Homelessness, poverty, racism, sexism, institutionalized greed: injustice. Our world is broken. And the fracture reveals itself both in the sin-shattered lives of individual humans and in the sin-shaped institutions that we create. We know the gospel has something to say about the former. But what about the latter? Does the gospel have anything to do with working toward more just societies, or is the gospel only about individual transformation?
Put differently, does your gospel story care about the victims of injustice in the world? Note that the question is not whether you care, but whether your gospel does. Does your gospel have anything to say about the problems of society?
I know that this is 4th post in my series on 3 key problems in our gospel. (Math may not be my strong suit, but I can count.) But I realized that I just couldn’t bring this series to a close without commenting on one further problem, one that really stems from the a combination of the other three. If the gospel that we tell is really about meeting my needs (Problem #1) so that I (Problem #2) can get into heaven (Problem #3), then it should come as no surprise that many don’t think the gospel has anything to do with meeting the broader needs of a broken world. The gospel is about personal salvation, not social action. Individual saved persons may certainly choose to try and meet the problems they encounter in society, but that is something other than the gospel. In that sense, the gospel is un-social.
Other people make the opposite mistake. They recognize that something must be wrong with such a clearly un-social gospel. They hear God’s repeated demands for his people to take care of the weak and poor in their midst, showing justice to all. And they rightly point out that we need to make some sense of the fact that Jesus repeatedly connected the gospel to God’s “kingdom” – i.e. the place where the whole world would manifest God’s glorious purposes. So they conclude that the gospel is the good news that, with hard work and diligent effort, God’s people can build God’s kingdom in the world right now. This is the oft-mentioned “social gospel.”
As with many things, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As I’ve argued throughout, we cannot reduce the gospel to a self-centered message about an individual getting into eternal life. (I think it’s worth saying again here that I think the gospel includes all of this; the problem comes when we make this the sum total of the gospel.) But if the gospel is about the larger story of God’s purposes for all of creation, the amazing reality of what God accomplish in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to accomplish those purposes, and the stunning fact that he has invited you and me to participate in that story, then the gospel absolutely must have something to do with the world around me.
But the “social gospel” isn’t the solution either. Here we make the mistake of thinking that the kingdom of God is something that we build. That was never the case. Even in the Garden of Eden, God’s kingdom was a gift. As soon as Adam and Eve tried to take over and do it themselves, everything fell apart. And, if we fast forward to the end, we see in Revelation that the future kingdom also comes as a gift. We don’t achieve it; we receive it.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything. The gospel is the good news that through Jesus we have been re-established as God’s image bearers in the world, manifesting his glory wherever we go. We don’t build the kingdom, we manifest it.
I think you can see this idea at work in the stories about Robin Hood and his merry men. They seem to spend most of their time camping, drinking, wrestling, singing, and annoying rich people. To me, it always sounded like Peter Pan for adults.
At the heart of the Robin Hood story, however, rests something much more significant. The kingdom is broken. Richard the Lionhearted, England’s king, has been gone for many years. And, in his absence, Prince John, the king’s brother, and all of John’s cronies have taken over the kingdom, oppressing the people and pillaging the land. The land is now ruled by greed, power, violence, and hatred.
Robin Hood and his merry men have different vision of how things should be. They see a kingdom ruled by grace and peace, a kingdom where the rich help the poor, the strong serve the weak, and everything is as it should be. They see a kingdom where the king rules again.
In many ways, these are stories about faith and hope. Despite all of the problems that the kingdom has and all of the obstacles they run into, Robin Hood and his men continue to work for their vision of the kingdom. The king has been gone for so long, and many have begun to wonder if he will ever return. But Robin Hood’s men continue to long for what could be, what should be.
However, it all rests on the coming of the king. Robin and his men can trick Prince John all they want, and it won’t change anything. They can steal from the rich, give to the poor, and have all the forest parties their hearts desire. But without the king the kingdom will still be broken, evil powers will still control the way things go, people will still be oppressed, the vision will remain unrealized.
But when the king comes it will be different. That’s the hope at the center of the Robin Hood. That’s what makes Robin and his men work so hard. That’s what makes them “merry.” In the face of injustice and oppression, they have their vision of the kingdom and they live out that vision to the best of their ability in the forest, their outpost of how things should be.
When he comes, it will all be better. When he comes, the kingdom will be restored and things will be as they should be.
When he comes….
The truth is neither the un-social gospel nor the social gospel, but the gospel of the kingdom.
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof at Wheaton College, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.