What is the social gospel?

The social gospel was a movement among Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that focused on people's welfare, often over their need for the gospel. Some of its major leaders included Richard T. Ely, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and Walter Rauschenbusch. Their teachings de-emphasized salvation, sin, heaven, and hell. They believed that man's primary issue was evil in society, and only when these evils were conquered could a person concern himself with his own personal sin: as long as man was under evil institutions, he could not stop walking in sin. Most people who followed the social gospel were postmillennialists and believed that Christ would come only after His kingdom was established on earth. Therefore, they sought to fulfill Matthew 6:10 by bringing the kingdom of God through their good works. The social gospel was often connected to progressive politics and liberal theology and practiced by Protestants, but there were also conservatives and Catholics who supported this movement.

The social gospel was not a unified movement. It was taken up by churches and individuals that put programs in place to fight against poverty, economic inequality, crime, alcoholism, slums, unclean environment, child labor, and inadequate labor unions. Settlement houses were started, including those associated with churches and secular houses, like Hull House run by Jane Addams. The social gospel also inspired the YMCA, which was originally intended to help young men who had moved from the country to the city keep their Christian values while adjusting to city life.

The social gospel helped bring about good social reform, and many people in need were helped by this movement. Unfortunately, it fell short in communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ. The social gospel tried to change society, a symptom of mankind's sinfulness; but society will not truly be changed until people's hearts are changed in Christ. The social gospel ignored the reason society was corrupted in the first place. Societies are made up of people; lasting change in a society is impossible apart from changing people. And people's hearts are only truly transformed in Christ.

People who adhered to the social gospel loosely interpreted end-times prophecy and misunderstood some of Jesus' teachings on the kingdom of God. The social gospel proclaimed that man would bring about God's kingdom on earth through his good works, but Christ taught that the kingdom of God was not of this world (John 18:36), and therefore could not be brought about by men. He also taught that the only way to be a part of the kingdom is through salvation: "Jesus answered , 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:5–6). Works done of the flesh, even if they are good works that help many people, will simply produce more flesh. Only works of the Spirit can bring about eternal salvation.

Jesus came not to reform societal structures, but to bring people from death to life (Ephesians 2:1–10). When people are made new in Jesus Christ, they are changed and live differently as a result (2 Corinthians 5:17; Philippians 2:12–13; Romans 12:1–2). The mission of Christians is not to reform sinners into better people, but to share the good news of the gospel that no one can be saved by works but that God's grace is available to all who will turn to Him and put their faith in Jesus (Ephesians 2:8–10). When the hearts of people are turned to the Lord, the society will be better as a result. The New Testament is replete with commands for how Christians are to live and how we are to love others and care for their needs. It is good and right to care for the needs of the "least of these." It is good and right to encourage civil leaders to live and act by godly standards. But in meeting physical needs and promoting godly principles we cannot forsake the deeper spiritual needs. A better life on this earth is meaningless apart from Christ. If our work on earth serves only to make people more comfortable before they spend eternity in hell, we have utterly failed to love them. Only Jesus can transform. Only Jesus can bring lasting peace and joy, and He does so even in the midst of earthly suffering. The best way to love people is to tell them about life in Christ (John 10:10).

Christians need to be careful not to neglect helping people in need, for that is the heart of Jesus (Matthew 25:34–40, James 2:16–17). However, only helping people's physical needs is neglecting people's biggest need: a Savior. The social gospel is no gospel at all if it neglects to tell people about their spiritual destitution and God's abundant provision through Jesus Christ.

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