Social Gospel or Social Imperative?

There are some statements in Scripture that we love to either put in the too hard basket or simply skip over because we deem them less important than others.  One of those statements is made by John the Baptist as he was preparing the way for the Messiah, Jesus.  

Luke gives us very detailed information about how John described what repentance looked like for the Jews that were watching him baptize and listening to him preach.  Luke reports in 3:8-14, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?"  And he answered them, "Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise." Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than you are authorized to do." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation and be content with your wages."

While the Jewish elite were claiming their physical heritage in Abraham, John was reminding them that the true family of God is identified in the fruit of repentance in our life.  John then describes what that repentance looks like.  It is a love that treats people with dignity and respect and is interested in the needs of others and does not act unjustly.  This echoes the type of complaint that many of the Old Testament prophets had with Israel as they had dismissed the love of God and were treating the poor and needy in despicable ways.  Whether we want to admit it or not, John is saying that true repentance and faith is going to be reflected in the way we live out the love of God in our life toward others.  We have received mercy and we must show that mercy.  

Some people gloss over these words because many of us have been fearful of the appearance of a social gospel. However, this concern is easily accounted for if we just read some of the other statements that John had already made. A few verses earlier, Luke had already recorded John as saying that we need repentance for our sins, that his job was to make way for the coming Messiah “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' (Luke 3:3-6)" John (and Luke) were very concerned about salvation from sin and not just social welfare.  So, while we can be sensitive to the fact that some people have wrongly attributed social justice and welfare as the contributing factor to salvation, John and Luke have identified the social imperative as an outworking of true repentance and saving faith already obtained.  It is the outworking of that which reflects that we are already the true people of God. We love and have compassion like God has loved and has had compassion upon us. Justice and compassion are attributes of the heart of God that can be seen in the Old and New Testament.  They are attributes we must reflect as his sons and daughters.

In his book, “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism,” Carl Henry wrote, “The social spirit of John’s preaching was not contrary to Jesus’ own message. Replying to the imprisoned forerunner’s inquiry concerning the Christ, Jesus endorses a particular expectation about the Messiah which the Baptist had doubtless gleaned from the Old Testament: “Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Matt. 11:4-5, Luke 7:22). In view of so central a passage, it is difficult to find room for a gospel cut loose entirely from non-spiritual needs. It is true that the New Testament repeatedly employs phrases like the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the dead receiving life, in the figurative sense of spiritual regeneration.  But that cannot be said for the lame walking, nor for the lepers being cleansed; furthermore, Luke definitely prefixes Jesus’ reply to John with the comment that “in the same hour he cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits; and unto many that were blind he gave sight.” (7:21). There is no room here for a gospel that is indifferent to the needs of the total man nor of the global man.” 

So, let’s not skip over these verses that give us an uneasy conscience.  Yes, salvation is all of grace, only through faith and in Christ alone in his redeeming work of the cross. But that salvation that brings the dead heart into life is a salvation that reflects the life-giving love of the Father to all to whom we come into contact. For the Christian, loving our fellow man is not negotiable and neither is it cut off from the only saving message of the cross.  Uneasy? That’s ok, think it through. Those uneasy verses are still there.