Why did God send his Son into the world? This basic question is controversial…again.
There is a movement within broader Conservative Evangelicalism in South Africa to be critical of the gospel “Eternal Salvation” that Conservative Evangelicalism has always cherished. This movement seeks to redefine the gospel to include a physical/political/ temporal liberation of the oppressed.
Conservative Evangelicalism is accused of misunderstanding the Great Commission or being overly committed to the Great Commission to the neglect of the Bible’s other imperatives. The result being a disproportionate concern with the spiritual dimension of the gospel to the detriment of the real, present concerns of people, especially racism and unjust structures.
Proponents of this “improved” and “contextual” understanding of the gospel accuse Conservative Evangelicalism (and REACH-SA) of having an under-realized eschatology and therefore an insufficient understanding of the nature of the gospel as it relates to the this-worldly expectations of the Kingdom of God.
Proponents of this improved gospel or, at least, improved understanding of the gospel assert that Conservative Evangelicalism’s inadequate or narrow understanding of the Great Commission has led to inadequate social engagement and the inadvertent support of unjust structures, including Apartheid.
Before we think about social engagement, we must first ask the question: does the gospel include a physical/ political/ temporal liberation for the powerless, the marginalized and the poor?
Are we not simply seeing the re-packaging of Liberation Theology?
Liberation theology argues that theology must start with “the view from below”, with the sufferings of the excluded and oppressed. The mission of the church is defined in terms of the struggle for liberation. It claims that the Bible exists to reveal God as the liberator of oppressed victims. There is an emphasis on a more realized eschatology and Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God as spiritual and physical.Liberation Theology in the New Dictionary of Theology
Please don’t misunderstand me, I would dearly love to see the physical liberation of all oppressed people and the end of all unjust systems.
I fully appreciate that Apartheid was an unjust, cruel system that led to the dehumanizing of many South Africans and its effects are felt in a myriad of ways today.
Liberation theology offers a fair critique of the evangelical world by exposing what can only be regarded as indifference toward injustice.
But is the liberation of the oppressed part of the gospel that Jesus and the Apostles’ proclaimed?
Not as far as I can tell.
Bishop Joe Bell wrote in his 1988 Presiding Bishop’s charge:
“There is no recorded word, no instance, either implied or insinuated of our Lord setting out to change these scandalous injustices and social wrongs as part of his preaching message…He made no pronouncements or judgements on these cruel social evils…but rather declared the Gospel and its power and sufficiency as the remedy for mankind’s problems. The message committed to the Apostles’ was of the same character as the Saviour’s and they remained faithful to it.”p. 6
I think Joe Bell is correct.
The preaching of Jesus and the Apostles’ never included a critique of Rome, a call for civil disobedience or a demand for the removal of oppressive systems.
Jesus, who began his public ministry after John the Baptizer was unjustly imprisoned, did not stage a protest or demand his release, but called people to repentance and faith.
John the Baptizer had told Roman soldiers to repent and turn to God. The soldiers were to show their repentance by being upright soldiers, not by leaving the army.
Jesus instructed Jewish people to pay tax to Caesar to uphold the (brutal, militaristic) Roman Empire, while commanding his followers to be a positive influence in a broken world (salt, light etc), to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecuted them.
Jesus commended the faith of a Roman Centurion and (as far as we know) did not call for him to resign his commission.
Jesus did condemn of the Pharisees (who were very much civil leaders under the Romans) for their personal hypocrisy and evicted the money changers for their ungodly practices. Of course, Jesus was very much for justice, fairness and practical love for one’s neighbour.
Nevertheless, Jesus had bigger fish to fry than unjust structures.
The Apostle Paul never advocated for the overthrow of the unjust Roman structures as part of his gospel, but called for personal transformation and renewed love for others consistent with faith in Jesus.
Paul (in a very politically-incorrect way) even regulated how Christian slave owners were to treat their slaves and how Christian slaves went about their work.
My point is NOT that the Bible is pro slavery or injustice, but that Jesus and the Apostles were not primarily concerned with unjust structures in society, but with the proclamation of the gospel of Christ crucified and its implications in the believer’s life.
Jesus and the Apostles understood what humanity’s biggest problem was and is: that we are all under the wrath of God.
Paul wrote that he is “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”. (Romans 1:16)
How does the gospel provide salvation?
Paul tells us, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith”. (Romans 1:17)
By believing the gospel about Jesus anyone can be declared right with God! Why is this important?
“For/ because the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18)
Our biggest problem is that we are under God’s wrath.
The gospel is God’s momentous news about Jesus (cf. Romans 1:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:1-4).
The momentous news at the heart of the gospel is that, as John Stott famously wrote in ‘The Cross of Christ’, “God’s own great love propitiated his own holy wrath through the gift of his own dear Son, who took our place, bore our sin and died our death. Thus God himself gave himself to save us from himself.” (cf. Romans 3:22-25)
Or to put it another way, the momentous news that “Jesus came as King, he died for our sins, he rose to rule and will return to judge.” (Richard Coekin, Gospel DNA).
By believing this gospel we are declared right with God, no longer under God’s wrath, and adopted into his very own family.
