Thursday, August 06, 2009

Carson on the Gospel and Social Action

Posted by Andy Naselli

Last school year a group of students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School asked D. A. Carson to speak to them on "The Gospel and Social Action." Carson obliged on March 25, 2009, and I just uploaded the 60-minute MP3 to the D. A. Carson MP3 archive. (The recording is rather poor; it sounds like someone from the audience recorded it from their seat.)

Here are some notes I took while listening to it (some direct quotations but mostly paraphrase):

Preliminary Observations

1. Historical Perspective
  • It is useful to remember those instances in history when the gospel has so been promulgated and lived out that huge transformations in society took place. It is also useful to remember what happened in the wake of those transformations.
  • Many today who are becoming interested in the interrelationship of the gospel to broader doing-mercy-type deeds tend to run the stereotypes like this: "The previous generation came down either on the social-transformation side or on the gospel-fidelity side, and we want to put together both." These stereotypes don't work. Do not get yourself in the place where you are thinking self-righteously about those who have come before you. It's so easy for any generation to start saying, "They did it this way wrong and this way wrong, but we've got it right." Avoid casting what you're trying to do on the background of a stereotype in which everybody else has got it wrong. It's not good for you spiritually, and it's not fair historically.
2. There are organizations today that turn on both their statements of faith and vision of ministry.
  • For example, there may be an astonishing diversity among churches that share the same tight statement of faith (e.g., churches within the PCA).
One Main Point (Fleshed Out in a Variety of Ways)

The fundamental issue conceptually is not only what we are doing but how we configure the undergirding structure of thought. (The fundamental issue is not necessarily about how we use our time, money, priorities, imaginations, etc.—that's related but it's a differentiable feature.)


1. Is social justice "part and parcel of the gospel"?
  • When I was first approached to speak to this group, part of the memo said this: "Faith Alive is a group that has a desire to engage in discussion about social-justice issues and discuss how compassion- and justice-ministries are part and parcel of the gospel."
  • If the document had said "how compassion- and justice-ministries are part and parcel of biblical mandates," I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. But when you say they "are part and parcel of the gospel," then I want to know what you think the gospel is and how you find out.
  • Brian McLaren has argued that an essential part of the gospel is what Jesus makes out to be the first and second commandments (love God and your neighbor).
2. The moniker "transformation of self and society" brings with it a whole nest of related questions that are at the definitional level.
  • What is the gospel, and how do we find out about it? Is the gospel simply anything that you think is mandated by Scripture? How do you establish the pattern of biblical thought? If you think that anything is "biblical" provided you can attach a proof-text to it, then, of course, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, those who want to discount any attachment to social-justice issues, and those who want to pour all their eggs into the social-justice basket are "biblical." The very meaning of "gospel" is news, great news, that must be proclaimed. It is good news about what God has done through Christ.
  • Many thoughtful theologians have rightly distinguished between the gospel and the effects of the gospel. Is transforming local public schools "gospel-ministry"? Not if you're going to use "gospel" in the sense in which the NT does. But that's different from distinguishing it as part of the effects of the gospel: we do good because we have been transformed and care for other people who are made in the image of God. But if you call this "gospel-ministry," the long-term effect tends to be that we lose what the NT says is the gospel. The gospel gets so diluted that it becomes a Christianized moralism and nothing more.
  • Illustration: The film Amazing Grace (about William Wilberforce) was brilliant in some respects, but do you know what was wrong about the film from beginning to end? The film casts Wilberforce as deliberating between vocational ministry (e.g., preaching) or freeing the slaves; after he chooses the latter, the film depicts the rest of his life with all the Christian elements moved to the background, and freeing the slaves thus is the gospel (for him). Historically, that is international-class rubbish of the first order. Wilberforce was a gospel-person all his life. That's what drove him. He certainly did not confuse the gospel with freeing the slaves (one of the inevitable transforming effects of the gospel).
3. There are all kinds of entailments to that.
  • For example, when The Gospel Coalition Council Members were finalizing their foundational documents, they opted not to say something like, "We are concerned to save people's souls and also to reduce suffering in this life." Instead they affirm something like this: "We are concerned to save people for time and eternity and to reduce suffering in this world and the next." The reason is that if you make a bifurcation at that point (i.e., so reducing suffering has to do only with this life), then somehow you don't see the danger of the suffering in the next life.
  • That does not mean that you have the right to save souls—get people out of hell—but don't care if they starve to death or if there is social injustice. But equally, it is not Christian to be very concerned that they get enough food in their tummy without ever talking about the gospel: "get them fat before we send them to hell."
  • Illustrations: The ministries of Sandy Willson and Tim Keller.
4. The issue is not whether we should do good deeds. The issue is how to configure the undergirding structure of thought. It's not just a theoretical matter.

What This Looks Like in Practice

1. What do you dream about? What is of central importance to you? What are you passionate about?

2. This has a bearing on your use of time.
  • If you become so consumed with genuine physical needs that you don't have time for gospel proclamation, then you're losing the gospel.
3. This has a bearing on whom you influence.
  • Students learn only a small part of what you teach them. They learn what teachers are excited about, what they talk about all the time.
  • If you merely assume the gospel while being excited about implications of the gospel, then the next generation may not even assume the gospel. Keep central what is central.
4. It is wise and important to address the relief of suffering, but put it on an entire scale, namely, relief of suffering both in this life and the life to come.
  • One way to preserve such a gospel-focus is to "preach hell"; that is a good test of whether you are interested in relieving suffering for time and eternity or whether your focus is on relieving suffering now. And if you preach on hell, those who are interested in only the social gospel won't want to have anything to do with you.
5. When you speak of "the transformation of self and society," you have to ask what you mean by that.
  • In terms of doing good, there can be some sort of transformation of culture.
  • But on the other hand, it is important to remember that that must not be set up as an absolute for Christians.
  • For example, try to convince the leaders of the underground church in Saudi Arabia that they must transform the culture in this way!
  • Unless you are a strong and dogmatic postmillennialist, the aim of the Christian is not the transformation of society.
(Carson closed with ten minutes of Q&A.)

  1. D. A. Carson, "Editorial," (Themelios 33:2 [2008]: 1-3).
  2. D. A. Carson, "Editorial," (Themelios 34:1 [2009]: 1-2).
  3. The Gospel Coalition's "Theological Vision for Ministry."
  4. Tim Keller, "The Gospel and the Poor" (Themelios 33:3 [2008]: 8-22). Cf. Keller's notes on this subject from earlier this summer.
  5. Mark Dever, "The Pastor and His Community: How the Gospel Informs Our Mission beyond the Church" (PDF). This was a seminar at the Sovereign Grace Pastors Conference, April 6–8, 2009.