by John Ellis
King Jesus said a lot of things during his time on earth. Thankfully, some of those things were written down, including one of King Jesus’ final commands to His people, the Church. Shortly before returning to Heaven, King Jesus admonished the Church to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”.
Throughout its entire two-thousand year history, the Church has understood that command, often referred to as “The Great Commission,” as a directive to preach the Gospel and make disciples whose lives conform to the Gospel. And the Gospel has historically been defined as the good news that even though humans are ethically estranged from God because of their personal sins, Jesus Christ became human in order to live the perfect life that no other human is capable of living, die on the cross as punishment for sins that He did not commit, and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, rise from the dead, defeating sin and death. If a human, with Holy Spirit given faith and repentance, places his or her entire hope in the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus, the ethical breach is bridged and he or she is placed in God’s family through Jesus Christ. That’s the Gospel. That’s the content of the Great Commission.
Unfortunately, not every person who calls himself or herself a Christian and not every organization called a church agree with that definition of the Gospel. Nor do they agree that King Jesus’ primary goal in His incarnation was to provide a bridge over the ethical divide between a holy and just God and sinful humans. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find people who believe that the Church’s primary mission is to relieve the physical suffering of the poor and oppressed.
I recently read an article that praised certain bloggers for encouraging the Church to abandon mission work that has the salvation of individuals as the main objective and, instead, focus on repairing the world by engaging in social justice work. In doing so, according to the writer, the Church will accomplish the salvation of the world by demonstrating the love of God through redeeming the culture. Unfortunately, that belief isn’t isolated.
Apostasy isn’t new. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been professing adherents of Christianity who have perverted the teachings of King Jesus and the Bible. Thankfully, no matter how loudly the social gospel is trumpeted on social media and blogs, the “gates of hell shall not prevail”, the victory over sin and death that King Jesus won will be brought to completion, and the elect, those who are in Christ, will enjoy God forever. But that reality doesn’t excuse us from sticking our heads in the sand and hoping that the voices of apostasy will simply go away.
The specific apostasy often referred to as the “Social Gospel” (or, at times, idiomatically, “redeeming the culture”) has its modern roots, at least, in the writings of Walter Rauschenbusch as well as Liberation Theology. A late nineteenth and early twentieth century theologian and pastor, Rauschenbusch wrote, among other books, Christianity and the Social Crisis and A Theology for the Social Gospel. Those two books are the Social Gospel movement’s bibles.
Rauschenbusch taught that society’s oppression of the poor and helpless was Jesus’ only concern (feeding the hungry, healing the sick, caring for orphans and widows, dissembling the existing social fabric of oppression, albeit through pacifism). In fact, according to Rauschenbusch, the reason Jesus died on the cross was because he failed in his earthly mission. The community sins were too much of a bulwark for one man to overcome, and, so, “Jesus experienced his full collision with them [the community sins] when he came to the capital of his nation in the last week”.
This, explains Rauschenbusch, is why “Jesus did not in any real sense bear the sin of some ancient Briton who beat up his wife in B.C. 56, or of some mountaineer in Tennessee who got drunk in A.D. 1917. But he did in a very real sense bear the weight of the public sins of organized society”.
According to the Social Gospel, Jesus did not die on the cross to atone for the sins of individual humans, but, instead, died on the cross as a result of the sins of society. This act of love has succeeded in inspiring Christians to self-sacrificial acts of love. With those acts of love, Christians, as a community called the Church, will usher in God’s kingdom of equality and peace among men.
Although sharing quite a bit of common ground with Rauschenbusch and his Social Gospel, Liberation Theology tends to be more revolutionary. The erroneous theology, first articulated within the context of poverty and oppression in mid-twentieth century Latin America, states, in a nutshell, that humanity’s greatest problem is an existential estrangement from each other that results in oppression. This redefining of what the Church has historically believed to be humanity’s greatest problem has produced, like the Social Gospel, a doctrine of victimhood that replaces the Biblical doctrine of personal rebellion against a Holy God. As consequence, salvation is solely found in things like feeding the poor, combating racism, and affirming any and all sexual identities – reversing the power dynamics and ironing out oppression.
