What is the gospel? It’s such a simple question, but answering it correctly is essential to healthy church ministry. Simply put, the gospel is the news of what God has done to save sinners in the death burial and resurrection of Christ.
Tim Keller says, “All human problems are ultimately symptoms, and our separation from God is the cause.” (1)
So, let’s get this straight: racism, poverty, and homelessness are all symptomatic. None of them is the ultimate problem. The ultimate problem is that human beings are separated from God because of their sin.
And this means that the only thing that can rescue humanity is to be made right with God; to be reconciled to him. And here’s the rub: nothing we do can reconcile us to him. This means we can’t be saved by housing the homeless or feeding the hungry. A man cannot reconcile with his brother enough to get himself reconciled with God too.
I’m not saying those things are unimportant. I’m saying they are so important that we must defend a clear definition of the gospel because the moment we water the gospel down into social work is the moment any hope of mortifying racism and pushing back poverty vanishes.
The center of Jesus’ first appearing wasn’t social justice, it was to come and bear the wrath of divine justice as a payment of sin. When Jesus Christ ascended there were still poor people in Jerusalem and Jewish-Gentile relations were strained. But, there wasn’t a single person who couldn’t be reconciled to God. Jesus did what he came to do. He came to reconcile us and, having ascended, he has given the ministry of reconciliation to his church.
So, where does doing social good factor into all of that? This is where we have to differentiate between the gospel (we can be reconciled to God through Christ) with the effects of the gospel (our new life in Christ makes us reconcile with our brother, feed the hungry, etc.).
John tells us that Christians who claim to love God but hate their brother are lying, and this ought to cause us to consider whether we’ve believed in the true gospel if our lives remain unchanged. But, on the flip side, those who redefine the gospel along the lines of doing social justice have left the true gospel. In other words, they no longer believe in justification by faith alone. Now, justification is based on works. And once that happens to a church, put a fork in it. It’s done.
So, let’s ingrain the true gospel so deep that nothing will dislodge it. Let’s preach Christ and him crucified so that sinners can be reconciled to God. And let’s not be those who claim to love God while hating our brother, or despising the poor.
(1) Keller, Timothy. Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (p. 29). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.