This is massive.
“Bearing witness to Christ and the teaching of the Word of God is the singular apostolic mission, but it takes on many different forms.”What is the Mission of the Church? p. 51
Sadly, the gospel is being redefined as not only(!) dealing with my sin against a Holy God that causes me to be under his wrath and deserving of an eternal hell, but also dealing with unjust structures in the world and the liberation of the oppressed under those structures.
The gospel is being refashioned to include a physical, this-world, temporal liberation.
Again, please don’t misunderstand me. I would love to see the overthrow of all cruel, unjust systems; but this is not part of the New Testament gospel.
The Apostle Paul had very harsh words for those who tried to obscure, add to, redefine or refashion the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus; because when you add to the gospel you end up subtracting from it. (cf. Galatians 1:6-10)
Proponents would argue that they are not adding anything to the gospel, but merely unpacking the true meaning of the Biblical “gospel”.
Physical liberation of the oppressed, the powerless, and the marginalized should and must be something that Christians pray for, advocate for and work towards. Physical liberation of the oppressed is a definite desired implication of the gospel.
However, physical liberation, while deeply needed and a wonderful thing, may or may not happen in this world.
A call for gospel clarity
I would simply like us Conservative Evangelicals to be clear on what the gospel is (John 3:16) and what the necessary implications of the gospel are: we seek to love God and love people as best we can, including advocating for just structures in society.
I would like our churches, our ministers, and our Bible college graduates (curates) to be clear on their primary role and priorities.
Any shortfall in REACH-SA and Conservative Evangelicalism under Apartheid was not generally-speaking doctrinal or hermeneutical. Nor an alleged “narrow understanding of the Great Commission”. But the failure to consistently apply our biblical, evangelical theology.
The problem was and is not our theology, but the doctrine and fact of indwelling sin.
In South Africa under Apartheid when many (if not most) mainline churches had lost of the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ, REACH-SA held onto the gospel despite ongoing pressure. Many people from all parts of our country were converted and discipled through the ministry of our churches.
The church’s central task is not medical, physical, philanthropical, psychological or political; but spiritual, or perhaps more helpfully, eternal.
Physical liberation, social reform and challenging unjust structures etc are extremely important for the people of God.
God is just, so we work for justice. God is love, so we persevere and act in love. God is impartial, so we don’t show favouritism. God is holy, so we strive for holiness.
We must as God’s people be concerned about injustice, racism and poverty.
Nevertheless, the commands in the Bible, including the command to “do justice” are necessary implications of the gospel, but not the gospel.
The church’s primary role is not physical liberation, social reform, redeeming the culture or challenging unjust structures. The church’s primary role is the proclamation of the glorious gospel of Christ that makes guilty sinners acceptable to a holy God–forever.
Does Conservative Evangelicalism (incl. REACH-SA) have an under-realized eschatology demonstrated by our emphasis on the “saving of souls”?
While I agree that more could have been done to demonstrate our love and care for all South Africans under Apartheid, I would argue that we have the same eschatological view of the Kingdom of God as portrayed in the New Testament.
The disciples asked the resurrected Jesus (Acts 1) if he would finally restore the Kingdom to Israel, i.e. liberation of the oppressed.
“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”Acts 1:7-8
Jesus said he would restore the Kingdom, but not in the way and in the timing the disciples imagined.
The Kingdom would grow as the disciples went to the ends of the earth bearing witness to Jesus. As people submitted to King Jesus, in repentance and faith for the forgiveness of sins (as demonstrated in the rest of the book of Acts), so they became part of God’s Kingdom.
The Kingdom grows as people submit to the King.
The gospel transformed these new Christians. They lived new lives of radical love, taking the gospel of Jesus across the known world transcending all kinds of physical, religious and social barriers. Many of these early Christians were martyred and persecuted. Not because they tried to overthrow unjust Roman structures, but because of their unswerving loyalty to King Jesus.
I imagine that Paul prayed that as the gospel took root in people’s lives and as Christians as a result aimed to work out their salvation in all kinds of practical ways, the unjust structures of the world would be challenged and changed.
History has shown this often to be the case.
We look forward to New Creation where the Kingdom of God will be fully realized. A world without sin, death or unjust systems.
Greg Gilbert in his book, What is the gospel? writes,
“The biblical story line forces us to recognize that until Christ returns, our social and cultural victories will only be tenuous, never permanent. Christians will never bring about the Kingdom of God. Only God himself can do that. The heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven; it is not built from the ground up.”p. 93
The issue is not (generally-speaking) Conservative Evangelicalism’s eschatology, but the fact of indwelling sin that causes Christians not to love God as we should, nor love our neighbour as ourselves.
The problem is not our gospel; the problem is us.
Mark Dever notes,
“It is clear that even using the expression “the good news of the Kingdom” (in the book of Acts) does not mean that God’s reign has now come in the fulness we will know it in Christ’s return. Rather, it means that the King is willing to pardon rebels and that we should personally submit ourselves to his rule. Yes, then we will begin to work out the implications of this message, but the implications are not the gospel itself…We must always be clear to distinguish between the core of the gospel and its results or implications…Don’t try to improve the gospel by making it larger; you’ll end up losing it.”Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology, p. 104-109
What is the primary role of the church?
Preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sin (Luke 24:47). Bearing witness to Jesus (Acts 1:7-8). Proclaiming the gospel (Galatians 2:2). Making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). Preaching the Word (2 Timothy 4:1-2).
Do we care about injustice, the poor and the oppressed? Yes.
Is the physical liberation of the oppressed and poor part of the gospel? No.
“Surely the abolition of the slave trade was a noble work. Yet in Britain it was not the church as an institution that abolished slavery, but Christians in public office who had been formed by the church’s ministry. When William Wilberforce came to John Newton for advice on whether he should enter the ministry, Newton encouraged his friend to pursue politics instead. It was as a member of parliament that Wilberforce loved and served his neighbor, benefiting from the ordinary means of grace that Newton ministered to him. The church preaches God’s transcendent law and gospel, and her children pursue their cultural mandate in their secular vocations.”Michael Horton
There is a far greater oppression that the gospel frees us from – freedom from the devilish power and consequences of sin, death and Satan. What greater gospel can there ever be?
The book, “What is the mission of the church?” is very helpful on the church’s primary role. The authors state:
“In the end, the Great Commission must be the mission of the church for two very basic reasons: there is something worse than death, and there is something better than human flourishing.”p. 242
“To put perhaps a finer point on it: If I am commanded to do justice, does that mean ipso facto that it is the church’s mission to do justice? …Our point is simply to say that defining the mission of the church institutional is not just as simply identifying all the Bible’s commands to individual Christians.”p. 233
“Jesus sent the apostles to make disciples of all nations…Discipleship is your main priority. That doesn’t mean you have to abandon all your plans to meet people’s needs. But it means that in a world of finite time, energy, and resources, your church, above all else should be evangelizing non-Christians, nurturing Christians, and establishing healthy churches.”p. 266
The pressure to have a more “holistic”, “contextual” and “prophetic” gospel is enormous.
The message of the cross, the message of forgiveness of sin through Christ’s substitutional, wrath-bearing, love-demonstrating, justice-satisfying death, is considered not robust enough to deal with the challenges of racism, structural racism, oppression, poverty and injustice.
Yet, it was at the cross where God in Christ brought reconciliation to God himself and to other people. It was at the cross where God in Christ achieved the greatest victory the world has even seen – the defeat of sin, death and the devil.
If a survey had to be taken of who did “social justice” over the last two hundred years what names would come to light?
William Wilberforce, as mentioned, on the issue off slave ownership. People like Elizabeth Fry with prison reforms, and William Booth and the Salvation Army and ministry to the slums of the world. George Muller and Dr. Barnardo and their orphanages; Spurgeon and his orphanages and his care the poor old and homeless. People like Florence Nightingale and her service during the Crimean War which led to the Nursing profession as we know it today.
Not to mention the much maligned missionaries and their selfless care for the sick often at the cost of their own lives.
History is full of people from all walks of life who were evangelicals and fought for those in need.
We do not even have to scour history but simply make a study of the unmentioned Christians working this very day among the poorest of the poor, in the vast refugee camps and in the many danger spots of our world, including in our very own country and continent.
These examples and many others demonstrate that (as Conservative Evangelicals maintain) the “fruit of the gospel is social justice and reform, and not the root of the gospel”. (Frank Retief)
David Cloete, in his recent article on The Gospel Coalition Africa, helpfully differentiates between the gospel and the implications of the gospel:
Jesus spoke the words of the great commission in Matthew 28:18-20 ‘Go into all the world to make disciples of all nations’ and he told the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 ‘truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’…most New Testament epistles include both a clear explanation of the gospel and its practical implications for our lives. Therefore, as the Lord Jesus admonishes us, we must concern ourselves with the spiritual and not neglect “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.” Jesus said, “You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former”. (Matthew 23:23).
Any shortfall is with us, not with our gospel.
Bishop Glenn Lyons, in his 2018 Presiding Bishop’s charge, stated:
“We ought to be speaking out against injustice and caring for the poor, marginalized and exploited. Speaking truth to power is not a role for the liberals, evangelicals should be speaking up here. William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Calvin would be some of many historical examples we can learn from. Priorities here are vital. Our God given priority is to proclaim the gospel as we make disciples of Christ. But the outworking of that discipleship is seen in believers who are salt and light in the world… The gospel and social concern is not a matter of one or the other but rather a matter of one following the other.”p. 7
The role of the church is sometimes pictured as a train that to run (successfully) has to use the two railway tracks of Gospel proclamation and social reform. I think its better to think of Gospel proclamation as the engine that powers the locomotive, and social reform and justice etc. are carriages following the locomotive.
The gospel and the implications of the gospel must never be confused, conflated or separated.
While I appreciate the renewed concern for justice and social reform, the great danger is that many Christians are becoming confused as to what he gospel actually is. The gospel that is unchanging and applicable to all contexts and time periods.
I think we are seeing Liberation Theology 2.0
Lord, please give us a greater concern for all the suffering of people, especially their eternal suffering. Please give us a renewed concern for all injustice, especially injustice against You.