needed more than ever. I think it’s more than fair to ask why the people who are arguably the Black community’s most influential religious leaders have had little if anything to say about issues that impact our lives so profoundly. Crystal St. Marie Lewis –


To my fellow clergy: I had lunch today at a meeting of bishops and judicatory leaders, and met the new Senior Bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop Lawrence Reddick. He told us that this Sunday is ‘Black On Sunday’, when several African- American denominations are asking their members to dress in black this Sunday to show solidarity in the midst of the crisis and the pain of these days. He invited us to wear black as well, and I intend to do so. The pain and the outrage is palpable, and regardless of how any of us feel about the particulars of specific incidents, it is time for us to listen, really listen, show we care, and seek ways to be part of the answer. Dr. Larry Ross – North Texas Area Minister, CCSW


I don’t disagree.

Christian Faith has a public edge, and as I have expressed here before, Biblically, I believe that racism is a sin that needs to be exposed, confessed and eradicated from the lives of both individual Christians and congregations.  My only question is how best to go about this.

A little bit further in her article, Crystal St. Marie Lewis wrote something that makes my head explode.

I’ve thought about the state of Christianity in America, and the ever-growing need for the justice-centered message of Jesus to overtake and supplant the self-centered message of salvation that has come to dominate Protestant theology.

The suggestion here that the “self-centered” message of personal salvation must be “overtaken and supplanted” by “the justice-centered message of Jesus” as if these were competing brands in the marketplace of spiritual ideas is misleading.  This is the old tired “Social Gospel” versus the “Personal Gospel” argument that I rejected as a false choice 40 years ago when I was a student in Christian College.

Are there advocates of the Social Gospel of peace, freedom and justice for all who want nothing to do with the Personal Gospel of forgiveness, inward assurance and the promise of eternal life? Yes, there are.  I know some of them personally. And are there advocates of the Personal Gospel of forgiveness, inward assurance and the promise of eternal life who want nothing to do with the Social Gospel of peace, freedom and justice for all?  Yes, there are.  I know some of them too.  But are these the only two choices that we have?  Do I have to choose between them?

I don’t think so.

There is a middle position historically embraced by Evangelical Christianity that sequences the Social Gospel of peace, freedom and justice for all as the necessary and inevitable consequence of the Personal Gospel of forgiveness, inward assurance and the promise of eternal life.  John Piper wrote about William Wilberforce as the poster child of this approach to transformation, both personal and social.

One of the most important and least known facts about the battle to abolish the slave trade in Britain two hundred years ago is that it was sustained by a passion for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. William Wilberforce was a spiritually exuberant and doctrinally rigorous evangelical. He battled tirelessly in Parliament for the outlawing of the British slave trade. It was doctrine that nourished the joy that sustained the battle that ended the vicious trade.


The key to understanding Wilberforce is to read his own book, A Practical View of Christianity. There he argued that the fatal habit of his day was to separate Christian morals from Christian doctrines. His conviction was that there is “perfect harmony between the leading doctrines and the practical precepts of Christianity.” He had seen the devastating effects of denying this: “The peculiar doctrines of Christianity went more and more out of sight, and…the moral system itself also began to wither and decay, being robbed of that which should have supplied it with life and nutriment.” But Wilberforce knew that “the whole superstructure of Christian morals is grounded on their deep and ample basis.”

This “ample basis” and these “peculiar doctrines” that sustained Wilberforce in the battle against the slave trade were the doctrines of human depravity, divine judgment, the substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, justification by faith alone, regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and the practical necessity of fruit in a life devoted to good deeds. Wilberforce was not a political pragmatist. He was a radically God-centered, Christian politician. And his zeal for Christ, rooted in these “peculiar doctrines,” was the strength that sustained him in the battle.

And what this means is that for many of us the way that we believe that the sin of racism will most effectively be exposed and then eradicated is through the preaching of the Gospel that explicitly calls people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ as their Savior (giving Him their sins) and as their Lord (giving Him full reign in their lives).

As I have been preparing to preach this Sunday morning on the inexpressible gift that Jesus Christ is to us as the display of God’s Wonderful Compassion according to the portrait that is painted of Him for us by the Gospel of Luke, I have been made aware of just how directly and powerfully the Gospel speaks to the issues of the day.  For Luke, nothing was a better expression of God’s grace that had gathered him up and gathered him in than were the meals that Jesus ate in the days of His public ministry with all sorts of people.  And there is an important lesson in this for all of us as Christ’s disciples, especially after the weeks of social unrest and public outrage that we’ve come through following the perceived failure of justice in the recent Grand Jury decisions in Missouri and New York.

How do things change?
How do things get better?
How do people reconcile and the world heals?

Carl F.H. Henry, a distant relative of Northway’s own Patrick Henry I’m told, in his book on Christian Social Ethics (Aspects of Christian Social Ethics – Eerdmans – 1964) asked about what was the best method for improving social conditions.

The problem may be stated this way: In seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to extent on grace?  How much shall we trust legislation and how much should we trust regeneration to change the social setting? (15)

And his point was that while we can change laws – and laws must be changed in the face of injustice – that legislation alone is never enough.

