A few weeks ago, a small church in Montana made news as a result of its decision to part ways with the Southern Baptist Convention. This announcement came just days after MLK50, a national conference commemorating the legacy of Martin Luther King that was organized in part by one of the most prominent SBC entities, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
Among the reasons cited for the church’s departure was “the ongoing social justice promoting, leftist progressivism, and mission drift away from the Gospel” of which the SBC and the ERLC were deemed guilty. By calling followers of Christ to concrete acts of social justice, the conference speakers were judged to be redefining the gospel in order to “gain the applause of the lost and fallen world.” Simply put, the folks of this Montana congregation believed that the language of racial reconciliation being used by their denominational leaders undermined and distracted from the heart of the good news they felt called to proclaim.
And guess what. I completely agree with them. The emphasis on racial reconciliation really is a distraction from the gospel this church feels called to proclaim. But the problem has nothing to do with racial reconciliation. The problem is their gospel.
See, here’s the thing. If you’re convinced that the gospel is about escaping God’s eternal wrath and getting your soul into heaven—what some theologians call a “thin” gospel—then you’re completely right to view any call to earthly justice (such as the call to racial reconciliation) as a distraction. Simply put, a thin gospel commits you to a thin mission. Your job isn’t to fix this world; it’s to get people their ticket to the next one.
In Part 1, however, I made the case that the thin gospel isn’t the biblical gospel. The true good news of Scripture is about creation-wide restoration. It’s about the renewal of all things. It’s about God bringing life and flourishing to a world languishing in death and brokenness. The good news of Jesus certainly affects our individual eternal destinies, but it affects everything else, as well.
As Christians, this shapes the way we understand our mission. A thin gospel leads many evangelicals to the belief that seeking worldly justice is as futile and pointless as rearranging the furniture on the deck of a sinking ship; one should be busy instead getting people the heck into the lifeboats before it’s too late. But the biblical gospel announces that God has stepped onto the sinking ship, and he has begun to remake and renew it. This view of the good news directly affects the way we understand our calling as God’s people.
These quibbles about the scope of the gospel, therefore, aren’t just quibbles. They’re foundational differences about who we are and what we’re called to do. As J.R. Woodward and Dan White so succinctly put it: “A reductionist gospel leads to an anemic mission; a holistic gospel leads to a robust mission” (The Church as Movement, p. 34). Nobody—I hope!—wants to be found with missional anemia. But if we don’t get the gospel right, that’s exactly what we’ll have.
This is why we need to go deep into the biblical account of the good news. We need to see the whole picture of what Jesus has come to do. Why? Not so we can ace a theology exam, but because in grasping the full scope of the gospel we’ll inevitably discover that as his followers, we’re all here for a reason. And that reason is as exciting, vast, and earthy as the gospel itself: to join in God’s ongoing work of comprehensive renewal. Right here. Right now. Amy Sherman captures the essence of this mission well:
It’s certainly true that we are waiting for the kingdom’s full consummation at Jesus’ return. But while we wait, it is the task of the church—Christ’s body—to enact and embody foretastes of the coming realities of that kingdom. We as Jesus’ disciples have the amazing privilege of participating in his work of restoration. Indeed, joining him in this work constitutes the very center of our redeemed lives. (Kingdom Calling, p. 44)
Once we realize that the gospel has feet—that it is firmly planted in all aspects of our earthly existence—then it makes perfect sense that God would call us to strap on our sandals and start walking. He doesn’t want us to sprout wings and flutter on up to some heightened spiritual plane, where we can pass our days in a state of blissful disengagement, far above the messy scrum of real life issues. He wants us to keep our feet on the ground, he wants us to take up an incarnational presence, he wants us to get involved.
