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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Salt and Light: "Social Gospel" vs. "Spiritual Gospel"

The following comes from a meditation on Matthew 5: 13-16 (the "Salt" and "Light" passage), John Stott's commentary entitled "The Message of the Sermon on the Mount" (also called "Christ and Counterculture") from his wonderful biblical commentary series "The Bible Speaks Today." Finally, of course, it incorporates the following comments by Karl Barth in CD I/1:


"But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognized to be an integral element of the life of the Church, namely, the expreession of helpful solidarity in face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is part of man's response to God. When and because it is the response of real man, necessarily in terms of Matthew 5:14f. it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church's prayer, praise, and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter into quite superfluous competition with society's necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, nor can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. "That they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven," that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God's help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in casees like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. Then and in this way its light has shone out. . . If the social work of the Church as such were to try to be proclamation, it could only become propoganda, and not very worthy propoganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action" (p.50).

First, we need to ask the question: is there really a difference between "the social gospel" (helping people with daily needs) and "the spiritual gospel" (talking to them about Jesus Christ)? Where did we get these categories from? And who told us they were separate things?

I understand these categories well. I used to think of the spiritual Gospel (aka, the four spiritual laws, or some form thereof) as being of a higher order than the social gospel, and thus the true basis for any social work in the world. Surely when Jesus talks in Matthew 25:31-46 about separating the sheep and the goats, implicit within the sheep's social work is preaching of the spiritual gospel! Right?

The missionaries, for example, who accept this view might then decide to use social work as a tool for gaining favor with people, showing themselves to be a good people, perhaps a light in an otherwise dark place. Then, if social work is consciously and strategically done solely to gain a platform for sharing the love of Christ, it is often referred to as a Christian bait and switch method, an inauthentic witness. Is this a fair critique? Is there any other way?

If we are afraid that social gospel work might get confused with altruism by the world if we do not give explicit speech and confession of Jesus Christ, what makes us any more certain that our preaching, that our proclamation, our explicit speech and confession, might not be confused with something else?
Okay, perhaps we can be certain that the world could never mistake our "Spiritual Gospel" for something else. After all, words are so much more exclusive and explicit than action and body language and deeds (that is, if you have a Western perspective on communication).

So let's take a more common Western response to the Spiritual Gospel: what if it is ignored? What if people are indifferent? Do we pull out from doing work with the poor because it's not doing its true job - getting souls saved? What if it's not even looking as if our social work is opening the door to spiritual conversations? Is it simply a waste of time?

Which then gets to the bottom of this whole problem: the issue of salvation, which is entailed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. If he is "the Center," as we pray when we sing that wonderful worship song "Be the Center," then how is He involved in this dark world in which we are called to be salt and light? Did He just send us and stay home on the throne (at the right hand of the Father)?

I used to think that Jesus just got the ball rolling, but that it was all up to me for here on out. Send up some prayers to God to figure out how to live obediently and tell people about Jesus.

While I cannot think of one particular time of conversion-experience, I can certainly remember multiple mysterious encounters with God that led me to repentance and transformation. But I am now convinced that Jesus Christ, as well as the God the Father and The Holy Spirit, are fully self-involved in my full life. Likewise, Jesus Christ is fully self-involved in this world, which seems so dark to us. Yet, if we take Christ's work seriously enough, we realize that all the current forces have already been defeated and will come to pass.

While it’s certainly true that Jesus Christ is: a.) the One who saved us at the Cross, thus defeating the power of sin and death in this world, and b.) the (not just “a”) model and teacher of how we are to live on this earth as a people in but not of this world, He is even more than this. Jesus has promised Himself for the whole world as the sacrifice for sin, and is fully committed to the darkest places as the Redeemer. He is quite capable of doing this Himself, but has chosen to involve us, His Body, in this redemption of the world. We need to begin to see the presence of Christ with us now, not just in our past and in our future. He is eternal, after all, which means ALL the time.

We are continually made and sanctified as His Church again and again as we are addressed by God. Being a Christian is not just a one-time thing - “you’re saved, you’re in, batta-bing, batta-boom.” It would do us well, then, to realize that God is fully at work in this world, and that our explicit speech and confession has no more ability to save or redeem this world than the drink we give to the thirsty. If God wants us to do either, He will tell us. And if He chooses to hide the fruits of our labor from us, if our speech and work go unheard, it’s okay. And if He wants to redeem the world using people like Brian, then God is still glorified! We should not compete with the world in social work, nor should we think that there can be an automatic deduction from our helpful speech and work to the saving fact that “God helps.”

Ultimately, we give as the Church give water, food and shelter because we worship God through Jesus Christ in that person. It is Christ who gives every person dignity as a creature of God, regardless of whether they believe it or anyone else. Likewise, when we preach the Gospel, we are responding to Jesus Christ in that person. Either way, a person’s response is just as secondary (if not irrelevant) as the skill with which we preach or work. May all our thought, speech, and work be directed to God, and by God.

So let us not have faith in our speech, in our work, in our thoughts, but in Jesus Christ alone. And let all of our speech and work be a worthy response to Him. He already reigns on this earth.


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