It’s a single line from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book on Aspects of Christian Social Ethics (Eerdmans) that has been as consequential for my thinking about the social implications of the Gospel as any line from any book written by any theologian/ethicist that I have ever read. Dr. Henry asked, “In seeking a better social order, to what extent shall we rely on law and to what extend on grace?” And again, “How much shall we trust legislation and how much shall we trust regeneration to change the social setting?” (15).
What holds the greatest promise for the transformation of society? Is it education, legislation, agitation, redemption, or some combination thereof? Well, Dr. Henry was clear about what he thought. He argued – “What the social order needs most… are not people with new textbooks and new laws, but people with new hearts” (30). That’s an affirmation of regeneration over education and legislation as the real key to social change. Changed hearts change the world.
Now, Dr. Henry was not so spiritually naïve as to think that education and legislation, or even agitation, were completely devoid of value in the process of social change. He knew that they each had a part to play in the cause of change, and he said so. In fact, Dr. Henry’s most famous book was The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947) in which he took to task the social withdrawal of conservative Christians from the pressing social issues of the day. But he was nevertheless insistent that Biblically, “personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in Christianity’s hope for the social order” (25). This is Christianity’s distinctive contribution to the conversation, if you ask me.
Buddhists and Muslims, Republicans and Democrats, Occupiers and Tea Partiests, Secularists and Socialists all have stakes in the struggle for a better world too, and rightly so. We’re all residents, and so we’ve all got our points of view and our ideas to argue, and in a vigorous democracy like ours, we should be glad for this cacophony of voices. It’s that old “public square” argument — in a marketplace of ideas, everybody needs to be present, and everybody needs to be talking just as clearly and convincingly as they possibly can. The only question is, what is it that we as Christians should be saying? What’s our distinctive contribution to the conversation?
Traditionalist Christians have become so identified with Republican politics these days that they are now popularly seen as one of “their” constituency groups, while progressive Christians have been identified with Democrat politics for so long that they are viewed as one of “their” constituency groups. But when this happens, what gets lost is what’s most distinctive for us as Christians. You see, I believe that the real impetus for change is not political argument or social action alone, but an application of the Lordship of Jesus Christ to every sphere of life. But this is precisely what I find is missing in so many of the arguments that I hear these days about how we as Christians need to change the world.
I hear the case for social change being made and the appeal for social change being issued by Christians without any reference being made to the Gospel at all, to this whole thing being rooted and grounded in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ whose birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, sending of the Spirit and coming again brings the Kingdom that will finally and fully heal all creation. I’m just not sure that I as a Christian can talk about justice without talking about Jesus. I don’t think that I can cast a vision for social change as a Christian that is not deeply informed by the person and work of Christ. He’s just that instrumental to this whole change project for me as a Christian.
Now, let me be absolutely clear this. I want peace. I want justice. I want freedom. I want security. I want equality. I want a healthy environment. I want compassion. I want abundance. I want opportunity. I want reconciliation. I want healing and wholeness. I want life, and all human beings to thrive. I really want the world to change. It seems to me that it’s really hard to read the Bible, and to believe what the Bible says, and not to be for these things. As John Killinger put it, when you have heard from God, then –
You want to redesign the world in such a way that people are made to suffer less. You want the hungry to be fed and the infirm to walk. You want the blind to see and the deaf to hear. You want parents to love their children and children to grow up happy and morally committed to the right things. You yourself become committed to the kingdom humanity has always dreamed of. (Bread for the Wilderness – 115)
The relevant question for me is “how?” How does the world change? What initiates the introduction of this better social order, and then, what sustains its cultivation over the long haul? Is it the “Law” that best serves the cause of social change, or is it the Gospel? For me, this is the question that we who are Christians really need to be thinking about.
It was the Protestant Reformer Martin Luther who said that God has only preached two sermons to us – the Law from the top of Mt. Sinai, and the Gospel from the top of Mt. Calvary. Mt. Sinai says: “You must do.” Mt. Calvary says: “Because you couldn’t, Jesus did.” This is a pretty standard division of the content that’s in the Bible. Simplistically, it’s the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, although there is Gospel in the Old Testament to be sure, and Law in the New Testament. When the Bible tells us to do this or that, by Luther’s distinctions, it’s Law. And when the Bible tells us that God already did this or that for us in Christ, it’s Gospel. As Tim Keller explains, “The Gospel is news about what God has already done for you rather than instruction and advice about what you are to do for God.”
The way that Dr. Henry saw it, most of the appeals for social change that he heard coming from the Christians in his day was being voiced as Law rather than Gospel. It consisted of moral exhortation alone – shouted instructions to do this and to do that – rather than being the cultivated fruit of repentance (Matthew 3:8) and regeneration (Matthew 7:16-20). The Gospel pattern for change – both personal and social – can be clearly seen in Romans 6:1-11, Ephesians 4:17-32 and Colossians 3:1-17.
It begins with a change of heart – the death of an old way of being through a personal attachment by faith with the death of Christ, and the resurrection to a new way of being though our personal identification with the resurrection of Christ. All of the appeals for moral change that I find in the New Testament are predicated on the prior saving work of God in Christ that has been personally appropriated by the faith of those to whom the appeal is being addressed. In other words, the appeal for change is addressed to those who have already been fundamentally and irrevocably changed by their acceptance of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. So, if the appeal for moral change gets detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ, is it still Christian? And how does the appeal for moral change get detached from the experience of regeneration in Christ anyway? Well, David Gibson says that he thinks he knows how. He described the process in his article – “Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel” (Sept./Oct. 2007 Vol. 16 No. 5 – 35-39).
“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.”
And then Todd Pruitt from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals added his observations on the application of this process to the situation of churches today –
This story has been repeated, to one degree or another, many times over. One thinks of the United Methodist Church, The Disciples of Christ, The PCUSA, The Episcopal Church, The American Baptists… These denominations and others have experienced the devastating spiritual atrophy that comes with moving away from the church’s one essential message. But this is not only a problem with those denominations and groups that are typically considered “liberal.” It can happen to any group of so-called “conservative” Christians who find themselves ignorant of, bored with, or preoccupied with anything more than the Gospel and its concerns. It is not unusual to find legalism, moralism, political activism, and humanistic pop-psychology being proclaimed from “evangelical” pulpits. I would suggest that the enemy of our souls is happy with any preaching, liberal or conservative, that diminishes, misconstrues, or assumes the Gospel. (http://www.alliancenet.org)
If Dr. Henry was right, and I think he was, then the Gospel is instrumental and not incidental to the change that we want for our world. And it seems to me that the failure of Christians to mention the Gospel in their appeals for social action is to ignore the very dynamic that makes social change possible. To “assume the Gospel” is to bury the lead. It is to lose the distinctive contribution that we as Christians can make to the conversation.