Evangelism and Social Justice

16. Because of this, evangelism cannot be divorced from the preaching and practicing of justice.

The big question with the pursuit of justice is whether it is personal or institutional. No one denies that justice in the world around us is important. Jesus Himself directed the Pharisees to the practice of justice (Matt. 23:23). But how, why, and to what extent justice should be pursued is debated. Bosch seems to lean heavily toward an institutional approach that is sympathetic to the ethos of liberation theology and the World Council of Churches.

In this approach, the work of the kingdom is focused on social justice, political reform, international tensions, violence, liberation, security, labor-management relations, economic opportunity, full stomachs, human dignity, ecological responsibility, and opportunities for our children.

Christians should do something about the world around them. Something major. Something to enact structural change. They shouldn’t sit around talking about the kingdom, or even praying for the kingdom. They should work for the kingdom (as outlined above).

In liberal churches, this can degenerate to the point where:

  • instead of prayer there is activism
  • instead of preaching there is involvement
  • instead of truth there is pragmatism

Although Bosch resists this pull left, he sounds the call for increased structural change.

A Thorny Interrelatedness

Bosch’s basic position is summed up below:

Although evangelism may never simply be equated with labor for justice, it may also never be divorced from it. –p. 401

The last part of this sentence is where Bosch’s emphasis lies. In fact, much of Transforming Mission has this notion running in the background. It featured prominently in the section on the early history of America and the development of Fundamentalism and the Social Gospel with their divergent views of the millennium. This tension is still felt today, with some camps claiming social engagement has priority while others claim evangelism has priority. Kevin DeYoung has written about this debate frequently, the most recent being on the goal of missions and the work of missionaries.

Truth be told, the groups that emphasize social engagement usually don’t deny evangelism its place, but in the ranking of priorities it may be subsumed. Hans Küng, whom Bosch echos, seems to take this stance. In On Being a Christian, he says:

People in all Churches today talk, not about “Christian justification,” but about “social justice.” Not that they would simply deny the former. But they are passionately interested only in the latter. –p. 582

Bosch explains that evangelism frees man for his neighbor. That evangelism is “a call to service” (p. 418). And here again, service means changing the injustice and structural sins in the world around us.

Finding Balance

Both Bosch and Küng seem to strive for balance, and in this sense I can heartily agree with them.

Bosch fears that one extreme “robs the gospel of its ethical thrust“, while the other extreme “robs it of its soteriological depth” (p. 382).

Küng laments both “a practically ineffective dogmatics on the one hand and a dogmatically unsubstantiated ethics on the other” (p. 555).

The key to balance lies in the relationship of these two aspects. The gospel brings the divine life into us. God desires that we live out this life so that His divine attributes can be expressed through our human virtues. In New Testament language, this is to live Christ (Phil. 1:21). God is certainly concerned about the ills of this earth because He loves man, who, though marred by the fall, still retains the divine image, and because He intends to gain His expression on earth. However, He has His own solution and timing. The ethical thrust in this age manifests itself in the believer’s living as righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). In the millennium, the ethical dimension of the gospel will manifest itself universally through the inauguration of Christ’s reign on earth (Psa. 72).

On the one hand, the divine life bears practical, ethical fruit in our living. On the other hand, the divine truth checks the ethical thrust from becoming the unsubstantiated claims of social change that fall outside the church’s calling.

The Kingdom of God and Justice

The issue of social justice really ties into our understanding of the kingdom. The kingdom of God has two main aspects- life and administration. The apostle John reveals both in his writings:

Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. –John 3:5

And the seventh angel trumpeted; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He will reign forever and ever. –Rev. 11:15

In His first coming, Jesus released individuals from sin and imparted His divine life into them as the reality of the kingdom of God. At His second coming, He will release the world from sin and establish the kingdom of God on earth.

His first coming gives us a new life. His second coming gives us a new environment.

In His first coming, the kingdom of God came without observation (Luke 17:20)- it came inwardly, in reality, through the divine life. In His second coming, the kingdom of God will come with great observation- every eye will see Him (Rev. 1:7). The kingdom will come outwardly in manifestation with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30).

During the interim, the kingdom of God is practiced in the church by living out the divine life to express the reality of the kingdom. How this manifests itself practically in different individuals depends on how the Lord leads them and flows out of them. To practice justice in this sense doesn’t seek structural change or legislation. It seeks to manifest God’s life and ruling presence to the world through the church.

Viewing Christian ethics as an organic overflow springing up from soteriological depths establishes a profound link with God’s eternal purpose and economy.

It also renders the “already, not yet” aspects of the kingdom of God in two-toned significance- as a realm of life (organic) and as a realm of authority (governmental).

Social Problems Solved at Christ’s Return

When the kingdom of God is inaugurated through Christ’s second coming, the earth will experience the most radical change it has ever seen. All structural evils, oppressive regimes, and unjust systems will be eradicated. Until then, the kingdom of God grows mysteriously and unobtrusively in the soil of human hearts.