Don’t misunderstand; oppressing people is obviously not ok with King Jesus. Quickly skimming the Bible should be enough evidence to convince people that the oppression of the poor and helpless is a dreadful sin that angers our holy and just Creator. But is that the story of the Bible? Was Walter Rauschenbusch correct in believing that the Kingdom of God can only be ushered in by relieving the suffering of the oppressed? Is Liberation Theology correct that salvation comes through reversing power dynamics?
The thing is, writing this essay has confronted me with the extreme limitations of blog posts. There is so much error woven into Rauschenbusch’s books that it’s practically impossible to appropriately interact with his teachings in a sole blog post. I mean, adherents of the Social Gospel, by and large, do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Nor do many of them have a Christology that reflects orthodox belief as represented by the Nicene Creed. The Social Gospel is a symptom of other errors – errors outside of the scope of this post and, practically speaking, my chosen format. A robust response to A Theology for the Social Gospel requires a book.
Because of this post’s limited scope, many of those who profess allegiance to the Social Gospel and/or Liberation Theology will not be persuaded by my arguments. With this essay, I am not touching the foundational disagreements that Orthodox Christians have with Rauschenbusch and company. Without coming to an agreement in regards to things like the authority of the Bible (inerrancy) and Christology, this essay will be unconvincing. But, there are many Believers who flirt with the Social Gospel without understanding the system’s presuppositional starting points. I have friends who affirm the Nicene Creed but who also speak positively about the Social Gospel and redeeming the culture. They are the people to whom I’m writing.
And I’m writing because this isn’t a game. Perverting the Bible in order to better ingratiate the Church into the cultural mainstream has real consequences. A church with social justice as its primary concern and/or mission is a church that misrepresents, at best, the story of the Bible and the primary concern and command of King Jesus. At worst, that church is deliberately deceiving people. Pushing back with the Truth is important; in fact, King Jesus, with the Great Commission, has called us to push back against erroneous and empty philosophies by preaching the Gospel. In doing so, it’s helpful to recognize that the story of the Bible is the Gospel. The Bible, with its narrative structure, lays out for the reader the problem and the solution.
The Mechanics of Story
My ten year old daughter loves to write. In order to encourage and help her in her writing pursuits, I’ve developed a short yet useful, I believe, definition of story: Somebody (the protagonist) wants something (the super objective); someone or something (the antagonist) is standing in the way. What does the protagonist do to achieve his or her super objective? If the protagonist succeeds, the story, in the classical sense, is a comedy; if not, a tragedy.
When my daughter brings me a story that she’s written, I ask her, “Who is the protagonist? What does the protagonist want? What’s keeping the protagonist from achieving that objective? And, finally, does the protagonist succeed, and, if so, how?
The Bible is no different. Its story contains a protagonist who wants something and a problem to be overcome in order for the protagonist to achieve that objective. Knowing what the story of the Bible is, who the protagonist is and what the protagonist wants, will unveil what humanity’s problem is, and, hence, the solution. Or, more specifically, what the mission of the Church is.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. With that incredible change of stasis, the reader is introduced to a character that takes nothing and then makes everything. Throughout the story of the Bible, that Creator God is front and center; His objectives drive the story forward. God is the Bible’s protagonist.
Strange as it may seem, Western Evangelicalism has trouble viewing God as the protagonist. Pick up popular children’s Bible story books, devotional books, or watch dramatized retellings of the Bible; the norm is to treat the minor characters in the Bible as if they’re the main character. This stems, in large part, to the tendency to view the Bible as a collection of related stories and not as a single book with a single story. For example, a popular example, the narrative found in 1Samuel 17:19-54 is not primarily about David, contrary to many of the versions that retell the story. Let me repeat that – in the story of David and Goliath, as we tend to name it, the story is not about David; David is not the hero.
