The Gospel IS Social

One of my friends and former professors, R. Scott Clark, insists that “The Gospel Is Not Social” (on the Heidelblog, here, and republished on the Aquila Report, here). Not only is the gospel not social, Clark argues, but harnessing the church to any sort of social agenda “has always threatened the mission of the church: ‘the pure preaching of the gospel of free acceptance with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.’

It is only a slightly more moderate version of the concern raised by Darryl Hart (on his blog here):

I’m not sure that the gospel and ethics should be so closely identified. I believe the gospel is about what God does in Christ for sinners and ethics has something to do with the way the redeemed respond to God’s grace in their lives by following God’s law.

I could begin to respond by asking so many questions: To Clark, does the preaching of the gospel not also extend to sanctification, freedom from the domination of sin in our lives? Are the sacraments not explicitly social in character? What is church discipline if not a social enterprise? To Hart, is not the sending of the Spirit, who empowers us to a life of new obedience, part of what God does for sinners? And what must I make of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 6 that we should do good because we are not under law, but under grace?

But let me step back a moment. What does Clark mean when he says the gospel is not social? His primary concern, it is clear, is with a resurgence of a specific historic version of early twentieth century Christianity, the Social Gospel. Here, I want to say right away, I wholeheartedly share his concern. As a movement characterized by theological Liberalism the Social Gospel abandoned or reframed fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith and poured its energies into a secular enterprise of social transformation. This was a bad thing. We don’t want to see a revival of the Social Gospel. We cannot transform this world into the kingdom of God; we can only witness to what God is doing in us through Christ.

But Clark goes further than this. Appealing to J. Gresham Machen’s doctrine of the spirituality of the church, which he identifies with John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine, Clark argues that “social concerns” are outside of the scope of the gospel. Thus Machen, in his official capacity as a gospel minister, “refrained from speaking to social concerns because of the teaching of the New Testament. Read on its own terms, the teaching of the New Testament about the Kingdom of God is remarkably silent about the pressing social concerns of the day.”

Does Clark forget how much the New Testament has to say about justice for the widow and the orphan, good news for the poor, the oppression of the weak, marriage, slavery, the breakdown of social barriers (between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, Barbarian, Scythian), violence, reconciliation, sharing with those in need, the diaconate, obedience to civil authority, families, peacemaking, or any other number of vices and virtues that pertain to relationships between human beings. What version of the New Testament is he reading? In what world are these not pressing social concerns?

Perhaps the problem is in our use of terms. Note that Clark is not merely saying the gospel is not political. He is not simply saying the gospel doesn’t have a lot to say about particular social policies. He is saying that the gospel is not social. He is saying the New Testament doesn’t have much to say about social concerns.

So we need to know how Clark is defining his terms. He writes, “By social I mean broader cultural and civil concerns that are not ecclesiastical.” This is a pretty open-ended, yet imprecise, definition. What is Clark considering to be “ecclesiastical”? Are Paul’s concerns in Colossians 3 ecclesiastical? Is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25 ecclesiastical? Is marriage cultural and civil?

We can make more headway in understanding what Clark is doing when we look at how he defines the gospel. He writes, “By gospel I mean the message of Christ’s incarnation, his substitutionary suffering active obedience for his people, his death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return.”

What do we make of this definition? To a certain extent I like it, and yet it puzzles me with regard to what it chooses to include and what it chooses to exclude. On the one hand, it summarizes the key events that make up the good news of salvation: Christ’s incarnation, suffering, obedience, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and return. I like this. On the other hand, it adds a reference to the substitutionary purpose of that suffering and obedience (a good thing!) while omitting any reference to the giving of the Holy Spirit and the way that he empowers Christians to a new life of righteousness. In short, it seems to reduce the gospel to justification, forgetting all about sanctification (much as Hart’s quote above seems to do).


Sit down, open up your New Testaments, and ask yourselves, is this presentation accurate to the New Testament? Does Paul only care about justification, the forgiveness of sins, or does he also care about the way in which the Gospel frees us from the bondage of sin for a new life of Spirit-empowered righteousness? Does he only speak of the forgiveness of individuals, or does he describe the way in which Christ establishes the church as a new humanity, a new community, a new social reality characterized by love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, and peace? Does he leave Christians to act within fundamental social institutions, such as marriage, the family, and the master-slave relationship, as was customary in pagan antiquity, or does he call Christians to be transformed according to the mind and example of Christ in the way they love and serve one another, to the point of self-sacrifice?

The gospel is social. It is social to the core. Individualism is no orthodox corrective to the theological liberalism of the past. Saying that because the Social Gospel was heretical therefore the gospel is not social is like saying that because the Roman Catholic Church is in fundamental error therefore the church is not catholic.

