Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Should the Church Preach the Social Gospel?

I was re-reading Martin Lloyd Jones' book, Preaching and Preachers, in preparation for our elders meeting tonight and benefitted again from wise words about the social gospel and the church. To summarize, Lloyd Jones says the primary means of grace given to the church is the Word of Christ. While she goes about her task of preaching the gospel, the church will incidentally educate, provide knowledge, make men good, improve social conditions, etc., but none of those things is the means God gave the church to build the kingdom.

He writes:
Take all this new interest in the social application of the Gospel, and the idea of going to live amongst the people and to talk politics and to enter into their social affairs and so on. . . . The very thing that is regarded as so new today has already been tried, and tried with great thoroughness in the early part of this century.

The answer is that they were failures, they were proved to be failures . . . I have no hesitation in asserting that what was largely responsible for emptying the churches in Great Britain was that 'social gospel' preaching and the institutional church.

The Church has been trying to preach morality and ethics without the Gospel as a basis; it has been preaching morality without godliness; and it simply does not work. It never has done, and it never will.

Lloyd Jones is not saying that the Gospel doesn't apply to, or have an impact on all of life, culture, society, politics, etc., when it is faithfully lived out. He writes, "My argument is that when the church performs her primary task, these other things invariably result from it." He's saying that the *local church* is not to concentrate on any of these things, or try to use any of these things, as a means of building the kingdom of God. He says that preaching is the primary means of kingdom building.

I would agree that while the preached Word is the primary means, the local church is to use the Word, prayer, and sacrament as the ordinary means of grace in its worship, discipleship, discipline, and mission.

What do you think?


  1. I think that we unnecessarily divide proclamation and demonstration of the Kingdom. Jesus did both and He calls us to do both. Matthew 25 tells us that the sheep and the goats will be divided according to what they did in regard to the poor, the hungry, the sick, and those in prison. Now, I believe that salvation is by grace and faith alone as much as anyone, but this salvation is far more holistic than many would claim. It affects everything. Doing good works and trying to be a blessing to people in all aspects of life is not the social gospel. We are just living out the implications of the real gospel (see Eph. 2:11-22 as the natural outflow of 2:1-10). The Social Gospel, on the other hand, places salvation in the social sphere and removes the Cross from the equation. It is just a "gospel" of works that denies Christ's atonement. But, like I said in my post, we need not abandon social concern to be more faithful to the gospel. Jesus didn't.

  2. I agree with you, and I don't think Lloyd Jones would disagree.

    His point was that the primary means of grace in the local church is preaching. Everything else flows from it. He doesn't deny that there are other means of grace or that Christians are to be involved in social ministry.

    He writes, "It was Christian people who first, out of a sense of compassion for suffering and illness, began to do something about even physical diseases and illnesses. The first hospitals were founded by Christian people. The same thing is true of education; it was the Church that first saw this need and proceeded to do something about it. The same is true of Poor Law Relief and the mitigation of the sufferings of people who were enduring poverty. I argue that it is the Church that really has done this. Your trades unions and other such movements, you will find, if you go back to their beginnings, have almost invariably Christian origins." The very next sentence says, "My argument is that when the Church performs her primary task [i.e., preaching], these other things invariably result from it."

    His point is that if our primary focus is on the effect and outcome (of preaching) rather than on the means and engine that produces the outcome (preaching itself), then we will fail to produce the desired effect.

    If Christians are out doing good works in the community, alleviating poverty, and healing the sick, but they don't have the preached Word of God driving their mindset and motive, then can their works last very long? Lloyd Jones would say no.

    If Christians do good works in society, but they aren't preaching the Word of Christ as they go, then there is no *means* by which others could possibly interpret or understand their actions, and Christ will not be glorified. The people doing the works would be glorified and the kingdom is not advanced.

    Therefore, the local church's chief *means* is proclamation because every other task depends on that. The Word of God must define, motivate, and interpret everything we do. Correct? If we lose that, then we lose the foundation and the whole building collapses. Lloyd Jones is not saying that preaching is sufficient. The church is called to good works of every kind revealed in the Bible. He's saying that preaching is primary because the Bible is the basis of everything else. When the church primarily emphasizes the effects of preaching the Word over preaching the Word, we lose the effects themselves.


  3. Oh this is some good stuff! I love these kinds of discussions. I agree with the premise of what Lloyd Jones says. I would add that there is a severe lack of preaching of the Word AND true social concern in our world today.

    Tim Keller writes in Ministries of Mercy that Word and deed are inseparable.

    He asks, "Which is more important--word or deed? Let's propose the possibility that differences arise on this issue because the very question of 'importance' is misguided. For example, which commandment is more important: 'repent' or 'be baptized'? From one perspective we could say that the consequences of disobedience to the first command would be more disastrous than the second. But, would we be comfortable determining which of God's commands are more important to obey? Doesn't the very question create an unbiblical distinction within God's Word? So, too, it is inappropriate to ask whether evangelism or social concern is more important. They constitute a whole that should not be divided."

    I believe it is unbiblical for the church to not do "all of the above" to the glory of God alone. That's what I think...

  4. I like Keller on most everything and this is no exception. If faith comes from hearing the Word, then preaching is obviously very important. I just think that the proclamation and demonstration should go together so that we don't unnecessarily divide faith and works. I have just been in a lot of churches where preaching was the main thing and it did not necessarily translate into action. Preaching is very important, but we need to be sure that we are preaching the whole counsel on this issue.

  5. Jacky, good words. I agree with Keller's point that word and deed are equally important, and I think Lloyd-Jones would agree too. I understand Lloyd-Jones to be arguing that there is a "priority" of order (and I would argue of logic) with respect to the relationship between word and deed, not of importance. Deeds must flow from words or the words were never really believed. All of God's own deeds flow from His eternal creative and decretal word. Thus, God's word is primary, but God's actions are ultimate. Neither is more important than the other. They are equally important. Take Keller's example of belief and baptism. Certainly both are equally important! But, as Baptists (and Keller is not a Baptist, though I LOVE him dearly and recommend most of what he says heartily and without reservation), we would argue that belief is primary; baptism is not. One is logically primary, while the other is logically secondary.

    Alan, I don't want to divide faith and works either (believe me!), but I do want to distinguish them and carefully understand their relationship, since if we don't, I think we lose both. Like you, I know of churches that focus on the Word, while excluding any emphasis on good works. This is a serious problem seen in many conservative and fundamentalist churches. But, I would suggest that the trend today in broader evangelicalism is not toward more a more thorough and careful preaching of the whole counsel of God and the Bible's total theology, redemptive history, and application to all of life, but toward doing good works without any sufficient defining or motivating foundation in the Word of God. I would suggest that evangelical preaching today is weak and anemic, failing to deploy the Bible's total theology, and lacking in full and biblically thorough emphasis on the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and His redemptive works (OT and NT). The Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the Bible is the only sufficient power of God unto sustained obedience.

  6. Oh man, there's not a "like" button! Wise words, Tom! I totally agree. Social gospel is completely unbiblical. James 1:22 says "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves." This presupposes hearing the word before doing it! There is definately a logical order to how this functions. You know I love some good preaching! We must be prayerful that our own knowledge does not paralyze us into fruitless learners, but move us to action for the love of Christ!