The Gospel According to Walt
We have examined the vision of the gospel that is being propagated by Scot McKnight of North Park Seminary and by Timothy Gombis of Cedarville University. They are certainly not unique in the evangelical world. Indeed, their understanding of the gospel has become influential among an increasing number of evangelicals.
The theory, however, is not new. As an example, consider Walt. Like Scot and Tim, Walt did not wish to abandon the gospel of personal salvation. Also like Scot and Tim, he yearned for a gospel that could deal with problems that he deemed larger and more important. Here is what Walt said:
The social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins.
The Walt to whom I refer is, of course, Walter Rauschenbush; and these words are taken from the opening pages of his book, A Theology of the Social Gospel. This is the same Walter Rauschenbush who is famously known as the “father of the social gospel.” Try as I might, I cannot see any important difference between Rauschenbush’s understanding of the gospel and the theory that is being broadcast by people like McKnight and Gombis.
For many evangelicals, that is not a problem. They argue that the fundamentalist rejection of the social gospel was an over-reaction against a liberalism that de-emphasized personal guilt and salvation. For such evangelicals, the gospel is not either/or; it is both/and.
For both the older liberals and the more recent evangelicals, the mechanism for including social (or psychological or environmental) concerns in the gospel is the kingdom of God. The reasoning runs something like this: (1) The kingdom includes not only personal reconciliation to God but also emotional, social, and environmental reconciliation. (2) The kingdom was inaugurated by Jesus during His earthly ministry. It was modeled in His ministry and defined by His teaching, particularly the Sermon on the Mount. (3) The main business of the people of God is to enact the kingdom in their daily living, modeling the reconciliation of the kingdom so as to reflect inner wholeness, social justice, and environmental responsibility.
I believe that this understanding of the gospel is badly mistaken. A full explanation of why it is wrong would take a book. For the moment, however, I wish to offer a brief sketch of my reasons for rejecting the both/and theory of the gospel.
My concerns begin with the notion of kingdom. While the message of the kingdom was good news (gospel), it was not immediately and unequivocally good news for everyone. John explicitly informed certain religious teachers that the kingdom implied their destruction (Matt. 3:7-12). The reason is simple: there can be no kingdom without justice, and there can be no justice without judgment. While the kingdom promises many blessings—some of which are emotional, social, and environmental—the judgments of the kingdom must precede the blessings of the Kingdom.
That is why John, then Jesus, then the disciples, all adopted a particular order in their preaching of the kingdom. When they spoke of the kingdom, their message was always prefaced by the demand to repent. Those who did not repent would experience only the judgments of the kingdom, not its blessings. In fact, apart from personal, individual repentance and faith, one could never experience kingdom life and blessing (John 3:1-21).
The fundamental problem that humans face is not emotional, social, or environmental. The fundamental problem is moral. We humans have personally transgressed God’s law. We have become unjust. God is righteous, however, and His Messiah will rule with a scepter of justice. Justice begins with judgment. Therefore, unless something can be done about the guilt of our individual transgressions of God’s law, we have nothing to anticipate from the kingdom except judgment and retribution.
That is why, when Paul sets out to define the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, his definition revolves around the phrase, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” The sort of sins to which Paul refers are those that characterized the church at Corinth: envy, lust, greed, gluttony, drunkenness, raillery, and the like. They are the same kind of sins that are recorded in the Decalogue and that Jesus addressed specifically in the Sermon on the Mount. True, these sins do show up in the way that we treat other people (they are social). By committing them, we do damage ourselves emotionally (they are psychological). They may even lead us into twisted uses of the created order (they are environmental). Before they are anything else, however, they are personal. They involve an individual rejection of God’s authority as moral lawgiver and a transgression of His righteous demands. The fundamental problem is one of guilt, of injustice committed against the utterly pure judge of all things.
In other words, the environmental, social, and psychological effects of sin are symptoms. They are not the cause. In any articulation of human sin, personal guilt must remain primary. The gospel is all about personal redemption and forgiveness of sins. It is about God imputing the guilt of our sins to Christ on the cross and judging it there. It is about the propitiation of God’s wrath and the satisfaction of His justice. It is about Christ’s righteousness being imputed to sinners when they believe. It is about God pronouncing individuals righteous on the basis of Christ’s vicarious atonement. The true gospel is not both personal and social. It is explicitly personal, and only through personal redemption and justification may any of the secondary (psychological, environmental, or social) blessings of salvation be enjoyed.
The both/and gospel tends to move through three stages. In the first stage, it dilutes the gospel by adding concerns to it that are really secondary (at best). In the second stage, it displaces the central concerns with the secondary concerns. People like McKnight and Gombis provide clear evidence that this step is already being taken by contemporary evangelicals. In the third step, the both/and gospel stops being both/and and becomes strictly social. The articulation of personal salvation becomes a bothersome annoyance that stands in the way of a fully-implemented social agenda, so it is dropped altogether. This step was taken by liberals who followed Rauschenbush. While prediction is a hazardous business, we must recognize the possibility that some of today’s evangelical proponents of a both/and gospel will also take this final step. What is left is an overt denial of the gospel, or rather a discarding of it in favor of another, different gospel.
We have traveled this road before. We ought to know the look of this path, and we ought to guess its destination. What remains to be seen is whether contemporary evangelicals have the will to repudiate the both/and gospel now before the overt denial of individual justification through the blood of Christ places them under the apostolic anathema.
Hail Thou Once Despised Jesus
John Bakewall (1757) enlarged by Martin Madan (1760)
alt. by Augustus M. Toplady (1776)
Hail, Thou once despised Jesus, Hail, Thou Galilean King!
Thou didst suffer to release us: Thou didst free salvation bring.
Hail, Thou agonizing Savior, Bearer of our sin and shame!
By Thy merits we find favor; Life is given through Thy Name.
Paschal Lamb, by God appointed, All our sins were on Thee laid;
By almighty love anointed, Thou hast full atonement made.
All Thy people are forgiven Through the virtue of Thy blood;
Opened is the gate of Heaven, Peace is made ‘twixt man and God.
Jesus, hail! enthroned in glory, There for ever to abide;
All the heav’nly hosts adore Thee, Seated at Thy Father’s side:
There for sinners Thou art pleading; There Thou dost our place prepare;
Ever for us interceding Till in glory we appear.
Worship, honor, pow’r, and blessing Thou art worthy to receive:
Loudest praises without ceasing, Meet it is for us to give.
Help, ye bright angelic spirits, Bring your sweetest, noblest lays;
Help to sing our Saviour’s merits, Help to chant Immanuel’s praise.