In I Samuel 17, God is revealing Himself as His people’s savior through the typology of a warrior-king. David points us to God, specifically to the second-person of the Trinity, King Jesus. In terms of ground level application, none of us are David; we are the cowering, faithless Israelites in need of a warrior-king to defeat our enemy. Through the episode of David and Goliath, the readers of the Bible are confronted with God – the Bible’s protagonist.
In literature, discovering the protagonist’s super-objective requires going to the text. And the Bible is no different. That doesn’t mean, however, that uncovering God’s super-objective is simply a matter of finding the right proof-text(s). Like all great literature, God’s super-objective is wrapped up in the story. Thankfully, uncovering His super-objective is not a frustratingly hair-rending endeavor. Take my favorite play, as way of example.
In Hamlet, the protagonist’s (Hamlet’s) super-objective is to avenge his father’s murder. I’m not going to defend that claim in this essay by diving into the text and boring everyone. My reason for stating it is to highlight the intuitive nature of super-objectives. I think that most people who are familiar with Hamlet will, upon reading my claim, almost immediately recognize it as true. But, there isn’t a single “proof-text” that I can point to in support. The text in its totality supports my claim. The story supports my claim. People who are familiar with Hamlet, in other words, familiar with the story, will, without requiring a proof-text, recognize my assertion as true.
With that in mind, the story of the Bible makes it clear that God wants to have a relationship with His creation, specifically those created in His Image – humans. In the first chapter of the Bible, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. Being made in God’s image means, among other things, that humankind, “reflects his attributes, and acts on his behalf. In the context of Genesis 1, people act on God’s behalf by ruling and subduing”. Humanity ruling and subduing the earth is often categorized under the function of God’s vice-regents on earth. As such, God, the actual Lord over all creation, created the natural order with the innate function of relationship between humanity and Himself. Theologian Graeme Goldsworthy states that “there is a unique relationship between God and man”. But at some point in history after the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 a problem arose that is an impediment to that unique relationship (a problem that will be explored later).
Fast forwarding ahead, Genesis chapter three relates God’s promise that a seed of the woman will “bruise your [the serpent’s] head”. This theme, this concern to defeat the serpent is further fleshed out in God’s stated plan to save a people unto Himself. God’s actions in preserving the seed of the woman through Noah, the calling of Abram out of paganism, the salvation of Israel and his children from the famine through the divinely inspired actions of Joseph, God’s working through the warrior-king David to save His people all testify to God’s super-objective – what He wants. The connection of all those episodes to God’s super-objective is called the Through Line of Action.
Whenever I teach scene analysis, I encourage my students to check their smaller scene and beat objectives with the super objective. The protagonist’s smaller objectives (wants) help them achieve their super-objective. In a well-written story, that Through Line of Action has a consistent and coherent forward movement to the story’s resolution.
For example, if the super-objective of a character, John, is to keep his family from starving during a famine and, in a smaller scene, John is haggling with a store owner over the price of a shovel, that smaller scene’s objectives/wants further the super-objective. In the smaller scene, John’s objective may be to get a good deal on the shovel, but, in achieving that objective, he saves resources that his family will need to help weather the famine and he acquires a tool with which to dig a water well. In that example, the Through Line of Action should be fairly obvious – everything that John wants/does in the smaller scene helps him achieve his super-objective of keeping his family from starving during the famine.
So it is with the Bible. Every action of the Bible moves God closer to achieving His super-objective. And that super-objective is to save a people unto Himself. God created humans to live in relationship with Him, but something or someone, the antagonist, is keeping that from happening. Thankfully, God promises that “you shall be my people, and I will be your God”. The Bible tells the story of how God saves a people unto Himself.
Before exploring how God saves a people unto Himself, it’s important to understand why He needs to save people. In other words, what severed the relationship between God and humans?