Let me be clear. As any reader of this blog knows, I am a strong advocate of two kingdoms theology. I have summarized it here, here, and here, and I wrote my dissertation on John Calvin’s version of it. But Scott Clark’s version and Darryl Hart’s version is not the Reformed version. And it is not just their conclusions about religion in the public square that are different. These are fundamentally different political theologies.

Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the church should only proclaim what the Word teaches. The church should stay out of public policy debates. Yes, Calvin argued, and rightly so, that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual. It cannot be conflated with the moral transformation of secular society. But Calvin also affirmed that the Word teaches much about society and that the church must proclaim these teachings. And when he said that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual he meant essentially that the kingdom of Christ is eschatological, not that it has no implications for material social life (as I show here). Remember, we are talking about the theologian who recovered and reestablished the diaconate as a spiritual, materially oriented office (again, as I show here). I have written much about this and will not rehash it all here.

Scott and Darryl are both friends to me, and I am grateful for all they have done for me over the years. But their thinking on these points is not clear and it is not helpful. It is hardly likely to persuade anyone tempted to embrace the Social Gospel, given that it merely presents an individualistic and virtually neo-Platonized gospel as the alternative. An excellent corrective to this tendency is Michael Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology.

We need to get the gospel, the whole gospel, right.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on July 14, 2015, in Calvin, Christian Life, Social Gospel, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Matt, I’m not sure you’re reading either of these fellows charitably but rather woodenly. You don’t really think that by “social” they mean justification has no implications for sanctification, do you, or that it has no implications for sinners among sinners, both within the church and without? It strikes me as having to strain pretty hard to make that the take away.

    I think by “social” they mean something more akin to “political,” actually. Those terms can be interchangeable. Your criticism seems to gloss over that linguistic tool. Your conclusion makes sense when you do that, but then you’re also left with assuming they really don’t think the gospel causes sinners to live differently among sinners. I’ll take one of your examples, obedience to civil authority. I’ve never read anything from either that does anything but promote it biblically (especially Hart).

    And re your suggestion that what they teach is something more akin to an “individualistic and virtually neo-Platonized gospel,” first yeow, that’s rough. But secondly, I think the point is that the gospel is personal, not political (or social). Jesus lived and died for his people, not his people and their stuff/their pets/their schools/their communities/their cultures/their policies. If you don’t think this is true then if the gospel is social then why do we only baptize and commune and make church members of PEOPLE? And personal isn’t individual. Ours is a covenant theology, a covenant God. God works among his people (plural, social). Contra Billy Graham, God does indeed have grandchildren. I wonder if you fail to grasp this whether you’ve really grasped the problem of the Social Gospel of the early 20thC. This may not be you, but I find that the problem many otherwise conservative 2k critics have with that phenomenon is that it was simply the wrong social gospel, the social gospel of the progressives, and that social gospel is great if it enshrines simply (and ostensibly) “conservative” socio-political concerns. Do you understand that point? Because by the way you write here, I worry if you’re just making things safe for that crowd, or at the very least muddying the 2k waters in ways that make them cheer. What’s your inner “strong advocate of two kingdoms theology” say about that?

    • Steve, a few quick points. First, I don’t think it is enough to say that the gospel has “implications” for sanctification. I think it’s important to say that sanctification, like glorification and justification, is part of salvation, part of the good news of what Christ is doing for us. Second, if by social they mean political, then they need to clarify the difference, because taken on its face, social does not mean political. This is part of my concern. We need to make these careful distinctions, rather than throwing out sloppy, controversial claims to the effect that the gospel is not social, does not speak to social concerns, etc. Third, Jesus reconciles not just individuals, but the whole creation (Colossians 1:15-20). True, the particulars of the present age will all pass away. But the substance of the present creation is reconciled by Christ and will endure, as Calvin carefully explains. Thus the future of all things is tied up with Christ, Christians are promised that they will inherit all things in Christ, and Christians are called to witness to this reality by conducting all of their affairs in Christ. And that’s why we don’t just baptize individuals, but we take them into the church where we participate in common meals, share our belongings together, and hold one another accountable to love and justice as we together form a new community. Fourth, I was clear about my view of the Social Gospel, and I’ve been clear about my concerns about conservative triumphalism and culture warriors. But I don’t think it helps to go to an opposite extreme. I’m always happy to see people cheer if they are cheering the truth, regardless of what flag they are waving. This really isn’t about sides, as much as some people want it to be about that. It’s about thinking, speaking and acting clearly.

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