Will The Real “Social Gospel” Please Stand Up?

By Warren E. Berkley

Lately I’ve been hearing the charge made, that when a gospel preacher delivers sermons against abortion, drug and alcohol use, humanism, new age religion and so forth, he is representing “social issues,” preaching a “social gospel,” and not preaching the New Testament gospel.

I believe there certainly is a “social gospel.” It’s a message that doesn’t deal with sin, doesn’t introduce Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, doesn’t call upon people to obey God in all things, and doesn’t prepare people for death, judgment and eternity. In the first gospel meeting I ever held (Odessa, Texas, 1973) 1 preached against the “social gospel,” and I’ve been trying ever since to get people to see the different between the “social gospel” and the New Testament gospel.

The social gospel is “a movement in American Protestant Christianity initiated at the end of the nineteenth century and reaching its zenith in the first part of the 20th century, and dedicated to the purpose of bringing the social order into conformity with the teaching of Jesus Christ” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). Herbert Wallace Schneiber (Religion In The 20th Century, 1952) said: “The central idea of the Social Gospel is that the redemption or salvation of mankind collectively, the regeneration of the social order, is the ultimate goal of religion.” So, the social gospel focuses attention on the whole group or society, not the individual. It seeks to make life here better, instead of getting people ready for life after death. It doesn’t attack sin, it attacks the social problems of poverty, slavery, political oppression and physical illness. The social gospel lobbies for consumer protection, preaches liberation theology, and sees the individual only as a victim of the social environment he is a part of (therefore, not personally accountable).

Gene Frost accurately observes: “The work of the church then, to the social gospeler, is not directed toward the individual, to convict and convince him of personal guilt, to change him and make him anew. Oh, no, the legitimate role of religion is social. It is the work of the churches to build gymnasiums, to organize ball clubs, etc., to ‘prevent juvenile delinquency;’ to build kitchens, and dining halls to enlist the secular-minded who otherwise would not be attracted by spirituality; to build and operate industries to help solve the problem of unemployment; to build and maintain benevolent homes to care for the needy. And so the religious organization substitutes for individual responsibility, leaves its spiritual efforts to achieve temporal and physical goals” (Gospel Anchor, Feb. 1986, p. 3).

When I preach against abortion, drug and alcohol use, humanism and new age religion, does that make me apart of the social gospel movement? When I identify these things as sins, lies and delusions that will keep people out of heaven and send countless souls to hell, am I defecting to the social gospel? I deny that these things are just “social issues”! Certainly these things have impact in our society, but that doesn’t make them 44social issues” and not sins! Every sin ever contemplated and carried out by man has had impact (negatively) in the society in which it was committed. That reality, though, doesn’t remove the thing committed from the sin category and put it in the social issue category!

I preach against abortion, because murder is sin. I simply couldn’t live with myself, or call myself a gospel preacher, if I didn’t put “the sin label” on the modern practice of abortion. Murder, Paul said, is “contrary to sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:9-11). How, then, can I claim to be a sound preacher without exposing, condemning and identifying those things that are “contrary to sound doctrine”? Let those who minimize the need to preach against abortion, and those who put this kind of preaching in the “social gospel” basket answer these questions: Is the modern practice of abortion sin? Should a gospel preacher preach against sin? How is it, that preaching against this sin makes one a preacher of the “social gospel”?

I preach against intoxication, because drunkenness is a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:21). Thousands of young people (some who have been raised “in the church”) have experimented with or literally ruined their lives through their use of alcohol and drugs; impenitent ones are destined for hell. It’s sin, and every gospel preacher should be willing to expose it for what it is. All of those “works of the flesh” need to be preached against. And I would submit to the reader – when a faithful gospel preacher tells folks what the Bible says about these sins and where they lead – he isn’t preaching the classic social gospel message; indeed, he is preaching against it! The social gospel approach would be, to fund an alcoholic recovery program, call it a disease and blame society. The gospel of Christ approach is to call it a sin, blame the sinner and call upon the drunk to repent. All of this can and must be done in the name of Christ.

I preach against secular humanism and new age religion, because these are false religions, therefore sinful to participate in! I believe there is only one pure and undefiled religion – the religion of hearing, believing and doing the words of Christ (Jas. 1:27; Matt. 7:24-27). I believe there is only one doctrine (Gal. 1:6-12; 1 Tim. 1:3). So, when some other religious system comes on the scene and offers propaganda to pull people away from Christ, I’m committed to speak out against it. I don’t care how long it has existed, how new it is, what it’s called or who subscribes to it – if it is a false religion (i.e., “not according to Christ,” Col. 2:8), I’m going to speak out against it by giving scriptural refutation of its tenets; if its Calvinism, Protestant Denominational Dogma, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, the innovations of liberal churches, Premillennialism, Hinduism, Secular Humanism, New Age Religion . . . whatever. Does this commitment align me with those who preach a social gospel?

Perhaps the real problem some are disturbed over is that some preachers are concentrating so much on these so-called “social issues,” they are not giving due attention to first principles, the church, and the refutation of the more “traditional,” classic errors. If this is the dark cloud that’s on the horizon, then it needs to be pointed out, with sober clarity. I would confer my sober agreement on the observation – that some preachers are “majoring” in areas and topics more comfortable for them, because of their lack of conviction and knowledge with reference to the more fundamental, traditional subjects; and perhaps their fears are to the consequences of such preaching.

I encountered a situation a few years ago, where a preacher was constantly giving attention to morals, Old Testament passages about the nature of God, marriage and family topics, humanism, etc. But, he simply wouldn’t preach a sermon about the Lord’s church, or what to do to be saved. When confronted with this omission (obvious to most of the members), his reply was: “Well, I’m just not comfortable preaching about the church or the plan of salvation.” I find this appalling, that a man claiming to be a faithful Christian and gospel preacher “isn’t comfortable” telling people what the Bible says about how to be saved; and not willing to tell people about the church of the Lord, which he purchased with his blood. I know this is happening, and it bothers me.

Likewise, there may be (in some places) a dangerous absence of preaching on the issues that relate to human institutions and the work of the church. This concerns me, because if we don’t teach our children these things, our grandchildren may have to drive 200 miles to find a place where they can worship (if they entertain convictions about where they worship)! I believe there is a danger of being “soft on the issues.” But let us show some objectivity, restraint and balance in our reaction to this danger. The sad reality that some are “soft on the issues” will not be remedied by discouraging men from exposing sins that happen also to be “social issues.”

I’m only forty years old, maybe a little early to start making predictions, but I’m probably on safe ground in making this one. If we hold back in exposing anything that’s sinful, false or unscriptural (regardless of what it is), our neglect now will come back to haunt us later! Perhaps a study of history would yield the conclusion that this has already happened!

The responsibility of the gospel preacher is to preach the word (2 Tim. 4:2). I take that to mean: preach all of it! If I give folks a permanent diet of faith, repentance, baptism and the work of the church – without teaching the other things in the Word, I’ve only met part of my obligation. Let us be dedicated to preaching “the whole counsel of God,” that those who hear might be equipped and motivated to put on “the whole armor of God,” that we all might be “fruitful in every good work” (Acts 20:27; Eph. 6:11; Col. 1:10).

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 8, pp. 240-241
April 21, 1988