Well, for starters, let’s get this out of the way – Adam and Eve didn’t oppress anyone. They didn’t disdain the poor and the helpless. They did, however, disobey God by eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And it was that rebellion, their personal rebellion that caused their separation from God.
The relationship between God and His Image Bearers was broken in that moment because God is holy. “The Hebrew word for ‘to be holy,’ quadash, is derived from the word qad, which means to cut or to separate”. In the section of his Systematic Theology titled “The Communicable Attributes,” Berkhof further develops that thought, and concludes that the “fundamental idea of the ethical holiness of God is … separation from moral evil or sin”. Because of God’s holiness, the sin of Adam and Eve required ethical separation. That’s great and all, of course, but ultimately irrelevant if the story of the Bible doesn’t support the assertion that God is holy.
Well, beyond the many verses that state that God is holy, the story of the Bible reveals God’s holiness. Beginning with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, the great tragedy that is the separation of God from humans due to God being unable to countenance the sin of humans because of His holiness is established. Before the Israelites set foot in the Promised Land, God, mediating through Moses (a minor character pointing us towards Christ, by the way) makes it abundantly clear that He cannot be in the presence of sin.
The many laws in Leviticus detailing the myriad ways in which an Israelite could forfeit the opportunity to be in full fellowship with the community and, more importantly, with God can seem draconian if the reader fails to come to terms with the holiness of God. As humans, we overlook things; God cannot. If He did, He wouldn’t be God. This is why the prophets warn the Israelites that their sins are the reason God has rejected them. The prophet Jeremiah writes, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name?” .The story of the Bible is crystal clear that sin is the obstacle that God must overcome to have a relationship with humans.
What’s more, the story of the Bible bears out the sad reality that sin resides in all of us as opposed to residing outside of us. That’s a mistake that many moralists make (including those moralists who are proponents of the social gospel and its various iterations). It doesn’t matter how many soup kitchens a human serves in; it doesn’t matter how many clean water wells a person digs in third world countries; the individual’s internal rebellion against God remains, and, hence, the ethical separation remains.
That point is driven home when King Jesus tells a crowd of people that “There is nothing outside of a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of person are what defile him”. Humans are born pre-defiled. Expounding on that, the Apostle Paul confesses that, “I know nothing good dwells in me”. Like all of us, Paul was constrained by the “sin that dwells within me”.
Throughout the Bible’s narrative, humans rebel against God. The personal sin of humans is the Bible’s antagonist.
In the hypothetical story from above, if the character John decides to master the board game Risk as the solution to the problem of the famine, the story won’t make any sense. In stories, as in real life, the problem determines the solution. The story of the Bible, of course, is no exception.
If the obstacle standing in the way of God’s super-objective is the personal rebellion of humans/sin, God’s solution has to be just that, a solution; sin has to be dealt with. From a human vantage point, it seems like that should be a fairly easy fix. I mean, if my son disobeys me, I can, in a certain sense, choose to forgive and forget. But, and acknowledging His patience, God can’t simply forgive and forget. God can’t just overlook sin; not only is He holy, God is also righteous. Eventually, God’s justice demands the punishment of sin.
In the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek, the words “righteousness” and “justice” are the same. Which means that when Moses sings of God, “for all his ways are justice”, the ancient prophet is also declaring that God is righteous. Aiding our modern day understanding of the concept, in Psalm 9, the ESV editors have translated the Hebrew both ways. “But the Lord sits enthroned forever; he has established his throne for justice, and he judges the world with righteousness [emphasis added]”. Rightly combining the words into one attribute, Wayne Grudem explains, “God’s righteousness means that God always acts in accordance with what is right and is himself the standard of what is right”.
Sin deserves punishment. Overlooking sin is not acting with total justice. If God overlooked sin, He would not be God. Our human understanding of justice is a mere image of who God is. Expecting God to image Himself to our incomplete understanding and definition is pride, which, by the way, is a sin. Expecting God to simply overlook sin is part of humanity’s continued attempt to build the Tower of Babel, and view ourselves as co-equals, or more, with God.