Any way you slice it, we can’t be missionally faithful if we refuse to participate in God’s reconciliation of all things. And a significant portion of that participation will almost certainly involve the confrontation of injustice. Richard Bauckham’s words are relevant here:
The church’s mission cannot be indifferent to the inequalities and injustices of the world into which it is sent. The gospel does not come to each person only in terms of some abstracted generality of human nature, but in the realities and differences of their social and economic situations. It engages with the injustices of the world on its way to the kingdom of God. (The Bible and Mission, pp. 53-54)
We can’t understand the gospel apart from the present injustices around us, which means that we can’t understand our mission apart from those injustices, either. Is the work of racial reconciliation—or orphan care, or hunger relief, or neighborhood development, or addiction recovery, or public education—a distraction from our primary calling? No, not by a longshot. It’s actually a vital aspect of how we fulfill that calling.
Herein is the tragic irony of the congregation in Montana. Whereas they believe that a focus on racial reconciliation amounts to a lamentable “mission drift” within their denomination, the reality is that their own congregation is the one doing the drifting. In trying to protect a gospel-centered missiology, they’ve lost a gospel-centered missiology.
In my vocation as a pastor, I’ve seen this irony firsthand. Having made it a point to preach sermons that apply the biblical text to tangible and timely issues like racism, creation care, or economic inequality, I’ve been directly told by church leaders to “stop being political” and instead “stick to the gospel.” But what is the gospel if not good news for a world divided by racial prejudice, a world threatened by environmental dangers, a world fraught with seemingly inescapable poverty? When we address these issues, we are sticking to the gospel.
The simple point I’m trying to make is that being a gospel-preaching people necessarily entails that we be a justice-seeking people. If we really want to declare the whole counsel of God and make known the good news of his redemption in Christ, then we’re obligated to speak about the in-breaking kingdom that both threatens and transforms all earthly kingdoms. Any call to gospel ministry that ignores this fact isn’t a call to gospel ministry.
Perhaps one of the key obstacles we need to overcome is the tendency to think of gospel proclamation as synonymous with personal evangelism (i.e. calling individual people to place their faith in Jesus). Although gospel proclamation certainly involves such practices, Christopher Wright hits the middle of the fairway when he observes, “There is more in the biblical theology of the cross than individual salvation, and there is more to biblical mission than evangelism. The gospel is good news for the whole creation” (The Mission of God, p. 314).
This is precisely what David Fitch is arguing when he writes, “Proclaiming the gospel goes beyond something personal. The gospel is a cosmic reality that supersedes being about me.” As a result, Fitch argues, faithful gospel proclamation “is the art of announcing to our neighbors that [the] new world has begun in Christ” (Faithful Presence, p. 98). How do we do that? How do we announce the arrival of this world? In large part, we do it by actively engaging in God’s work of creation-wide renewal and bringing it to bear in the lives of those who do not yet have eyes to see it. At times, that may well look like “social justice promoting” and “leftist progressivism” (to quote the folks in Montana). But there’s nothing political about any of this—at least not in the popular sense of that term. It’s simply the natural overflow of God’s people taking the whole gospel seriously.
The terrific result of all this is that multitudes of so-called ordinary Christians suddenly find themselves on the front lines of the church’s mission. You don’t need to become a full-time evangelist to be a minister of the gospel. You simply need to bear witness to Christ in the specific vocations God has called you to.
If the good news is about economic oppression being set right, if it’s about shattered relationships being mended, if it’s about deep-seated prejudices giving way to honor and respect, if it’s about a sin-cursed planet flourishing under the care of its God-appointed gardeners, if it’s about society’s most marginalized citizens being given a voice and a seat at the table, if it’s about the tyranny of self-interest being broken by the power of love, if it’s about guilt-ridden people being liberated by the reign of grace, then our calling as agents of the good news is to follow God’s Spirit into any and all of these places where he is at work, joyfully participating in his mission. That’s a job for each and every one of us.
Ultimately, the mission of the church is not threatened by the work of justice and renewal. Wherever God’s people are found sharing in the divine work of reconciliation and inviting others to join them, that’s where the mission of the church is being fulfilled. The only way we’ll be distracted is if we do nothing.