The gospel & social action

Ben Rae | Sep 29th, 2010

God has blessed many of us with comfortable lives, yet when we turn on the TV or read a newspaper we are instantly confronted with suffering on a scale that would be unimaginable if it were not right there in front of us. We see earthquakes, tsunamis, war, corruption, oppression and injustice destroying lives around the world. Even within Australia many of us struggle with physical or mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, loneliness or simply making ends meet.

As followers of Jesus, how should we respond to the obvious social needs of so many? And how does addressing people’s social needs relate to the terrible truth that is never reported—that millions, even billions, of people alive today will experience eternity in hell unless they hear the gospel of Jesus and turn to him in repentance and faith?

The Bible is quite clear that God cares about both the spiritual and social needs of humanity. But what is he doing about them? Before we can look at that, we need to understand what causes social problems.

Tim Keller identifies three causes of social problems in the Bible:

  • Injustice and oppression from others (Proverbs 14:31; Leviticus 19:15; Ephesians 6:9, James 5:4–6)
  • Circumstantial calamity such as famine (Genesis 47:13), illness (Luke 8:43), demon possession (Matthew 17:14–18), or even having a building collapse on you (Luke 13:4–5)!
  • Personal failure through an individual’s own laziness (Proverbs 6:9–11; Ecclesiastes 10:18) or sin (1 Corinthians 11:27–30)[1]

It’s not hard to see all these factors at work in our world today, although it is sometimes difficult to disentangle them. Is alcoholism, for example, a result of my parent’s alcoholism or abuse, my own personal failure, or my genetic make up? Or is it some combination of all of them?

Although the causes of a particular social problem can’t always be clearly distinguished, what is clear is that the underlying factor in all of them is sin. The sin of others towards me, my own personal sin or the cosmic consequences of sin that have left all creation groaning (Romans 8:19–22). Sin has devastated us and our world because it has devastated our relationship with God. God is angry at our rebellion and we thoroughly deserve the punishment that he promises. This is not a good situation to be in!

So if sin is the ultimate cause of both our spiritual and social problems, what is the solution?

Firstly, God tells us how we ought to behave, not least that we ought to show kindness and mercy to those in need (for example, Deuteronomy 15:11; Proverbs 31:8–9; Luke 14:12–14; Galatians 6:10). God’s concern for the vulnerable is clear throughout the Bible (for example, Psalm 146:6–9; James 1:27). But commands alone cannot solve the problem of sin because they fail to deal with our hard hearts. Israel had God’s commands but continued to rebel against him, wallowing in their sinfulness and oppressing the poor and vulnerable. Even if we did keep God’s commands in the future, that still wouldn’t deal with God’s anger at our past sins, or with the cosmic effects of sin on creation.

So secondly, through the death of Jesus, God offers us forgiveness for our sin. His anger at us is poured out on Jesus who—in a wonderful twist—pours out the Holy Spirit on us. The Holy Spirit transforms the hearts and minds of those who believe, making them eager to do what is good. That brings substantial healing to our social problems—just imagine a world where everyone was eager to do good—but it doesn’t end them. Even if the whole world put their trust in Christ we still wouldn’t be perfect, and creation would still be groaning!

So lastly, God promises that when Jesus returns he will bring in a new creation that will no longer groan under the weight of sin (Romans 8:18–21). A world where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:1–4). A world where God’s forgiven and redeemed people will live together in perfect relationship with God, each other and creation.

God’s plan to eliminate sin, and therefore all our social and spiritual problems, has significant implications for our thinking about gospel mission and social action. It warns us that even our best efforts to alleviate physical suffering can only result in temporary solutions. The ultimate solution to all social problems is the re-creation of the world when Christ returns. No amount of food, clothing, shelter, education or anything else can secure entry into, or bring about, the new creation. That comes only by responding to the gospel in repentance and faith.

So should Christians give up on social action and simply pour all their time and resources into evangelism? Certainly not! The apostle John says, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 John 3:16–17). In other words the gospel of God’s love for us in Christ motivates us to love others, and real love is all-encompassing. We can’t claim to love others and be unconcerned about their salvation, nor can we claim to love them but be unconcerned about their social needs.

Yet evangelism and social action are not equal partners, like blades on a pair of scissors. They are more like a ballroom dancing couple, where one of the partners—evangelism—leads the other. Evangelism must lead because hearing and believing the gospel of God’s love for us in Christ causes people to love others, and therefore want to share the gospel and care for their social needs. Social action, however, apart from the gospel message, will never bring people to put their trust in Christ, and it is only by trusting in Christ that we have any hope for the future. It would be a terrible tragedy if our right desire to alleviate people’s present suffering led us to ignore their eternal welfare. “For what does it profit someone to gain the whole world but forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36)

So should Christians be involved in social action? Absolutely! Some of us have opportunities to care for people in our immediate circle of family, friends, and acquaintances. Others of us can use our money to provide for those who have greater needs than us. Still others among us will choose jobs that involve caring for those who suffer. But in whatever we do our greatest desire must be for people to know and trust in Jesus, the Saviour who laid down his life for us in our need. Only through him will anyone be saved from an eternity of misery. It is only through him can we share in his kingdom where our present sufferings will be nothing more than a distant memory.

[1] Tim Keller, ‘The Gospel and the Poor’, Themelios 33/3 (2008): 19.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of SALT magazine.