One of the longest standing debates among evangelicals remains that over the so-called “social gospel.” That is, the largely Protestant movement that sought to apply biblical principles and ethics in order to solve the world’s gravest of social scandals, such as race, poverty, alcoholism, education, and environmental issues, to name a few. In some circles, the social gospel had become associated with progressives who, seemingly, had lost their first love of doctrinal truth and had instead replaced that passion for activism. The Fundamentalists, then, sought to restore a “right” perspective on biblical truth founded in doctrinal persistence. By no means is this debate limited to these two parties, but the broader evangelical spectrum has continuously fluctuated from one end to the other on this scale, searching for an equilibrium.
I would contend that Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel is that equilibrium. For 230-odd pages, Chandler (and Wilson) dives into the thick of this dialogue by examining both the gospel in the air and the gospel on the ground — both the theological and functional implications of Jesus of Nazareth living and dying and rising again. The main thrust of Chandler’s argument is that the gospel of grace is the bedrock of the Church’s and every Christian’s social engagement. It must be first and remain foremost in the heart and mind of the believer, notwithstanding the humanitarian efforts he aligns with. As Chandler rightly says, “The reconciling gospel is always at the forefront of the church’s social action, because a full belly is not better than a reconciled soul.” (150)
To be sure, the ramifications of the gospel of Christ crucified aren’t for us to feed hungry children and not tell them about God’s love for them. Yet, neither are we to just tell them of God’s love and leave them starving. By all means feed those children! As the apostle James reiterates, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:14-16) We’re to love our neighbor in word, truth, and deed. Not just theoretical but actual love, love that seeks their good before our own.
This kind of love, though, the kind that’s often found in a social gospel, is only ever derived by a prior understanding of what God’s doing in the gospel itself. It’s not enough just to shelter the homeless and tend to the sick. As Chandler writes, “To fill empty bellies, to build shelters for the homeless, and to put silver and gold in the cups of beggars without any concern for the eternal nature of their souls is an exercise in futility.” (Chandler, 198) What use is it if we satisfy and satiate temporal ailments and ignore eternal consequences? And, at the same time, what use is it if we preach and proclaim all theology of the cross and never once lift a finger for the good of our neighbor?
You see, it’s “both-and,” not “either-or.” The gospel can engage people socially while also reforming them doctrinally. To know God aright, we must have a firm grasp of both the gospel in the air and the gospel on the ground. That is, we ought to be intimately aware of the eternal, personal, and missional ramifications of Christ’s death and resurrection.
We have to realize that in Christ, God’s both after our redemption and the larger restoration of his creation. Both are simultaneously fought for and won by the Son on the cross. In both, working in unison, God finds the glory due his name.
“It is imperative that we embrace a gospel that is scaled to the glory of God.” (Chandler, 172)
What Chandler does throughout The Explicit Gospel is reorient the way you think about the consequences of the gospel, both socially and personally. He gets you to take a step back and think about the larger scene of Christ’s cross, one that not only won the pardon of your soul but also won the peace of the world.
Notes & References:
Matt Chandler and Jared Wilson, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).