Back in 2014 I noted then the currents of “social action” within The Gospel Coalition. The current controversies are not surprising, and it speaks to that we must be very careful how closely we associate with the group. Below is an excerpt of my thoughts from 2014 mostly unedited about both this group and Together for the Gospel. I do not endorse everything I said there about the way to join social action in the church and gospel proclamation, but view my thoughts on this matter in progress. I also add that the Lordship salvation beliefs, generally speaking, of many figures in these groups are problematic. For the full discussion, see An Evaluation of Charles C. Ryrie’s Sine Qua Non of Traditional Dispensationalism, pp. 12-14.
The current evangelical scene is very telling in the absence of traditional dispensationalists from the “gospel-centered” movement and the emphasis on social action at the present time. These two elements are being upheld by proponents as essentials of the Biblical metanarrative to various degrees. However, sometimes it seems that the emphases by these movements may not faithfully express all the diversity that is affirmed in Scripture without diminishing or taking away parts of the Biblical metanarrative. Traditional dispensationalism’s doxological theme of history may provide the key to ably explaining the Biblical metanarrative that does not diminish gospel or neglect social action both today and in the future.
Individual Redemption in Evangelicalism – Together for the Gospel
After pointing out postmodernism’s rejection of the metanarrative as mentioned before, Al Mohler then proceeds to affirm that the Biblical metanarrative is gospel-focused, and by that he means redemption-focused. He says, “Christianity is the great metanarrative of redemption.” From that section, it may not be explicit whether he has in view individual redemption, but the emphasis is not on the gospel as social reformation. In a chapter on the metanarrative of Scripture, Mohler includes consummation in its cosmic aspects as the final portion of the Bible’s story line, but the discussion was not specific enough in terms of how it relates to today. What should be noted is Together for the Gospel, of which Dr. Mohler is one of the founders. That group’s Affirmations and Denials reflect Mohler’s emphasis on individual redemption. There is a lack of emphasis on social action, but it is not entirely absent, either. The group does not explicitly reject a dual track of God’s purposes, but its emphasis is on the soteriological and Christiological unity across God’s dealings with mankind. The point is that Mohler, and others like him, often demonstrate similarities to covenant theology’s central motif of redemption as the central part of God’s purposes, viz. God’s metanarrative.
Social Action in Evangelicalism – The Gospel Coalition
While there are veins of individual redemption motif in evangelicalism right now, there are also strengthening currents for social action as essential parts of the metanarrative. As an example, some of The Gospel Coalition’s literature demonstrates the inclusion of social action in the gospel by a banner at the top of their “About” page that siad “the gospel for all of life” and this was reflected in a “Mandate [to]…integrate the gospel in to daily life.” Additionally, a summary mission statement says, “We yearn to work with all who…seek the Lordship of Christ over the whole of life with unabashed hope in the power of the Holy Spirit to transform individuals, communities, and cultures.” This emphasis of the organization appears to be similar to progressive dispensationalism on holistic redemption by calling for social transformation, but rooted in a strong understanding of the gospel of Christ through the cross. Now, this trend toward social action is hardly new. One recalls liberals in the early 20th century rejecting individual redemption for social action. In non-reformed circles, one detects this trend through Scot McKnight’s work The King Jesus Gospel. Among other things, McKnight criticizes a “salvation-culture” he perceives in Christianity, as opposed to a broader concept of a “gospel-culture.” This charge may be understood as answering the individual-redemption motif as found in covenant theology and the popular expressions of it within the gospel-centered movement.
The point of this summary is that various groups calling for more social action over the last 100 years have often been doing so on the basis of refuting the individual redemption emphasis of evangelicals, especially conservative reformed evangelicals. Another conclusion is that the word gospel is often broadened to include social responsibility at best or redefined such that the soteriological aspects of the gospel are removed.
The Multi-Faceted Plan of God Unites Social Action and Gospel
When the Scriptures are studied according to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic outlined prior, the diversity of God’s plan becomes evident. Ryrie’s three point defense regarding the doxological purpose of history is valid, and especially so within the broader dispensational framework of the distinction between Israel and the church. Mike Stallard even considers the doxological purpose to be a corollary of the Israel-church distinction. The focus of these two groups may be seen to be a focus on holistic redemption on the part of Israel and individual redemption on the part of the church. While God’s plan does intermingle the two redemptive goals to some extent, the essential distinction is that Israel through the final form of the Messianic Kingdom will bring holistic redemption to the whole earth and that the church today proclaims individual salvation through the gospel. This distinction provides the framework for a proper understanding of both gospel and social action for the church today.
By affirming this distinction, the church can allow the Scripture to emphasize that the gospel is the redemption of individual human souls. The ethical teaching of the Bible as applicable to the church and even to society at large is not denied, and the church thus still maintains a responsibility to do good in the world, but not on the basis of the church’s gospel mandate as such. The accusations against fundamentalists, which included many dispensationalists, may have been valid. But such practices are the result of sinful dereliction of God given duties in this world to “do good to everyone.” (Gal. 6:10) Likewise, the distinctive role of Israel provides the basis of future transformation of the social order. God does want to redeem the earth to bring glory to His name, but such transformation is a part of the future Kingdom age and not the goal of this age. We look to a future such transformation, but that will not prevent us from taking opportunity to help in such things today. The difference is in emphasis.