Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Gospel: Social AND Spiritual

I just finished reading a book that speaks from the ethos of what is being called "New Monasticism." Written by Shane Claiborne, "Irresistible Revolution" chronicles the "coming of age" of a group of young college students who recognize the social implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time. Simply put, my review of the book is that you have to hate these guys a lot not to love them a little. In fact, you will love them a lot, and resonate with what they believe and do in living out the love of Christ among the truly needy. But my review must go further to point out a very real concern: As necessary as it is to love our neighbors, champion justice, assist the poor, and bring very real and consistent help to those who have been sidelined and cast away by our consumer-driven, selfish society, doing so does not constitute a fulfillment of the Great Commission.

I find it helpful to characterize it this way: Jesus - the first "body of Christ" - walked among the people and places of His day bringing both common and saving grace. "Common" grace was the benevolent and loving extension of Himself to everyone. It was "common" in that it was extended to all. Under this category we would list his various healing miracles, the feeding of thousands, as well as his acts of kindness toward all peoples. But those who were healed all died again. "Common" grace, while easing their pain and validating the Messianic position of Christ, did not fit them for eternity. If those who ate and were filled when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish had then immediately breathed their last breath, it is reasonable to assume that some would have entered hell with full stomachs. While "common" grace ministries extend the love of God, it is "saving" grace that extends the life of God, bringing repentance, faith, the indwelling Spirit, and the beginning of eternal life.

So, as I resonnate with the increasing energy being generated by many in the Christian world toward areas of justice, poverty, abuse of authority, and other socio-spiritual issues, I must also shout that while necessary, these passions are not sufficient. Our commision from Christ, while certainly including caring for a person's body, demands that our greatest concern, our greatest efforts be expended in speaking to, and caring for their soul. This means that our task is not finished, and we cannot speak of living faithfully until we are actively, passionately, winsomely, and consistently declaring the Gospel message.

History seems once again to be repeating itself. Without being overly concerned with dates and names, I can remind you that we have seen this trend before. Back in the day, when social issues first became big news in America, many of the mainline denominations entered the arena of benevolent social care with great gusto. Most of the hospitals on the East Coast were begun by religious organizations, as were almost all of the social service organizations that looked after orphans, the homeless, and others unable to care for themselves. Rescue missions, the Salvation Army, soup kitchens, and most 2nd-hand clothing stores can trace their origins back to a sweeping movement that galvanized Christians to act responsibly toward their society. And this, of course, was good. But over time what it meant to be "successful" in the ministry of the Gospel was re-defined in terms of benevolent efforts, and America came to be a champion of what was known as "the social gospel." At that point, we could point to hospitals, and soup kitchens, and orphanages and all manner of other tangible, objective evidences and say "we are living out the heavenly mandate." But, as soon as these humanitarian efforts - themselves undeniably recognized as the necessary consequences of true Gospel living - became the "stuff" by which we measured our faithfulness to Christ and His mission of redemption, we failed to understand the true end game of the Gospel. The Good News is not just that I have some bread to fill your empty stomach; it is that I have been commissioned as an agent of the One who is Himself the Bread of Life, and He is here to re-claim you for Himself, and transform you into His own purposeful work of art, by His grace and for His glory.

Now I do understand that Claiborne is - and certainly believes he must be - a reformer of sorts. And reformers almost always have to shout instead of whisper because those around them are so sound asleep. They also have to generalize, and over-sell, and exaggerate the problem, and over-do the solution in order to rouse those around them to any action at all. I do not fault Claiborne for the book or the stories or his passion. In fact, I enjoyed it, and was benefited by it. There were many stories of the destitute being loved, and of Claiborne and his friends doing heroic things by faith. But, glaringly absent from its pages were stories of regeneration, repentance, faith, and transformational, holy living.

As I read the book, it seemed to me that establishing a friendship and love with those in need became synonymous with fellowship between believers. A major theme in the book can be summarized by referring to an episode that was described. At one point, Claiborne states that looking into the face of a homeless woman, he saw the face of God, and through her, he came to know more about God than he had in reading any book on Systematic Theology. Now I understand what he meant, and as a reformer, he certainly makes good use of hyperbole. But the not-so-subtle theme that runs throughout the book is that befriending the needy and extending the love of Christ to them creates the same relational bond that has historically been understood as ocurring only among those who are members of the Body of Christ through the regenerative power of the Spirit. And further, it seems to me that the teachings of the New Testament are clear that such a bond with those in the Body of Christ is only possible as one is brought into the family of God on the basis of the work of Christ applied through faith. The problem with the "social gospel" - whether it was the message of the early liberal denominations or the current crop of social zealots - is that they believe that their love to the needy, motivated by a true love for Christ, becomes almost a surrogate love and faith by which the needy are then accepted by God. Unknowingly, they are "preaching" a salvation by works to those who are destitute, only the "works" are being performed by loving believers.

The great dangers here are obvious. If we can love someone into the family of God, and if by our love their sinful position can be exchanged for one of blessing, then the only real need we ever had of Christ and the Cross was in the area of motivation. The cross just shows us how much God loved us, and so we must sacrifice ourselves for others like Jesus did. Of course, this is garbage. Yet, the current teachings of so many (Chalke, McClaren, et al) that the penal, substitutionary atonement of Christ cannot be true for it would consititue "divine child abuse" (their term!) will invariably lead to such an understanding of the Cross. Now, please understand: I have no knowledge that Claiborn has adopted this heretical understanding of the Cross. Nothing in the book speaks to this issue (in fact, the book is conspicuously devoid of any real theological material, except of course, the faces of the homeless!). My only point here is that where the message that all are sinners and must repent of their sin and trust Christ alone is replaced with the idea that true benevolence and love for the needy can bring them into relationship with God, the New Testament teaching of the Cross is lost.

The Gospel has always been subjected to manipulation, both by those who hated it, and by those who unwittingly massage it for seemingly noble purposes. But, if new life in Christ is only effected as the Spirit rides in on the truth of the Gospel, then creativity with this message is not only an affront to God, but dangerous to the very ones who need it. The first call to faithfulness must be to be faithful to the Gospel in our living, and in our telling. The Gospel does have implications for how we live and how we love, and we need to follow the "new monastics" in this area of their passion; but the primary purpose of the Gospel - and hence, of the Church - must be the rescue of souls through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ alone. To offer our world physical help but stop short of declaring the message of eternal hope is actually the most unloving thing we can do.

Hope this helps,



At 8:43 AM , Blogger walter said...


Excellent review and excellent reminder of both graces. Once again, your thoughtfulness shines refreshingly on a much needed clarification.

I'm new to this stuff. Old dog; new tricks. Check me out if you have time



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