This means that if God’s character precludes Him from merely forgiving and forgetting, the story of the Bible must contain another solution. Otherwise the Bible is a tragedy. Thankfully, the story of the Bible reveals that God has enacted a plan to achieve His objective of saving a people unto Himself.
After Adam and Eve’s attempted coup on His throne, God’s promise to send a deliverer to crush the serpent’s head reveals an important aspect of His plan. And this plan is foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament. Moses, by leading God’s people out of bondage and to the Promised Land, is a type that points to the final and complete deliverance to be achieved by this mysterious seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3:15. David, the warrior-king who defeats the enemy and who sits on the throne in justice, is another type. In fact, every major character of the Bible points to the mysterious seed of the woman.
While reading the Bible with my kids, upon the introduction of a new character, I frequently ask them, “Do you think this might be the seed of the woman that God promised in Genesis 3?” My kids, of course, know the answer, but they usually play along and reply, “Maybe.” Well, it never takes long to discover that the new character fails. The new character is never perfectly righteous. But each new character reveals a little something more about the mysterious seed of the woman. This means that my kids and I have to keep reading and hoping that God will keep His promise and send the deliverer. The progressive nature of the redemption story is revealed in the rising action of the Bible.
As the Old Testament gives way to the New, God’s people have been characterized by sin and not as being God’s children. God, having driven them out of the Promised Land as punishment, has allowed a remnant to return. But the remnant are painfully aware that the land they have returned to is a shadow of what was itself once a shadow of something greater; the rebuilt Temple pales in comparison to Solomon’s Temple; there is no king seated on David’s throne; the people of God, although back in the land, are still essentially exiles. Sin has consequences, and the returned remnant “assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads”. However, the remnants’ sorrow was mixed with joyous gratefulness because of the belief that God will fulfill His promise so “that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping”. The Old Testament ends with a mix of sorrow and hopeful joy.
After four hundred years of silence, the New Testament opens with a tone of stillness that belies what’s about to happen. God sends His son into the world. The angels burst onto the scene and announce that King Jesus, taking on human flesh, has arrived. This is the one! This is the promised seed of the woman who is going to crush the head of the serpent! But how is he going to do it? That’s the narrative question that is answered with the greatest plot twist in all of history. And yet, if the reader has been paying attention, it isn’t a plot twist at all.
The problem still exists. Sin was still standing in between God and His people when King Jesus arrived. If King Jesus had marched into Jerusalem and occupied the Throne of David, sin would’ve still remained. In other words, the problem would’ve still remained. The entire story of the Bible up until the arrival of King Jesus foreshadows that something has to be done about sin. Moses was able to lead God’s people to the Promised Land, but the problem still remained. Joshua was able to occupy the Promised Land, but the problem still remained. David was able to sit on the throne and rule the Promised Land, but the problem still remained.
Thankfully, before God started the clock of time, the Trinity enacted a plan. And King Jesus came to fulfill that plan. His perfect life fulfilled holy God’s requirement of total obedience, and Jesus’ death on the cross vindicated God’s justice by taking the punishment for the sins of God’s people. That was the only way for the problem of sin to be resolved.
Setting aside the fact that Rauschenbusch didn’t believe that Jesus was fully divine, if humanity’s greatest problem was hunger and oppression, Jesus demonstrated that He could’ve solved that problem without dying. He healed the sick and fed the hungry. But, as He said, “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”. In order to provide a way of salvation, the problem of sin had to be dealt with. King Jesus had to die in order for humans to be saved. Individuals need to recognize that their personal rebellion against God, their sin, is what separates them from their Creator. Without placing their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of King Jesus, an individual is lost and under God’s just wrath.
