Perhaps you’ve read the announcement about the upcoming debate between Albert Mohler and Jim Wallis. The debate will be hosted by The Henry Center, and they will be addressing the question “Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church?” Jim Wallis will be arguing “Yes,” Mohler “No.” For more information about this event, go here.
Why is this question important? When evangelicals disagree with one another over this issue, that is one thing. But differences over this issue between evangelicals and progressives is quite another. Oftentimes the differences between progressives and evangelicals on this question are not only about the mission of the church, but also about the nature of the gospel itself.
Tony Campolo’s recent critique of the Southern Baptist Convention’s immigration resolution is a case in point. He felt that the resolution did not go far enough and focused too narrowly on “spiritual salvation.” Embedded in his critique, Campolo offers what he thinks the gospel is:
Salvation for the soul is important to Southern Baptists, as it should be for all Evangelicals, but most of us call for a more holistic gospel that not only explains the way of salvation from sin, but also explains the way to escape from social oppression. To simply tell the undocumented immigrants in this country that we want to save their souls, but we have nothing to say about the fears they have of deportation is a cop-out. The Jesus that they love offers deliverance from both spiritual and social oppression, and the Southern Baptists should do the same.
I do not think that Campolo has a fair characterization of the resolution or of Southern Baptists, but that is not the main point here. The item I want to highlight is Campolo’s definition of the gospel. For him it is not merely “the way of salvation” but also “the way of escape from social oppression.” In other words, the gospel is not merely the promise of eternal life rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners. The gospel is also the promise of deliverance from poverty, from social inequality, from racial injustice, etc. on this side of the new heavens and the new earth.
Campolo’s view of the mission of the church is decisively shaped by what he thinks the gospel is, and that is why the aforementioned debate is important. We draw our view of the church’s mission in part from our understanding of what the good news actually promises. This no doubt is a part of what the Mohler-Wallis debate will be about.
On that note, I am also looking forward to the release of Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert’s forthcoming book What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. D. A. Carson says this about the book:
Among the many books that have recently appeared on mission, this is the best one if you are looking for sensible definitions, clear thinking, readable writing, and the ability to handle the Bible in more than proof-texting ways. I pray that God will use it to bring many to a renewed grasp of what the gospel is and how that gospel relates, on the one hand, to biblical theology and, on the other, to what we are called to do.
The book is available for pre-order now from Amazon.com.
There is much more that needs to be said on this topic, and I suspect we will do so in this space in future posts. But for now I will finish with one thing. The gospel is the message of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). It promises to believers forgiveness of sins through the penal substitutionary atonement of Christ (Romans 3:25-26), and it also guarantees believers eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Romans 10:9-10). The church’s mission, therefore, is to make disciples by proclaiming that message in the power of the spirit (Matthew 28:19-20).