By Daniel Darling
Evangelicals are reprising the age-old debate: is the gospel mere proclamation or is it acts of compassion and charity?
On one hand, some remember warily the way mainline denominations once jettisoned a bloody cross and an empty tomb in favor of the social gospel.
On the other hand, some rightly flinch at a gospel that doesn’t demand we act on behalf of the vulnerable. But strangely, we seem to make a division between two things Jesus unites in Himself.
Throughout Scripture, Jesus’ earthly life previewed what the kingdom of God will look like: a place of kindness and diversity, dignity, and life. The most ignored and rejected people in society are recognized, cared for, lifted up, even moved to positions of power.
This is a kingdom of dignity and humanity, because its King is one of compassion and humility. There’s a new kingdom, Jesus is announcing, and requirements for citizenship are simple: “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Repentance, not just for outsiders, but for insiders.
This is what brings us into God’s new kingdom—repenting of our self-rule and coming under Jesus’ perfect rule, and believing that Jesus has done everything necessary in His death and resurrection to bring us into His kingdom. Jesus makes us into citizens who reflect that kingdom by being like its King—people made, and remade, in His image.
His citizens still live in this world, a world rebelling against its rightful ruler. Those citizens—the church—live as an outpost of the full and future kingdom of God (Matthew 16:19; Luke 12:32).
Jesus is, in Himself, the fulfillment of the kingdom promises of the Old Testament (2 Corinthians 1 v 20) and is creating, in the church, a new kind of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. Wherever and whenever His people gather, there is the in-breaking of the kingdom (Matthew 18:20).
This reality has widespread implications for the church. It’s a two-fold mission: one of communication and of illumination.
First, we have been tasked with going into the world and preaching the good news that the kingdom of God is both here and is coming.
We announced to image-bearers who have rejected their Maker that He has visited them, has defeated sin, death and the grave, and offers restoration to their original God-given purpose to glorify Him (Ephesians 2:1-10). Our outposts are embassies. We communicate the message of the King to the world that belongs to the King.
Second, we have been told to illuminate the kingdom to the world. In our lives, we show what the kingdom is like. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is good news for the poor, the captives, the blind (Luke 4:18). So as we go into the world as healing agents—renewing, cultivating, restoring—we show the world a glimpse of the future kingdom of God.Jesus doesn’t allow us to separate gospel proclamation from social activism, as if they are irreconcilable.This kind of kingdom lens helps us bridge the debates between social justice and gospel proclamation. They are intrinsically linked.
Jesus doesn’t allow us to separate gospel proclamation from social activism, as if they are irreconcilable. An activism divorced from Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection becomes an impoverished and powerless activism that will advocate for the wrong causes, use the wrong means, or simply run out of fuel.
And the work of the gospel in bringing sinners to new life and changing sinners to be more and more like Jesus is the fullest expression of human dignity.
Equally, a gospel proclamation divorced from kingdom acts of mercy becomes an impoverished witness, a kind of fire insurance that doesn’t reflect Jesus’ radical, paradigm-shifting gospel of renewal.
If we won’t live the kingdom, why would we expect anyone to listen to the news about its King?
Christ, in His humanity, fully embodies the image of God. We see this in the gospel stories. He fully obeys the Father by taking the cup of wrath. He fully rules over creation by calming the seas and healing the sick. He fully loves His neighbor as himself by coming to serve and not be served.
Jesus, as the fullest embodiment of humanity, reconciling fallen sinners to himself and His kingdom, is creating image-bearers ready to live out their image-bearing purposes.
BOTH-AND, NOT EITHER-OR
It matters that we don’t see gospel proclamation and acts of mercy as either-or, but both-and. Both are implications of the image of God and shouldn’t be set against each other.
We shouldn’t have to choose between sharing with someone the good news that their Creator has rescued them from the enemy and demonstrating, by our lives of service, the unique dignity they share as God’s image-bearers.
When we choose one or the other, we leave a giant, gaping hole in our gospel. When churches, for instance, refuse to apply the gospel to the issues of injustice in their contexts, they essentially baptize the status quo by their silence.
This has happened throughout history, from the silent acquiescence of evangelical churches in the American South during the Jim Crow era to the present temptation for pastors to avoid applying Scripture to controversial issues for fear of disrupting the political sensibilities of the congregation.It’s easier to simply be the church that feeds the poor and cares for the environment, but doesn’t address humanity’s greatest need by preaching humanity’s greatest problem: alienation from the Creator.Yet, there’s a temptation for churches to only focus on social issues and downplay controversial elements of the gospel’s good news: a bloody cross, Jesus’ exclusive claims to God, and the Scriptures’ teachings on hell and judgment.
It’s easier to simply be the church that feeds the poor and cares for the environment, but doesn’t address humanity’s greatest need by preaching humanity’s greatest problem: alienation from the Creator.
The good news of the gospel message—that Christ has defeated death and He restores us to our original purpose—empowers us to do good in the world. As we are conformed to the image of Christ, we represent His kingdom in the world.
We grasp the full and radical nature of the gospel when we stop seeing communication and illumination as two warring Christian camps.
As we enter the kingdom and become more like the King, we treat others the way He did and does—pursuing the outsider, caring for the weak, welcoming the marginalized, and calling everyone to repent and believe and come into the kingdom where image-bearing humans are restored to the original glory and purpose.
DANIEL DARLING (@dandarling) is vice-president of communications for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. This was adapted, with permission, from his new book, The Dignity Revolution: Reclaiming God’s Rich Vision for Humanity.