The very first building block in the formation of my own social conscience as a Christian was a book that Sherwood Wirt, the editor for many years of Billy Graham’s magazine Decision, wrote and that I read in 1968 when I was just 15 years old.  These were the days of the Civil Rights Movement and the War in Vietnam.  Big questions about peace and justice were churning in society at large then, and I was trying to figure out how someone like myself who had consciously named Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior and who was actively looking to the Bible for moral and spiritual guidance was supposed to respond.   Sherwood Wirt’s book helped me to make sense of things.  This, in part, is what he wrote about racism – and remember that these words were written 46 years ago!

Love cannot be created by the enactment of statutes requiring people to display comradeship toward each other.   No such statute has been promulgated in the history of humanity…. The law can set bounds, but it cannot set an example… The passage of civil rights laws in America has given African American citizens greatly needed help… by clarifying their legal status and giving them a fuller possession of their national birthright.  Yet the civil rights laws have not increased in the slightest the respect and affection between people of different races in our society; and respect and affection are the very qualities that are supremely needed to ease the existing tensions.  Experts in race relations are surprised to find tensions in parts of America worsening rather than lessening.  The Christian is not surprised for the Christian knows what legislation can and cannot do.  A sociologist was astonished to find that after teaching a course on racial prejudice, some of his students were more prejudiced at the end than at the beginning.  The Christian is not astonished, for the Christian understands that the answer is not education alone. (82-83)

And so, if the answer to society’s problems is not just agitation, education or legislation, then what is?  Well, Carl Henry said that it was Regeneration – the embrace of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

The strategy of regeneration… relies primarily on a spiritual dynamic for social change.  It aims not merely to re-educate man (although it knows that the Holy Spirit uses truth – especially the truth of the Gospel – as a means of conviction), but to renew the whole man morally and spiritually through a saving experience of Jesus Christ.  The power on which it relies for social change is not totalitarian compulsion, nor is it the power, per se, of legislated morality, education and unregenerate conscience… The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” for facing the entire world.  Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is an optional consideration.  Personal regeneration and redemption are interest in its hope for the social order. (24-25)

This was in fact how the Apostle Paul spiritually undermined the institution of slavery in his day.  He organized no protest marches.  He lobbied for the passage of no new laws in the Roman Senate.  He didn’t appear on any talk shows or post on a social media sites to publically debate the issue.  What Paul did do was to treat a runaway slave named Onesimus with personal dignity and respect when he showed up unexpectedly one day on Paul’s front doorstep, and then Paul insisted that his owner, a man named Philemon, welcome Onesimus back, not as a slave but as a beloved brother in Jesus Christ (16), and this quiet revolution fomented in the hearts of three individual believers – Paul’s, Onesimus’ and Philemon’s – is what set in motion the forces that eventually changed the whole world.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a time and a place for agitation, and I’m not suggesting, even for a moment, that education and legislation are either irrelevant or unnecessary.   What I am saying is that none of this is enough for the kind of change that we are looking for.  The kind of change that we really need begins in the heart of a person who has been invited in and given a place at the welcome table.  Think of how the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame in the story that Jesus told in Luke 14:15-24 would have felt when the servants of the King sought them out on the streets and in the lanes of the city and compelled them to come into the feast.

antwoneThe 2003 movie “Antwone Fisher” begins with the dream of a little boy who has been abandoned by his mother standing in an open field staring at a great big white barn.   Slowly the barn doors open and a man looks down at him, extends his hand and leads him inside.  In the center of the barn there is a banquet table laden down with food, and surrounding it are lots and lots of people with smiles on their faces and the look of love in their eyes.  The little boy is ushered through the room to the head of the table where he is given the seat of honor, and then with everyone drawing in just a little bit closer, the little boy is served a big plate of pancakes, and he smiles.

The way Luke tells the Gospel story, you are that little boy, and I am that little boy.  Mike Brown was that little boy, and Officer Darren Wilson is that little boy.  Eric Garner was that little boy, and Officer Daniel Pantaleo is that little boy.  And Jesus Christ is the One who opens wide the door, extends his hand, and ushers us all into the feast.  The kind of world we want is a world where everyone has a place at the table of God’s abundance, and according to the Gospel of Luke, that’s exactly what Jesus Christ came into the world to provide.  He is the gift of God’s wonderful compassion, and it’s our assignment to offer it to all.  DBS+


1 Comment

Filed under Soundings

One response to “The “Social Gospel” versus the “Personal Gospel”

  1. Joyce Riggs

    Excellent article. I read your Blog (not always) and you are a very deep thinker. The lesson you are preparing to preach on the above subject should be preached in every pulpit. Some of my dearest friends just simply cannot accept all of what you said. Having grown up with parents who were very strong Democrats (and changed some of their racial views was well as political views in later life), I was left with some inborn prejudice that I have not totally overcome. Maybe if everyone could read this blog they could make a start. I am working on myself! And thanks for posting this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s