Because of their ignorance of the Lord’s work in His second coming, some people have formed wrong concepts about Christianity. They think that Christians are only interested in a gospel for individuals, that they are not interested in a gospel for society as a whole. Actually we believe in an individual gospel, and we also believe in a social gospel. The time for the social gospel will be when the Lord comes again. Today the Lord has not charged us to take care of the society around us. The world tries to change society with science. But we are changing society with life… When the Lord comes the second time, the world will not only be saved inwardly but will be saved outwardly as well. In His first coming the Lord saved individuals. In His second coming He will save the entire society.

–Watchman Nee, CWWN, Vol. 60, p. 444

7 thoughts on “Evangelism and Social Justice

  1. At this point I would like to present a quote by Robert Govett (about the Millennium), a bible teacher appreciated for example by Watchman Nee. Concerning the statement “His second coming gives us a new environment” the questions arise: “where?, and: will the “us” be at the same place? resp. who are the “us?
    Only Jews? Overcomers?, all believers?, all men?” – Here the statement of Robert Govett:
    1. The Gospel Day is the time of receiving the grace and gift.
    2.The Coming Day is the Day of reward and of dominion in resurrection. Then God will render “to them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, and honour, and incorruptibility, eternal life. …in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my Gospel.” Rom.2:7-16.
    The Day that is coming is not of grace; no new Gospel, no salvation by any other than by the Son, and by the Spirit of God. It is to bring with it recompense to each according to his work, and so to end the history of man on earth.” So, before the Millennium there is judgement.

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    • When Nee says, “save the entire society” and “social gospel at His coming”, he doesn’t mean save in the sense of regenerate. He is certainly not straying into universalism. He just means that the Lord will solve the unsolvable social problems on earth through His kingdom reign in righteousness.

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      • Watchman Nee says in “The Gospel of God”: “The millennial age is a parenthetical age specially prepared by God for the reward of the faithful ones and the chastisement of the sinful ones. … The kindom is not for everybody. The kingdom is only for the martyrs. It is only for those who reject Satan and Antichrist. Only those can reign a thousand years. … Without having the particular rigtheousnesss and without being martyred, no one can have a part in the kingship. This is the millennium. ..If you are not clear about these ages (grace – kingdom- new heaven and new earth), your reading of the Bible, your theology, and your biblical understanding will be all wrong.” (Vol. 3, p. 426 -427) See also the writings of Robert Govett and D.M.Panton. For what profit is a social problem-solution for a person who has no part in that society?
        We have to be clear, that there is a judgment, beginning with believers. “Never sink the Truth” (C.Butler)

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        • Harald,
          I do agree that the millennium will be preceded by judgment (and that in a few different aspects) and is a time of reward and righteousness. But, that isn’t contradictory to the fact that the millennium will include a social, political, economic, environmental dimension.

          From my perspective, the millennium kingdom will include Jews, Gentile nations, and overcoming believers. So the environmental problems that will be solved at Christ’s second coming will benefit everyone on earth at that time. Partially, the purpose of the millennium is to fulfill many Old Testament promises to Israel. Many of these prophecies center on the conditions of the earth at that time. Since, Christ will be physically ruling over the nations on earth, all social, political, economic, environmental, etc. problems will be solved. Physically, there will be a massive restoration of the created order that will effect the earth, the animals, and even unregenerated people.

          The millennium is for God to have His eternal purpose manifestly realized on earth, in the old creation, still in the domain of time. So in that light, the goal is not merely environmental change in and of itself, but as a proper setting for a world-wide display, still in the old creation, of God’s purpose- His expression (image) and His representation (dominion) in and among humanity. It is for the manifestation of the reality of the kingdom of God that existed in the church before He returned. The millennium ultimately is for theological reasons, and in that sense I think it’s more appropriate to think of it as a culmination, rather than a parenthesis.

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  2. This is a great post, Kyle. I hope you don’t mind me reblogging this.

    I was just reading about the historical views on the Millennium, in the first chapter of a book called The Kingdom of God: Theology in Community (which I think you might enjoy given your latest series). Essentially, the views on the Millennium in the heyday of the 20th century caused problems because they swung too far to one side; they were either too future (dispensational), or too present (social gospel). The already-but-not-yet (as you mention) strikes a better balance—a tension, really—of keeping our minds on things above (Col 3:1-2), while our feet “visit orphans and widows in their distress” (Jam 1:27).

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    • Thanks Chris! Of course not.

      There is just so much material out there on the kingdom to read. I was recently thinking about picking up “The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views.” I’m also thinking about getting Sam Storms new book on the kingdom (not that I’m amillennial). I’ve said this before, but for a truth for which there is the freedom among Christians to hold different views- a “non-essential”, one that shouldn’t compromise unity- it’s amazing how much it can affect our understanding and practice. Clearly the kingdom is a huge topic and one worthy of much prayerful study.

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