The September issue of Themelios has a short but typically brilliant editorial by D. A. Carson on distinguishing what is central in the mission and witness of the church. Few theologians today can match Carson in either the proliferation or penetration of his writing; he thinks with the cerebral brawn of a scholar and the sober urgency of a pastor. Carson’s readiness to approach theological conflagrations (from the King James Only debate to the Inclusivist Bible Language debate) and yet adduce restrained, Biblically-grounded answers has shown him to be one of the steadying influences of evangelicalism (a good biography of him can be found here).
I know there are countless individuals that I’m sure have benefited from Carson, but I think I can attest to a special indebtedness to his ministry. His book, The Gagging of God, had a profound impact on my faith and particularly in setting me on a course to unravel my theology from the choking tendrils of Derrida and others of the New Hermeneutics/Post-Structuralist bent. And every occasion that he has traveled out to our far-flung set of islands on the lip of the Pacific, I have been both challenged and encouraged. His most recent visit to New Zealand, however, brought particular blessing when it became the setting of my introduction to an amazing woman who now is the joy and treasure of my heart.
The focus of Carson’s present efforts is a theological issue that has provoked several wildfires within evangelicalism. Namely, the question of how to frame the Gospel and whether or not to include a social, public aspect in its articulation.
For example, the Anglican bishop of Durham and influential theologian, N. T. Wright, in his recent book argues that the church has betrayed an overemphasis on saving souls and failed to acknowledge the imperative of social work. He is dissatisfied with Luther’s justification by faith and maintains that the Gospel instead also represents the anticipation of the transformed and restored world that God will bring about. Wright suggests that our present understanding of the sacred space in which the church operates is too narrow and we must see all of creation as apart of God’s redeemed domain. In Surprised by Hope, he writes: “if it is true that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.” But what does this mean exactly? For Wright, this imperative must extend to “environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, … proper use of resources…” and most of important of all – addressing Third World Debt.
And Wright is not alone. Scot McKnight, professor of New Testament at North Park University and popular author, also suggests that our understanding of the Gospel is far too small. He says, in focusing on sin as only a judicial failing and confining the mission of the church to personal evangelism we have essentially emasculated the Biblical message. And despite its dissolute, polymorphous nature, one of the most stentorian cries to come out of the emergent movement is a renewed embrace of social justice as integral to the Gospel (when I was thinking about this post, I saw that Christianity Today had done a feature article on Brian McLaren, the emergent church, and grapples with some of this – but really, McLaren deserves separate treatment and a whole other post).
Mark Dever, Greg Gilbert, and others have responded to this rising clamour for social concern by suggesting that Christians should not fail to see the danger in conflating the implications of the gospel with the gospel itself. Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, says: “The gospel that has been committed to us is the Christian message that Jesus has died in the place of sinners in order to reconcile them to God. That gospel has been uniquely entrusted to the church, and thus it must remain the center of our message and our mission.”
Carson recently spoke at John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church on trends in the church today and briefly reiterated that Christians should be careful not see social concern and the evangelism as antithetical. He said that the two should always be viewed as an inseparable couplet, but that the matters of first importance (delineated ostensibly by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15) must not be assumed or overshadowed. His editorial discussion, I thought, illuminates these thoughts with further clarity and addresses this question with his usual aplomb:
Granted that we ought to be engaged in acts of mercy, what safeguards can be set in place so as to minimize the risk that the deeds of mercy will finally swamp the proclamation of the gospel and the passionate desire to see men and women reconciled to God by faith in Christ Jesus and his atoning death and resurrection?
First, it is helpful to distinguish between the responsibilities of the church qua church and the responsibilities of Christians. Some writers flip back and forth between references to “Christians” and references to “church” as if there is no difference whatsoever. But many Christian thinkers, from Kuyperians to Baptists, have argued that if the church qua church is responsible for some of these substantial works of mercy, such works of mercy ought to come under the leaders of the church. It is very difficult to find any warrant for that step in the New Testament. Even before there were pastors/elders/overseers, the apostles themselves, according to Acts, recognized that they should not be diverted from the ministry of the Word and prayer, even by the inequities of food distribution among the faithful, so they saw to it that others were appointed to tackle the problem. Ministers of the gospel ought so to be teaching the Bible in all its comprehensiveness that they will be raising up believers with many different avenues of service, but they themselves must not become so embroiled in such multiplying ministries that their ministries of evangelism, Bible teaching, making disciples, instructing, baptizing, and the like, somehow get squeezed to the periphery and take on a purely formal veneer.
Second, one pastor astutely urged, “Preach hell.” Two things follow from this. (1) By adopting this priority we remind ourselves that as Christians we desire to relieve all suffering, from the temporal to the eternal. If we do not maintain such a panoramic vision, the relief of immediate suffering, as important as it is, may so command our focus that we fail to remind ourselves of Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What good will it be for you to gain the whole world yet forfeit your soul?” Read the closing lines of Revelation 14 and Revelation 20 when your vision becomes myopic. (2) As long as you are prepared to plead with men and women to be reconciled to God and to flee the coming wrath, you are preserving something that is central in the Bible, something that is intimately and irrefragably tied to the gospel itself—and those who want to shunt such themes aside and focus only on the relief of present suffering will not want to have much to do with you. Thus you will be free to preach and teach the whole counsel of God and to relieve all suffering, temporal and eternal, without being drawn into endless alliances in which people never focus on anything beyond threescore years and ten.
Themelios is an international journal apart of the Gospel Coalition’s greater umbrella of efforts to network Reformed pastors and theologians and equip other Christians (I recommend their Christ on Campus Initative, which is directed to resourcing student ministry and engaging apologetic issues).