Being hungry isn’t what separates an individual from God. Being oppressed isn’t what separates an individual from God. Personal rebellion separates an individual from God. What the world needs is a Savior to take away sin. That is the story of the Bible – from the character of the protagonist, the protagonist’s objective, the obstacle/antagonist, and, finally, the protagonist’s solution. And the mission of the Church is inextricably connected to the Bible’s story. The Church is to preach the Gospel, the story of the Bible, and make followers of King Jesus. That is what the world needs from the Church.
 See John 21:25.
 Matthew 28:19-20, ESV.
 And this is not new. Throughout history, the Serpent and the Serpent’s seed have been determined to undermine the promise of Genesis 3. Attacking the church from within, diluting the Gospel is a tactic as old as sin itself.
 Matthew 16:18, ESV.
 In A Theology for the Social Gospel’s chapter “The Social Gospel and the Atonement,” Rauschenbusch lists six communal sins that Jesus died because of – note, not “died for.”
 Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 248.
 Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, 247.
 In “The Social Aims of Jesus,” a chapter in his book Christianity and the Social Crisis, Rauschenbusch taught that Jesus died on the cross because he was a committed pacifist.
 For the record, the Bible is also replete with references to punishment for sexual sins. The Prophets warn Israel and Judah fairly frequently that God’s coming judgment is due, in part, to their aberrant sexual practices. Of course, all sins, oppressing the poor, aberrant sexuality, et al., are all a product of the sin of rebellion against God.
 Not to mention my own limitations as a writer.
 I’m not claiming that this definition is necessarily unique to me; it’s simply a way that I’ve shortened the definition to help my daughter understand. In fact, I’m willing to bet that my version is incredibly similar to many other people’s version.
 Genesis 1:1, ESV.
 For a more in-depth treatment of this concept, I highly recommend Vaughn Roberts’ The Big Picture.
 Typology is a literary device that the Bible relies on heavily.
 For the record, that claim can be substantiated by combing through the play’s text. My point is that for good narratives the super-objective is often intuitive. In bad narratives, the story is often unnecessarily complicated. Don’t misunderstand, Shakespeare’s plays are intricately complex, but at their core, the stories are very simple.
 Genesis 1:26, ESV.
 John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 131.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2000), 51.
 Genesis 3:15, ESV.
 Jeremiah 3:22, ESV.
 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 73.
 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 73.
 Leviticus 19:2, I Samuel 2:2, Isaiah 6:3, I Peter 1:16, and Revelation 15:4, to name a mere five out of many verses that declare the holiness of God.
 Jeremiah 7:9-10, ESV.
 Mark 7:15, ESV.
 Romans 7:18, ESV.
 Romans 7:20, ESV.
 If you want to throw Satan in there, I won’t argue.
 Absurdism aside. Granted, of course, in Absurdism, John learning Risk to solve the problem of the famine wouldn’t make any sense in the traditional meaning of “sense” or “story,” either. But, in Absurdism, that would be the point/contra-point.
 Technically they come from the same word groups.
 Deuteronomy 32:4, ESV.
 Psalm 9:7-8, ESV.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 204.
 Nehemiah 9:1, ESV.
 Ezra 3:13, ESV.
 Luke 19:10, ESV. … that statement is provided at the tail end of the story of Zacchaeus. Demonstrating faith, Zacchaeus promises to give back what he has stolen and to give half of his wealth to the poor. A few things: 1. Stealing is a sin. 2. Giving to the poor reflects his faith in Jesus; that act of charity is not what saved Zacchaeus. Once again, the story of the Bible provides the context in which to understand the story of Zacchaeus’s encounter with Jesus. 3. As I stated above, oppressing people is a sin against God. Those saved by God’s grace will demonstrate His love by not oppressing others. Just like they’ll demonstrate God’s love by not violating God’s sexual ethics. But those actions are not what saves anyone. The primary mission of the Church is the spread of the Gospel. As that happens, individuals whose lives have been changed by the Gospel will, through the power of the Holy Spirit, enact social justice, among other things. And that’s called sanctification, and it doesn’t happen all at once.